Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fawlty Towers...

There’s a little bit of Fawlty Towers in this place, to be sure. From the fence wire locking out the cutoff switch on the water pump, to the bare wires to make the starter motor kick in on the genset, winches not working on the vehicles (fixed now by us - but incorrectly fitted by the dealer years ago) and the miscellaneous taps melted into the sides of plaster rain tanks, etc, etc. There’s no workshop to take things to here so we make do but somehow though it all seems to work.

We used to joke among ourselves that Ali was a bit like Manuel. Same short of desire to please and bumbling but pleasant style combined with a lack of comprehension of what’s going on around him. Thro win just a pinch of confusion every so often and there you have the recipe.

It used seem like minor but well meaning mishaps followed in his wake and menus were never as predicted. Shirts came back with with holes ironed in them and when Matthias was away our menu got very er, unusual. Potato pizza one day then tuna pasta with a meat sauce the nex. Pancakes one morning would be pancakes as you know it, the next morning they would could best be described as chapatti’s. In fact you never knew what you were going to get for brekky or any other meal really. It was really quite entertaining trying to guess what would turn up next.

I’ve been cooking for myself lately which means a bit of time each day to invent some sort of a meal from whatever ingredients we have in the trunks or whatever fresh foods turn up for sale at the gates at random. but it’s nice to have more control over my nutrition. I cook over an MSR Dragonfly, a multi-fuel stove that burns petrol, diesel, kerosene, Jet A1, white spirit or just about anything really. Very handy in this part of the world. Right now I’m using petrol as it was the first fuel to hand and it does a great job. The only other option for cooking here is a fire which hardly seems worth it when I’m just cooking for me, not to mention being a nuisance if all you want is a cuppa.

Fending for myself now that the cooks have left, has exposed a few more minor but amusing Fawlty Towers type issues. Years of meals being prepared over open fires here means that the miscellaneous collection of pots and pans still remaining have had their handles long since burned or melted away. Not for the first time my Leatherman is coming in handy as a billy lifter. Ditto the camping knife has come in handy. There seems to have been only one knife left here for cutting veggies etc and the security guys are using it. Probably a bit of overkill to be chopping cabbage for dinner with a serrated edged 4” Spyderco Endura but what the heck – it’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last.

I got another good laugh yesterday. We have a gas powered chest freezer half full of the remains of a cow. The previous time the guys bought a cow, they organized for it to be butchered and chopped up to freeze it. Well, they got the cow back chopped it up alright – into six pieces. So this time, we thought we’d ask for it to be butchered properly into small pieces of about 2 kg’s each so that we could just take steaks, chops or bones as we needed from the freezer. Pretty clear you’d think? No. Not so.

Yesterday I went to the freezer for the first time to get a piece out for dinner. I picked what looked to have the least bone and hence best chance of a steak. When it had actually thawed out that afternoon, I had to laugh. It looked like they’d simply taken a panga (machete) to it. Bits of bone, flesh and gristle just panga’d into a piece that would fit into a plastic bag. The rest of the freezer looks to be more full of bone than anything else and certainly no T-Bones or sirloin. Yet another lesson in not taking things for granted I guess… AWA (Africa Wins Again)

I ended up trimming enough bits to make stirfry last night but this morning I went in search of a recipe for beef soup using minimal seasoning (as I just don’t have much to choose from – soy sauce, pepper, garlic, chili sauce is about it). As I write this I have a beef soup simmering on the stove.

But if you could see the view from my kitchen bench and dining room, you’d have to agree it is a pretty nice place to stand and stir a spoon around in pot…

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So dark out here...

It’s nice waking up to the pre-dawn light each morning. Especially so because I don’t wake to an alarm clock any more which is really, really nice. What wakes me now is the gradual change from total darkness to first light. I know it’s time to at least think about getting up when, for the first time that night, I can sense some grey squares against the black, roughly where I know the windows of my hut to be.

The other thing that is kind of cool is that on a cloudy night, it’s so dark out here that you can’t see your hand in front of my face. Literally. Think: bottom of a coal mine at midnight dark. On a moonlight night or even a starry night enough light gets through the trees so that you can (just) get around the compound OK. On a cloudy night though, it would be easy to walk smack bang into a tree. And I do need to walk around because the compound is a series of one-room huts. One hut for the office, one for each accommodation unit, one for dining hall, etc, etc.

Think of a house perhaps, where you need to walk 20 or 50 metres in pitch black among the trees to go from lounge room to toilet to bedroom. On a dark night, the huts themselves are about the only thing that you might have even a chance of seeing before you walk into of them. Even then only as a darker patch of darkness looming above you just before you walk face first into it. I normally have pretty good night vision but out here on a cloudy moonless night without a genset, torch or at least starlight, it’s BLACK. Which is kind of cool.

And mostly (I’m happy to say) I don’t run the genset now that the others have gone. There are lights rigged around the compound but they obviously need the genset. I’ve managed to bodgy up a charger, truck battery, voltage regulator and small inverter to create enough power to run the internet and laptop for a few hours off a charge which makes a blissfully quiet alternative to the noise of the generator. The idea came to me because (being a curious sort of chap) in the process of tidying up the place, I’d noticed most of the necessary bits and pieces lying around. Eventually, the subconscious trickled the idea through that a battery bank might be a good idea. Sadly the one thing I couldn’t find was an inverter. I’d actually given up on finding one last week and was about to google how to make DC stepdown transformers or even an inverter by cannabilising some of the obsolete or broken equipment but… As luck would have it, I was tidying the last of some stuff into a trunk when I noticed faded markings on the lid which showed a list of contents including “2 x inverters”. Now, the trunks came out here several years ago so it was quite likely that both inverters were long since lost, broken or removed. “But still, just maybe” I thought to myself. I turned the place upside down and eventually amongst some scientific test equipment found (as you’ve now doubt gathered) a working inverter. Not that it was immediately obvious that it was an inverter. It looked more like a piece of test equipment and the 240v outlet plug looked like anything but. Sure enough though, written underneath were the magic words “Input: 12V. Output: 240V”. It was like one of those Eureka moments when I finally realized that it was within grasp to have internet and still be able to hear the birds in the trees. I know, I know, but it’s the little things that really count out here…

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Starfish stories and a trip to Mpanda

Friday and it’s time for Pete and Tim to head back to Dar.  They’re taking the VX on a safari drive through some of the nicest parts of Tanzania while I meanwhile get the camp almost to myself for 2 months.  Not quite to myself of course as there are 3 security guys here to keep me company but my Swahili is not as good as their English and their English is good enough for the basics so long as body-language and patience are applied.  My Skype friends will be my main form of social activity for at least 2 months but I’ll get plenty of time to do some writing which will be great.

Tim and Pete are taking Valerian, Mathias and Ali out with them today as well as about 400kg of soil samples for testing.   Two other passengers are also coming along.  A young girl about 5 years of age and her father are going with them to Mpanda.   She is suffering from a dreadful skin condition that has left warts on her face, swollen her eyes almost shut and left tiny leopard skin spots all over her body.   The guys had taken her up to Mpanda before to see a Dr but he’d given her some tests and creams for eczema, none of which had made the slightest difference.  I’m no fundi but it didn’t look like exzcema to me.  If anything, it looks like a really bad fungal infection but there’s no way of knowing without culturing up a skin scraping and the closest facilities for that are in Dar. 

We’ve pondered just how to do it for a few weeks now.  The girls father has never been further than 50km from home and is very nervous about getting himself to Dar.  There’s just not enough room in the car for everyone and the gear to get to Dar in the VX.  Hence we’ve all chipped in some money for a train trip from Mpanda to Dar plus medical tests and Valerian has volunteered to accompany them.  The company and some of the other staff in Australia have also offered to chip in as the cost of drugs could be $1,500 or more if it turns out to be one of those rare fungal conditions.   Valerian has also organized accommodation with his sister and brother in law (a doctor) in Dar so things are organized.  

It’s not really a drop in the ocean when it comes to helping with medical conditions out here but you have to start somewhere.  If this girl doesn’t get treatment her quality of life will be minimal at the very, very least.   It’s a bit like one of my favourite stories.   The ‘Starfish’ story.   The story goes like this:

A man is walking along the beach the day after a big storm.  The storm has littered the beach as far as the eye can see with debris, seaweed and junk.  Looking closer, the man notices that among the debris are starfish.  Many, many starfish.  As he continues to walk down the beach he spies in the distance a small figure walking towards him.  The figure is bending over repeatedly as if picking things up.  As the two walk towards each other, the man can see that it is a small boy, picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean.  Eventually they meet up and the man asks the boy why he is bothering to throw the starfish back in.  The boy just shrugs “why not?”.  “But there must be thousands of them on the beach.  Surely you can’t hope to make a difference here?” to which the boy just shrugs again, picks up another starfish, tosses it back in the ocean and says “I made a difference to that one.” 

I guess that’s what we hope will happen with the little girl.  That some medical attention will make a difference to at least one human being.

