Start spreadin’ the news…

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The “Festive Break” (as they call it) finally arrived, and I was on a plane out of Lusaka on that same Friday evening (along with more than a few other teachers and their families.). The quickest way home is on Emirates…they fly to Dubai (their “hub”) and from there, to almost any destination. 7 hours to Dubai, a 90 minute lay-over and then a 14 hour flight to NYC. I had obtained some kind of snooze-inducing medication from the local chemist (it was actually an anti-histamine) and managed to sleep for a good part of the first flight and about half of the second…so I was not as jet-lagged as I could have been. Emirates has pretty good service and seating, even in economy . Their entertainment system is top-notch, the food is decent and the drinks are free.

New York, New York, a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down.
The people ride in a hole in the ground,
New York, New York….

I arrived at JFK at about 2:4m, got through customs (it is all done now with self-serve computers…no more “Welcome home, citizen!”) and then….waited almost an hour for my luggage. I know somebody’s bag has to be the last, but you never think it will be yours. I had pre-booked a shared shuttle to my hotel thinking that I didn’t want to be dragging my huge suitcase up and down subways and along the snow-covered streets. However, the shuttle was horribly slow and once we got into Manhattan, it was even slower. As the driver crawled through the center of Times Square, some pedestrians took umbrage at how close the van came to their kids and started banging on the windows, shouting and hurling insults at the driver, questioning his intelligence, driving ability and parentage. I elected to get out and took the R down to Union Square, dragging my huge suitcase down the subway stairs and then through the snow-covered streets. It was blowing and cold and wet and I was happy to finally – finally! – arrive at my destination – The Seafarers and International House.

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My room was small, but warm and comfortable and the shower was hot. I bundled up in the layers I had brought and pulled on my boots and headed out into the snow! The snow! So glad to see snow. There was the annual Christmas market in Union Square and I bought a pair of hand-knit mittens and a hat from the Himalayan shop. My ears were freezing!

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I had promised myself that as soon as I hit NYC, I would get some honest-to-God draught beer. And so, I did.

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This was at the Heartland Brewery, where I met an old friend from my days of Lord of the Rings fandom and Tolkien message boards. We chatted over more beer and an enormous plate of ribs…which I almost finished. I walked through the snowflakes back to the hotel and fell into bed, with the traffic outside the window lulling me to sleep. New York, New York…

The next day was Sunday and I had arranged to meet an old college friend (and SAI sister.). She had invited me to her church – the Marble Collegiate Church. I had passed by this church many times, but never been inside. It was beautiful and the music was lovely. A most welcoming and warm congregation, with an excellent preacher, too.
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It was fun to see my old friend. We both agreed that neither of us had changed a bit and went out for brunch, complete with bloody Mary’s.

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That evening, I snagged what had to be one of the last tickets to hear the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society perform ALL SIX Bach Brandenburg Concertos! They performed in Alice Tully Hall, a wonderfully “live” hall and even though I was in the very last row, I could see and hear perfectly. As I settled into my seat, an almost-late older couple sat beside me and we joked about getting the last tickets. As we chatted in between concertos, I found that they had spent years in Africa. At intermission, they said that they were having dinner afterward and would I like to Join them! We had a wonderful dinner and some great conversation at a tiny French restaurant just up on 68th and they treated me! I love New York.

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The next morning, I arose to sunshine and the bustle of a Monday morning in NYC. Got breakfast, did a bit of window shopping and then hopped on the bus up to Providence, where my son picked me up and brought me to his house, full of Christmas bustle, the flotsam and jetsam of two teenaged girls and my bubbly and energetic daughter-in-law, who had posted a “welcome home” sign on the door for me!

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As I woke this morning, my daughter-in-law informed me that it was 2 degrees F. Hopefully I will manage to extricate my car from where it has been languishing in my son’s yard (and provided it will start and can get up the hill…) and drive to my little condo in Worcester today

Christmastime in Zambia…no snow, but plenty of cheer!

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Christmas was “invented” (if you will) in the northern hemisphere.  The long, cold, dark nights of December cried out for light.  The pagans already celebrated the winter Solstice with great gusto (fires, candles, dancing, feasting and general revelry) and so, knowing a good thing when he saw it,  after the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion, he then decided that December 25 made a great day to celebrate the birth of Christ. 

And so we who live north of the equator tend to associate Christmas with cold and snow and candles and evergreen trees.  We have Christmas songs about “in the bleak mid-winter” and Santa’s sleigh in the the snow and dashing through the snow and “White Christmas.”

When Christianity moved south, so did the holidays associated with it.  And, as incongruous as it may be, so did the traditions.  Even though it is the height of summer here, people put up evergreen trees, hang lights, Santa arrives dressed in boots and furs, there are reindeer sleighs and songs about a “White Christmas.”  Never mind that most Zambians have never seen a single snowflake or experienced temperatures much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Christmas is irrevocably linked to the winter. 

So, the decorations go up at the malls.

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There was even a huge tree made out of green plastic bottles – a joint effort by several companies to encourage recycling.

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And the InterContinental Hotel put out a call for carolers.  I brought my 6th, 7th and 8th graders (on three separate days) to sing “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silent Night” in the lobby.  We had a great time.

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Our singing was well received….even though they didn’t give us any Christmas cookies or punch, as is supposed to be traditional for carollers!

