Friday, May 23, 2008

Kicking it in Zambia

We apologize for the radio silence, but it's nice to be able to sit down and have plenty to write about.

We've been in Lusaka staying with a family: Bruce and Linda Wilkinson, their 6 yr old (brilliant) son Isaac, and their college-grad intern Kelley. The faith-based family has been here for 3 years and have been generous hosts.

In comparison, our story sounds selfish. We've been traveling the world, checking out the sites, racking up the tourist points. No regrets.

Bruce came to Lusaka after being very high on the NGO ladder at World Vision, a global organization that oversees impossibly large amounts of aid. Now he's running RAPIDS, a new Zambian group which empowers a network of 15,000 volunteer caregivers with the materials they need to help those suffering from the effects of HIV/AIDs. With their $30 million, 5 year grant, they pull together dozens of different organizations (ranging from government to faith-based) in order to distribute both stuff and knowhow; it’s a huge operation for Zambia, but small peanuts compared to his previous stuff. What’s more impressive is the private money he’s helped bring in – an additional $37 million, some of it as gift-in-kind, e.g. bandaids and bikes.

Not surprisingly, the bikes story is one of my favorites here. The owner of SRAM heard the volunteers had trouble getting around to all the people who needed help, and they designed a cheap bike that was a bunch stronger than the bikes they have here. Partnered with the Indian car company Tata, they produced $2 million worth of these bikes, and RAPIDS distributed them. They look the same as the local bikes, but they are far better at handling the weight of a second person on the rack, like when they need to go to the local clinic. (When lent to family members, the bikes are also better at transporting 100kgs of coal, also a common use for bikes around here.) They have served the volunteers well, providing both an incentive and a valuable asset.

What’s the rationale behind all this effort? About 20% of Zambians within Lusaka have HIV/AIDS, and 16% in rural areas. An entire generation seems to be missing in some areas, and there are many grandmothers who are simultaneously caring for 5 grandchildren and 5 non-biological orphans. Poverty, drunkenness, prostitution are all problems; healthcare, livelihood, and education are the focus for most of the hundreds of aid groups here. We were able to tour two of RAPIDS’s caregiver centers with the Accenture consultant who was here helping check things out. She was here to provide 3rd party advice/affirmation that the program model is ready to be expanded to other countries and settings.

Linda started working with a group of widows. After hearing their heart-wrenching stories, she worked with them on several microenterprise ideas, finding success with a project where they knit (awesome-looking) purses using recycled plastic bags. Now about 50 women are making a living through this program. They work together, share ideas, and Linda and others sell the bags in the states. This laid the groundwork for several other initiatives that take place on the same property, including a school for 300 orphans, a group of single moms who make and sell salted peanuts and soy milk, and a young women’s club. We’ve spent several days there. More information is at, and more is coming every day as we help them put stuff up.

Kelley just graduated from UC Boulder and is the hardworking intern who has the neverending todo-list. She’s been super kind to lead us around and point us in directions where we can help, and we’ve had a great time hanging out. We just went to a concert last night, which was a blast. It was a woman with attitude from Ivory Coast who blasted lyrics to funky rhythms and danced with some acrobatic, African-influenced moves.

Kate, their eldest daughter, just arrived last week. She’s in a graduate program at Columbia studying foreign development. She hopes to take Chikumbuso and make it huge. I’d agree it’s close to being ready.

There is a lot to say about the last few weeks, but the last two days should provide a good representative snapshot. We woke up, ate some pancakes, and drove to Chikumbuso. They have a pedal-powered soy bean grinder that makes the mush needed to make soy milk; I pedaled for a while. Emma helped two clinic volunteers administer HIV testing to 30 of the kids; two were positive. We helped tag the bracelets the widows had made, so that they could track who had made what. We taught division to the 5th graders who just begun learning it that morning; I tried using some of the dirty soybeans to help with the lesson, and tried to show the relationship between multiplication problems and division problems. Some kids really caught on with using the multiplication table on their shabby binders, some even were somewhat familiar with long division, and some kept grouping tally marks – even when they had to draw 169 of them.

