In Southern Malawi, mangoes and drought march arm in arm. I’ve been fairly obsessed with mango trees ever since starting data collection for my dissertation: my minibus becomes an oven without shade, making it uncomfortable to work in there and possibly overheating and destroying my laptop. Moreover, as a card-carrying white dude, there are limits to how much sun I can take in a place with some of the highest UV levels in the world. Mango trees provide the only decent shade in TA Mwambo outside of man-made structures, and by decent I mean crazy awesome. In a place where almost all the plants are dead, you can still find massive mango trees with full, green leaves. This is because of their huge taproots that dig through the dry, sandy soil for up to twenty feet in search of groundwater: many of these trees are as deep as they are tall.

A few days ago, some of my staff started saying that a drought was coming because there are too many mangoes on the trees.* I wasn’t sure what to make of this – an old wives’ tale, like the idea that pets can predict earthquakes? As it turns out, I had misunderstood – they meant a drought in terms of a falling water table, driven by limited rains in the mountains that feed the rivers here, and by poor rainfall last year. Apparently this causes mango trees to bear more fruit. Now, I have no idea why this would be the case, or even whether it’s true – Google turned up nothing definitive, and I’m no botanist. But it’s definitely true that the trees are covered in tiny, green fruit that bang on the roof of my bus when I’m trying to escape from the sun. I’m inclined to believe them, just because Malawi’s rainfall is so variable that it would pay dividends to understand water here.

The other side of poor rainfall and lots of mangoes is that I’ve started to see, in the words of one of my employees, “kids carrying a shirt full of mangoes, holding up the bottom of their jerseys”. Think about the shirt-carry that I’m sure we all did lots as kids. The kids are taking these green, unripe mangoes home, where they will be boiled and eaten for lunch. A sign of hunger – we are far from the last harvest, which wasn’t a good one. I don’t really think of boiled unripe mangoes as being a food, but you learn something new every day. Now I see kids with mangoes everywhere, even eating them raw, and am reminded of the desperation of the fruit pickers toward the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

*I’ve noticed during this trip that even Malawians who grew up and live in cities still have a broad range of expertise in many agriculture topics. I chalk this up to very limited specialization – people are good at everything but rarely great at any one thing, whereas in America we tend to be awful at nearly everything except our own professions.

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