How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Great grannies

I’m writing this from back home in San Diego, where I’m feeling guilty that I still haven’t written about what Steve and I agree was the most remarkable experience of this most amazing trip: our visit to the village of Nyaka in western Uganda.

It wasn’t originally on our itinerary. But back in early February, I happened to be at a social gathering with Leigh Fenly, an old friend who also was the co-founder of Women’s Empowerment (WE). Based in San Diego, WE was formed to provide low-interest “microloans” to poor women to help them start or expand their small (minuscule) enterprises. In Mexico, Honduras, San Diego, and other parts of Africa, WE’s lending has helped many women improve their economic conditions and develop pride in what they can accomplish. Leigh mentioned that the organization had been approached a few months earlier by the Nyaka AIDS Foundation about lending money to some Ugandan women who are the sole support of their grandchildren, youngsters who’ve lost their parents to AIDS. Although WE had gathered information about this group from a distance, Leigh felt it would be valuable to have us check it out in person.

Grannies arriving at a meeting

It’s hard for those who haven’t traveled in the developing world to imagine how remote Nyaka is. I myself couldn’t believe the village would be so very hard to reach, when I looked at its approximate location on my Uganda map. But the map doesn’t show how mountainous the area is. Road lines neatly rendered on paper in reality are rutted dirt tracks studded with rocks and other impediments. Occasional holes help to make driving on them hellish. There are no road signs. Our Ugandan driver/guide, Robert, was born and raised in this region, but he’d never heard of Nyaka. He got us there by following rough directions from one of our contacts over the phone — and then stopping to ask bystanders for details as we homed in on our destination.

Bizarrely, Uganda’s long-time president grew up around here; why he hasn’t doled out more patronage in the form of road work is a mystery. But another former son of Nyaka has been more loyal. Jackson Kaguri was a bright boy who studied hard and won a scholarship to attend a university in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He went to the US for graduate work and there met and married an African-American woman. They were on a trajectory to a comfortable middle-class life in Indiana, but Kaguri continued to visit his family back in Africa. His older brother had died from AIDS, and Jackson had committed to helping educate his nieces and nephews. On his first visit back with his new wife, the two were struck by the plight of the other AIDS orphans in the village. They resolved to build a school that would provide free education for at least some of the orphans. (All the “public” schools in Uganda require parents to pay fees that often are significant enough to be unaffordable.)

Kaguri subsequently published a memoir of how the school project unfolded, and one of the best things about it is how clearly it communicates his mental state. He didn’t set out to try and change the whole country. He simply wanted to build a couple of primary-level classrooms, despite his pretty much total lack for preparation for any such undertaking. But he was determined, and he did eventually get those first classrooms built. Over time, the school expanded. The need for a health-care center became clear and eventually got built The lack of clean, easily accessible water led to creation of a drinking water system for part of the village. Jackson did none of this on his own; he got help from folks both in America and Uganda. But a dozen years after that first vision of a few classrooms took shape, a remarkable amount has been accomplished.

The Nyaka Granny Project was yet another outgrowth of this work. Around 2007, the school staff began to focus on the fact that many children were suffering from malnutrition and sleep deprivation due to inadequate food, water, and shelter. Somehow, the staff found the resources to begin organizing support groups for the grandmothers struggling to raise those children — not only the few lucky enough to attend the Nyaka school, but many others whose kids are in public schools. When Steve and I finally reached Nyaka, we could scarcely believe our ears when the two program coordinators told us there are now 91 such groups, including 7,000 women providing sole support to something like 35,000 kids.

Some of the grannies with whom we met

Within short order, the reality of those numbers became clearer. After depositing our bags in the little house that’s been built (and is run by Jackson’s sister) to accommodate visitors, Martin and Godfrey (the Granny Project coordinators) led us to a nearby building where one of the groups had assembled to meet us. Dressed in their finest Sunday clothes — brightly colored and patterned dresses and wraps that left no doubt we were in Africa — the women, including one 91-year-old member, were singing and dancing. It was an infectious, boisterously joyful greeting, and it instantly won our hearts. We all gathered in a big circle under a tree. Most of the grannies sat on the ground, while we as the guests were offered chairs. Jackson and Martin introduced us, and Steve (bravely) responded to a request to explain why we were there. Then for most of the multi-hour session, we asked questions.

We took pages and pages of notes, which Steve patiently transcribed in spare moments throughout the rest of our travels. What we learned in the first group was echoed in the two others with which we met (one later that first afternoon and the other the next morning.) The grannies told us about the many benefits they’d gained from participating. First and foremost, the groups provided fellowship. It’s misleading to talk about African “villages.” For me that term conjures up some compact community in England where everyone can walk to everyone else’s home. But in rural Africa, communities are typically far-flung. While some of the grannies lived within a half-kilometer of each other, others walked two or three hours to attend the twice-monthly meetings.

Each time they attended, they paid a small amount (ranging from $.75 to $1.50) into a fund, knowing that every 15 months or so they would receive all or part (arrangements varied) of the pot collected that meeting. This simple system provides a way for the poor to save for needed items — a blanket, say, or a saucepan –instead of seeing any savings dribble away to friends or relatives needing help. The Nyaka coordinators also provided some educational programs (farming tips; AIDS prevention), and the groups gave the women a chance to share their troubles and pray together “for our homes and our families” (as one English speaker put it). Finally, a small microloan program that began in 2008 was offering some of the women a chance to borrow tiny amounts of money and pay it back within a few months at interest rates that might seem high to Westerners (3% a month), but were far more reasonable than the 10 to 20% monthly interest charged by other African lenders.

