Friday, August 14, 2009

The Five Senses of Tanzania

In Tanzania…

I tasted: banana stew; fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice; ugali; chicken marsala, beef stew; tea with goat’s milk; dessert bananas the size of a lipstick; honey straight out of a hollow log; Kilimanjaro Premium Lager; African avocados; green oranges; home-brewed banana beer

I smelled: incense; clove spices; instant coffee; lemongrass tea; BBQ chicken with “secret” African spices; tiny chili peppers plucked from a bush; trash being burned in the dirt streets and gutters

I touched: mud squishing between my toes as I waded through a pond; countless handshakes and hugs from friendly Tanzanians; high-fives from children roaming school hallways; a gnarly Bao Bao tree; animals carved out of smooth teak wood

I heard: roosters crowing at all hours; a class of 4-yr olds clapping and singing a welcome song to me; a monkey telling others of my approach; crickets in the bush; enthusiastic church singing; a young child screaming after being bitten by a beetle; rain drops being caught in tanks to harvest water; Afro-Caribbean drumming; the rustling of critters in thatched roof huts; elephants trumpeting a warning

I saw: red, brown, and green coffee beans; cheerful sunflowers standing guard over rows of corn; hundreds of partially built houses waiting for more money to continue construction; bright pink pick-up trucks (driven by men); the President of Tanzania driving by with his entourage; men straining against the load they pulled on their carts; a bull elephant tossing a camping tent in the air
Kwa heri (goodbye) Tanzania

Fab Photos

Here are my top three "money" shots:

The isolation and vastness of the Serengeti.

Graceful, gentle, playful creatures.

His or her stare bores through my soul.

My Hippocratic Oath

Overheard at the hippo pool- a gleeful Italian tourist pointing at a hippo and exclaiming "Lookee da heepo, he shake-a his butt!"

Watching hippos in the Serengeti convinced me that hippos have The Life. They sit around in communal mud ponds all day, keeping cool in the blazing sun. Occasionally a random bird may land on their back so they lazily do a slow-motion 360 degree roll-over in the mud. Ghastly sounds emit from their bodies, but it is socially acceptable because everyone does it. Their food and water is right there in the pond in which they are sitting- kind of like those swim-up-to-the-bar swimming pools in Las Vegas and Hawaii.

So, inspired by the hippos, here is my Hippocratic Oath:
I, Melanie Hopson, do solemnly swear that I will go to the mud baths in Calistoga sometime in the next year.

Here Kitty, Kitty!



Saber Cat


Lion vs. Warthog

A great source of entertainment on safari was watching lions hunt for warthogs. The female lions do most of the hunting because they are lighter, faster, and more nimble. This is what the male lions do:

Here’s how they do it. The lion spots a warthog from afar. Then she crouches in the grass FOREVER, seemingly plotting when to pounce. She creeps a little closer to the warthog and then crouches again FOREVER—waiting to pounce. She repeats the crouching, waiting, creeping, and waiting cycle over and over again.

The warthog, in the meantime, is just rummaging around on the ground for whatever disgusting thing that warthogs eat, ignoring the lion who could kill him, and going about his business without a care in the world.

Finally after what seems like HOURS and after all that trouble, the lion springs up and half-heartedly chases the warthog. The warthog scampers away and says “Nanny nanny nanny. You can’t catch me!” And the lion turns in another direction muttering something like “Stupid warthog. I didn’t want to catch you anyway…”

I saw encounters like this happen 3 times. I have read that lions are only successful at catching something one out of five times. I saw 3 unsuccessful attempts, so I guess I should have stuck around longer if I wanted to witness a nice gruesome killing. But it’s clear to me that “the thrill of the hunt” is a misnomer 4 times out of 5. It’s more accurately “the tedium of the hunt.”
Lion vs. Warthog

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roughing It

"Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water."
-WC Fields

Baby Photos

Baby Elephant

Baby Lions

Baby Zebra

Baby Giraffe

Baby Wildebeest


Animal Sighting Checklist

What I saw on my 5 days of safari:

