Thursday, September 27, 2012

Learning Life Skills in Africa

So apparently fermented milk is a thing. It is not a thing I would have ever thought actually existed. Apparently this is a common problem because three different people did not realize the bags we had bought from Mose’s Mini Matt (We think it’s supposed to be mart but hey! That’s what the sign says) contained fermented over regular milk until someone took a huge swig and described the taste as “like the cow had been dead for two weeks.”

(Pole, Emily. Pole sana…)

It was only then when apparently anyone noticed that it said “FERMENTED” in bold lettering across the front of the bag. No one had noticed this even after we looked at the bags in the mini-matt to try and find a volume or back at camp where someone looked at the bag to see if it was pasteurized (I’m gonna guess it wasn’t).

So yeah. Learning valuable life lessons about expecting the totally unexpected here in East Africa.

Other than that I’ve picked up a few other skills as well! There’s a shrub here in the Acacia family. Not sure of its scientific name, but we like to call it the Wait-a-Bit (I guess since I’m technically getting a botany credit for this I should figure out what it actually is. I will research!). Mostly we call it that because it has thorns that curve backwards, so if you get stuck on one, you literally have to wait a bit for someone to come unhook you. I get caught on these things a lot, so most nights I discover a new hole in some part of my clothing. Guess who has two thumbs and has vastly improved her sewing skills out of complete necessity?? THIS GIRL. I haven’t needed to seriously patch anything myself yet, but I’m really pumped for when I get to cover my knees in colorful Maasai fabric because I have yet to see any khaki colored cloth. I guess a tailor would be able to help me with that. Whatever, I don’t want to do things the easy way.

Other random skills I’ve picked up: Maasai beading. Yeah. No clue how I have the patience for this, but it’s really awesome. We had 8 mamas come to KBC the other day and we just sat there and beaded with them. I made two bracelets, and I’m gonna try and figure out earrings next. It’d probably be a lot easier to just buy all of this but buying jewelry in the market is kind of stressful! Literally, you get swarmed by Maasai women who think saying that you don’t need any bracelets is actually a bartering technique. Note: this is how I also end up going into the market to buy clothespins and come out with obscene amounts of jewelry. I then realized I forgot to buy clothespins and go back in only to get swarmed again. Running errands is hard.

I do need to go to town sometime soon, though. I need to pick up some a bag and skirt I ordered from the tailor and avocados (New Kiswahili word I learned! Para chi chi!). Mostly for the avocados because I saw our student affair’s manager eating one the size of my head today and it was apparently only 20 shillings. Literally the most gigantic avocado I have ever seen in my entire life. He got tired of it and shared the last 1/3 of it, so I’m kind of wondering if it’s physically possibly for me to get sick of avocados. So. For the purpose of science. I need to go buy some avocados. I’m kind of hoping my trip into town will not be an adventure, but seeing as how my track record has been, I’m not going to bet on it.

Other fun Kiswahili words I’ve learned: kanga! Kangas are large pieces of fabric that have a saying or prayer on them and also happen to be the things I am buying more than I will ever, EVER need of BUT this is also the word for… wait for it…


Yes, my two loves in life are represented by the same word. I saw my first Guinea Fowl the other day in Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary during a field exercise and I was SO EXCITED. I am thinking of raising some back in the States. Not for meat or anything. I just want a herd of pet Guinea Fowl. Instead of cows, my Maasai husband and I can keep Guinea Fowl in our cultural manyatta in Indiana. We don’t have to be super traditional. It’s not like anyone would know otherwise.

Oh yeah, beading, wearing kangas… I’m pretty much Maasai now according to one of the program staff, Ernest. Actually today we were doing some vegetation surveys and our local guide gave us all new Maasai names. He told us to make sure we change it on facebook. I was dubbed “Nashipi” (Na-she-pie) which apparently means ever happy/ever smiling, which I guess is pretty accurate. I kept smiling even as I was stuck in the wait-a-bits and other Acacias. Measuring DBH of trees that want to kill you is kind of hard sometimes.

No pictures today because we implemented a 2 picture/week upload limit. Great for our internet data usage! Not great for breaking up blog posts. Also sorry for making these so close together! We have an INCREDIBLY busy next couple days that I’ll want to write a lot about, so I figured I’d get funny smaller stuff out of the way. Next few posts will be all about doing population census counts for Kenyan Wildlife Services and my adventures in living in a Maasai boma for a while! SO PUMPED.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ice cream quality control issues (Alternate title: why buying ice cream in East African towns is sometimes a gamble)

I feel like something interesting always happens when I go to Kimana.