JoAnn, 52, caring for 3 grandchildren, had borrowed a little under $20 and used $7.75 to buy a piglet and the rest to build a pigsty for the animal. Jacqueline, 53, had used her $4 loan to hire someone to prepare some ground for her to plant. Her subsequent peanut and sweet-potato harvest had been good enough to help cover her grandchildren’s school fees. Maria, supporting 6 grandchildren, had combined her $19 loan with another $7.75 she’d saved and bought a goat that she bred with a neighbor’s billy. She’d sold the resulting twins and since had built her herd up to 6. When I asked if she and her grandkids drank the milk, the group burst out laughing. If she did that, someone pointed out the obvious, the baby goats would die of malnutrition.

A scene from the play

Our meetings included other light moments. The second group put on a play for us fashioned after the Biblical story of King Solomon’s trial of two women who both claimed the same infant. The actors were equipped with props that included a fake sub-machine gun fashioned from banana-tree branches. It was unforgettable. But so was the women’s response when we asked if they had any complaints about the Nyaka micro finance program.

They did indeed: there wasn’t enough money to be borrowed. They had ideas. They were willing — eager! — to muster the energy to raise piglets and goats and chickens; plant sweet potatoes, roast them, and sell them to passing travelers; sew, weave baskets, make bracelets and other handicrafts. They were confident they could pay back the money with interest. Indeed the repayment rates do approach 100%. “How many of you would borrow more money if there was more available to borrow,” I asked. Here’s how they answered:

Travels in Nairobbery

What a journey we had Saturday (6/24). Woke up in a tent in a vast Tanzanian wilderness. Went to bed in downtown Nairobi (Kenya) — home to 6 million, famed for terrorist turmoil and more plebeian crime. Traveling from Point A to B began with two short flights in a Cessna designed to seat 12 but in practice seating 13, the extra space being the one next to the pilot. (I loved the Safety Instruction that directed any passenger in it “not to step on or interfere with the pedals on the floor.”)

At the Arusha airport, we were picked up by a pre-arranged driver who took us through insane Saturday morning traffic to the bus-shuttle depot. The subsequent bus ride took 5.5 hours, including the stop at the Tanzania/Kenya border crossing (reminiscent of San Diego/TJ’s maybe 75 years ago.) It was twilight by the time we reached the outskirts of Nairobi, and the sights out the windows were grim: decrepit buildings; more insane car and pedestrian traffic, choking diesel fumes, squalor. Full-on dark had descended when we finally pulled into the bus terminus, where another pre-arranged driver met us with our names on a hand-held whiteboard and transported us to our hotel. It occurred to me that we’d done a disservice to Kenya by planning to spend barely 50 hours in it, and all of that in its ominous capital. We would probably leave with unpleasant memories, vowing never to return.

But good impressions of Kenya started to accrue as soon as we checked into the Kahama Hotel. Spotless and stylish, it included an excellent breakfast buffet for the $50/day tab. The clientele looked to be mostly African businessmen with a sprinkling of white readers of Lonely Planet East Africa (where it’s a “TOP Choice!”). The free wifi was excellent, the customer service even better, the water in the shower hot and plentiful. One drawback was the noisy adjacent highway, but, eh, I had my lion’s-roar-blocking earplugs. And Steve sleeps like the dead.

Our full day in Nairobi Sunday (6/25) piled on more pleasures. We drove out to the suburb of Karen, home to posh private academies and mansions, and lunched at the sophisticated restaurant that today operates on the land that Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixon) once farmed. After lunch, we visited a nearby center celebrating Rothschild’s giraffes. In 1979, when the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish earl and his American wife began raising a baby giraffe in their home, the number of these animals in the wild had sunk to 120. Thanks in part to the subsequent work of the couple, the population of wild Rothschild’s has now climbed to 700 or so, and the center is devoted to both conservation and educational work. It combines this with the huge fun of giving visitors the chance to place tasty pellets on the amazingly long, liver-colored giraffe tongues from a raised platform that literally brings the humans nose to nose with the leggy beauties.

Giraffish love

All this was great. But our experience earlier that morning at the Sheldrick center for orphaned elephants was phenomenal. The trust that runs the center was started in 1979, shortly after the death of David Sheldrick, who served as the anti-poaching warden at Tsavo National Park. His formidable wife Daphne (and, now, their children) have carried on the work of rearing baby elephants whose mothers have been killed for their ivory (or, less commonly, by irritated farmers).

Killing elephants for their tusks continues to be a huge problem, perhaps worse today than it’s been for a while (because of corrupt officials in Kenya and Tanzania who turn a blind eye to this hideous trade). There are a lot of elephant orphans to care for. The Sheldricks years ago solved one huge problem by developing a formula the animals could tolerate (cow’s milk gives them fatal diarrhea), but they can thrive on a variant of human baby formula. Each animal needs a lot of it: about 6-12 pints every 3 hours, around the clock. During the days, each baby, under the watchful eye of a tender, is free to range into the wilds of Nairobi National Park, on which the Sheldrick trust leases land. When the youngsters get to be about 5, they move to an an advanced facility where they can venture out to begin spending time with various groups of wild elephants. Eventually, they find a group that’s a good fit and begin their independent lives in the wild. But it’s the elephants who decide when they’re ready to make this move, and with whom.

Until each orphan reaches that stage (some time between the ages of 5 and 10), it costs about $900 (per animal per month) to support this ambitious operation. All the money is privately raised. (In fact the trust has to pay the Kenyan government a hefty rent for the property it occupies, I was appalled to learn.) One source of income comes from the 500 shilling ($6) entry fee for visitors to the facility. It’s open daily, but for one hour only — from 11 to noon.

