Raising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Ten: The State of the Biosphere ‒ Part II

biosphereIt was in this chapter of my data analysis that my perspective on what I had heard and observed in my field really began to take shape. I had chosen a lens with which to see the relationship between human and ecological health through, and wasn’t always happy with what I saw. I had chosen to view the world through the lens of African traditional medicine and while I say I “wasn’t always happy” with what I saw, what I mean is that I started becoming worried. I became increasingly worried by what I saw and heard and this is where that line between objective researcher and ‘subject matter’ can become blurred. My research had been set out as an intersubjective study and part of the process was to untangle these intersubjective experiences. It was hard for me to distance myself from the realities of life that I observed and spoke with others about in my field. There are a number of reasons for this. I was born in Africa myself, I’m a sensitive person and also, as a woman, I felt a deep connection with the women I met who were struggling, not to make ends meet, but to survive on a daily basis.


With these obvious personal sensitivities, I had to make sure I was portraying life as I saw it and be clear about my own perceptions and perspectives. As someone with a deep love of the natural world, one of the themes I had to do this with was the loss of biodiversity and how this plays out in the lives of the local people. I found that people were aware of the loss of local biodiversity, but for most, it wasn’t something they could think much about (due to their need to focus on survival). One of my early contacts in the field who has since passed away explained it like this;

most people, not only in Malawi, but the world over appreciate the beauty of the natural world, but awareness of biodiversity, how seriously it is threatened, and the implications for human wellbeing, is alarmingly low. (Maloya, 2010[i])

Although they didn’t speak about ‘biodiversity’ as such, my interview participants certainly expressed a range of opinions on the availability of traditional medicine resources and I have discussed these views in previous articles.  In general, around Mulanje Mountain the concept of biodiversity is still inextricably linked to the everyday use of local resources and my observations of it was that it was twisted around my interview participant’s fingers to make brooms, it was seen in the feathered remains of a hawk not long eaten by a small group of construction workers and savoured by a young girl as she ate a brightly coloured cutworm she had found on her way back from school. Biodiversity is thus not an abstract concept, it’s a means of survival in a place where most people live on less than two dollars a day.

Unsurprisingly then, the organisation I did my research through made a point of focussing on the link between biodiversity and local livelihoods. A picture on the wall in one of the areas I conducted my interviews in said it all. The words on the picture translate to “trees protect water, water is life” (mitengo imasunga madzi, madzi ndi moyo). Linking livelihood security and conservation aims, the sign also delivers the message to “save trees, save water, save life” (salamani mitengo, salamani madzi, salamani moyo). The bicycle stacked with hardwood right beside the sign reflects the juxtaposition of livelihood needs and broader conservation aims.                           local livelihoods


Climate change

In Nessa, the regeneration project that my interview participants were all part of, was a Climate Change mitigation initiative and my participants on that side of the Mountain spoke about it directly. Some stressed that the climate had already changed, it wasn’t something that ‘might’ happen. Climate change was seen in terms of unpredictable and unstable weather patterns, which in my area of study is a direct threat to life. One participant defined climate change as the “destruction and deforestation and diversity”, adding that if it continues there will be “desert and the flood, flash flood”. The interview participants in Nessa tended to link climate change to their fears for the future of the region and their ability both to be able to manage their crops and be able to continue practicing as traditional healers in the years to come.

Rain and people’s relationships with rainfall cycles have for a long time been celebrated as an important aspect of Malawi’s cultural heritage (Kaspin, 1996[ii]) but the nature of these linkages is changing in response to changing weather patterns. With Malawi being an agrarian country, people are still strongly connected with the land so changes in weather conditions do not relate to shallow environmental concerns but directly to the links between the physical body and the land. This relates to the Malawian concept of the wet and dry life cycles, hot and cold states of being, and seasonal periods of rest and activity, which we can interpret in a Yin/Yang/life in balance kind of way or an animist way of thinking about the cycles of regeneration. In Malawi, there is a complex cosmology for understanding the interrelationships between the health of the earth and the human body, through the cycling of heat and cold, wet and dry, fire and water and the continuous exchanging of fluids which promotes the transformation of life, or moyo. In relation to my perception of the Earth as being a body, our health and wellbeing, as living beings on this living Earth, thus depends on a healthy and flourishing Earth. Kaspin refers to the interrelationship between ourselves and the Earth as an “eco-physiology” (1996:574).

On the Phalombe side of the mountain, climatic changes were expressed by my interview participants in terms of erratic rainfall. Too little rains cause starvation and too much can cause destruction and loss of life. As testimony to this, there is a small monument in the region that tells the story of the estimated 1000 lives lost in the 1991 floods. Water flows down the mountain in nine major rivers. People wash in the river, they are baptised in it, they collect it for household purposes, and they swim and play in it. As people depend on these local rivers to support these everyday activities, it’s not surprising that any unpredictability in weather patterns, and thus rainfall, can provoke vulnerability, insecurity and fear.

Foreign Footprints

Throughout my field research, I became increasingly aware of the foreign footprints that had been imprinted on the Mountain. From the young Japanese people who’d been sent to the area to start up social clubs, fish farm, irrigation projects and many other local programs. There were also Peace Corps personnel who’d been sent to set up bee keeping programs and other community capacity projects ‒ just like the one my participants were involved with in Nessa. Sachs (1999[iii]) argues that foreign interventions like these leave behind unfinished projects, unmet expectations, defunct machinery and outdated technology. He adds that whilst this technology soon becomes useless, it stays alive in people’s minds, even when more appropriate and efficient local alternatives are available. Sachs (1999:14) describes the redundant technologies left behind after these types of projects have finished as “culturally potent” symbols with the power to dissolve “not only physical resistance but also attitudes to life”.

These kind of programs inevitably fail due to lack of local knowledge. For example, fish farms are fished out and then become stagnant pools where mosquitoes can breed (I experienced this one night whilst trying to get some sleep at a guest house that was positioned opposite one of these stagnant pools before one of my Phalombe interview sessions). I spent the night fighting with my ‒ rather holey ‒ mosquito net! Prior to these projects, local communities had adapted land management practices to suit the conditions of the Mountain but fish farming intercepts the natural fall of the water, thereby interrupting local agricultural memory. I was left wondering about these stagnant pools but my ponderings were answered one afternoon when a young white male nurse from Britain entered the organisation where I was doing my research, offering to spray unknown chemicals in these stagnant pools. Problems are created by foreign intervention on the local landscape and then further foreign interventions are applied to these problems in an ongoing cycle of problems and degradation of the local bio-cultural landscape.

I looked and listened and there were times when I was alarmed at the footprints being left on this beautiful Mountain by foreign intentions and interventions. As I became more and more emotionally attached to the Mountain and her people, I began to change. I believe that this is inevitable and it is where we learn the most. We grow as people when we are in situations that challenge us and, having taken myself across the world to study what had been my passion since I was 5 years old, I was not going to stop this process. Instead, I embraced it. Next month I will share more of these insights and personal challenges and how they add to our understanding of the relationship between human and ecological health. In the meantime, if you’d like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at hippygolucky@hotmail.com

Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605 


[i] Maloya, Hastings. (2010) Environmental Education, Awareness and Communication, Mount Mulanje.  Retrieved from http://www.mountmulanje.org.mw/education.htm

[ii]  Kaspin, D. (1996). A Chewa cosmology of the body. American Ethnologist, 23(3), 561-578.

[iii] Sachs, W. (1999). Planet Dialectics: Explorations in Environment and Development. London: Zed Books.