Biking the Mwambezi, Part II

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Reading this week:

  • Factfulness by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
  • Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Lemme tell ya, the view at the top of the hill was gorgeous. I wasn’t expecting it before I crested the hill, but from up there you get a gorgeous, unfettered view of the lake. You can see for miles, probably across the border. Maybe not, but it is the highest hill around and the scenery is beautiful and everything is awesome and also of course there was a maize field. I mean I know I just said all that about fields on top of hills but really man. This hill is super high and super hard to climb and super far away from anything including water but someone decided to put a shack up there and plant maize.

Sightseeing done, I descended a bit towards the maize field. I figured there would be a path from there. I ran across what I assume were the owners of the house; in a small clearing I found three dudes looking at some maize. I said hello and asked about a path towards Kituta Bay and they pointed the way and off I went. I always wonder what these guys think. I walk into the backcountry a lot and so these dudes are just having a normal day and then out of nowhere (I scaled the untraveled back of this hill) this white dude with a backpack stumbles from the woods, says hello in local language, asks directions, and then off he goes. Maybe I’m thinking too highly of myself but I wonder if a year from now they’re gonna say to each other “remember that time that white guy showed up? Weird…”

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I wasn’t panicking yet but I was wearing a t-shirt on my head.

Here’s where this adventure really probably starts to fall apart. I followed the path for a little while, but it petered out when I came across a stream. Obviously the path was just to the water source. But I had to keep going downhill so back into the bush I went. Bushwhacking through here was not easy. I had to keep knocking down grass, and I kept running into these tangled vines that were hard to get through. They’re at about waist height and hard to see and exist only, as far as I can tell, to make walking through the bush hard. I kept coming across little paths that gave me hope but just lead to dead ends where people made charcoal. I plan to write a post on land use but there isn’t really any virgin land around here and you always come across paths that sometimes lead nowhere. Very frustrating.

I really started to worry when I ran out of water. I was deep in the bush, miles from anything. Mpulungu was way farther away than it looked from the top of the hill, and I couldn’t decide if it was a better idea to head for Kituta Bay, which I kinda thought was closer and I knew had a shop or give up and head towards Mpulungu. I kept wavering which didn’t make my path shorter. I kept cresting ridges, which was exhausting, expecting to come to the bay but just finding another valley. The sun was high, I was sweating, hydration was nowhere near, no one knew where I was really, no cell reception, those godforsaken vines kept getting in my way, my knee was starting to hurt, my shin was bruised from an earlier fall, and I was yelling at nature a lot. Things were not good. Then it started to rain.

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One of the interminable valleys with a path that lead nowhere.

The rain was probably a good thing. It kept me cool so I didn’t sweat as much and didn’t get as thirsty. I kept pressing on, because there was nothing else to do, and finally came across a promising path. I ate some of the food I brought and with my blood sugar back up and a path to follow I felt a lot better mentally.

Eventually I came across some houses. I probably should have bailed and gone to Mpulungu, but I had come this far and I was going to see those goddamned waterfalls. So I asked directions (in Mambwe) and the man I met originally wouldn’t talk to me and just called for this other guy. This other guy spoke English so we introduced ourselves. I explained I was looking for the falls and he began to show me to the path and asked where I was from. “I’m from the USA originally but I live near Mbala now.” “Ah, so you are from the USA. You are in Northern Zambia now!” “I know, I live near Mbala. I’ve lived here for about a year.” “Just across the border is Tanzania, and we are near Lake Tanganyika!” “I live near Mbala!” “You live near Mbala!”

The guy was nice though and showed me the path and warned me it was far. I figured he really just meant far for a white guy so I said it was no problem and soldiered on. I could hear the river again at this point even if I couldn’t see it and that was encouraging. The rain had also let up but shortly after this point came back with a vengeance. I was wearing a rain jacket but skipped my rain pants because my pants were already wet, but still I am surprised every time just how more wet I can get. But I trudged on because I was going to see this waterfall, goddamnit. I kept following the path and asked directions one more time when I came across a home and finally I turned the corner and I was in Kituta Bay.

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The end of the mighty Mwambezi. The Lunzua really.

Well almost. I was perched on top of a cliff that did an amazing job framing the bay and the river as it snaked its final few yards to Kituta Bay. The cliff had a path down that was already sheer and not totally awesome for a dude who had at this point a pretty bum knee but I made it down. At least I knew I was relatively safe at this point because I had gone from here to Mpulungu before, so I could find my way, and the village had a store where I could buy drinks.

