Bizarre Stories Sometimes Trump Substance, Even in Malawi

Dec 102010

When it comes to crazy things, nothing beats what Pilirani Lazaro, a 22-year-old peasant farmer from Kalaza Village in central Malawi, did recently.

It may sound stranger than fiction, but on November 21, he took a knife, went into the bush, cut off his testicles and immediately put them up for sale. Apparently, Lazaro had heard that he could get K500,000 (about $3300) for them in the biggest market in Lilongwe, the country’s capital.

“I wanted to use the money to buy fertilizer for my one-hectare (two-and-a-half acre) farm,” he told The Nation in an interview from his bed in the surgical ward of Kamuzu Central Hospital. The first person Lazaro approached with his offer reported the matter to the police, who rushed him to the hospital for emergency surgery after they’d established the extent of bodily harm he’d caused himself. Director of the hospital Dr. Lawrence Chiwaula said Lazaro would need to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether or not he was mentally sound.

Pilirani Lazaro made Page One in The Nation on November 22 and was a talking point and the butt of bawdy newsroom jokes for days on end. His story overshadowed a bigger, more consequential one the local media should have been chasing—the threat the Larger Grain Borer (LGB) is posing to Malawi’s food security.

It was a story I would coax three journalists to consider reporting: Herbert Chandilanga, the Chichewa Editor who covers agriculture; Bobby Kabango, a correspondent on the local language weekly, FUKO; and George Kasakula, the Weekend Nation Editor. In they end, they felt convinced enough to tackle it as a special project. At the Nation, reporters prefer to chase ideas they can wrap up within the 24-hour news cycle. But George has seen that investing time, money and effort in a story could make it better and has seen it with the series we did on traditional birth attendants and the fisheries industry in Malawi. On the basis of that, he felt comfortable to take a chance on the story on LGBs and food security.

Originally a wood borer from Central America, the LGB is probably the most destructive force southern African peasant farmers have ever encountered in recent times. It can destroy 50 per cent of stored maize grain and cassava in three months flat, boring through wood, leather, plastic and even soap, local pest experts say. The pest has been around Malawi since 1993, having found its way here via Tanzania where it was accidentally introduced through aid maize to refugee camps in the western part of the country.

Visits to farmers in Ntcheu and Chiradzulu revealed that many have been losing between one-third to half their crop to the pest. Many of the farmers think the LGB is just another weevil and so they have difficulty coming to terms with the extent of its destructiveness. At least that’s what young Bobby Kabango discovered when he travelled to the two districts to research traditional grain storage methods used by rural farmers against the backdrop of the threat of the LGB.

Traditionally, farmers store their grain in elevated wooden granaries. The LGBs bore through the wood to get to the maize grain, turning much of it into dust. Muddying the insides and outsides of the granaries would prevent the pests from boring into the wood, but for some reason, many rural farmers are not keen of moving away from what they think is tried and tested method of storage. There is also a general reluctance among them to switch from wooden silos to ones made from scrap metal.

But the Larger Grain Borer does not only destroy stored grain; it attacks maize in fields even before the crop is harvested. Again, when it comes to taking evasive action against the pest, the farmers’ biggest enemy is Tradition. How so? It is common practice among peasant farmers like Eleni Chaukula, 56, of Manjeza Village in Chiradzulu, to leave their maize in the fields for months to dry before they harvest it. Many defend the practice, saying leaving the crop in the field to dry means that they don’t have to spend money they don’t have to hire extra hands to harvest and shell the maize.

Such entrenched practices frustrate the local scientists at Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station, who spend their days monitoring LGB activity and working out biological methods to deal with the pestilence. Herbert and I had gone there as part of our research for the story. We discovered the station has actually been breeding a predatory insect called Teretrius Nigrescens, or TN for short, in its laboratory. The insect feeds on the Larger Grain Borer. When they have bred up to 2,000, the scientists take the creatures into the fields and release them.

Bvumbwe is one of three government research stations involved in biological control. It is responsible for monitoring LGB activity and spearheading pest control interventionism in the entire southern region. Sadly, chronic under-funding is making their efforts ineffective, said a senior plant health inspector at the station, Blaim Thomson Nkhata.

“To be able to go out into the field and release the predator insects we would have cultured, we need no less than K1.5 million (roughly $9900) every six months. But we get far less than that. The Plant Protection gets K400,000 ($2600) which has to be shared among five sections, giving each one K50,000 ($330). We are expected to spread that money between services and research but that amount can’t take us very far even for one month,” he said.

Nkhata said this means that they have to limit their activities to areas around Bvumbwe and to distances they can cover on foot. The funding challenges also mean that rural farmers have to improve their grain storage methods. He feels that could only happen if the government invests more money in post-harvest interventions than it is doing now.

“Eighty percent of the money that is spent on agriculture in Malawi goes towards the agronomic aspects of farming, which is basically cultivation,” Nkhata said. “But very little is done to secure what is harvested. Yet post-harvest losses account for 50 percent of the crop.”

Whether his words will lead to changes in policy and funding remains to be seen. But at least those words will now have a chance to reach decision-makers and small farmers alike. The story I pushed so hard for will run as a three-part series in the Weekend Nation starting this Saturday, December 11th.