And now…I am on my way to the airport and in 24 hours, will touch down at JFK – where I hear there is actually some snow and the temperatures are decidedly frosty. 

I’m looking forward to it!

Shakespeare meets Fleetwood Mac

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The musical at the American International School of Lusaka was a bit…unusual this year.  In a good way.

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I have been privileged to work with the drama director at the school, who is incredibly talented, unbelievably creative and just this side of insane.  (As are all good drama directors.)  This year being the 450th birthday of The Bard, he wanted to do Shakespeare…but what to do?  One day, while reading through some of Shakespeare’s later and lesser- known plays, a recording of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” came on the radio and suddenly – the Idea was hatched.  I was just along for the ride.

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So…this was our production of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” (aka “Lost at Sea”) with music by Fleetwood Mac.

To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient chorus is come;
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear, and please your eyes

SONG: The Chain

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Pericles, a young prince and seafarer, has landed at the Palace of King Anticochus, where he seeks the hand of the Princess.  In order to win the right to marry her, a riddle must be solved.  If he fails, his head will join those who have failed before him…now decorating the upper wall.  However, what he doesn’t know is that if he actually solves the riddle, he will also be killed, as the answer exposes a dark secret between the King and his daughter.

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Pericles solves the riddle and realizes at once what it means and what it portends for him.  He tells the daughter that he cannot love her and must leave and quickly departs.

SONG: Go Your Own Way

Meanwhile, the King realizes that Perciles now knows his secret and orders one of his servants to find him and kill him.

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Pericles returns to Tyre, much troubled.  His Lords make a big fuss over his return, but his oldest and most trusted servant, Helicanus, sends them away, as he sees that his Prince is deeply upset.  Pericles tells Helicanus what happened and admits that he fears for his life.  Helicanus advises Pericles to go away for a while, until Antiochus has calmed down.

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Pericles sails to Tarsus, which is in the midst of a famine.  Their King and Queen, Cleon and Dionyza, are despairing about how to feed their people. When Perciles and his sailors show up with food, they pledge undying garniture and loyalty.

SONG: I’m So Afraid

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After some time at Tarsus, Pericles and his men sail on, but they are caught in a raging storm.  The ship is wrecked and Pericles finds himself washed ashore, bereft of his armour and alone.

SONG: Dreams

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He is found by some local fisherman, who give him shelter, food and the news that he is now on Pentapolis, where good King Simodes is about ready to celebrate his daughter’s birthday and all the local knights are invited to joust in the tourney.  Mourning his lack of armour, Pericles is cheered when one of the fisherman pulls in the net containing a suit of rusty armour.  Pericles declares that he will go and joust with the rest, even in the rusty outfit.

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The crowd has gathered and the Princess and her father watch as the knights are introduced.  One by one they enter, making a spectacle of themselves.

SONG: What Makes You Think You’re The One

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When Pericles enters, in his mean and tattered outfit, the crowd falls silent.  Unlike the others, he does not preen, but merely bows to the Princess.

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At the joust, Pericles acquits himself most admirably and Thaisa, the Princess, is very much attracted to him.  She places the laurel wreath on his head.  The King then commands that there be music and dancing!

SONG: Say You Love Me

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Meanwhile, back at Tyre, the Lords are getting restless that Pericles has been so long away.  They ask Helicanus to assume command.  He demurs, but says that if Pericles does not return within a year, he will reluctantly take the position.

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Thaisa has informed her father that she is in love with the Prince of Tyre and will wed no one else.  Simonides is quite pleased, as he is impressed with Pericles, but he decides to make the couple think he disapproves at first!  Finally, he proclaims them to be “man and wife” and sends them off to bed!

SONG: Crystal

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Pericles receives word that his kingdom needs him, so he and Thaisa (who is now expecting a baby) head back to Tyre.  A terrible storm hits them and Thaisa dies in childbirth, leaving a little daughter that Pericles names Marina. The superstitious sailors insist that it is bad luck to have a dead body on board, so Pericles allows them to put Thaisa in a casket and, after putting a note and jewels in with her body, casts her overboard.  He decides to return to Tarsus to leave the baby with Cleon and Dionyza, as he fears she will not survive the long journey back to Tyre.  Lychordia, Thaisa’s friend will also go, as nurse to the baby.

SONG: Beautiful Child

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Cleon and Dionyza promise to treat the babe as their own daughter and Perciles sorrowfully leaves, promising to return as soon as he can.

SONG: Songbird

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Early the next morning, Thaisa’s coffin washes up on the shore of the Coast of Ephesus near Diana’s Temple.  It is found by the temple Priestesses, who are helping people after the storm.  Upon opening it, they discover the body, but discern that there is still life.  Using the power of Diana, Thaisa is resurrected.

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SONG: Sisters of the Moon

END ACT ONE

As Act Two begins, Perciles is back at Tyre, pensive and lonely.

SONG: Storm

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14 years pass.  Marina grows to be a  beautiful young girl, loved by all who meet her.  Dionyza becomes increasingly jealous, because her own daughter is not as beautiful or talented.  When Lychordia dies, Dionyza sees her chance and decides to have her killed – over the objections of her husband.  She employs a servant to push Marina off a cliff, but right when she is about to do it – pirates appear!  They kidnap Marina and take her to a brothel on the island of Mytilene!

SONG: Tusk!

