Monthly Archives: February 2014

The American Commissary


Because I work at the American International School (which is part of the Embassy) I am entitled to sign up at the commissary.  I could have done this months ago (and I should have!) but this weekend, I finally decided to go and get my paperwork in.  It’s not enough to simply be American to join the commissary. You need to be a card-carrying American School teacher (and a U.S. citizen) or a direct or indirect U.S. government employee.  And they are very strict about it…if you are found buying stuff for non-members, they can kick you out of the super-sekrit club!

Getting to the Commissary is like going on a spy mission.  You have to know where it is.  It’s on a residential street, there is no sign outside the gate and it looks like somebody’s house from the outside!  You almost think you might have to know a password and secret handshake!

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The commissary is a terrific resource for Americans here.  They get four shipments a year of all of your favorite American foods/brands that you can’t get anywhere else.  You can even request certain items, or put in for a full case which gives you a discount.  (For instance, you can buy 6 bags of Starbucks coffee beans and get 10% off the price!) Although I have been pretty satisfied with what I am able to buy at the local shops, it was a real pleasure to see some “stuff” that you just can’t find here! The prices at the commissary are very reasonable and in a few cases items are cheaper than they would be at the local grocery stores.  Of course, other things are more expensive but not outlandishly so.  And it is all “duty-free” – one of the reasons they are so strict about who gets to shop here!

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Never thought I’d be so happy to see Campbell’s soup…or decent paper towels!  (The paper towels here are more like thin toilet paper.)

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And honest-to-god laundry detergent and household cleaners!


They also rent DVDs – TV shows and movies.  $2.50 a day, but if you rent on a Friday, you can keep it all weekend!


They have a great selection of liquors and beers…however, teachers are not allowed to purchase these!  Apparently, these are considered “luxury” items and everyone knows teachers don’t need any luxury!  (I tried to tell the guy who runs the commissary that booze is a necessity for teachers…he laughed, but wasn’t moved.)  So all I was able to do was look with great longing.

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I left with about $70 worth of items…and plans to make a tuna-fish casserole.
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(On the way home, I was waylaid at the stop light and ended up buying 5 beautifully ripe avocados and some grapes the size of golfballs…)


I am glad I finally joined the commissary – my only regret is that now I am likely to spend more money on things I didn’t even realize I was missing!

South Luangwa in the Green Season



January through mid-April is the rainy season in Zambia and many of the lodges and camps close because of flooding or impassable roads.  However, there are some that stay open and to lure guests, they often have special deals during what they have taken to calling it “The Green Season” or even “The Emerald Season.”  I decided to take a weekend trip up to Mfuwe, which is a little village right outside of South Luangwa National Park with several all-season camps right outside the park.

I had treated myself to a pair of kick-ass binoculars and was excited to be able to try them out.  Unfortunately, my trusty Canon “Power Shot” camera, which has served me so reliably for a couple of years, went missing between Lusaka and Mfuwe.  (I had it stored in the front pocket of my backpack, which I had to check due to the plane being so teeny.  Perhaps someone gave in to temptation…alas.)  So, all these pictures were actually taken with the camera on my iPhone. While they are not of the best quality, they do give you an idea of how up close and personal we were able to get to the animals.

At any rate…our plane was a 12-seater prop plane which flew low enough so that I got a magnificent view of the valley and the escarpment and the river as we were coming into South Luangwa.  At first there were roads here and there and then…then there was nothing to indicate any civilisation at all.  Every once in a while, I could see a small cluster of huts…but no road or any discernible way to get there!  And GREEN!  Every thing was bursting with green…bright, emerald green.

Our pilot was a young woman named Kate, who said she’d been flying in Zambia for about three years.  She was excellent, and it was fun being able to see all the controls and buttons.

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Mfuwe is actually an “International Airport” because it gets flights from Malawi.  It is a tiny place, but has a decent tarmac runway and a terminal with a shop and some sculptures made by local artists.  And a customs counter, for international travellers…

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The driver from my camp was waiting for me when I arrived.  His name was James and he was also to be my guide on the game drives.  We drove through the “village” of Mfuwe, which is actually just a strip of road with some stores and markets on either side.