In the afternoon, we taught basketball. Yes, I know: I have touched a basketball only a handful of times since 3rd grade. Emma “jumped” right into it, though, and we got the kids psyched up about passing, shooting, and defense. The fitness part included jumping jacks, squatting, and pushups. The kids couldn’t stop laughing. We’ve done 3 sessions already, and today we bought two brand new basketballs. The other one had exploded from the abuse of bouncing of the rocky schoolyard.

Last weekend we took a 7 hour bus ride down to Livingston to see Victoria Falls. They were huge. There’s a little walking trail directly across from the top of the falls. When the wind was just right, the ‘mist’ from the falls was heavy enough to feel like somebody was standing over you and dumping buckets on your head. The bridge over the Zambezi just below the falls connects Zambia and Zimbabwe, and there’s a bungie jump operation on it. I signed up for the ‘Big Air’ package, which included the bungie jump and the swing. Free falling causes heart attack-like symptoms. Free falling was a good once-in-a-lifetime experience, if only for the reason I now know what a heart attack must feel like.

Being here and talking with Bruce has given me a chance to think about values, aid in Africa, behavior change, and ways that Africa could become better. I’m not sure I’ve changed any, but things are a bit clearer; all that is for a different post or a long conversation. The kids are also dang cute – which I’m sure Emma will cover in her post.

Summary: The Wilkinson family has certainly changed many people’s lives for the better. We have been lucky they agreed to put up with us for these few weeks.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Journey from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka, Hour 49 of Train Ride.

As you might have guessed from Emma’s posts, the safari was badass. As she mentioned, I couldn’t tell a stump from a lion, or a piece of machinery from giraffe, so I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut and defer to our guide’s uncanny ability to spot wildlife. If it was worth seeing, he’d let us know.

In Ngorogoro Crater, I kept feeling like we were in Jurassic Park, and when we’d get into thicker parts of the forest, I’d half-wonder if a team of raptors had gotten loose. Once in the Serengeti I couldn’t get Circle of Life stuck out of my head (the main theme song from Disney’s The Lion King).

A short explanation about dik diks. Earlier in our trip when we had been looking into safaris, I had been browsing some of the Africa books and flipped to a page about animals. The picture of a dik dik looked so hilarious I decided that I had to see one in real life. Imagine a deer, then shrink it until it’s about 1 foot tall, then put little stubby horns on it, kind of like Hollywood puts on actors that play the part of devils. Seemed like a little mythical creature. So on the third day, I finally got some Where’s Waldo skillz and spotted a dik dik standing just off the road. They were as ridiculous looking as I imagined. Success!

After seeing all the wildebeest, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look for signs of chase. I wanted to see a cheetah or a lion aim straight for the thickest part of the pack, or a team of hyenas corner a youngling. But with the food source so plentiful, these hunters had no need to work that hard for their food.

The crater was incredible, but the Serengeti’s landscape was stunning in its own right. Small outcroppings of granite speckle the plains. (For Disney generation, think of the big rock that overlooks everything at the beginning of the movie. For nerds, apparently these are big bubbles of granite. The outer layers expand and contract with daily temperature fluctuations and, with time, erosion causes some cool boulders to appear. The large flat areas are from volcanic ash from later eruptions nearby, and the resulting top soil is too thin to support anything but the grass.) These outcroppings form cool oases (sp? Plural of oasis) of vegetation and wildlife.

We stayed at posh lodges. Four course meals and a big buffet for breakfast. Combined with good weather? It was a great week.