Steve and I arrived about 45 minutes early, and that was lucky. We sat waiting next to the rope admissions barrier, and almost immediately other tourists streamed in behind us. When the guards finally released the rope, a crowd of several hundred people had massed. We led the way down a path to a clearing with a small muddy pool in the center. Around the pool, giant milk bottles were positioned. We stood next to the encircling rope barrier, a prime position for watching an attendant emerge from the thick bush, walking next to a tiny elephant — just 2 and a half months old, we later learned. A bright red Maasai blanket covered the sensitive skin on her back.

I think human babies are cute and puppies give them a run for their money. But I’m sorry. In the Cosmic Cuteness competition, baby elephants leave them both in the dust. Tiny, hairy, with oversized ears, and long, long eyelashes, this little female was named Mystery (in Swahili) because she’d been found when she was just 3 days old, in good health but lying down in the middle of an airstrip with no trace of her mother.

She guzzled down the milk from the bottle held by her human attendant, then stroked him delicately with her trusting little trunk, provoking a concert of cooing. I felt almost as tickled by the reactions of the crowd: kids, women, and men from all over the globe, all enraptured.

The pachyderm-human love fest continued as more attendants led in a dozen more of the big babies for their feeding. There were comic moments, as when one little guy rushed up to his bottles, knocked them over, then trumpeted with amazing volume in his impatience to be fed. Another rambunctious character thought it funny when he or she bumped into the crowd pressing up against the rope, provoking shrieks and howls of laughter. Another baby, after feeding, played with a shovel in the enclosure, balancing the tool on its hairy head. There was pathos too, as a narrator/attendant introduced each orphan, detailing what had brought each to the center. So much murder and heartache — for the sake of tchotchkes.

A baby elephant joke: kick over your milk bottle!

Steve and I think with education and public pressure, the Asian appetite will dry up (and maybe sooner rather than later; Dame Daphne’s new autobiography is being translated into Mandarin and Cantonese). But other forces also threaten the world’s elephants and other great wild animals, most prominently the ravenous human appetite to exploit the wildernesses needed to support wildlife. When you see warriors like the Sheldricks fighting to protect and nurture the elephants, the battle feels epic.

Compared to that, our other final activities in Nairobi, while pleasant, were anticlimactic. We dined Sunday night at Carnivore, once legendary for serving up grilled zebra, giraffe, eland, and other antelope, but since 2004 restricted to more familiar meats (plus crocodile, which I found to combine the texture of chicken with a vaguely piscine taste.) Monday morning we toured an interesting enterprise that’s recycling old flip-flops into charming art. And for our final lunch in Africa, we had our taxi take us to the Stanley Hotel. We had to park several blocks away, but our taxi driver, Washira, guided us on foot, and we both enjoyed the chance to walk a bit in the center city. It’s run-down, but bustling with purposeful pedestrians, despite the strangling vehicular traffic. Happily, we never got robbed. (Surprisingly, Steve didn’t get his pocket picked.)

The Stanley is said to be the oldest hotel in the city. I wanted to eat there because of the thorn tree that grows in a courtyard. A predecessor tree was planted there in the late 50s, and travelers used to pin notes to it seeking rides, praising this hotel or that, and generally sharing information as they journeyed from Cairo to Capetown or elsewhere on the Dark Continent. Later this practice inspired the Lonely Planet guidesters to start the Thorn Tree online bulletin board. In recent years, I’ve increasingly turned to it in planning our travels. It helped me to organize the amazing African journey we’ve just completed. I feel grateful, and I wanted to give it my regards.


Camping in the bush

Our tent at Kati-Kati

“Did you hear the lions last night,” our guide Frank asked us at breakfast Friday morning (6/21).

Incredibly, I didn’t. Knowing that we were going to rise before dawn, I had taken the first sleeping pill I’ve consumed since arriving in Africa, and I’d inserted my protection against Steve’s snoring: earplugs. When the SEVEN lionesses and their cubs strolled through the staff quarters, roaring (at least four times, loudly, according to the group of jolly Germans who provided details at the next evening’s campfire, I snoozed right through it, as did Steve, despite the fact that only a thin layer of canvas separated us from all the ruckus (which apparently was resolved when one of the staffers got in a truck and drove it toward the pride to scare them off.) The next night I slept both drug- and plug-free, but all was quiet. To my regret.

I’ve had some great experiences on camping trips, but in general, I’m not crazy about camping. The dark, the cramped quarters, the separation from washroom facilities — I can do without all that. When we’ve stayed in spartan little budget hotels on various continents, I frequently have reflected, “At least it’s a lot better than camping.”

But camping while on safari can be another world altogether, a dreamy, pleasure-filled realm. I’ve stayed at four such places in my life (one in South Africa and three here in Tanzania). The South African one and the first two here came close to my idea of paradise. All had huge tents erected on and/or around platforms that held big comfortable beds with soft linens, electric lighting, civilized toilets and wash-up areas, and auxiliary furniture. Because they were tents, you could zip down big expanses of the canvas, lie in bed, and take in the natural world through the mesh “windows.” Food in these places is always served in a central lodge or mess area, and our meals have ranged from okay to excellent.

