A wooden thresher sat in the corner of the storeroom, covered in a fine patina of rice dust.
“This is what Paul sent us from Dumfries,” says Howard, chair of the local rice farmers’ association. “But it got damaged coming over. So I used it as a prototype and made one from metal and wood, it works just fine.”
The tale of how a threshing machine, designed by an engineer in lowland Scotland, made its way to the most northerly town in Malawi is just one of the many stories I heard during our visit to Karonga earlier this week.
Karonga sits on Lake Malawi’s northern shore, only 40 kilometres from the Tanzanian border, and hundreds of miles from Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe.
To get there we had to drive very slowly up a legion of steep hills, praying we would not meet a petrol tanker head-on on the way down.
We passed coal mines, families of baboons begging for food from passing truck drivers, and the high plateau of Livingstonia where, in 1894, Dr Robert Laws and his small but determined team of Scottish missionaries built a town, complete with a stone church, further education college and a hospital.
Karonga was once devasted by the slave trade, led by a Swahili trader called Mlozi who, in a 15-year reign of terror, slaughtered thousands of Malawians and sold many more into slavery. His evil enterprise ended in 1895 when Malawi’s first colonial governor, Harry Johnston, hung him from a tree.
I had come to Karonga primarily to visit its museum, home to Malawisaurus, a complete 12-foot-high skeleton of a gentle dinosaur that roamed the land here 120 million years ago.
And to my delight,
Cradle of humanity?
I also found, lurking in the bottom of a display about fossils, the jawbone of one of the earliest humans. Homo rudolfensis was the first of our ancestors to make and use tools, and this rather forlorn-looking fossil is the world’s oldest relict of early man.
“I knew human life began here in Malawi,” I said to my husband, who smiled, indulging, as always, my sometimes wild, but always confident, assertions.
I have no real idea whether the first humans were born here on the shores of Lake Malawi, but since my first visit in 2005, I have been convinced that this is where humanity began.
A theory supported by that well-known evolutionary text book, ‘Bradt’s Guide to Malawi’, which asserts that “it seems reasonable to assume that it (Malawi) has supported hominid life for as long as any other part of eastern Africa”.
I rest my case. Malawi is the cradle of humanity.
The Karonga district is also home to the best rice in the country, according to Howard.
“You can plant our seed elsewhere in Malawi, and it will not taste like our Kilombero rice. It is the soil, we think,” he says, showing us round the mill where the rice grown by 6,000 smallholder farmers is processed, ready to be transported to Lilongwe, then on to Scotland.
Howard’s group, the Kaporo Smallholder Farmers Association, has been in a partnership with JTS, a fair-trade company based in Paisley, for ten years now.
As we wander round the rice mill, Howard explains that he and his team are responsible for producing and shipping the rice to Scotland, “where JTS pack and market it. It has been a very productive partnership”.
“Our farmers – half are women – can earn up to K300,000 [£325] each harvest. That means they can pay school fees for their children, and if you go to a village, the chances are that the houses made of burnt-brick, with solar, belong to our farmers.”
Ploughs and threshing machines
And a recent innovation, sparked by a conversation between women farmers and a JTS board member, has transformed production, as Howard explains.
“Our farmers still grow rice the same way their ancestors did, by hand. It is very labour intensive, and hard work,” he says.
“Mary, one of the JTS board members, came to visit us here in Karonga. She had an audience with the female farmers who said they would like to have access to ploughs to make it easier on them and cut down on the intense manual labour and time involved in ploughing and preparing their fields.
“A plough costs K50,000 [£55], so we set up a system where the female farmers pay half. Then at six months or so later, they pay another K25,000.
“Mostly the second payment is done after harvest. So far, over 100 female farmers now have a plough using this system.”
The threshing machine, designed by Paul in Dumfries and built by Howard in Karonga, will make a big difference too. “Our field officers can take it round groups of farmers, and they can thresh their rice in no time, instead of having to do it by hand. I want to make five, and, thanks to Paul and his friends, I now have the tools to do that.”
In the past, the partnership has benefitted from financial support from the Scottish Government, and sales in Scotland are increasing year on year.
The rice recently won a prestigious award as the most ethical rice on the market from the Ethical Consumer magazine and it tastes great too. But that comes at a cost, as Howard explains. “Our rice is the best, but that means it is more expensive than others. So it is more difficult to market.”
JTS are working hard to get Kilombero stocked in as many outlets as possible, and its ‘90kg Challenge’ fundraising campaign is a big hit with churches, schools and community groups.
“We are now applying for our Fairtrade status,” says Howard, “That will make a difference, we hope.”
As I take my leave, with 10kgs of Kilombero rice and two bottles of hot sauce (a steal at less than a tenner), I check my Twitter feed.
Six hundred kilometres away in Lilongwe, a policeman has been stoned to death by protestors.
The demonstrations that have marred Malawi life since the elections in May took a deadly turn on Tuesday.
“Did the Police Superintendent Imedi deserve to be killed by stoning?” tweets Sandra Paesen, the EU Ambassador, adding “I say no to violence!”
Only time will tell if this most peaceful of countries, the cradle of humanity, will also say no to violence, or if centuries of poverty and oppression, exacerbated today by poor leadership and deep inequality, will finally prove too much.
To buy some tasty Kilombero rice, go to www.jts.co.uk.