Danielle Bird '07
Will Blomstedt '07
Courtney Chou '08
Nicky Conroy '03
Chris Farmer '08
Gary Freilich '08
Ali Frizell '08
Tom Glazer '08
Travis Green '08
Kristina Guild '07
Kiersten Hallquist '08
Richard Hansen '07
Ruth Hupart '08
Josh Hurd '08
Jordan Page '07
Anna Payne '08
Amelia Potvin '08
Lauren Smith '08
Ashley Thorfinnson '07
Nick Ware '08
Professor Bill Roebuck
Professor Jack Shepherd
First Letter from Africa
13 September 2006
Dear Parents and Friends:
Kathleen and I arrived safely in southern Africa yesterday, and then slept for 12 hours. We are now working in our office here on the campus of the University of Pretoria.
This morning we went through the AFSP program hour-by-hour with our Pretoria colleagues. It is always surprising that no matter how carefully you prepare a program, there are almost always glitches that show up, to mock us, in the details. Somehow, a lecture in the field, an evening dinner with the students, a birthday celebration (and we celebrate all the birthdays of students that occur during the term) the number of tents, the transportation from A to B, can get into conflict with one another. And they do, and today we took six hours to sort it all out.
Now Kathleen and I are enjoying the quiet of a campus-wide holiday; everyone has gone home. A very good idea, which we should encourage U.S. universities to copy. It is dry here, but lovely: 65-70°F now in mid-afternoon. The migrating birds are returning. The resident bulbul found his perch (he likes to locate in places where a large echo magnifies his call) to awaken Kathleen and me around 4:30 a.m. I am especially fond of the Cape Turtle dove and its repeated call of impala, impala, which I like to translate to the students as “work harder, work harder.” For some reason, they tell me that they have difficulty identifying this birdcall. I am also very fond of the red-eyed dove, which I tell Kathleen sings out, “I am the red-eyed dove; Kathleen’s the one I love!” Er, well, maybe you have to actually hear it!
We gather up our first student this Friday night (Will Blomstedt) and our second on Monday afternoon (Lauren Smith), and the remaining 18 on Tuesday throughout the day. We are ready for all arrivals: vans, signs, check-off lists. So now we wait in anticipation of the returning migrating birds, the coming of the spring rains, and the arrival of precious young students from their parents and friends after a long journey. It is a time of many new beginnings.
With all good wishes,
Jack and Kathleen
Second Letter from Africa
10 October 2006
We are safely back from our first field trip and preparing to go out again on Wednesday. During the ten-day trip, we and our students honed our field observation and tracking skills, broadened our understanding of wildlife management challenges, especially regarding elephants, and began our analysis of community-based conservation issues and eco-tourism.
We are now grateful for a few days to do laundry, re-stock our field gear, rest, visit with home stay families, even attend classes. We prepare for our next field trip with two days of lectures on rural, small-holder farming, and community-based conservation, our next topics of study.
September 26: Our introduction to the African bush and its wildlife started at “JC” Strauss’ camp in Phalaborwa, on the Oliphants River. Lions roar at dawn as we rise at 0500 to go upriver on “JC”’s double-deck boat. Cape buffalo graze along the riverbanks. Hippos rise ahead of us, eyes bulging, and grunt alarms; one runs along parallel to the boat before plunging into the water. We drift by bachelor herds of impala, rock hyrax, and giraffes silhouetted against acacia trees.
From camp, we watch a large elephant herd of some 40 animals browse along the tree-line across the river. This is a matriarchal herd, led and protected by an older female and a number of “aunties”, with a few young adolescent males (who will be driven out of the herd as they mature) and a range of young including about 5 babies. At a signal from the matriarch, the herd moves quickly off to our right over a small ridge; they are gone, silently, in less than 90 seconds. Our study of elephants has begun.
“JC” orders us off the boat and starts our tracking exercises. Gary Freilich spots the tail of a water monitor lizard in the reeds. We all closely watch a lone bull elephant feeding nearby. Under fever trees, “JC” gives us a history of tracking and introduces us to the concepts of “ground,” “aerial,” “presence,” and “warning signs,” and “positive” and “negative” tracks. We begin studying the new environment around us. The African bush is an excellent, and unforgiving, classroom.
At night, we listen to hippos grunting, nightjars, owls, crickets. We rise at 0500 each morning, eat “rusks” (a hard biscuit) dunked in coffee or tea, and start our tracking exercises on foot by 0600. We learn to identify hippo, Cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, and the more difficult genet and civet cats, leopard, hyena, African wildcat, mongoose. We learn that when an animal’s hind foot comes down on the front foot, the animal is walking carefully, soundlessly in the bush. We learn that the length of stride = the height of the animal. That the circumference of an elephant’s footprint in centimeters times 2.5 gives its height in meters at the shoulder. We measure one print at 150 x 2.5 =3.75 meters – a large female. We learn the difference between a leopard and lion print (the lion “duck walks” with its front paws splayed out). Our last night at “JC”’s we find enormous lion prints and work to analyze a strange track of parallel reptilian prints with a deep drag mark between them – ah, crocodile.
We learn survival skills: how to make fire using various common substances, or rubbing a wooden stick into a wooden block. The Tamboti tree, which makes nice furniture, emits a poisonous smoke when burned. (We remember “The Poisonwood Bible”.) We collect potable water from bags tied to acacia branches. We take turns spitting small pellets of kudu and impala dung: Courtney Chou spits an impala pellet more than 30 feet; Tom Glazer reaches a record-setting 39.5 feet! Not a survival skill, but lots of fun!
Through all this we increase our bird identification: yellow-billed kites, eagle owls, wagtails, Cape turtle doves, Burchel’s coucal, Egyptian geese, the tiny orange kingfisher, sacred ibis. Two fish eagles, far above us, call to one another as they hunt. (Nicky Conroy starts adding several species to the extensive bird identification list she is compiling.)
