Building a Chicken Coop


Susan and I.

For these past two weeks I have been building a chicken coop. It all started when a chicken decided she lived in my house. One night she walked in like she owned the place and took residence in my chicken. I didn’t mind that until the next morning, when I discovered a bunch of chicken poop in my kitchen. This was clearly unacceptable, so something had to be done. First, I named her Susan, and second, I decided to build a chicken coop.


Susan, sneaking into the house.

Most of the time when I build things with sticks they wind up kinda low-quality, but given the importance of this project to Susan I decided to make it as high-caliber as I could. The first step was heading off into the forest and gathering supplies, ie, a whole bunch of sticks. This inevitably involves chopping down trees, which I feel terrible about, and to assuage my guilt I donated $50 to Trees for the Future (I’m trying to plant trees myself, but so far with my pollipot tree nursery I am 1/25 in getting the things to sprout).


After I had the necessary sticks, I cleared out a little spot next to my house (had to move some of the sunflowers to do it) and planted the first four poles in the ground. I decided to make the coop 1m x 1.5m, which should be sufficient room for up to 10 chickens, but I’m thinking I’ll get like four. Borrowing some techniques from pond staking, I used my line level to make sure that the floor was nice and level for the chickens.


The basic design of the coop is pretty simple. I just imagined it being a night shelter, so the major piece of “furniture” in the thing is a perch for them to sleep on. That is the pole going across the middle there. One of the most time-consuming portions of the work was stripping the bark off of all the sticks. Parasites and other bugs that bother the chickens can hide in the bark of the wood (along with making it more prone to attack by termites), so it is necessary to strip it all off. That takes time, however. As a side note, I am still sorta consistently amazed that you can get wood from a tree. Like, who’da thunk?


The whole process took me about two weeks off and on, with pretty much daily trips into the forest to gather more sticks (whenever I am gathering sticks for these projects, I always find myself briefly worrying if using dissimilar woods is going to cause corrosion problems down the line). Susan would come by and inspect the work as it was going along. The chickens also really like it when I move dirt around, because it digs up bugs for them to eat.


Once I had the frame of the chicken coop in place, I covered it with a tarp. The tarp was a relatively cheap and available building material, as opposed to getting bamboo from the next village over or finding enough sticks to block the wind and rain. In most of the projects I do using free village-appropriate materials is a priority so they can be used as an example to the farmers I work with. In this project, however, my neighbors already have chicken coops of their own made out of a variety of materials, so they don’t need me to show them how it is done. They use a wide variety of materials, and I’ve seen designs use bamboo, sticks, and grass, and I’ve even seen a few that construct a small brick coop on top of a wooden platform.


After nailing the tarp onto the frame, I covered the tarp with grass. The grass serves mostly to protect the tarp from the sun, and also to make the thing blend into the surroundings a bit more and appeal to my own aesthetic sense. I wish I had been able to cover up the blue tarp a bit better but that would have required more sticks and engineering I was unwilling to implement. The floor of the chicken coop is wire mesh that I had originally intended to use on a rabbit hutch that I’ve never gotten around to building. At the tops of the sides there are also mesh windows. The mesh on the floor is intended to make cleaning the coop easy, and also make it easy to collect chicken manure for use in the ponds or my gardens. The windows at the top, along with the floor, are there to provide adequate ventilation. The door is also mesh, and hangs down from the frame in the front. Once I get chickens, I’ll keep them cooped up at night, and let them roam free during the day. I’ll be providing supplemental feed and making sure they have a consistent source of water. Hopefully if they lay eggs fairly consistently I will have a regular supply of eggs to use in meals and baking.

So that’s my chicken coop. It was a fun project to build and now I guess I’m obligated to get chickens. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Pics of the SS Good News

Just wanted to post some sweet photos of the SS Good News recently posted on the Mbala / Abercorn Facebook Page!

