Sunday, November 18, 2012

“Serengeti Shall Never Die”

An insane amount of stuff has happened over the past few days, and it all has been quite awesome.

Nine very rigorous days of classes ended with our (final) final exams, and afterwards we packed up everything to head to my absolute favorite place in the entire world: Serengeti National Park.

Most people will never get to go to Serengeti. Those who visit once consider themselves lucky. I have been to Serengeti three times now, twice last summer and now this past camping trip, and I think I’m the most absolutely blessed person in the whole world because of that. I love love love love Serengeti and would stay there forever in my canvas tent even if it’s not completely waterproof and may have a little bit of fungus in it.

The drive in was amazing. We stopped at Oldupai Gorge, the “Craddle of Mankind,” and received a lecture on why it was an important archaeological site, but more importantly why it’s Oldupai rather than Olduvai as most people know it (the answer is that although the Maasai had called it Oldupai after the succulent plant that was growing there, the European scientist who made the first discovery there spelled it wrong in his report. Hence why people know it as Olduvai…). We lingered here for a bit, before packing up in the cars and making the final stretch through Ngorongoro Conservation Area into Serengeti National Park. At the gate, we stopped again. We climbed on some kopjes, at lunch, and then on our descent found some steps with a bit of wet cement. In the corner, a friend and I wrote “SFS” pretty small. It was tinier and less obnoxious than some of the other things we found written in the cement afterwards, so I hope it stays there and some future SFS students find it. I lurked around some of the entrance offices, looking at maps and other information about Serengeti. I wish I had gotten a picture of one of the signs on the door I saw. There was an etching of a rhino and around it, it said “Serengeti shall never die.” It was a surprisingly powerful message, and Serengeti is such an important place in my heart that I really hope that it remains true.

I ALSO saw a fact that 530 different bird species have been recorded in Serengeti National Park. I also knew that the other cohort that is now in Kenya had seen 120 birds on their expedition. There was a point in my life where I was an absolutely terrible birder. My companions from my last Tanzanian adventure can attest to that. However, I’ve now been promoted to mediocre birder, and I took these two things as a personal challenge. As soon as I stepped over the border from Ngorongoro Conservation Area to Serengeti, I was all about the birds. It was actually kind of obnoxious how about the birds I was. We entered Serengeti at about 2 PM on November 10th and left at noon November 14th. In that time period I spotted and identified 122 different species of birds. I didn’t even really bird on the last day (well, I identified one bird: the Saddle Billed Stork) because I was honestly just really tired and had already gotten to 121. I of course had a lot of help from my totally awesome Wildlife Ecology professor, who loves birdirg quite possibly more than any other person I know which is saying A LOT because I know some really enthusiastic birders, and a few of my friends who were only moderately excited about birds but also very competitive when it comes to nerdy nature stuff like identifying birds and were super helpful in my quest to crush the other group.

We had our fair share of wildlife in camp. Fat little hyraxes and banded mongooses darted around camp looking for food. On the first night we had a bit of a scare when a poisonous snake slithered into the middle of the circle where we were playing mafia. It was kind of funny as our student affairs manager was trying so hard to get us to move away and then our wonderful Askari kept saying, “Take a picture!!” At night, Askari Bura would walk us to the bathroom. He would smile, say “Fisi!” (“Hyena!”), and shine his light in a random direction. Sure enough, two eyes would be peering back at you. At first the sound of hyenas laughing and buffalo grunting at night was a bit unnerving, but ultimately was pretty darn cool.

Besides the buttload of birds, we saw SO many carnivores. So many. On our first day we saw a pride of lions just chilling out near a watering hole, and it was a great start. We also saw two cheetah brothers on that day and a super awesome lady working with the Serengeti Cheetah Project who was taking license plate numbers of people who were driving off road near the cheetahs. We had an unfortunate encounter with some tourists later in the week where we helped them get unstuck from mud, and then they proceeded to drive off the road and chase a leopard… totally disgusting. I can’t believe how people who claim to love animals have such a blatant disregard for an animal’s well being and the health of its environment.

The day we returned from Serengeti was quite eventful. Close to the boarder of Serengeti, we saw a lot of cars lined up on the road. We weren’t quite sure what they were looking at, and we pulled up behind them (really because it was getting a little congested and we had no choice but to stop and wait). We saw something in the distance that totally blew my mind: a black rhino.

So if you’ve been reading you know that I had never seen a wild rhino before this trip despite the fact that I had been to this continent twice before. The first rhinos I saw were actually in Lake Nakuru, which is a fenced rhino sanctuary, so that was fairly expected. Something also totally amazing was that I saw one of Ngorongoro Craters’s 33 rhinos when we went there as well. It was a totally unexpected and very pleasant surprise. It was so cool to see a free ranging rhino outside of a national park (since Ngorongoro is a multiple land use conservation area rather than a national park). I expected that to be my last rhino of the trip. I felt so lucky to just see that one, it was great.