We hold our first plenary session at night on the top deck of “JC”’s boat under the Southern Cross, Scorpio and a new moon. The river sounds of Africa surround us. The students discuss what they have learned and how they are changing. The four students running the plenary – Nicky, Gary, Danielle Bird and Lauren Smith– end by asking each of us to complete the sentence “I am grateful for . . .”. The responses stretch to our US families, being safe in Africa, clean air and water, the awakening of “an Africa” in each of us. We begin to leave the US and its busy lifestyle behind. We are learning to observe, listen, analyze. Africa and its people are becoming our teachers.
After our tracking test with “JC” – Richard Hansen and Josh Hurd have perfect scores - we depart for Timbavati, one of the best camping sites in southern Africa. We live in large tents, along a dry riverbed, in Big Five country (lion, leopard, rhino, Cape buffalo, elephant) open onto Kruger National Park. We divide into three teams and rotate each morning among survival skills, vegetation and wildlife observation, and elephant identification. Michelle and Steve Henley, elephant researchers, spend the next three days with us as we continue our study of this flagship animal, the largest land mammal on earth. We learn about the composition of elephant herds, the history of elephants in Africa, their interaction with other animals and humans, poaching, stresses on the animal, their impacts on vegetation and water resources, and because of increasing numbers of elephants in southern Africa, management choices (translocation, contraception, culling). At the core is an important management dilemma: Animal and human conflicts, especially between elephants in national parks and humans living around those areas. (For example, more than 2 million people, most of them extremely poor, live along the western fence of Kruger National Park, which has more than 14,000 elephants, more than twice its carrying capacity.) Each team in rotation spends most of a day with the Henleys. They learn to identify elephants by ear nicks, record data in field books, observe elephant behavior. In Team C, Josh takes digital photos of the elephants’ ears that will be added to the Henley’s work identifying the individuals in this region. Ashley Thorfinnson and others sketch the ears for the Henleys.
Our academic schedule is set: up at 0500; coffee, tea, rusks; in the field by 0600. Team A - Richard, Jordan Page, Nicky, Lauren, Gary, Danielle and I - study field vegetation with Brendan, our instructor who also carries a rifle (for our protection). We walk out into the dry savannah where we focus primarily on nutritional aspects of plants, especially grasses in the dry season, and animal foraging techniques, particularly pregnant females who need good nutrition. We begin to shift our attention from elephants to impalas and vegetation: Which has the biggest impact in terms of consumption and damage? We examine mopane trees and their movement southward in this low-veld region. Are they indicators of climate change? We study “biospheres” of vegetation destruction caused by elephants and other large animals. But which has the greater environmental impact: impala or elephant? (Approach your answer cautiously!)
One afternoon all of us gather to learn compass and map reading. We go out into the field again in small teams and practice on a triangular path that leads us eventually back into camp. We must “set a map,” measure our bearings, and cover the three legs of a triangle that will bring each Team separately and safely back to camp. Experienced cross-country map-readers like Travis Green set the pace for their Teams.
Team A has compass readings of 222 degrees – 250 meters; 152 degrees, 100 meters. Our task is to find a green toy “happy frog” hanging from a mopane tree at each reading. Jordan nails the first leg with Danielle and Nicky stepping off the distance. We are learning teamwork and confidence building. Lauren sets the compass for the second leg, and Richard and Gary help get us back into camp before the two other teams.
This is not an idle exercise: The next day all members of the three teams are blindfolded and then dropped into the bush on a “lost” exercise, with an armed ranger (Kathleen is with Team C, two rangers with Team B). After careful study of their map and compass, watched by three giraffes, Team A, Martin (an armed ranger) and I begin the 5-kilometer hike back toward camp. Again the six students prove excellent map-readers: We are again first back in and enjoy leisurely cups of Rooibos bush tea while awaiting the others. Team C was next in and Kathleen relates their experience: “Nick Ware and Anna Payne were out front navigating as Brendan, with rifle over his shoulder, patiently remained silent (but smiling) about our actual location. Anna and Ali Frizell continuously drew on their training for Dartmouth Freshman Trips. Team C got back into camp delayed only until they discovered that a west-flowing tributary would establish their exact location.”
That night, after a lecture from the Henleys on elephants, we all are in bed by 9:30. We fall asleep listening to the fiery-neck nightjar and the African Scops Owl with its persistent, soft “prrrrreeet."
Other survival skills training include firing the AK-47. Each Team meets in a dry riverbed and takes its turn learning safety and firing under the careful supervision of a former South African military rifle instructor. Dietr teaches each student individually how to handle the weapon safely, how to load and unload it, and how to fire it carefully. Nicky Conroy, Nick Ware and Chris Farmer all fired a perfect 13, which included hitting a tennis ball at about 10 meters and two twirling balloons, one out at 30 meters.
On our final day, one of our instructors, “LD” van Essen of the Institute for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria, shoots and kills a male impala, and brings it into camp. This is a planned exercise. With great professional skill and in a way that respects the animal, “LD” hoists the impala on a branch of a low acacia tree in the dry riverbed, and works us through a basic anatomy lesson. We inspect the animal for ticks and disease. Amelia Potvin, Nick Ware and Chris Farmer help “LD” skin the antelope. As its internal organs are removed, the pre-meds among us push forward; the arts and humanities majors ease toward the back. The heart and its chambers seem to be of particular interest to Courtney and Jordan. Kiersten Hallquist identifies the kidneys and introduces some of us to them. Every part of the impala is identified, cleaned and saved; the meat goes into a stew for our dinner that evening.