“This photo was taken by the Federal Information Dept in the late 1950s early 60s.” Link
“The Good News in drydock with the Morning Star moored offshore. This appears to be on the east coast of Kumbula Island just opposite was is now the port of Mpulungu.” Link
“Here is the Good News being examined after being shelled by the German naval forces in 1914. While the earlier smaller missionary vessel the Morning Star was refloated by the African Lakes Company, the Good News was abandoned.” Link

Previous posts about the SS Good News:


Building the SS Good News

Building the SS Good News, Part 2

I Found the SS Good News!

Itimbwe Gorge

Looking up Itimbwe Gorge. Reading this week:

  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • Zambia: The First 50 Years by Andrew Sardanis
  • The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven
  • The Ringworld Throne by Larry Niven
  • Ringworld’s Children by Larry Niven

This week I went to go check out Itimbwe Gorge. Itimbwe Gorge is a bit outside Mbala, down a dirt road that is about 6-7km down the Nakonde road past the turnoff. The gorge is the site of several caves that were used by early man. I found out about Itimbwe Gorge via the very useful site Abercornucopia, and specifically this pdf here. This being Zambia, the caves and the gorge itself is unmarked, but by googling some coordinates and asking around for Itimbwe I was able to find it and bike there. The caves as viewed from the road. Once I made it to the gorge, I found the caves really quickly on the right side as you’re facing downhill, about halfway down the gorge. I actually initially decided these weren’t the caves I was looking for because they didn’t look exactly like the pictures in this pdf. I decided to keep exploring and kept going down the gorge. Abondoned farm buildings. The pool referenced in the first pdf, and the current residents of the valley. At the bottom of the hill I found some of the landmarks referenced in the first pdf (“Notes on Archeological Indications in Abercorn Township and Vicinity”):

The stream formerly running down this gorge now runs underground, surfacing at a small pool near Itimbwe farm house, but water was formerly easily available here and in living European memory the gorge was a favorite haunt of klipspringer and similar small game

The farm buildings were long abandoned, and I figure they must have belonged to white settlers that left sometime after independance in 1965. Continuing my exploration, I went up a path that traverssed the pass between the two points I identified as Malawe Ridge and Kazawa Hill. I turned left and hiked up Malawe Ridge, giving some stunning views of the valley and cliffs. Itimbwe Gorge is on the other side of that ridge. After walking along Malawe Ridge for a bit I descended back into the valley to start heading back up Itimbwe Gorge. The coolest part about living in Mbala is all the history that has happened like right here. Up at Kalambo Falls there is evidence of occupation from 100,000-200,000 years ago, meaning that this region is one of the longest continually inhabited regions on Earth. As I descended into the valley and looked around with little evidence of human habitation (well, minus the trails and evidence of annual burning to keep the vegetation down), I tried to imagine the landscape 1000 millenia ago, teeming with wildlife and inhabited by literal cavemen. This area would have provided everything they needed, from water to game to shelter. It’s worth pausing to realize that agriculture is a realtive newcomer to the region, having been introduced by the Bantu people only 1000-2000 years ago. Pulled from my reveries by the realization I had better find these caves and then start heading home, I went back up Itimbwe Gorge to explore the caves. The first two caves described in the pdf wre the ones I eventually explored, but they only mention occasional habitation. The pdf mentions a third cave “at the foot of a high vertical face nearby” in which there are abundant signs of permanent occupation. I never found that cave, but hiking up to one pot that wasn’t cave did give yet another pretty view. The cave I did find is described as:

In another rather spectacular cavity in which the strata has weathered away horizontally leaving a long, deep cave in the cliffe face (Its floor some ten feet above gound level) quartz chips are present in the earth filled crevices of the floor but the floor is broken and sliping and thus not very suitable for any but occasional occupation.

They of course mean human occupation, because I can confirm the cave is currently occupied by several bats and one large hawk. Judging by the cup I found in there, it still receives occasional human occupation as well. Still, despite it being kinda hard to scramble up the 10 feet, it is easy to imagine taking refuge in the cave, cooking a meal and watching the klipspringer run by. It is pretty amazing to me that all this is within biking distance of Mbala and there’s not even an informational marker saying what this site is. There is so much tourism possibility in Mbala, not to mention the cultural importance of these sites, that just a little development I think could go a long way. In a way that makes it cooler to be able to go out and explore these things, but you wish there were more resources to take care of them properly. After leaving the caves I biked home, running into a rain storm on the way, but overall it was a pretty awesome day.

