Sweet Summer Rain

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Malawi  , Dedza,
Friday, October 21, 2005

Standing in the rainwater gully that will be his classroom today, Segenet Tessema introduces himself to the villagers assembled in front of him. They giggle at his Chewa, which, being from Ethiopia, is a language Segenet has yet to master. But this group of farmers in Chilunzi, a small village near Dedza in central Malawi, is eager to hear the proposal he has come to offer them.

"Where is the water that comes through here," he asks. As one the villagers point toward the dambo, or seasonal river. Further away, thunder rolls through the dark clouds above the Dedza Hills. "There is a saying," he grins, "that if you ask every drop of rain where it's going they will say 'to the Indian Ocean.'" What he has on offer is a plan to harvest some of those raindrops, and to allow the farmers in this and other villages to have access to irrigation water year-round, using reservoirs. To the farmers sitting on the grass beside the gully, it's as if a collective light bulb brightens above their heads.

Segenet's plan is not unique or new, and in fact, as an agricultural ecologist, he's carried it with him for some time. Now placed as a WUSC volunteer with the Catholic Development Commission of Malawi (CADECOM) in Dedza, he's been able, in just two short weeks, to begin spreading his proposal to over 25 village groups. Not one has turned him down.

The idea is simple. In places where rain run-off creates gullies, or small valleys, farmers can dig a reservoir beside the drainage and fill the hole when it rains. Dug two metres deep and twice as wide at the mouth as at the end, an average reservoir can hold 50,000 litres of water, enough for one family.

Seepage and evaporation is limited by lining the reservoir with bricks and covering it with a thatch grass roof, and a fence prevents children and livestock from falling in. Mosquitoes will be kept from breeding in the pools by applying pyrethrum, an organic insecticide created from crushed chrysanthemum flowers, which will also act as a natural pest control when the water is used in the fields.

In Chilunzi, Segenet asks one of the farmers to stand in the gully and show, on his body, how high the water floods when it rains. The man indicates a spot just below his knee. This kind of local knowledge is crucial to planning rainwater harvesting in an area with no recorded hydrological data, says Segenet.

He and his team of CADECOM extension workers will return to Chilunzi and the other villages to find more drainage site, and work with the farmers to implement the harvesting plan. CADECOM will help source the shovels, pick, wheelbarrows and other tools, which will be lent to the farmers, who will provide the necessary labour. "Digging is not an easy job," he says. "You will need all the man power, and women power too."

Segent asks the group if they think the plan will work for them and they nod their heads in approval. "Cha bwino," they say. "It's good." With that an agreement is as good as sealed, and work can begin. The children in the group scamper when, as if by magic, it begins to rain. It's the first time in my memory that I've seen rain in Africa, and as I revel in it I notice that the women in the group are watching me, and smiling at my revelry. I explain that in all my travels in southern Africa I've never experienced the rains, so this must be a special place. They laugh and cheer at the compliment.

It's not the first rainfall in Chilunzi, though, but it's surely the most auspicious. As the meeting wraps up we're all a little soaked, but the sun emerges from the clouds and the rain stops. But when it returns these villagers could be ready to harvest a new kind of crop.
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