To be candid, neither the AK-47 exercise nor the impala dissection appealed to every student. Some excused themselves from one or both activities. But these are also realities of the African bush. Beginning in the late 1980s, the AK-47 transformed poaching in Africa when Russian and Chinese versions of this durable weapon began to flood Africa’s markets. National parks rangers were, momentarily, outgunned in their efforts to prevent the destruction of vast numbers of elephants. (In fact, elephant populations in sub-Saharan Africa fell by more than half in the 1970s and 1980s. Not all of that was due to poaching, however.)
The impala also gave us the opportunity to study a wide-ranging antelope ruminate, both during our walks and in terms of its anatomical adaptation to dry- and wet-season grazing and survival. And it gave Will Blomstedt an opportunity to practice one of his delicious puns: At the end of this exercise, with the impala meat safely delivered to the Timbavati kitchen, Will brought a plate of fried impala liver to our tent. “I have a new career,” he offered, “as the de-LIVER-y man.
Africa is full of images and sounds, and we add to them:
• We have many singers and three wonderful musicians. Will softly serenades the hippos with his ukulele beside the Oliphants at “JC” Strauss’s camp. He is joined by Kristina Guild on her guitar. Ruth Hupart plays her Irish penny whistle, but only in her tent, at Timbavati. “LD”, one of our instructors, and I find ourselves standing on the path in silence listening to the beauty and incongruity of Irish music in the African bush.
• Hyenas crunching bones outside our tent at 0400.
• Kristina’s birthday celebration at Timbavati, when the staff dances from the kitchen carrying her cake and singing “Happy Birthday” in Shangaan. Our other trip birthday falls on the day of our return to Pretoria, and Ashley happily settles for a huge pizza party complete with hats and masks.
• Amelia Potvin emerges from a local community crafts market with a huge smile and a terrific pair of crafted earrings.
• Kristina’s coleslaw – prepared from scratch – for the final dinner in Skukuza Camp, Kruger National Park. Where did she get those ingredients?
• Ashley on her haunches in front of a large outcropping of prickly-pear cactus (an alien plant species which she is studying), feverishly sketching.
Although we finish our field trip in Kruger, where we briefly study the impact of fire and vegetation controls, I end this account in Timbavati and with elephants. One evening all of us went out in three vehicles and found a matriarchal herd of 25 animals or more in a large water site. At one end, five adolescents splashed each other, locked small tusks and wrestled. In time, they all slapped mud on their backs and bellies, flipped dust over themselves and then rubbed every side and even behind their ears on smooth rubbing-post trees. The older aunties and adolescent females took turns watching as many as 7 new babies, some of which could still walk under their mother’s bellies, as they nursed and bathed. A few of the little ones were trying out their trunks, which are the diameter of the circle made with your thumb and forefinger, and imitated the larger elephants by attempting to pluck grass or small sticks, or struggled to get in and out of the slick sides of mud baths.
On its morning with the Henleys, Team A was very lucky. We quickly found a large herd and, driving our open Land Rover through the thorn bush, pulled up inside the group of about 40 elephants. We turned off the motor. In the silence, the students worked with the Henleys to identify individuals by the nicks on their ears. Some sketched while others took photos.
My Journal entry includes: Elephants gently move around our vehicle, some within an arm’s reach. An adolescent sniffs our vehicle with her trunk, grunts loudly and moves away. Slowly, we are aware of rumbles (a form of peaceful communication), sneezes, chewing, vegetation being pulled from the ground or branches. The “ellies” continue browsing. Some are very adept: an adolescent show-off kicks up a tuft of grass, holds it between her trunk and right foot, pulls it up and eats. A baby, lower than the seats on our Rover, nurses so close to us that I can hear her suckling. Another, not a year old, struggles for several minutes to pull a tuft of grass out of the ground, pauses, and then makes what can only be called a sound of disgust – a grumbled “brrrrrr” - then kneels and eats the stubborn tuft.
On signal, the herd slowly turns and moves off through the thorn bush. They fan out and resume feeding some distance from us. A baby nurses on the right side of its mother. Mother then squeezes that right breast, signaling that it is finished for the moment, and the youngster trots around her to the left breast.
The students now begin an almost unanswerable discussion of what to do about large numbers of elephants in southern Africa’s national parks and game conservancies. Is culling (killing) them really an option? I watch this herd slowly move away, and I don’t see how we can accept that. We begin a series of rousing debates about this issue.
But on this morning, as these elephants disperse along the low-veld, we are silent. I am grateful for this moment of peacefulness, for seeing nature still free, for these thoughtful and kind young students you have sent to us.
As the herd moves off, Martin, our ranger, tells us softly: “You may speak now.”
“We can’t,” says one student. “We are in awe.”
Jack and Kathleen
Third Letter from Africa
23 October 2006
We are safely back from our second field trip, this time to Swaziland and eastern KwaZulu Natal. Bill Roebuck and his wife Karen Baumgartner are here and taking over their section of the program, as planned. Kathleen is completing her work with the home stay families, which Karen is picking up, and I am grading papers, quizzes and the mid-term exam which our students took on Friday (20 October). The coming week includes lectures, field trips to the Apartheid Museum and to Swartkrans (site of the first known controlled use of fire by humans for cooking), and preparation for the third field trip, this time to Namibia for 17 days, led by the Roebucks. Kathleen and I depart from South Africa for home on 30 October.
As you recall, our first trip focused on learning field observation skills and studying wildlife management, tourism, some field biology and an introduction to community-based conservation (CBC) issues. Our second trip took us into local African communities to study small-holder farming and eco-tourism as part of the CBC concerns. It ended with a lovely day snorkeling in Kosi mouth and swimming in the Indian Ocean.
