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.

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