Category: cultural funnies

malaria? typhoid?

With the rainy season in Africa comes sickness, apparently. When we started our directed research writeups over half the staff disappeared. At first I assumed they had days off, but then I realized most of them were in the local hospital due to one ailment or another.

One morning while cooking breakfast, I asked our older cook, Esau, how the other cooks Patricia and Resti were doing. He told me they were staying at the local “medics,” which is a place where people can go for medicine and lay-ins but that doesn’t house any certified specialists. (It is not the clinic we, as students, go to if we are sick). Then he asked when I was going to visit them – not if, when. Flustered, I almost offered work as an excuse to not go, then I stopped myself and boldly stated, “this afternoon.”

I convinced two friends to go with me and we made our way to the medics, near the church. Patricia and Resti lay in neighboring beds in one of the patient rooms. The room had six beds, three of which were held by children. They were beyond touched that we had come to visit and I silently thanked Esau for demanding the obvious. We asked Patricia and Resti what they had. Patricia said the doctors told her she has allergies, Resti had “some kind of flu.” It didn’t seem very conclusive, but they said they would be home within two days. We sat and chatted for a few minutes, a woman randomly handed Shealyn her baby which entertained us for a bit. Then the priest came to pray for each person in the room individually and we decided it was best to leave.

That night in the dinner line I was chatting with the student managar about all the sick staff members. “What did they say they had?” She asked cynically, “Malaria? Typhoid?” I told her what we had learned and she laughed, “Yeah, the clinic isn’t very conclusive. It is always  malaria or typhoid, or sometimes just ‘the change in weather’.”

A few days later I was sitting in my room when I spotted Martha through the window. I jumped up and raced out to see her, she had been to the hospital for what I think is migraines. We greeted with a handshake and a headbump and I asked her how she was. “Eh, niko sawa,” she replied, I’m okay.

I asked where she’d been and she told me the hospital, then she laughed, “Daktari kicha,” The doctor is crazy.

“Kwa nini?” Why?

Then she went into a long, and slow (for my benefit), story of what the doctor had told her, with a lot of pantomiming involved. Apparently, she arrived at the doctors, told him she had headaches and was told to wait. After a long wait they drew some blood and made her wait more. The results came back negative – no malaria, no typhoid, no HIV. However, apparently they revealed she has too much blood, and that’s why she’s getting headaches. The doctor told her she should have her blood drawn to get rid of some of it.

Daktari kicha sana. 

I will never take the American health care system for granted again.

learning accents.

“Tell me,” our assistant Professor, Yohana, requested, “How do you learn the American accent?”

Radwa and I stared at him in confusion, “We just know it?”

“Hapana,” he shook his head, No. “Where do you learn it?”

“Where did you learn Maasai?” I countered.

“Hapana,” he said again, “Maasai is not written. It is different. How do you learn to pronounce words?”

“We learn how to pronounce words from the people around us when we grow up. I grew up in America so I have an American accent but if I grew up in England, surrounded by people with British accents, I would have a British accent. It’s not something we learn.”

Kweli?” He asked, exasperated. “But then how can you understand eachother? You write the same words but you pronounce them differently.”

Radwa and I looked at eachother, stumped, and shrugged.

“But then which one should I learn?”

stealing twilight.

Shea and I were standing at the gate in the rain waiting for Martha before we headed to church when Paolo stepped through the door. He was dressed in a suit as always, even though he is grounds staff, and carrying a flowered umbrella. We greeted him warmly, exclaiming that we hadn’t seen him in a few days. Paolo, who is always soft spoken, smiled slightly. He politely asked us how we were and how our lessons were going, but his face remained grim. When we asked where he had been, assuming he had off days, he informed us that his grandfather had passed the night before. A man of 98, his grandfather was a well-respected Rhotia citizen and a highly esteemed member of the church. Paolo had spent the past few days in the hospital. While speaking his face exuded an immensely deep but extremely controlled grief. We gave our condolences, unsure of what to say. Shortly following Safari arrived with the boots Paolo had stopped by for and he headed on his way to make funeral arrangements. We grimly watched him go.