We headed out on 11 October by coach to Manzini, Swaziland. Nick Ware slipped Oliver Mtukudzi’s new CD “Wowai” into the coach’s sound system and “To Zaza” and Isomison” carried us eastward on the N-4 and the R-33 through Witbank, across the Little Olifants River, to Carolina and onward on the N-17 to the border post at Oshoek. I am particularly fond of Carolina, a Moslem town with its blue and beige mosque, where in a previous year Kathleen and I stopped to fill our students’ urgent need for a soccer ball and were delayed by a long and friendly discussion about the US war in Iraq with the proprietor of Moola’s Variety Corner. He also gave us his “best price” on the ball.
We crossed the border in some confusion and disorder, but recovered with a lunch on the Swazi side of locally grown avocadoes and bread, lightly-salted groundnuts, and fresh juices. We hit Manzini about 1400 and met Myxo, our Swazi friend and guide, at the market. After we off-loaded all of our gear, the coach departed for Pretoria leaving Kathleen and me as luggage guards while Myxo and the students poked their way around the market.
Manzini has one of southern Africa’s best markets for local carvings, jewelry, cloth and food. It is a tightly-packed area of about 5 acres crowded with small stalls protectedagainst the sun by sheets of black plastic. Anyone over 5’8” walks through the market slightly bent over to avoid the wood-pole supports. One end of the market is double-storied, with vegetables and fruits on the bottom level, crafts on top. Along the east corner, traditional healers see their patients in a modest cloth booth and dispense medicines rolled up in yesterday’s newspapers. The Dartmouth women entered this maze seeking cloth to wrap around themselves from their waists while in the conservative village of Kaphunga. The men practiced their bargaining skills. Their restraint was commendable: no large drums or tall, carved giraffes returned to the pile of luggage. The women emerged with bright, colorful wraps.
We departed with Myxo for Kaphunga in three, tightly-packed vehicles. Kaphunga is a small, farming village 50 km southeast of Manzini. Along the way, we picked up a local primary school teacher, who explained the vagaries of the community’s planting season.
The rains started suddenly during the last week; there was a downpour yesterday (Tuesday). The farmers are betting that the rainy season has begun and they are now very quickly manuring, plowing and planting their fields. It is a gamble, with life-threatening consequences. This agriculture is rain-fed, small-holder or subsistence, farming completely dependent on rainfall and maize to survive. But the rains have been unreliable for the last 5-6 years. The planting season used to be more certain. Now there seems to be far more risk than anyone can remember. After the cyclone of 2000, there was a three-year drought, and the UN’s World Food Programme still has a white tent (with black “WFP” on its roof) in Kaphunga. It is supplying corn-soya-blend food aid to the community’s school children. In the valley, we pass a farm that belongs to the teacher’s father. His maize, however, stands more than 15 inches high. Why? He irrigates by drawing water from the river. But Kaphunga is too high and impoverished to afford irrigation; boreholes cost money.
We climb upward in a rattle-bang, local coach on a narrow dirt road. We are greeted along the way by school kids in blue and beige uniforms who wave and smile and shout greetings. We pass the WFP tent, and continue onward above the tree line to open, gently-sloping fields. Kaphunga sprawls along a hilltop 3,000 feet above the sugarcane fields in the valley far below us. We look out across the Swaziland plain stretching some 80 km to the distant Lubombo Mountains.
Our home for the next three days is an enclosure that contains 8 mud-and-stick buildings of various sizes. There is no electricity or running water. The students sleep in a rectangular structure or in two beehive huts. These are constructed by forming a circle of wood poles that arc over a polished dung floor to a thick center post. The whole is thatched, giving it a hooded look, and one crawls through an arched doorway about 3 feet high. It’s dark inside and entered only by the young and supple; Kathleen and I erect our camping tent assisted by gleeful young children from the nearby primary school.
In one of the huts, Myxo gives us lessons in SiSwazi:
“Sawubona” (sow-oo-bona) – Hello
“Sanibonani” (sanee-bon-nanee) – Hello (to a group)
“Yebo” (yay bow) – Affirmation; a response (i.e. “Yebo, Gogo”)
“Unjani” (oo-janee) – How are you?
“Ninjani” (nin-janee) – How are you (to a group)?
“Ngikhona” (n-gee-kona) – I am fine.
“Sikhona” (see-kone-a) -- We are fine.
“Siyabonga” (see-ya-bonga) – Thank you.
“Sala Kahle” (sah-la-kah-lee) – Stay well.
“Hamba kahle” (hambaaa kah-lee) – Go well
During the next several days, Myxo is also our teacher of Swazi culture, history, traditions, customs. We learn about the Swazi king and his family, about honoring guests (who always sleep in the “Gogo”’s or grandmother’s hut), how land is acquired, huts built, crops planted, brides courted and won and paid for. We discuss the role of traditional medicine, the sangoma and “muti” (good medicine). Each student has a specific writing assignment in Kaphunga, and we get out into this safe, welcoming traditional African community.
One afternoon we all walk down the dirt road for an audience with Mr. Mbonani, the community’s Nduna, or head man. He serves as “the eyes of the chief” of this region, and since some of the students have assignments to write about the community’s political and social structure, he is a good source of information. In addition to being Nduna, Mr. Mbonani is also a farmer and the architect of the community’s beehive huts and other structures. In fact, three years ago Kathleen and I watched him direct construction of one of the beehive huts in Myxo’s compound.
We sit in a semi-circle around him; I am on a chair next to the Nduna, as the leader of these visitors, and am referred to in SiSwazi as “Melooze” (me-low-zee) or honored guest. Chickens scratch around us, chased occasionally by two hopeful roosters. A grandson in diapers scrambles in and out of Mr. Mbonani’s lap, distracting him. The students ask questions through Myxo, who translates and occasionally elaborates.
