A Heifer project adjacent to Kasungu National Park in western Malawi saves habitat by helping families develop sustainable sources of animal protein, fuel and savings.

Guardians of the Forest in Malawi
Banda took up the spear and bow and arrow when he was 16

By Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Russell Powell

GIDEON VILLAGE, Malawi—The tips of Werengani Banda’s homemade spear and arrows are dulling with age and disuse, and the 62-year-old father of eight is glad to put them aside. He’s relieved to give up the nighttime forays into Kasungu National Park, where he hunted for meat even as he was hunted by lions, hyenas and wildlife officials on the lookout for poachers. After nearly five decades of tracking antelope, impala and rabbits, the dangerous hunt for dinner never got easy.

Banda took up the spear and bow and arrow when he was 16, understanding that if his family was to have anything more substantial than vegetables to eat, it would be his job to provide it. So for decades, Banda and other men from his village walked the dozen miles to Kasungu to hunt together in the dark. They slaughtered the kill in the forest and carried the illegal meat back in sacks.

Last year Banda gave up bushmeat for the meat goats he’s raising in the shaded pen near his grass-thatched, mud-walled house in the flat savanna of western Malawi.

“It’s better to raise goats,” Banda said, speaking in Chichewa, Malawi’s most common language. He nodded toward the three meat goats scampering around in an elevated pen fashioned from thin, knotty branches. “It was a lot of work to hunt,” he said. “Goats stay in one place.”

And the goats aren’t the only new additions. Now that Banda can spend his time and efforts at home instead of making the three-hour trek to the Kasungu forest two or three times a month, he’s growing his own forest of maize and sunflowers. The plants bob high above his head, a testament to the fortifying effects of goat manure as fertilizer, Banda said.

Guardians of the Forest in Malawi
Werengani Banda used to rely on illegal hunting to feed his family. Now, goats provide protein and income.

The multifaceted Heifer project begun in 2011 is saving habitat by giving sustainable sources of animal protein, fuel and savings to 1,600 families. Families like Banda’s are raising goats, planting gardens and trees and building stoves that burn substantially less firewood. They’re finding that their lives are easier and better with these small interventions, and even that the natural beauty of their homeland is beginning, slowly, to return.

SMOKED
Banda’s gardens hide behind dry grass that grows seven feet high, and acacia and mlombwa trees shade the corners of the tidy rectangular plots. The land around Banda’s home is grassy, with scattered clumps of trees and shrubs. It’s like a child’s drawing of what an African savanna might look like, minus the animals.

Catching anything larger than a rabbit close to home has been impossible for decades, Banda said. In central Malawi, as in the rest of the country, a booming human population with its need for food and fuel is chomping away at the habitat that once supported a jumble of wildlife. Rapacious felling of trees and animals is erasing the forests of Malawi’s western elbow and shoving elephants, lions, hippos, wild dogs and rhinos toward local extinction.

Established nearly a century ago along the Zambian border, Kasungu National Park is emblematic of Malawi’s dwindling resources. The great need of the people outside the park fences simply overwhelms the wildlife officers on patrol inside.

“We are poor,” Banda said to explain why he knowingly broke the law to hunt within Kasungu. “We could eat the meat, or sell it.”

Undeterred by the possibility of steep fines or jail time if they’re caught, poachers swoop in from all sides for wood, edible plants, fish and meat. Illegal hunting and habitat loss have already killed off all of the rhinos, giraffes and jackals once found in Kasungu. The numbers of lions, cheetahs and painted dogs still living there are dangerously few.

Agriculture also threatens forests and wildlife in this subtropical country that’s slightly smaller than Pennsylvania but more densely populated and far less developed. Roughly 85 percent of Malawi’s 16 million people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and farmers large and small rely on tobacco to earn money. The crop is responsible for 70 percent of Malawi’s export earnings but exacts a heavy price. Its production lands a double blow on forests because not only must land be cleared to grow it, but the curing process requires lots of firewood. Roughly a quarter of Malawi’s rapid deforestation is attributed to the tobacco industry.

And the economic boost from what some Malawians call “green gold” is hard to see. More than 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line despite the tobacco economy. In recent years, a glut on the international market drove tobacco prices down so far that some Malawian farmers could no longer turn a profit.

So Heifer project participants like Banda who used to grow tobacco are happily turning to other crops. With the help of his two wives and eight children, Banda plans to harvest enough maize to keep their plates full of nsima, a polenta-like staple served at virtually every Malawian meal. And Banda expects to sell enough sunflowers and cotton this year to replace the grass roof on their house with tin.

Guardians of the Forest in Malawi
Sharon Nkhoma, age 27 and mother of four, shows off the stoves that are shaped, dried and ready to be fired in the hand-built kiln.

