Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Cultural Weekend in Francistown

Hello again!

I apologize for such a late update on my last month's adventures. I have truly begun the process of "research" in it's typical and professional form, hopping from one place to another, staying only long enough to make a few observations and conduct a few interviews before moving on.

After leaving Namibia I traveled back to Gaborone for a brief visit and to catch a lift up to Francistown with the party from Thornhill Primary School. Thornhill is a school that feeds into Maru-a-Pula, and especially feeds the marimba program at MaP. At Thornhill the marimba is part of the music curriculum from a very young age and the student performing band is both energetic and enthusiastic. Mr. Roy Nyathi, the marimba teacher, had invited me along to an event that he was attending as a clinician at the Clifton Primary School in Francistown over the last weekend in May. I arrived in Gabs to learn that Ayanda Khala, a good friend of mine from MaP, was also attending as a clinician, so the weekend looked to be a success from the get-go.

After a brief and bittersweet visit to MaP I set out from Thornhill Primary School in a bus with 7 children (grades 6-7), 2 Thornhill teachers, myself, and my friend Ayanda. We had a rather noisy trip to Francistown (only 4-5 hours of driving, but this seems longer when you're inundated with primary school children!) and arrived in the evening to be scattered off to our hosts' houses. I was staying with a lovely woman named Jan who teaches at Clifton and had a major hand in the organization of the Cultural Weekend.

In the morning it became apparent that this Cultural Weekend is the equivalent of a middle-school honor band or similar event. Students from about 10 primary schools all over Botswana had been selected to participate in workshops ranging from Marimba to Public Speaking to Puppetry--what a great mix of kids and teachers! The clinicians were enthusiastic and the kids somewhere between excited and apprehensive, but the first workshop saw the entire school come alive with enthusiasm for the arts. The marimba students were talented and good natured... all 17 of them! We used the set of marimbas from Clifton and supplemented with a few extra from other schools to have enough. In the end, it was a massive group with 4 soprano, 4 tenor (often with 2 students playing on each), 3 baritone, and 2 bass marimbas. Can you believe the volume you would get with all of those! But apparently, this size of band isn't that uncommon in the primary schools. I thoroughly approve because it gives far more students the chance to play, and especially to play on the larger instruments which generally get restricted to the more capable players.

We had a series of 6 or 7 workshops across two days, which was both intense and wonderful. Roy Nyathi lead most of the workshops, teaching three songs to the students, while I and another marimba teacher, Mr. Sibindi, each taught one. I had a great time with these guys, I taught them a very simple version of Babamudiki and they loved the rhythms and the interlocking of the parts. The kids themselves were a joy to work with--they were friendly, excited about marimba, generally talented, and just very sweet. I whole-heartedly approve of keeping grades 6 and 7 in the primary school, it just makes them more sweet and innocent and delays the corruption of character that high school encourages.
On the first night of the weekend we gave a "staff concert" where all of the clinicians and other helpers were encouraged to perform something for the students. We had been trying to prepare a little something on the marimbas for this concert, and actually we got a fairly large group to appear although only about four of us were marimba players. Those of us who did know how to play just went ahead and improvised around the chord structure, while the other musicians we recruited held down some simpler parts that kept the song together. After playing "Pata Pata" and "In the Jungle" we were the hit of the show... kids running up to take video and photos on their cell phones, the whole audience encouraging an encore. Unfortunately, that's all we knew! I found this to be a particularly interesting experience because I was completely exhausted by the time we got to the concert. After helping with and running 4.5 hours of workshops during the day and having very little downtime, I was ready to crash and sleep--not to perform a completely improvised show! But even with this drawback I had a number of people coming up to me after the show with odd comments, like "you really can play those things!" and "have you done this before? I mean, it looks like you know what you're doing." It's just another example of the stereotype that a short, white, American girl can't possibly play an African instrument. Personally, I enjoy breaking that stereotype for people... especially for people who play marimba. I think that it should be an inclusive instrument, not an exclusive one, and I really think it does them good to see someone playing who doesn't fit the mold.

At the end of the second day the children performed a concert--which was both painful, interesting, lovely, and bizarre. The 7 workshop groups were very diverse and not all of the disciplines were well-suited to performance (such as the visual Art group) but everyone managed to contribute to the show. The Puppeteers greeted the audience as they entered with adorable hand-made puppets, the Public Speakers introduced all the acts, the Artists had a clever showing of a piece-painting where they purposefully arranged the pieces in several different orientations before showing a gorgeous still life of a fruit bowl, the musicians of all sorts (Western, Marimba, Singers) performed, the Dancers put on a self-choreographed dance, the Actors performed a fable with adorable costumes and props, and everyone had a great time. Because there were students from almost every school in each of the groups they were all very supportive of one another and they put on a good show!

My one regret about the Cultural Weekend is that it didn't last longer! It's just my kind of event... and although it did make me a bit homesick for WIBC, All-State, etc., I had a wonderful time and learned a lot. It was one of my first chances to work intensely with primary school students as well as my first opportunity to work with the teachers there. But even though it was short, It makes me glad that such events take place on this side of the world. Now, if only they could get Tim Lautzenheiser to give a motivational talk on the first day....

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Namib Marimbas

My trip to Namibia has finally made its way to marimba! After a week of fruitless networking in Windhoek I managed to contact a man named Ferdinand who runs a marimba group at the Kuisebmond Secondary School in Walvis Bay. I actually made contact with him through a lady named Shannon Taylor who my friend Jaimie Adelson at Gobabeb referred me to... and who also happens to have graduated from Reed College in Portland! Such a small world. But this contact turned out to be a good one, which sent me trekking back to the coast to check out the group.

I met them at their home ground at the Kuisebmond Secondary School where they were in the process of reconstructing their instruments after transporting them home from Germany. The group had just returned last weekend from an international tour with where they had teamedup with a few of the local choirs. But their willingness to meet me and answer my questions was admirable after such a return, and very helpful as well! They played some of their songs for me, we jammed a bit, and they were more than willing to answer the strangest questions that I threw at them.

In general, the marimba culture here can be described as similar to that of Cape Town. This actually makes a lot of sense as it was initially church-sponsorship that brought the keyboards to these communities, as opposed to the groups in Botswana and Swaziland (I think) who obtained their marimba traditions through Zimbabwean immigrants. The "Namibian style" is a very powerful, upbeat method of playing the marimba with much syncopation and a strong influence from caribbean and jazz music. However, this is second-hand knowledge that you are receiving from me, because the Namib Marimbas are advocates of a more laid-back calypso/blues style. In many ways they are echoing the priorities of other groups from around Cape Town with emphasis on flexibility and player development. In some ways I feel that they misunderstood my question when I asked about student compositions, but the players do improvise variations around the parts they are shown and can even improvise acceptable melodies and chordal rhythms. For the most part, the music is loosely structured around a bass rhythm and a chord base, with at least one player playing a simple melody with improv included. The wonderful part about this is its flexibility for each player to reach his or her potential without being either held back or pushed too fast.

The students that I met were all male, although they assure me that the group is at least half female. It was interesting to talk with them about their experiences playing marimba because they came to it independently and in different ways. Some had connections through family, others through friends, but all were required to keep up good marks in their school subjects and all had a good sense of rhythm. Some would improvise freely, while others stuck to the part they were shown most of the time. Most of the music that they play is composed by their group leader and it is quite strongly influenced by jazz and blues. The music doesn't exactly swing, but it has a sort of laid back jazz quartet style to it that is undeniable. The rest of their music seems to be somewhat traditional or popular songs from South Africa and Namibia. But the music was also indicative of the personalities in the group--they seemed very laid back in general. This is a very different style of marimba player than you'll find in many other places!

Kuisebmond is a stunning example of a school that has taken a lesser-used activity, in this case music in the form of marimba, and used the limited resources available to create a dynamic community that is helping themselves. The marimba players play for all sorts of performances that bring in money--which goes to their books, school fees, tour costs, etc. I was surprised at the extent of Namib Marimbas' travel history and performance record given the limited resources available to them. That's another reason that I find them admirable... they're really using what they have to their best advantage.

Anyhow, a big thanks to the group for allowing me the chance to see what they do!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Chillin' in the Desert

Following my Zambian adventure I popped down south to Windhoek. From there I travelled to Walvis Bay via a long-distance combi (which is always and adventure), where I got picked up by a crew of students and interns from the Gobabeb Research and Training Center for a rather exciting night-ride along gravel roads to a set of buildings that are literally in the middle of nowhere: Gobabeb. The goal was to visit a good friend of mine from Grinnell, Jaimie Adelson, as well as another Grinnellian whom I hadn't known as well, John Guittar, at their GrinnellCorps post in the Namib Desert. For those of you (like me) with minimal knowledge of Namibian Geography, here's a map showing the Namib. The desert is formed from a deposition of silt and sand that flows out of the Orange River. Because the river has no delta, for some reason which I haven't figured out yet, all the sediments from the river get pushed out to sea, where a rather strong current and wind system push them north onto the coast. This created the Namib, which is a true desert just large enough to be termed a "Sand Sea" at 34,000 square-kms.

Ok, so maybe the map didn't come out as well as I'd hoped, but you get the idea. Gobabeb is situated on the edge between the Sand Sea and the Gravel Plains, on the banks of the Kuiseb river, which is ephemeral (doesn't run all year). Mostly, the river is an outlet for floodwater, but it supports a surprising array of vegetation and wildlife.