With all the passengers to drop off in Mpanda and the passengers to take, the VX can’t hope to carry it all so my role is to take the 1 tonne trayback loaded up with gear as far as Mpanda.  On the morning we leave, Pete kindly jumps in the trayback before I get to it which leaves me to drive the VX on the way there.  A nice but unexpected treat as the trayback bounces like a billycart while the VX has much plusher suspension – and Tim’s Ipod collection to listen to.   We get to Mpanda in good time taking about 6 ½ hours including a stop to drop Matthias home in Mwese and have lunch of rice and beans in a local ‘café’.   The roads are dry as we’ve had 5 days with little or no rain so it’s easy going today and we’re in good spirits. 

Mpanda is still the dusty charmless ramshackle town that I remember but for some reason the accommodation is always scarce in this town.  Maybe because it’s a Friday night but Mpanda doesn’t seem like the sort of place you come to for Friday night clubbing.  Eventually we find accommodation but the 7 of us end up staying in 3 different places.   Us three Mzungus end up in one of the flasher places in town, the ‘New Super City Hotel’, a place which is neither new, super nor a city but what the heck, it has a nice outdoor eating area and cold beer so is luxury really.  We even have ensuites albeit with squat toilets and showers that seem to work in some rooms but not in others.

We also find 5 other Mzungus staying there.  Two Italian guys are driving around Africa in a heavily laden Landcruiser VX turbo.  Nice blokes but the language barrier gets a bit challenging so we stand around looking at maps with them and watching while one of the locals changes and repairs a flat tyre for them.  Meanwhile, I’m thinking “Sand tyres – they’ll regret that choice soon”…  Big wide tyres with limited tread like that are great in the sand but are going to have a bugger of a time in the mud.  Even if I thought they would be likely to outlay USD$1,000 on some skinny big treaded mud tyres I don’t have the Italian to express that suggestion so I keep the thought to myself.   Hopefully they’ll be OK.  Either way getting bogged if it happens, will all be part of their adventure. 

Later that evening Tim, Pete and I are sitting chatting over a beer when a rather attractive German girl wanders over to join us.  We’re wondering our luck has changed because of course, we’re such a good looking bunch of roosters. Turns out she’s just enquiring if she (and her boyfriend and another German guy) can hitch a lift north to Kigoma.  They’re bussing and hitching around Tanzania which would be great experience and an interesting way to do it. Personally though, I’d rather have my own 4WD as it would mean you could see more than just dusty bus stops in Mpanda like towns.  I offer them a lift close to a junction which would leave them a 20km walk to Lakoma from where the can catch the ferry to Kigoma.  The MV Liemba is a former WW1 warboat that the Germans cut up and brought to Lake Tanganyika in pieces.  It is, some say, the longest running ferry boat service in the world.  Whether that’s right or not, a trip on Lake Tanganyika would still be one of the great maritime journeys and yes, they’re keen as beans to do it.  That was in fact their original plan.  It seems that they made a phonecall to the ferry office in Kigoma and sadly it isn’t running this week. The UN have (again) chartered it to ferry refugees.  I’m hoping that won’t be the case in February when I want to leave here via the MV Liemba.  Still, ‘TIA’ and just another reminder for me to stay flexible (and to phone before I walk down to the jetty myself in January when the time comes to leave).  The VX is going past the turnoff to Kigoma but Tim & Pete have weight limitations with all the gear.  A few mental calculations later, we decide that it would just be too much weight with three people added.  Later that night though we find out that her boyfriend has malaria so they will be staying another day to allow him to recover.  The third member of their party (Walther) who had just hooked up with them temporarily is still keen to move on so in the end it works out well with Tim and Pete dropping him off at the junction the next day.  Walther is an interesting fellow – as I guess you’d expect of anyone really who makes it to places like Mpanda.  He’d have to be in his 50’s now and is a paramedic by trade.  He’s been taking his holidays in Africa for decades and just loves the place.  This year it’s 3 weeks in Tanzania. He’s married but his wife isn’t into adventure travel so they both do separate holidays each year which seems to work for them (or him at least).

That night at Super City the skies open up and we’re treated to one of the brightest and LOUDEST thunderstorms that I’ve ever seen.  One of the lightning strikes looks like it must be just out side my room.   And the accompanying thunderburst sounds like it’s IN my room. Awesome.  Especially when viewed from the shelter of a dry bed and through a glass window rather than the more usual bars and wooden shutters in this part of the world.

In the morning we dine at the most upmarket café in Mpanda.  

 The Tanganyika Café has the least flies of any of the café’s in town and the cleanest laminate tables.   The waitresses on the other hand seem to have patented a new form of indifference and surliness.  At first I wonder if it’s that they don’t like mzungus who can’t speak Swahili but no, they treat all of us and the other tables with the distain that even a battle hardened air-hostess couldn’t match.  It’s almost entertaining to have to ask 3 times for coffee before they finally bring over a mug, spoon, thermos of hot water and a tin of ‘Africa Café’.  According to the label ‘Africa Café’ is Africa’s finest instant coffee.  I hope they’re wrong – it’s amazingly bad.  But I drink it anyway.  I don’t really feel like the fish-head soup again after last time so I point to the samosa under the glass counter.  There’s only one left and the more communicative of the waitresses says “Samosa bad” and shakes her head.   I get the message and point to some of the ‘donuts’ beside it and say “Tafadhali mbili” (two please).  They’re not donuts as we know them of course – more some sort of fried bread.  Tim asks me if they’re sweet or savoury and I answer “yes”.  It’s the most accurate answer I can give.  They’re both.  Or neither. Or somewhere in between.  But they’re filling.  The rest of the group go for fish soup, chapatti and boiled egg, donuts, coffee and/or chai.  This in fact means that as a group we’ve ordered at least one of everything on the menu. Ah, the joyous cuisine of Tanganyika Café.  Still, what they have is tasty and filling (and available) so I’m not complaining. Unlike Cambodia where everyone eats out regularly and you can buy a feed on just about any street corner Tanzanians don’t have much of a culture of eating out. Which means in our case, that TC is one of only 2 or 3 options for breakfast. 

After breakfast, the time has come to say goodbye to Tim, Pete and Walther.  They’re heading off on the road to Kigoma and eventually Dar in about 4 days time.   Meanwhile, Valerian and I attempt to buy train tickets for their trip to Dar.  After a frustrating 20 minutes at the railway station, it turns out to be 50/50 whether or not they’ll be able to get on the train or not.  The railway ‘station’ is more of a warehouse on a siding and although Valerian seems to know where he’s going and what’s going on, the place just looks like friendly chaos to me.   I’m sure there’s a method in it all somewhere.  Perhaps.  In the end he opts to take the others by bus to Dar.  It’s not as comfortable and means staying in hotels each night instead of a sleeper car but both trips take about 3 days depending on breakdowns and delays etc.

I say goodbye to the others who will be leaving on tomorrow’s bus then stock up on important things like red wine before leaving.  I even swing by the markets on the way through and load up on fresh fruit and veggies.  Mangoes are 500 shillings each (50c) which Valerian tells me is way too expensive.   We’ve passed a roadside stall on the way in where he tells me that it will be 500 for a bucket full of mangoes.  True enough, I later buy the cheapest load of mangoes I’ve ever bought.  And quite tasty also.  Sadly half of them get bruised on the way back but such is life.  Even they make good eating later.

The first half of the road back is easy peasy in the dry conditions and I make great time, with just one stop to wait for roadworks where I have to stop and wait while they nail down the planks again on a log bridge.  

It looks like it will take a while so I get out and spend 20 minutes talking with the workers and getting a few pictures of them and their handiwork.  It’s hard not to take a great picture in Africa.   The guys are a knockabout crew but even with the language barriers we have a few good laughs.  I get a few pictures of them and show them on the cameras LCD which gets them all queuing up to be photographed.  Thank goodness for digital photos, otherwise I’d have a roll full of happy snaps but instead, I’ve kept just a few interesting portraits.

I give a couple of people a liftie (lift) from Mwese to Ikabulu which is down the steep section of Z Hill. People wave us down regularly for a liftie and whenever we have room, we’re happy to oblige.  It’s no extra trouble and can save them hours of walking.   Plus it’s a good chance to have a chat and learn some more Swahili or find out more about the area. The kid in the front with me seems to be having a bad day though and has a permanent grump on so we hardly talk even.  In contrast, the guy standing in the back (who by rights would have something to grumble about after bouncing down Z Hill) seems to be having a great time and thanks me profusely when I drop him off.  The kid meanwhile (atypically of the locals) just wonders off without a thanks.  So it goes…

From Ikabulu the road changes when it starts bucketing down.  I’ve got the wipers on double speed and still can’t see more than 3 metres in front of me.  I seem to spend more time driving sideways than anything else which is lots of fun but I’m driving alone now and the nearest vehicle that could tow me out of a bog is back in Mpanda so I’m keeping it relatively sedate.  I’ve got a winch of course which is great – so long as you want to go forwards or sideways.  Bit of a fiddle to winch yourself backwards out of a spot with a front mounted winch.