I hobbled down the path towards the waterfalls (which I could hear but not see) and asked some directions towards the waterfall. Some kinds helpfully showed me a path towards the waterfall . The path ended before the waterfall with the kids saying “that’s it,” but I forged ahead through the forest. The kids followed, pointing out where I could go, which is like, I HAVE EYES KIDS, which I said (in Mambwe) because I was cold, thirsty, tired, and grumpy at this point, and I was so close to these waterfalls. I almost gave up in the last 10 yards or so because I didn’t know it was only like 10 more yards and I was like, crawling across rock faces holding onto branches but finally I turned a corner and THERE WAS THE LUNZUA WATERFALLS HALLELUJAH.

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Lunzua Falls. If you want to see them, it is much easier to just walk over from Mpulungu.

So I had made it. Whoo. I sat down, ate my “lunch” (six hardboiled eggs), squeezed out my socks, took some pictures, finally looked at the time, and panicked. It was 1630, which meant I was about four hours behind schedule. This was worrying because it was about ah hour until dark, it was at least an hour walk to Mpulungu, a storm was brewing again, and I knew there was no moon. So again, not good.

I wrapped up lunch and hobbled back across the rock faces and into the village to buy some drinks. Walking through the village I was asking directions to the shop, so one old dude told a small girl to lead me there. This signaled to all the other children in the village that it was okay to gawk at the white guy. So before I knew it I had a pack of I swear 100 kids following me to this village yelling “Muzungu!” (“White guy!”). As I was buying some Shake n’ Sips one dude even tried to hand me a wet naked baby because he wanted to take a picture of me with said baby. I turned him down. I then hobbled out of the village as fast as I could with kids running ahead of me and walking backwards just so they could gawk.

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It had been a day by this point but it wasn’t over.

I had been to Mpulungu via the route from the village before, so I knew I could make it if I had to, but I wasn’t excited about going there in the dark and rain. Luckily though two dudes were leaving the village at the same time and heading to Mpulungu, so I fell in with them. They were very nice and understanding. By this time it was a downpour again and the path was mostly a river, I was limping as fast as I could on an aching knee, and it was getting dark fast.

I was so glad when I finally saw the lights of Mpulungu, but we were still a long way off. It is hilly around here, like I said, so there I am hobbling down rocky hills trying to keep up. Finally we got to the outskirts of town, which didn’t make me feel a lot safer because it was dark, I was hurt, lightening was flashing, and we were passing loud bars with drunk people more than a little curious about the white guy. But suddenly we burst out onto tarmac and I knew where I was. I thanked the dude that I had traveled with profusely and hurried down the tarmac to find a lodge. Room secured, I finally got out of my wet clothes and shoes. I was alive, I was okay, dinner was two Shake n’ Sips and some peanuts and my knee was not okay and I’ll probably never do that trip again but hey, I saw the waterfall and I got two blog posts out of it.

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Biking the Mwambezi, Part I

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The valley where a lot of the village farms.

First off, “Biking the Mwambezi” is pretty much entirely a lie. That was my intention, and in almost no way did it pan out. My village is near the Mwambezi River. I was hoping to follow the Mwambezi River to where it emptied into the Lunzua River, which culminates in the Lunzua Falls where the river flows into Lake Tanganyika at Kituta Bay (since the lake sometimes empties into the Congo River, that means I live in the Congo River Basin, which I think is kinda neat). I hadn’t gone that way before, but from the satellite photos on Google Maps, it all looked pretty bikeable.

I left the house at 0630 when it was still early but there was enough light. I started off on my bike. My village actually does a lot of its farming not in the valley the village is in, but in another valley tucked away around a ridge. This path is well traveled and therefore bikeable. Past the fields, however, it pretty quickly deteriorates and I was pushing my bike over a thin path through tall grass. I got soaked in this process, brushing past the dew-wet grass.

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The mighty Mwambezi.

The major redeeming feature of this part of the adventure was being near the Mwambezi River. Lake Tang (the Mambwe word for the lake is actually “Liemba;” “Tanganyika” is a Swahili word), as I think I have discussed before, is actually a Great Rift Valley, er, valley that is filled with water. The area surrounding it, including where I lived, is therefore comprised mostly of stunningly beautiful river valleys and gorges and escarpments that surround and empty into the lake. So that means I was traveling through one of said gorgeous river valleys.