For our last two nights on safari, I’d chosen the Serengeti Kati-Kati tented camp. It gets excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, and Frank, our guide, had expressed strong approval of it at the start of our trip. But when we arrived on Wednesday night, I felt a twinge of disappointment. This was the most basic of the tent camps we’ve experienced. Although the tents and their covered verandas were the size of modest California bungalows, the ceilings weren’t as high as in the other places. The floors were simple canvas, and after dark the only sickly light came from two bare LED bulbs suspended from the ceiling and powered by a car battery. Each tent had its own toilet, but it was situated over a chemically sanitized drum in the ground, and we were only able to shower after requesting that one of the staff members haul a 20-liter bucket of hot water to the rear of our tent, fill a receptacle, and hoist that up so that gravity would make it flow through a shower head controlled by a simple on/off valve..

Still, the Kati-Kati grew on me. Sitting around the bonfire before dinner gave us a chance to interact with other travelers, something we’ve had little of and have missed (perhaps my only complaint about this whole trip). The food was extremely good — some of the best we had anywhere. The simple camp beds were well padded, warm, and cozy. And the simplicity of the accommodations suited the location — close to the center of one of the biggest and most spectacular wilderness areas on the planet (Serengeti National Park).

Serengeti comes from a Maasai word meaning “endless plain.” At the park headquarters on the eastern side of the preserve, there’s a rock outcropping that visitors are encouraged to climb. From the top of it, it’s clear what those Maasai name-givers were thinking. In every direction stretched a featureless, flat expanse of grassland. It looked dry, the color of sand, as the rains stopped a good 6 weeks ago. But otherwise, it was indistinguishable from an ocean.

The only way visitors may explore the park is in a 4WD vehicle driven by a licensed guide. With Frank at the helm of our Land Cruiser, we only had a couple of hours of game-drive time on Thursday afternoon (6/20). But in short order, we came upon a couple hundred zebra grazing together. We stopped to photograph a solitary hippo ripping off great mouthfuls of tall grass; they usually do this only at night. We snapped at warthogs and giraffe and a huge group of elephants. And as the sun was sinking, Frank spotted a distant tree where a leopard was lounging — the last remaining member of the so-called Big Five that Steve and I still had not seen (the others that we’d already checked off being elephant, rhino, buffalo, and lion).

On our last day with Frank, we rose before dawn. Game driving is a strange pastime. You bounce and rattle over the dirt trails, and by afternoon, every encounter with another vehicle means immersion for several seconds In a thick cloud of yellow dust. For me, going out first thing in the morning feels thrilling and fresh, but after hours and hours, it can start to feel a little tiresome. To avoid that, I’ve found that the best approach is to surrender to the flow of it; turn off any thought of passing time; remind myself that it’s all about the journey (the safari), not any destination. Each time you come upon a particularly beautiful vista or a particularly arresting group of animals, if feels like a surprise gift.

Hippos and wildebeest aren’t among the Big Five, but they were my biggest game-driving gifts Friday. Before this trip, I never associated hippos with the plains of the Serengeti, but it turns out there are bunches of them in the national park, and they’re easy to find en masse. Around lunchtime, Frank took us to a particularly notorious pool where what looked like several hundred hippos were crammed into a pool about the size of a football field. It was a staggering sight — a mega-mosh-pit of hippos sleeping not only side by side but on top of each other. The penetrating stench of concentrated hippo urine and dung hardly bothered me, I was so mesmerized by the animals’ comic postures; by the constant splash of water kicked up by their stubby tails; by their alien honks and growls and blurps.

A small section of the amazing hippo mosh pit

The wildebeest were another matter altogether. We weren’t just looking for any specimens but, rather, for wildebeest engaged in the great annual migration that the species is known for. These animals have made a stupendous recovery, increasing in the past 50 years from only about 125,000 to the 2 million estimated to exist today. The sight of hundreds of thousands of them moving across the Serengeti plains is said to be one of the greatest spectacles of nature.

The problem is that, because it’s a natural phenomenon, it doesn’t run like an airline. Where the mass of the herd may be in any given week may shift from year to year, depending on the rainfall. Knowing that, I months ago resigned myself to the possibility of seeing little during the two days we would be in the park. Still, my fingers were crossed.

The reason we rose so early Friday is because Frank had conferred with some of the other drive/guides, and he thought our best bet was to head west to an area known as the Musabi Plain. We drove and drove, and for a long time we saw only scattered clusters of wildebeests. But finally we turned a corner and came upon something that looked like a freight train but soon became recognizable as wildebeests, galloping in a line that stretched as far as the eye could see.

We watched them for a long time and continued to stop and see more as we drove on. In some spots, we found thousands of them, scattered in every direction, mostly grazing but in some cases kicking up their heels in frisky displays. Mixed among them were zebras, who tend to migrate alongside; apparently they have good memories and are gifted at remembering the migration routes, while the wildebeests have a mysterious genius for knowing when to move. At one point, we seemed to see this in action, as the pack of grazing wildebeests thickened and then began, once again, to surge onward.

It reminded both Steve and me of drawings we’ve seen of the American bison moving across the Great North American Plains. There were 20 million of them at one point, before our forebears wiped them out. Frank said what we were seeing this morning was the stragglers. The majority had passed through several weeks earlier, and had we been there then, we would barely have been able to see the grass for all the animals.

Still, we hadn’t slept through all of it.


Top of the list

I’ve seen a fair number of World Heritage Sites and natural wonders. The Ngorongoro Crater is both, and now that I’ve seen it, I have to rank it near the top of my personal rankings.