How did the Nduna get his position? (He was appointed by the chief at a young age.) What is his precise role in the community? How does he adjudicate disputes? (This brought vague answers as we pursued it, largely, we later learned, because the Nduna was worried that his answers might get back to the community members who brought the disputes.) One of the longest discussions concerned the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the community, and the government’s efforts to control the disease through education and informational posters. The Nduna admitted his concern over the increasing number of cases and the impact of the disease on farm works. He was further worried about people leaving the community, sometimes to get treatment; and no new farmers have come to Kaphunga in recent memory. AIDS is a topic that the students return to during our stay.
Three other vignettes stand out:
• Babe Shabangu, an organic farmer. We get up at 0500, and eat a breakfast of maize porridge, toast, tea prepared over a wood fire and serves in heavy, blackened, steel pots; there are also fresh bananas and oranges.
Our first visit starts at 0600 (after we rise with the red sun at 0500). We walk across the road and down the long hill to fields where men are already plowing with teams of oxen while women and children carefully place a single seed of maize every half meter or so. One small boy tells us that he got up at 0400 and will work until 0745, when he then walks up the hill and past our compound to the primary school.
Across the saddle of this hill, farmer Babe (father, an honorific in this case) Shabangu waits for us in one of his maize fields, unplowed since harvest (last March); maize stubble dots the soil. He agrees to discuss his scheme for organic farming in exchange for our labor in spreading cow manure across this field. It seems a bargain to me. He has already put manure in more than 60 tidy mounds across this field. Few African farmers practice organic farming – although organic produce is now readily available in Woolworth’s, a grocery chain here – and most dump large amounts of chemical fertilizers on their fields, at great cost to themselves financially and the soil environmentally. So, in exchange for throwing a little manure, we get the inside story on organic farming from as farmer in his field.
We find Babe (baa-bay) Shabangu leaning on a shovel in the middle of this maize field. He is lean, grey-haired, with large gnarled hands. We gather around him and Myxo translates from English to SiSwati, and back. The exchange is far-reaching and informative. The students ask him about organic farming in this soil and climate. He explains how he uses only his cows’ manure, and no chemical fertilizers. One of our students catches his commitment very well. She later writes: “When [Babe Shabangu] started farming he tested the growth of maize on two plots; one with [chemical] fertilizer and one without. He saw that the unadulterated plot produced no worse than the fertilized and predicted (correctly) that in the long term it would actually produce more consistently without chemical inputs. He reasoned that once chemicals are introduced, the soil becomes dependent on them and cannot return to its original state.” (Nicky Conroy, 20 October 2006) Thus, Babe Shabangu became an organic farmer.
He plows his fields with his team of six oxen, and he loans the team out to his neighbors, without charge. Plowing starts with the rains. But the rains have been unreliable during the last 3-4 years. Tuesday’s heavy rain, he explains, brought all of the farmers into their fields, and his oxen are now plowing at his neighbors over there, where we had been watching. October is usually planting time and we eat “mealies” (green corn) in January.
While several of our students explain the Dartmouth Organic Farm (DOF) to him, he pulls a small plastic bag out of a pocket and inhales a pinch of snuff into both nostrils. He is interested in the DOF, and there follows a long discussion about Scott Stokoe, the DOF manager, planting seasons in New England and Swaziland, soils, rainfall and organic agriculture. Babe Shabangu tells us that he and his neighbors eat maize every day, sometimes with vegetables and/or chicken, maybe the rare goat. (Cows are saved for festivities.) He also plants blackeye peas, pumpkins and calabash gourds along with the maize. His only manure comes from his farm animals.
After an hour of discussion, we exchange labor. We quickly realize that talk is easier than throwing manure in a large arc from a pile with a short shovel. We all take turns and after about 90 minutes of our hard labor farmer Shabangu is pleased. We are stiff-backed and sore. He invites us to walk uphill to his compound to try our calloused hands on his maize grinder. We all do, and the students grind up about half a bucket of maize meal.
• The Primary School and its Principal, Mrs. Elizabeth Nkabionde
Part of our stay in Kaphunga takes the Dartmouth students into the community’s three schools, two primary and one secondary. It’s a good look at the quality of teaching and learning (which is high, given the conditions) in this area, and valuable to those Dartmouth students who might go into teaching themselves after graduation.
Myxo’s compound is a short walk from the Matjana Community School, one of the two primary schools we visit. We also go to the secondary school, where this year its Principal, Mrs. Ntonbi Ntshangese, spent more than an hour patiently answering questions from about 8 of the Dartmouth students interested in an overview of education in the community. (The other students were in one of the two primary schools.)
I am especially fond of the Matjana Community School and its popular and gregarious Principal, Mrs. Elizabeth Nkabionde. She is a fan of Dartmouth, too, and owns several prized student-designed ENVS recyclable mugs, plus assorted Dartmouth shirts and hats. We gather at her primary school precisely at 0800. Two buildings, one with three classrooms and one with four, are at right angles to each other forming an “L.” All of the students are in rows on the grass inside the “L” facing west. They are singing to us, with clapping and short dance steps. We form two rows on a porch of one of the classrooms and face the singing student. The rains have come. The children look very well. There is a sense of hope and promise. When they finish, Mrs. Nkabionde asks the Dartmouth students to respond, in song. They have prepared well, and start with a sweet promise of their own: “You Are My Sunshine.” The children love it, chant their praise, and clap rhythmically. They answer with “Kumbaya, and as the morning wind picks up their soft and gentle voices -- “someone’s crying Lord, Kumbaya”; “someone’s praying Lord, Kumbaya” -- my eyes fill up. Then Dartmouth responds with a well-rehearsed “Star-Spangled Banner.” (I had warned them of a previous Dartmouth group, caught off-guard by Mrs. Nkabionde’s request for a song, which botched the national anthem and dissolved into snickers of embarrassment, only to be jarred by Myxo scolding them in a voice loud enough for all to hear: “In Swaziland, we take our national anthem seriously.”)