Sometimes it’s something small, like getting offered a giant bucket of pico de gallo and eggs. Today I was offered two giant buckets of pico de gallo and eggs. I’m not really sure why this stranger thought I needed any eggs/finely chopped tomatoes but I guess I must have really looked like I wanted some to go with the Sprite I was drinking. Writing this now, though, I actually do kind of want a hard boiled egg. If only I had bought one. Darn.

Other times, it’s just a Maasai warrior taking his goat to Church. No big deal.

And sometimes it’s something big like getting proposed to in the market (don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I politely declined. I don’t think he’d be willing to cough up my incredibly large dowry of 60 cows anyway. I am totally worth 60 cows.) Note: Cows are pretty much wealth in Maasai culture so at 40,000 Kenyan shillings per cow and an exchange rate of 85 shillings/USD I could probably make some bank in a dowry. We could open up a cultural manyatta and I’d have an excuse to wear my excessive amounts of Maasai fabric and beaded jewelry, and I could put my vertical jumping skills to use.

I’m sure all of this would be very popular back in West Lafayette. Indiana natives would flock from all over the state just to see it.

Other than that, classes have really swung into full force. Our first assignment for ecology was due today (so if you want to know about vigilant behaviors of yellow baboons or locomotive strategies of African pigeons I’m your girl.). Tomorrow is another non program day, but we have another assignment due on the 26th and then another due on the 27th, so overall BUSY BUSY. It’s okay though because my classes are super awesome. No legitimately they are SUPER AWESOME. You know how on really nice days you just wish you could have class outside but your professor would never do that because logistically it doesn’t make sense? I have class outside. All the time. In front of Kilimanjaro. IT IS AWESOME. And even when we don’t have class in front of Kilimanjaro it is still pretty awesome. For example: we got to tromp around Kimana Wildlife Sanctuary and look at hyena tracks and elephant poop while zebras just wandered around us. IT WAS ALSO AWESOME.

We don’t ever have Kiswahili class outside but my teacher is great, so I am still INCREDIBLY enthusiastic about that class too. Our teacher showed us a music video he was in. It was Maasai Gospel music. It was pretty neat.

Yesterday marked the two-week point. Weird that last time I did an SFS program this was the half way point! I’m so excited I decided to come back for a semester. Although I’m starting to miss a few things from home (washing machines and ice cubes), I can’t imagine my life without this experience. Super cheesy, sorry! There’s something about the new adventure that being here brings every day that’s truly exhilarating. And even though I’m covered in layers of sunscreen, bug spray, and dirt, even though I have to shoo baboons away from my housing (and actually out of my housing… those things are bold.), and even though that every single shrub is super thorny and pointy and trying to kill me, I totally love it here.

Here’s a funny quote from my textbook to end this super random entry:

 “At night, however, baboons will usually not budge, but manage to discourage intruding humans very effectively with a rain of stinking excrement (author’s observations).”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Up to our eyeballs in baby elephants

An overabundance of adorable baby elephants is not exactly a bad problem to have, I will tell you that. I am really digging the whole living among wildlife thing (then again I’m not trying to grow crops in the footpaths of elephants or raise cattle in prime lion hunting territory so I may get back to you on that).

There is one species that I’m not so keen on: Our friendly neighborhood olive baboon. No seriously they’re neighborhood baboons. They live in the camp and roam around like squirrels run around Purdue. They usually don’t bother the students too much, but have recently have become a bit bolder. 

And sometimes when they hold formal meetings, I get REALLY suspicious...

When they used to move out of the paths as soon as they saw a student, baboons will wait around longer and longer. It probably doesn’t help that the majority of people living in KBC are white women and, well, to be really honest, the ranking of who baboons are afraid of looks a little like this:

1.     African men
2.     White men
3.     African women
4.     White women

So we pretty much can’t be any less threatening to the baboons. I did have a funny moment with one the other day, though. The baboons were out in full force, enjoying their midafternoon forage. I was minding my own business in the library and decided to run to the bathroom. As I was exiting the bathroom, I was greeted by a baboon walking up the footpath to the showers and toilets. I was clearly startled and half-stepped, half-stumbled back. Amusingly enough though, the baboon seem just as startled to see me come through the door of the bathroom and half-stepped, half-stumbled backwards. Maybe the baboons and I aren’t so different. Maybe I’m reading too much into this baboon encounter. Probably the latter.