Hiking the Lucheche

Reading this week:

  • A Matter of Time by Alex Capus (a fictionalized account of the Battle for Lake Tanganyika which, although it isn’t perfectly historically accurate, I highly recommend it because more people should care about central African naval engagements)
  • Congo Diary by Che Guevara (I was very sympathetic with the difficulties he faced)

On the Mbala / Abercorn facebook page, people there have been trying to determine the former site of Chief Zombe’s village (the site is run by the same guy who runs Abercornucopia, which is the premier site for Mbala history in the colonial area). The impetus for this is to identify the spot visited by David Livingstone when he was travelling in the area. The primary clues they’re going off of are an excerpt from The Last Journals of David Livingstone, Volume II (available on Project Gutenberg). In Chapter 10, one of the journal entries reads:

Their journey of the 12th and 13th [of November 1872] led them over low ranges of sandstone and hæmatite, and past several strongly stockaded villages. The weather was cloudy and showery – a relief, no doubt, after the burning heat of the last few weeks. They struck the Halochéché [Lucheche] River, a rapid stream fifteen yards wide and thigh deep, on its way to the Lake, and arrived at Zombé’s town, which is built in such a manner that the river runs through it, whilst a stiff palisade surrounds it. He says: It was entirely surrounded by M’toka’s camp, and a constant fight maintained at the point where the ine of stakes was weakened by the river running through. He killed four of the enemy, and then Chitimbwa and Kasonso coming to help him, the siege was raised.

Based on that excerpt, and by looking over Google Maps, the Mbala/Abercorn guys concluded that this spot was the most likely location, but were looking for someone to ground-truth it:

Google Maps screen shot taken from this discussion.

So, since I live in the area, last Sunday I set out on a hike to see if I could find the old site of Chief Zombe’s village. I set out at about 0700 on foot from my hut with water bottles and some bagels in my bag. Having looked over Google Maps myself, the easiest way to get to the spot was first to walk around the coffee plantation in the area, Isanya Estates.

Shot of the coffee plantation; it’s pretty big.

I hiked around the back of the plantation and found a road leading through some small villages and through a valley and over another ridge. After about three hours of walking I reached the end of the road and listened for the river. Heading in that direction, I soon came to the spot identified as the possible location of Zombe’s village. The first picture at the top of the article is the spot identified by the Mbala/Abercorn guys. Although gorgeous, I don’t think it is the spot for the village. The river for this section runs through a rather deep and rather steep gorge that I think probably continues all the way to its eventual outlet at Kituta Bay, site of my SS Good News adventure. I spotted a maize field at the bottom of the gorge, along with some people preparing a pile of logs to make charcoal. However, I don’t think there is enough room for a whole village, and I don’t think it would be a strategic location. At the time, the people were under occasional attack by Arab slave traders (hence the stockade). The Arabs had guns, making the bottom of a poor location strategically.

The area was too steep on my side of the river to descend at that point, so I followed the ridge up-river towards Lake Chila and Mbala. The river continues to run through a series of picturesque valleys like the one above. Although I don’t think any of the valleys would support a village, people are still farming in the area. That added a difficulty to my expedition, because current farming and charcoal making covers up previous signs of habitation indicating the location of a century-and-a-half-old village.

Speaking of maize though, it absolutely stuns me where people will grow maize. Of the above two pictures, the first one is maize growing on a hill that is a lot steeper than the picture makes it look. There is no home nearby, it is at the bottom of a deep gorge, and that steep hill couldn’t be easy to navigate, and yet there is maize there! The second picture depicts maize being grown where someone had previousely made charcoal. I guess that’s a good spot, but so many random spots get maize grown in them. Highway medians, old foundations, random forest clearings, they all have maize.

I continued down the gorge, following for a bit the path of a dry furrow. It’s rainy season, so the furrow isn’t too necessary (hence it being dry), but I like the engineering that goes into these things. The one above was pretty long and would have required a lot of digging to build.

