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…