The trip back though is uneventful except for getting up ‘the obstacle’.  Yes. The same place where Valerian and I were wedged sideways just a few days earlier.    On this occasion, I was giving an old fellow a liftie and when we got to the ‘obstacle’ I pointed out the grab handle on the passenger side for him and suure enough, he needed it.  He thought it was great fun and was grinning like a kid again by the time we eventually made it up on the second attempt.  Ah yes.  All good fun in Kapalagulu.  Might be the last time for a few months that vehicle gets up there again though.   It’s getting so chewed up and rutted that even the least bit of rain now makes it a challenge.  Much more rain and it will be impassable.   Even the airstrip hasn’t much longer before it’s closed for the wet season.  Being cut off like that might make for some interesting times.  Gives me a whole new appreciation for how the locals get by out here year after year living on pretty much only what they can grow or raise.  Other than helicopter, the only way in or out of here will soon be on Shank’s pony (i.e. by walking)…

Friday, December 4, 2009

I drove the President today...

Wheels spinning, engine racing - we’ve stopped sliding backwards but that’s not a good thing. The VX has gotten crossed up in the ruts and now we’re sliding sideways down the steep and muddy hillside. “Not good, not good” I’m thinking, as the top heavy, 2 tonne vehicle hooks a wheel in another deep hole. It half bounces, half slides out of it but we’re still sliding, sliding, sliding…

Earlier that day, I’d been driving the President of Tanzania in glorious sunshine. We were still bouncing through the ruts on a tiny track but were travelling forwards at the time (as one should by rights be doing). In the rear view mirror he could be seen sitting in statesmanlike grandeur in the back of the VX Landcruiser. The rest of us in the car form his close personal protection (CPP) team of bodyguards. He’s in the back seat flanked by two burly security officers, with a mzungu security professional driving and the security team leader in the passenger seat.

At least that’s the impression we give for about 3 seconds before we burst into laughter again. In fact, the man in the back is Valerian, our senior technician. Our VX is identical to the Tanzanian Presidents vehicle and some kids along the track call out jokingly “The Presidents car”. Valerian translates the joke for me and looking in the mirror I see him wedged between two burly security guards so I come back with “then that would make you Mr President…”. Immediately the five of us puff out chests out to look suitably professional before we burst out laughing after a few seconds. For those few seconds we could have been mistaken us for a Presidential party but right now we look like a load of giggling loons.

We don’t normally travel with a phalanx of security guards. The place isn’t so dangerous that we need CPP team with us. It just happens that we’re transporting our three security guards to Mwese so that they can catch a bus home. They’ve been at camp for about 4 months now and keen to see their families, not to mention to see a change of scenery. The Mzungus and field crews get out and about regularly but the security team spend 99% of their time in camp so the place must feel like Groundhog Day for them. Even the three day bus ride to Mwanza will make for a welcome change.

We’re making good time on the drive today. The rains have softened the roads and made the ride smoother so sections of the road can be travelled at speed. There are boggy bits and potholes that would swallow a wilderbeest where we have to drop back to walking speed but on the good sections we rocket along at up to 70km/h.

Coming in to Mwese in mid afternoon it looks about as busy as it ever does. That is to say not at all. Mwese is a collection of about 100 huts and houses. Its heyday was in the late 90’s when there were about 10,000 Rwandan refugees living there. Now there are only about 11 Rwandan families left with about 1,000 Bantu locals in the area. We’ve nicknamed the random gathering of mudbrick buildings that constitute the town centre ‘Wall Street’. Just behind Wall Street is the central market comprising courtyard of wooden tables and some small shops.

The bus from Mwese to Mpanda takes 12 hours to do what we would normally drive in three hours so it leaves first thing each morning and hence the lucky lads get to spend a night in town. We buy some bus tickets on Wall Street then go looking for accommodation for the guys. The first place we try is full - go figure, must be a convention in town? In the end we find a place which is 400m from wall street. I might add, that I’ve discovered there are at least 3 guesthouses, 3 restaurants, a pharmacy and 2 pubs in Mwese. (I’m using these terms in their broadest possible sense you understand.) None of them would I ever have picked from the outside as being what they turn out to be. The buildings are mudbrick (with a tin roof if the owner is wealthy) and have no signs to identify what they are. It’s all based on local knowledge. And I guess, why not when you’re at the end of the bus line and there is next to zip non-local traffic. At the same time, you have to wonder how a guesthouse makes a living if only the locals know it’s a guesthouse?  The only markings on this one suggested a hairdresser.

Sadly for the boys, the local pubs are out of beer so they’ll have to wait for another town to have a drink. In the dry season, trucks run supplies out to Mwese but in the wet, it is only the busses that come through and they are owned by Muslims, who choose to not transport alcohol. That’s their prerogative of course but as you can imagine, it doesn’t endear them to those folk in Mwese who appreciate the odd cleansing ale. Hopefully the guys will have more luck on their 2 overnight stopovers en route to Mwanza. Sooner them than me on that 3 day I’d have to say. Not only are they uncomfortably crowded and missing windows but the safety record for busses here is about as bad as it could be. Makarani is still bears huge scars on his face and head from a bus accident years ago that put him out of action for about four months. Trains run in other parts of the country and are more reliable but bring extra food – they have been known to break down in the middle of nowhere for up to 3 days at a time.

We drop the guys off at their accommodation then head off as we need to get back before dark, at which point the roads become an order of magnitude more difficult. The drive there and back in one day feels like a long drive but it’s a lot of fun if you like big views, amazing sights and 4WD’ing. Much though I enjoy it, I let Valerian drive on the way back though. We don’t have any passengers and the practice will be good for him before his four week drivers course next month. He’s 29 years old but has only been driving for 2 months and all of it out here. As the wet season comes on, it’s getting trickier and trickier. Fortunately his driving is improving daily but going down ‘Z Hill’ I’m shall we say, focused? I’m ready at any moment to jump in with advice (orders really) if he (i.e. we) look like getting into trouble as sliding off some of one of those edges could be bad for the roof of the vehicle.

Valerian does a good job of Z Hill though and we survive unscathed with all going well till we hit the Lubalisi River crossing. The river is up and it’s had a bit of rain on the track which makes the exit slippery and his inexperience shows. I have to ask him to stop as he’s about to enter the river and ask him gently whether he thinks low range would be a good idea? On reflection, he thinks it would be a good idea and changes down. We get across OK but he just hasn’t enough momentum on the way out of the creek and we start to slide on the steep and slippery exit. He slows. I say (loudly) “keep going, don’t stop, just let the tyres bite in” but it’s too late and all momentum is lost. We’re halfway up the bank with the brakes on and he has a couple more goes at getting out but unfortunately hasn’t any experience with hill starts and we end up sideways. The back end of the VX is pointing at an angle to the causeway out to a deep part of the river and it’s clear we’ve only got one more chance to get it right. One more slide backwards and we’re stuck in the river with nothing handy to winch off. I for one don’t feel like digging in the spare tyre for a winching point if I don’t have to. With regret at having to do it to him, I explain we’ve only got one last shot and ask if he’d mind if I have a go. Turns out he’s relieved to let me have a go and almost forgets to put the handbrake on as he just about leaps out of the drivers seat. It takes a bit of doing but I straighten it up and reverse onto the causeway to get a run up. Up on flat ground again I give the drivers seat back to him – but a little prematurely as it turns out…

About 5 minutes down the track and only 5 minutes from camp, we come to ‘the obstacle’. A muddy, slippery, clay, rutted grooved and rather steep hill which in the dry even the worst bit takes perhaps 10 seconds to drive up. Today that section took us and extra 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

Anyone who has been in the same predicament will agree that sliding backwards and/or sideways down a muddy rutted hillside with four wheels spinning is a disconcerting experience. At least it was for me. Even more so when it’s on a tiny track in the middle of the African jungle on sunset. More underwhelming still, when you’re in the passenger seat of a rookie driver. Walking the final 5 km was starting to look like a real option. Rolling onto our roof was equally looking like an option and my suggestions to “keep the revs up” and “steer into it” seemed hilariously doomed to provoke the opposite response from the big Tutsi.

After the river crossing Valerian was obviously feeling cautious and had taken it nice and slow approaching the hill. Too slow. Once into the ruts and with the fresh rain, there is just no traction to be had. I’m pleased to say that we eventually came to rest upright but wedged firmly between the banks on either side of the track. Despite valiant efforts consisting of much engine revving, it was beyond either of us to drive it out. Perhaps I was a bit optimistic letting Valerian drive this section but looking on the bright side, at least he got some great winching experience.

Whether it was a spot of intuition or maybe our military training, Pete and I had tested all the vehicle winches the previous week which was just as well as the winch on this vehicle had been installed incorrectly from new. The plastic wrap was still on the cable drum and it looked just great. Brand spanking new on the outside but as it turned out the electrical contacts hadn’t been connected and clearly no one had thought to test it in the past 2 years. In the end, it took us 4 lengths of cable, 40 minutes and lots of jokes at our own expense as we slipped and tripped in the mud but we got in to Mibango on sunset – just in time to tell our story over the dinner table.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to double school attendance overnight...

Would you like to know how to double attendance in schools? Read on and I’ll tell you how...

A friend asked me recently for some information about education in Tanzania and access to computers for a report she’s writing. The short answer was that it seems there are no computers in public schools in Tanzania. In fact most of the villages in this area have no schools even. They grow up in grass or mudbrick huts where the kids learn how to till the fields, make more huts and make more locals. That's about it in the way of education for the most part.

The nearest school is about 30km away in Lubalisi. It's a basic primary school which looks like it would have about 20 to 40 students and perhaps 500 people living in the catchment area. At Mwese (20km past Lubalisi) is another (bigger) primary school and a secondary school to year 10.