Throughout the day we all but forgot the grief of the morning. We attended a baptism, went to market and played a great soccer game. That evening staff and students alike were spraying each other with water bottles and racing each other up the hill back to camp from the soccer field, sweaty, tired and grinning. By the time we reached the gate the sun had almost set and the world was lit in an eery and colorful twilight.

Suddenly the ground started to shake and a rumble broke through the quiet evening silence. We all froze instinctively and glanced around, confused. Then, the sound breached the top of the hill and we were blinded by an instant flooding light. Our eyes adjusted and an amazing scene unfolded. Over 30 motorbikes were headed down the street, their inefficient mufflers growling in our ears, their lights illuminating the corn fields. There was an average three men per bike, all wrapped in bright Shukas and wearing their best shoes. It looked a bit like the clown motorcyclists in a parade – except no one was smiling. Adoring the front of every single motorbike was a bouquet of natural flowers.

“Wow,” Shea whispered, “They’re going to Paolo’s.” The men passed us, a few bowing their heads in salutation. We stood, amazed, as the bikes passed, followed by cars and walking people. A few moments later we stood in silence and complete darkness. The bikes had taken twilight with them, perhaps as a gift for the deceased.

The entire village of Rhotia must be attending this service, I thought.

The rest of the night and the night following we could hear the music from the celebrations pounding through the air. I couldn’t help but smile for Paolo.

What a show of community.

interviewing in reverse.

“This man here has said, these are new faces to me, we have never met before, how do I know that I can trust you with the information to these questions you will ask me?”

Each of us stared at our feet, dumbfounded and afraid to look the our interviewees in the eyes . I tried to grasp the meaning of the man’s words and form an answer. Mwamhanga, our Professor, offered to respond. Next to me Christine whispered, “I feel like we should say something…” but before we could he was already answering for us.

It was the last day of data collection. Our Professor set up a focus group discussion with various representatives from the village bordering the Community Forest we were studying. After the embarrassing introduction we awkwardly asked the list of questions we had prepared. The two women in the group stayed quiet and two of the men led the discussion for most of its duration. As time went on the conversation got more comfortable. The group exuded excitement when talking about local medicines, seriousness when discussing climatic changes, and pride while explaining their agricultural practices.

When we approached the last topic, gender, I stole a glance at Christine’s question list and involuntarily inhaled sharply. She glanced up at me and grimaced, “It’s what he wants me to ask.” She straightened her 5′ 2″ body on the bench and bravely began.

Immediately, the men started laughing and shifting uncomfortably in their seats in response to her questions – What roles do women play in the Iraqw community? How are these roles changing? The women listed roles such as cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood and raising children. The men stated that because of development, politics and the spread of urbanism women are demanding more rights, that they are leaving the house more and becoming more vocal.

“Are these changes a good thing?” Christine asked.

Two of the men vigorously shook their heads. The increased freedom of women, they said, threatened marriages. If women are allowed to go out on the town and speak to whomever they like how can they be trusted?

“Let me ask the women the same,” Mwamhanga offered before we could stop him.

In reply the women looked at their feet and shook their heads. “I think you understand them,” Mwamhanga directed towards Christine, “They say it is a bad thing, let me ask them why.”

“You don’t need… ” she began – but it was too late. The room became quiet. The men chuckled to themselves and the women suppressed embarrassed grins. “It’s really okay Mwamhanga… they don’t need to say why.”

After finishing the rest of Christine’s questions we closed up our notebooks and bags to head home while Mwamhanga said a public thank you to the group. Just as we stood to leave, however, one of the men spoke up.

“This man would like to know, what are womens’ roles in America.” Every Tanzanian in the room was listening intently, not a hint of mockery on their faces.

“Well…” Christine began slowly, “There is greater equality in America, women have achieved more rights, but it is still not completely equal.”

Mwamhanga translated and they stared at her, waiting for more.