When we were on our descent into Moshi a week ago, I didn’t recognize the crater out my window. It looked like an extinct volcano, but a very old and eroded one. The strange part was the caldera, which instead of being rocky or filled with water, was verdant. Steve, sensibly, figured out what we were seeing. On Tuesday, after leaving behind the Hadza hunters, we returned to our lodge at Lake Eyasi, ate breakfast, and departed. After about 3 hours and various check-ins at the national park headquarters, we arrived at the road that would take us down for a close-up view.

I wondered if I would be disappointed. As you get closer and closer to it, the crater floor looks enormous. A large salty lake fills part of it, and a huge portion of the rest is grass which only a month or so after the rainy season was already turning yellow. Large patches of deeper green spread out in various spots, but even after we reached the bottom of the road, I saw no animals. At first.

Then it began. First we drove past a herd of zebras. Then waterbuck and wildebeest. Grants and Thompson’s gazelles. Elephants ambling along with the easy confidence that they, after all, were the kings and queens of the beasts. We saw lions, too, snoozing in the sun like house cats, paws in the air, bellies absorbing the warm rays. With the top of our Land Cruiser popped up, we stopped again and again to stand and take photos, gaping at the sight of a distant black rhino, hippos copulating in the lake, Cape Buffalos and warthogs and jackals and ostriches, grazing, moving through the grass. “It’s like the biggest wild animal park on the planet,” Steve commented. But it’s one where the lions and leopards feed themselves every night.

Drowsy lion with copulating hippos in the background

It’s spectacular, and the pleasure continued after we climbed back out of the crater with sunset approaching and checked into our hotel. Perched on the rim, our room had an enormous window that commanded the scene below. At almost 2000 feet above the floor, we couldn’t see any animals, but knowing they were there thrilled us. We slept with the curtains open, and I awoke well before dawn, in part because I wanted to see the magical vista slowly take shape outside our window again.

We got more of a taste of it Wednesday morning (June 19). Although originally scheduled to hike around the Empakai Crater, we rebelled at the prospect of another 6-hour drive (to and from it) over spine-jolting roads and instead opted to do a 2-hour hike on the Ngorongoro crater rim.

The short drive to that made us feel like we were in Scotland, not Africa. Temperatures on the rim range from cool to downright chilly, and a dense mist was swirling. We met our ranger/guide, who was armed with the ubiquitous AK-47, and as we set out on foot, we pumped him for info on what we should do if we ran into an elephant, a Cape Buffalo, a leopard. (Answers: a) run off the path down the hillside; b) lie flat in a trench, where the the curve of the buffalo’s horns would make it hard for him to stab you to death (apparently they do not stomp people); c) pray that the gunshots would scare the big cat away.)

We did see plenty of evidence that elephants were around: a place where one had dug into the dirt with its tusk for vital minerals, footprints, huge piles of elephant dung that the guide said had to have been deposited earlier that morning. Later in the hike, we found even fresher piles; they were all but steaming.

Fresh elephant dung (next to hiking pole tips)

It was a bit creepy. But the guide had his gun, and the only creatures we ran into were birds and cattle being herded by their Maasai masters. It struck me that this was our last walk of the trip in a dense and beautiful African forest. I’ll miss them; dream about them. But tomorrow morning, we set off for the great plains of the Serengeti.


Free spirits

When our Land Cruiser overheated Monday, Steve’s instant comment was, “It wouldn’t be a safari if there weren’t car trouble.” In fact, we’d already had some of that. In Uganda, as we set out on our chimp-tracking adventure, Robert’s car lost power. But he calmly got out, diagnosed the problem (a clogged fuel filter), turned it upside down (to somehow bypass it), and we drove on. On the way to our Kili hike, Manuel’s radiator boiled over just as we reached the parking lot, but he nonchalantly filled it up with cold water and got us home without incident. So when our Land Cruiser’s heat gauge shot into the red zone shortly after our departure from Tarangire National Park, my first thought was that a splash of water might fix things right up. But this turned out to be real trouble — a busted water pump.

That’s not fixable when you’re stuck on a narrow shoulder in the middle of Nowhere, Africa. Instead our driver/guide Frank’s solution was to call the Pristine Adventures office in Moshi and have a new vehicle sent out. This ultimately took almost 5 hours, during which we screwed around with adding water to the radiator (futile), ate our box lunches, and limped to a junction where Steve and I could sit at red plastic tables advertising Cocal-Cola and pull out our iPads. I felt cranky and annoyed, and with the hours slipping by, I suggested maybe we should change our itinerary; forego the grueling 3-hour journey to Lake Eyasi and skip our hunting session with the Hadza tribe, in lieu of going directly to Ngorongoro Crater. While Pristine dithered, I distracted myself by writing reviews of some of the hotels we’ve stayed at for Trip Advisor. Then I remembered I hadn’t yet read the National Geographic article about the Hadza. Steve read it back in December of 2009 and couldn’t stop talking about it then. When, planning this trip, I heard that it was possible to visit some of these people, I’d signed us up and brought along a copy of the article. But only when I finally read it yesterday did I recover my senses (and some of my good spirits). The article made it clear just how rare and extraordinary the Hadza are, worth driving through the night to meet, if necessary.

It wasn’t necessary, as it turned out. Once the new vehicle arrived, Frank drove hard and got us to our tented safari lodge on Lake Eyasi a good hour before sunset. The lodge was beautiful; the food excellent. We set our alarms for 5 a.m. and by 5:35 were driving off through the dark to pick up our local guide, a Datoga guy name Kastuli.