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By the time we got onto the dirt road to the camp, it was fairly dark…and one of the first animals we saw was a young hippo, trotting through the bush with what looked like flowers on his back! It looked like something out of a Disney cartoon.  James said that it was a plant called Chinese cabbage.  It floats in the water and sometimes sits on the smooth, flat back of the hippo.  We joked that since it was Valentine’s Day, this hippo was delivering flowers to his sweetheart.

(I didn’t get a picture, but it looked something like this…)

When we got to the camp, I found that I had been upgraded to a large chalet, right on the river.  (There were so few people in camp that they decided to put us all together.)  I was very pleased…it almost made up for having my camera nicked.


A late dinner and a glass of wine and I was ready for bed…the morning game drive was at 6:00am!

South Luangwa is a huge park! The southernmost of three national parks in the valley of the Luangwa River, it  is a world-renowned wildlife haven. It supports large populations of Thornicroft’s Giraffe, and herds of elephant and buffalo while the Luangwa River supports abundant crocodiles and hippopotamuses.  Founded as a game reserve in 1938, it became a national park in 1972 and now covers 9,050 km!

When we arrived at the gate, we were greeted by a bevy of baboons.  These are yellow baboons; smaller than the ones I saw down in Livingstone.  They were quite active and there was lots of flirting and grooming going on – we saw one female busily grooming a male while he sat in splendour and closed his eyes in ecstasy.  It was obvious that he would “get a little something” (as James said) later on that morning.

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The park was overflowing with new life.  Baby elephants tottered after their mothers, who often had an older calf as well.  We also saw a number of solo young male elephants, looking a bit bewildered.  When male elephants get to be about 15 years old or so, their mothers and aunts kick them out of the group, to prevent them from mating with their sisters and cousins.  We saw this happening – a large female with a calf by her side was pushing a young male with her head and tusks – forcing him away from the family.  This male was the same one we had seen a bit earlier, chasing a herd of impala and trumpeting loudly as he did.  Why? For fun!  Pure adolescent mischief.

Single males often form their own “bachelor groups” after a while.  Elephants are very social animals.  They are also extremely protective of their young and the only animals we viewed that did not take kindly to being gawked at by humans.  The mother would take her trunk and gently coax the baby away from the road…sometimes, looking anxiously back at us to be sure we were not following.

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We also saw numerous giraffes.  As giraffes age, their spots get darker, so you can often guess their age by their colour.  Giraffes tend to be solitary animals, although they do graze in groups.  A group is called a “herd” although there is a phrase “a tower of giraffes.”  At one point, we came upon a group standing in the road, nibbling on the trees.  They were quite reluctant to leave and blocked our way for quite a while.

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Birds were in abundance.  We saw several crested cranes; beautiful birds with a crown of feathers on their heads.  We were extremely lucky to see two of the birds in a mating dance – the male bobbing and weaving and puffing out his feather and the female gracefully circling around him.  My binoculars gave me a terrific close-up view of the romance-in-progress.


Other birds included a marshall eagle, kingfisher, saddle-bill stork, a knob-billed duck and a bittern.  The knob-billed duck is a funny-looking creature; his bill looks as though someone stuck it on sideways.  It has a small knobby protrusion that gets bigger during mating season.  Apparently, girl ducks like guys with big bills! (Not my picture…but this is what it looked like!)

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There are several types of “weaver” birds who make intricate nests out of grass and hay.  The nests hang from the very edge of the branches. They look like they should slip off, but they don’t.


Then, we were treated to an incredible view of a leopard.  Probably a female, she was resting under a copse of trees, waiting for nightfall when she could get her dinner – there were many impala grazing on the field in front of her. She didn’t seem to mind us at all; just sat there looking like a big pussycat, blinking and occasionally licking a paw.