“It is more likely in America that both parents work and that both parents do house chores,” I offered. During the translation all of the men laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.

“But how strong are marriages in America?” One of them asked.

We all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. Christine sighed, “Well… there is a much higher divorce rate in America than here I suppose…”

“Divorce is extremely difficult in Tanzania,” Mwamhanga explained, “How difficult is it in America?”

“Well, it’s not exactly easy…” Lauren piped up.

Another one of the men cut her off, “What about conservation in America? How is that done?”

“It is regulated more by government bodies, with stricter rules and enforcement,” I explained.

Jill added, “Americans don’t rely on natural resources as much as Tanzanians so it isn’t as necessary.”

“How did America transition to not needing firewood?” He pressed. The students all laughed.

“Well… we use a lot of coal, oil and natural gas for electricity,” Dylan replied.

“Which is one of the reasons the climate here is changing,” I replied instinctively. Then I turned to Christine and said jokingly, “I’m not sure if I would recommend it.”

But I really wasn’t. Yet, who am I to recommend whether someone should or should not have what I have?

on selling dogs.

Our expeditions and field work often require long drives, drives that often result in interesting conversations. During this particular drive we were headed to Taragire National Park, the first destination of our first expedition. The car was full of excitement and energy. Our Mwalimu, Professor, Kioko was in the front passengers seat of the land rover miraculously grading papers in silence as we flew over bumpy winding roads that threatened to make me sick.

In the village of Karatu the roadsides were crowded with herd after herd of cattle, sheep and goats. “They are heading to Mtu wa Mbu,” Kioko softly answered our unspoken inquires, “People will come as far as Karatu, nearly 18 kilometers, for the weekly market.” A few moments later we passed a villager herding a group of dogs down the road. Kioko spoke up again.

“They are going to sell their dogs in Mtu wa Mbu.”

“What? Really?” We questioned.

After a short awkward moment Kioko flashed his silent smile in laughter, “I’m kidding… would that work in America?”

“What, selling dogs? Well, would it work here?” I asked.

“Maybe, they do it with donkeys. Maybe that will be my retirement plan,” he responded, chuckling softly, “Selling dogs at market.”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, actually. We do have breeders.”

“Breeders?” He questioned.

“Well in America we have a lot of different kinds of dogs, unlike in Africa where they are all similar, and sometimes people pay a lot of money to make sure that their dogs are of ‘pure breeding’ and only one kind.”

“Don’t you have dogs the size of… like… rodents?”

Another student laughed, “Yeah, and dogs as big as donkeys.”

“Why?” He inquired.

“Um… I guess they are used for different purposes? Sometimes they even show them.”

“Show them?” He raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah, they clean them all up and teach them tricks and then -” I stopped midsentence at the look on his face.

“Why?” He burst out in soft laughter, eyes wide.

“I don’t know,” I responded, stumped.

Another student chimed in, “it’s like a hobby for rich people… like golf.”

ants in my pants.

Wadudu make mosquitoes look like butterflies.

The first night we spent in Arusha national park was relatively uneventful… for most of us. Zack came to breakfast with red eyes and a frown and complained that he hadn’t gotten any sleep because of some ants in his sleeping bag. Our Professor Yohana found the ant hill by the boy’s tent and poured salt on it as he’d been instructed to. But the other staff mostly shrugged it off, that’ll happen, this is Africa. No one stopped to consider that Zack was sleeping to the north in the tent that was furthest north in a line of many others…

When we were headed to bed that night the boys found a lovely surprise, their tent door was covered in a blanket of little red ants. They didn’t stay near their tent for long. See, when these little red ants bite, it burns. And when they bite they release pheromones telling all the other little ants you’re there. Martha and Yuri started whacking away at the wadudu on the tent with suppressed chuckles as the boys ran in circles, ripping their clothes off and swatting their bodies screaming, “this is bullsh*t, we can’t sleep in there!”

A new tent was constructed for the boys and everything seemed to be peachy until one of the students yelled from the edge of camp, “they’re moving!” Sure enough a long thick line of ants was headed out of their salted home… and straight into camp. My tentmates and I bolted into our tent. We were the next tent in the line of fire.

