Friday, July 19, 2013

Cultural Exchange

When I got home from work yesterday my nanny was sweeping the floor. We greeted each other* and then I went in the next room to set down my bag. When I walked back into the living room I found her slamming the broom on the ground trying to kill something.

"What is that?" I asked, thinking it was a spider who had found his way inside the house.

"Un lezard" she responded as she again lifted her broom for another powerful blow against the small gecko that was writhing on the floor. "I must kill it" she told me, matter-of-factly.

"No! Please don't kill him!" I pleaded with her, grabbing the broom. They eat the insects, I explained. They are good! They can stay!

No, no, you don't understand, she explained to me. They are bad luck. They get into your room and make you sleep bad! They curse you! Everyone knows this! DUH, Kate.
Evil Gecko
"Please, next time, just let me know and I can at least take him outside and let him go!" I pleaded with her. She looked at me, horrified by the suggestion.

Eventually, she consented and we decided to be a non-"lezard" killing household, but during the course of our conversation, the small gecko had slipped away from the crazed, broom-killing nanny and disappeared.

"Now, look!" She yelled, exasperated. "It has disappeared! He will go into your room! Now you will have nightmares until he is dead! And it's not my fault!" With the final sentence she threw her hands up in the air and went into the next room, hunting for the injured gecko and distraught that I had let this happen.

It was a wonderful cultural exchange. Now I know.

*screams and hugs and happiness.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Revenge of the Tsetse Fly

Since we left DC, we have been looking forward to a trip to Uganda to meet up with our wonderful Tucson friends, Jake and Corey. The last time we saw each other was a week before we left the US at a Thankschristmasgoingaway family and friend reunion. This was the end result:

Hardcore mistletoe hunters.
Jake and Corey left for Africa within weeks of us. Corey, who is the worlds most awesome primatologist, received a job offer to work for the Simliki Chimpanzee Project in the western part of Uganda. Jake came along to help out as her assistant. The camp/research station is set up on the Congo-Uganda border and aims to both gather genetic observational and behavioral data and materials (read: feces) to gain a better understanding of the Semliki chimps and in turn, a possible glimpse into the past.

Most chimps are found in closed canopy rainforests, but this particular group of chimps use a much drier mosiac of riverine forest, woodland and savanna habitats-- very much like that of our earliest homonid ancestors, Australopithecines. The behavior of these chimps, along with their anatomy and physiology, are influenced and shaped by this dry habitat and differ somewhat from "normal" chimps. These responses to their environment are presumably comparable to those of earlier humans under similar conditions, making Semilki chimps of particular interest to geneticists, paleontologists and primatologists, like Corey.

(Don't worry, those pangs of jealousy you feel when you read about Corey's awesomeness are normal and expected.)

The chimp camp is located 6 hours away from Uganda's capital, at the base of an escarpment which is surrounded by savanna, grasslands and multiple rivers and streams. Cape buffalo, baboons, Vervet monkeys and Kob accompanied by their large harems can be seen grazing and playing as you drive along the bumpy dirt road. 

To get to the camp, you take a sudden right off the dirt road, unto an unmarked foot-path and into the shoulder-high grasses, at which point your entire body tenses, hoping you don't get stuck in the black sticky mud, break down or worst of all, come face to face with an angry buffalo. The week prior, during a rain storm Corey and Jake found a log in the middle of the path that had not been there before. As they descended from the car to try and move it from the path, they quickly realized it was a crocodile. They quickly got back in the car and waited for it to pass.

Tsetse flies, trying to eat us.
As we started into the grassland path, I heard an incessant tapping on the roof of the car. I looked at the windshield, sure that it was raining, and on the verge of losing it because I didn't want to get stuck in a big, muddy, crocodiley mess. There was no rain. I looked out my passenger window and saw instead a large swarm of tsetse flies. They surrounded our car and repetitively slammed into us, hoping to get inside and have a nice tsetse fly dinner.

Finally we drove out of the grassland and up to the clearing of Similiki camp. Jake and Corey ran up to us and as Corey embraced us, Jake took a fly swatter to the car and killed as many tsetse flies as he could, saving us from the pending doom of the tsetse attack.

Finally, Jake successfully exterminated the majority of the flies and ran over to greet us, swatter in hand. After giving us a little love, he immediately broke several branches off the nearest tree and showed us how to use them as swatters to keep the tsetse flies off our backs. Our adventure had begun!

Every day we woke up early and hiked around, swatting the flies and looking for chimps or evidence of a recent chimp visit. At noon, we stopped under a fig tree to rest for awhile, quietly eat some lunch and hope that the chimps would get the urge to eat some figs at that particular tree and come hang out. We hiked up, down and along the escarpment, sludged through rivers, and the clumsiest one of us (me) slipped and fell in the mud multiple times. Along the way we encountered snakes, frogs, monkeys and unfortunately, on a daily basis, evidence of poachers.