My visit to the Namib started off with a day-long excursion with the Namibian Geologists Association. Because Jaimie was supposed to be creating a teaching module about the Namib's geology she was accompanying them and taking notes, while I just got to come along for fun. And what a great trip!

The leader of the trip knew so much about the area it was almost unbelievable. And he wasn't too intellectual to dumb it down for us non-geology PhD's either, so it was a great trip. We got to see the river bed and how it changes and influences the geology of the surrounding area, the gravel plains, the sand dunes and fossil beds in the dunes, and some old diamond claims in the dune field. Apparently, the river is the only thing holding back the dunes on the southern side of the Kuiseb. Sand moves with sand, and not without it unless there are exceptionally strong winds. So every year the flooding in the Kuiseb bed washes away the side of the dune that's trying to make it's way north into the river bed, and the progress of the dunes is halted there. It's acutally amazing to think that this one river bed can stop the entire 34,000 square kms of sand from progressing over a stretch of 100 meters or less, but it's true. That's what creates the gravel plains on the other side of the river and what keeps places like Walvis Bay and Swakopmund from being overwhelmed by the northward progress of the dunes. Anyhow, enough of my geological ramblins. If it were that fun to be a geologist all the time I would abandon Chemistry! It was an absolutely fabulous day.

Beetle tracks on a dune

But other than that excursion I mostly just got to see life "as it is" in a place like Gobabeb. I was surprised at the amount of deskwork involved in a "normal" day out there... somehow you would think that more field work would occupy the scientists stationed in the middle of the desert. But it makes sense, in a way. The station is admirably outfitted with amenities that one wouldn't expect to find in the desert. Solar power fuels the station with more than enough electrons to keep their lights, computers, refrigerators, etc. running and water is sucked out of a deep aquifer just across the river bed. Internet and phone are available via a sattellite connection (although the reliability of this is somewhat unpredictable) and the workers have plenty of gas available for cooking stoves and ovens. They even have their own sewage recycling system to pump their used water back into the environment and hopefully recharge their aquifer. Overall a pretty impressive achievement for a place in the middle of nowhere! Even if it is run by nerds and scientists! And as an added plus, they have a nifty water tower that looks a little bit like an air-traffic control tower, or maybe a UFO. Definitely adds character to the place!

Trip to the Dunes with the Gobabebians

Most of my time was very sedate out at Gobabeb, but that doesn't detract from its worth. I absolutely love the sand dunes and the opportunity to be completely isolated from every other human being on the planet. You can laugh, shout, sing at the top of your lungs... and not a soul in the world can hear you. Except the multitudes of insect life, that is. Truly, you cannot appreciate the wonder of this place without visiting. The sunsets are exquisite--watching a sun set behind dunes has to be one of my favorite views of all time.

Especially when I'm sitting on another dune with a cool drink in hand, just enjoying life. Even just the view of the night sky would make a visit to this desert worthwhile--you can see every star in the sky. You can see the Milky Way so well that you can pick out the "Coal Sacks" where debris creates dark spots by obscuring our view of the stars, you can pick a planet out of the sky instantly by its luminescence, size, and color. You can even see starts that twinkle in all different colors like a disco ball. And shooting stars are so common you don't even remark on them after a few nights! A stunning view, and worth every instant that I spent staring at it. Unfortunately, my lame little Powershot can't capture such beauty... so you'll just have to take my word for it.

(Gobabeb in Fog!!)

Even in a week's time at Gobabeb, I wasn't able to see everything that the sight had to offer. Apparently there are scorpions inhabiting the trees in the riverbed that fluoresce when viewed under UV light, Welwitschia plants that get their water from condensing fog (they are pretty crazy, actually), higher dunes to hike around, much more of the riverbed to explore, and probably more that I'm not even aware of. But I'm glad that I got to spend a week there to get a sense of the place and the work that goes on there. It could have been my life this year, after all!

So many of you are probably wondering at this point (especially after I've gone on and on about how amazing Gobabeb is) whether I think I made the right choice by accepting the Watson Fellowship instead of choosing the Grinnellcorps position at Gobabeb. And my answer is this: how can we ever know for sure? I certainly have experienced a lot in my travels on the Watson that I never would have at Gobabeb... marimba being only the most obvious aspect. I also think that my time at MaP on its own weighs the scale towards the Watson, simply because I can't imagine a more fulfilling experience than teaching and playing there. But, on the other side of things I can see myself being very happy at Gobabeb because I tend to thrive in small communities where I can make a home for myself and dig in. In some ways I would have resented all the desk work because this is supposed to be my break from that sort of thing, but I also might have learned a lot of really crazy and interesting things about the desert. So all in all, I am not unhappy to have chosen the Watson, but I also respect the opportunities I would have had at Gobabeb. And as much fun as I would have had working there with my friend Jaimie, I think it's better for both of us to encounter new people and spend time away from our old friends from Grinnell. I don't think either of us is the person who walked away from Grinnell last May!

Since leaving Gobabeb I have been hanging around in Swakopmund on the coast. It has been a rather interesting week of just chilling in cafes, sitting on the beach, and reading a book or two. I have enjoyed myself immensely--Swakop has great cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, as I left Gobabeb I was beginning to develop what I think was an ulcer in my esophagus. Gross, right? Well, it was also very painful for a while and lessened my enjoyment of the above mentioned cafes and restaurants, but now that I am feeling better I don't mind so much. I'm guessing that the whole episode was a consequence of my long-term ibuprofen use for my back problems combined with the doxycycline that I am taking as an antimalarial, but whatever it was, I'm glad that I'm mostly healed at this point.

Yesterday morning I decided that I wanted to finally do something with my time here, so I signed up for a Dolphin and Seal Cruise. What is that, other than the obvious chance to go out on a boat and see dolphins and seals? Well, it's a chance to drink a lot of alcohol (apparently, although not for me with my esophagus the way it is), eat seafood for lunch (also not for me... vegetarian), and have really strange encounters with other tourists! Don't get me wrong, it was a fun morning, but there were some elements of the ridiculous to it.

The first problem was my lack of warm clothing. I sent my warm jacket home with my parents in December because it was bulky (and the temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day) but it turns out that I am left with a combination of rather pathetic sweaters and one fleece as my "warm" stuff. Of course, until now that has been more than enough! But I had no hat, scarf, gloves, jacket, or even closed-toed shoes (left those in Windhoek... who would have thought I'd need them in the desert?). So it was a bit chilly at 9 AM out on the fog-covered Atlantic ocean. But it was easy to forget about this as a rather large, wet seal jumped up into our boat and slithered along the seats! Apparently they are trained to do come aboard so that the tour operators can show them off to passengers (I don't even want to think about the environmental implications of that one). So our guides fed the seal some frozen fish out of a cool-box they had on deck and explained about how the seals hunt, eat, etc. The funny part was when the guide tried to get the seal off the boat! They're trained a bit too well that there's free fish on board. Later on we had two or three other seal visitors... they would just haul themselves on board whenever we stopped to look at something. It made an interesting trip!

We also got to see some interesting things that weren't on the boat. The oyster farms were our first stop--the oysters are imported when still almost microscopic in size and fed on artificial phytoplankton until they're big enough to put in a net and string up on a platform in the middle of the sea off of Walvis Bay. Apparently the nutrient concentration in the Namibian waters makes these oysters grow to an edible size in 8 months, which is almost twice as fast as anywhere else in the world! They're supposed to taste good too, but I wouldn't know :). It's funny to put together all the bits and pieces I know about Namibia when I hear things like this, because I know all about the nutrients available in that part of the ocean from a great upwelling zone off the Namibian coast. But that's from back at Grinnell...

There were plenty of dolphins and pelicans where we went, too, and some adventurous seagulls who kept trying to steal the fishy bribes that we used to get them close to the boat. Overall it was an interesting trip... but not the best cruise I've taken. It was certainly an interesting way to spend a morning, though!

Every so often I run into situations (like out on this boat) where the nerdy-sciencey-intellectual part of me wants to break through. It's a bit funny that I've spent my whole life trying to gain knowledge and intelligence so far, and now I'm playing dumb. But people here get a bit uncomfortable when they realize that you're "a smart one" so I often do try to put them at ease and bypass that side of my personality. Last night was a stunning example... those of you who know me well won't be able to believe this! I was trying to find a nice restaurant to have dinner at (since I could finally eat again) but everywhere I wanted to go was booked solid. Surprising for a Wednesday night, but that's how it was. So I ended up sitting at the bar at a place called the "Lighthouse Pub and Grill" near the beach. It's a place I had been eying for a few days, so I was happy to try it out, even if I had to sit at the bar. So I pulled out a book--a nice one, actually: African Laughter-- and I was enjoying my Hunter's while I waited for my food and read about Doris Lessing's post-independence visits to her home in Zimbabwe. Now, apparently that's not particularly common behavior for anyone here in Swakopmund (not that too many people ever seem to go out for meals on their own, anyway) and I got accosted and greeted by a man who came over to the bar and sat down. He seemed nice enough, so I chatted with him for a while... only to learn that he was an American from Texas who was the CEO of an oil investment company called EnerGulf. So here I am... sitting, chatting with a middle-aged man who likes to hunt game (the more endangered the better), pollutes the environment with oil prospecting, speaks with a Southern accent, and is incredibly arrogant. Sounds like my kind of guy, huh? And as amusing as this is... this very moment I have had to refuse a call from his number. Ugggh. Maybe I should turn off my phone! I was too honest to give him a false number last night. But anyhow, it was just a weird situation and I'm hoping to just slip away into the mists without having to fend off any more invitations to come along on oil prospecting or hunting trips.