After about two hours of bushwhacking, I finally found a stretch of good path that was bikeable. So I hopped on my bike, biked about 25 yards, heard a rubbing sound, looked back, and watched my tube blow out because my tire had a hole in it. This, obviously, put a pretty major damper on my “biking the Mwambezi” plans. Since I was two hours into the bush, I figured the best course of action was to leave my bike with someone, with the plan of returning later, probably the next day. You see, I was expecting to be at the falls by noon and back home that same evening, and I figured there would be replacement tires I could buy in Mpulungu. Every one of these assumptions was wrong.

I walked my bike a little until I came across a house with someone home. It took some explaining, but I conveyed that I wanted to leave my bike at their house and come back with parts to fix it. People are friendly so they were more than willing to let me leave my bike against their house. The most amazing part of this for me was that, two hours into the bush, in a village that I had never been to before, people knew who I was. As I was trying to convey that I wanted to leave my bike there, I heard one guy explaining to another where I lived and who I lived with. I guess word of the white guy gets around.

Having found a place to stash my bike, I figured it would be best to just continue on my trip, just sans bike. When I originally conceived this plan, it was to be a hike anyways, with the bike a later update. Plus I really just wanted to go see the falls. So I made some mental excuses and continued on, getting to Isoko a short while after.

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Isoko, with sugarcane underneath the palms (closer to the river).

Isoko is a really nice village. I have recently learned that a Chief lives there, though when I looked around (briefly) I didn’t find his palace. But it is relatively close to Mpulungu, and has relatively good roads, and so is therefore relatively developed. One of the advantages of walking over biking is that you notice a lot more things, and it is a lot easier to take detours down small paths to learn what people are growing. Since integration is such a big part of fish farming, I’m really interested in what people are growing, especially crops they don’t grow in my village. Taking one of these detours I found out that they grow mostly sugarcane in Isoko. I also admired one person’s guava orchards and the living fences most people had set up. It is a really nice village!

One of the major disadvantages of walking, however, is that it is harder to get away from the small children that tend to gawk and then follow me as I wander around the backcountry. A group of these kids started following me and wouldn’t leave me, despite my detours. They convinced themselves I was going to Mpulungu (which was true, but not via the shortest route) and that they could lead me there in exchange for money. As we walked along, we crossed the Mwambezi, which I didn’t really want to do (my planned route didn’t involve any river crossings, except at the end), and meant I was a bit lost. That, combined with my strong desire to get away from these kids, convinced me it was a good idea to scale a rather large hill to get my bearings. The other disadvantage of walking is that on a bike, you tend to stick to actual paths instead of barreling off into the woods.

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The kids I didn’t like.

One of the many things that amazes me about what people do around here is that on top of almost any hill you’ll find a cassava or maize field. Like, scale a huge hill way away from anything and I swear you’ll find maize. I asked about this and my host uncle says the reason is that the soil is better up there, and in the valleys it tends to be swampy. Fair enough, but jeez that is a lot of walking. So I scaled this hill and found a maize field. I also discovered that right next to this hill was an even bigger hill, where I figured I could get an even better view. So off I went.

Scaling the hill was probably a bad idea. First off, there was no path, so I was really bushwhacking. It was scrub forest, so it was pretty easy going. Second though, about halfway up the hill I discovered the hill was a lot taller than I thought. And looking back I could watch the rain slowly coming across the valley. But I still had water and I thought I was making good time and my knee wasn’t hurting so up I went to the top of the hill.

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Looking back across the valley over Isoko.

This is where I end this blog post and tell you to read part two because if I was gonna hike for 12 hours I’m gonna get two blog posts out of it, that’s for sure.

Site Visit 2018

Reading this week:

  • Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Milton Giles

This past week I helped out with cluster site visit. During Pre-Service Training, the Trainees go on site visit. Site visit happens in two parts: first, they go to cluster site visit, where all the trainees of a certain language group (in our case, of course, Mambwe) assigned to the province go to a site visit together with PCVs. The second part of site visit is individual site visit, where they split up and visit their individual sites, alone. Cluster site visit gives the trainees the chance to get language and culture training close to where their actual site will be. It also gives them a chance to learn about the little tips and tricks of village life, like how to light a brazier or cool hints on how to set up their eventual home.

I wasn’t originally going to help with site visit but some plans fell through and I was free so I went. I couldn’t go for the whole time, but I spent two full days with the trainees. It was lead by another volunteer, Mitch, because it took place at his site. My main roles, besides imparting my wisdom and knowledge, were to help cook and clean while the trainees were in class.