Blue Monkeys
Bush Buck
Dik Diks
Reed Bucks
Saber Cat
Water Bucks
Water Buffalos

Skunked on:
Black Rhino

Italians on Safari

Safari Traffic

For those who have never gone on safari, basically what you do is you get into a Land Rover (British) or Land Cruiser (Japanese) and they are outfitted so that the roof flips up so you can stand up in the truck and spot animals to your heart’s delight.
Safaris go out looking for animals for 4-5 hours in the morning, and 3-4 hours in the late afternoon. Mid-day is siesta time for the animals and the safari adventurers. I don’t wish to appear unhumble when I assert that I am a darn good wildlife spotter. This is simply a certified fact—ask my friends who have traveled with me. So I spotted critters that the driver/guide didn’t even see—but in his defense, he did have to drive the whole time, while all I had to do was hang out the top of the Land Rover.

Even though I had a safari truck pretty much to myself (ok, there was one other woman in my truck, but she didn’t like to stand up), this is not to say that there aren’t hundreds of other safari trucks racing about the wilderness. They have people like this guy who apparently brought along the Hubble Space Telescope.
And occasionally there is a real traffic jam as safari drivers radio each other about a exceptionally good animal sighting, and all safari trucks high-tail it over to the location to crowd around a bored and blasé feline. Then you get a traffic jam that would rival any Los Angeles freeway.

The Mighty Serengeti

I’ve seen a few documentaries about the Serengeti- with robust voice-overs by James Earl Jones, dramatic footage of animals stalking each other, and a hushed narrative of someone explaining exactly what the animals are thinking as they trudge through the wilderness.

But nothing prepared me for how magnificent the Serengeti is. The highlight of my trip to Tanzania was spending 5 days camping in the Serengeti. It’s indescribable, but I’ll take a shot at it. The place is vast. You can see desert and savanna (rolling grasslands with scattered acacia trees) for miles. And yet everywhere you look there are some animals to watch. You can’t spit a watermelon seed without hitting an impala or gazelle.

It is dry there. There are some watering holes that the animals naturally gravitate towards, but not many. The moon was full while I camped out, and at night there were millions of stars lingering around the Milky Way like teenagers at the mall.

I can count on one hand significant traveling moments in my lifetime when I have found myself grinning from ear to ear and completely and totally ENJOYING every second of my existence. I experienced that in the Serengeti, standing up in my safari truck and peeping my head out the top while the driver drove me along bouncy, dusty roads out in the middle of nowhere.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Unclear on the Concept

This is what a pretty typical local business looks like in Tanzania. There are myriad small business owners who slap a shingle up on a corner of their home, and call it a restaurant/store/clinic/etc.

What amused me were the names of the businesses. I kept in mind that the Tanzanians speak Swahili and that English is NOT their native language, but it was still funny to see what they posted on their businesses. Some were just slightly off.

A few examples of business names I observed:

Monster Club (a bar where the Abominable Snowman can relax and toss back a few drinks?)

Wimpy Restaurant (do you get fired if you start to go to the gym too much?)

Money Maker Pumps (unapologetically capitalistic)

Nicer Medics (I'd rather get checked out by "Sexier Medics")

Giraffe Executive Inn (built with extremely high ceilings?)

And the award for The Most Unclear On The Concept goes to:

The Modern Traditional Clinic


Market in Marungu

Here are some photos of a typical market that I strode through in a small village called Marungu.

Spices in bulk. Not unlike Costco!

Bananas are BIG BUSINESS around this village. In front of her bananas is this female CEO who refuses to accept any glass ceilings.

Booze in Tanzania

I did some taste-testing of some of the local “fire water”.

Banana Beer
Home-brewed. Strong. Chunky. The texture was like a cup of sawdust stirred into a root beer float. I drank it from a hollowed out gourd, and the taste was like something I imagine Hawkeye and BJ distilling in their MASH tent.