And indeed they do. After more loud applause, cheering and clapping for the Dartmouth rendition, the primary school children stand at attention, hands at their sides, and sing the Swaziland national anthem in two-part harmony accompanied by small dance steps. It is very impressive. We conclude the exchange on a now-let’s-get-to-work note.
The Dartmouth students then fan out to the various classrooms and schools to observe and even teach a little. In small ways we are able to respond to their large gift of allowing us into their community. Gary Freilich holds a secondary classroom in focus with his enthusiastic instruction. When a new photocopier jams in Mrs. Nkabionde’s office, three Dartmouth students (and Kathleen) struggle for two hours to fix it. They are finally rescued by Anna Payne, who confesses to having spent months working with photocopiers as a Capitol Hill intern. In minutes the machine is repaired and running, to great applause. There is also soccer at sunset with seven Dartmouth students and a cluster of young boys who pause to play before herding the cows home for the night. And there are books and supplies for the community, and a soccer ball – all left for Myxo to distribute.
• The Community’s Health Clinic: The Charles Hall Clinic of the Nazareth Church
To understand health care issues in this impoverished community, we ask Myxo to arrange a visit to the health clinic, run by the Church of the Nazarene. There is a government clinic nearby, but this is for some reason the preferred health care center.
We arrive by several vehicles and file into an L-shaped room with a desk and several chairs. A long cement bench is built into two walls, and we almost fill it from one end to the other. Posters about HIV/AIDS, maternal/child care, sanitation, inoculations cover some of the wall space. As though to underscore the blunt reality of this space, there are splatters of dried blood on the floor. A frightened father rushes in with a young boy, perhaps 10, in his arms, unconscious. He is taken into a back room by the head nurse, Ms. Nomagugu Ndebele. About 15 long minutes later, the father re-emerges with the boy still in his arms, still lifeless, and takes him outside to a red pickup truck. The limp child is sandwiched into the cab between the father and another young son, who try to prop him up. They drive away heading for the closest hospital, we later learn, about 45 minutes down the clay-dirt road in Manzini.
Meanwhile, a woman has quietly slipped into the clinic carrying a small bundle wrapped in several blankets, including a brightly clean white covering. This is a new baby, we learn, born last night to this woman in a hut five kilometers away. She has walked to the clinic for her check up and to have the baby weighed and registered. We watch this take place at the desk in front of us.
When the woman leaves, Ms. Nomagugu Ndebele, RN, pulls her chair into the middle of the room and introduces herself. She is a political refugee from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (Her last name is actually her ethnic group, the Ndebele, a northern branch of the Zulu nation. Hence, she speaks almost fluent Zulu, which is almost identical to SiSwazi.)
Some of our students are working on papers about health care in Kaphunga, and soon their questions start covering the basics: how many people come to this clinic, who pays for what, who supplies the clinic, what are her medical needs, who helps her (the other nurse is on leave, but a new nurse arrives in a week), etc. I learn two startling things: First, Ms. Nomagugu Ndebele believes that the AIDS infection rate here is 60%, based on AIDS tests given to her clients. She produces her testing equipment, demonstrates the HIV/AIDS test, and then passes around her resulting records. (Later, some of our students discuss the ethics of showing us those medical records, which illustrates an interesting clash in rural Africa between our sense of a patient’s rights of privacy, and others’.)
Second, when asked the most common diseases that she struggles against, Ms. Nomagugu Ndebele declares “water-borne diseases like dysentery in children.” Here, then, in this clinic/triage station in rural Kaphunga is the basic question facing Africa’s health care needs: Should we/they put limited health care/development monies to work on HIV/AIDS or on water-borne diseases? Or, on malaria prevention? Would those limited funds go further providing clean water and mosquito netting, or providing AIDS education and medications?
A final observation comes to us at the primary school near the secondary school. Here, an international NGO has built a borehole with a clever pumping system: as someone pumps water into a storage cistern, it puts a little merry-go-round into motion. The school kids squeal with delight as they ride around while someone pumps. Our students call this “pump-and-ride.” Just up the road, at another pump, UNICEF has started a large (1-2 hectare) children’s garden that this system waters. Some of its vegetables are already being harvested and eaten by the children of the primary school. I see them adding fresh cabbage leaves to their corn-soya-blend lunches. But perhaps most important, given Ms. Nomagugu Ndebele’s warning, I also seen the little kids washing out their plastic lunch plates and taking long drinks of fresh water from the pump.
We depart Myxo’s compound at sunrise on Saturday to catch breakfast at the market in Manzini before riding in four-wheel-drive vehicles to Tember-Ndumo Elephant Reserve, our next stop. The market in Manzini features a long room with concrete tables and benches, each of which is served by a small kitchen run by 3-4 local women. The basic breakfast is sour millet porridge, tea, and two kinds of untoasted bread.
Shopping and brown millet porridge done -- it goes down best with a lot of sugar – we head east back into South Africa and the pristine Indian Ocean coastline. We pass through acres of sugarcane fields and reach the Swaziland-South Africa border post just as several busloads of German tourists disembark; they are on their way from “Oktoberfest in Swaziland,” incredulous as that may sound. It takes us 90 minutes to clear, and as we start out along the familiar South African low-veld thorn bush in the mid-day heat, Kristina Guild puts a Sarah Vaughn CD into the system and we ride listening to “Lullaby of Broadway”!