At Mpanda, there is also a high school and a technical college. At the technical college they have some sort of basic computer lessons for adults but to the best of my knowledge that is the only computer resource in the area. Mpanda has an ‘Internet Café’ but it has no computers and no internet either. Mwese and Lubalisi don't even have electricity let alone Internet. The only internet in the region is satellite which is prohibitively expensive.

Seems like roughly even numbers of boys and girls going to school. But again, whatever gender, going to school is the exception in this area. There are lots and lots of one or two hut settlements out here and small villages where people never get to go to school unless they walk 20km each way. In short, schooling is a luxury most people don't get to enjoy out here. That being said, it is amazing that there is a school in Lubalisi as it is just a dusty settlement of about 100 huts along the track.

Primary school fees are next to zero but high school is about $300/year I’m told. That’s a lot of money to educate a child in a land where casual labourers earn about USD$2.50 per day and most families have 4 or more kids.

It occurs to me that internet would make a world of difference out here. Mobile phone coverage is amazingly good. Mwese has mobile phone and there is a spot called 'Crying Village' about 5 km from here (48km from Mwese) where you can get mobile phone cover from that tower. When the phones go 3G and have internet, things might change overnight. Solar power and a few laptops plus 3G would transform the place.

As for how to double school attendance… The guys at camp bought a couple of soccer balls and netballs to donate to Lubalisi and Ikabulu schools a while ago. Just the simple act of donating one of each to those schools doubled student attendance overnight because kids could now come to play soccer and/or netball/volleyball. Does that give you some idea of the education challenges here? When even soccer balls are scarce resources, computers are a long, long way from the Tanzanian education system…

Thursday, November 26, 2009

About Ali...

Ali stands before me today atypically embarrassed. He’s not quite making eye contact and shifts uneasily from foot to foot. Most of the locals have a deferential way towards mzungus but Ali is also the shyest guy in camp. Eventually you find out what a nice bloke he is and to appreciate his cheeky sense of humour - but it takes a while.

Today is different though. The last time he looked so sheepish was when he’d ironed a hole in the collar of my shirt. Such things happen when you’re using a charcoal fired iron. Embarrassed though he was that day, it wasn’t the end of the world for me and after all, it’s hard to be annoyed with someone who works so hard and means so well.

Ali is the assistant cook and the guy who keeps the camp running when Mathias the main cook is away so we have a lot to do with him and he has earned our trust.

Meanwhile, as I’m wondering what’s up today, I’m reminded as if for the first time, just how short Ali is. Valerian has brought him up to the recreation hut where we’ve just finished lunch and the contrast between the big Tutsi and the little Bantu is striking. Ali isn’t a pygmy but he’s short even by Bantu standards at around 150 cm. Standing next to the lean 183cm Valerian the contrast is stark.

Normally they would be here to see Pete. Pete is after all, camp manager till he and Tim leave on Friday. But no, they bypass Pete and come over to me as the three of us stand to greet them. I’m pretty sure it’s not a shirt this time. After the last one, I’ve asked him to not iron my shirts so I’m thinking I’m safe on that count (but you never know… after all, TIA - this is Africa). Valerian has the better English of the two and is more confident as well so he speaks first. Ali continues shuffling from foot to foot looking slightly embarrassed. Turns out that Ali is feeling unwell but doesn’t want to be any bother. Pete used to be the medical fundi but because of my medic background he has been usurped as the local.

Ali doesn’t look unwell. Typical of people here, he is fit and lean in a way that those of us in developed nations only achieve with hours of exercise. But looking fit doesn’t really mean anything here or anywhere else in the world. Of more concern to me is that the locals are a hardy bunch, well used to living with and overcoming illness. As a result they won’t disturb anyone unless they’re feeling really crook so he has my full attention.

Despite me being the “doctor fundi” (according to Valerian) it’s a collective diagnosis with Valerian, Tim, Pete and I standing with Ali on the floorboards of the rec hut. With the big tutsi’s help, Ali explains that he has had chest pain and a cough for four days. Valerian (who is a bit of a medical fundi himself from his experience caring for his cattle) suggests flagyl for the chest and stomach but I’m reluctant to hand out antibiotics without trying other options. Ali’s not coughing at the moment and so a little more questioning reveals that he has been constipated for 4 days and has stomach pain. Tim has some laxatives in his kit so we give a couple to Ali with instructions to come back tomorrow and let us know how he’s feeling.

The next day, the four of us manage at diffeent times to ask him how he’s feeling and he responds “kidogo” (a little) each time, meaning a little better. Turns out he’s been to the toilet and so his stomach is feeling much better. He doesn’t like to be a bother of course so I ask him about his chest and he admits to still having pain there. More questioning (this is like extracting teeth by now…) reveals he’s tired because he’s been coughing all through the night when he lays down. “Hmmmm…” I think to myself “more going on here still” so I take him up to the med hut and put a stethoscope on him. Ali stoically puts up with the cold stethoscope and breathes deep. Sure enough, he’s got fluid rattling in the bottom of both lungs which suggests a chest infection. He’s still getting around OK and the nearest Doctor is a days drive away so I ponder a little more on the best approach. The wait another day and see approach didn’t help. We’re taking him out on Friday which is only a few days away now and can stop at the clinic then if he’s no better, but in the meantime…

Like most remote camps, we have a basic but well equipped medical setup which is designed to deal with most emergencies and tropical illnesses so I root around in the medications box and come up with 4 different flavours of antibiotics. Sadly none of them are the one that I’m really looking for and 2 of them I’m pretty sure are not going to help so I grab the two that look most promising and head back to the office with Ali. I’m only a fundi in training on this stuff but luckily I have an expert close at hand. Google knows all. In the space of a few minutes, I’ve picked the one that looks most effective for a chest infection in this region. Pausing (atypically for me) to read the instructions, side-effects and contraindications, I take them to Ali and start to explain the dosage and side effects. Ali’s responses (nodding, nodding, nodding) help me to decide that this is a flawed plan from the start, so we go over to Valerian to translate. Ali is beaming by now and judging from his posture, the placebo effect is working already. He seems to understand the side-effects etc and promises to tell us if he breaks out in a rash, etc although to be honest he seems to be bemused that we should think that this would ever happen. The expression on his quizzical face seems to say that “what are you worried about. I know you wouldn’t give this to me if it wasn’t going to fix me up in a flash”. I wish I had his faith but I’m not about to disillusion him on this point nor to go into the history of side effects of medications even if I thought he would comprehend what I was getting at.

The next day Ali is only “kidogo” again but clearly has more spring in his step. Sure to be placebo after only 24 hours but hey, I’m a big fan of placebo – and clearly, so is Ali. Looks like the miracles of modern medicine are working for Ali but later that day, Mathias the head cook comes up to me in the office with ‘sore joints, headache, fever’. What’s the story with our cooks???? Is this a kitchen pandemic? I know they’re not after a sickie because neither of them would take a day off without having a death certificate, so seriously do they take their role of keeping the 15 or so of us fed and watered.

As with Ali, I ‘pull a few teeth’ to extract a bit more info and as we’re walking to the med hut, I ask him what he thinks it is. “Malaria” he responds quick as a flash. “Well, why didn’t you just say so” I’m thinking… I ask him a few more questions and turns out he’s had it a few times before. Exactly how many times I have no idea and probably neither has he but like most malaria patients, he knows the signs and symptoms of malaria in his own body. Job done. An easy fix with a couple of malaria tablets and a good lie down. I go through the side-effects etc with him which also bemuses him. So trusting… I choose not to labour the point and he goes away happy.

Ali meanwhile is beaming by day three. Neither of them take so much as an hour off work and continue to work from 6am to 8pm each day but they are both happy as schoolkids with a new bike.

I think I might miss those two next week...

Friday, November 20, 2009

A quiet couple of days at Kapalagulu

So what does a quiet 28 hours at Kapalagulu look like?  Well, scorpions, snakes, wildlife, 4WD'ing and mountains of unmarked bills are some highlights...

I watch while Macarani loads 5 rounds of 12 gauge into the Mossberg.  He does it with the easy skill of someone with years of experience.  Fire extinguisher is positioned close at hand and our vehicle is strategically reverse parked to see and be seen. He and I stand in the shade. Waiting… For ten minutes or more we make small talk about life in general and exchange good natured jokes at each others expense...

A few hours earlier I’d been minding my own business, having 4WD fun at ‘the obstacle’ on my way back to camp in the drizzle while rivers of mud ooze down the rutted red clay hillside that we’ve affectionately and accurately named ‘the obstacle’. Third gear, low range, both diffs locked and engine racing as I bounce the landcruiser ungracefully to the top of the hill. The bald tyres alternately bite deep and spin wildly as the trayback bounces and skids from one side of the track to the other while I trade speed for altitude up the hill. We make it, just. Which is the best way to do it after all - no energy wasted on over-revving nor on having to take a second stab at it. I’m on my way back after escorting Pete to the Lubalisi River as a precaution in case the water was too deep and we needed a winch point to pull him back out. When we get there, the water has gone down to about 1.2m so Pete makes it across without any trouble and I head back while he continues to Mwese to collect supplies and pick up Vallerian after his friends funeral.