Besides learning to cohabitate with baboons, I’ve been pretty busy the past few days. We are definitely entering the full swing of things here at camp. Tuesday was our first non-program day, Wednesday was our first trip to a national park. Tomorrow is our first field exercise, and next week we have our first assignment due! I’m gonna do this a bit backwards and talk about Amboseli first and do my write up of our non-program day later because I do what I want, that’s why. No it’s actually because I don’t really have  (any) pictures to go with our non-program day unless you want pictures of me rolling around in the exorbitant amount of fabric I bought at the market and I feel bad doing two no-pictures post in a row.

"We know counting is really hard so we decided to stand close to the land cruiser for you. Twenty-two is a big number"

Anyway. Amboseli. Totally awesome. Even in my third trip to this continent, the novelty of going on a game drive never wears off on me. Amboseli is mostly grassland, scrubland, and open Acacia woodland and was fairly open for most of the time. It was nice to pull out the antelope-ID skills and start the Thompson’s vs Grant’s vs Impala discussions again. I remembered how tough it can be to stay on top of our field exercises, though. Sometimes we’ll get so carried away seeing and taking pictures of something cool that we’ll forget that we actually need to count, age, sex, take GPS coordinates, etc. of all the animals we’re seeing. Yesterday wasn’t an official count, thankfully. I need to work a bit on my identification of social structures before we go out again.

Favorite bit of the day? Definitely the look on everyone’s faces as we hopped out of the land cruisers at the gate and everyone saw their first elephant(s). The enthusiasm in this group will carry us far. Oh, and we saw two lions. That was pretty neat too. 

It is a little known fact that lions only come out when the lighting is poorest. Trufax.

(Just kidding, the lions were completely awesome as well. It was just kind of late and SFS vehicles can’t drive after 6:30 PM and the lions were getting a bit crowded by other safari cars so we didn’t stay to watch them too long).

Also baby elephants.

Anyway I need to sleep as I had to get up at 5:45 to cook breakfast since we were leaving early for a field lecture. Ah, the joys of cook crew!

Monday, September 17, 2012

An Ode to Dust, Dirt, and Laundry

I guess if I had to pick one word to describe KBC, it would be dusty. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how dusty it is in text. You know how after a long day of working outside in shorts you take your socks off and realize that you have a sock tanline? That happened to me today. Except then I realized it was actually dust. Later I was admiring the nice shade of red-brown on my shoes. Then I realized I didn’t buy them that color. It was dust. I pretty much exist in a constant state of being covered in a fine film of dust and having huge piles of dust in my shoes.

On the good side of it being so dusty, it doesn’t even matter that I don’t wash my hair that often. OH YEAH SORRY this blog is probably going to touch upon my showering habits as a notice. Topics like these are unavoidable when discussing a program that’s incredibly remote.

*Please don’t judge my personal hygiene habits based on those practiced and documented by me here. I just made a commitment to being accurate and honest in reporting my experience here. So yeah newsflash: when you live in a field station in rural Kenya you don’t get to shower and wash your hair every day. Fact of life. As a note, in the time since writing this and actually posting this I did shower and promptly looked like I rolled in dust on my way back to the banda. Showering makes legitimately no difference in my personal appearance nowdays.

Anyway yes so all of the empty space in my hair is rapidly being occupied by dust. It actually works out well since the dust kinda soaks up all the oil and grease and I can look almost presentable. On the downside, I don’t think my hair is able to move any more. Kenya’s strongest winds straight down from the summit of Kilimanjaro could not dislodge my hair. I think that if I didn’t wash my hair at all, I might be able to headbutt a buffalo by the end of the semester. I can’t decide if this is a good goal to have or not.

In kind of a similar vein, I did my laundry for the first time today! I budgeted to have my laundry done by one of the mamas in town, but it was mostly socks, underwear, and my hiking pants anyway. By design, my hiking pants were SUPER easy to wash. Really. It was awesome. Because of socio-cultural norms and expectations, we have to wash underwear ourselves. Socks? Socks are a nightmare. My sock nightmare is the result of a series of mistakes I made that started well before the program.