I arrived at the site on Thursday afternoon after having hitched from Mbala. Mitch and the trainees were out at the time so I set up my tent and made myself comfortable. They came back and we cooked dinner. The next morning there was of course breakfast, and in the afternoon we did some technical training. Mitch brought the trainees around to view some of the ponds in his area. This gave the trainees a vision of what actual, in the field ponds looked like. For myself, I always like to keep an eye out for how other people do things and see if there were any ideas for me to implement. The other big part of this excursion was going off to see the village headman and ask him about his role for the benefit of the trainees.

The next day the big exercise was preps for the following day’s fish farming presentation. Part of the trainee’s assignment during site visit is to give presentations to local farmers in Mambwe about fish farming. This is mostly for the benefit of the trainees, frankly (the volunteer usually brings experienced fish farmers, and they know more than the trainees). It’s best to have hands-on activities and visuals, so Mitch thought it would be useful to send the trainees out into the village, armed with their knowledge of Mambwe, and have them find supplies. These included manure, cassava leaves, and ash. This was successful and with supplies gathered we went and looked at some more ponds.

The next day was Sunday and I had to depart. Mitch has a cool-looking hill near his site and I wanted to make sure I climbed it. I didn’t get a chance before, so on Sunday I woke up at 0430 and beat through grass in the dark to be on top of the hill for sunrise. It was worth it, despite getting soaked from dew. Mitch is on the east side of the escarpment that Mbala sits on, so from the top of the hill you could overlook this massive lowland covered with mist and fog at the beginning of the day. It’s a really great hill to get the lay of the land and see how everything is connected. Sightseeing accomplished, I went back to Mitch’s site and packed up to head out. I could have been in less of a hurry; it took me two hours to get a hitch, but I got home fine. I hope I managed to impart some wisdom and knowledge or whatever on the trainees, and I think they’ll have a great time at individual site visit.

Beekeeping Workshop

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Bees at the end of a log hive.

Reading this week:

  • Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

We just wrapped up the Feed the Future Beekeeping workshop here in Kasama. It was pretty interesting. Beekeeping is a pretty popular Income Generating Activity (IGA) here in Zambia because it is relatively simple and honey sells for a good price. Plus, people like just having honey as a sweetener and stuff.

There is, as usual, a big focus on using local materials at a village level to do beekeeping. The first step in beekeeping is to make a hive, and then bait it. No one uses the kinds of hives you see in America, because those are pretty expensive and no one here sells them anyways. Instead, you’ll pretty commonly see a beehive made out of a log, or bark:

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The above picture is of a beehive made out of a hollowed-out log. Bees will build a hive in pretty much any dark, enclosed space that is made out of natural materials. Besides wood, some people just dig a hole in a termite mound, or build a hive out of reeds and cover it in mud. As long as the container is waterproof, the bees will move in. You do, of course, leave a small hole at one end to let the bees enter and exit the hive. You only want a hole at one end because that encourages the bees to put all their brood combs on one end (where the queen lays eggs), and all of the honey comb at the other.

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This log hive has a trapdoor on the top, about halfway down the hive. This lets the farmer open it up and extract the honeycomb, which hopefully will be in the back half of the hive. The goal is to extract the honeycomb while not interfering with the rest of the hive, so the bees don’t all die or move out.

To encourage the bees to move into the hive you built for them, you do have to bait it. To bait a hive, you just melt some beeswax and put it in the hive and near the entrance to the hive. Swarming bees will smell the beeswax, discover your hive, decide it is a nice place, and move in.

The other type of hive you typically see is a top-bar beehive. There are a few variations on a top-bar beehive. There are top-bar beehives with straight sides, sides at a 60 degree angle, and made out of various materials including wood or brick.

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A hanging top-bar beehive, with entrance holes and landing pad on the front.

The trick with a top-bar beehive is the top-bars. These are wooden slats exactly 33mm wide that form the top of the hive (in the above picture, there is an additional roof, so you can’t see the top-bars). This width lets the bees build comb while maintaining adequate bee-space between the combs. Bee-space is the distance between the combs that let the bees walk on the combs. By baiting the middle of the top bar, you can convince the bees to build combs along them. The biggest advantage here is that it lets you extract comb sorta like you do with the hives back home:

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A top bar with attached comb (and bees). The hive here is relatively small so just a small amount of comb is attached to the top bar.

