The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Friday, April 29, 2011

Toffs, Tongues and Bovines

This weekend we could be swanning it with the ex patriati up in Kigali, feasting on suckling pig and drinking from large barrels of mead. It's in homage to an event titled 'The Royal Wedding' which hasn't much crossed the Kibungan radar. There are not too many children wearing Will and Kate paper hats and waving Union Jacks in our neighbourhood. Strangely enough, the last time there was such an occurrence Stella and I were just getting to know one another in another far flung ex-colonial country. As was the case then in Malaysia, with that love struck couple Charlie and Di, it seems to be essential to invite everyone and anyone with sufficient Brit in them to an elaborate function at the ambassador's residence, to squander any last remaining reserves in the UK treasury. And naturally everyone wants to go. Pity it's more than two hours' away, Stella's teaching and it's too much effort to go online and persuade the Internet that I am 50% Brit, 50% Aussie and 100% Scoaaish (you have to say that in thick brogue). I am sure to miss some wonderful blog material.
Note that this is a comprehensive dictionary

So, you will just have to make do with the wonders of Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda that I am attempting to come to grips with. Many say that it's impossible for a muzungu to learn because it has 16 noun classes. I didn't know what that meant either until it was explained that the prefix of an adjective changes according to the noun that precedes it. For example, the adjective iza (good, nice, great, kind, beautiful, fine, lovely, smashing, tip top, bobby-dazzling etc) can become mwiza, beza, myiza, ryiza, meza, cyiza, byiza, nziza, rwiza, keza, twiza, bwiza, kwiza or heza depending, roughly, on the first consonant of the noun (as in French, adjectives usually come after nouns). So inka nziza (handsome/gorgeous cow) is the rule and amaso meza (nice eyes) has the right ring to it. Those of you paying attention will have noticed that there is an upside to all this in that the root 'iza' can mean lots of things which saves heaps of time on your vocabulary searches. So, inshuti nziza (good friend) Iza in Cooktown, Queensland, look at all the ibintu byiza (wonderful things) you are in the Rwandan language. I don't bother to memorise the noun classes but just seek out the word vibe, man! The approximation is usually good enough and you learn by trial and error. It makes for a very onomatopoeic language.
There are only three English words from five letters of the alphabet that need translating and 'girth' had to be one of them
Okay, so I'm a geek who likes languages and is not afraid to blunder in and make a fool of myself. This is fine as we are pretty ridiculous already with our loaded backpacks, wide brim hats and hurried gait. They say that the Inuit have numerous words for snow as the Scottish do for drizzle. Well, cows feature pretty heavily in Kinyarwanda. Having a cow here is important and there is even a policy - girinka - to provide every family in Rwanda with one. Since the launch of the programme in 2006, 106,000 families have benefited and the target is 250,000 by 2012. Given that the Rwandan population is around 10 million I think these families must be extended. In Rwanda, the cow is a symbol of love, peace and unity but is also of great economic importance for subsistence farmers. There are even proper milk bars here where people come in to drink a pint of the stuff. My favourite Kinyarwanda exclamation is yampaye inka (he gave me a cow!) which is usually translated as good grief (or maybe the American holy cow). Using it as an expression of surprise or anxiety - as I did on the bus back from Kigali recently when the driver appeared intent on killing us and every pedestrian in sight - is a great way to get easy laughs. What is it about this multi-stomached ruminant that encourages such linguistic creativity? Why are the French vachement bien ('cowly' fine) whereas British English smears itself in gore (bloody good)? I suppose it must date back to Agincourt where the English killed lots of French and replaced them with Jersey cattle or did I just make that up?
How exactly do you 'make yourself to be begged'?

Here are a few unusual words to do with cows; kugobwa = to be milked furtively; kubangurira = to take a cow to mate; kugonora = to heal a cow without milk; amasitu = to milk a cow that has just been ridden; gusizana = to bellow after a calf; (and my own personal favourite) umugogoro = exhausted cows (milked for Europeans). And, no, I didn't make any of them up. A single woman or girl is umukobwa and the verb gukobwa (to bring a cow = the dowry) is to get married. Nowadays, a cow isn't usually offered to the newly weds by the wife's parents at the time of marriage but later when the first child is born. As it happens Justin, our house guard, is in his village tonight (leaving us unprotected!) having a simpler ceremony for the recent birth of his third child. So, as you can see, Kinyarwanda may only have one word to describe a dozen fancy English adjectives but it is a very rich language indeed in matters that concern the livelihood of its people.
Kissing once and drinking avidly seems a strange combo