Right now I’m living in the gentle-rinse-cycle known as the Tazara train, which connects Tanzania with Zambia. Our first class cabin has most the African pleasantries we’ve come to expect. The fan’s broken, as is the lock on the door, and the lights work occasionally. Maybe 1/3 of people play with our door’s handle as they walk by, checking to see if it’s unlocked. They could easily open it if we hadn’t jerry-rigged a $4 bike lock around the inside. We are very grateful to not be in second class seating, since they’re sitting four-to-a-seat, babies on mothers’ backs, with no place to lie down for 2 days straight.

The train stops often, sometimes for 20 minutes and sometimes for 4 hours. It keeps you guessing, and we often wonder if the train will ever start again. On some of the hills, the train was brought to a creaky crawl slower than walking pace, and I put it at 50/50 whether or not we would start rolling backwards. On the downhills, you’re thrown against the wall when there’s a heart-wrenching jerk of the entire train car, causing a few bruises and choked food.

We forgot to bring Subway for our first meal and were pretty bummed about our mistake. We brought some snacks like cheese and crackers, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, but we wouldn’t have been able to make it without the $3 fried chicken and rice they serve onboard, along with the Tusker beer. Dozens of others take advantage of the beer in the dining car, and they often open our door enough to poke their face in to say hello as they stumble back to their room. We hung out it in the dining car for a while, until our chairs broke from the sudden jerking.

We never really know what time it is (I lost the watch in Thailand), so we’ve been whittling the days away between card games and naps. Sometimes we ask how much longer, and usually double that is closer to the truth.

Emma’s been the victim of some brutal allergies; the first day I woke up and could barely see her over the pile of toilet paper she had used throughout the night. She also looked like she’d been punched, with left eye almost swollen shut with a beautiful purple tint. Teasing her about it was quickly discouraged.

The bathrooms are sketchy enough that I’m holding out for something better. We’ll see if I can last.

For all the hilarities, the view has been unforgettable. Blue sky, expansive grasslands spotted with shrubs, small fields of dead corn, the occasional dirt path and grass-roofed hut, sometimes a village or even a dirt road. The young kids wave and run alongside the train every chance they get.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lake Manyara

As we were headed down to the lake, we couldn’t help but think they were couldn’t possible see anything new. Somehow we were both exhausted after three days of driving and safari, but when we arrived we saw that this park was again totally different from anything we had seen in the past few days. Most of the park is occupied by the huge lake and the remainder is dense forest; a jungle of undergrowth, acacia trees and baobab trees.

Right from the start we saw a totally different group of wildlife. Lots of baboons, black-faced and blue monkeys. (Who we were delighted to find out have permanent blue-colored balls.) Although the density of wildlife in this park is lower than our two previous destinations we were excited about the specialties – hippos, elephants and the elusive dik dik, which was Chris’s only goal of the trip.

First we visited the hippo pool. The shallow pool of thick mud and water is home to more than twenty hippos. They make some pretty funny noises. Watching the huge heads immerge form the mud, I couldn’t help but think of the game hungry hippos. The road through the park weaves in an out of the forest. It was a great change from the scorching heat of the plains. We saw lots of impala in the woods and came across lots of birds. The lake is covered with pink dots like in Ngorongoro, lots and lots of flamingos.

Without question the highlight of the day was the family of elephants. There must have been around thirty of them and we got to see them walking down to the river. They had babies! The tiny little guys were some of the cutest things I have ever seen. All floppy ears and trunk, which they can never seem to keep upright, they ran around and played in the water. We sat and watched for a good 30 minutes.

We were eventually making our way back to the entrance as dark was approaching when we heard about a lion sighting from another driver. Like we were on a mission we went speeding through the forest in search of the spot. Lion sightings seem to be the big money maker on these safaris. They are not to be taken lightly, in fact we passed a few other vehicles that had also heard about the lion and followed us down the road. Granted this was a special sighting – a large male in a tree! Who knew? Tree climbing lions. It was pretty awesome to see. He was just hanging out on one of the branches, lazily opening an eye once in a while to check out all the cars lining the road.