Anyhow, that's where I am and what I'm doing! I'm heading back to Windhoek tomorrow for some shopportunities... I need a winter jacket! Or at least some sort of jacket :). And I can bum around there just as easily as I can here. Maybe I'll even get some work done on my transcription project--you never know!

PS--more photos on their way!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Into the heart of Zambia....and back again!

Well, plenty of things have happened since I last had a reliable Internet connection! So lets start at the top.

Firstly, it was harder than I had ever expected to leave Maru-a-Pula at the end of the term. The staff, students, marimba kids, and everyone else had become such a family to me that I was almost heartbroken to have to leave them. And it's always the case that at the end of your time in a place you learn what you would have liked to know at the beginning! Some of my students were absolutely heartbroken to have me leave as well... which I hadn't expected at all! Especially some of my Form 1 theory/recorder students who hadn't really been my main focus during the term. But I will sure take a lot of good memories away from MaP with me!

I also need to thank my friends and colleagues at MaP for making my stay such an amazing part of my fellowship year. In many ways I could not have asked for a better situation. The marimba was fabulous in every way--I will not hesitate to say that it is the most intense and enjoyable marimba experience I have ever had! The students in the group were a lot of fun and I enjoyed playing with them and learning from them. In some ways I was a sideline because I wasn't able to come on the US tour with them, but they still included me and made me part of their family, which I greatly appreciate. Some of you may already have heard about the fiasco in Johannesburg with this touring group, but for those of you who haven't I have to post something about this.

Since Alport Mhlanga arrived back in Gaborone in late January he and I have been working practically non-stop on a renovation of the performance marimbas. There were many details to be attended to from re-stringing to tuning to modifying the buzzers, and we must have put in over 100 hours of work simply on the instruments themselves in addition to all the rehearsal time, administrative work, finding costumes, etc. This wasn't Alport's first overseas tour with a MaP marimba band, so he had all the details sorted out and planned for, up to and including the packing methods necessary for the instruments so that they could all fit as luggage on the airplane for no extra charge. After a sleepless night of taking marimbas apart and strapping the pieces together in all sorts of strange ways, the band hops into a bus and tows their equipment to Johannesburg to get on their flight. Now, unfortunately, there had been a change in the baggage regulations regarding metal and wood since the last MaP tour...which meant that while the students could get on the plane, their instruments stayed in Johannesburg. But was that the end? Well, it could have been! An emergency call went out to practically every percussionist on the East Coast in an attempt to track down 10 Zimbabwean Marimbas with F#s, up to and including the marimba player from the pit orchestra of Broadway's The Lion King. CBS actually ran a news clip on it! And the most surprising thing of all is that they actually found marimbas! Apparently there was a die-hard marimba player who had moved from the Southwest with her set of marimbas in the New York areas and she was able to save the day. What a crazy thing! I'm told that the tour went well, so it must have been ok, but I sure wish I had been there to help sort out that mess!

Instead, I had hopped into a car with one of the PE teachers from Maru-a-Pula who is from Zambia. We started at 3:30AM and drove the whole day, stopping only at the border post to get the appropriate clearance for the car. We made it all the way to a town between Livingstone and Lusaka before stopping for the night--that must have been the longest day of driving I have done in a while! We also were hindered by several stretches of road where the potholes have completely taken over. It was actually amazing to see the extent to which the road has deteriorated... the only way I can think of to describe it is resembling the surface of the moon! But we made it, in the end. Little did I know that these potholes would be my downfall in a little over a week's time!

The next morning we attended the retirement service of a lovely old nun who taught at the teacher-training college where my friend from MaP had lectured several years back. This lady was a great friend to her, so we both attended the service and the celebratory meal afterwards. What an interesting event! There was a traditional choir there from the Northern Province who sang the most beautiful songs!

I am trying to upload a video, but I haven't had a lot of success with that in the past. I also enjoyed eating with my hands :) as is traditional here. It really takes some skill to get this non-finger-food into your mouth without spilling it everywhere and looking like a total spaz. It was quite fun, though!

After that it was straight on to Lusaka, where we arrived quite late. We stayed the night with a friend of my colleague and that was actually very cool. I enjoyed seeing her home and meeting the family and it was really nice to crash for a night in peace. However, I was greatly mistaken when I thought that this was the "difficult" part of the journey... as it turned out I was dumped on a bus to Mongu in the Western Province the following morning without any real directions, no airtime on my cell, and the vague idea that I was supposed to ride the bus to the end of the line and then look for a friend of my friend's named Frieda. I was a bit more than apprehensive about this, but I really shouldn't have been, I suppose.

The bus ride itself was definitely an experience! I found that there was a large distance to cover, not much space on the bus, very few rest stops, and in general just few conveniences. Lucky for me that I don't ever get hungry when I travel these days! But I met a really nice man on the bus named Father Francis. He was actually a catholic priest and we had a lot of good discussions on my way out West. In fact, he was able to give me contact information for a man who is part of the Lozi Royal Family and used to play the Shilimba (Lozi marimba) for all sorts of things. But that's jumping ahead of myself. After arriving and finding this contact of mine in Mongu I got to attend the last day of the Kuomboka Ceremony.

The Kuomboka Ceremony takes place annually on the banks of Limulunga. The ceremony celebrates the end of the rainy season each year by displaying the return of the chief to the wet part of the region. He is paddled by a collection of young tribesmen in an oblong-shaped boat under a canopy with a large replica of an elephant on top. His wife and minister also got boats, with other animals adorning the tops. After a rather elaborate ceremonial trip downriver to Limulunga, the Chief disembarks and presides over four days of traditional music and dancing provided by his people from all over the area. I missed out on the first bits because I only arrived for the last day of the ceremony, but I did get to see a lot of traditional music and dancing on the last day. It was really an interesting spectacle! Firstly, the outfits were different than I had expected. The men actually wore skirts--supposedly this is from the Scottish colonial influence, but I was just confused. They aren't kilts, but actual knee-length skirts with a sort of elaborate red/black/white patterning. But they are very proud of these outfits, so there must be something more to them!

The dancing is hard to describe, so I will simply put up some pics (all poor quality, I'm afraid, as I was taking them from behind a few rows of people!). But I can describe the local Shilimba in more detail. The Lozi call their marimba a "shilimba" and it is played as a solo instrument or with two to three players. This differs from the Zim-marimba tradition in which each player has their own instrument and several instrument play together because there will only ever be one shilimba on the stage at a time, but there could be anywhere from one to three players on the various ranges of the instrument. In general, the players used a "split-hand" technique rather than a rolling technique and the rhythmic texture was very thick. A single melody did not arise from the instruments, the focus was on the texture and complexity of the music. For those of you who are marimba players, think about the main tenor part to Nehmamusasa and then add in a few more players on similar parts! The left hand will generally beat out a bass line while the right hand plays around with rhythm and what they hear as melody, but if a player is left-handed he may just stand on the opposite side of the marimba so that his left hand can play the higher notes instead! That was quite fun to watch. The shilimba also never plays alone. It is an instrument that is so interwoven with the singing and dancing that accompany it that they are one and the same to a local.

The following day I looked up Dr. Lewanika, my connection from this man I met on the bus, and got to question him for about an hour on the practices and traditions that surround the shilimba. Turns out there are several uses of the instrument, ranging from everyday entertainment to secret-code-like communication with their shaman during ceremonies. That was the most interesting thing about it to me--the music and the vocals were inseparable to this man, who had played the shilimba as a youth. Apparently it is also part of the smoke and mystery surrounding the shamans, because Dr. Lewanika kept describing the music as a necessary part of the shaman's movement--the player had to be sensitive to signals telling him when to play, otherwise the shaman's movements wouldn't be as full of weight and he would lose the intimidation factor.

That interview marked the last of my days in Mongu and I boarded a bus back to Lusaka the following morning. My intention was to stay several days in Lusaka, but I found once I arrived that there was very little to see or do. I spent a day walking around, seeing markets, etc. but didn't feel like giving it to much more of my time. I then boarded a bus to Livingstone, where I thought I should stop by to see Victoria Falls on my way south to Namibia. But against my better judgement I decided not to pre-book my bus ticket because it would take a rather arduous walk through the blazing afternoon heat. I was assured that I could just show up in the morning at the bus--which I did, except that it was fully booked. So instead of getting on the reliable bus where they gave you bottles of water and free cookies I ended up on a bus run by Marks Motors...normally a pretty reputable company as well. I had an interesting trip for the first several hours... of course, having to fend off the too-enthusiastic young Zambian men who are always asking for your phone number, but nothing majorly inconvenient.

