The recent harvesting of wheat in Dowa has both a historical significance and a future importance. Not many people gave a chance to the successful growing and harvesting of wheat at the level that the country witnessed this month.
More than a hundred years ago, a Dowa enterprising man embarked on wheat farming. His name was Msyamboza. It never ceases to amaze me that despite the absence of government ministerial oversight or the advice of agriculture extension workers, Msyamboza successfully grew the crop year in and year out at Chibanzi. He actually weaned himself from nsima, preferring to eat bread instead.
Msyamboza was given wheat seeds by Rev Robert Blake, a Dutch Reformed Church missionary who had travelled from Mvera to establish a new mission station at Kongwe, in Msakambewa’s area. It was Msyamboza’s trip to Bandawe that got him in touch with Robert Blake. He had gone to Bandawe to hunt hippo. When he saw African children learning in classrooms, he got interested in school and approached the Head of Station, Dr. Robert Laws, asking him to establish a school in his own village back at Chibanzi. When Laws learnt that Msyamboza had come from Dowa, he advised him to present his request to a fellow missionary worker who was in the process of establishing a mission station very close to Chibanzi.
On getting back home, Msyamboza did not hesitate to travel to Kongwe to meet Robert Blake. The missionary told him that along with the school that he so much wanted, a church would also be set up at Chibanzi. By way of warming up for the church, Msyamboza was asked to introduce Sunday observance to his people. Being illiterate, Msyamboza could not relate to the days of the week, so Rev. Blake gave him a tied bundle of seven stick with the instruction that starting from a day he would be told, he should remove one stick from the bundle every day. When there were no sticks left, that would signify Sunday, a day on which everybody in the village was supposed to abstain from work.
Robert Blake also gave his new found friend a packet of wheat seeds which he was to try to plant at Chibanzi. Msyamboza was a multi-talented man, achieving enviable exploits in the trades of his day – mat making, hunting, agriculture, among others. Soon he became a successful wheat farmer, growing a lot more than what he needed for his own consumption. He traveled to Malirana in Dedza where he acquired a mill from a Catholic missionary and planted it at Chibanzi to help him convert his wheat to flour, thereby effectively setting up what can be regarded as Malawi’s first bakery. The surplus wheat was sold to settler communities in the central region and in parts of Mozambique.
Since Msyamboza’s death in 1926, no one has grown wheat at Chibanzi or anywhere else in Dowa. Fast forward to 2023, serious wheat farming re-emerges to the north of Chibanzi, close to Madisi. This is the second attempt to grow the crop in Dowa.
Coming, as it does, on the heels of the infamous war in Ukraine, wheat growing in Malawi can be a real game changer in the country’s fortunes. Ukraine grows a great deal of wheat and is, therefore, one of the biggest players in the wheat trade worldwide. The war has excluded Ukraine from the international trade in the commodity. The world supply of wheat has consequently shrunk, causing prices to scale up. Many people have spoken with scorn about the rising costs of brain. There has been no shortage of tears shed over this development.
Instead of spending extensive lengths of time grieving over bread prices, some Malawians have decided to embark on wheat farming. I have not been able to establish the level of Government’s involvement in the wheat venture but one thing I know is that at least one of our research stations has developed an early maturing and heat resistant variety, nay varieties, of the crop. And the varieties currently on trial can grow in all parts of the country. It can scarcely get better than that. If we can put the entire country under wheat, we will literally become the bread basket of this part of the world.
Our response to the war in Ukraine should not be endless and senseless grieving over its effects or engaging in unproductive criticisms and counter criticisms. Instead, we, every one of us, should roll up our sleeves and inundate Malawi with wheat. When we achieve that, the effects of the war in Ukraine will not be felt. It can, and should, be done.