Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pied biker of Kilimanjaro?

Ahead of me, the roadside lookout issues a clarion call: ‘Mzuuuunguuuu’. The cry is taken up by another voice far away on the limit of earshot. And then a swarm of black specks, transported urgently on stick thin legs, are scurrying through the recently harvested maize fields, converging on me from all directions.

It can be disconcerting to become the centre of so much unsolicited attention. But it is a fundamental facet of Tanzanian expat life; and the black specks, when they eventually converge in a throng of curious faces lining the side of the track, carry nothing more dangerous than a smile.

  Uninhibited fascination – a local child investigates my cycle-computer
Mzungu means white person in Swahili and Tanzania is largely free of the political correctness that would forbid loudly defining an approaching stranger by their skin colour. Perhaps more surprisingly, such forthright dialogue is not the sole preserve of children. Even close to town, where European tourists are two for a Tanzanian Shilling, adults often greet me with, “How are you, white person,” spoken in Swahili.

Before, I appeared on the dirt track, the children had all, ostensibly, been gainfully occupied. Some had been watching the family’s goats; others were scaring birds from recently planted fields. The unlucky ones would have been fetching water or taking laundry to the river.

But the unexpected arrival of a bicycle riding Mzungu was akin to the circus coming to town. An exotic creature making a majestic (if rather sweaty) entry into their unpretentious world: fluorescent shirt and cleated cycling shoes perched atop a sleek, shiny mountain bike, which bears little resemblance to the two-wheeled beasts of burden that local people use.

Dirt road north of Moshi
When I ride out on weekend safaris through the maize and banana plots that spread upwards towards the summit of Kilimanjaro, the children who flock to the roadside have never strayed far from home and rarely see a white person. Most will have attended primary school, which may be an hour’s walk from home, but that will probably be on the outermost edge of their world.

But I do know local children who have seen more of the world than my own global-citizen offspring, though not the beaches and cities of travel brochures.  Neema, our ten year old neighbour whom my daughter has befriended, appeared one morning at school-run O’clock.  In her hand she carried a broom made from course straw bound to a rough stick.  Yes, she was going to school, she said.  But today, she was going to sweep, not to learn.  Maybe next term, after helping her family through a rough patch, she will be able to afford to take her place at a desk again.  It is unlikely that she will ever travel more than 10 kilometres from her birth place but she is already well acquainted with the world’s darker territory.

Those who dodge such hardship suffer uncompromisingly strict teachers who, armed with canes and chalkboards, teach them English phrases, which they are keen to practice – will a real Mzungu understand these strange words? “Good morning sir,” they chorus as I peddle past in mid-afternoon. “How are you; I’m fine thank you sir; give me pencil,” they repeat parrot fashion, before moving on to a phrase from the advanced class, “Give me money.”

5000 Tanzanian Shillings is about £2
This last plea exposes a saddening, social blight that is deeply lamented by my successful Tanzanian friends. On the whole, I am humbled by the determined independence of Tanzanians. Young men hauling heavily laden hand-carts; old men with stone-hammers breaking rocks into gravel; women walking 10km into town carrying 30kg of bananas on their heads; and of course Neema, paying her way at ten years old; all working for barely a dollar a day.

But on the other hand, I am often asked for ‘loans’, which I know will never be repaid. And there are those who say that Tanzania is held back by a continual, institutionalised dependence on donor support. It’s sad to see young children already subscribing to the idea that a rich benefactor will distribute handouts.

Roadside butcher: no electricity so no refrigeration!
 I have learnt to cry ‘Mafrica’ (African) in a tone that matches the excited cries of ‘Mzungu’ that herald my arrival. I also learnt enough Swahili to explain that it was afternoon, not morning and that I didn’t have any money. As my Swahili improved, I challenged the children to chase after me and asked them to give me money. Later, I tried asking for bananas, beer or a haircut. All such requests met with the same shy giggles and an expression that said it all: Mzungus really are the strangest of people.

This post is adapted from a despatch written for the BBC.  You can listen to the original braodcast here: From Our Own Correspondent

You can read other cycling stories in two separate blogposts:

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Counting Chickens

I am, of course, familiar with the old adage: one should not count one's chickens before they have hatched.  But when your hen is sitting on nine perfectly formed eggs and you know that the rooster was paying her plenty of special attention during the laying period, it is hard not to, well, count your chickens...