On the way back, I cruise by the airfield where I come face to face with an elder and his clan. There’s a quiet strength behind those eyes and the grey in his whiskers gives him dignity. He’s confident of his place at the head of his clan but he’s not too sure of me. He stares at me as I stop the car. I stare back and we lock eyes. Eventually I wave. We’re still 20 metres apart and no response from him, other than the slightest tilt of the head. It could mean anything but I take it to mean curiosity and no more. We stare at each other for a minute or more. The rest of the clan have moved behind him and I can’t tell how many there are because they’re mostly out of sight in the bushes. One of the youngsters who has climbed a tree to get a better look at me until a branch bends and they scrabble to avoid falling. Meanwhile, the elder has climbed atop a 1.5m ant hill. He’s partly hidden by foliage now but for the first time we’re eye level with each other. I wave again but no reaction so I dismount but they bolt. It’s the closest I’ve been to the local Baboon troop and they’re a shy bunch. Definitely not like the game park animals who are used to people and that’s probably a good thing. There are no humans out here hunting poachers and it’s a subsistence lifestyle for the locals. Still this short encounter in the morning has made my day already and I’m smiling on the inside as I continue down the airstrip. I’m really here to check out the ant hills that have popped up in the runway and find several that are already 30cm high. The mattock makes short work of them but I know they’ll grow again with every rainy day that passes.

Back at camp, the rain has stopped so I grab a backpack and load it up with 20kg of soil to get some exercise and get in shape for the walk out of here next year. I tell the security guys that I’m walking to the airfield and they look incredulous. “Why not driving?” they ask. “For exercise” I say, then add “Too much computer work is making me fat” and pat my belly which they think is hilarious. I’m sure they think I’m crazy. Nice but crazy. No-one exercises deliberately here. When not doing hard yakka to feed themselves, they do their best to conserve energy. For me it’s the opposite. When not working hard I go out to try and expend energy in the form of recreational exercise, aka exploring the area.

In any case, I’m not going to the airfield and have no idea which track I’ll take, but security have to record our destinations when we head out so I oblige by giving them one. I head off to at a good pace while trying to adjust the pack straps. It’s one of the camp backpacks that the guys use for carrying soil samples and is still in decent condition. I take the first turn to the left which is an old and overgrown 4WD track from the days of drilling here some 3 years ago. The jungle is reclaiming it but it’s pleasant walking under the canopy and much better underfoot than the slippery main tracks. I drag a couple of deadfall logs of the track as I progress, just in case we want to use the track again one day. On about the third one, I bend to grab a log and with fingers an inch above the log, a scorpion crawls out from the spot where my hand was about to grab underneath the log. “Good reminder” I think to myself. The scorpion goes on his way but as a precaution I kick the underside of the log to clear it but I only manage to disturb a colony of fire ants who overrun the log. I laugh and decide that this is one log that can stay right where it is. The walk is uneventful (except to my shoulders which haven’t carried a pack for a while now) but pleasantly full of birds, lizards and sights until after 40 mins I reach a junction where it’s time to turn back to camp.

With perfect timing, I arrive back in time to fire up the generator, start the laptop and find an email to say that Tim’s flight will be 45 minutes early. That after all, was why I was at the airport this morning meeting Baboons, er I mean checking the strip, and indeed why ten minutes later Macarani and I find ourselves on the strip. Soon enough we hear the drone of a plane and see the fly speck in the sky. The plane is a Cessna 4 seater taking a passenger out to Mahale National Park and stops in here to drop Tim (a geo) back at camp after 3 weeks away. Tim flew out on the charter flight that I came in on and he’s brought all sorts of goodies for resupply but most importantly brings my Macbook from Dar where it was being repaired and an MSR Dragonfly stove for cooking on during the wet season. Sadly he was too laden up to bring red wine but such are the hardships of camp life that we have to celebrate his return that night with just local beer.

We set up the MSR stove that evening. Bit of a test really but Pete who gets before the cooks have had time to boil water, has been drinking tepid coffee in the mornings so we create the mandatory fireball while learning how to light the stove. This little miracle of modern technology will burn just about anything. Petrol, diesel, Jet At, kerosene or white spirit are all fair game for it and we have lashings of the first 4 here at camp. The instructions say to light up half a teaspoon of fuel on the wick in a ‘football sized flame’ which preheats the jet to vapourise the rest of the pressurized fuel. We survive the first couple of attempts without burning down the recreation hut and it turns out that it’s pretty easy when you know how (but then again what isn’t?).

The rains bring out the flying ants flocking round the lights that night and they are truly pestilent. They buzz and flap like a World War I dogfight around any and every light that is on. We turn on a light in the next hut and put a candle in the recreation hut which distracts them for the most part but eventually we decide to retreat to the office which is flyscreened. Great idea but we forgot about the gaping sections between the timber planks. In the end we call it an early night after being batted around the head by flying ants a couple of hundred times too many.

I’m awake myself at 5am and out on the verandah just in time to see the glow of the proverbial football across the compound as Pete brews up. I listen for the explosion but am disappointingly rewarded with the quiet hiss of the burner boiling water. Later this morning around first light we can see the ground littered with wings of he flying ants. Job done they drop the wings like tear shaped confetti and start building ant mounds under and around our camp. First light today is a grey affair though. From a starlit night last night, we have an overcast start to the day and then – it rains… I don’t know how much we had but in the hour that it took us to eat our breakfast of pancakes, papaya and plunger coffee the rain gauge overflowed at the maximum 25mm. Perhaps not the ideal choice of rain gauge for this part of the world...

The sun is out at the moment though which is nice. Pete’s just come back from checking the Lubalisi again and it is 1.4m which is 1m up from 10 days ago.

With luck it will come down a bit overnight if the rain holds off and we'll be able to park one of the vehicles in the village on the other side of the river tomorrow. Eventually at some point in each wet season it reaches about 3m and long before that, any chance to get a vehicle across will have faded. At which point, the only way across is by dugout canoe followed by a 50km walk to Mwese, so strong incentive for Tim and Pete to park vehicle on the other side now.

The dappled sunlight stays out for lunch and we enjoy sausage pizza (which tastes better than it sounds) washed down by locally roasted plunger coffee as we gaze out over the valley to the Kapalagulu Intrusion. Life is good.

The rain has flushed out a few critters along the way and the boys in the sample shed kill another snake that crawls into their midst from under a sample bag. We have no idea what it is but the lads tell us that it is lethal. Even without local knowledge, the balance of probability supports their view so I’m inclined to trust them on this.

We spend the afternoon in camp doing emails and odd jobs such as fixing the water pump.  The lads manage to break the off switch on our only water pump leaving it permanently off and after 15 minutes of doing their best they admit defeat.  Pete and I eventually fix it with a trusty Leatherman and some baling wire but it's a 5 way pow-wow pluss rummaging for chewing gum, o-rings, packing tape and sundry repair options which lasts for 20 minutes before we get it going.  I'm reminded that there's 'no hurry in Africa'.  Later that afternoon we end up looking like a bunch of African arms dealers as we count out  4,000,000 in low denomination unmarked bills. It’s fun playing with bricks of money but I wouldn’t be racing out here to rob the place just yet. It’s all but gone already in wages, supplies and slashing contracts etc. In any case (30cm pile of cash though it may be) it wouldn’t be enough to pay a charter flight to get here and it's a long walk to anywhere.  We've had no problems out here other than some petty theft but even so, it’s a lot of money for this part of the world.  Few people have change for $10 - which is why it is mostly in low denominations. For security and common sense reasons, none of the locals know which flights have money on them and which don’t, but you may have guessed by now why the shotgun comes along to meet each and every flight. We’ve never needed the shotgun nor the fire extinguisher and that suits me just fine…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Making sparks fly...

Macarani, the security team leader races across the compound with the speed of a thousand startled gazelles.  He's heard something worrying...   It's the genset coughing and spluttering like a 60 a day smoker. The lights in our office flicker and dim so Pete and I stride across the camp in what we would like to believe is a dignified and purposeful fashion but we're no match for Macarani's speed.  We get to the genset just as he finishes topping it up the fuel. Good intentions but as we watch him wiping spilled petrol from the top of the still running genset just above a live 240v outlet, we realize we probably need to do a bit more training with the guys.

In any case we’re hoping fuel can’t be the problem. We reilled it just two hours previously. Macarani is a good guy and he’s troubleshooting the bit that he knows best which is fuel but sadly that’s not the reason it is missing and spluttering. Nothing so simple We tinker and prod as the engine starts running better but not for long. A red light flashes albeit too quickly to tell which one it was then the genset politely but spontaneously shuts down. Macarani stands by wanting to help and is as unsure as we are about the cause, but has enough common sense not to meddle. Pete and I on the other hand, don’t have that particular common sense gene and of course realize that if we don’t fix it no-one else will, so we meddle... Taking covers off here and there, we work out that the problem was low oil. Not a good sign really as it has only been 3 hours since we topped up the oil also. This is the genset that we just got back from the fly camp so we thought it would be a good idea to run this quieter genset at the camp. Our diagnosis is that the rings are shot and poor the little 4 stroke engine is burning oil now like a 2 stroke. With oil topped up, it starts but continues to miss and eventually through a process of elimination we eventually discover that the petrol Macarani added came from a drum that is at least 2 years old. From the look of the petrol in the tank, it’s been pumped out of the drum with the same pump the guys use for diesel and engine oil, neither of which was ever going to be a good idea. Not a good day for the poor little red genset but it soldiers on when we give it some clean fuel.