Definitely a great sight to end our adventure on.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Serengeti National Park

Although the two areas share a border, the landscape of the Serengeti is totally different from the lush green hill in Ngorongoro. Entering the Serengeti was like driving into a barren wasteland. Dry grasslands that extend for miles and miles; there isn’t an elevated piece of land to be seen. It was hard to believe there could be any wildlife on the flat empty plains. In fact, our first impressions, or rather my first impression since Chris was taken a short nap, turned out to be totally inaccurate. Almost immediately we started to see wildlife. The grasslands are home to thousands of gazelle. We saw Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelle everywhere for the first hour of our drive.

The gazelle are specially adapted to the dry plains; they do not drink, instead they get all their water from dew and grass. We also saw lots of different bird species, some chameleons, and a few jackals and hyenas. As we drove on we could see small hills in the distance, which our driver informed us was our destination for the night. As we got closer he stopped to look at the distant landscape through his binoculars. “See those dark patches in the distance?” We were thinking cloud shadows or maybe patches of trees. “Those are herd of wildebeest.” Shit. There are literally a million wildebeest roaming the plains. They migrate down from Kenya in possible the biggest migration in the world. One million wildebeest. It’s almost impossible to comprehend what it would look like.

One the way to our lodge we stopped at one of the spot known for lion sightings - small collection of grassy knolls surrounding a small water hole. Prime lion territory. They just chill in the tall grasses waiting for unsuspecting prey to come to drink. Sure enough as we entered the small circles of hills we saw two huge male lions and half a dozen females and cubs, not to mention four other safari groups. It was a sight to behold. Male lions are way bigger than I thought they were. Their golden manes and huge jaws weren’t more than twenty feet from our vehicle. I sure wasn’t making any sudden movements or sounds.

We sat watching the pride in silence for a while. Another Land Cruiser pulled up to take the place of one just leaving and promptly got a flat tire. Yikes! There is no way you could have gotten me out of the car to change that flat in the middle of a pride of lions. They ended up driving around behind one of the hills and making a speedy job of it.

We arrived at out lodge exhausted only to find out we were scheduled for a pre breakfast game drive. The early morning hours are better for seeing some of the nocturnal animals. We figured this was a once in a lifetime experience so we might as well drag our asses out of bed a 5:30 a.m.

We barely made it up, and kept thinking, ‘How are we supposed to spot wildlife in this light?’ We could barely pick out movement in the full sunlight. Both Chris and I were forever thinking termite hill and logs were hyenas or leopards. Sure enough the first thing Chris spotted….”Hey, are those cranes?” Huh, machinery in the middle of the Serengeti? Actually they were giraffes.

It finally got a little lighter as we made our way out of the forested hills and onto the open plains. Smack dab in the middle of a giant herd of wildebeest. They stretched as far as we could see in all directions. Driving through them was like parting a sea. In some cases they walk or run along the plains in single file on some endless journey in search of new food and water. We just stared. I have never seen so many animals in one place.

At one point we came upon a group of hyenas tearing into the carcass of a young wildebeest. Yummy breakfast. Many of the herds are intermixed with zebras. Then we drove into an odd empty, perfect circle in the middle of the herd. We soon found out the cause – a couple lions sunning themselves on the rocks. They were just hanging out in the middle of their 24 hour self-service buffet.

Like Ngorongoro, the Serengeti was filled with wildlife. We saw: wildebeest, zebras, topi, gazelle, impala, waterbucks, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, jackals, ostrich, buffalo, warthogs, lots of vultures, buzzards, storks and birds of prey, lions, and a crazy looking Secretary bird.

On our last day we had to get up bright and early to make the drive from the Serengeti to Lake Manyara. We arrived at another beautiful lodge on the hills overlooking the huge lake in time for a great lunch buffet and a quick nap before heading out again “fishing for wildlife” as our driver called it.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Ngorongoro Crater

After spending a few nights in Dar es Salaam holed up in our hotel suite, complete with kitchenette and wifi, Chris and I finally got our act together and booked a four night safari to Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and Lake Manyara. Safaris in Tanzania are a huge business, with most departing from the towns of Arusha and Moshi. The concentration of wildlife in the numerous parks accessible from these two cities is some of the highest in the world. We hopped on a plane from Dar to Arusha to start our adventure.