But then we hit that lovely patch of road that I described from my trip northward as looking like the surface of the moon. About 1 km into this disaster-zone we hit a pot-hole too hard and the bus ground to a halt. Now, if I hadn't been on the bus for the entire day, if the bus hadn't been infested with cockroaches, if I hadn't had to fend off one particular 20-year old guy for the whole journey, I might have been more lenient and patient with the drivers. But as it was, I was tired of nonsense. After the first three attempts to fix the bus failed (there was a leak in the break line that wouldn't let the bus move) and my oh-so-friendly 20-year old Zambian hailed a passing pick-up for a lift, I decided to jump in as well. So there I am, with my huge backpack full of clothes, small backpack full of computers and other random stuff, and no jacket, bouncing along in the back of a pickup along the worst road imaginable. And surprisingly, it was a lot of fun! There were three other Zambians with us who were also out of patience: two older ladies and an old gentleman. They were hilarious, debating how far it was to Livingstone about every two minutes, chatting with me about my trip and about how I had found Zambia, and just being amiable. The best part was that this annoying fellow I have been describing was silent for the whole trip! I think he was intimidated by the older crowd, and maybe that I was so comfortable chatting with them. But in any case, I certainly enjoyed the trip. As my one and only experience hitch-hiking, I would say that it was a success. And it is surprising how normal it is to hitch a lift in Zambia... the normalcy of it makes the risks lower and the utility higher. But the most important part was that I made it to Livingstone as planned and didn't have to put up with yet another bus break-down!

My time in Livingstone was much less eventful. I went to see the falls the day after I arrived, and it certainly was a stunning sight to see. There was much more water than I remembered from my visit in December--so much, in fact, that you needed a raincoat to cross the bridge onto the island where you view the falls! I have never seen so much mist in my life, and despite my raincoat I managed to get soaked through.

Something else that I didn't know was that on nights when the moon is full you can come back to the falls in the evening to view a "lunar rainbow" that the moon casts in the mist of the falls. This idea intrigued me to the point where I had to go see it--despite paying extra admission--and it was definitely worth it! What a cool thing... a rainbow in sort-of pale shades of white and gray, no real colors to speak of, but cast so strongly in the mist that you could see the full arc. I guess there's no reason why that shouldn't be possible, but it is definitely something I had never thought about before. I wish I could post a picture, but it's not something that photographs well with a tiny automatic camera! It is definitely one of those sights that has made me wish I had the knowledge and equipment to do some real photography, though!

I spent the next few days bumming around in Livingstone before I calculated my budget after taxes and realized that I have way more money than I should at this point in my fellowship year! To celebrate, I took a micro light over the falls--basically that's a motorized hang-glider that you go up in with just a pilot and you! And what a view, I can tell you! I was pretty nervous... that genetic fear of heights does still have a hold on me... but it was worth the terror. Check out the photos and I'm sure that you'll agree about the view! They don't let you take your own camera up, so all the photos are from a camera mounted on the wing of the craft and don't quite do the view justice, but still. I also got to see a better view of the canyon than I had ever seen before and I learned a fair amount about the geology from my pilot. He was pretty cool--he even let me fly the thing for a few minutes! That was an adrenaline rush, I can tell you!

A few days later I got on a bus and headed for Windhoek, Namibia, where my next post will pick up from. Whew! These posts do pile up when you're away from the internet!

Friday, April 4, 2008

The End of Term is Coming!

And boy are we ready for it!

Please don't misunderstand my sentiment here... I am absolutely thrilled to be participating in such a music program as Maru-a-Pula has to offer. But at the same time, one can only go so many weeks without a decent night's rest! I have been working 10-12 hour days for the past two months and I am tiiiiired. Luckily for me, I also have an amazing friend amongst the Maru-a-Pula staff who has offered to take me north to Zambia with her when she goes home for the school holiday next Saturday. This really is lucky, because otherwise I would be sitting around here in Gabs (which goes completely dead over holidays...everyone goes back home to their villages, etc.) twiddling my thumbs and wondering how to accomplish anything up north. So, unfortunately, there is no rest for the weary as we are departing next Saturday morning at 4 AM! But at least there will be less stress and pressure at that point.

We had a nice music meeting today--our last of the term. It was so nice to hear how much they have appreciated my help these past months. I have greatly enjoyed this chapter of my travel year and it is wonderful to feel like I am able to give something back as well. I am just tying up the loose ends at this point... which is a bit sad. One of my classes was devastated to hear that I was leaving (they had obviously forgotten since I told them at the beginning of the term) and they all came up to give me hugs at the end of class. What sweethearts!

And the marimba tour is hurtling full-speed-ahead towards their departure on April 12th. I am sad that it didn't work out for me to go with them... I really feel close to a lot of the players at this point and in some ways it's like abandoning your family at the time they need you the most. But since HQ is adamant that I cannot come back to the US for anything, there isn't much that I can do! I will have to concentrate on having fun in other places doing other things. At least Zambia promises to be a unique and interesting experience!

One hiccup that I have encountered this week is a computer crash. Yes, my beautiful pint-sized laptop is having Windows Vista issues and won't start up properly. Now, the IT guy at MaP is trying his best to fix it, but he's been under so much pressure to get other things done before the end of term that it's been put on the back burner. :( At least it looks like I should be able to recover the files off of it--and at worst it will just need a clean wipe of the hard drive and reinstallation of all the programs I had on there. Such is life! It would have been much worse if this had happened anywhere else.

And that's all the news from this side of things! Please cross your fingers for me that the elections in Zimbabwe come to a peaceful conclusion!!

Over and out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

To Pretoria and Back Again

Last weekend we had four days off due to the Easter holidays. Luckily for us, Botswana hasn't gotten to the stage of politically correctness for religious holidays to be renamed for seasons of the year, so we got a few days off of school and I got to take a nice trip with my friend Julia down to South Africa.

We chose Pretoria mainly because it was within a half-day's drive, contained many shopportunities, and was safer than Johannesburg. I am a bit embarrassed to report that we spent the majority of our time there in one huuuuge shopping complex called the "Menlyn Park Mall" where we had our hair cut, saw several movies in the cinema, ate at lovely restaurants, and shopped 'till we dropped. But as much as this seems counter to my normal mode of living, Botswana has changed me! I now appreciate the availability of clothing stores, music stores, decent cinemas, etc. And I am happy to report that my wardrobe is now replenished and no longer looks shabby and worn out. Since I really have worn my clothes into threads, it was about time for some new ones! Now the only problem is finding someone to help me hem a new pair of trousers (yes, I said trousers. You have to be careful here because 'pants' actually refers to underwear!).

We also hit a craft market on sunday morning, which was intended to be a brief stop on our way home. Unfortunately for us, we arrived back at the car after a lucrative circuit around the market to find the car battery completely and utterly lifeless. Now, normally this is no problem.... but Julia had only recently purchased the car (it's rather old, a '96 Corolla) and we discovered that there were no jumper cables in the spare tire. Well, what did we do? Of course, there were two or three oh-so-kind parking attendants who were only too willing to look at the engine and look speculative while telling us absolutely nothing.

One point for South Africans, though, is that two nice men stopped their cars/shopping trips to take a look at the car. The first man tried to be helpful and pulled off the lid of the fuse box to have a look--after which he said it wasn't our battery at all, but a burnt-out fuse. This may sound like good news, but on Easter Sunday there really isn't a prayer of finding a repair shop open in the whole of the country! So we trekked down to the petrol station on the corner to search out a few new fuses (with our fingers prayerfully crossed) only to find that they didn't have the right ones...which was the start of our next adventure with a South African who took a look at the engine/fuses/battery and declared that the fuses were fine and the battery's voltage was fine (he actually carried a toolbox with a voltmeter in his car!) but he couldn't speak for the current. So it was either the battery or some wiring problem (which you can imagine wouldn't get fixed on Easter Sunday). Hence our second trip down to the petrol station for jumper cables in the hope that the battery was only run down.

Our third adventure with nice South Africans involved another car who we stopped to ask for a jump. We maneuvered the car into range of the cables, connected the leads, and turned the key.... to find that the car was still completely dead! But to forestall panic (I already had the travel guide and my phone out to call the backpacker about further accommodation) the nice guys who owned the other car told us to just give it a minute. We waited, and waited, and turned the key again.... and bingo! The car starts up and we're off to Botswana without switching the car off for anything!

It's funny how we had such a great trip, yet the most memorable part will probably be that interesting hour where we were stuck in the parking lot with a dead battery. But sometimes it's situations like that where you really learn about a place's character! I'm not sure whether people would have been so friendly if not for the rather ridiculous image of us as two young blondes getting help from two rather shabby looking car-guards. I suppose that I will never know... unless I end up in that situation again, which I hope I don't!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Isn't it supposed to be summer?

Yesterday it rained non-stop for at least 12 hours. RAINED!

Today it was COLD. COOOOOOLD. Two-sweaters-two-pairs-of-socks-drink-hot-tea-and-still-shiver cold!

Isn't it supposed to be 90 degrees and sunny? This is the only place in the world where I've ever gotten a real sun tan!

Please take the rain back to the hemisphere it belongs in, we're not quite through with the summer yet. Thanks!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Performances at Maru-a-Pula

In the last week the marimba band has gone into "performing mode" here at Maru-a-Pula. We had our first short "show" at assembly on Wednesday morning. It was only two songs, about ten minutes, but it was very interesting! It turns out that some of the students aren't so practiced at performing, and the songs started out quite a bit faster than they normally go...but overall it was a decent performance. I was much more nervous than I expected! I have gotten to the point in the past where I just don't mind performing, but for some reason it was different in front of the MaP community. I think my nerves can be attributed to my first performance in front of some of my very close friends amongst the staff, but still I was more unsettled than I expected.

