Fundraising for science education in Malawi

What an absolutely fantastic day and turn out for the Malawi fundraiser which was held on the 6th October at UWA. It was a beautiful and fun day for volleyball, face painting, soccer, a barbeque, robot activities and fun games. The event was organized by the Rotary of Crawley (Australia) and the African Students Union of the University of Western Australia (UWA) with the support of the Malawian community in Perth.

Thank you so much to all those who came, participated, donated and helped out.

The event brought together many Malawian, Zambian, Zimbabwean and Australian families, sports fanatics and spectators. The volleyball champions were the Cloud Bursters and the soccer was won by an all Malawian team Zamunda FC captained by Peter Mafuleka and Mcfeezie Tambuli. Zamunda F.C. used the event on Saturday to launch a Malawian national football team in Australia.

We raised $9707.66 – thanks to our major sponsor Paladin Energy, other corporate sponsors Aurecon Group, McRae Investments and Globe Metals and Mining. Also through donations, team registration, sausage sizzle. Less our expenses, $8,413.90 will be split between the two schools in Malawi: Mzuzu Academy for youth leadership training and Nkhomboli CDSS for science education. We envisage that the hand over will be done in November.

Thank you all once again.












The best way to siphon fuel

Picture by 10b travelling

…from a jerry can into your car. Some bad minded people might think I am talking about siphoning fuel out of the tank of a car….no, no, no….this is more to do with the chronic fuel shortages affecting Malawi with those who have jerry cans (chigubus) getting first dibs at the pump. But after hassling your way to the front of queue or paying the guy off to stand in the queue for you..what is the safest and most efficient way to get that fuel from the jerry can into your car.

An obvious choice. Poke around in the back seat of your car for a discarded bottle of water, cut in half. A funnel must have a wide, often conical mouth and a narrow stem. The wide mouth collects the fuel from the jerry can and runs through the narrow stem (the neck of the bottle) into the tank.  For those of you who bought black market fuel and are worried about damaging your engine…check out this funnel which filters out water, dirt, and debris. (Unfortunately not available in Malawi…but at least food for innovative thought).

A siphon (tube) works on the difference in potential between two containers one being at a higher level than the other. The flow of liquid is caused by a difference in hydrostatic pressure, which allows the liquid to be drained without being pumped through an uninterrupted path e.g. no air pockets in the tube.

Siphons works on the basis of gravity and need to be triggered before the liquid starts to flow. Most times its by sucking with your mouth…and often you can get a mouthful of fuel…bad idea! By vacuum suctioning on the lower end you lower the pressure in your lungs to beneath atmospheric pressure by expanding them. Once the liquid has passed the highest point in the tube, the continuous chain of  bonds between the liquid molecules in the tube, and the force of gravity, do the rest.

For more scientific explanations on how siphons work check out the Naked Scientist or American Physical Society or the Guardian Newspaper‘s elaboration on how Oxford English Dictionary got the explanation of how siphons work wrong for over 100 years.

Is there a way to siphon without getting a mouthful of fuel
It is very dangerous; the fumes alone can damage  lungs, and if ingested, fuel can damage the your throat and stomach. A siphon pump is a safe option, there are some battery operated pumps and some handheld pumps. Those in Malawi…must be saying well that’s great but how do I get one…..well I don’t have answers for that but what I can say is I have seen an extremely innovative way of suctioning whilst visiting my in-laws in Salima…where instead of sucking at the end of the pipe, you seal up as much as possible the hole of the jerry can (the source container – with for example a cloth). Leave a little of space for you to suck the air out of the jerry can, best done by sucking in one huge lungful. This creates a vacuum in the jerry can, the fuel then moves into pipe and through the siphon….and your mouth remains fuel free!

Tips on siphoning
–       The jerry can has to be at higher height that the fuel tank.
–       Avoid air bubbles in your siphon line.
–       Be sure to keep an eye on your fuel in the jerry can and make sure the hose stays fully submerged, otherwise you’ll end up with bubbles.

If anybody has other ideas please do share.

Can Malawians sing? What does it take?

Goodson and Charity, thank you for giving me ammunition for this post. What you may lack in talent you certainly make up with your courage, for that I salute you!

But why is it that Malawians always seem to miss out on the limelight? Idols Africa – Malawi auditions were extremely painful and Malawi talent search shows like Pop Music Star can be agonizing. Vocal talent is few and far between with rare gems such as the powerful voice of Wambali and reggae smooth singing sensation Sally Nyundo. How come local church choirs are so moving yet most Malawian-English pop song renditions are so unbearable to hear. Is it language, accent, genre or something more biological? How come some have talent, others don’t?

I was overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there on the science of singing, you can approach it from any angle: from the biology, looking at how the larynx  (voice box) works to the physics of musical scales to the effect music has on us…If you interested in knowing more, I highly recommend the science of music or check out discussions at the science of singing.