Mistake number one: Buying white socks
Mistake number two: Putting all my super dusty socks in a bucket of water together
Mistake number three: Thinking I could scrub the dust out of my socks with just a washboard and some elbow grease

So my socks went from having huge splotches of red-brown dust to all being dyed a lovely shade of beige from the dust. They’re currently drying above my bed in the banda so we’ll see how well that goes. Everything else (like shirts and pants) washed quite well and dried quite readily out in the super, dry weather. If I do end up having the mamas do my laundry, it will likely just be a bucket full of socks.  I don’t really want to have to do that though because a) I am cheap and b) I would really love to live long term at a field station (I guess this doesn’t count as long term?? Haha), and feel like I need to master the art of hand washing clothing.

Tomorrow I may try again and do a second washing of my socks, though I’m anticipating being pretty busy! Tomorrow is the first non-program day. We’re going hiking in the morning, heading to a market in Olitoktok, volunteering at an AIDS/HIV help center, before heading off to Kimana. I’m really excited to go back to Kimana! We walked over there yesterday. It’s about 6 km, so it took about an hour. We walked around town a bit, sat and drank Cokes and chatted with some locals who helped us practice our Kiswahili. We also found a place that sells ice cream, which is MAGICAL. I didn’t buy any, but I filed away the location for future reference. We ran into one of the Maasai women who was at the boma we visited. She reminded us of greetings in Kimaasai.

Kimana is a great town. Mostly everyone is incredibly friendly and understanding when practicing our Kiswahili. It’s so different from the States where you would never strike a conversation with a stranger. Actually I’m not sure if that’s commonplace here, either, but it’s certainly been my experience! Haha.

Kids are also VERY friendly. Today a few girls and I were outside camp doing some field work and some kids ran up to chat with us (Note: I said something in Kiswahili and the kid actually answered without looking at me like I had three heads or laughing! Yeah milestone achievements!). The kids saw that we had a field guide with us and their eyes TOTALLY lit up. It was great. They flipped through it and admired the pictures (zebra and giraffe illustrations were a big hit). They practiced their English names for animals and told us the Kiswahili names of a few. I was also really impressed by their counting skills. They counted to 12 no problem in English and probably would have been able to keep going. I can count to… four in Kiswahili.

Getting late, and I should go to bed. Big non-program day tomorrow followed by our first field trip to Amboseli National Park. Ridiculously pumped for that? You bet. Sorry for no pictures this entry. Definitely after we get back from the first field trip!

P.S. For all my SFS Tanzania Summer 2011 friends following along! Born in the USA is playing right now. I’m not sure how or why Bruce Springsteen has dug his way into an SFS East African adventure, but know that I am smiling and thinking of all of you right now! (My cup of joy is overflowing!)

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Mambo vipi. Habari gani?

For those of you just tuning in, or not really sure of what I’m doing besides having the vague idea of “Well, she’s in Africa,” this blog is really meant to be a way of documenting and sharing my second experience with the School for Field Studies in their Comparative Wildlife Management in East Africa and their multi-disciplinary, research-based approach to analyzing and solving environmental issues in two developing nations, Kenya and Tanzania. Hopefully I can be educational and enlightening as I pour my heart out about what I know is going to be another amazing incredibly emotional journey in East Africa.

Life is well in Kenya. The end of the first week is approaching, and I’m remembering well just how fast time can pass in a place whose motto is “There’s no hurry in Africa.” Kenya is a place entirely different from something I’ve ever experienced before (coming from someone who spent a month and a half living in Tanzania… hah!), though I have already found another home for a piece of my heart here in East Africa. SFS staff remain to be some of the most genuinely caring people I have ever met, and I am entirely sure that without their compassion, understanding, humor, and light-heartedness I would not feel so at home.

Yesterday we went to a Maasai boma, a homestead of a family belonging to the Maasai tribal group. We were welcomed with song and dance, which I was almost immediately pulled into.  Thanks to Irish dance, I am well practiced in the art of jumping vertically with your arms at your side. I think I would make a good Maasai because of that. I like to think I impressed them with my jumping skillz (I didn’t). After the Maasai women sang to us, we were encouraged to reciprocate. Our song choice was… questionable, however. I can’t say I ever imagined myself singing “row, row, row your boat” in round to a group of Maasai women before, but I think this journey will be full of unexpected (good) things. 