My faltering introduction to back-yard poultry farming started with two healthy birds, who the children named Mel and Freddy.  Our first egg was laid within hours and we were soon collecting two fresh eggs every day.  They tasted delicious and the yolks were that rich shade of yellow that suggests additives in the feed.  But our hens ate nothing apart from what they scatched and pecked around the garden.  It was the perfect start to a charmingly rustic self-sufficiency in free-range eggs.

Then Mel, our dominant hen and best layer, had a funny turn.  She became listless and spent long periods in the nest box without laying.  Broody, I hear you cry, but no, we think she had an egg stuck.  After a couple of days she suddenly rallied herself for a few seconds of wild flapping and squawking before sinking quietly to the ground where she clucked no more.

The children were devastated, particularly our daughter.  She was convinced that she had drowned the poor fowl, as she had been giving Mel a warm bath at the time (apparently it can help the passage of a difficult egg).

With egg production halved, our initial investment was looking increasingly illadvised.  I was particularly disappointed that, without a steady supply of eggs, there were no longer any freshly baked cakes.

A week later, Freddy stopped laying too and took to the nest-box in an unmistakable show of broodiness.  Perhaps, in the absence of Mel, she had developed a sudden urge to ensure the survival of her species.  Fortunately, we had acquired a rooster, or else she would have been trying to hatch duds. 

Unfortunately, in her rush towards motherhood, she had failed to lay a full clutch and was sitting on only two eggs.  To be fair, there would have been more eggs in the nest if they hadn't already been in cakes.

And there is a reason why hens usually sit on clutches of 10 - 12 eggs: chick survival rates are low.  Within a day of leaving the coup, one chick had vanished.  A few weeks later, the other one was found belly up.

Left alone again we knew what Freddy would do.  Within days, she was laying again and this time we let her keep all the eggs. Within two weeks, she was, once again, confined to the nest. This time, she had a respectable clutch with nine eggs quietly incubating.  At this point, I started to count my chickens...

Three weeks later, eight of the eggs hatched.  Freddy is now chased around the garden by a cheeping flock of fluffy yellow fledglings.  And I'm left pondering whether or not it is too early to count either my eggs or my barbequed drum-sticks...  It probably is; we won't even know the gender of the birds until they approach maturity.

   Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens: 3rd Edition   Raising Chickens For Dummies   The Complete Encyclopedia Of Chickens
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Loliondo magic man

Deep in the African bush, a retired pastor threatens to eclipse Lourdes as the destination of choice for pilgrims in search of faith healing.
Thousands congest a narrow track in pursuit of healing
A six hour drive from my home, a dusty trail leads to the isolated village of Samunge, deep in Loliondo.  The track snakes between acacias and the backdrop is the rolling savannah of Tanzania’s northern safari circuit, home to such iconic attractions as the Serengeti, Masai Mara and Ngorongoro.

Not far away, the annual wildebeest migration is billed as the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle.  But a human pilgrimage of rival proportion threatens to upstage this renowned animal odyssey.  And Loliondo has been dubbed, rather hastily perhaps, the new ‘Mecca of Africa’.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River in their annual migration
Fom a hut in Samunge village, Ambilikile Mwasapila, a retired Lutheran Pastor, treats thousands of people everyday.  From cripples and diabetics to AIDS sufferers, his patients’ illnesses lie dotted across the entire spectrum of human ailments.  Apparently, his miracle cure was revealed to him in a dream years ago but he failed to test the life-saving revelation until a second, more recent vision impelled him to act.

Unlike traditional healers across the region, Loliondo’s magic man has but one medicine.  He treats every condition with a herbal concoction derived from the mugagira tree, a genus that safari guides would call giraffe food.  Yet his patients, who range from peasants to politicians, are boldly testifying to the all-healing power of this god-given recipe.

Mugagira roots being prepared according to the divine revelation
I will refrain from commenting on the merits of his unresearched miracle drug.  A recent tragedy produced a sad irony which provides sufficient insight.  Last week, two vehicles collided head-on along the Arusha – Ngorongoro highway.  One was returning from and the other travelling to visit the pastor.

