“Ba Austin?” Chelsi asked, bend down to pick up another armful of dry avocado leaves.
“Hmmm,” he adjusted the sack, with which they were collecting the leaves.
“What do you know about bats?” Austin was her first perma-gardener in the village. Every Monday for the last month they had been meeting up for gardening lessons, today they were building a compost pile.
“Say it again.”
“Can you spell it for me?”
“B-A-T-S, like the furry birds that fly at night?” Two weeks previously Chelsi had a spark of inspiration. While visiting her friend Ginny in Mumena, they stopped to chat with an exceptional carpenter, and a good friend of Ginny’s, Ba Harrison. Chelsi decided that she would love to have something crafted by him out of mukawa; But what? I already have a birdhouse. I don’t really need any more chairs, and don’t want to transport a table… A bat house maybe?
“Oh, bats. What about them?”
“Do you see them often? What kinds are there? What do you know about them?”
After deciding that a bat house would be the perfect project for Harrison, Chelsi wondered if the bat house plans she had burned into her memory for from working at the US Forest Service, would be suitable for the bats in Zambia.
“Yes, I see them. The little ones that eat insects, there’s the ones that lives in live in the banana trees. There’s the masmall bats that live in tunnels. And the bats that live in the bush, those are bigger.” He gestured his hands to describe an animal about the size of a 14inch ball. “Then there are bats that come into people’s house. Is this enough brown leaves?”
“Yeah, that’s probably enough for now. We can always come back and get more. Next, we need to collect green material. So any of the grass over there will do.” They started back towards his garden just behind the mango tree, to deposit the brown leaves before collecting grass. “What do people do when they come in to the house?”
“Ah, but they mostly just leave them. They eat the mosquitoes.” Bingo, Chelsi thought.
Walking through Mumena with Ginny, Chelsi suggested, ‘What if we tried to encourage bats foraging pests around houses and farms by hanging bat house? Maybe take a few malaria carrying mosquitoes out of the populations, or reduce the need for some of the pesticides.’
“So the bats aren’t living in people’s houses. They just fly in and out?”
“Yes, just in and out. Just wait, I am going to get the masickle, for the grass.” Austin turned back towards the house at a trot.
“Okay, I’ll just be here.” Chelsi stood with the empty sack in her hands and looked around through the grass. It was at her eye level now. She loved tall grass, always wishing there was more of it in the States.
“Can I use the leaves from the mango trees, instead of green grass?” Austin asked rejoining her, they started down the path again.
“You mean like durning dry season? When all the grass is dead? Yeah, you can use it. But the leaves from the mango tree are thick and will take a while to compost. If you can use grasses that’s usually better, but if you don’t have a lot of options, the mango leaves are fine.”
“Which grasses, I’m following you.” He said after a few paces of silence.
“Oh I don’t know, I was following you. I thought we were going to a spot where there weren’t so many of these spiny plants.” Chelsi looked down, around her feet and ankles were long vines with thorny protruding seeds. Come dry season the seeds would harden and fall to the ground and Chelsi will spend an hour every day pulling them out of her feet. “Their flowers were so pretty a few weeks ago though,” she sighed.
Austin deviated from the path and started towards a grass covered anthill. “Those are the kind of bats I usually get in my house. The kind that just fly in and out. Although I know some volunteers that have had them living in the houses, usually up in the roof.” Chelsi wielding the sickle, started filling the bag with grass.
“Yes, the ka small bats will live in the thatch of your roof.”
“Do you think I have bats living in my thatch?! I know I have frogs and lizards and rats and mice living up there. Or at least I did before I got the cat. But I still see the frogs sometimes.”
Austin let out his happy, go-lucky chuckle, “You had them, maybe before you had the cat. But people usually kill those, because they make a mess in the house, from pooping.”
Chelsi had exhausted all the grass with in her reach at the foot of the hill and now was just standing about, “So what if we had houses, like houses for bats outside the house, so the bats can live there, but still come and eat the mosquitoes.”
Austin relieved her of the sickle and used his lanky legs to jump up the hill to a fresh patch of grass. “You mean keep them like chickens? No, we don’t do that.”
“You wouldn’t be keeping them like chickens,” If you can call stuffing a dozen birds in a meter by meter woven bamboo box ‘keeping chickens’, Chelsi paused to think of a better example. “You know how people keep bees? They just build the house, or the box, and bees just come and do their thing? It would be more like that, but for bats.”
Austin looked at her, scrunching up his face a bit.
“We can put them up around farms too, because the bats will eat some agricultural pests. And I think this is plenty of grass,” She added shaking the bag.
He hopped down from the hill, “Like in organic farming, where we don’t have to use pesticide then.” Chelsi wasn’t a hundred percent certain of Austin’s background, but on more than one occasion had impressed her with his knowledge on the tenants of organic farming.
“Well, I’m not going to promise they would alleviate all pests,” Chelsi smiled, “but yes, exactly that.”
They walked back to the spot next to his garden, under the mango tree. “I think maybe if you just had more banana plantations. That would work.”
He dumped the bag of grass out next to the pile of leaves, the bucket of water and a basin of goat manure. “Okay, so after we loosen the soil a bit, like we do when do our first dig for double digging, we’re just going to start mixing everything together. A couple handfuls of leaves, a handful of grass, a sprinkling of manure, a cup of water. Until everything in those piles in over here in one big pile.” Chelsi started throwing everything together, “and we’re going to mix, mix, mix.”
“Ahhrroo!” Daisy came tearing across the small compound, a new mother goat tailing behind her.
“Ahh, Ka Daisy,” Austin said. “She just wants to play play, all the time.”
“I know, she has so much energy. And she doesn’t get that the goats don’t want to play with her.”
Daisy stood now, staring down the goat in the distance, heckles raised. “If you are still here in June, and July, we should take her hunting. She would be good, she likes to chase things.”
“Yeah? And what would we hunt?”
“There are those mawater bucks, and bansenji.”
“Down there in the dambo?”
“No, across the way there on the plain. There are also those bush babies and African rabbits.”
“Well, I have no idea how to teacher to do that, but I’ll still be here in June and July. I’ll be here till 2017, so you will have to teach us.”
“We can, if you are still here, God-willing.”
“If I am still here, God-willing.”