But going back to Goodson and Charity…..what failed them? And is there a way for science to fix it?

Tear gas! Tear gas! What is it and what to do?

a protestor malawi

photo credit Amos Gumulira - A protestor throws back tear gas cannister in Lilongwe

“Its like breathing fire!” “ My face was burning!” “My chest was so painful!” Comments from my friends and family who were caught in tear gas during the civil unrest that recently gripped Malawi, after peaceful demonstrations against the government turned violent.

The road to positive social and economic change is a bumpy one but I sincerely hope that nothing as brutal as this ever happens again, but in the event that it does…..what to do if you ever caught in the midst of teargas? What exactly is teargas? Can you protect yourself? What are the remedies?

What is teargas?
Tear gas is a term used to refer to a group of chemicals more formally known as lachrymatory agents (taken from Latin – lacrima – “a tear”) as they cause the eyes to tear.  Tear gas produces extreme discomfort by irritating the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, lungs and mouth causing tearing, sneezing and coughing, and sometimes vomiting.…it will stop anything dead in its tracks hence its use in riot control! It is non-lethal with discomfort usually disappearing after 5-30 minutes.

A bit of science
Tear gas is actually not a gas but a very fine acidic powder (its acidic property is important to note because this determines its remedies).  The acid powder is made into a solution which is then sprayed as an aerosol or released by grenades. There are different types of compounds that are used as tear gas, but they often share similar structural chemical elements. These structural chemical elements affect enzymes along mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and lungs.

As tear gas is an acid the most effective compounds are anti-acids. Its effects can apparently be mitigated by antacids like Maalox and Alka-Seltzer, by washing the eyes and face with a mixture of antacid and water. The only antacid I am familiar with in Malawi is milk of magnesia and I am not sure whether it would work as well, chemistry says it should.  Avoid any mint flavoured anti-acid on your face! That will just add more sting to the burning sensation.

Try and wash the clothes that you are wearing separately and make sure you wash your hair and skin as soon as possible.

Obviously a gas mask or googles but who has the time or money to have those on the ready during a riot, alternatively cover your nose and mouth with a wet bandana.

A cost-free protective device is your behaviour…panicking only makes the situation worse, stay calm, don’t rub your eyes and breathe slowly. Avoid swallowing, try coughing, rinsing your mouth and spitting. Remember this is only temporary.

Malawian media’s use of language when reporting on HIV and AIDS

I recently wrote a column for the Malawian Nation newspaper on ethical reporting of HIV/AIDS after I came across a Daily Times article that had the word ‘victim’ in a news report “…..250,000 victims are on antiretroviral therapy treatment”.

The media plays an important role in informing the public about HIV. Language is powerful in shaping people’s beliefs and thus influencing their behaviours. Inappropriate language can promote discriminatory stereotypes and harmful prejudices.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), one of the main global leaders on HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, has guidelines on terms that should be avoided as they denigrate and undermine people living with HIV and AIDS e.g. ‘AIDS victim’, the word ‘victim’ is disempowering, it invokes images of helplessness and weakness, UNAIDS recommends use of ‘person living with HIV’.

So….armed with the recommended terminology from UNAIDS, I am putting the spotlight on Malawian media that are unethically reporting on HIV and AIDS. I chose Malawian newspapers that are available online and therefore searchable.

There are a number of terms that UNAIDS 2011 terminology guideline states should be avoided but I chose the ones which tend to more common ‘AIDS victims’, ‘AIDS patient’, ‘AIDS carrier’, ‘AIDS virus’, ‘AIDS sufferer’. There some really tricky terms…e.g. use of ‘HIV/AIDS’,  or the ‘fight against’ AIDS, ‘sex worker’ instead of ‘commercial sex worker’ or ‘prostitute’, ‘men who have sex with men’ instead of ‘gay’  but I refer you to the UNAIDS terminology for advice.

The newspapers I searched were Nyasatimes, the Times Group (Daily Times, Sunday Times, Weekend Times), the Nation and Malawivoice. Unfortunately the Malawi Democrat does not have a search function. There are a number of limitations with this ‘study’; the print papers – the Times Group and Nation do not put all their content online although what appears online is content extracted from the print edition. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the websites except for Nyasatimes are fairly new i.e. not more than three years or so..ish. I relied on the search functions on each newspapers’ website, these may have limited search functionality. I did not look for instances where the words were separated i.e. I did not look for the word “victim” on its own when not together with “AIDS victim” although the word “victim” is still inappropriate on its own if used in the context of an article about HIV.

What did I find?