The reason Steve and I were so excited about meeting the Hadza is because they represent some of the last remaining true hunter-gathers on the planet. Last year when we were in Ethiopia, we visited stone-age tribes in the Omo Valley, but as exotic as they were, they stay in one place and subsist for the most part on food that they grow or trade. The lifestyle of the Hadza, in contrast, is the life that humans lived for 99% of their time on earth. Women gather fruit and seeds and edible roots and other plants, while the men hunt just about everything that moves. They throw up simple huts made of brush where the women and children sleep, but when the pickings get slim, they move on. According to the Geographic article, of the thousand or so who survive, only about 250 continue to live by hunting and gathering, remaining stubbornly disdainful of the government’s efforts to get their kids into school and their adults out of the bush and into 21st-century-style hovels. They love their lives, anthropologists attest and the Geographic reporter confirmed. They work only 4- 6 hours a day, spending the rest of the time napping, goofing around, making simple handicrafts out of porcupine quills, bone, and purchased beads (the women), and smoking tobacco and marijuana (mostly the men). “Marijuana is illegal in Tanzania, you know,” Kastuli said. “But the Hadza, they don’t care. They could be meeting the president of the country, and they would smoke.”

The proximity of the modern world has influenced them. Within the last dozen or so years, most have switched to wearing some Western clothes (rather than exclusively animal skins). Hadza men still skin their animals, but they do it with steel knives instead of the stone ones they used not long ago. And within the last few years, a few groups have begun welcoming foreign visitors. In exchange they receive some compensation (primarily social services such as medicine when they get sick) and the women get a chance to earn cash from selling some of their handicrafts.

This was what we had signed up for. It was billed as a chance to “hunt with the Hadza,” but for the first hour or so after we arrived, we just hung around. The three adult Hadza men were sitting by a fire, and as the sun rose, a handful of women and kids drifted into the clearing. Kastuli told us that at the moment, this group included about 16 individuals. Other groups scattered around the countryside might contain 20 or 25. But they’re all very small, and individuals or families often switch from one group to another. According to the Geographic, men and women tend to engage in “serial monogamy,” being with one partner for a while and then breaking up to team with someone else. Often the women initiate the breakups; they apparently endure little of the subservience or abuse so common elsewhere in the world.

Hadza women and children

Kastuli’s outgoing friendliness overrode his limited English. He speaks a certain amount of the weird clicky Hadza language too, and so he was chatting with the group members as well as with us. He learned that the men had recently killed a couple of kudu. Strips of dried meat from that outing were hanging on a line. About 7:20, Kastuli announced that it was time to go hunting, and I assumed the Hadza guys would basically give us a hunting demonstration — shooting some arrows, demonstrating a couple of stalking moves. But no! The the three of them took off, trailed by the group’s tribe of 10 scrappy mutts, and as we scrambled to keep up with them, it soon became clear that they were following a routine they’d practiced since childhood.

It’s hard to describe how much fun this was; what an adrenaline rush. I’d been slightly nervous about the possibility of stepping on one of the black mambos, adders, or other snakes that live in the bush here. Indeed, this particular Hadza group has tacked the skin of a two huge (15-foot long) pythons on a baobab tree in their little compound. We’d heard that one of those pythons had eaten one of the camp dogs and the Hadza had taken revenge by killing and eating it. But the ground where we were following the hunters was reasonably clear, and I was watching where I stepped.

A bigger challenge was to avoid being snagged by the millions of acacia thorns lining the pathways, and the biggest challenge was keeping up with the 3 hunters. Steve and I are reasonably fit, and the bushmen looked like they were just strolling briskly, but they moved so fast! They’re trim as gazelle; with muscled arms and legs that look like carved ebony. Sometimes they walked side by side, joking and chatting, but then they’d suddenly fan out, squatting, aiming, shooting. We kept falling behind them, but I think they were slowing their pace so we could catch them, and within minutes, they called out a report of their first kill. We found them under a huge acacia tree, poking sticks at a branch high overhead in an effort to dislodge one of their hand-made arrows one of them had sent clean through a quail. They got it down, and showed us the bird, still conscious, looking around with a bewildered expression on its face. The guy holding it twisted its neck, tucked it under his belt, and went back to the hunt.

A half hour later, when I suggested we had better start back, they had killed 4 more birds: a couple of doves, another quail, and a big plump hornbill. The Hadza acted like it was all the same to them, though Kastuli was a little disappointed they hadn’t bagged a bigger animal, a baboon, say, or small antelope. But we were thrilled at what we’d seen and at what followed. We hiked back to the clearing and at the campfire, they plucked the feathers from all the birds, stuck them on sticks, and roasted them. Then they shared them, even tasty bites for us. This is their way. Though they have almost no material possessions, they share what they hunt and gather. I find them paradoxical; a charming blend of communism and anarchy, with no leaders, no priests, no clocks or calendars. “Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza,” the Geographic article says. “No Hadza adult has authority over any other. None has more wealth; or, rather, they all have no wealth.” What they do have is what so many of the rest of us have lost: plenty of leisure, enough to eat (but not too much), strong and supportive communities. I don’t want to become a Hadza, but I salute them.



Despite my qualms, the creepiest thing that happened during our stay with the Maasai was that a huge black beetle started crawling across the floor of our hut, just before I climbed into bed. Part of my brain was thinking, “You should photograph that,” but a larger part was driving a shriek that I sincerely hope the Maasai did not hear. I smashed the bug with my sandal (sleeping under thatched roofs always makes me jumpy), and the more-interesting-than-creepy thing that happened this morning was that no trace of it remained. Steve is certain ants consumed or carried it off in the night, though there was no sign of them, nor of any other noxious insects.