After 3 weeks here, the generator noise is just part of the background and you don’t even notice it most of the time. In fact, when the quiet one running, even the birds make more noise. We have 3 generators to choose from: small red previously mentioned genset (quiet), medium diesel (loud, Loud, LOUD!), large diesel (quietest) and one of them is running most of the day depending on what we’re doing.

With the red genset back on line now (but for who knows how long) I reflect on how easy it is to take electricity for granted. You flick a switch and miracles happen. Sure, I’ve been without it lots of time when camping etc but that’s different. I’m here for 3 months and I have books to write (not to mention not wanting to disappoint my loyal following of two blokes and a drovers dog waiting anxiously for my daily blog…). I’m liking what electricity gives us out here in particular, and until recently was in danger of taking it for granted. The gensets give us internet and lights. They provide the rest of the staff with television and lights. TV is something that I prefer to avoid but for the local guys on camp it is a real treat. Not just because it keeps them in touch with the rest of the world but because most of them don’t have it at home.

By some estimates, approximately 3 million people live in western Tanzania. I have no real figures for it but can safely say that the majority don’t have electricity. The nearest mains electricity is about 150km away in Mpanda. There is one solar power setup in Mwese 53.3 km away but I doubt there are any other electricity generation setups closer than that. Reflect for a moment on life without electricity. Just think - no cold beer. Ever… Hmmm. Bummer. No electric lights, power tools or appliances either. No fridges or freezers to store food and medicine. No computers in schools and no internet. No google, wikipedia, facebook or skype. No emergency communications to call a Doctor or ambulance (OK so this one is a moot point around here). Not so much as a place to charge a mobile phone even if you’re lucky enough to live in range of a tower. Lot’s of people have transistor radios and some have torches but none have TV outside of the big towns. Many people here are yet to see an electric light bulb. Makes you (or at least me) wonder what they make of it when they come to camp or a place like Mpanda with electric motors, TV, lights, fridges etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction says that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. That works for me. Magic is as good a term as any for the benefits of invisible stuff like electricity. And living out here is only making me more of a believer in magic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Learning swahili

Swahili must be one of the easiest languages to learn. I mean really… any 5 year old here can speak it. So why can’t I? LOL

I’m gradually learning a little Swahili thanks to some phrasebooks and very patient locals who don't mind repeating things 3 times for my mzungu ears. Luckily Swahili uses the Roman alphabet and pronunciation is more or less similar to Italian so it’s easier than Khmer but nonetheless a challenge. Learning as I am at a galloping pace, after 3 weeks, I can say hi (Jambo) and key phrases such as “Mimi zungumza Kiswahili kidogo sana” (I speak very little Swahili). OK, so I know a little (very little) more than that by now and the latter phrase is redundant as it’s blatantly obvious as soon as I open my mouth that my Swahili is close to non-existent but it makes a great icebreaker and always gets a laugh.

Travelling around I’ve had the chance to dabble in a few languages over the years and it’s always fun but equally often frustrating learning a new language (or more typically for me, snippets thereof). Personally I’m still working on English, but the muscles in the brain that get exercised learning another language are a great feeling (so long as you don’t mind a sore head at the end of each day lol). Rewiring synapses this way is a great workout for the brain but the biggest reward, is of course communicating with a whole new group of people. It also seems to me that you can’t really learn too much about a culture without learning at least a little of the language.

I found an interesting post on Facebook yesterday from Antonio Graceffo on Wrestling with the Vietnamse Language. Not sure if you’ll be able to get to it without being on his Facebook friend list but worth a read if, like me, you’re a fan of languages and would like to learn more of them. One of the key messages was about the importance of learning a language by listening instead of the more traditional approach of memorising words and phrases. He argues convincingly that to be truly fluent means you should be able to understand a local no matter how quickly or colloquially they speak. He also suggests that being fluent means you are able to articulate the subtlest complexities of your life rather than just be able to get around, order a double shot latte or survive at the markets. He recommended a learning approach that I hadn’t heard of before which is called ‘Automatic Language Growth’. ALG is interesting in so much as it focuses much more on listening in the initial phases at least than it does on speaking.

This story from Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book, “From the Outside In” reprinted at pretty much sums up the ALG concept:
Zambi came from the village of Makui in central Africa a hundred years ago and her parents arranged for her to marry a man in the village of Mujambi, which spoke a completely different language. She arrived there not knowing a word of Mujambi and nobody there knew any Makui-not even her husband. During the day, while her husband was hunting with the other men, the women took Zambi along with them as they did their basket weaving and gardening. At night everybody sat around the fire and listened to stories. Zambi’s daily life could be described as ‘silently tagging along’. After a year of this she understood almost everything that went on around her and could say a few words and phrases. After 2 years she was quite fluent, and after 3 or 4 years she was almost like a native Mujambi villager.”

Admittedly that is a long slow and time consuming way to learn a language but it seems to me that I might become better at languages by spending at least as much time just listening as I do learning words. That is after all, how we learn our native tongue - by tagging along as toddlers and gradually learning by listening. We’re lucky to in that we don’t just have to ‘silently tag along’ anymore. We have audio recordings, YouTube videos and multi-lingual television to help our listening opportunities. I think I’ll resist the temptation to spend my day watching Tanzanian soap operas though. Around here there are no shortage of opportunities to ‘silently tag along’ or to visit a village and enjoy a friendly exchange of English & Swahili monologues sitting in the dust at any of the local villages. Somehow I doubt I’ll be here long enough to become fluent in Swahili but you never know. One day soon I’d like to pause somewhere long enough to become fluent in another language (or three) but for the moment, it’s fun dabbling...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Food for thought... and for eating.

“Mosquitoes remind us that we are not as high up on the food chain as we think” said Tom Wilson.

Clearly good food equates to good morale as well as good health as summed up nicely by Hippocrates and Napoleon who said respectively, "Let your food be your medicine" and “An army marches on its stomach”. Luckily we do more than OK out here with good tucker.

Following on from yesterday regarding plastic bowls full of produce balanced gracefully on heads, the local shop comes to us each Tuesday and Saturday when the locals come to the gate with bananas, local spinach (looks like basil but cooks like spinach), chickens, eggs, etc plus a few plants that I still haven’t identified but have enjoyed eating. Our cooks pretty much pick out what they want for the camp but we surprised them when Pete and I went out and bought some corn. Apparently corn isn’t seen as mzungu food. The locals eat corn although mostly dried and ground up as maize flour. They make a kind of polenta meal or porridge out of it called ugali. ‘Ugali & beans’ or ‘rice & beans’ is pretty much the staple diet and let me just say that ugali is just what you’re after if you like your food starchy and uncontaminated by flavour. The other main staple here is Cassava, a starchy carbohydrate laden root vegetable bereft of protein, nutrients or flavour. Just to cap it off, they come pre-packaged with generous amounts of cyanide (and we though flavour enhancers 220 & xyz were bad for us…) which usually takes a few hours of preparation to leach out before you can eat it. Is it just me who wonders who the heck decided that Cassava was OK to eat if you leached it in a river for 5 hours? Bonus points to that man/woman for courage, initiative and above being the first to survive eating it. Gives you some idea though of the limited range of food options out here doesn’t it?

We have 2 local cooks here and although they find it easy to cook for the local guys they still seem to be learning about cooking for mzungus. They are getting he hang of it but so far as we can tell, they are politely but decidedly bemused by our diets. Usually the meals are pretty darn good and they really do try to please but some odd combinations turn up from time to time. Bangers and peas or fish with cabbage being some examples. You just get used to it and remember TIA (this is Africa). We’ve also had a couple of days where all 3 meals were bereft of fruit and veggies yet other days when veggies and fruit are overflowing. This is despite having abundant fruit and veg sitting on the flymesh pantry shelves. It’s like they just forget sometimes. We asked them for bacon and eggs for breakfast the following day to which they nodded and agreed. Cooked to perfection and immaculately presented the following morning we received… chapatti with 2 boiled eggs each. LOL AWA (Africa Wins Again). Have you ever dined at Fawlty Towers? If so, you’d probably adapt well to the dining experience out here. Perhaps the strangest thing though that they’ve prepared is still the meat and salad sandwiches - complete with strawberry jam… Clearly the use of strawberry jam is a black art in Tanzania. I can’t wait for them to top that combination but I’m pretty sure that they will eventually LOL. In any case, in a week or so, the camp shuts down and the cooks go home so I’ll be cooking for myself and much though it is nice to have meals cooked, I think I’ll probably be happier with my own menus.

Out behind the compound and down by the creek are the remains of a veggie patch that the former security captain started as a business on the side. He’s long gone (for having tooooo many businesses on the side and too few hours of security management) but his veggie patch is surprisingly still doing OK. Seems like the local Baboon colony and other wildlife don’t much care for tomatoes or carrots. Great news for me. They are still thriving albeit neglected so I might even tidy that up a bit to supplement the fresh veggie offerings at the gate. Either way, the freezer is full of beef and the sea container has enough condiments, chilli sauce, rice and beans to see us through a long wet.