A catch-all name for a liquor that isn’t vodka and isn’t gin but tastes somewhat like both of them mixed together. It comes in little packets like the “Capri Sun” juices favored by American children, but the contents are a lot more flammable. Tanzanians drink them down like shots, then discard the packet. They are littered everywhere.

Drinking is a problem- especially in rural areas. People are bored so they drink. People get drunk and lose their good judgment. People lose their good judgment and have unprotected sex. People have unprotected sex and contract an STD or HIV. People contract HIV/AIDS and get sick and die. See the problem?

Mount Kilimanjaro

When I was there, Mount Kilimanjaro didn't peek out from behind the clouds very often, but when it did it appeared to be an enchanting mountain.

However, most of the people I met who had just climbed it weren't enchanted in the least.

"Are you glad you climbed it?" I asked.
"Oh yea! It was great!" they replied.

"Would you climb it again?" I pressed.
"Noooooooooooo......." was the usual answer.

I have good guesses as to why no one wants to climb it again.
o It may be that it takes about 6-7 days to walk up and come back.
o It may be that the last leg of the summit is climbed in a sleepy, exhausted state of stumbling after only 2 hours of sleep.
o It may be that many people get nauseous from the altitude.
o It may be that some people don't like the expedition partners they got from the bad luck of the draw.

As you can see, I heard from plenty of people about the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro. And that will suffice for me. I'd rather chew aluminum foil for 6-7 days than climb up that mountain. Or any mountain, for that matter.

"Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom, interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror." Anonymous

A Dry and Thirsty Land

It was hot today and I felt dehydrated so when I got home I poured a cool, tall glass of Hetch Hetchy water out of the tap and drank it down. This is in contrast to Tanzania, where I was constantly asking myself the questions “Where is the water? What do they drink?

From reading the newspaper and watching news shows on television, I have always had a vague idea that Africa is short on water. But after spending three weeks there I really get the picture. It is dry. It is arid. There aren’t many wells. There aren’t many rivers. There just aren’t a lot of water sources. When I arrived in Tanzania the rainy season had just ended and they didn’t get enough rain which meant that the corn crops were already dying, and it also means that quite a few farmers are not going to be able to earn their living this year.

The amount of time, money, and energy that goes into securing drinking water is surprising. Here is a photo of some rural people gathering around a well to fill up plastic canisters.

Then from there, someone hauls the heavy water canisters around for miles by foot or on a bicycle and delivers the clean water to people who have purchased it. It’s a lot of work. And it’s probable that if water was more accessible then tons of energy and money would be freed up to do something more useful and perhaps sustainable in order to make living conditions better for the African people.

I know there must be quite a few nonprofit orgs that focus on providing water to sub-Saharan African countries, but they must not be very high-profile because I can’t name even one. And truthfully, I’m not going to research the matter because I don’t feel particularly led to be a solution to that particular problem. But I never know who reads this blog, so I will put the issue out there as a real concern for the people in Africa. Do with that knowledge what you will.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Obama Mania

Tanzanians are big fans of President Barack Obama. When walking down the street I occasionally had someone call out to me “Hey wazungu! Obama!” making a connection with me by approving of my President. In a nod to capitalism there are numerous vendors selling Obama paraphernalia such as posters and screen-printed cloths like these:

I saw lots of evidence of Obama adoration that I wasn’t fast enough to take photos of—like the name OBAMA painted on the sides of bridges or on cement walls by the road. My favorite Obama sighting was a local business where there was a painting of Obama’s face and the sign read “Obama Hair Salon.” Next time President Obama visits Africa he really is going to have to get his hair cut there.

I asked some of the older children at the orphanage why they were so enthusiastic about Obama. One of the more thoughtful ones replied “Because he is one of us! He is half African and that makes us feel like we can be the President of the United States.” I see.