Although I’d thought we would have to sleep in a tent, instead we were lodged in an engazi, one of the Maasai’s traditional round structures made of wood poles and sticks plastered with a mixture of termite clay, cow dung, water, and ash, and topped with a thick layer of thatching. Since it was an engazi reserved for tourist use, twin foam mattresses had been placed over the cowhide beds, and a big mosquito net cocooned the whole sleeping platform. We slept surprisingly well.

That was partly because yesterday was so full. The drive from Moshi to the village took about two hours, carrying us through endless fields of sunflowers that at first were tall and luxuriant but grew shorter and more and more withered as we drove northeast. Within 5 minutes after leaving the Tarmac road, the landscape changed abruptly, soon reminding me of the American desert, except for the multitudes of acacia trees and euphobia instead of cacti and yucca. Our entrance to the Olpopongi compound was a hoot; 9 Maasai, young and old, men and women, had assembled to give us a traditional welcome song and dance (complete with some of the incredible leaps traditionally made by the warriors when they kill a lion). Over the course of the afternoon, we came to understand how special this place is: offering the most comprehensive opportunity in all of Maasai-land to learn about this centuries-old culture.

Apparently the Olpopongi center was the brainchild of a German guy who wanted to see the local folk develop some supplemental income for the tough times. After long and exhausting deliberations, the tribal elders blessed the idea, and the tourist boma (compound) was built over 15 months and began receiving visitors in 2010. It looks like it’s all alone out in the bush, but in reality 30 or so other bomas (inhabited by Maasai, rather than visitors) are scattered about, constituting the village of Tinga-Tinga. We were told that the Olpopongi compound contained all the elements of the workaday bomas. An outermost circle of spiky brush barrier serves to keep out wild animals; scraggly little dogs are the alarm system. A similar inner circle of brush corrals the cows, sheep, and goats at night, but in our boma contained picnic tables and a campfire area. In between the 2 circles of brush, the huts are arranged, one for each wife and her children. (Maasai warriors can have bunches of both. For example, our 31-year-old Maasai guide, Freddy, already has 4 wives and 8 children, and he told us his father has 14 wives and 87 offspring.) One concession to the tourists was a free-standing building containing (gents’ and ladies’) Western toilets and hot showers, facilities that surpassed some I’ve seen in American parks.

The other main touristic element was a “museum” pavilion containing educational panels and all manner of items used by Maasai past and present. Freddy and two other guys spoke English well, and they shared the task of giving us a comprehensive show and tell. We all took a leisurely break to consume a yummy lunch of rice cooked with savory chunks of beef and accompanied by chapattis stuffed with cooked vegetables. In the late afternoon, as the distant clouds parted to reveal beautiful views of Kilimanjaro, Freddy and Kimoni led us on a bush walk in which they pointed out an amazing array of plants with medicinal and other uses.

Bibi and two of the younger women

My favorite part of the experience, however, came before the bush walk, when Bibi (grandmother) invited us into one of the huts for Maasai tea. In the dim interior, we gathered around the little indoor fire, where Bibi was boiling the yummy mixture of leaves, milk, and spices. She filled our tin cups, and in short order, we learned that she’s 96. I pulled out my iPhone photo of Steve and his mom last August on her 95th birthday, and everyone thought it was great. Time disappeared for me as we sipped and chatted (with Freddy interpreting). I asked Bibi if life had changed much since she was a girl, and she discoursed at length, particularly noting (with disapproval) the advent of cell phones. I asked if Maasai co-wives got along well together or if jealousies ever divided them, and she had fascinating insights into that question. Freddy, too, held us spellbound, talking about what happens on a lion hunt, which the Maasai say they only do when one of the big cats has begun marauding on their cattle. In Maasai-land, only the warriors can hunt wild animals, and a boy becomes a warrior only after he’s had the foreskin of his penis sliced off publically, with a knife. This typically happens sometime between the ages of 12 and 22.

As luck would have it, a big circumcision ceremony was taking place somewhere in Tinga-Tinga yesterday. Because of that, fewer Maasai were present in the village than normally would be the case. Steve and I were the only tourists. So the campfire session was a bit subdued. No matter. I felt elated that somewhere nearby, new Maasai warriors had just been created; their family and neighbors were happy, singing and dancing. The newly circumcised might soon be toting (might already own!) cellphones that their grannies viewed with trepidation. For the moment, at least, the culture hung on.



Hiking on Mt. K

I was going to title this post, “Slopes rule, summit drools!” but I decided that would be sophomoric. It’s probably quite wonderful to reach the summit of this perennially ice-covered 19,000-foot extinct volcano, highest mountain in Africa, to start the final ascent around 11 p.m. in the freezing dark, to reach the heights despite the sharp reduction in the ambient oxygen. But I decided long ago (after reading about what it was like) that it wasn’t for me — requiring more time (6 days) than I would be willing to devote to it and more fitness than I possess. Steve was not one to argue this point. So I figured I would never set foot on Kilimanjaro.

When I heard that a day hike was possible, however, I leapt at that. Now that we’ve done it, we think it was incomparably better than going the whole 9 yards (at least for wimps like us).

I’m sure I’ve seen photos of the lower slopes, but I probably didn’t pay any attention to them and certainly forgot that that part of the mountain is dense rainforest. I expected something harsh and rocky. What a magical surprise we got.