A few notes about the Maasai: they are an ethnic group (tribe) in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They originally occupied fertile areas in central Kenya before they were pushed out by British colonists. They are a historically pastoralist and nomadic group, moving constantly to graze cattle. However, in more modern times, many have settled and begun to practice agriculture to supplement income. There are a number of environmental issues associated with their sedenterization (though their shift to being settled was only prompted by the move to modern economic systems and increase in Kenya’s population, if you’re really interested I’ll send you literature so more on that later!). A typical Maasai boma consists of a large “pen” encircling one or more buildings, constructed out of mud with either a thatched or a tin roof. Maasai practice polygamy, and each wife typically has her own house in the boma. Several Maasai men (such as brothers) can share a boma. If two brothers live in the same boma, the fence surrounding the buildings will have two gates to represent the two families. The Maasai are an incredibly interesting group of peoples, and I’m lucky to have Maasai staff like Daniel and Ernest that are always very open and honest in answering any questions I have about them, as well as an entire class devoted to social/cultural considerations of the Maasai.

Back at camp, classes are in full swing. I’m working hard to stay on top of readings while also taking time to practice Kiswahili and enjoy the scenery. I try to wake up early and go birding each morning, though my sleeping bag is always so warm and my motivation is usually pretty low, haha. A few notes about the Kenya site, mostly so I remember all the things I initially felt when I’m talking to people considering this program or who are curious about my day-to-day life here.

Location, location, location: It’s big, dusty, and in the middle of nowhere. We’re about a four-hour drive outside of Nairobi, very close to the Kenyan/Tanzanian border. We’re right at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which, holy crap, is a sight to behold. Sadly it’s been pretty cloudy so Kili has only come out a few times, but when it does, it is AMAZING. On the downside, we are 6 km from the closest town, which is a bit too far to walk after class most days. That’s made me feel a bit isolated, but I think I can adjust.  I pretty much have no choice, though haha.

Wildlife: BIRDS. I am slowly becoming a birder. Send help. Seriously, though, the birds are amazing and plentiful here and they sit so nicely when I try and take pictures of them. Rollers and weavers and hornbills, oh my!

On the mammal side of things, it’s pretty wild here. A dik dik comes and hops around at night. Our wildlife management professor told us he’s challenging us to identify it. Outside, there were apparently a few giraffe prints earlier today, though I have yet to see a giraffe near camp. A lion apparently killed a cow in the area not too long ago. Oh, and did I mention the primates? Yeah, we’re getting some human-wildlife conflict experience first hand. Baboons and vervet monkeys have moved in. The baboons really like our pantry and kitchen.  They also like to drink out of the bucket of water I keep on my porch in case of fire. I don’t care for the baboons very much.

Food: I love the food. I may be weird and in the minority, but I don’t miss dairy at ALL. We had pizza with cheese on it last night and it was almost bizarre. Guac and chipati? Yes please. I’ll even eat the ugali if it has enough hot sauce on it.

Note: Ugali is a staple food in East Africa. It’s kind of like grits but not really. It’s made out of corn meal and water. It looks like mashed potatoes and tastes like nothing.

Living situation: Bandas that hold four people. No electricity due to fire hazard. I don’t spend a lot of time in there besides sleeping, mostly because I’m so busy otherwise! My banda’s name is Panya. It means mouse in Kiswahili.

Internet/communication/OUTSIDE WORLD: I literally have no clue what’s going on in the outside world. My internet works intermittently so this probably won’t be posted until a good several days after I’ve actually written it. Sometimes facebook magically works, sometimes not. Purdue’s email client seems to work. Most of the time. Maybe. My cell service is great though! And my airtime is super cheap. If you want to give me a call, I’ll send you my number. I can’t guarantee that it’s cheap for you to call my Kenyan phone, though, haha.

Typical day: There are no typical days! Okay that’s a lie. My basic schedule is like this:

0730 Breakfast
0800-1000 Class
1000-1100 Break
1100-1200 Class
1200-1400 Lunch and Break
1400-1630 Class

After that it’s generally free time with dinner at 1900 and reflections/announcements/presentations at 1930. Of course, that will change as we start having field exercises in the morning and full day expeditions and field trips (first one next week, whoop whoop) and it will be VERY different when we begin the directed research project..

During the breaks I usually try to work on readings for class or work on Kiswahili. I am amazed at how much I have been able to improve in just a week. There is a heavy emphasis on picking it up and practicing it with each other. It has been very challenging, but today I was reading a conversation in my Kiswahili workbook and I realized I understood it perfectly. I think my Kiswahili is better than my Latin now. And I took four years of that. Oops.

Ninakwenda kulala. Ninapenda Kenya! Lala salama.