The students hate performing for their peers, but that is completely understandable. The MaP students are lovely as individuals, but in groups they are a terror! Somehow they lose all respect for authority and for everything else when you put more than ten together in the same place... and in the past groups have been actually boo'd off the stage during assembly (Can you believe that's allowed!?!). So I understand why the marimba students would be shy of performing for this less-than-supportive audience. Luckily, for our show we received exactly the opposite response from the crowd. As soon as the curtain was drawn the students went mad--they were screaming and shouting their friends' names in support. Now, that's not exactly what you'd encourage at a live music show either, but I'm not going to complain! I even heard my name being called out! Turns out it was my Form 1 students :) who are always a bit over-enthusiastic anyway. Some of my other friends confessed that their first reaction to seeing the group was: "who's that white kid? Oh, wait.... that's Sarah!"

Later in the week I went to see the Thornhill Primary School marimba teacher. He is a very nice Zimbabwean man named Roy Nyathi, and it turns out that he was a student of Alport Mhlanga's back when AM taught at the Zimbabwean College of Music! Roy seems like a good resource for my project and I am planning to spend a bit of time there next week viewing lessons and attending a rehearsal of his performing band. I also got to see their band perform for a regional swimming gala at the school on Friday evening. They were an interesting group! All of the songs they perform are full of energy and enthusiasm--to the point that the students get up and dance during the performances sometimes! But more on the Thornhill group another day when I've spent some time at the school.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Where to from here?

Where to now?

Well, many people have been asking me the “big question”: where am I going after Maru-a-Pula?

The answer is not particularly simple or well-thought out, but I am beginning to form some more realistic plans. Most schools in the region are on holiday from the middle of April to the middle of May, which means that this time of year is going to be a traveling time for me. I am thinking of heading north to Zambia (with HQ’s permission, of course). There are some pros and cons of this tactic… the pros being that I haven’t been there and it’s a completely different marimba culture. The major drawback is that I don’t have any connections there yet… although I am working on it. My thought was to go north to Lusaka for a couple of weeks to see if I could dig up any schools or marimba players in person. After that, or maybe sooner than later if it turns out to be unproductive, I want to head even farther north to Tanzania. I don’t actually know a lot about that area yet, but I would sure love to visit there and I know there is some marimba to be found. So… that’s the holiday. Hopefully I would get to swing back down from the North through Namibia and celebrate my and Jaimie Adelson’s birthdays with Jaimie at Gobabeb.

From there it is very likely that I will go back to Johannesburg to visit a school there for a month or possibly two. One of the former marimba teachers from Gaborone has moved to a ritzy private school there. He is reputed to be a very good teacher, so I would probably enjoy his teaching.

From there I plan to hit a marimba festival in mid-June in Mafikeng—the International School of South Africa has invited Maru-a-Pula to participate and it would be a fun event to attend. From there it’s on to Grahamstown, SA to visit Andrew Tracey at Rhoades University and hit the Grahamstown Festival at the end of June.

From the 1st of July my lovely friends Samantha Worzalla and Julie Edwards are visiting and we’ll be doing some traveling until the end of the month. Conveniently there is the South African National Marimba Festival in Johannesburg on the 25th of July, and my flight home leaves on the 29th. So that’s the year in a wrap! Although, it is interesting to me that the majority of my plans for the near future are up in the air while the farther off plans are much more concrete! But that’s life sometimes.

The only other wrench that has been thrown in the wheels is the uneasy political situation in Zimbabwe. I was planning to visit there beginning in April for one or two months, but it looks as if there will be a travel warning issued for the duration of my stay in Africa. Oh, well! The irony is that I now have contacts and everything that would make a visit there a complete breeze from my end… providing that I don’t get shot at the border J. But I am still hoping that the travel warning is lifted. I would much rather go there than Johannesburg!!

So that's something to chew on for a while....

over and out1

Monday, February 25, 2008

Khama Rhino Sanctuary (Take 2!)

Hello to everyone back home!

This weekend was a long one thanks to the mid-term holiday break and the Maru-a-Pula staff have scattered themselves throughout Southern Africa. To do my part, I hired a car with a friend of mine (Julia Shore, another volunteer teacher and my next-room neighbor), borrowed bits of camping gear from everyone I know on staff, and hopped about 350 kms NE to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. Now, my most avid readers may recall that this was the site of a rather unusual camping experience when my tour group attempted to stay there in December--luckily things went much more smoothly this time around! No swarming Afrikaaners, no movement of tents and belongings, etc.

In fact, even from the planning side this trip was a breeze! Apparently it's not high-season for tourists anymore, because when I called on Tuesday to book a campsite for the weekend I got the choice of any campsite, and only two of the 12 or so sites were occupied while we were there. We had a bit of a scare with the hire car because we left the booking of that quite late, but in the end the cheapest place did have cars available and we got one for a good deal. The only problem we anticipated was the 2WD/4WD problem, but renting a 4x4 was out of the question, so we decided to give it a go in the Corolla and dig ourselves out if we ran into too much sand.

Our drive was smooth, but a bit long without aircon. Luckily we found a variety of interesting local radio stations (interesting in many senses of the word) to keep us entertained, despite the rather noisy rush of air past the open windows at 140 kms/hr. Unfortunately our map was a bit deficient and we had a few tense moments on unmarked back roads (most of the roads in Botswana seem to be unmarked) before arriving at the rather tall and imposing gate of the Sanctuary.

Our first day there was also very exciting in many ways--the campsite we were given turned out to have a rather large and busy wasp nest in the central tree, the roads were completely unimproved sand tracks (our poor rental 2WD!), and the mosquitos were out in force--but we had a great time overall. On our game drive that evening we saw heaps of game and didn't even get stuck in the sand! I was driving (unfortunately?) and we did get a few scratches on the sides of the car... this was cause for nail-biting until the bill came earlier this week :).

One of the other Maru-a-Pula teachers brought her family the following day and we had an interesting time chatting with them and looking around the park with them... they have a lovely daughter who was just a delight to play with. One incident in particular was worth mentioning... we were lounging in deck chairs beside a tiny swimming pool all morning with a rhinocerous in the distance (a bit idyllic, actually) when our friend from MaP says "Guys, did you see the rhinocerous there?"

"Oh that one, he hasn't moved for hours"

"No, I don't think so. Look again!"

And there he was, a rather large black rhinocerous less than 10 meters from us (black rhinos are the aggressive, irritable sort), staring us right in the eye! We had no idea whether to move out of the way, stay very still, or just panic... but eventually some of the wardens came out and asked us to move around to the other side of the swimming pool--apparently all the rhino wanted was a drink of water! I'll post a picture of this soon, it's rather unbelievable unless you see it with your own eyes!

But other than a few nice meals, a rather ridiculous amount of time spent trying to boil water (my fellow camper was somewhat unexperienced with fire-building), and some wildlife in our campsite, nothing much happened. It was amazingly refreshing to get away from the MaP campus, though... even if it did take the majority of the next week to readjust to the school schedule.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Six Months and Counting...

Dear everyone,

Unfortunately I have been experiencing some wrist pain (probably from too much marimba) but it means that typing is usually a painful process. I know that this means you are all left stranded without updates from me... so I thought I would post my second quarterly report that I sent in to Watson HQ about my experiences at Maru-a-Pula School. I will try to keep posting more often in smaller quantities, but I am becoming unreliable so I apologize if that falls through!

So here goes!

Dear Watson HQ,

First I would like to apologize for the tardiness of this quarterly report! My life has become very busy (in a good way) and there have been other obstacles as well, which you will hear about in the course of this report.

Since my last report I have spent a great deal of time at Maru-a-Pula School (MAP) in Gaborone, Botswana. I chose to visit MAP because the marimba teacher here, Mr. Alport Mhlanga, is an internationally renowned marimba composer and a good friend of my former marimba instructor in Portland, OR. My arrival went very smoothly, but the month that I spent at MAP during November/December was only partially productive in terms of my project. Firstly, this was the end of the MAP school year and many of the students were involved in an extensive examination process, limiting the time they were able to spend on extra-curricular activities such as marimba. Secondly, many of the classes themselves were winding down at this point for the end of the term, making my classroom research less valuable.

The one upside of my time at MAP during this month was my interaction with Mr. Mhlanga. Because of the examinations that were happening, many of his regular classes were not meeting and he was able to spend more time with me in private sessions. He is an amazing composer! Even with the frustrations of last term, I learned that my former marimba education was very limited. It turns out that the style of marimba I had been taught in Portland was very right-hand dominant. I knew that already, especially after playing in the classical percussion ensemble at Grinnell, but I didn’t know that so much of the marimba world played with a more equal-handed style. I know that might not make much sense, but essentially I had to learn to lead movement across the keyboard with my left hand instead of my right hand… which is difficult and unfamiliar in the same way as trying to write with your off-hand. At this point I have gotten much better at it, but I’m afraid that there is still a long way for me to go! It’s just a combination of a lot of small things, like the fact that I am used to doubling notes with my right hand only, and only in a downward direction, and now I’m trying to learn with both hands in both directions… well, it’s changed the way I think about marimba! Suddenly I am combining my classical sticking techniques with my African music and it seems strange. But it does make me very glad for my classical training at Grinnell! I do consider myself to be a proficient marimba player, but I would be much more behind if it weren’t for my classical experience at Grinnell.