Our guide for the day, Manuel (short for Emmanuel), a veteran of more than 70 Kili summits, picked us up about 8:15 and we reached the national park and checked in about an hour later. The morning was gray, and thick fog pressed in. This gave the forest a mystical, primieval feel as we walked into it. Steve and I decided if Bwindi most reminded us of Jurassic Park, the forest at the base of Kilimanjaro recalled the home of Yoda (except that that was a swamp, instead of a mountain slope). They both shared that dense, exquisitely concentrated greenness, with every tree, every patch of ground, host to myriad ferns and mosses, tiny flowers, and other plants. In one spot, we watched a troupe of big fluffy monkeys feed, and in another, we chanced upon a chameleon. We watched him start to turn color as he passed from the road to the brush, but no insects bothered us (and Manuel said no snakes slither here; it’s too chilly for them.)

I feel like I’ve exhausted my supply of superlatives, and our photographs also don’t fully capture how beautiful the trail was. (We were on the well-maintained Marangu Route, easiest of the 6 that ascend the mountain, and known to the guides as Coca-Cola, in contrast to the various Whiskies.) So I won’t even try to describe it further, other than to note we spent a total of 6 hours hiking covering the 10-mile round trip (we were taking it slow to drink in the sights; passing from an elevation of 6,400 feet up to 8,200 and then descending.) Our destination was the Mandara campsite, where through-hikers can sleep in cozy huts, eat their grub in a spacious “dining hall,” and use clean toilets.

We ate our box lunches and then basked for a few minutes in the sun that by then had broken through. It was almost enough to tempt me to return some day, to go for the trophy. (Almost, but not quite.)

The day before yesterday (Thursday, 6/13), we had a completely different taste of hiking on the mountain, in its own way as pleasurable as the formal hike. Our Tanzanian outfitter, a local outfit called Pristine Trails, had offered me a “complimentary” day trip to a local coffee farm, and although Steve and I have seen coffee growing in a number of spots around the world, I opted to include it in our itinerary. I thought of it as a throw-away day, figuring if our luggage got lost en route from Nairobi or we were just feeling tired, we could bail at the last minute. If I expected anything, it was something somewhat canned and touristy.

Wrong again! Turns out this “coffee tour” is the only one of its kind and was started only two years ago by a young man (24, at the ime) named Oscar. We were picked up by the same Pristine Trails driver who got us at the airport (Kila) and driven out to Oscar’s village. I gather that pretty much everyone in the Kilimanjaro region belongs to the Chagga tribe, and Oscar and his village were no exceptions. (The valleys serve as boundaries between the Catholic and Lutheran Chaggas. But everyone’s Chagga.) The driver took off, and Oscar led us to the home where he lives with his aged parents, sister, and various nieces and nephews. There he gave us by far the best explanation of the growing and processing of coffee I’ve had anywhere: picking beans off the tree, peeling them, showing us how they cull out diseased beans, explaining the drying and roasting process (all by hand, or using simple hand implements). Finally, he threw a ladleful of ground (with a wooden mortar and pestle) coffee into a pot of boiling water, and we gathered around a low table to drink it. Delicious!

Oscar and his dad

Every time I start to brood over how the human race is falling apart, I’ll try to remember Oscar. The 12th of 13 children, he only attended 6 years of primary school before he had to drop out. (His father, a schoolteacher who’s in his 80s today, had retired and didn’t have the money to pay the school fees.) Little Oscar helped to work the farm, but with time on his hands, he also occasionally shepherded tourists to the local waterfall and he was curious about their language. So he slowly, painstakingly taught himself English which today is fluent, nuanced, and funny. At 16 he worked as a porter on 4 excursions to the top of Kili, but decided that lugging the 45-pound loads up the mountain would kill him if he kept it up. Instead, he got the idea of starting the coffee tours. And now he’s got all sort of plans and has almost finished building a little wooden auditorium so he can accommodate groups. This head for business and native industriousness is apparently common among Chaggas. Oscar told us the first intra-African joke we’ve heard: If you find a Chagga lying in the road, how do you tell if he’s dead? Drop a coin.

After the coffee lesson, Oscar led us on a long (2-3-hour) hike to that local waterfall. Once again, we were hiking on the lower slopes of Kili (at one point, Oscar pointed out the national park boundary), and the waterfall turned out to be one of the most beautiful we’ve seen anywhere. But we were equally riveted by the ramble. Our path was a (mostly dry) mud byway that threaded the narrow passage between farms, affording glimpses of people’s lives. It was a bit like walking down an alley in Bird Rock — except that this felt densely jungly.

Unlike anywhere else we’ve seen in Africa, the Chagga haven’t cut down the native trees. Instead they’ve planted their bananas and coffee and avocadoes and other crops among the trees — which provide shade and help prevent erosion. They keep cattle, but as much for their manure (which they use as fertilizer) as for the meat and milk, and they confine those cattle and bring them grass to eat. (Many of the villagers we passed on the path had huge loads of fodder on their heads.) Oscar also told us that the Chagga tradition is to pass on the land to the youngest son (which in this case is him). The Chagga believe that’s the best way to keep family property intact for as long as possible.

We admired all of this. But this morning we’ll be leaving Chagga country and moving on. Our destination is a 24-hour adventure in a Maasai village in which we’re supposed to spend the day “learning the daily life of the Maasai children and adults, helping them with chores and other activities,” and sending “a unique and unforgettable evening at the campfire with a Maasai BBQ and traditional dancing ceremony” before returning to our cowhide bed in a tent.

This all sounded very cool to me when I signed us up for it back in January. Now I’m feeling a little nervous. I’ll report how it goes as soon as possible, but I’m not sure when I’ll next be able to upload. After leaving the village tomorrow morning, we’ll truly be on safari. If the lodges have wifi, you’ll hear from me sooner. If not, it may not be till Nairobi (a week from today). But I’ll also be tweeting (@jdewyze).