But then this one in Serengeti shows up. It was SO bizarre. Our wildlife ecology professor, who was driving the car I was in, was especially confused. A Tanzanian National Park Authority vehicle had shown up and was observing the rhino that seemed pretty content just chilling out in Serengeti. Our professor said they’ll most likely end up relocating it to Ngorongoro because there is literally no rhino population in Serengeti and that it just might have wandered over for no reason… so strange (but cool that we got to see it).

After Serengeti we had our community service day, which mostly consisted of me sitting at the primary school drawing pictures of animals with kids. Some other students did manual labor and planted a garden, which our group is getting VERY good at after setting up KBC’s garden and another at a local AIDS testing clinic in Kenya. For our next community service day, I’m going to see if we can get funding to do a mural at the school. The kids really enjoyed it and the teacher said we can come by any day after school to just hang out and read or draw with the kids, but that may be a bit hard since our schedule is getting pretty hectic and our annoying 6 PM curfew rule.

We also received our finalized directed research projects assignments that we’ll be working on for the last month. I am working under the wildlife ecology umbrella, focusing on elephant habitat utilization in agricultural areas (and the resulting human-elephant conflicts) which is great considering I spent all summer collecting and reading articles on interactions between wildlife and agriculture. I’m SUPER pumped to working on a research project again and also being out in the field and also elephants. I’m actually waiting right now to meet with my faculty advisor to discuss my proposal (and I should be working on my last environmental policy assignment but I am quite obviously writing a blog post in stead). WE was my first choice, and my faculty advisor was my birding buddy in Serengeti so I’m really excited to work with him.

Our homestay was next. We stayed with an Iraqw family this time. The Iraqw are agro-pastoralists from Northern Tanzania, but don’t really have as strong “tribal identity” as the Maasai do. It was such a totally different experience from my Maasai homestay. My family was pretty well off. The house was a permanent structure with lots of furniture (I spent about an hour after lunch taking a nap on the couch…), and the father had been to Switzerland before. I had to beg my mama to let me help cook. Pretty much the only jobs I did were walking a kilometer to deliver chai to the guys who were working on my family’s fields and then planting beans for a while. My host dad laughed and said I could tell my professors that today I was a farmer. Then I wasn’t doing a very good job, so I got the beans taken away from me. I spent most of the rest of the day playing with the girls after they came home from primary school. We drew pictures and she read me her ENTIRE notebook of English homework, which was adorable. Then we played “duck, duck, simba” which is exactly the same as duck, duck, goose but for some reason it’s simba. My host dad spoke great English and helped me with my Kiswahili for a while. We got his email and PO Box, so I could send him some photos after I get back to the states (he also showed me the adorable photo of his nieces former SFS students had taken and sent over). My host dad, whose name was Floridi, had been working with SFS for a while and generally was a guide and translator for students during directed research, so he’ll definitely be around at the center and come to our community presentations.

The next day we had half of a non-program day. We spent the morning working on assignments, and in the afternoon we got dressed up (which was SUPER hard considering I haven’t done laundry in forever and I practically live in the bush now…) and went to a wedding. It was one of our staff member’s friends and they very graciously invited us. We ended up only going to the reception because the actual ceremony was very long and in the morning, but it was cool to see. There was a lot of singing and dancing up the aisles and at one point our center director, student affairs manager, and two students were pulled up the aisle and fed part of an entire roasted goat that had been danced up the aisle with earlier. We were sure to also bring gifts. As a group we ended up giving a large thermos for chai, some nice plates, and a nice set of glasses. They played this REALLY long Kiswahili song like a bajillion times that Daniel played for us in Kenya times and I think it was about the “Sweetness of God” though I’m still not entirely sure. We took lots of photos and it had a lot of western traditions like feeding cake, champagne toasts (though as far as I could tell, no one was actually drinking any of the champagne), etc. There was a photographer and someone videotaping the wedding. Overall, the bride and groom were a bit older than what we would have expected to see in Kenya (they were 27 and 28) and the dowry was only like 2 cows and more of a formality than anything. I guess that just shows the differences between rural Kenya and the more urban areas of Tanzania. It was really interesting. Some things I didn’t quite get were everyone having to dance up the aisle to shake hands with the wedding party, the best man and maid of honor feeding each other cake (in addition to the bride and groom feeding each other cake), feeding the Master of Ceremonies a lot of cake (really only those people got cake since it was small), and at one point the bride and groom I think were thanking people for coming so those people would stand up and wave and everyone would wave back at them. At the end, both the bride and groom thanked each other for coming, which seemed strange but I guess I would be thankful that my spouse showed up to our wedding too. Our group was introduced as Dr. Kissui (our center director) and “the wazungu” (plural of mzungu: white people), which I though kind of sounded like a band name.

I wish I had more time to write about everything we’ve done so far, but I’ve just been super busy trying to get all of my assignments done and starting my research. I can’t believe the program ends in a month; time is passing way too quickly. I’m lucky that I get to travel a bit after the program. I’m heading to Zanzibar for about a week and arrive back in the states in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. It’s gonna be great.

P.S. To my dad: Sorry my phone cut off last night. I’m out of minutes so I have to run into town to get more later today!

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