Tragically, four people died at the scene.  Another fourteen were seriously injured and were evacuated to the nearest hospital for emergency treatment.  None continued their journey or returned to the healer; all turned to conventional medical treatment when faced with life threatening physical trauma.

Holding out for a cure: the 20 km queue on the track to Samunge village
I suppose that when an ailment, or its causes, is not visible to the human eye, a ‘cure’ with similarly mysterious mechanisms may seem valid.  But when faced with lacerations, fractures or other visible injuries, even the most faithful advocates turn to treatments that they can see and feel.

I have, on occasion, exploited a rudimentary knowledge of endorphin release and the placebo effect to ‘treat’ my own children.  They are not able to understand the physiological processes that cause, say, a headache, so they willingly accept the mysterious remedies I administer - 'sucking out the pain' from a a headache or kissing better a sore arm.  Crucially, they are still young and naïve enough to believe in my healing powers.

A 'golden chance that never comes twice': hope for sale at 30 cents a shot
Are the Loliondo pilgrims childishly naïve?  Perhaps they are, but consider the two other key ingredients in the mix: superstition and hope.

For those living desperate lives, mugagira, at TSh500 (US$0.30) a shot, offers hope that is almost universally affordable.  Add to that a widespread belief in both witchcraft and religion and you have the perfect conditions to spawn any quantity of quack remedies.

One prominent pilgrim, MP Beatrice Shelukindo, described the Loliondo phenomena as a “golden chance that never comes twice.”

Golden ticket or fool’s gold – what do you think?

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From the Middle East to Africa and back again

As unrest creeps across the Middle East in an epidemic of disorder emanating from the catalytic events in Egypt, I’m heading into the thick of things.  But not back to my old stamping grounds in the Arabian Gulf, where the melting pot of Shiite – Sunni rivalries is bubbling more vigorously than ever.
Demonstrators in Duraz, Bahrain (Photo: Hasan Jamali/AP)
Tomorrow I fly to Jordan.  There, I will call into service my extensive experience in delicate politics, gleaned from five years living on the fringes of unrest in Bahrain.  My mission is simple; to bring understanding and tolerance to a sphere plagued by persistent misunderstandings.
In Amman, where it is meteorological rather than political storm clouds that are gathering over the historic Citadel, I will be a delegate at an international workshop where we will discuss the complexities of... delivering the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Science Programme.
Ruins of the Roman Temple of Hercules, Citadel Hill, Amman (Photo: Jon Bigg)
We will grapple with the difficult compromises required when balancing ideological assessment rubrics with ambitious curriculum content goals.  We will discuss the peaceful deployment of Areas of Interaction, and how this should be monitored by outside agencies.
And I will return to Africa next week equipped for new and exciting educational adventures with my young charges.  I will understand the myriad complexities of MYP and a new era of peace will descend across my troubled cerebral cortex as the progressive international-mindedness of the Curriculum Model learns to live in harmony with the sacred dogma of fundamentalist educational doctrines.
Roman theatre, Amman (Photo: Jon Bigg)
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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Six months on the Kilimanjaro Dirt Road Hash

My first blog post, A month in Tanzania, mentioned the Hash.
Here is six months of hashing in pictures
All images © Jon Bigg

22nd August 2010
Vasso Estate near Kibosho on the slopes of Kilimanjaro

Fraser takes the river crossings in his stride

A slightly more cautious approach.

A field of blooms, soon to be harvested and airfreighted to European florists

The end of our first Hash: Sundowners with a view!

3rd October 2011:
Exploring the hilly plantations of the
Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute
An ornate spider strung between coffee bushes

Annie and the girls

Fraser and a stick

Last dash for the finish line, where a cool soda is waiting

Sundowners with a view of Mount Meru this time

13th November 2010
Camping Hash on Lake Ambussel in Masailand
There are more pictures of this hash here 
Sticks, shells and scorpions on the shores of a dried up lake

12th December 2010:
Shanty Town Hash, around our own neighbourhood.
I teamed up with an American doctor and set this hash.  It was a great opportunity to take the kids exploring the river canyons behind our house.