I eventually reached a spot where I couldn’t really continue along the river, so I climbed up the wall of the gorge to find a hut perched right on the edge. The owner was home, so I said hello and asked the way to Mbala. He pointed me to the path, along which I accidentally found his chim. Unlike most, he doesn’t have a hut over it, giving the dude really great views of the valley when he poops. Continuing along the river, first on top of the ridge and then closer to it, I eventually came back to Isanya Estates. The above picture is a furrow the plantation has dug running off the river, but it looks sorta tropical-y and jungle-y, so I took a picture. With the hike over, I hadn’t really identified any likely locations for the village. I do think it is probably closer to modern-day Mbala than they think, but I don’t have an exact spot. The best part of the hike for me was discovering that these were these deep, beautiful valleys near me. My own valley is less steep (probably why they put a village here), so that is how I think of the surrounding landscape, but I am right on the cusp of the Great Rift Valley. The scenery and geography around here is pretty breathtaking and it is good to get out and take a look.

My valley; good to be home.

Zambian News

Reading this week:

  • The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley Blanch

I have recently begun following Zambian news and it is a hoot. I should have been following it earlier, I suppose, but it was the coup in Zimbabwe (or, as the Zimbabwean Army puts it, “totally not a coup”) I wanted to keep up with, and Zambia had better (well, more extensive) coverage than US news sources.

Zambian news is exciting because you get headlines you just don’t get in the US. Here, you get to read about the Lusaka Prophet Jailed for Failing to Raise a Dead Man. In this story, a grieving widow paid a witch doctor $1000 to bring her husband back from the dead. She fasted and they went to the graveyard and the prohet ordered the dead man to rise up, but he didn’t. The best part is the framing of this story though, like her mistake wasn’t getting swindled, but that she just picked the wrong prophet. If you want to know how much you should pay, it is apparently $400, along with two goats, two chickens, and two white bed sheets. That’s how much the witch doctor in the story A Man Who Was Reported Dead in 2015 Spotted in Lusaka Compound got paid. That’s actually a straightforward fraud story, with a pastor faking his brother’s death to get death benefits, but gets wild when a witch doctor is paid to “take care of” an investigating mine employee.

Following the news has given me important insights into how the world works. The article is about supposed corruption in the ruling party, but from the headline alone I have learned that Typical of Rats When Caught, They Blame the Cockroaches. Who knew about this rat/cockroach feud? I have also learned that God doesn’t care about your football game: ‘Playing football na Lesa [with God],’ I beg to differ! In this column, the author rallies against pastors getting into the apparently “lucrative football market.” However, as the author points out, God has things like famine and wars to worry about, and can’t be bothered with a football match.

Speaking of things God worries about, there is a cholera outbreak in Lusaka. This is distressing and depressing (this is an Al Jazeera article on the topic), not the least of which because of the Cholera Germs Found at Three Hungry Lion Outlets in Lusaka. It has, however, lead us to discover the following fact which, based on my submarine experience, hits especially close to home:


Sex gets it’s fair share of time in the news. Or, in the Zambian News parlance, s*x:

The kicker in that last story is that the woman was in fact a prostitute he had brought to the funeral, but had claimed was his sister. Don’t worry though; when the family found out they slapped and kicked him as they marched him to his car.

Besides s*x, there is a ton of relationship advice. Reading Zambian news, I learned Women Who Marry Us Before Having a Stove, Car Usually Stand With Us (the article also mentions not having a mattress, so ladies make sure to give those mattress-less guys a chance), advice that should have been headed by the 19 Year Ugandan Toy Boy Dumped by 70 Year Old Lover. Truly, is love dead? Apparently, judging by Coffin Scares Son-in-Law (a quick read, detailing a man filing for divorce after finding a coffin in front of his house following an argument with his mother-in-law). Of course, in happier news, the World’s Oldest Virgin Weds in Uganda (lots going down in Uganda). A 90-year-old widower has married an 83-year-old-woman, medically confirmed by doctors as a “first class virgin,” whatever that means, and apparently the world’s oldest, according to whoever tracks these things. People will read of her principles!

Until next week my friends, this has been the news.