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Bawd and Pander, the proprieters of the brothel are bemoaning their lack of suitable “wenches.”  When their employee, Bolt, shows up with Marina, a bona-fide virgin, they are overjoyed.  Marina, however, has other ideas.

SONG: Never Make Me Cry

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It seems everyone who comes to the brothel hoping to sample the wares of the beautiful new girl are talked out of it, and leave promising to mend their ways and never go wenching again.  Pander and Bawd are besides themselves, as their business is being ruined.  When Lysimachus, the Governer of Mytilene (a regular customer,) shows up, Marina is instructed to “treat him as an honourable man” and do her job.  Instead, Lysimachus falls in love with Marina and castigates Pander and Bawd and their brothel!

SONG: Over My Head

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Pericles has returned to Tarsus, only to be told that his daughter is dead and shown her “tomb.”  Completely grief-stricken, he declines to talk to anyone or take any nourishment.  Helicanus takes him on a sea voyage, hoping to lift his spirits and they dock at Mytilene, where Lysimachus hears of Pericle’s melancholy and boards the ship, along with Marina.  Marina agrees to try to help Pericles and as they talk, he realizes that she is his daughter.

SONG: Songbird (reprise)

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Perciles falls into a swoon and has a vision of Diana and her priestesses.

SONG: Diana (Rhiannon)

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Upon awakening, he knows he must go to Diana’s Temple to give thanks.  When he arrives, he explains who he is and is shocked when one of the Priestesses come forward, calling his name.  It is his wife, Thaisa.

SONG: Landslide

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Pericles cannot contain his joy.  He kisses and embraces his long-lost Thaisa, introduces her to the daughter she never knew and gives his blessing to the marriage of Marina and Lysimachus.

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SONG: Say You Love Me (Reprise)

In the epilogue, the chorus tells us that wicked Antiochus and his daughter have been killed by a stroke of lightening, that Cleon and Dionyza, although deserving of death, were allowed to live, that Helicanus was rewarded for his good and faithful service and that the Temple of Diana and her priestesses were ever revered by Pericles and Thaisa…and that Marina and Lysimachos lived happily ever after!

So, on your patience evermore attending,
New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending.

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CURTAIN CALL: DON’T STOP

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The Bats of Kasanka

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In the northern part of Zambia, about 6 hours drive from Lusaka, there is a small national park called Kasanka.  Every November and December ten million straw-coloured fruit bats take up residence in one hectare of Kasanka National Park’s mushitu swamp forest.  This is not a “migration” as such – as the bats come from various places (such as Congo and Uganda)  It is more like a “congregation” as the bats gather to feed on the delicious mangos that are just ripening.

I had a 4-day weekend for American Thanksgiving and I thought since I wasn’t having turkey, what would be better than to spend some time in the forest, watching +/- 10,000,000 bats take to the sky?  I was not disappointed.

I booked accommodation at the rustic but charming Wasa Lodge, and arranged a ride from Adam, a sort of jack-of-all-trades who turned out to be a fountain of knowledge about landmarks, flora and fauna on the trip up.

As we passed through Kabwe, he pointed out the “Big Tree” monument (which is an enormous fig tree) and also several ancient locomotives – the town is still the putative center of Zambian railways, although employment on the railways has be greatly reduced.

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(We had a small adventure just south of Serneje – a mini-bus full of passengers had blown a tire and was tipped over on the side of the road.  The people were waving branches to try to flag down a vehicle, so we stopped.  There was a boy about 8 or 9 years old who had a sizeable gash in his leg, and an older man who looked like he may have had a concussion.  We piled them into the back seat, along with the little boy’s brother and detoured to the nearest clinic, about 20 minutes away.  Luckily, the gash on the boy’s leg had not been high enough to hit the femoral artery and although it was very deep (I could see the fat layer and muscle) it had not gone to the bone.  I  gave him water and covered the wound with gauze from the first aid kit.  The clinic was out in the middle of nowhere, but the nurses and orderlies came out with a couple of wheelchairs and we had some assurance that our unexpected passengers would be okay.)

We finally arrived at the lodge.  I was pleased to find that I had been “upgraded” and I didn’t have to share a bath.  I had my own little “chalet” – a terra-cotta coloured roundel, which had a thatched roof and was cool and comfortable.  The bath had cold running water and a “bucket” shower – when you wanted a shower, the staff would fill up a large container on the roof which was connected to the shower inside.  It worked splendidly.

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There was a large main building (also round!) which looked out over Wasa Lake.  They had a full bar and meals were included.  You could see puku (a kind of antelope) grazing across the lake and there was a sizeable pod of hippos in residence – you could hear them grunting as they surfaced and see their ears peaking out above the water.IMG_2022 IMG_2012 IMG_2017

Sam, the proprietor, greeted me warmly and said he would organize all the bat drives for me.  There are several “hides” from which to view the bats and there were drives in the evening (leaving at about 4:00pm) and morning (leaving at 4:00AM!)  I decided to go to all three available hides and did one twice…because it is a different experience in the evening, when the bats are on their way out, and in the morning, when they are returning, fat and tired and full of fruit!

Some of the hides were platforms in trees, (you climbed up a wooden ladder-like staircase) and some were right on the ground in a sort of marsh.  (To get to this one, we walked through a field of mint, which smelled wonderful!)