I did manage to capture this homage to Obama on the back of a bus--where Obama’s portrait is sandwiched between the words “Emergency Exit”—hopefully not a prophetic word for our Commander in Chief.

Friday, July 31, 2009

School for Albino Children

My favorite new friends I made in Africa were three fantastic young people from Great Britain— Rose, Josh, and Vanessa— who were in Tanzania for 7 weeks this summer teaching English at Mwereni Primary School in Moshi. This school is primarily for albinos.

Filed under the heading of “Things I Never Would Have Known About If I Hadn’t Gone to Africa” is the issue of albinos and the hardships they face in Tanzania. In addition to the usual challenges—being ridiculed for looking different, social segregation, the risk of getting sun burned, and suffering eye problems—albinos in Tanzania are in danger of being killed for their body parts.

In short, witch doctors tell people they need a leg, an arm of an albino in order to make magic potions that will bring people good luck or fortune. And quite a few albinos have been murdered in Tanzania in the past few years because people actually believe the witch doctors. I did a google search of Tanzania/albino/witch doctors, and the stories that come up are not for those who are weak of stomach.

Rose told me that the school houses about 80 albinos and most of them are fairly vision impaired. They have a Braille computer room, and the schoolmaster built an enormous hall with huge windows so the children can be protected by the sun and yet still feel like they are playing outside.

In a country where many people believe that being born albino is the result of a curse that was put on your family, the Mwereni School is a place where the students become each other’s family. I love that such a school exists, and I love that young people like my friends Rose, Josh and Vanessa choose to spend their summers helping students learn English so they can have a stab at some kind of successful future.

This is Vanessa, Theresa, Rose and Josh. In addition to being great English teachers, they can shake their groove thing on the dance floor too.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Pentecostals

I awoke to the sounds of pattering rain and the bass line of Pachelbel’s Canon, so I turned off my fan and listened for a few enchanted moments.

Then an organ began pounding out the tune to “I Surrender All” and the screaming began.

Next door to my guest house in Africa there was a Pentecostal church. The people walking down the dirt road to the church were well-dressed and appeared happy to be there, which is a good thing because attendees were always in it for the long haul with services sometimes lasting until 3 or 4 in the morning. At this church there was a lot of singing, clapping, preaching, and cheering. And the casting out of demons. There must have been a considerable number of real and/or imagined demons around there because they hosted exorcisms almost every night.

I’m no demonologist but after 3 weeks of listening from my bed in Africa, I know that demons are hard of hearing because the Pentecostals felt the need to yell at them loudly and frequently. They started with a rhythmic cadence of alternating yelling in which the demon-possessed person shrieked like he/she was in pain and the demon caster-outer shouted authoritatively at the demon. There was a glorious crescendo of noise and enthusiasm and then inexplicably there would be instant silence—like everyone needed to catch their breath or something.

It sounds pretty gruesome- I know-- and more than once my friend Theresa has had terrified volunteers come to her room in the middle of the night saying “someone is being killed out there.” She assures them it is simply a friendly neighborhood exorcism, then she distributes earplugs and everyone goes back to sleep.

So one Sunday I walked over to the gated entrance of the outdoor Pentecostal church and peeked discreetly into the compound. I must have been spotted because they sent a smiling man out to talk with me.

“I’m just listening to the music” I said to assure him I wasn’t a church-wrecker.
“You are welcome” he said.
Thinking this meant I was welcome, I clarified “Can I go inside?”

This was a bold move on my part because God only knows how many demons were hitching a ride on this white woman from America, but as a past theology major I was intrigued by their beliefs and as a former charismatic I was interested in their practice.

He squirmed, shoved his hands in his pockets, and looked at the ground. “They are praying….” he shrugged.

“Ah, ok. Praying is private. I understand” I said, kindly letting him off the hook. I guess they didn’t want to be scrutinized in the middle of an exorcism—and I don’t blame them for that. So I went about my day thinking about how differently they do church from how I do “church” and humming a catchy tune that a white missionary must have brought years ago to the Africans.

