Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Backyard in Africa

This morning I ran my typical route down the long dirt road behind our school. I was up by 5:10 and out the door by 5:25. Rex was waiting at my doorstep, wagging his tail. We jogged through the three rows of identical cement houses that make up the teacher’s neighborhood, then past the rusting farm equipment destroyed by the floods of 2000, then out the back gate of the school compound and past the pig sties. All the pigs died about two months ago from pig illness (not swine flu don’t worry!). I'm quite pleased that I no longer have to hold my breath or encounter the squealing mess of a pig slaughter. The pig killers, knife in hand, would say “good morning” and invite me to help them. Not the most pleasant thing to wake up to!

After the pig sties the road skirts a village of mud huts, then the reed structure of a church by the river. At the first ¾ mile or so there’s a field worked by our students opposite the crumbling overgrown walls of a “matadouro” (slaughterhouse) from colonial times. The only inhabited structure after the church is at mile 3. I call it the witchdoctor’s house because it very well could be. The path to the lonely house is guarded by two tall, straight papaya trees standing like sentinels. The house itself is removed from the dirt road and is nothing more than scraps of plastic, reeds, sticks and bits of aluminum. In front of the house is a tiny swept yard surrounded on all sides by scrub and grasses. I once saw an old woman out front and waved. She did not wave back.

All along the way are banana plantations and many fields of corn, tomatoes, kale, cabbage and lettuce. About a mile beyond the witchdoctor’s house is a large field of sweet potatoes and an orchard of fruit trees with a barbed wire fence. The orchard includes coconut palms, mangos, papayas, and various citruses.

I always have the company of people working the fields or walking the dirt road, mostly women but also old men on bicycles. Many of them speak very little Portuguese and are thrilled when I try to greet them in Changana. Sometimes I say “na tsutsuma!” (“I am running!”). Occasionally the women will decide to trot along with me. I’m impressed how well they can run with flip flops on their feet, capulanas around their waist and a basin of produce on their head. Besides the farmers I have Rex by my side. He’s a happy, energetic dog, fox-like in his coloring and his tendency to pounce on small rodents in the grass. Sometimes he plays tricks and crouches in the grass, leaping out as I run past.

When I get to mile 4, I generally turn around though sometimes I walk out to the river’s edge. A large sand flat bordered by reeds extends on either side of the river. The banks are held together by acacia and fig trees. You can hear characteristic “tink tink” of the blacksmith lapwing and see little sand pipers running around. Closer to the water’s edge are strangely perfect craters in the mud, possibly fish nests. Herds of cows are led down to the river to drink here and boys pull up in decrepit wood boats to fish off the flats with reed poles, tucking the fishes in cloth bags around their shoulders.

Inland from the river is a variety of habitats. In between the cultivated areas, stretches of savanna scrub are reclaiming abandoned farm fields. Among the scrub are black patches of charred ground from purposeful brush fires. The fires, I learned, are used to scare out wild rodents (supposedly quite tasty when roasted). Various trees dot the landscape, only some of which I can identify. The acacias are the most “African” with their greenish wood, intimidating thorns and tiny paired leaflets. The fig trees, with their thick, spreading branches and partially exposed roots, look inviting to climb, but I’m too afraid of snakes to try that. There are also sausage trees, so named for their sausage-shaped, rock-hard fruits the size of a 1L soda bottle. When I run under one, I look up to make sure the fruit doesn't fall on my head. It would probably knock me out.

I’m beginning to pick up on the subtleties of the seasons here. It’s nice being in a place long enough to see the flowering and fruiting of trees. Today I stepped off the road to take a pee and heard the loud and curious buzzing of several trees swarmed by bees pollinating delicate inflorescences. A few weeks ago there was a sudden explosion of red when the flame creepers came into bloom. Now they’re going into seed and the landscape is returning to drab shades of tan and green.