An enormous hippo crossed our path, making his way towards the river.  You wouldn’t think hippos could trot, but they can really move!  This big boy was not happy we were following him, but finally he stopped and turned his head so we could get a picture before he dived into the river with a huge splash!

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There are many buffalo in the park.  These are not the docile, cattle-like creatures we have in states.  These are ornery and mean.  We saw a trio of old bachelors living out their days in relative solitude.  Apparently, when buffalo get old, they get tired of the mating game and sometimes simply choose to “batch it” with a couple of other like-minded senior-citizens.  They turn and stare directly at you, and as James said, “They always look, but they never smile…”


There is a huge baobab tree in the park that is over 2500 years old!  It has weathered storms, drought, floods and elephant damage and is home to many birds and a big next of bees. I loved this tree!

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There were some other trees that looked almost ghost-like.  Apparently, these trees were dead…but even after death, stayed standing for up to 30 years before finally coming down.

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I was hoping to see a hyena and we saw plenty of clear, recent tracks…but no hyena appeared.  We also came across the jawbone of a young elephant.

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Here is a hippo, eating his way through a pond full of Chinese cabbage. You could hear him chomping his way across the pond.

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And here I am, with my guide, James.



It was a great weekend!

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ISSEA Band Festival in Zimbabwe!


“ISSEA” stands for “International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa” and they are responsible for coordinating and organising events for the various International Schools.  Previously, all the events were sporting activities – soccer, basketball, volleyball and etc…but this year, for the first time, there was a “cultural” event.  A concert band festival.

Never mind that half the schools involved don’t even HAVE bands, or that it would have been MUCH easier to start with choir or even drama.  The committee that met last year decided that starting with band would be much more spectacular and draw more of a crowd.  So, all the member schools had to scramble around to find “band members.”  Even if they didn’t have a band.

We had exactly two kids in the high school who could play an instrument and were willing to put in the practice time necessary.  Here they are!

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They joined with 70+ kids from seven different schools and more than 50 different countries to create the first-ever ISSEA Band.  And to be fair, the end result really was spectacular.

The kids were all housed with host families…and the accompanying teachers were put up at a very nice place call the Bronte Garden Hotel.  I was impressed.  The rooms were comfortable and spacious and the grounds were lovely, with a wonderful collection of Shona sculpture throughout.  Zimbabwe is known for its fine stone and many local artists create works made from it.

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There was also a restaurant and bar with excellent food and great service and a lovely pool.  It was really nice to meet up with other band/music teachers.  Next year, there will also be a drama and art festival and some of those teachers were also there to help plan the 2015 events.

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The first day, we all gathered at the Harare International School’s performing arts centre.  We got the kids situated  and (sort of) tuned and launched into the first piece.

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It was dreadful.  We wondered what we had done…had we expected too much?  Should we cut some of the selections?  Shorten some of the pieces? However, by the end of the day –  after sectionals and some rigorous rehearsal…the cacophony had started to sound like a band.  We were very fortunate in having section leaders who knew their instrument and also knew how to teach it.

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The next day, kids could take workshops from some local musicians.  They included mbira (also called kalimba – a “thumb piano”) marimba,  jazz improv and drumming.

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There were also some impromptu performances by the locals.


There were seven selections for the concert and each music teacher had the opportunity to conduct one of them.  Here I am, rehearsing “Invocation and African Dance.”  I had a great time – I haven’t conducted a band since I left ACS in England!

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, the band was ready!  Everyone wore their ISSEA Band t-shirts (complete with the  host school “Warthog” mascot on the front playing a variety of instruments) and the superintendent made a lovely speech.  Our concert was very well-received and everyone had good reason to be proud.

ISSEA Band shirt

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There was supposed to be a live feed of the concert, but as is typical for Africa, the internet connect went out.  At some point, the entire concert is supposed to be uploaded to Facebook and when they finally work out the glitches, I will share it.  However, a video will not convey the fun, excitement and sense of accomplishment that was palpable in the room.

Meanwhile, here is a slide show put together by the media team!

There will be another Band Festival next year (probably in Johannesburg) and we are also adding Choir.  It should be a blast!