A family home just a couple of kilometres from where we live

9th January 2011
Makoa Farm, Machame
Starting from a field that (with the addition of a graveled Pay & Display car park) could have been plucked straight from rural England, we plunged down a trail into a river valley.  This was Marcus's first Hash for a while - he had grown out of the sling a while ago, but we recently acquired a papoose...
Marcus rides in style
Annie and her friend Sana take a grandstand perch at the end of the hash

23rd January 2011
Somewhere near Weru Weru
Wide open farmland riven by a 100 foot canyon.  The northern skyline stretches from Kilimanjaro to Meru with views over the Blue Mountains to the south.

Fraser and his friend Sill - it's all about sticks and sodas when you take small boys hashing

The house beneath the flame tree
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All images © Jon Bigg

Monday, January 24, 2011

Kilimanjaro Mountain Bike Marathon

10th January 2011

Just heard about this today and it's happening in February.  Sounds fantastic but at the moment it could go two ways:
  1. I find more details, start training and give regular progress updates here
  2. I realise it's a silly idea and delete this blog post 
The nitty (and very) gritty:  Two day bike race around the world's largest free standing mountain.  246 km of dirt track with a total ascent of 2,844 metres -  that's about 9,300 feet.

11th January 2011

Spanner in the works, or handy excuse depending on which way you look at it:  the dates are 25th - 26th February, ie: it starts at 7:30 AM on a Friday and I will have to work that day.

Still, I could just follow the route a day behind the pack... but half the fun is participating in a big event, so forget that.  Long holidays are a real perk of the job but being told when to take them definitely isn't.

Image reproduced from Kiliman Adventure Challenge with their kind permission 
Alternatively, I could put it off for a year.  I know, it sounds like I'm quitting already but actually I have a plan.  I'll start a cycling club at school and recruit able cyclists.  Then next year I'll enter a school team in the event.  That way, I get to participate but technically I'm still at work!  Another perk of the job?  Perhaps.

23rd January 2011

Okay, entering the KiliMAN bike marathon this year just became a little more tricky.  The weekend before, I have to go to Jordan for a workshop.  Ditching the family two weekends in a row?  I suppose I could but do I really want to?

So, I've put out feelers about starting a cycling club at school.  It was something I was thinking of anyway.  The KiliMAN just nudged me forward.  The plan is to train them to maintain their bikes too - they could even notch up diploma points doing it.  You never got credit for going out cycling when I was at school!

Weekend biking: a steep climb up the dirt road towards Machame (Photo: Tim Hope)
29th January 2011

I just returned from a week at the coast.  I was in Pangani with all our 1st year Diploma students who were doing some field work for their Science courses.  When I checked my email, I found two surprises:

1st surprise: there are at least two Kilimanjaro bike marathons.  As well as the February event, there's a much less strenuous 80 km ride in June.  Plenty of time to train and it's a much easier ride.  Sounds like a cop-out though.

2nd surprise: A colleague and I may be able to take a day off work to do the two day ride next month.  To justify our day off, we would either raise money for the school's scholarship programme or take some students with us.  That all sounds fine BUT the ride is less than four weeks away and I've barely ridden for three months!

So, will the June event be the first challenge for my fledgling cycling club?  We'll see, but right now, I have some serious training to do.  Tomorrow, I'll be having my earliest Sunday morning for a long time and will be hitting the dirt tracks at dawn!

Image reproduced from Marie Frances Mt Kilimanjaro Marathon with her kind permission 

3rd February 2011

After a great training ride last weekend, I had to come crashing back down to reality on Monday morning: organising a student event at such short notice is just not possible.  There are too many people and procedures to mobilise and simply too much else going on that we would clash with.
Target: to do it properly next year - no excuses...

The road from home: it just keeps on climbing all the way to the top!
Follow this story as I start the cycling club and put the students through their paces in a later post: Riding round the mountain


Lonely Planet Tanzania (Country Travel Guide)   Lonely Planet Trekking in East Africa   Lonely Planet East Africa (Multi Country Travel Guide)

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Who knows, I might actually do this thing!
I am grateful to Kiliman Adventure Challenge and Marie Frances Mt Kilimanjaro Marathon
for allowing me to use images from their websites