AIDS victim – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 3, Malawivoice 0

AIDS patient – Nyasatimes 1, The Times Group 0, The Nation 15, Malawivoice 2

AIDS carrier –  Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS sufferer – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 0, Malawivoice 0

AIDS virus – Nyasatimes 0 , The Times Group 0, The Nation 1, Malawivoice 1

All in all Malawian media are doing a pretty ok job although some media houses, one in particular, needs to improve their reporting. I wonder what the not so appropriately named (Malawian) Association for Journalists Against HIV/AIDS would say about these results. But even Reuters, the big global news agency makes mistakes… the term ‘AIDS virus’ found in the Nation article was because of a mistake made in the original Reuters article. When I searched Reuters, I found 394 instances of the term ‘AIDS virus’, 29 instances of ‘AIDS victims’ some of these are as recent as yesterday

There is always room for improvement whether its Malawian media or global news agencies; during this exercise I learnt that I should avoid using HIV virus because that’s like saying human immunodeficiency virus virus!

Grandma’s finger lickin’ chicken: a road runner, a clay pot and a wood fire

Image by Arthur Haines

I could never be part of the chase. As long as I did not see it before the kill, I was more than happy to enjoy the finger licking chicken that my Grandmother lovingly prepared. Every year as a young child, my family would take the long dusty drive to visit my Grandparents in the beautiful hilly village of Junju, Malawi. We would bring with us gifts from the city – clothes, blankets, shoes and leave laden with maize, bananas, rice, beans, cassava and fish.

My grandmother and cousins as soon as we would arrive would busy themselves with catching the fattest chicken. My cousins would chase it around the banana trees but my Grandmother would know just how to coax and catch it, quickly and effortlessly slaughtering it. We would eat the chicken with nsima by evening candle light after being blessed by a lengthy prayer from my Grandfather, the Missionary.

The children, smelling of Lifebuoy and shining with Vaseline – clean after a day of herding goats and playing by the river, would sit on the floor eating from battered tin plates while the grown ups sat respectfully on the table with Grandma’s best China. Food would be served by the eldest child, everyone getting a skinny chicken piece and a fistful of nsima.

The chicken had a chewy texture, full of flavour and the sauce, a tangy smoky taste. My grandmother used no special herbs nor spices, no special olive oil, no complex cooking procedures. She simply would skin and boil the roadrunner (local chicken) and fry it with tomato and onion in a mud pot on the wood fire. I have asked my mother to replicate this dish but some thing is always missing.

In time I have to come to suspect there are three essential ingredients: a free range road runner fed on maize husks and food scraps, an unglazed clay pot and a open wood fire (not pine wood) in a small window less room. There is a fourth magic gradient…my Grandmother of course!

The scientist in me is curious (without taking out the magic) what is it about the clay pot that made the chicken taste soooo good. There are many cultures and dishes that cook in clay pots  from the Moroccan terracotta tagine to the Chinese sand pot. The benefits of cooking in a clay pot range from retaining the essential nutrients to using minimal fat. My Grandmother did not use clay pot cooking  (cooking food in an unglazed clay pot which has been soaked in water so as to release steam during the cooking process), call it mud pot cooking if you like, but she found a way to make trips to the village a culinary pleasure!

Malawians walk slower than the Japanese but…. are happier!

Malawians have been ridiculed…yes ridiculed…(forgive me if it starts a diplomatic war) by a Japanese comedy show for being the slowest walkers. In a study conducted by the psychologist Prof. Richard Wiseman through the British council, Malawi came in last among 32 countries, with the slowest average time (31.6 seconds) it takes to walk 60 feet, the country in 31st position was Bahrain with 17.69 seconds. The study is investigating the pace of life. In the 1990s, a study demonstrated that the speed of walking provides a good indication of the pace of life in a city. The Pace of Life webpage states that “people in fast-moving cities are less likely to help others and have higher rates of coronary heart disease.”  So fear not fellow Malawians coming in last is not a bad thing. We maybe the slowest walkers but according to Forbes we are the happiest too.

Donation to Nkhomboli School, Malawi

Students demonstrating an experiment

Students demonstrating an experiment

After much frustration and several heated arguments with the Malawi Revenue Authority, the goods that were kindly donated by various well wishers in Perth, Australia were handed over to the students at Nkhomboli Secondary School on the 23rd February. Thanks to all who responded to the call to donate items. Eleven boxes were donated that included four computers, one printer and various laboratory equipment. The goods were handed over on my behalf by my mother (Thanks Mami!). The demand for computers and laboratory equipment is huge so I am still happy to still receive items.


Students on the computers

Students on the computers

Presentation of the computers to the School Board

Mrs. Gondwe (my mother) presenting computers to the School Board Representative

No petrol, no diesel…what about biofuel?