My knowledge of local birds is also improving, partly because of the birding I did with Sean. A lot of birds we identified in Swaziland have suddenly appeared at my site... as in they were here all along but I’ve only recently started to look for them. I particularly enjoy the hoopoe with its striped wings and finger-like crest feathers. It hops on the road probing termite holes with its curved bill. Today I had the luck of watching two yellowbilled kites mate. One was perched in a tree and let out a sharp screech. The other made three wide, swooping circles before alighting on the same branch as its pair. I hope they build their nest in the same tree.

It’s nice to become familiar with my own backyard here. It makes me feel more at home. My runs on that long dirt road are a way for me to escape and clear my head in the mornings before diving into a full day of planning, errands and teaching. It’s also a relatively solitary activity, where I can go for long stretches without talking to anyone save an occasional wave or “hello.” It’s how I “get away” without actually leaving site.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll... Find a Goat!

So I suppose this entry will be under the category of really strange things that have begun to seem normal. In other words, if you were to see such a thing back home it would end up in the local paper but here nobody bats an eye. There are too many examples to name so I’ll concentrate on one subcategory: strange places to find a goat.

Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice when visiting Mozambique is the ubiquitous goat. There aren’t exactly as many goats as people, but it’s close. Any patch of green has a goat grazing on it, typically tied around the neck and attached to a tree or telephone pole. Other goats roam free, chased around by herd boys. In our school compound the goats provide a background chorus of bleating: “Baaaaaaaaaaah!” Like the hum of an air conditioner, it’s something my brain has learned to tune out.

The goats come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some are cute, others not, but the baby goats are always adorable. It’s fun when a neighbor goat gets pregnant. Her belly swells until you look at her head-on and it looks like she swallowed a root beer barrel. Then one day you see a brand new, squeeky clean baby goat wobbling on its knobby legs with its shriveled umbilical cord still attached. When we first arrived at site a pair of twins was born and Valerie named them Merry and Pippin. The two hobbit goats had the sweet habit of curling up in the sun on our veranda.

So goats are part of the scenery, but even so there are sometimes when I say, “Now that is just not normal!” Mainly this has to do with goat transportation. In our first months at site we picked up on these oddities more readily. I remember my first month being shocked at the sight of a goat teetering at the top of a tall pile of water jugs hastily strapped to a trailer that was speeding in front of us on the highway. Since then I have seen many goats strapped to the roofs of chapas or otherwise precariously attached to moving vehicles.

Sometimes the goat is inside the vehicle. One of the girls got a ride in the back of a truck and nearly sat on a rice sack occupied by an unfortunate goat. Another of the girls got a ride in a VW hatchback and heard muffled cries from the rear. The poor volunteer didn’t know what to think until the driver said he was taking a goat to a party. Even Sean got his own goat-in-a-car experience when we were travelling by chapa. The driver pulled over at one point, picked up a goat and shoved it under the back seat next to Sean’s backpack. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll tie her down so she can’t chew your bag.”

Goat transportation doesn’t stop with cars. I’ve seen goats attached in all manners to bicycles. Sometimes there are two people and a goat on the same bike! Either the goat is strapped to the back and the second person is sitting on the cross bar, or the person is on the back and the goat is riding up front with its hooves draped over the handlebars. In any case, goat-by-bike transportation is always entertaining.

Sometimes you have to get the goats across the river. Goats aren’t good swimmers, so people put the goats on their heads and wade through the water themselves. Carrying your goat is perfectly acceptable. Often I’ll see people walking down the road with a goat over their shoulders.

My most recent goat story is from Jenna. She was walking through town and saw a man yelling at some kids with a herd of goats. It was their father telling them to turn the goats into the police station because they had been found grazing on his land. Later, Jenna saw the herd of goats in the police station compound waiting to be picked up. Apparently the owner of the goats will know to look in the “lost and found” for his misplaced herd.

There are probably other goat anecdotes that I’m forgetting but it all seems commonplace these days. It will be strange to return home to a place where goats are confined to petting zoos. I wonder what folks back home would think if I rode through town with a goat on my handlebars…