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There is no way to adequately describe viewing the bats.  In the evening, they would emerge from the dense forest beneath, where they had been sleeping all day (protected from the various birds of prey and other predators.)  They would hover around the tree-tops, circling and making their high-pitched bat-noise, and then descend again, as if to rally the rest of the group.  Each time, more and more bats would emerge, until finally, at almost exactly 6:00pm, they would ALL emerge – thousands and thousands and thousands of them – all heading off (as much as 60 kilometres away) to feast on the mangos.

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Our guide, Lloyd, told us that in the morning, they fly noticeably lower and more slowly, because they are so full…and that they sometimes bump into each other (I did see one collision.)  It’s like they are coming back from a night on the town…possibly muttering “Man, I shouldn’t have had that last mango” as they weave their way home.

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Lloyd was an extremely knowledgeable and interesting guide.  To become a guide, you have to take a 4-year sequence of classes and then pass a very stringent exam.  He had some great stories, including one where a walking safari inadvertently came between a mother elephant and her baby and another one where a guide actually lost his life protecting an idiot guest who was insisting on getting close enough to “see the eyes of the elephant.”

I loved the morning viewings best – you leave in the dark, with the stars above and then, as the skies slowly lighten, you hear and then see the bats returning…flying with the sun gleaming through the membrane of their wings, making them look golden.  There was no way I could possibly get a picture of this, no matter what kind of camera I might have had.

They roost for a while in the tops of the taller trees and then, suddenly, all swoop down at once – making it look as though the tree is shedding its leaves.  You hear their wings whooshing as they all descend back down into the forest. The trees in the picture below are FULL of bats…look closely!

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I met some interesting fellow bat-viewers, as well.  On the first drive, there were two guys from Spain, who had cameras that looked big enough to see the footprints on the moon!  They were very particular about their pictures.

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The following morning, my companions were three older Englishman who had been friends with David Lloyd, the founder of Kasanka National Trust and a real character, by all accounts.  He squandered half his fortune on wine, women and song and then used the rest to buy Kasanka.  These guys knew a great deal about the park and on our drive back, we detoured a bit so we could try to view some of the animals and interesting plants.  We saw a warthog and a kind of goose and had a fantastic view of a bateleur (a kind of eagle.)  I got a shot of it sitting in a tree, and then it swooped off and circled back over our heads, showing a spectacular wingspan. (I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture, but the sight of that bird, winging not 10 feet above us, was glorious.)

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We also saw some huge termite mounds and a field of smaller ones that looked remarkably like a cemetery! There was a magnificent “sausage tree” and several large sycamores.  And plenty of puku.

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The last day, I sat in the shade of the lodge’s balcony, just relaxing and enjoying the view.  It was fun to listen to the other guests come back from their bat viewings.  That night, I sat out by the fire with a glass of wine, watched the sun set and the moon rise and listened to the sounds of the bush.

And I was thankful, indeed.

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But…what will you eat?

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Grocery shopping in Lusaka can be interesting, but in many ways, is no different than shopping at home. In the past decade, several modern and well-stocked grocery stores have opened here and you can get almost anything you might buy at home.

Manda Hill is a large, modern enclosed mall, with a ShopRite grocery at one end and a large “Game” department store at the other. Game looks very much like a Walmart, so I was not surprised to discover that it is, in fact, owned by Walmart.  (Soon the entire world will be owned by Walmart, I fear!)

There is also a 5- screen movie theater, several restaurants, various clothing and electronics stores and assorted other shops,  beauty salons, watch repair, book shops and internet services.

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I don’t go to Manda Hill often…it is usually very crowded and the parking lot can be packed full of cars trying to get in or out and people shouting and/or beeping their car horns.  There is another, fairly new shopping plaza a little closer to me called Arcades.  This is a bit more laid-back, with some trendy nightspots, a huge Spar Supermarket (with frequent announcements over the loudspeaker, thanking the shoppers for their “lovely and happy shopping” and telling us about the daily specials and etc…) and various shops and places to sit outdoors and have a cup of coffee or a snack.  It also has a modern movie theater and it is the site for the Sunday craft market I mentioned in a previous post.  They have a large bookstore (fun place to browse) and a huge hardware store that has almost anything you might need for DIY.

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A bit closer to home is Woodlands, which has a Pick-and- Pay and also O’Hagan’s – an Irish bar.  They serve the usual bottled beer (Mosi, Castle and Heiniken) and Guinness…also bottled.  As far as I  know, there is no actual draught beer to be found anywhere in Zambia!

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Crossroads is a conveniently-located shopping plaza if all you want to do is pick something up on the way home from work.  It has a smallish Spar, a chemist (drug-store) a cafe and a bookstore, as well as internet/phone companies, an appliance store and a fairly large, modern mattress store on the second level!  Pharmacies in Zambia are very well-stocked and will generally fill any kind of prescription, even if you haven’t seen a doctor.  Last week, I had a hideous sore throat and fever…I went in, explained my condition, and walked out with 3 days worth of antibiotics, cough medicine with codeine, anti-bacterial gargle and some aspirin for good measure.