We shift our research focus slightly in Tembe Elephant Reserve to include farming communities near these small parks that are striving toward community conservation and eco-tourism. Here along the Mozambique border we again find the poverty of rural Africa, but we also encounter the struggle to attract tourists as the pressure for park expansion across the border increases. The Lubombo Trans-Frontier Conservation Area is one of several in the region that will form a large, connected trans-frontier park, with corridors to Kruger National Park to the west, and eastward to the coast along the Mozambique shoreline. The Futi corridor, northward from the border to Maputo and the ocean, will re-create traditional migratory paths for elephants. Dr. Roelie Kloppers, a University of Pretoria researcher and fluent Zulu speaker, stays with us several days and briefs us on the history of the Zulus and the Tembe-Tonga people, community conservation issues and the efforts to develop the region. Wayne Matthews, one of our lecturers and the Senior Researcher in Tembe, also travels with us for these several days. “Tourism,” he explains, “is a vehicle for getting economic development into the region.” But that is a slow process.
To explore various aspects of this thesis, we first visit the Tshinini community just south of Tembe Reserve. The community is developing walking trails in the central sand forest, and nine guides-in-training join us. Two or three students go with each guide into the sand forest to evaluate the ecosystem as a tourist attraction and the ranger’s knowledge of it. Wiseman Gumede guides me, Richard Hansen, Chris Farmer and Danielle Bird through thorn bush and sand in our hopeful search for nyala, impala and the elusive forest suni antelopes. Instead, to be candid, this turns out to be a tough and hot slog.
Next, we meet with two Ndunas in a large community center to discuss a land dispute. One of the Ndunas is claiming that part of Tembe Reserve belongs to his people. They are citing the classic Makuleke claim against Kruger National Park in 1996 as their model. In that case, the Makuleke got a stake in Kruger but could not move into the park. Instead, they have used their settlement and a portion of Kruger’s receipts awarded to them to build several lodges, which they run in the park. Could the people of Tshinini/Tembe area win a similar claim? The Dartmouth students work the Ndunas for information and insight.
Our last stop in Tembe is at a sangoma’s hut in her compound. There are several layers of healers in this part of Africa. They include the n’anga, a homeopathic herbal healer who uses the natural environment, and the sangoma, a diviner. Three sangomas, one an apprentice, instruct the students seated inside a close, beehive hut. As far as I know, no one asked the sangoma to roll bones and divine their future grades for the term.
Kosi Bay is our traditional closing to this trip, with a lecture by Dr. Scotty Kyle on a dune high above the community’s fishing traps, followed by snorkeling in the river mouth. Using our four-wheel-drive vehicles, we ride down the dune slope and reach the mouth where the Kosi river system meets the Indian Ocean. It is spectacularly beautiful: white sand, azure blue sea, perfect weather. We spot migrating whales sounding just off-shore in the sea. The students pile out into the estuary and snorkel, swim, sunbathe, run the beach 5 km to the post marking the border with Mozambique. They all return only to eat.
I write this Sunday morning listening to the organ and choir of the Dutch Reform Church across the street. Familiar hymns in unfamiliar voices drift to me, followed now by an organ recessional. We, too, now come to a closing, and this music seems a bridge somehow between our lives in Africa and home.
Siyabonga. Sala Kahle.
Jack and Kathleen
PS: In my last Letter From Africa, the word “piosphere” was changed to “biosphere”. This is incorrect. The term “piosphere” is used by researchers in the field here studying the effects of elephants on vegetation around borehole water sites. “Pio” means “large” (OK, also fat). So “piosphere” is a term for the concentric circles of vegetation destruction starting at a borehole site and enlarging as they move outward.
Fourth Letter from Africa
20 November 2006
Dear families and friends,
My wife Karen and I joined the Africa Foreign Studies Program on Wednesday, 18 October, following the students' second field trip. In preparation for their mid-term exams, Karen and I quizzed the students and discussed many aspects of their first two field trip and lectures. The mid-term exam was on Friday, 20 October.
Following a day-trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Karen and I took over the leadership of the Program from the Shepherds.
One should not come to Africa without paying some homage to the early human sights! On 26 October, we had a day-trip to Sterkfontein, a World Heritage site. Sterkfontein is a complex about an hour south of Pretoria and west of Jo-burg. This site has yielded many archeological artifacts, including bones and skulls of early humans, and is known for its long inhabitation by primates including humans. Dr. Sally Reynolds, a lecturer at Witwatersrand University, provided what I believe to be the most inspiring lecture of the term—regarding the evolution of primates and the transition from sub-human primates to the several human species, of which we Homo sapiens are the only survivors.
On Monday, 30 October, we flew to Windhoek, Namibia on a flight of about 2 hours to begin our 18-day field trip. This last field trip is important for three reasons: First, the Namibian environment is largely desert and affords most students their first exposure to a desert. Second, the desert environment is fragile and very susceptible to human impact. The several examples of this impact are clearly visible and easily evaluated. And finally, very old deserts such as the Namib may serve as early warning systems to global climate change. Certainly, the Namib, one of the world’s oldest deserts, has seen several cycles of climate change in the last two million years.
The touring company, Wild Dog/Crazy Kudu, provided our transportation, food, and lodging. Additionally, the drivers are also certified guides, Namibians, and friends from previous trips. Following a brief visit to the National Botanical Gardens in Windhoek, we camped at a game reserve about 20 km west of Windhoek. The evening was spent with introductions to Wild Dog/Crazy Kudu and the two guest lecturers who were accompanying us on the trip. Lyn Mair is a naturalist from Cape Town, South Africa, whom I had met a year ago when I lectured on a Dartmouth Alumni-sponsored trip to Antarctica. Lyn had been in Namibia several times before this trip. For the 18 days of this trip, she provided identification of plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals as well as short lectures of the complex interactions between species. Professor Thomas W. Kensler also joined the trip. Dr. Kensler was in South Africa on business from his university and I simply took advantage of this opportunity and his public health perspective to provide an important addition to our trip.