“What are we going to do!?” Molly cried as we zipped ourselves inside. We looked helplessly at the small hole where the vertical and horizontal zippers to our tent came together. She peered through the window with her flashlight. “Oh my god… they’re coming!” We stuffed a towel and a few books in front of the hole and prayed that they would pass us by.

That night I woke promptly at two with a strong urge to go to the bathroom… well, crap. I unzipped from the safety of my sleeping bag and shown my light at the door. The ants were marching into the tent, up the pile of books, and then back out again. I got back in my sleeping bag – there was no way I was opening that floodgate.

At four in the morning we awoke to Martha and Yuri slapping our tent door. Lainey groaned sleepily from her bag and Molly and I sat up. “Mambo,” Martha whispered from outside.

“Martha save us,” Molly pleaded. We could see Yuri pouring salt outside our door. After peering towards their light Molly squeaked out a barely suppressed cry, “Oh my god they’re in the tent.”

At this point Kelsey sat up in her sleeping bag . “What’s going on?” she yawned sleepily. She surveyed the situation, stiffened and quietly echoed, “Oh my god.”

I was stuffed in the far corner of the tent, unable to assess the situation. Suddenly, both of them started whacking the floor with whatever they could grab, screaming “Get them!” and “Why is this happening?” After about 20 minutes of this we were relatively convinced we had killed most what had gotten inside. We got back in our sleeping bags and tried to sleep, but I was having some difficulties, considering I still hadn’t gone to the bathroom.

Then they started biting. No matter how hard I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag every ten minutes or so I’d be wriggling in pain. At 5:30 I could hear a few students outside the tent. Assuming this meant I no longer needed permission from the askaris to leave my tent, and I really couldn’t wait a second longer to go to the bathroom, I vaulted myself out of my sleeping bag. I grabbed my pants from the top of my bag and hesitated… just for a second… before throwing caution into the wind and pulling them on.

Stupid. Immediately the insides of my legs started burning. I jumped up, trying not to step on anyone or scream, and frantically looked for my shoes. My bare feet hit the floor and immediately I began hopping as if on hot stones. They were everywhere. I threw on my sandals and bolted out of the tent, flailing and slapping myself like I was on fire. At the sight of me Martha burst into laughter and Yuri ran forward to help me unzip my pant legs off.
That day Martha and Yuri worked hard to remove all the ants from our tents. But that night, while the students slept peacefully, the ant army moved to attack the staff. They woke up tired and cranky complaining of wadudu in their tents. One of my professors explained how there were “ants in his pants” through a little improve dance. But we were headed out of camp that day, so we were escaping… or so we thought.

I was standing in line for breakfast when I happened to look down at my foot. I said alarmingly to a friend, “WHAT. Is that?” And watched, stunned, as the biggest ant I’ve ever seen crawled up my foot and under my sandal strap… “SH*T.” I screamed, ungracefully, as the thing bit me. I flailed out of line and swatted at the ant which refused to let go of my skin. I literally had to pry it off like it was a tick. A couple of the drivers laughed at me – until the Safari ants started biting them too. They were everywhere. People were jumping up and down to get to the food and back out again. I ripped off my sweatshirt when one bit me viciously on the arm.

Then the bees came. They came all at once, hundreds, attacking our honey and hot chocolate containers. Needless to say, we booked it out of Arusha.

Lessons learned: (1) Don’t put your tent on an ant hill, (2) Don’t camp where mother nature obviously doesn’t want you to, and (3) Never assume things can’t get worse. Because they always can. I mean c’mon, this is Africa.

francolins and whiskey.

The land rover stopped suddenly, sending all of us standing crashing into the metal sides of the raised roof. We were conducting large mammal count transects in Tarangire National Park. It was hot, we were sweating, and now we were a bit bruised – nothing new, really.