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My favorite place to grocery shop by far is Melissa’s – right down the road from where I live.  Melissa’s is a local supermarket, much smaller than the larger chains.  But they usually have everything I need and they are very friendly and helpful.  It is a much more relaxing place to shop. They bake their own bread daily, and also have a decent liquor selection and a butcher.  In the same plaza, there are several restaurants, including a nice Lebanese place, a pizza parlour and a bakery that make excellent lattes and capucinos.  There is an additional (more comprehensive!) liquor store and a “ZamBeef” butcher, as well as a number of ATMs.  At the intersection, you can always count on the locals being there to sell you tomatoes, avocados, strawberries and even watermelons….but you have to make the transaction quickly, before the light changes!

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I sometimes walk down to Melissa’s on a weekend morning and have a latte and a croissant and pick up a few things.

“What will you eat” was a question I got asked by the girlfriend of my friend’s son, who didn’t really understand that there would be actual stores in Zambia…with actual food.  (Of course, I did sample those caterpillars that time…and you can buy those in the grocery stores, too!)

Hellen and the Cow School.

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Every once in a while, you meet someone who completely blows your mind.  This happened to me on my trip to Kenya, when I visited the Enkiteng Lepa Community School and met Hellen Nkurayia.

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Hellen is a tiny, round woman with a huge smile, an infectious laugh and the traditional dress and shaved head of the Maasai.  She came bounding out of her office to greet us, and gestured towards the school building, which is painted a bright lavender.  “You have seen our cows?” she inquired.  “They are all colors!  Brown, black, white, gray…many colors!  But have you ever seen a purple cow?   No, you have not!  Well – this is our purple cow!”  And she laughed her bubbly laugh.  “Our cows are everything – and this school and the education we give to our children –  is valuable as cows.  So we call it the Cow School.”

“Enkiteng Lepa” literally means “Cow School.”  Not a school for cows, of course, but an attempt to teach the people that giving your daughter an education is far more valuable than trading her at a young age for two or three cows.  (“Because the cows may die the next year, and then you have nothing – no daughter, no cows!  But an education can never be taken away!  So I tell them – educate your daughter!  Do not marry her off for a few cows!”)

The school motto: “Shule yetu, nguyu yetu” means “Our school, our strength” in Swahili.

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We visited a kindergarten classroom, which had its own little garden plot.

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Hellen brought us into a bright and cheerful classroom,  where 37 girls are taught.  These girls are aged about 7 – 11, and are all boarding students, which means they have been rescued from the prospect of early marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation.)  They live at the school until they are educated and old enough to make their own choices.  Then they are reconciled with their families.  Hellen is fiercely protective of her girls and keeps them safe and secure from anyone who might come into the compound.  There have been incidences of girls being “snatched” from the school.

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The girls were all very cheerful and respectful, even though they giggled a bit at my bright white hair.  In Maasai culture, women and men both shave their heads…and gray or white hair is highly unusual, as are white people in western dress.  Hellen told me that once, after a visit by some mzungu (white) people from a sponsoring organization, the girls had decided amongst themselves that “mzungu men had breasts.”  She could not understand why the girls had made this conclusion, until she realized that the women in the sponsor group had all been wearing trousers.  In the girls’ way of thinking, it was more likely that these were men with breasts, than a woman would wear such an outfit!

The girls sang and danced for me and recited poetry and later on, I taught them a song with sign language.  I was thrilled a couple of days later when I saw Hellen again and she told me that they were still singing that song and doing the signs!

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Hellen showed us the weekly schedule for the pre-school and the primary school.  It included maths, science, social studies, English and Swahili and also a class called “CRE.”  This is “Christian Religious Instruction” and is required by the Kenyan government.  Hellen shrugged as she told me that she was not a Christian, and neither were any of the children, but in order to pass the government exam, the children had to know about this religion and so, she taught it to them.  However, all the government supplied materials had illustrations of a decidedly white Jesus and a white mother Mary and the children would challenge her as she taught.  “They ask me why they should pray and worship a mzungu man?” Hellen said, with a laugh.  I suggested she give them a brown crayon to color the faces in the pictures.

Later, we were shown the kitchen and dining room where the children ate.  Hellen said that several local churches wanted to come and instruct the children, but she refused them.  “Religion here in Kenya is big business,” she told me.  “The ministers who come ask the children for money, and want them to spend their Sundays sitting in church.  But not one church has sponsored a child who needs it.”   She grinned at the children, who were sitting at the table.  “Pretend you are getting ready to eat,” she said.  The children bowed their heads and parroted a grace that they had obviously been taught by rote.  “See?” said Hellen. “That is what the ministers want them to do.  But we are Maasai.  We believe God created everything, and that we are all part of God.  And we believe that every one of us has a star in the heavens with our name on it.”

I told her that it sounded like a good belief system to me and I saw no reason why she should change it.

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I also told her that I wanted to sponsor a girl.  For an entire year, the cost is $600.  $50 dollars a month…

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In addition to the boarding students, the school also has day students and classes for teenagers and adults in the evening.  One of the projects is teaching young women to sew, so that they can sell their products and make a living.   Hellen showed me the sewing room, where there were about a dozen sturdy Singer machines…the kind with a treadle you work with the foot, as electricity is scarce.  Colorful shopping bags and backpacks hung on the walls, as examples of the wares being made and Hellen told me that the students were now learning how to make school uniforms, since every school in Kenya requires them.  (Her school is one of the few schools where the students are allowed to wear their native Maasai dress.)