Gusoma means to sip, to kiss and to read, the last definition telling you about the origin of the word from an oral tradition - you read aloud moving your lips. I also like the fact that you can drink together and kiss at the same time. Guhuruza is to mobilise warriors and to have diarrhoea. If I was in danger of being slaughtered I, too, would get the shits. Some other verbs are very interesting in their stress patterns. I went to a school the other day and said, in Kinyarwanda, that I was delighted to visit. I had to be careful to make sure that I said gusura (visit) with a long second u sound because if I had said it with a short u sound it would have meant that I was delighted to fart. Not being sure of the length of my vowel stretch I turned what is probably a gusuura into a gusuuuura just to be on the safe side.
I've got to use umuhekesha in a sentence before I leave
It can also be a very long language as in the translation of the following important English sentence in my dictionary: "this water has many tadpoles" = agakoko kaba mumazi iyo gakuze gahinduka igikeri aya mazi arimo udukoko twinshi dukura tukahinduka ibikeri. Got that?
Batwa are the pygmy people of Rwanda - 1% of the population

In the past tense and present perfect the language gets more stressful. Nagiye means I went/I have gone. Roughly, if the time is recent - I went to the office this afternoon/ I have just been to the office, then the sound is long and flat. Yesterday and further back is considered far past and the sound of the 'i' is high and short - nag-I-ye. We got our teacher to use both in sentences and I remain to be convinced of the difference at least to my unaccustomed ears. I think I will be sticking with the present tense even for the past for quite a while yet. It gets you understood most of the time which is the main thing.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


"Geographers in Afric maps,
With savage pictures filled their gaps,
And o'er unhabitable downs,
Placed elephants for want of towns" (Jonathan Swift)

How evocative is the word Zanzibar? Redolent of the slave trade, spices, dhows and Islam in black Africa. Growing up I also thought it was the source of marzipan. Add to that Farok Bulsara, better known by the name Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. He spent his first nine years on the island which now promotes many imagined aspects of his early life. This is where he ran along the beach kicking up sand and probably started thinking about the lyrics for Bohemian Rhapsody. It's really clutching at straws tourism in a country that forbids Freddie's well-known homosexuality.
Rundown beachfront building in Stone Town
But, let's not be churlish - Mercury's restaurant next to the Stone Town beach is a lovely spot to hang out and watch the extravagant sunsets and superb athleticism on display. There is a casual, totally unaffected naturalness about the way the young men perform their evening rituals. We watched astonished, for example, as one guy somersaulted backwards down the beach and continued into the water until he was well out of his depth. Meanwhile further along the beach a Zanzibarian Rasta, just as the guidebook said, weaved his dreadlocked charm from an obscure yoga position, on yet another adventure seeking European girl.
Stone Town street scene

It is surprising to discover just how run down Stone Town has become. It is the cultural and historical heart of Zanzibar which the travel books describe as resembling the medinas of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. This is true but the Rough Guide goes over the top. "The waterfront is Stone Town's showpiece, a glorious strip of monumental yet delicate architecture through which the 19th century sultanate expressed its wealth and power". Mine is the 2006 edition so perhaps a lot of the decline has occurred since then because, sadly, the seafront is now mostly an array of derelict buildings and broken down scaffolding.
185 year old tortoise on Prison Island off Stone Town

Zanzibaris are angry because they see little return to the island's development from their contribution to the Tanzanian treasury. Income generated from large numbers of tourists is not doing much for the upkeep of roads and buildings. Rubbish lies in piles in ancient alleyways. 80% of Zanzibaris appear to want independence from Tanzania but that is not on the Tanzanian agenda especially with oil reserves discovered off the coast of Zanzibar. The Tanzanian government has asked Zanzibaris what kind of change they would like within the United Republic of Tanzania which was formed in 1964 from Tanganyika and Zanzibar (including Pemba) with the latter getting its own devolved government and president. But, defence and taxation remain with the central government in Dar es Salaam.
Stone Town sea front with fishing boats and Dar ferry in background
Many Zanzibaris are now saying that if they can't have independence then they would like to create another tier of government, viz, a Tanganyikan government to look after mainland interests. The Tanzanian government would then be a federal one which would have to address Tanganyikan and Zanzibari concerns equally. It was odd to hear that old stamp collecting word of yesteryear 'Tanganyika' being used so liberally by Zanzibaris when referring to the mainland. Coming from Australia where the debate on reducing tiers of government is constant due to cost and bureaucratic doubling, I tentatively suggested that another level of government for Tanzania might not be the most efficient way of deploying the country's wealth.
Roof top scene in Stone Town