Since my return in January I have had less private time with Mr. Mhlanga, but I have gained a lot in terms of student rehearsals and class time. Mr. Mhlanga was absent from Maru-a-Pula for the first two weeks of the term because he was on a contract as a visiting artist at Williams in the US, and during this time I taught his classes as a substitute. This was really an amazing experience for me. Not only was I a “real” full-time teacher for two weeks, but I gained a lot of respect from the other teachers and the students at MAP. Because I am so young-looking (especially to people here in Botswana) I was often mistaken for an exchange student or a teacher-aide last term, but after my stint as a full-time music teacher I felt that the community here understood me much better. It is nice when people recognize that you do more than photocopying and filing J although it really doesn’t matter to me as long as I get respect from the other music staff. During this two weeks I taught classes to middle-school aged students in music theory and in marimba playing. Luckily, my stint at MAP before the Christmas holiday meant that I knew a few of Mr. Mhlanga’s tunes to teach to the classes, and this all went very well. It was actually hard for me to give up my students when Mr. Mhlanga returned… I have gotten very attached to them.

Mr. Mhlanga’s return also coincided with the beginning of after-school activities. Maru-a-Pula believes in a spirit of service and self-involvement, so the school day ends at 1:00 pm and the afternoon in occupied with extra-curriculars. Marimba ensemble is one of those extras and normally there are three or four groups that each meet once per week for about two hours. Because MAP is sending a student ensemble overseas in April (this is the trip that I requested permission to go on) the schedule has gone a bit haywire. There are only two groups that meet now, one of young students who are still in their second year of playing, and the professional-quality group that is being trained for the tour. The tour group rehearses on four afternoons per week for four hours, as well as two to three hours on Saturday mornings. It has been amazing to work with this group—I have learned many new tunes from them and I am helping to teach them as well. Most of the time I play as if I were part of the group, but as we get closer to the tour departure date I will have to stop so that the players can get used to the sound of their performing ensemble. The group is an interesting mix of students. They range from 15-18 in age and also range in ability level. The selection criteria for the tour were musical ability and appropriate temperament, so there are some very sweet kids with more modest talent that require extra practice. There are also some pretty amazing players who were part of the previous performance group from Maru-a-Pula. It is very fun to play with these players, especially on Saturdays when we workshop with only the advanced players. During those sessions we learn parts and songs that will be taught the following week so that we can help teach the others.

Let me go on for a moment about how amazing Mr. Mhlanga is. He might possibly be one of the most naturally talented musicians I have ever come across! Not only that, but he is fully trained as a classical guitarist and knows more music theory than most university professors. I think he enjoys having me around because I am a classical audience in some ways and he can tell me all about the chord progressions with suspended 9ths and minor 7th chords modulating to bizarre key changes, etc. But I am also enjoying it, even if I’m barely keeping up on the theory side of things, and he has inspired me to start composing. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but since I have never EVER felt the desire to compose at all, I think it’s a big step. He has fundamentally changed the way that I think about marimba music and about the people who play marimba. There are so many different sides to his humor and personality that I am continually perplexed (and amused too… you should hear some of his jokes!). He is also a very proper person who exemplifies respect and loyalty. And aside from that, I really think he’s a musical genius. He just knows how things will sound before he plays them and he has an ear that you’d never believe. He can pick out a wrong note on one instrument in a deafening chorus of 15 marimbas. I have also been very impressed at how well he adapts the music to his players. Each song is molded to suit the ability level and even the personality of each player. On top of that, his rehearsal style is very sneaky. Instead of saying “OK, it starts like this and then you do this and this and this” he just starts rehearsing the form from the beginning. Each part he teaches is played within the form it will eventually be performed in. It’s amazing how quickly he can bring a group along without any of the stress or frustration that normally comes into the rehearsal process. I am learning a lot!

One of the greatest challenges I have run into here has actually been physical. I am having pain in my wrists (especially my left… surprise, surprise) and it is probably caused by so much Marimba playing. I started feeling this pain when I was here in November, and I had thought that a month off would cure it. That didn’t happen, but I am being very careful to ice every evening and wear braces when I can. Unfortunately, my wrist pain is also aggravated by typing, so I have been spending as little time at the computer as possible. That has made correspondence much more difficult, especially because my wrists just can’t handle typing after a full day of marimba. Weekends are really the only time I can type for extended periods of time, and they do hurt while I type so I end up cutting most computer work short even then. That said, they seem to be holding up fairly well this term with the ice and braces. I can’t wear braces while I play marimba because the wrist motion is essential to marimba technique, but with the treatment I have been giving them they aren’t getting worse and sometimes I think they’re building strength and actually getting better. Of course, this is still a concern for me and I am keeping a close eye on the pain. The last thing I want is to come out of this year with tendonitis!

Overall, my marimba experience here has been incredible! I am literally playing or teaching marimba for 8 hours or more every day, and even though I thought I would get bored of it I find that I am still learning new things all the time. The department has asked that I stay until the end of this academic term so that I can finish teaching some of the classes that are still mine and so that I can continue assisting Mr. Mhlanga in his classes and afterschool rehearsals. There is a music festival here in the first week of April that I hoped to return for anyway, so I am planning to stay through the term (ends second week in April). That way I can finish the preparation process with the tour group and see them off to the US. Watching these students pour their hearts and lives into the marimba for the tour has been amazing.

My time at MAP has also been highly education in a cultural sense. I have learned a lot from the students here and made some really good friends. I am living in an annex off of the girls boarding house (approx. a quarter of the students are boarders) and eating in the dining hall. It’s not the greatest living situation but it does put me in close contact with many of the students. I have gotten them to come out and play Frisbee with me, to chat about their families and lives, to talk about their perceptions of race and of the US and all sorts of other things. The MAP students are really special… they are more like US students than they know in many ways, and incredibly different from students in Cape Town. I love talking with them about South Africa and hearing what their perceptions are and what they think about the current political situation. I have made some firm friendships among the staff as well. There are a few staff members especially who I eat lunch with on a regular basis and I am hoping to keep in contact with when I leave here. There is a lovely “Hakuna Matata” mentality here that somehow doesn’t get in the way of competence and actually completing one’s job, but makes for lively personalities. One of the PE teachers has become almost like a brother to me—he is a fun person with integrity and a strong sense of commitment. I love watching him interact with his family (who are just lovely) because he exemplifies what I consider to be the positive aspects of Batswana culture and he’s open enough to chat about even the most culturally sensitive topics.

While I was traveling over the Christmas holiday I had expected to take a break from my Watson-ing for a while, but it turns out that it’s become my lifestyle and I can’t just leave it behind that easily! I traveled to the North of Botswana, South to Lesotho and Durban, back to Cape Town for a week, and to Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. It was, firstly, an amazing trip. Covering such a large geographic area in a short time gave me a shock to see how different the cultures were in such similar areas. We visited a Batswana village near Maun and got to know some of the locals who work as mokoro polers in the Okavango Delta, I visited a Zulu village near Durban, I got to know park rangers from Mmphumalanga near the Kruger Park, and I interacted with plenty of Afrikaaners in between. What an interesting hodge-podge of cultures! Being up North in Botswana made me really interested in visiting Zambia. Apparently it is a very poor country and it might be hard for me to find an appropriate school to visit, but there is a slightly different sort of marimba played in the Eastern part of the country. I am planning to follow up with some of the teachers here at Maru-a-Pula who are Zambian expatriates to see if they have any connections with schools there.

My plan from this point is to spend the rest of the term here at MAP, then to head to Zimbabwe for perhaps a month. I am connecting with a few schools in Bulawayo through teachers that I know here at Maru-a-Pula, but I am waiting to approach Mr. Mhlanga for his advice until the tour arrangements have settled down a bit. That should be very soon, I am hoping. The only problem that I foresee is the school holiday period following this term. I believe that schools in Zimbabwe also follow the same term schedule, so I may take another trip (not as extensive as my last one) into Namibia or possibly Zambia if I find any information/connections leading me there. I have also been suggested to investigate Mozambique, but I am hesitant because the official language is not English. Again, I am planning to do more research.

Thanks for your attention and your help along the way! I will keep you posted as my plans for April take shape.

All the best,


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas?

A belated Merry Christmas everyone! And a happy and prosperous New Years to you as well. I am finally back in Gaborone finished with my travel adventures for the summer break and it's been wild!

Leaving Gaborone I yet again got stuck for hours on the side of the road as my Intercape bus broke down mid-way to Johannesburg. Luckily for me, I didn't have to be there precisely on time! Although, I am a bit tired of the Intercape buses. Too bad they're the only real service between Gabs and Jburg!