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“This is our latest project,” Hellen said, showing me a packet of three objects.  “Do you know what they are?”  I examined what she showed me…and they did look somewhat familiar.  There were three oblongs, made of a thick, soft material, with a lining of plastic and a velcro attachment.  Hellen laughed and said, “These are reusable sanitary pads!”

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She then went on to explain that about three or four months after she first started the school, some of the women came to her and asked her why she never menstruated.  In the very remote and rural world of the Maasai, (as well as other poor areas) when a woman has her period, she needs to stop everything and spend her time sitting – usually over a hole dug into the ground or on some sort of bucket.  So most women are unable to go about their daily tasks for at least five or six days every month…and here Hellen barely ever even sat down!

How else could a woman cope? Disposable “feminine supplies” were much too expensive and besides, there was no way to obtain them and no good way to dispose of them.  So, Hellen acquired a pattern for a simple, reusable product, bought the fabric and set about making them in sets of three.  “We have bright sun here,” she said.  “So I tell the women – after the first one is used, you wash it and set it to dry in the sun, and by the time you need it again, it will be dry enough for you to use!”

I saw Hellen again after our trek across the Loita Plains…at the second Widow’s Village.  Using land again donated by Salaton, the widows here have created an oasis in the midst of the plains and Hellen decorated it with various artifacts from Maasai culture – old leather bags, horns originally used to carry water or milk, jewelry that the widows didn’t think was “good enough” to sell.  Most of the other Maasai find this very odd – theirs is a semi-nomadic culture and using broken and cast-off items as “art” does not make sense to them.  But Hellen convinced them that the “mzungu tourists” would like it…and this mzungu definitely did!

I heard more of Hellen’s story over a bottle of wine she had somehow procured.  She was going to be forced to marry at age 11, but ran away and was helped “by a Roman Catholic nun” she told me, crossing herself rather incongruously.  “So now, I try to give back.” she said, quietly.   She has never had any children of her own (despite taking part in a lengthy “fertility ritual” where she had to take a 3-month leave of absence from her job as a government head teacher!) but she has an adopted son.  Working with Salaton, she has traveled to places such as San Francisco and New York City to speak about her projects and her people.  (Since Maasai keep no birth records, it took her over a year to get a passport, as a birth certificate had to be created for her!)  She is fierce and dedicated and determined to teach her students to “hold your culture in one hand and your education in the other!”

If you would like to read more about the school and the widows projects…and donate to an extremely worthwhile project, please visit the website HERE.

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(This picture is from the Facebook page of the Make It Real Foundation.)

United Nations Day

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October 24 is “United Nations Day” and we, as an international school, were of course bound to celebrate it!  (Pictures by Heather PIllar…click to enlarge! )

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I have celebrated UN Day before, both in the USA and at my UK school…but it has never felt like this.  Our school has students from 53 different countries.  For UN day, everyone – from the 2-year-old “play school” students to the 18+ year old seniors, gathered in the gym.  Everyone was seated by country.  Many students were dressed in traditional dress from their country or had their faces painted in the colors of their flag.  Some of the elementary students had hand-made flags to wave; some had painted their faces.

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There was a parade of countries, similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  Selected students carried their country’s flag and everyone cheered as they walked into the gym.

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Finally, it was time for Zambia, our host country.  There was a huge cheer…and my little “orchestra” was ready.  We played the Zambian National Anthem as everyone sang with great gusto!  (That’s me on the clarinet.) The rest of the “orchestra” consists of a trombone, a violin, a snare drum, a rhythm  guitar and another clarinet. Hey, it’s a start!  We also had a vocalist.

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The student council president spoke, and there was some traditional Zambian drumming and dancing!

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We also had a surprise visit from the AISL mascot (a leopard!) as we prepared to host the upcoming ISSEA Volleyball Tournament.

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We left the gym to partake of a feast – an “international food festival.”  I have to say that the parents oputdid themselves…I have never seen so much food!  Each table was labeled with the country or area and there was plenty for all!

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It was a great way to start our October break!  I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work at this school!

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Come on a safari with me!

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The last two days of my week in Kenya were spent at the fantastic Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  I was accompanied by  my new friend Salaton and I felt extremely privileged to have the tribal chief as my personal safari guide!  We were driven in a 4-wheel drive van with a pop-up top, so I could stand up and take pictures.

This was my first real safari and I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I was expecting to see animals, of course, but nothing really prepared me for the enormous space of the Mara, or of how up close and personal we were able to get to the animals.  Since they have learned that these funny-looking two-legged creatures in the noisy contraptions are neither prey nor predator, they mostly ignore us completely…going about their business and allowing us to gawk.

I was able to see more than 30 different animals; most closely enough to get a good look and a good picture.  ALL the pictures here were taken with my little point-and-shoot camera.

We saw giraffes before we even got into the boundaries of the reserve…and later saw more, even closer.

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As I had hoped, we saw many elephants.  There were even a couple of babies…but the mother carefully herded them away as we approached.

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We saw several kinds of vultures…some in trees and a bunch feeding on the carcass of a dead elephant.

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I got a good shot of a malibu stork, which is the bird I saw flying from a distance on my bird watch last month.

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There were other birds, too….a secretary bird and a pair of Egyptian ducks with their little babies, no bigger than feather-balls.

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We saw a lot of zebras and wildebeests.  This was the end of their big migration (they tend to migrate together) and at one point, we saw a HUGE herd of them walking slowing across the plain.  There were also gazelles, impala, antelope and eland.