Malawi has been hit with a series of chronic fuel shortages in the last two years. Everybody is pointing fingers and making contradicting statements, the President and the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority say its the Mozambicans holding fuel at the Beira port whilst the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment say it is a shortage of forex – whatever the case maybe – this is a wake up call for more sustainable, cheaper alternative forms of energy. ( FYI I am also writing in response to a comment posted to my interview on Nyasatimes “aNyagondwe how can science end fuel shortage”)

Its crazy to think with climate change caused by increasing carbon emissions that Malawi is seriously considering a coal powered electricity plant…Really!!!! I digress and will have to leave topic for another blog post. Biofuel are fuels made from organic material e.g. wood, sugar cane,  corn. There are two main types: bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is an alcohol made from the fermented products of sugar and starch crops like sugar cane. Biodiesel is made from oils from vegetables  and animal fat.

Biofuels offer greater energy security, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and particulates, rural development, better vehicle performance, and reduced demand for petroleum.

So why not switch to biofuel? But before you run off and buy 5 litres of Kukoma cooking oil for your car, vegetable oil is different from biofuel, it is possible but not that simple to run your car on vegetable oil. It depends on you car and the type of oil. Petrol engines are not suitable for biodiesel or vegetable oil. Some petrol engines can run on bioethanol fuel.  Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine when mixed with mineral diesel. Whilst some diesel engines can run on 100% biodiesel without alterations, other cars may need to modified.

Jatropha - image credit Tom Rulkens

Jatropha (nsatsi in Chichewa and mono in Tumbuka) is a plant grown locally in Malawi. Seeds from the japtropha plant can be crushed and processed into high quality biodiesel, the remaining seed cake can be used to power electricity plants or processed into a fertiliser. Other products from jatropha include soap, charcoal briquettes, organic fertilizer and oil for lighting. The trees produce seeds after eighteen months, can grow for 50 years, with the potential of one hectare of 2,500 trees yielding enough oil to produce 1,000 litres of biodiesel a year – a small holder farmer in Malawi could earn $2,000 per hectare yield.

Bio-Energy Resources Limited (BERL) is a local buyer of jatropha in Malawi. What is not clear is – what happens to the jatropha that is grown in Malawi? How much is grown? Is the jatropha been used merely to get carbon credits? Or is it been manufactured locally in to biofuel? Is jatropha a lucrative alternative for tobacco – Malawi’s main forex earner? Is it competing with land for food crops like maize?

According to a paper by Lester Brown (Director of the Worldwatch Institute) some 200,000 hectares of land in 2006 were being used to cultivate jatropha in Malawi which is exported and refined in South Africa.

The Department of Science and Technology in partnership with Etcho (the Ethanol Company) seem to be at a more advanced stage producing and testing ethanol run cars.

So maybe instead of crying for petrol and diesel we should be pushing the government for locally produced fuel alternatives!

Malawi, let them fart! The science of farting

Malawi is once again making international headlines, but this time not for convicting a gay couple, or allowing Madonna to adopt another child but for considering in parliament a law to ban “fouling of the air”. The Justice Minister George Chaponda and Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga got in a wrangle about the Minister’s misinterpretation of the clause in the Local Courts Bill

“Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”

This clause is meant to refer to pollution and not breaking wind…but Chaponda’s statement caught the attention of major media houses and celebrities like Whoopie Goldberg. He obviously does not know what “vitiates” means and is diverting attention away from more pressing matters like the fuel crisis in Malawi, Malawi’s failure to access funds for the Global AIDS fund, or withdrawal of funds by Germany and the US. But he should be schooled on why people should fart and do fart..Dr. Chaponda..just for you…the Science of farting.

What is a fart?
Farting, breaking wind, or more medically – flatulence is the release of intestinal gas through your bum. The gas can come from a variety of sources – air we swallow, gas from chemical reactions in our gut, gas that enters our intestines from our blood, or gas produced by bacteria that live in our gut. It is normal for bacteria to live in your gut. Good gut bacteria help your body digests certain foods and also protect you from disease.

What is fart gas made of?
It varies on what you ate, how much air you swallowed and the gut bacteria inside you. Common gases are nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, oxygen, hydrogen. Methane is the culprit in fart lighting.

Why do farts smell?
Farts don’t always smell but when they do its because of sulfur. Eating foods that contain a lot of sulphur – eggs, cauliflower, meat are the best for stinky farts. Beans on the other hand will make you fart a lot but not stinky farts. Beans have a sugar that we can not digest in our stomach, so once the beans arrive in the intestine, the bacteria feast on the sugars releasing a lot of gas.

Silent but deadly or as loud as a thunderstorm
How noisy or quiet your fart is depends on the speed at which the air leaves your bum and how tight the muscles in your bum are. If you clench you bums – your farts can come out as silent as a puff! In a busy room…no one will know it was you…very crafty!

Farting is good! Better in than out..
Its embarrassing to fart in public but farting is a perfectly natural body process and even necessary. On average, a person produces about half a litre of fart gas per day, distributed over an average of about fourteen daily farts. It is better to get rid of those gases than clenching your bum to keep them in.