Below, I briefly provide some highlights of the trip. I am sure that each of your students will fill in (perhaps with your prompting) additional details. You may wish also to refer to the calendar of locations that we have previously provided you.
CHEETAH CONSERVATION FUND: Namibia is known to have the largest free-living population of cheetah in the world, and these animals live in conflict with the livestock industry of Namibia. We camped two nights at this site and observed cheetahs, discussed a wide range of conservation efforts, how farmers can wisely manage livestock, and the likely future of the cheetah in Namibia. This visit complements the first day-trip of the term to another cheetah conservation effort at de Wildt near Pretoria on 21 September. Additionally, your students have learned much regarding elephant conservation, which is full of conflicting ideas and views, different in details but ideologically similar to the issues with the cheetah in Namibia.
Following a one-day visit to Etosha National Park in northern Namibia and a look at the best game-viewing amphitheater in Africa, we moved on to camp at Windpoort Game Farm (8000 acres). This farm is a partnership between Elsy and Wilford Versfeld (Namibians) and Tim and Laurel Osborne (retired American biologists). Between the folks at Windpoort and their neighboring farm (16,000 acres), the students were introduced to the many difficulties of very large-scale game farming, which to some extent has replaced cattle farming. Again these problems are exacerbated by the semi-desert nature of the environment of these farms near Etosah.
From Windpoort Farm, we moved further into the desert and camped for two days at Brandberg. This camp is on the east face of the largest mountain in Namibia (8755 feet), and provides wonderful opportunities to view rock paintings of approximately 5000-7000 years of age. Tours of these sites are provided by community members, and this was yet another opportunity for your student to view, examine, and discuss with community members the local employment projects and, albeit modest economic empowerment to communities that would otherwise be without resources.
We left Brandberg bound for Swakopmund Rest Camp (clean sheets, laundry facilities, and restaurants). The town of Swakopmund bears the definite marks of German colonial architecture. On the way we drove into yet more arid lands and past Cape Cross, which is the site of a seal colony. The issues surrounding the Cape fur seal are controversial and therefore a wonderful topic for the Africa Foreign Studies Program. The seals are accused of depleting fish harvests, and seal harvesting provides much needed employment, yet the same seals attract eco-tourists. Conflicts abound!
Following two nights in Swakopmund, we visited one of the largest uranium mines in the world while on our way to Gobabeb Desert Research Centre. The Rossing Mine accounts for about 5% of the Namibian gross national product and, in addition to the diamond mining industry, provides many skilled and high paying jobs. The issues at the Rossing Mine are primarily focused on water usage and environmental health issues. Rossing is a major user of water in a desert devoid of easily accessible water. Perhaps surprisingly, the health concern at the mine is not radiation, but rather the hard rock dust and consequences of respiratory diseases in the work force. The Gobabeb Desert Research Centre is world famous for its research and educational programs. As in past years, our host was an intern and recent graduate from Grinnell College in Iowa. While a Grinnell graduate, Laura Chestnut happens to be from Sharon, Vermont (not far from Hanover, NH), who also knows students who were with Karen and me in 2004, and she has a sister who is a first-year student at Dartmouth. Yet another example of our small globe! We were at Gobabeb for three nights. The scene is dramatic with high red sand dunes of the dune sea to the south, and a flat gravel plain running north for hundreds of kilometers; both gigantic views are separated by about 100 meters of a green, linear river oasis that runs from the Atlantic Ocean inland for approximately 200 km. This linear oasis is an ephemeral river that runs with surface water only once a year, and sometimes even more infrequently. This is a hyper-arid environment receiving approximately 4 inches of rain a year.
We reached Gobabeb in the midst of a crisis and a perfect learning opportunity for your students. In spite of Gobabeb being located within the Namib National Park, a mining company was exploring on the edges of a Welwitschia "forest." This stand of Welwitschia is at the southern edge of the region in which this primitive and taxonomically odd plant lives. These particular plants are hundreds of years old. [At this point you should search on-line to visualize the plant and scene. Words simply do not convey the size of the individuals, scale of the landscape, and the sparseness of the land.] We spent much of a day measuring the plants, leaves, and fruiting bodies to provide a record against which the impact of the mining (especially water withdrawal from the aquifer) could be judged. The other major activity at Gobabeb was examining the three ecosystems (dune sea, gravel plain, and linear river oasis).
On Monday morning, 13 November, before sunrise, the students were atop one of the tallest dunes in the world witnessing dawn. While not particularly academic, it always proves to be a profound experience, despite of hordes of tourists. The academics were done in the days before and following, in which we studied sand dune communities, dune dynamics, and the influences of wind and water on dune plants and animals.
The Namibian field trip ended with two nights in Zebra Naukluft National Park. This mountainous desert area is east of the great sand sea and at the headwaters of the ephemeral rivers that flow to the Atlantic. We did indeed see the Hartmann's mountain zebra. The students also had individual, oral field exams covering what they observed on this entire field trip.
We are now back in Pretoria, the final exams of two of the three Africa courses have been completed, and the students are working hard on the last course, ENVS 84. This is a writing project focusing upon issues of water in southern Africa, a region of Africa lacking in both quantity and quality of water as well as equitable distribution of this altogether rare commodity. In five days, we will go to Swaziland again. The students are certain to view the familiar rural village with "eyes" that are changed by the experiences of this term. We will do a bit of reviewing and reflection, as well as discuss "re-entry" into American society.
The Africa Foreign Studies Program ends on 29 November. What is amazing is that time in Africa has slipped away so very, very rapidly. Judging by what I’ve observed from students who have spent the term in Africa in previous years, your students will be "applying the course content" to their future studies and work experiences after Dartmouth for a long time.
Bill Roebuck and Karen Baumgartner
Last Updated: 10/8/08