“Pole!” Our driver yelled from the front seat – Sorry! “Look, francolins!” We all leaned over the top of the car to get a good look at the road in front. Crossing the road were three little chicken like birds.

“Yellow necked francolins!” My professor corrected enthusiastically.

“They look like Patridges,” I exclaimed, “Or like grouse!”

“Yes, like grouse!” My professor confirmed. Then he giggled, “Yum!”

He raised his eyes at us and said in a loud whisper, “We used to hunt them! They’re delicious!” Our driver laughed in agreement.

“We hunt something like them at home,” I said, “very delicious!” The birds crossed the road and I slid back down into my seat.

Our driver and professor started straight into a kiswahili conversation as the car pulled forward again. As we drove I listened intently to their conversation trying to pull out words I recognized – a game I often played with myself around the staff. Apparently I wasn’t the only one – a friend turned to me suddenly, “Did they just say whiskey?”

My professor swung around in his seat, “Whiskey? Do you know whiskey?”

My friend and I looked at each other with smirks, “Um… yes, we know whiskey.”

His face lit up, “We used to soak rice in whiskey, you know, overnight. They we would sprinkle it out,” he used his hands animatedly to imitate the act. “Then,” he said dramatically, his eyes widening, “They would eat it!”

“And get drunk!” Our driver chimed in.

They both did awkward comic impressions of drunk francolins stumbling around and my professor asserted, “then we would catch them, for fun!”

“Yum,” our driver smirked with a wink.

ninajifunza kiswahili… pole pole.

I’ve never been good at languages. Ask any of my professors and they might tell you otherwise but the reality is what you learn in the classroom means nothing if you can’t practice it outside – and with Spanish I never did. Learning Swahili has been one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences of the last two weeks. Mistakenly, I figured I could get away without learning some of the language before I arrived because we would be taking classes. I’ll never make that mistake again. Not only was I painfully aware of how American I was when we stepped on African soil but I literally couldn’t say a word of greeting to anyone I met beyond “Jambo.” I couldn’t speak to our cooks, the guards, anyone in town – it was downright embarrassing. And to make matters more humiliating, we learned later that “Jambo” is the swahili way of greeting Wazungu (white people) – it is not even a word the natives use on themselves, they just use it on us. Oh boy.

But it is crazy how far we have come in two weeks. I now can greet anyone I see in a myriad of ways and, with the constant willing help of the guards, cooks and drivers, have learned some basic sentences. I can’t wait to see what I am capable of by the end of the trip.

So for anyone who plans on traveling to East Africa in the future (whoever that may be) I thought I’d include a few phrases and lessons for you.

First off, never say jambo, proper greetings and responses are as follows:

GREETING: Habari za leo? (How are things today?)
RESPONSE: Nzuri (good).
Always, everything is always assumed to be fine, always.


GREETING: Mambo? (What’s up?)
RESPONSE: Poa (cool).


Whenever you greet an elder you always say shikaamoh (I kneel at your feet).

Don’t ask me why they say “Cool” in response to Mambo… it’s just one of those things. Or, if you’re our driver David and you love to confuse everyone you could respond: “Poa kichizi, kamma ndizi ndanyi ya friji.” I’m crazy cool, like a banana in the fridge. Don’t ask me, I don’t know.

We learned how to construct sentences as well, which is SO MUCH SIMPLER than in English that its absurd. You just add a prefix, such as “Ni” (I) to a tense such as “na” (am) and add the verb, such as “kimbia” – NinakimbiaI am running.

Through collecting some verbs I constructed some really useful sentences for myself which include:

Tunatoka marekani.
We are from America.

Where are you going?

I am going to rest.

Unacheza impira leo?
Are you playing soccer today?

Then there’s always: baadae (later!), pole (sorry!), asante (thank you!and karibu (you are welcome).

And so many more phrases. It has been great learning and practicing with Swahili and the staff is more than helpful – each and every person is overwhelmingly supportive. So I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the language of any future destination you choose, it is an exhilarating and humbling experience.

Ninajifunza kiswahili… pole pole.
I am learning… slowly.

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