MEALS IN MINUTES

Like pretty much everything else in rural Malawi, making stoves is women’s work. On an April afternoon in Gideon village, a team of women peels back banana leaves to collect the clay soaking in shallow pits in the ground. The women collected the clay over time, hauling it back with them when they came home from working their gardens in the dambos, low-lying land that’s well suited for farming because it stays moist even in the dry season.

The women work together, kneading the slippery gray muck with their heels to find hidden stones and twigs. Then they scoop up handfuls of the clay and hurl them to the ground, squeezing out air bubbles that would cause stoves to shatter in the kiln.

Sharon Nkhoma, age 27 and a mother of four, uses a bucket and wooden wedges to shape the clay into the pumpkin-sized portable stoves that make cooking easier, safer and far less resource-intensive. With quick strokes, Nkhoma shaves away lumps and curls to carve a smooth cylinder. She cuts a half-moon where the wood will feed into the stove, then adds handles on the sides and pot rests on top. The entire process takes only about 10 minutes, so Nkhoma can churn out dozens in an afternoon.

“I learned to work extra hard from my parents, because without sweat you won’t gain anything,” she said. Behind her, dozens of stoves sit in front of the kiln waiting to be fired. Once finished, the stoves are thick-walled and weigh more than 15 pounds. Somehow the women seem to hardly register the heft as they glide like supermodels, stoves balanced on their heads.

Children often get burned in traditional cooking fires, which are simply open flames underneath pots set on a tripod of stones. The portable clay stoves are much safer because the fire is contained, Nkhoma said. And the stoves use only a third as much fuel, saving the women and children charged with collecting firewood lots of time while saving more trees from the flames. Both the portable stoves and the new fixed brick stoves installed in the homes of families participating in the Kasungu Heifer project cook food faster, too.

Each of the 85 families in Gideon village has a new portable stove, and the women are building more as a small-business venture to bring in money while promoting conservation. The marketing plan, already in full swing, includes giving free stoves to leaders in neighboring villages and toting the stoves to weddings, funerals and other occasions where people from different villages come together. Stoves sell for 800 Kwacha, the equivalent of roughly $6.

The women of Gideon village are using a couple more clever new gadgets introduced by Heifer, including a seemingly magical fireless rice cooker. After boiling the rice on a regular stove for two minutes, women move their pots into giant lidded baskets tightly insulated with banana leaves. Half an hour later, the trapped heat has cooked the rice perfectly and saved cooking fuel in the process.

And Grace Banda, mother of four, said she really likes being able to pluck fresh vegetables from her sack gardens at meal times. Made from a plastic burlap sack stuffed with soil, sand, goat berries and rocks, the sack garden looks like a giant Chia pet with a healthy mane of Chinese cabbage leaves. Fed with wastewater from the household, the three sack gardens growing in Grace Banda’s courtyard produce cabbage year-round.

Guardians of the Forest in Malawi
Mtamanji Conservation Committee Chair Mary Fazer plants fast-growing saplings that will protect soil and provide cooking fuel.

RE-LEAF

In Chiponde village in western Malawi, Margaret Mbewe wakes up every morning around 5 a.m. when the doves start singing. At 6 she wakes her oldest daughter, 19-year-old Lisnet, to hunt firewood and cook porridge for the family of eight. Spare wood is hard to find, though, and Lisnet would often run late with breakfast. The other children would either miss the first part of school or leave the house hungry.

Her new stoves are simple things, Margaret Mbewe said, but they make quite a difference in the household. To demonstrate, she set a pot to cook on an open fire and another on a portable clay stove. Inside the small shed she uses for a kitchen, Mbewe set a third pot on her fixed brick stove. The water boiled first on the brick stove, then the clay one. The open fire took longest to cook, and it blackened more wood. Margaret and Lisbet Mbewe usually use the brick stove these days, but they use the clay one when wood is especially scarce because it will burn bamboo and maize stalks.

The time Margaret Mbewe saves cooking and collecting wood goes to her new goats, which she received in August 2011. She expects they will start bringing in money by the end of 2012 when the offspring are big enough to sell.

In a few years, it’s possible Margaret and Lisbet Mbewe will have more time freed up in their daily schedules. In a broad field down a dirt road from their house, hundreds of seedlings line up in straight rows. Chosen because they grow so quickly, the senna siamea trees can be tapped for firewood and building materials after only five years.

Members of the Chiponde tree-planting committee started the saplings in plastic tubes and put them in the dirt when they reached about a foot high. Committee members keep the field weeded and even patrol it at night to make sure the trees, a precious commodity, aren’t stolen. They’ve planted trees in other spots, too, putting a total of 5,400 saplings in the ground.

With patience, the benefits will go beyond fuel for cooking and beams for building, committee member Ruth Dewu said. “We need to replant the trees so the beauty that was here before will come back.”