“I surrender all…I surrender all… all to Thee my precious Savior…I surrender all.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

African Cuisine

The primary thing I learned about Tanzanian food is that it revolves around gravies. I ate a banana stew with chicken in white gravy, and the cooked bananas tasted similar to potatoes. I had a lot of great vegetable and chicken Marsalas, but again, they were heavy on the gravy. Beef stew…gravy. You get the idea about gravy.

The most common food in Tanzania is “ugali” which is made from corn and flour with the color and texture of grits or a really thick version of the hot cereal “cream of wheat”. Tanzanians eat ugali every day and claim to love it. I don’t know if they love the taste or love that it is a cheap food that sticks to your ribs, but I heard stories of people who visited family members in other countries and lugged along the ingredients to make ugali so they wouldn’t miss it while they were abroad.

Here is a photo of a typical meal I had—grilled chicken, cooked bananas, beans, a generous helping of ugali, some cooked greens, and tomato sauce.

No forks are used, so you roll up some ugali into a ball in your hand, pinch the other foods with the ugali, and eat them all together. It tasted pretty good, but I’ve got to admit that my stomach never did very well in Africa. I don’t know if it was the food, the high altitude (I was at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro), or malaria medicine, but I had a low-grade nausea the whole three weeks I was there.

Bottom line: don’t go to Tanzania specifically for the food unless you are on a top end safari with a world class chef making you Spice Rubbed Chicken, Carpaccio and Fennel Salad, and Roasted Bananas sprinkled with walnuts, thick cream, and cinnamon. Oh, and ugali.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kilimanjaro Kids Care

For those interested in the daily operations of an orphanage in Tanzania:

At Kilimanjaro Kids Care, twenty two children ages 7-15 live at the orphanage. They have all lived there between 1-2 years and a handful of the children are siblings, but they all consider themselves to be a big, happy family. There are four bedrooms full of bunk beds with the girls claiming two rooms and the boys claiming two. In the backyard are a couple of “hole toilets” in outhouses, as well as a closed off “shower room” where the older children take “bucket showers” with stream water.

There are 3 adult house mothers who live at the home, and while the children are at school these extraordinary women clean the house, do laundry, mend clothes, prepare food, and do what you need to do to keep your sanity while you live with 22 children. The house mothers cook breakfast and dinner over an open fire in the backyard, and serve meals off the floor in a serving room in the house.

They clean and wash clothes with stream water, so every day after school the older girls walk to a nearby stream and carry water (on their heads) back to the orphanage. The older children do their own laundry, and the house mothers help the younger children keep clean.

The children help prepare meals by chopping vegetables...

or by picking rocks out of the dried corn that is used for making porridge.

All in all, these children do a lot more than my sorry lazy butt did when I was a kid. And they are smart, kind, well-behaved kids.

Safety Belts? Huh?

Wazungus on the bottom!” I called out as everyone clamored for the Make a Difference vehicle. The kids thought this was hilarious and massive giggling ensued. “Wazungus onda boddum!” some of the children repeated again and again. More giggling.

Every time we taught and volunteered at the Royal Junior School, the orphans would see Theresa’s safari truck in the parking lot and they would forgo jumping on the school bus in favor of the much more fun option of riding in the truck to the orphanage. The challenge was that there were 22 of them and 5 full grown adults whereas the safari truck had seats for 8.

Undaunted, the adults sat in the seats forming a bottom layer and held at least 2 children on our laps. Backpacks were tangled around our feet, school uniforms were askew, and there was a cacophony of yelling and laughing and tickling and giggling and questions and answers of “what did you learn in school today?”

While I agree with most of our safety laws in the United States, I have to admit that I’m secretly relieved to be in other countries where safety guidelines are a little more “optional”. For me it is worth the sacrifice in safety to be surrounded by happy, smiling, wiggling children who gladly give and receive hugs with a generosity that makes the heart soar.