The morning of Dec 7th we set off on a tour to Victoria Falls and Botswana with Bundu Safaris. What a great trip! The rain threatened the entire time, but somehow it only rained when we weren't doing anything anyway. Now, because it is the rainy season there is less potential for viewing wildlife (they don't have to congregate around the water holes) but we still had a pretty good sampling! Elephant, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, all sorts of antelope, wild dogs, hippopotamus, secretary birds, warthogs and more. It was my first time seeing any of these animals in the wild so I was pretty excited. Some of my friends who had been on Safari before weren't quite as stoked about it, but we all ended up having a good time anyway.

Our first stop on the tour was actually Victoria Falls in Zambia. I wanted to go over and see it from the Zimbabwe side as well, but that would have cost a lot of money and it happened to be raining that afternoon, so we only saw the Zambian side. But don't get the wrong impression, it was still a beautiful sight! Apparently it's one of the seven natural Wonders of the World.... and I have to agree with whoever decide that. It is so beautiful!! Even in the "low-water" season it was spectacular. I would post photos now but I will have to wait for my next internet session, but remember to check back!

The next day we went white water rafting on the Zambezi (Class 5 rapids). I've never been rafting before and this experience was both thrilling and really fun! Apparently this is the best time of year to raft the Zambezi, even though it isn't the best time to view the falls. When the water is too high or low the rapids get pretty dangerous and the rafting companies close down, so I'm glad we went when we did! The water was warm, the rapids were exciting, and there weren't many rocks to hit by accident when you flipped the raft. Five out of six contact lenses survived the trip (both of mine survived... barely), we only flipped once (unfortunately... that was the best part!), and there were free drinks on the ride back. Man... what a great time! The only drawback was the intense hikes in and out of the canyon to get to and from the river. I'm surprised that no-one got injured on some of these spots! but overall, that rafting trip is one of my highlights from the tour. I didn't have any "near-death" moments like some of my raft-mates, but there were certainly a few where I wasn't sure we'd be coming out the other side in one piece. I can't wait to try rafting on other rivers!

That was all for our time in Livingstone and at the falls, but I also found Zambia to be a really interesting place in general. The overall level of development in Zambia is much lower than in either South Africa or Botswana and the landscape is different as well. The border was much more like what you would expect from an African country. The dirtiness and sketchiness of the immigration office was complemented by litter and exhaust fumes, trampled ground, and a huuuuuge queue of trucks waiting to cross the Zambezi on the ferry. Supposedly there is a bridge being planned, but in the meantime the truck drivers simply have to wait three or four days in a line before crossing the river. Seeing Zambia made me fall in love with the landscape and the people there... I am really hoping that I'll be able to travel there on my Watson. There is a significant marimba culture in part of the country, so I'll have to start pursuing my contacts there :).

From Zambia we recrossed the Zambezi River into Botswana and headed towards Chobe National Park. Now, the Chobe is one of the great rivers of Botswana (if such a dry place can have great rivers) and the park is situated on the edge of the Okavango Delta. It is an absolutely beautiful park, and the beauty is only increased by the amazing wildlife roaming the shores of the river. We arrived mid-day and spent an absolutely miserable hour getting camp set up in the pouring rain... which luckily tailed off in time for our cruise on the river. The cruise took us from the campsite into the Chobe park, where we could see Namibian shores as well as Batswana. But the exciting thing wasn't looking at two identical stretches of land that officially spoke different languages, it was, of course, the wildlife viewing from the boat. Now, what is so great about a game cruise rather than a game drive? Well, the best part is that the boat is so quiet. Really, it's amazing. Because the animals aren't looking for predators in the water, they basically completely ignore the boats... especially when the driver turns off the motor and just lets the boat drift. We saw the most amazing elephants bathing in the river, playing with each other, and spraying water everywhere! We also saw some pretty amazing hippopotami (that just seems like the wrong plural...) and crocodiles both in and out of the water. Overall, a pretty amazing cruise. That's not even to mention the birds and antelope, or the other animals that we got glimpses of from the river. But it's not so much what we saw that was so incredible (none of these animals are very amazing sightings), but the things we saw them doing and our proximity to them. The next morning we set off on a game drive through the park, but it wasn't really that much better than the cruise. We did see some warthogs, giraffe, lion tracks, hyena, and wild dogs... and a very cool situation where the hyena was hiding downwind of the dogs, just waiting for them to leave their kill. And LOTS of hornbills (aka Zazu from the Lion King). My only regret is that we couldn't spend more time in the park!

Next our day long drive brought us from Kasane to Maun, home of the famous Maun Carnival and the launching point for the Okavango Delta. If you take a look at a map of Botswana, the Delta is both deceptively small and large at the same time. Looking at the size of the country you'd say it was pretty small. But if you instead think about the size of the Delta relative to, say, any other natural feature in Southern Africa, it looks huge! And I tend to agree more with the huge part after seeing it firsthand. We spent three days actually in the Delta itself, which was an amazing experience. On the first morning we met our "polers" or guides, who poled us into the delta on their mokoros (sort of shallow wooden canoes). The water in the Delta was so amazingly clear that the polers would just lean down and take a drink when they got thirsty. We boiled our water in camp just to be safe, but it turns out that the water probably wouldn't make you sick anyway, it's just that clean. The mokoro trip took the better part of two hours, and halfway through we even saw a lonely elephant grazing on a tiny island not more than 50 meters away (and it was an interesting experience trying to stand up in the mokoro to see over the reeds!). Once we arrived on our more substantial island, we set up camp and made lunch. This was our roughest camping the whole trip. Water came from the Delta, the toilet was a hole in the dirt, and anything in the coolers went warm after the ice melted on the first day. But somehow we had a wonderful time anyway :).

The best part of our Delta experience was, well, everything! We got to swim in the channels of the Delta where the water was never more than a few meters deep (and luckily wasn't home to any crocs or hippos), take bushwalks around the island looking at plants, tracks, and whatever animals we happened to find, learn to make woven bracelets from reeds, play cards with our polers, and just generally have a great time. On the second night we went out on a "sunset cruise" on the mokoros, and about fifteen minutes into the trip the weather turned into a huge storm! We had to stop the boats, brace for the storm, and then speed back to camp in the calm period just before the storm hit. We got soaked, of course, despite the umbrellas and raincoats, and spent the next few hours huddling around the fire sharing umbrellas and trading songs and stories with our hosts. I think it was more fun than what was planned!

After returning to civilization in Maun, four of my fellows and I went on a scenic flight over the Delta in a little 6-seater plane. We had a great time, it was absolutely gorgeous from above! And for once we could really see animals when they couldn't see us. The only fly in the ointment was that my friends seated in the back got really motion-sick, so I don't think they enjoyed it as much as they might have.

The last stop on our itinerary was the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, which we arrived at late in the afternoon after yet another long day of driving. By this point we were all pretty tired of the big yellow truck... but after setting up our tents for what should have been the last time we hopped back into the truck for a "game drive" through the sanctuary to see some Rhinos. Now, if you don't know the history of the Rhinoceros in Southern Africa, the short version is that they were poached to such a large extent that extinction was a real danger for both the Black and White Rhino. The government of Botswana thought that this was unacceptable, so instead of just watching the last of the Rhinoceros fade into children's stories and history books Sir Seretse Khama created the Khama Rhino Sanctuary and had the entire country's remaining animals transported there for safekeeping. The fence around the sanctuary was more to keep out the poachers than to keep in the Rhinos, but it meant that there were enough rhinos protected for the population to start to recover. At this point they have started resettling some of the animals into the wild because the population of White Rhinos has recovered quite well, but it was a near thing!

So on our little trip through the sanctuary we were lucky enough to see a whole family of White Rhinos as well as a lonely old Black Rhino (the names really mean nothing.... 'White' was actually a Dutch misinterpretation of the word "wide" after the shape of its lip and 'Black' refers to the name of the place where the Black Rhino was first seen). That was pretty exciting, but upon return to camp we discovered an army of arrogant South African families running amok in our campsite. Naturally, our response is "what the hell?" and we try to talk to them. Now, apparently the army of South Africans was instructed to use this campsite and didn't bother to go talk to reception when they found it already occupied. Instead, they had taken it upon themselves to simply move our tents out of their way and continue assembling their armada of campervans and other luxury travel devices. SO what are we to do when the arrogant Afrikaaner says he won't move? We go to reception ourselves. And get told that we'll have to find a new place to camp because the other group had a booking and yada, yada, yada. Well, we weren't so psyched to take our tents down in what fading sunlight remained, so instead we yelled at the receptionist enough to get everyone angry, and in the end we opted to not stay at the Sanctuary at all. So off we went, packed up our tents, and traveled down the road another hour to Palapye. The only problem with this scenario is the massive amount of animals on the road after dark. Not interesting animals, but domestic herds of cattle, goats, and donkeys. Yes, donkeys. But that story will have to wait for another time. Aside from all the anger though, we did get to enjoy the amazing DJ services of one of the Australians on the tour... involving an ipod, earphones, and the truck's microphone. You see, the truck didn't have any other way of playing music than holding earphones up to the speaking mic :). And we all felt much better once we finally had some dinner in us!

And so we arrived back in Johannesburg ten days after we left with some really strange stories to tell! And with over 3000 pictures in total. You'll understand, then, if it takes me a few more days to sort all those photos and get a few posted online!

But was there any time to rest? Of course not! Because the following day was just enough for laundry and some necessary shopping (and haircut, thank god) before I took off for Maseru, Lesotho to meet up with two friends from Grinnell: Katie Jares and Megan Straughn. But you'll have to excuse me if I leave that story to tell tomorrow! Tonight it is time for bed.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Upcoming Adventures

This next month will see many changes!

