An hour's drive North of Zomba is the dusty roadside town of Balaka. That's where you'll find the ARTHOUSE tree nursery. And eight km from there, down a dirt path that winds around a forest of baobabs, lies a 25 acre re-forestation plot called Joshua. Joshua happened 2 years ago after a wife asked her husband to find a place to plant all her seedlings.
Her long walks in the village always ended with pockets-full of collected seeds, which were then placed in bags, watered, and looked after. The number of seedlings continued to grow, until they were suddenly in the thousands. The wife planted as many as she could at her own house, and around the neighborhood. Others she gave to friends, but not without a worry. She had grown fond of each little tree. It was bittersweet to see any of them leave the nursery. Those who took home a tree had to promise they'd be a responsible guardian. But still there were so many seedlings left in the nursery. And the numbers continued to grow, and grow. Some had been at the nursery for years and were getting too big for their tree bags. If they weren't out-planted soon, they might suffer from being kept so long in a confined space.
And so a plot was found, in the village, where all the baby trees could have a forever home. Much has been learned in the past two years since Joshua came to be. The biggest lesson? That saving and protecting existing trees is as important as planting new ones. The hardest lesson? That doing those things takes a lot of time, work, and resources. If only it were as simple as sitting back and watching a forest grow, or just sticking a few seedling in the ground during the rainy season...
We've planted over 2000 indigenous trees at Joshua, and for each tree that was planted, another tree was given to a villager for her own homestead. The trees planted on the homesteads are usually fruit trees, fast growing exotics, or agro forestry species that can be inter-cropped in the maize fields. Our passion is indigenous forest trees, but the best way to get trees planted and protected, is to match a tree to the need. You have to listen to what people want, and understand why. Our idea at Joshua isn't to grow trees as an isolated activity. It's to plant and grow trees together, as a community.
Not all the out-planted seedlings will survive, of course. It's an effort to water trees when you don't have a nearby water source. Many die of thirst. Termites, chickens, and goats are responsible for killing others. The ones that do survive face other threats; in the next few years they risk being cut for firewood, or for making charcoal. As they mature, they will be valuable as fuel for burning clay bricks.
At the moment, the greatest threat to the young trees at Joshua is not their being cut for firewood or fuel. A mother breaking off a few branches to cook porridge for her family is not the issue. But a boy hunting mice, or a farmer clearing his field, presents a grave danger for the trees. Fire is used for both those things – and it can easily get out-of-control, burning a re-forestation plot to ashes in minutes. If a forest lacks a canopy, its barren spaces are quickly taken over by tall grass, which dries to the color of golden hay. When it catches fire, the flames burn hot and fast. With a slight gust of wind, fire races across the land, catching and destroying everything in its path.
Villagers are paid to slash the grass at Joshua, which is one of the best ways to keep fire from spreading. It's hard and slow work. The young trees must be protected from being trampled or cut in the process, and the infamous “buffalo beans” that grow on vines must be avoided. (If they touch your body, you can go mad with itching skin.) This year, because of Covid's toll on tourism and our business, it wasn't easy paying for all the work that had to be done. We were grateful to TREEZ for their kind donation of $200 towards grass slashing at Joshua, allowing us to finish that big job before any fires broke out.
With that now done, there's a sigh of relief. The threat is not over, but we've lowered the chance of fire burning down a large part of Joshua. For now... Caring for trees is an ongoing cycle. The work doesn't end, but the trees do get bigger and stronger each year we manage to save them. Thank you from our little forest in Balaka, for helping TREEZ protect and grow trees in Malawi. It's a long journey, with many ups and downs, but the effort is worth it. Because if we don't continue fighting for trees, there will no longer be walks in the villages, collecting seeds from old trees to grow new ones. Please know, that when you have friends by your side supporting you, there is hope and solidarity. And that goes a long way in the energy needed to keep up the fight.
Zikomo. Tamara and Andrea ARTHOUSE Balaka - Malawi