PS. Despite my opening quote, I’m happy to report that there are no mosquitoes out here. Admittedly there was one about 2 weeks ago but she seems to have moved on. Sad to report though that there are no lions either since decades of refugees flooding through the area ate whatever they could to survive. That does mean however that (at least for the moment) we are still top of the food chain which is probably my preferred place on the tree.

PPS. In case you're curious about what I might cook up during the wet, my favourite meal isn’t even a food... Mark Twain said it best: “Sacred cows make the best hamburger". Makes a great meal for a writer :-)

Monday, November 16, 2009

On the value of things…

It’s easy to forget just how good we have it in the developed nations. Sure our lives are complicated (Eg: Bills - ever noticed how long it takes to finalise change of address when you relocate?!?) but our options are many and it takes just a few hours work each week to feed ourselves and a few more hours to buy enough ‘stuff’ to be able to hold that mandatory garage sale every few years. Discretionary income though, is just one of many concepts that I doubt I could adequately explain to the locals. I’ve seen subsistence farming in many places but when you look at the straw and timber or mucbrick houses and crops here then reflect that it is 25 km walk down to the lake to buy fish or cooking oil and then 25 km back up the same steep hills it give you a new insight into just how different my world is from theirs. Just about everything here is either grown, cut from the jungle or carted in on their backs.

So rare in this place are many things that we take for granted that for example, some of the guys here have offered to work 4 days in exchange for an empty 200 litre diesel drum. That’s roughly the equivalent of USD$16 for something that we would discard as useless. To put it in another perspective, 4 days equates to roughly $600 worth of labour back in Australia. Meanwhile… back at the headshed, we’re pondering whether or not to accept this offer. On the one hand we have 20 or 30 empty drums which are surplus to requirements. We have a few main options: swap drums for labour, sell them, leave them to rust, truck them out for disposal (where they’ll end up in the community anyway) or bury them. What’s the most environmentally and safety conscious answer? Who knows? If we accept the offer of 4 days work for a drum we can probably get rid of 10 of them, save 200,000 TZS in labour costs and help the local community. Whether or not they benefit the local community depends of course, on what they do with them. Eg: if they use them for storing water, will carcinogenic residues end up in their bodies?

The question of course is, if they do swallow a load of carcinogens will it kill them before they turn 35??? Thirty five after all, is about average life expectancy here anyway. Will a drum (even with diesel residue) help extend their life because they can boil and store drinking/washing water in large quantities or store crops away from vermin? In point of fact, we have a hot shower here because we use an old diesel drum as a donkey boiler to heat the water so maybe the diesel residue isn’t so bad after all... Who are we in fact, to landfill a drum which could give them reserves of drinking water or even potentially communal hot water. Then again, if they use it for making gongo (local bootleg liquor) will it create social problems here with an overabundance of grog? Probably not, as it’s already easily available but I can't say that for sure. I can say that not many of the locals seem too interested in grog anyway and I can’t say I blame them. Gongo looks like vodka but tastes like unleaded petrol. So that’s our dilemma with the empty drums. Do we let them into the community? If anyone has any tips or suggestions either way, I’d love to hear them.

The drums of course are just one of the many things that the locals value and that we don't. Everything here has value, even the rubbish. They have so little material possessions that a polymesh bag can become a suitcase or backpack, an empty 1.5 litre drink bottle is a valuable commodity for carrying water. And yes, speaking of carrying, those pictures of people carrying stuff on their head as per 1950’s National Geographic are just as true today. A plastic bowl of about 70cm diameter supported by a cloth on the head is the standard way to carry bananas etc to market. Anything up to 40kg seems to be fair game to be carried this way. Great for posture and balance but I can help but wonder what it does to the vertebrae. Pushbikes though are the haulage vehicles of choice here – I’ve seen them hauling loads of probably 100kg comprising any combination of bricks, timber, produce or clothes as a sort of two wheeled push cart over distances of up to 50km. Quite amazing to see how cunningly the frame of a pushbike can be adapted for load carrying…

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Second Thoughts....

Well not really second thoughts in the usual sense but more of an update on the ‘First Thoughts re Tanzania’.
It’s pissing down rain here today in the way that only tropical rain can completely fill the air with a wall of water. The sound on the tin roof drowns out even the genset and my own internal musings. Yes, even talking to yourself is all but impossible when the rain is heavy enough lol. Meanwhile water runs through the compound in rivers while mud leaps into the air from the force of the rain and splashes high onto the sides of the huts adding to the 60 cm of rustic red/brown at the base of each building from seasons past.

I might actually get some writing done today as Pete has gone off with the guys to Mwese. There are two hired Landcruiser Troop Carriers with drivers that need to get out before the river comes up otherwise it will be several thousand unnecessary dollars in hire fees while the vehicles sit out the wet season here at camp. There is also a Lancruiser VX (a posh 5 door station sedan model) here which doesn't have a snorkel and hence is somewhat limited in how deep a river it can cross. Pete is taking it to Mwese to leave there until needed in a weeks time for his and Tim's exfil. The hire vehicles will head on to Mwanza which is about 850km away. They’re bombed them up with 180 litres of diesel which is enough for at least 1,000 km (given that most of the trip can be done at 80km/h) but one of the drivers in particular had a good whinge that it wouldn't be enough and that he needed cash to buy fuel along the way. You should have seen his expression when he found out that he wasn’t getting any extra money to buy fuel. Pete and I had done the calculations so we just laid it out with him re fuel consumption and distances albeit not without enduring an extended play version of his ‘you’re so cruel’ and ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ expression. Frankly he didn't have a leg to stand on - we’d done the homework and he hadn’t… Why he should be so pained is something gentle reader, that I’ll leave for you to think about. A couple of clues: When I drive a Landcruiser over the same roads it uses about 16 l/100km. His vehicle used about 40 litres/100km on one recent trip. Either he is driving everywhere in low range first gear or… well, here’s another clue - a litre of diesel is worth a days wages here (USD$3.00). Does kind of make you wonder where the ‘missing’ 120 or so litres went? In any case, today is his last day so lesson learned but immediate problem resolved.

Pete and Vallerian will be coming back in one of the traybacks which has a snorkel at roof height so it can basically go through water up to almost 1.8m in theory (so long as it's not too fast flowing). As of yesterday the creek was only 70cm but with all this rain, the snorkel might come in handy They've got HF radio back to here in case they need assistance but my job at 1600 is to either put some beer into the freezer if when they arrive or to jump into the other trayback to help extricate them from a bog. With all the rain, the roads are going to be slippery, Z hill will be dicey and the river will be up but my expectation is to be loading the freezer at 1600hrs and not the trayback.

Would have been a good trip to go on with all the rain but it's no fun coming back in a landcruiser trayback with 3 people shoehorned into the cab. Cramped for everyone and the poor bastard in the middle gets their knees remodeled for 3 hours on the radio, diff lock and miscellaneous metal bits under the dash. Three hours of fun - I don't think so. The other option was to take both traybacks but frankly it seemed like a WOFTAM. We'll be heading out down to the lake tomorrow in any case to map out my hike down to the ferry for exfill next year. In theory, I could probably find my way there using the wiley approximation method of navigation (ie. Taking a wiley guess at each intersection) but apart from the fact that others might find it useful next season, mapping it is (a) a good excuse to get out while we can and (b) if I get delayed on the hike by taking a wrong turn down one of the many jungle paths, the ferry only comes once each week so it could be a long delay...

Valerian has got the bicycle Fundi (fundi is now one of my favourite words – it loosely translates as 'technician' or 'expert') here today working on a couple of the bikes that have been sitting with flat tyres for a while. There are also two badly trashed cheap Chinese mountain bikes here that I’d dug out of a shed yesterday. I think it should be possible to build one good bike out of the two wrecks so I asked the fundi if he could maybe get one MTB going but he shook his head with a mournful look as if to say “sorry mate, this is way beyond anything I’ve worked on to date” so I said not to worry about it. The bikes he's fixing the flats on are the traditional local type bikes with no gears and grandmas style wraparound handbrakes (ala 1949 Britain or 2009 Tanzania). He said he'd have a go at the MTB's and apparently there is another fundi here in the sieving team who knows a bit more but basically it looks like if they are going to work at all it will be up to me.

Anyway, more writing to do (actual book writing for a change) and I might even try and upload some photos to facebook or to the blog today, fingers crossed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

FIrst thoughts re Tanzania

I've been writing a bunch of emails lately describing my adventures and someone asked if I had a blog. So I thought... why not? Instead of re-writing or copying and pasting for each email, I thought I may as well just blog what I'm up to. At least that's the theory. This is my first blog so who knows.

I'm currently caretaking a geological exploration camp in remote Tanzania while it is mothballed for the wet season and will probably be here till late Feb. The camp itself is really remote. It's one days 4WD (120km) to the nearest general store at a place called Mpanda which is a dusty backwater town bereft of charm but interesting and full of character nonetheless. Despite being so remote, Google knows all so you can see the camp and airstrip at

The rains haven't started in earnest yet so I've been getting to know the area a bit for when it's just me with a few locals to look after the camp. Not that it will really matter as the roads become impassable but still a good excuse to get out and about enjoying some challenging 4WD terrain.