Using a top-bar beehive makes beekeeping more sustainable because the beekeeper isn’t forced to cause as much damage to the hive when they’re harvesting honey. However, getting a top-bar beehive built, especially with top bars cut to relatively exacting specifications, can be kinda hard. This can make them out of reach for beginner beekeepers, which is why we also learn about more traditional hives. My strategy for this workshop was to just bring the town carpenter. I figure he can learn how to build the boxes and then we’ll have a source of them in the village.

Besides building hives, we also learned about honey processing. We learned a few different methods of this as well, and the focus was again on things you can find in the village.

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The above picture is us sieving out honey. Because we were at a lodge and low on buckets, we used a now very sticky hot water heater as our bucket. But the strategy here is to put a bunch of mashed up comb and honey into some sieve cloth at the top of the bucket, and then leave it in the sun. The sun warms it up to where the wax becomes soft, and the honey just filters out into the bottom of the bucket.

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Me, stirring some wax.

Besides honey, we learned to process wax. After you extract the honey, you just take all the leftover gunk and then heat it up along with some water. Once it is all melted, you scoop the melted mixture into another rough cloth (we used a mealie-meal sack) and then filter it through the cloth, squeezing to get all the wax out. This leaves behind dead bug bits, sticks, and propolis, while the water/wax mixture falls into a bucket below. As it cools, the wax separates out from the water, giving you a cooled chunk of wax that you can use to bait more hives or make candles, etc.

Overall it was a good workshop and I am excited to hopefully raise some bees in the village. It’s a great activity to earn some additional income for farmers, especially since it doesn’t require a whole lot of labor. Plus, getting fresh honey right from the source is about the height of luxury around here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh! This was probably the coolest thing we learned about: they make elephant fences out of beehives.

Witchcraft and Flying

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The Witchcraft exhibit at the Moto Moto Museum in Mbala.

Reading this week:

  • Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen

One of the topics I run across pretty frequently is the subject of witches and flying. As far as I can tell the belief that witches can use “airplanes” to fly is pretty widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, at least among those that belief in witchcraft. Two different specimens of aircraft (labelled “helicopters”) are on display at the Moto Moto Museum, and in books like Congo Journey the topic of flying on a magic airplane is casually mentioned like you’re supposed to realize what they’re talking about. If you google something along the lines of witchcraft, flying, and Africa, the most common hits are articles about a Swaziland law prohibiting witches from flying above 150 meters (for the record, the law prohibits any unlicensed aircraft from flying above 150 meters, and the witches thing comes from a government spokesman mentioning that even witches would be subject to the law; the way I read it, he was either joking or making a point about the all-encompassing nature of the law).

Nevertheless, the ability of witches to fly is accepted as fact among the circles that believe in witchcraft (here’s a story about Zambia’s Minister of Higher Education asking the nation’s scientists to study witchcraft). Stories of witches flying and crashlanding regularly make the news:

Among all the different stories of flying witches, there are some common components. One, the witch has to be naked to fly. Witches are usually “caught” when there is a naked person wandering around where they shouldn’t be wandering around. Two, flying requires an airplane of some sort. These come in a variety of forms. There is the puku horn mentioned in the article above. The Moto Moto Museum, like I said, has two examples. The first a little bit more abstract:

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“Ndeke” is just the local word for “airplane.”

The other example looks a little bit more like an airplane, and features a small figurine actually piloting the thing:

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A video on YouTube purports to show a witch’s aircraft that crash-landed when it ran out of fuel. It most strongly resembles a small model airplane:

I’m not entirely sure it is directly related flying witches, but the Moto Moto Museum also features a “charm to kill people who pass over it.” I figured it might be a witchcraft defense:

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Although the thought that there are witches flying around sub-Saharan Africa on small model airplanes while naked is kinda funny, it hides a larger problem with the belief in witchcraft in general in Africa. Witchcraft is far too often an excuse to abuse the disabled or elderly. Like I said, “witches” are often identified when a dazed, naked person is found wandering around where they shouldn’t be. Instead of potentially getting mental help or other care, they’re accused of being witches and ostracized by the community. The Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the influence of beliefs in witchcraft and “witch-hunters,” and although Zambia has made many aspects of witchcraft illegal, including claiming to be a witch, accusing others of witchcraft, or claiming to be a witch-hunter, the beliefs and their effects remain widespread. The recent film “I Am Not a Witch” tries to tackle some of the issues surrounding witchcraft (it does have its critics, however).

The subject of witchcraft is a pretty hard one to fully tackle, given the differences you find in each region, and how easy it is to get accused of witchcraft yourself if you start asking too many questions. Flying witches is a pretty common subject to run across though, so I hope this info is enlightening.