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We came upon a couple of water buffalo, which apparently is one of the more dangerous animals, as they have been known to charge a vehicle!  And we also saw some warthogs…and some adorable babies, trotting along after their parents.  (“The Kenyan express,” Salaton said.)  I was unable to get a picture of the babies, but did get a snapshot of one hog hiding under a bush.

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Of course, everyone wants to see the majestic lion.  We came upon four different male lions.  May I present: The King Of Beasts!

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Meanwhile, the female lion had made a kill and was guarding it carefully.  There was a flock of vultures nearby, waiting for her to be finished.

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We were lucky enough to see a cheetah – although not close enough for a good picture, I was able to view it through my binoculars.  It was sitting under a tree, looking like a huge housecat as it licked its paws and yawned.

Later on, we came upon a pair of lions.  Salaton said it looked as though they might be getting ready to mate, and indeed, the male put on a great show to the female – approaching her several times with his hips swaying and making huffing sounds.  He even went so far as to urinate most spectacularly right in front of her nose (and I got a picture of him doing it!) However, she was unimpressed and merely moved away from him.  He sat down again to wait for another opportunity.

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Just before lunch, we found a watering hole with at least a dozen hippos!  They did not come out of the water (which was probably a good thing) but we could see their heads and ears and hear their snuffling sounds…almost like whales…as they surfaced to breathe.

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More animals included a bushback (very rare to see; as they are quite shy…) a jackal, an ostrich (which is HUGE and looks like a mistake in design!), some mongoose and a couple of crocodiles, swimming near the hippos.

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We encountered some Maasai boys just as we were having our lunch and gave them all our bread-and-butter sandwiches.  I remembered to touch their heads and say “supa” to them – who knows what they thought of me, a mzungu woman with white hair, a big floppy hat and green sunglasses!  But they smiled and said “supa” back to me.

It was a fantastic way to end my week in Kenya.

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Widows, water and a walk across the plains!

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In Maasai culture, women are traditionally not permitted to remarry.  Once they are married, they become part of their husbands family and their cattle and possessions belong to him.  Because many times young women (and girls) are married to much older men, it is common for a women to become a widow at a young age, often with several children and her options are few.

Salaton was encouraged by his mother (a  “medicine woman”) to do something about this – to help the widows and to discourage child marriage and female circumcision (or FGM – for female genital mutilation.) His mother, he told me, was a very strong woman, a very wise woman and he knew he had to do as she asked.  He has donated land for a “Widow’s Village” where widows can live together as a family, own their own livestock, build their own houses and make and sell jewellery.

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We were greeted at the entrance to the village by some of the widows, who sang a welcoming song, and then brought us into the middle of the group of houses; into an enclosure where they keep the cows at night.  This is the most important place of all, because the cows are so important.  There, they sang another song and had me and the other girl in our group join in the singing and the dancing.

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We were invited to see the inside of one of the homes – this is a very traditional Maasai house, with a low door and no windows.  Inside was a cook fire and two beds, one for the mother and young children and one for older children and any guests.  In addition, there was a space for the goats and young sheep.

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The women had spread all their wares out on individual shukas and we were invited to look and buy.  Everything was beautifully made.

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There is also a refuge center at the Widow’s Village.  This is for girls who are being forced into marriage or circumcision.  The girls can stay here safely and go to school.  After they have passed their secondary school exams, they are old enough choose their own husband and path in life and they can be reconciled with their families.

“I am not changing our culture,” Salaton told me.  “I am stopping harmful practice.  Many young girls are injured through FGM and some die when giving birth; and the babies die, too.  Far better for young girls to get an education that lasts forever than to be married off in exchange for a few cows that could die in a year.”

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Another project in the works is a conservation plot.  Many trees have been cut down and burned to make charcoal, which is a cheap source of fuel.  However, for the Maasai, many plants and trees have holy or medicinal purposes…not to mention that they hold moisture and keep the soil from eroding.  Salaton has started a small plot with seedlings and Coila is their custodian.  Although he cannot read or write and speaks only Maa, (and some Swahili) he is an expert at caring for the plants.  We helped with the daily watering.

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The next day, we packed for our walk.  Thankfully, we had several strong warriors to carry all the tents, sleeping bags, cookware and food!  It was hot and dry, but walking really gives you a great sense of the land and the surroundings.  We encountered other Maasai walking to get water, or caring for herds of goats or cows.   And we saw many small groups of mud houses…blending in with the land.

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After about 6 hours of walking, Salaton declared that we had reached our campsite.  We collapsed, exhausted, while our warriors pitched the tents, made the fire and prepared afternoon tea.  (Seriously, we had tea and biscuits!)  We saw evidence of elephant, warthog, lion and other animals and heard the sounds of the bush around us.  It was a beautiful evening…and we even got some rain to cool things off later that night.

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In the morning, we heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle…it was someone from the camp, with extra water for cooking and drinking.  I have no idea how he found us!  After breakfast, the warriors packed up and brought all the heavy equipment and supplies back to camp, while we walked on a bit further to a second camp, where we could have a proper shower and enjoy a night right on the plains.  This is a newer camp that also includes a widow’s village, again with land given by Salaton.  We had a delicious dinner and shared a bottle of wine, brought out by Hellen, an extraordinary woman with a hearty laugh who runs the camp, and also the school (which will be described in another post!)  I loved this camp – my little mud house looked right out onto the plains.  It was so peaceful and stunningly beautiful.