Had a good road trip last Monday Tuesday. Bit of rain around and the roads were slippery as anything. Good fun :-) Pete (the mate who got me this gig) drove while I mapped the road from Mibango (the camp) to Mwese with GPS. We got there just before dark and had a beer with the locals in what passes for a pub. Picture a rendered mud brick box about 10' x 10' with one door and a window without glass (just wooden shutters when closed). The space includes the bar, barmaid, 2 locals on stools and Pete & I. The locals don't speak English and we don't speak (much) Swahili. But everyone is happy and gets on and laughs. There is no electricity so the beer is warm but who cares. The local market is behind the pub. It's a rectangle of mud brick and painted concrete buildings with tiny shopfronts. The local 'Aldi' equivalent is a crammed box of about 10' x 14' with wooden counter, stuff crammed in everywhere and layered under dust. . In the centre of this 15m x 6m rectangle rectangle of mudbrick shops are some ramshackle bamboo and timber stalls that sell clothes and 'stuff' but most are closed by 6pm when we get there. It's cold up in Mwese at 1700m. Ok, folk in many parts of the world would call it a summers day but in our light shirts and pants at around 18 degrees with the mountain breeze blowing, it is cool indeed. We head off back to the camp which is based at the local priests place because Mathias the cook will have prepared dinner for us. Father Martin is nowhere to be seen as he is off in Lacoma to officiate at a wedding. Not being religious I'm quite OK with being spared hearing about the virtues of his faith for a few hours that night. The field assistants sleep in tents out the back or in some rooms in an outlying building. Pete and I have ensuite rooms in the main house. Sheets are old and with dirt stains that will never wash out and a bit dusty but clean by local standards. The ensuite on the other hand... In 1964 with the first refugee crisis from Rwanda, the UN apparently built this house and the buildings out the back as well as the hall that is now the church. It looks pretty schmick and tidy. Built to western standards and the most impressive buildings in the eclectic mix of thatch, tin, mud and bamboo houses that make up Mwese. Or at least it used to be. Looks like no one has known how to change a tap washer, maintain a head of water for the shower nor (more particularly) even scrub out the bathrooms since 1964. More akin to biological warfare petri dishes than bathrooms, Pete and I have had a shower before leaving camp and we elect to avoid the perils of the showers. We've also cached toilet paper in the vehicle. Just as well as it turns out...

On the plus side, the people are so friendly and welcoming, the vistas so magnificent, the air so clean and the culture so different that even the good Father bio-warfare experiments just become part of the fun. The guys are glad to see us - Pete especially of course and they are a really nice bunch of lads. Slightly dodgy and they get up to some mischief using the vehicles for recreational duties for example but frankly no more dodgy than Pete and I probably did when we were working in similar labouring jobs so we get some good laughs about it all and Pete manages to find a good balance between turning a blind eye and giving an arse kicking when needed. Me, I can afford to relax and just enjoy as I'm not really responsible for anything so I can just help out with all care but no responsibility. With the help of Vallerian and others, we organise more gas bottles to keep the camp freezer running during the wet season, beer, meat for the camp and a few other bits and pieces then head back the following morning, slip sliding all the way, stopping only to give lifts to locals, take a pee at one of the toilets (trees) along the way or more typically to take pictures. The rivers are coming up with the rains and when we get back to camp, it turns out we've had 33mm of rain in the past 24hours. Not surprising then that the river is up. And this isn't even the wet season yet...

That was my second longish trip since I got here 2 weeks ago. The week before our trip to Mwese we did a re-supply run for fuel and groceries. A 3 day trip to cover 150km drive (7 hours drive) on Wednesday to Mpanda which was interesting. Takes 3 hours to do the first 50 km to Mwese which is basically 2 wheel tracks through the forest with creek crossings, wash aways, mud holes etc which is more than enough to keep you wide awake even at 20 km/h. From Mwese to Mpanda is about 90 km of one lane dirt track where you can rocket along at anything up to a blistering 60km/h and over which the local busses hammer along (they are the most dangerous part of the journey and luckily there is only one per day although you never know which blind corner you'll meet them on). This bit of road is much quicker and the river crossings even have wooden bridges (made of logs so not exactly super reliable but I figure that if they hold the busses...). We took 2 Landcruisers on the run and the Exploration manager who was here took the opportunity to fly out from Katavi National Park - the other options are $6,000 charter flight or once per week $900 flight when a flight to Mahale National Park can detour to our strip. Katavi is about 80km (2 hrs) south of Mpanda so 'local' to Mpanda. That just left David and Vallerian (2 local guys) and I to sort out supplies and drive back.. Just as an aside, landcruiser tyres were 270,000 Tanzanian shillings each (about USD$200) but to change all 4 tyres cost only 6,000 TZS or 1,500 each. Just shows the cost of labour versus imported goods...

On Wednesday night there must have been some sort of convention because the first 4 places we looked were all booked up. We managed to find a dodgy little guest house in a back street which had 4 rooms. The fact that it had 4 rooms vacant and all the decent places should have given us a clue about what it was like LOL. But in any case it was adequate and clean enough. I was joking big time about the convention btw. Mpanda is a dusty African town of maybe 5,000 people with no sealed roads (although the main street was closed when we were there and looked like it was being sealed - elections next year you know...). Funny place Africa. Can't really do it justice trying to describe the dusty streets, dusty people, plastic chaired 'cafes' with instant coffee and only 3 things on the menu. Lot's of mobile phones and TV's but power cuts regularly. Paint jobs on the concrete and adobe huts are faded or completely optional. Tin roofs are only for the rich and lots of places even in the big smoke (Mpanda) have grass roofs. Even the main streets are almost 4WD territory with gianormous potholes and rubbish burning in pits beside the road. Happy smiling people though and that counts. I prefer Mibango (the camp) to Mpanda but Africa has a lot of charm. It's great how the kids and adults wave, smile and laugh as you drive through the villages (of which there are plenty). The kids all wave and call out "bye, bye, bye, bye, bye..." thinking that 'Bye' means 'hi' or they call out "Mzungu, Mzungu" (which literally means white person, white person lol) as they laugh and wave.

We moved Thursday night to the 'best' place in town (the Baraka Guesthouse) which is pretty comfortable. Still basic by western standards but more than enough to meet our needs. On Thursday we sorted out visas, new tyres for one vehicle which had the baldest tyres, provisions, gas etc and were all done by 1330 so we knocked off for lunch and a couple of beers and ended up talking about lots of stuff including gold prospecting opportunities here (of which apparently there are plenty). I could tell all sorts of tales about the local shopkeepers and Immigration. Just hilarious. Immigration wanted USD$120 for Pete's visa but Vallerian negotiated it to USD$100 just by pointing out that he'd only paid $100 for the previous one (lol). Then they wanted it in USD$ but offered to accept 140,000 Tanzanian Shillings as we didn't have USD$. 130,000 would be closer to the mark but we figured, we may as well keep them happy so they probably went to the bank and changed it then pocketed the 10,000 (USD$7) extra which would be equivalent to about 2 days wages. Buying diesel is another classic experience. No hurry in Africa. Best part though, is when they manage to fit 230 litres into a 200 litre drum (ROFLMAO). No point arguing - there is no Office of Fair Trade running round with weights and measures here... Just pay the bill and call it the cost of doing business.. Lots of UNHCR vehicles running around town but hard to say what they're actually doing. Equally, so far as I can tell, I was the only Mzungu in town which was also interesting experience especially when walking through the back streets in search of the 'pork place' where they do a mean BBQ pork plate accompanied by warm beers.

Loaded up Friday morning with 1,000 litres of diesel on the back of each Landcruiser then 7 hours drive back . Bit of fun coming down 'Zed Hill' (thus named for the steep, rocky, muddy slippery switchbacks) with a tonne+ on the back of the vehicle but 15 minutes of low range can be great fun :-). Anyway, "no hurry in Africa" :-). Bit of a boys own adventureland here really. Taking more pictures but just no bandwidth to share them via the satellite link we have here. Will try and put some small ones on Facebook soon but who knows how that will work. Amazing place Africa though. You'd expect it to be a bit like Asia but frankly it isn't. Australia is more like Asia than Africa is. Crazy place but as they say when something goes wrong or just plain peculiar things happen... 'TIA' (this is Africa)..

So much more to write. This place is amazing! Once Pete leaves the locals will go home and it will just be me here with a couple of local security guards so plenty of time for exercise, reading and most of all to write a couple of books over the 2 months till I'm relieved by one of the local senior techs. The rivers rise, tracks become impassable quagmires and the airstrip too muddy to use during the wet and it is just starting now. We sat down last week and did some planning for the wet season so I now have a bit of a timetable. Looks like I'm here till January or February and my plan (subject to conditions) is a 25km hike to the Ferry at Lacoma which leaves midnight each Saturday then 30hrs ferry to Kigoma, 2hrs bus to a junction town, 1 hr to Rwanda border, 2 hrs bus to Kigali (Rwandan capital), look around Rwanda, 6 hrs bus to Mwanza in Tanzania then hire a 4WD & driver for 7 days to drive from Mwanza through Serengeti, Ngorongoro crater, Lake Manyara and end up in Arusha then 10 days to hike Kilimanjaro, then fly to Dar... After that who knows?