First off, I'm leaving Gaborone on Thursday and meeting up with some friends in Joburg. From there we're all going on a tour of Botswana. First up to Victoria Falls (which isn't actually in Botswana) for some spectacular views, then the Okavango Delta and the Chobe National Game Reserve for some actual wild animal viewing. I'm pretty excited to actually see lions and elephants and everything else! That's a 10 day trip.... bringing us back down to Joburg at the end.

From there, with only one day of recovery time, I'm off to Lesotho to travel with Katie Jares and Megan Straughn. We're hitting up the highlights of Lesotho before heading off to Durban, South Africa for some quality beach time and a visit to a Zulu village. I'm pretty stoked for both of these... and in addition there is a "beer trail" of local breweries that sounds pretty amazing. From there we're off to Pretoria for a day before they continue up North and I split off to Cape Town to meet up with my parents.

We're spending a bit less than a week experiencing the highlights of Cape Town and surrounds, then jumping on a flight back to Joburg where we'll visit the archeological "Cradle of Mankind," see the infamous Apartheid Museum, and watch the off-Broadway "Lion King." After that we join up with a three-day tour to Kruger National Park for some more game viewing... following which my folks jump on a plane back to the US of A and I catch a bus back up to Gaborone for more quality time at Maru-a-Pula.

You may imagine that internet access will most likely be limited during this ridiculous month... but I'll try to post if I can! If not, I'll see you mid-January!

Whew! I hope I survive it!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thanksgiving with the De Sole Family

Alright, after the famine it is time to feast! In both the literal and figurative senses. I know that I have been lax about my blog updates in recent weeks, so here you get two updates in as many days. But in addition, this post is all about my Thanksgiving dinner... which was literally a feast after surviving Maru-a-Pula cafeteria food for a month!

Last week I bussed down to Pretoria (now officially named Tswana--but violently opposed) to meet up with the De Sole family. Natalie De Sole was visiting her parents, who are American and Italian but stationed in South Africa, and they invited me to join them for the weekend!

Unfortunately, my bus broke down three times on the way to Pretoria. Three times! I don't know how to describe this saga, except to say that we were stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for a local mechanic for two hours when we broke down the first time, and then another hour after our second brake-down. The funny part is that the bus only managed 10 minutes of progress between these first two inadvertant stops! Luckily for us, we finally made it to the convenience store for water and some calories... we were a bit cranky at that point, though! It was very hot out, and we were stuck in a disappearing bit of shade under a tree. With concerned mothers telling their children not to go into the shade because there might be snakes. Great, huh? Actually, it was very interesting to observe the other passengers. Some of them just accepted their fate... (after all, as they say in Blood Diamond, "This is Africa") while others made a big stink about the delay. I would have been more upset myself, except that I didn't have a bus or plane to catch at the destination. But anyway, I have become much more relaxed about that sort of thing in general.

We finally made it to Johannesburg Station (3.5 hours late) where we let off many of the passengers on our bus and continued on (or back, as it was) towards Pretoria. Unfortunately for us, the bus broke down again... and right smack-dab in the middle of the freeway entrance ramp! So not only were we stuck for another hour waiting to get the bus moving, but we were also blocking the entrance to the freeway and making the inevitable 5pm traffic jam even worse. Luckily, we did eventually make it to the station... about 5 hours late overall... and even luckier for me was the patience and good-nature of the De Sole family about all the confusion! And the dinner they served (home-made pizzas, italian-style) was absolutely fabulous, so it was a really nice end to a rather frustrating day.

The rest of the weekend was busy but less frustrating :). On Thanksgiving itself Natalie and I accomplished some shopping at the Menlyn Park shopping mall in Pretoria. Now, this is basically a monstrously large shopping center, but somehow my usual impatience didn't surface during this shopping experience and we managed to find all the right shops. And what was even more strange? I actually found clothes that fit! If you've ever been shopping with me, you'll know that I have a very, VERY hard body-type to shop for... being both short and Norwegian-shaped doesn't agree very well with American ideals of fashion. But apparently it does agree fairly well with African styles, and we had a very productive morning. It may seem like I'm going on about this in unnecessary detail, but it's just that I'm so excited not to be forced into wearing every hot-weather outfit in my wardrobe twice each week :).

Thanksgiving dinner was very nice as well. We were invited to the home of another US expat (something to do with either the Embassy or USAID, I'm not sure which) and it was a nice evening. A bit strange... there were many families there of mixed nationality, which was wonderful from a social standpoint, but I don't think I've ever celebrated Thanksgiving with so many people from outside the US! And I've certainly never schmoozed with Embassy folks before, so it was a really interesting experience. The dinner was lovely and I got my yearly pumpkin pie fix, so all in all I am considering the holiday a success.

Friday morning the De Sole family and I took off for Mphumalanga, which is basically the province North and East of Joburg. Our destination was the Blyde River Canyon, which is a beautiful spot! Overall, Mphumalanga is a beautiful province and much more like my home climate in Portland. In fact, it was cool, misty, and even rainy almost the whole time we were there! But despite all of this it was a beautiful spot. The first day was mostly driving to reach the area but we did stop to view a nice waterfall with a fun name (Mac-Mac Falls).

We stayed over Friday night in a cute town called Pilgrim's Rest. This was an old gold-mining town that has been converted into a historic tourist town. Very cute, despite the somewhat overpowering feeling that everything is made especially for tourists. In fact, you hardly see any evidence that there is a real town at all, and many of the employees have to live over the hills in a poor district that wouldn't be acceptable to the town's image. We had a nice dinner there (although my fish and chips came as a whole fish fried up in batter... at least I couldn't see the eyes gleaming at me because they were covered in batter!) and stayed the night in a historic hotel. It was fun... Natalie and I had a footy bathtub in our room and lamps that were converted old oil lamps. There were also candles and matches around the room which I thought were decorative until the power went out briefly at the restaurant we dined in for dinner. So there is at least one aspect of the rustic mining town left!

The best parts of Pilgrim's Rest were the jacaranda trees and the cemetary. Jacarandas are beautiful big trees that cover the ground with a beautiful carpet of purple flowers, and there were jacarandas lining most of the streets in the town. That leant a very idealistic feeling to the place, it was beautiful and very peaceful. The cemetary was fun because it was the historic cemetary and had graves from as far back as the 19th century. The story goes that a robber was killed in the nearby pass and they had nowhere to bury him, so they put him up on the top of the hill (you can actually still find the grave, it is marked oh-so-cleverly "robber's grave") and that was the start of the cemetary. It's a really interesting place though... lots of infants (very sad), men in their 30's (mining accidents and "skirmishes"), and interesting grave stones with prayers, etc. There are many nationalities represented, as you would expect in a gold-mining town that experienced a gold-rush) and many languages on the gravestones. There is also an interesting insight into the peoples' culture because the graves are all clustered together around the Robber's Grave except for the Jewish graves. They are in their own section that's separated by a row of shrubs. So apparently being buried next to a Robber was better than being buried next to a Jewish person? Interesting.

We headed off towards the Blyde River Canyon the next day, stopping at a few very lovely viewpoints. The problem was, even though the viewpoints themselves were beautiful, we couldn't see the views themselves for the fog! We did wait very patiently and get a few nice vistas when the fog would momentarily clear, but it wasn't the picturesque place we'd imagined from Pretoria when planning the trip. Instead, we had some interesting conversations with the ladies and gentlemen selling crafts in the parking lot, and Natalie's mother had an excellent time learning to play some wooden shakers and dance a bit :).

The nicest views of the day were at the Bourke's Luck Potholes, which were at the junction of two rivers. They are really interesting geological phenomena, and the best part is that you can view them from literally any of the 360 degrees that you choose. We were gawking and taking photos when Natalie's father pointed out a baboon... which was climbing among some boulders in the middle of a rushing river as if they were nothing. And it proceeded to jump across a VERY large gap to what looked like sheer rock wall, then scamper at least a hundred meters up the wall in less than 30 seconds and howl at us all for invading it's territory. Such a cool sight! I haven't ever seen an animal do something that impressive in person before. I was too busy gawking to get any photos, so you'll have to do without on this one. But believe me, it was amazing.

At the end of the day we stopped in a cute little cafe for lunch (Natalie's parents don't seem to need to eat ever... so our meal times were a bit odd!) where they made their own ginger beer. That's a drink I approve of, although it's a bit strange if you're expecting root beer! And that was it except for the drive home. During which Natalie and I may have almost driven her parents crazy... for all our chatting and singing and pillow-fighting (yes, that's right).

We ended the weekend on Sunday morning at yet another Pretoria mall. But this time we weren't in it for the shopping, we were looking for local music. And we found some good stuff! I think between the two of us we bought six or seven CDs.

Luckily for me, the return bus trip was uneventful. The only odd bit was that I hadn't actually arranged a lift home from the bus stop in Gabs. I anticipated a slew of taxi drivers harrassing me as I stepped of the bus (as there had been the first time), but the only one there got snapped up by someone else, leaving me a bit stranded. I did eventually get ahold of my friends at MaP... and crashed in my bed, only to wake up very few hours later for Monday morning classes!