Our taxi driver's beef was with the fact that Tanzanian civil law overrode Zanzibari Muslim law. His sister, a Muslim, was living with her boyfriend out of wedlock and he, as the elder brother, couldn't do anything to stop them. He felt a fool although as a moderate Muslim used to driving for tourists he could (sort of) understand independent decision making. It was really his traditional family who were laying on the pressure for him to intervene.
Days gone by

Julius Nyerere, the father of modern Tanzania, believed in an African form of socialism known as ujamaa (familyhood or togetherness) which focussed on self-reliance rather than the interests of the western powers determining the country's path to development. His refusal to accept conditional loans from the IMF in exchange for their 'structural adjustment' packages, which required cuts to health and education, made him a hero to socially aware young western students like me. Modern day Tanzania may have accepted capitalism's dirty hands but it has steadfastly refused to back down on the issue of land ownership. The state owns it all. People lease the land from the government and purchase the right to use it from individuals. In many places, especially around the Zanzibar coast, who has the right to use the land is determined by the ownership of trees. Where we went to stay by the beach all the trees had a large letter S inscribed on them belonging to a Suleiman Nyange. Fortunate indeed are those who own trees along the east coast of Zanzibar because there is a rash of bungalow development catering to the international tourist market.
Woman harvesting seaweed on east coast of Zanzibar

We were lucky to be there during the off-season so beach hawker numbers were down but those that remained were possibly even more persistent. The omnipresent 'jambo' (hello) and 'karibu' (welcome) can become a bit of an assault. Here is what our establishment had to say about the beach competition to their upmarket boutique. "We shun the ink-stained shoddy carvings of giraffes, the spiced, stuffed coconuts and the 'antiques' made in India and Dubai". Ouch! They argued that they gave a percentage of their sales to a local cooperative and that they employed staff from the local village but I couldn't find anyone working there who wasn't from Stone Town usually via Pemba. Ah, the contradictions of tourism about which I feel increasing difficulty as the gums recede and my breasts expand.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Northern Tanzania

Four days before we were due to fly to Kilimanjaro we thought we'd better decide what we were going to do in the region. I find it difficult to organise too much in advance and getting the air tickets was a major achievement from Kibungo. Besides, looking at guidebooks and studying future travel details seems so terribly irrelevant to the present. (I like reading about a place during or after a trip.) Jared and Michelle, who spent that intense weekend birding with us described in the last instalment, mentioned then that they were going to do a tour of Northern Tanzania in mid-April. What is good for the goose is supposed to be good for the gander so at 72 hours notice I sent off a barrage of emails to a bloke called Anthony in Arusha who runs a company called 'Birding and Beyond'. This resulted in the purchase of a six-day package tour visiting four national parks in NW Tanzania, the electronic transfer of a sum of US dollars equivalent to the GDP of a small Pacific nation and all administered by our London accountant who goes by the name of Liam Walls. (Yes, he is a vague relation).
Cloudscape over Mt Meru
This is after all why you have children who ought to end up in large capital cities earning copious amounts of dosh which is then used to fund the 60th birthday shenanigans of one of their ageing hippy parents. (Shucks, that's me!) A virtuous cycle of need and counter need, indeed. You provide for them as children and students and they reward you when you're in a part of the world that can work mobile telephony like a dream but, strangely, still doesn't seem to have discovered the advantages of regularly accepting credit cards. (Note to potential visitors to the Dark Continent - bring large bundles of $100 greenbacks if you want to visit the game parks. News of that currency's demise has been greatly exaggerated).
Masai village against Rift Valley escarpment

Now a word of warning: this blog and its pictures could contain content of the 'tooth and claw' or 'beak and feather' variety. I didn't have a gun but everyone you meet is after the Big 5 of legendary hunting fame - with their modern day Brownies and Instamatics of course as bullets are frowned upon in most national parks. Our achievement was completion of the Small 5, the full set of which was only realised on the second last day of our trip. Rhinoceros Beetle is a fairly easy one to get as is Ant Lion. We already had those boyos covered. Buffalo Weaver is an African speciality which was soon nailed. Then Leopard Tortoise trundled up to us outside our hotel room in Lake Manyara but didn't show any evidence of its famously powerful acceleration. It also preferred to keep its vicious canines well inside its shell. (Can this be true? Ed) The finale occurred in Zanzibar. Imagine the excitement as we sweated our way through the Jozani Forest Reserve (practically the last remaining forest haven on the island) having just seen the rare red colobus monkey, to witness a very large backside (up to 15 inch body + 10 inch tail) scuttling off into the scrub whereupon our knowledgeable guide very confidently stated that it was an Elephant Shrew. Bingo! We burnt some rubber and drank a case of beer that night in celebration.
White-headed Buffalo Weaver

