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?