Usisya Part Two – Legitimately Uplifting

I don’t know if our impromptu stop at the Usingini Watershed Management Project was designed to cheer us up after our encounter with the brutal outcomes of village life, but it definitely did.  The community are understandably fed up with seasonal streams undermining the road, washing away soil and then flooding crops as they join the river in the valley. The project involves Temwa’s agro-forestry experience, the villagers’ in-depth local knowledge and volunteer labour, and the odd expert when necessary. They’re now doing all the things that re-wilders claim beavers do better to slow seasonal streams and improve irrigation.

Sometimes people get excited in meetings and decide on quite ambitious plans, but then everyone hopes their neighbours will do the actual work. In this case it has gone the other way; the community is ahead of schedule. They’ve acquired some banana suckers to demarcate a buffer zone they’re taking out of cultivation on the banks of the main river. If you lop off the branch of a type of local tree and stick it in the ground it puts roots down within a fortnight. Annoyingly you can’t make charcoal out of it, but the staves are just beginning to green in the buffer zone. Our boss was clapping his hands and shouting with excitement to see the project going so well.

Hills near Usingini with newly planted vetiver grass slowing run off by the road

We also stopped in a village where the primary school and teachers house were destroyed by the rains some years ago (no one in Malawi is a climate change denialist). The teacher’s walk-in is challenging in mud and trees are more effective sun shades than umbrellas, so now school is seasonal. However the locals saw a project in Usisya. Rhe community donated labour and materials to stretch a grant for latrines at the secondary school so it also covered constructing a hostel for girls from far-flung villages. They thought that if the people in Usisya could build a hostel they could build a school. So they borrowed the building plans, adapted them, found some funding and are now about a third of the way through construction. Our CEO thinks that it has been going too smoothly and that there is trouble ahead for them, but it was great seeing a project having such an unexpected impact. We were much more upbeat as our legendary driver, Mr Moyo, slowly worked the car down a series of hairpins towards a patch of dark we were assured was Usisya.        

Usisya itself is beautiful, relaxing on the flat land between the lake and the mountains. The next day I enjoyed meeting my colleagues based in the village, seeing the projects I’d heard so much about and collecting comms content. However, unlike me Malawi loves a really, really long meeting (although looking like you’re paying attention seems to be optional). After several hours watching people talk in Tumbuka, the woman from head office and I were delighted to skive off from the maize distribution and meetings about reading camps to talk to the local head master and play with kids. Instead of actual balls the children have plastic bags bound into a rough sphere. Rather than playing actual football they take turns trying to get the ‘ball’ past a goalie, shooting from wherever the ball had ricocheted to. One of the boys was seriously good.   

Sasasa Waterfall, near Usisya
Sasasa Waterfall – great destination for a walk, terrible village water supply

I think that with four more people than seats it would have always taken two trips to get us all back to Mzuzu, even if two of us hadn’t been Brits who bleat on about duties of care and seat-belts and things. But it was really kind of Mr Moyo to collect the two of us and our CEO on Sunday so we could spend the weekend at the Usisya Eco-Lodge, walking, swimming and using the complementary snorkelling gear.  

When we’re at Usisya we stay in a Temwa guesthouse. After smelling it from two houses over I understood why ‘able to live in very basic conditions,’ was top of the list in the person spec. The woman’s bedroom had the right number of beds and mosquito nets, but it didn’t have enough ways to attach the nets to the ceiling, so I shared my double with a colleague. We got into bed, untied the net, and unwittingly let down so much mouse and cockroach shit onto us that we needed to have another shower and change the sheets. I’m pretty sure the eco-lodge would have always seemed idyllic – Dani, the owner, has a real eye for design and pays close attention to every detail – but as it was the contrast was almost impossible to believe.

View of trees and lake from the loo at Usisya eco lodge
View from the loo

Dani’s place, Temwa and the government are the only employers in the area. It was interesting chatting to Dani about training people who not only have never worked as a waiter, but also haven’t ever eaten at a restaurant. Her latest hire is very sweet and eager to check you’ve slept well, but only a couple of weeks into his new career, and with just one other guest to practice on, he was getting all embarrassed at the point in the conversation where you’d expect to be offered the breakfast menu. With a staff of seven and three of the cooks she’s trained sending remittances back from South African Thai restaurants, Dani has a big impact on the village and I admire her courage starting a business in such a remote place.     

Author: adventuresinarabic

I'm studying Arabic in Damascus, living through the Arab Spring and blogging about my experiences hear.

4 thoughts on “Usisya Part Two – Legitimately Uplifting”

  1. This was a really interesting post. Glad to hear the community is pulling together for flood prevention. It must be getting more important every year!

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