Top left: Chimp print!; Bottom left: Corey and Mich chimp tracking;
Right: Corey fighting some dung beetles for a sample.
In the afternoons each couple took turns going to the open shower. Two-person, combined-effort showers were necessary at chimp camp-- one person showered while the other stood guard with a fly swatter, chasing the tsetse flies and their voracious appetites away.

In the evenings we hung out in the dining area, drinking from a large box of wine, playing cards and catching up. The boys stayed on edge all night, binoculars and spotlights close by, ready to run out into the tall grass to investigate each and every small noise. The girls were also on edge, knowing that in all likelyhood there were some hungry carnivores lurking in the grass nearby, just waiting for a noise to send the boys running toward them.

The last night of our trip, we sat down for dinner and discussed the day's events. Although we had not found any chimps, we found ourselves with several minor injuries. I had received a large thorn embedded in the side of my foot and multiple tsetse fly bites. Corey found herself with a few new mosquito bites and a close encounter with a night-adder. Jake had discovered a caterpillar on his face and was hoping the area wouldn't swell. Mr. Kate had no injuries. In fact, he bragged, he hadn't been bitten once by a tsetse fly-- or any other insect on this trip!

The next morning, we took our last shower. Unfortunately right as Mr. Kate soaped up his hair and face, a tsetse fly slipped by me and bit Mr. Kate right between the eyebrows, causing him to wail and jump around, violently thrashing and hoping to hit the offending tsetse fly. Everyone came running towards the shower, worried Mr. Kate had found a snake. When they got near, they heard my laughter and knew immediately what had happened.

They stood outside the shower and as we exited, I got a round of high fives and pats on the back. Although I accepted them, I still swear it was an accident. A wonderful, lovely, karmic accident.

See you guys soon!!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

4th of July!

Since coming to Togo we've had some good days and we've had some great days, but we just had our first 4th of July Embassy party, and it might be the BEST day I've had since arriving.

We started planning this party about 2 months ago, thinking there would be about 100 people, since only 50 people showed up last year. I recruited my partners in the mail room and, along with several of the Americans, we personally approached and invited every embassy employee and their families.

By last week, we were worried. Not only had we hit 100 people, we had far exceeded it. Our list total was 450 people-- and we are a small embassy. We were about to have a BIG PARTY.

Before the Party...

The line-up
We partnered with the Marines who acted as our bartenders for the night, we put the FMO, IMO, Pol, & Econ officers on the grill and asked the Peace Corps kids to help set-up, we had a "dunk tank' commissioned and we had everyone else leading traditional 4th-of-July games like tug-of-war (tire-le-cord), cake walks, sack races, volleyball and basketball.

Setting up and trying out the dunk tank.
Potato sack races
In the end, 430 people came and partied. Both the Ambassador and the DCM were soaked from the dunk tank. The party ended at 7 with sparklers and Whitney Huston's rendition of the Star-spangled Banner.* Moments later it started to sprinkle. As we were driving around in the golf cart handing out a few leftover sodas to the local guard staff who had worked all night, each one of them stopped to tell us that, in Togo, if it rains at the end of your party, it means it was awesome. I'll take it. :)

Happy 4th of July everyone!

*It had to be Whitney. There was no discussion. Togolese LOVE Whitney. I've never seen anyone tear up and belt out "AND IIIIiiiiiIIIII will ALWAYS love YoooouuuuuOOOOUUUUOoouuu" the way Togolese men can. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dog Days of Summer, Literally.

Yesterday Mr. Kate approached me with some terrifying news: this week is the week that everyone eats dogs.

Yes, dogs. Cute little puppies.

Please don't eat us!
Every year, there is a Kabiye coming-of-age ceremony, Evala, during the first week of July. During Evala, all boys between the ages of 15 and 18 must kill a dog. After killing the dog, these boys, surrounded by their families, go to a big field where they meet up with boys from surrounding villages. These boys, representing their villages, fight each other until one village is declared the winner.

Brick, where did you get a hand grenade?

After the fight everyone is exhausted and hungry, so they all go to the boy warriors' houses and eat the dog stew that has been simmering for hours during the fight. I have been told that it is delicious. The person telling me this obviously did not know his audience.

This tradition, when recounted to me, was accompanied by several horrifying stories of Peace Corps volunteers and other expats who, after leaving their pets with neighbors during the week of Evala, came home to a "lost dog" and a delightful stew.

Needless to say, these fat, delicious-looking dogs will be locked in the house this week.

Who, us?