Of the Big 5 only leopard slipped under our radar although one apparently paid a visit to the restaurant at Tarangire NP, fortunately not while we were eating our chips, and made off with a young boy. It came back the following night looking for more tucker - this was actually about three years ago - and was shot. Tarangire is quintessential 'Out of Africa' with a stupendous view, from the tented accommodation and restaurant deck, overlooking acacia woodland dotted with browsing and trumpeting elephants of which there are around 2000 in the park. It also contains large numbers of ancient, giant baobabs, some about 600 years old, from which the elephants tear off the bark during the dry season to get some moisture. I don't know what the long term effect of that will be as it causes serious damage and there aren't young baobabs coming through as they get gnawed by the warthogs.
View from Tarangire Lodge
However, being the wet season - although we got practically no rain during the trip - the land was green and the tourists were few. I can't say the same about the tsetse flies which is the one downside of this national park. They don't carry sleeping sickness here, however, and in any case you need to be bitten repeatedly, in those parts of the continent where the disease is prevalent, to be at risk of falling ill. Another myth exploded! I grew up imagining that one bite by a tsetse fly would send me unconscious requiring the kiss of a passing princess to wake me up. Sensitive and obviously not very original child I was. Same thing for bilharzia. Never swim in African rivers or your liver will instantly swell up and probably have to be removed. I blame Ding Dong Bell, my old geography teacher, for always exaggerating things. I remember him saying in the '60s that in the future strawberries would be the size of oranges thanks to genetic manipulation. Come to think of it, he's not far off on that one!
On the rim of Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro Crater is everything and more that I imagined it to be. Over expectation usually leads to disappointment but maybe you can pass through an anticipation threshold for famous places so that they can be seen again as unknowns. Before I start to channel any more Donald Rumsfeld, it certainly helps when you arrive at the crater edge with a perfect view (it's often enveloped in mist) and not another vehicle in sight. Down in the crater the following, perfect morning, most of the big animals were on show with a couple of the rare black-maned male lions in view and one of them even getting up from his 16 hour snooze to stagger about for a minute before collapsing back to the ground in exhaustion.
Lioness stalking wildebeest

The major piece of tooth and claw was a spotted hyena loping in front of us to steal another animal's kill (a dead Abdim's stork) on which two tawny eagles were feasting. It really was a most unattractive creature (now I'm channelling my mum!) smeared in extraordinary filth. A cocky little golden jackal thought about trying to filch from the hyena but changed its mind. Earlier a black-backed jackal had come incredibly close to tease a lioness which had just failed in a hunting attempt on a wildebeest. Some guys from the crater rim lodge passed by at the crucial moment and their yahoos alerted the world's ungainliest ungulate to the lion's intent. Still, a living thing got to survive for a while longer although we dipped on our bit of carnage and the lion's cubs, on the other side of the road, went hungry for a little longer. I thought the lion was a bit slow to be honest as the wildebeest was so close but I suppose a lion knows its capabilities better than I do. Judging by the number of lions in Ngorongoro it mustn't be that difficult to get a feed.
Hippo pool at Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara was hippo heaven with much yawning and farting in the overcrowded pool, as well as plentiful elephants, and Arusha NP is the best place to see one of the world's most beautiful monkeys, the black and white colobus. Here we got great views of Mt Meru but Big Mt Kili remained shrouded in cloud or never 'up' as the locals say - one of the disadvantages of going in the wet season. Masai in traditional costumes and in their round-housed villages were everywhere but you will not see any pictures of them in picasaweb partly because of their shyness but also because we were told that they often demand $10 for a snap!
Black and white colobus monkey

Arusha itself is interesting. Our guide told us the Clock Tower in the centre of town was deemed to be at the heart of Africa but maybe that is just parochial boosterism because however much I look at a map I can't see how that fits in geographically. Unless it is metaphorical, because it is the site of the famous Arusha Declaration of 1967 which committed Tanzania to a policy of socialism and self-reliance based on the concept of ujamaa or familyhood. (There will be more on Tanzanian politics in next week's episode on Zanzibar). Also, coming from Rwanda, Arusha is an intriguing place because the UN administered Genocide Tribunals are still being held there. One of the leading perpetrators, who has been held in detention for the last 16 years, is finally having his time in court. We were away from Rwanda during Genocide Memorial Week which started on 7 April and concluded on 14 April a day after we got back. There are many stories to report on that another time.
Lilac-breasted Roller

I have not dwelt much on the birdlife in this instalment in order to appeal to the broader audience and because the blog would end up being too long. I will, however, do a separate bird report to send to those on my bird email list. If you would like to be added to that list please let me know by email or via a post on this blog.

Next time - Zanzibar