We booked our trip with a company recommended by Chris’s friends from Portland – Bushbuck Ltd. Their motto: it’s rough…it’s dusty…but it’s an adventure. Sounds good to us! We left Arusha after lunch to drive to our first destination, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Ngorongoro Crater is a collapsed volcano, a caldera similar to Yellowstone National Park, but there are no crazy hot springs or geysers here, only animals galore and Maasai. The Maasai live in the conservation area raising cattle and goats.

In this part of Tanzania, the rainy season is just about at its end. The result is a lush countryside that is completely green with patches of bright yellow wildflowers and fields of corn and coffee. The two hour drive was beautiful. We arrived at our lodge on the crater rim just about at sunset. The clouds were settling in along the walls of the crater, but our first view was amazing. Check out the panorama in our Picassa album. I’m not sure what either of us was expecting; definitely not the expanse of open plains surrounded by the steep crater walls of dense vegetation we saw before us. Even from the top of the crater rim we could see tiny specs of wildebeest, buffalo and zebras.

Eager to start we were both awake for breakfast long before our scheduled 8 am departure. Climbing into our trusty Land Cruiser, specially outfitted with a pop-up roof and elevated floor to allow for optimal wildlife viewing, we descended into the crater through forests of acacia trees. Once on the crater floor we found ourselves driving among the wildflowers searching the horizon for movement and signs of life. There were animals everywhere! Throughout the whole afternoon it was difficult to drive for five minutes without seeing something. Groups of water buffalo mixed with herds of wildebeest and dotted with zebras.

We spent the entire day driving around the crater. We saw: elephants, black rhinos, wildebeest, zebras, spotted hyenas, flamingos, ostriches, warthogs, crown cranes, a cheetah, a lion, jackals, monkeys, hippos, gazelle, storks, doves, Egyptian geese, and lots more birds. As we soon found out, the season also means lots of babies!

The elephants are huge beasts. Zebras look totally out of place with their wacky stripes and short stubby legs. We both loved watching the warthogs running with their tails held vertical – like little flags, you might not be able to see the body in the tall grass but you could still see its tail. We saw one baby wildebeest with a chunk of skin ripped off its side; it will most likely end up somebody’s dinner soon. The hyenas look almost like small bears and they are butt ugly. We saw two black rhinos, which are extremely rare due to poaching of their huge horn. We saw a female lion just walking along the road through a herd of wildebeest like she owned the place, which she does, totally unconcerned about the animals around her. They, on the other hand, were extremely wary and gave her a wide berth.

But the highlight was definitely the cheetah. She was beautiful. We watched her explore the tall grass and hang out near one of the small streams. We were watching as she jumped across the water and made her way towards us, eventually coming within 50 ft. Awesome. It’s hard to describe the beauty of watching these animals so close, knowing they could destroy you in a matter of minutes, and marveling at their power, speed, and grace. You have to stop and remind yourself that these animals of wild and living in the wild. The crater provides such a unique viewing experience, it’s a natural zoo.

Exhausted after a full day of adventures, we left Ngorongoro extremely satisfied to drive to the Serengeti. The steep road out of the crater had some hair-raising twists and drop-offs, not to mention slick mud and no guardrail. But we were not even ten minutes outside of the crater when we saw more herds of zebra and a bunch of giraffes! The scenery is spectacular. We could see the flat endless plains of the Serengeti in the distance as we passed through the arid foothills below the crater rim. The countryside is dotted with Maasai villages, consisting of half a dozen to twenty mud huts. It’s somewhat startling is round a corner and see people walking through the grass literally in the middle of nowhere. Their red and purple clothing provides vibrant dots of color to the landscape.