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The next morning, I was picked up bright and early to drive into Masa Mara Game Reserve for my SAFARI!

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A week with the Maasai!

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Map of Maasai camp

 

Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp

The Maasai are an ancient people with ancient traditions.  I read an article in the New York Times travel section about the “Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp” and I decided to spend my October break doing something…well, a bit different!

Through the Eyes of the Maasai 

I got into Nairobi on Friday evening and was taken to a small hotel near the airport.  Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and a fairly developed city, with a number of sky-scrapers, a bustling downtown and huge traffic jams.  Tiampati, my Maasai driver, picked me up promptly at 9:00am for the 3 and a half hour drive to the camp, which is outside of Narok and just on the border of the Masa Mara game reserve.  We stopped at a viewpoint along the way at the Great Rift Valley, which extends almost 10,000 kilometers from the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique.

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There were many sight-seers at the rest stop…you could purchase crafts and souvenirs, tea or coffee and take pictures.  Some locals saw their opportunity and approached anyone who looked like a tourist (ie: any white person) to try to sell their wares.  One man kept appearing behind me and saying “Hakuna matata!” while pointing to the shop behind him.  Another man was selling roast corn on a stick (a very common road-side snack)  He would hold it up and shout “Yum yum!  Yum yum!” and was very persistent, even following me as I got into the car.  I politely declined, buying only a cup of tea.

We continued onward through the valley and past tiny towns and wide open spaces.  Cows, goats and sheep were everywhere.  Finally, we reached the town of Narok; a fairly large town by Kenyan standards and the main town for many Maasai.  From here we turned onto a dirt road, which became incredibly bumpy and dusty…we were heading into the Mara.  After about 45 minutes, we turned at a small sign that said “Maji Moto Maasai Camp” and the road became even narrower.  Small groups of mud huts could be seen here and there and there were many flocks of goats and sheep, usually tended by a small boy.  Finally we arrived at the camp and were greeted by a group of Maasai warriors.  They sang and danced for me and I was given a shuka (traditional Maasai shawl)

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The camp consisted of several buildings, all constructed in the traditional manner of mud, ashes, cow dung and timber.  These had been “westernized” in that they had windows, stone floors and a door you could walk through (rather than crawl.)  They were quite cool inside and very comfortable.

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There was a wash-station and a toilet and outdoor shower, which was filled from the hot springs of Maji Moto (which means, literally, “Water Fire”)  Everything was very clean and neat and it really felt like you belonged to the earth.

There were many plants and trees and animals around the camp and you could see the Loita Hills rising above you.  All the food was cooked in the outdoor kitchen on a wood fire and was simple and delicious.
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I walked down to the hot springs with Rose, one of the volunteers at the camp.  There is a large windmill that pumps the water for two communal showers there (one for men, one for women.)  The women come to fill their water barrels – huge plastic containers that they carry with a strap around the forehead back to their village (sometimes several miles away.)  Some people have a donkey or two to carry more water. Clothes-washing is done here as well, and there is a watering hole for the animals a bit downstream where the water is cooler.

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That night, the warriors demonstrated how they traditionally started a fire, using a stick and a piece of tinder.  They twirled the stick in their hands, rubbing it against a flat piece of wood with the tinder underneath and their machete under that.  When the tiny tinder was lit, they would carefully transfer it to a larger clump of dry cedar shavings and then gradually add wood until the fire was blazing.

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That first night, I sat around the fire with four Maasai warriors.  The stars came out one by one and the warriors sang traditional songs.  Most of the songs were a kind of chanting call-and-response and most were about cattle and women.

In the Maasai traditional religion, their god Enkai stretched a long piece of bark from heaven and all the cattle were able to walk down to earth on it.  Enkari gave all the cattle to the Maasai.  A jealous  god broke the bark and so young Maasai warriors often jump as high as they can to try to reach the cattle still up in heaven.  Apparently, high jumpers also attract young women.

The next day, Salaton, the tribal chief who runs the camp and another warrior named Coila, took me on a hike up Loita Hill.  On the way, the two warriors demonstrated spear-throwing.  A Maasai warrior almost always carries a spear.  The narrow end is for practice and the wide end for protection.  After they had thrown their spears at a tree and missed several times in a row, Salaton turned to me and said gravely, “You are not safe!”   He and Coila thought this was very funny.
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Loita Hills once were part of a vast volcanic range and the rock formations are strange and beautiful.

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There were many colorful trees and flowers…even in the hot, dry climate.

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There are over 40 varieties of acacia tree…this one is called a “whistling acacia.”  The hard, black bulb-like things on the tree are made by ants as a nest.  When the ants leave the nest, they make holes in the surface.  And then, when the wind blows, it whistles through the holes.

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On the way back, we came across a young boy looking after the goats.  In Maasai culture, when you meet a child, you touch their head and say “Supa.”  This is a sign of respect.  Most young children will come up to you and lower their head to be touched.

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When we got back down to the camp, I was hot and tired…I looked up to where we had climbed and felt like I had touched the sky.

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Next: Visiting the Widows Village, the Conservation Project, Warrior Training and a two-day trek across the Loita Plains.