South Luangwa National Park

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The lions are by the big tree in the middle background which is like crazy.

Reading this week:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (wow it’s good)
  • The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
  • Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

So, hot on the heels of going to North Luangwa National Park, I went to South Luangwa National Park. It feels good to have completed the Luangwa National Park set. This trip was a vacation with my girlfriend, along with some friends of ours. It was a very cozy little trip.

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The very scenic Luangwa River.

South Luangwa National Park is technically in Northern Province, but you access it via Eastern Province, near Chipata. The river forms the southern border of Northern Province, and most of the camps it seems are on the southern bank of the Luangwa river, in the “game management area.” That means it isn’t in the park, but there are no fences so the animals can wander around freely.

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Lily in our sweet safari tent.

And lemme tell ya, there area a lot of animals. Having been on a safari or two at this point, South Luangwa seems like there were by far the most animals. Chobe had a lot of animals, and I guess the big difference is that we didn’t stay in or near the park, but the entire time we were at the lodge even we were surrounded by animals. There were velvet monkeys and baboons roaming the lodge throughout the day, and at night hippos would come up on the bank right next to our tent to munch on the grass (it’s nice grass because the lodge keeps it watered). The first day we were there a small family of elephants came right up below the embankment to munch on trees about 10 feet from our tent. So I guess if you want animals go to South Luangwa.

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Family of elephants coming over to hang out.

We spent two full days just lounging around at the camp enjoying the scenery and the quiet and the pool. One of the days we went on the “package” though. At this lodge, that includes meals and two game drives. The game drives were pretty phenomenal. The park was packed with animals and we saw a whole bunch. There were, of course, your classic impala and warthogs and the like (lots of bushbuck too, which were pretty unusual in the other places I’ve been). There were several herds of elephants, including some really young little babies that were running around and being cute and stuff.

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It’s hard to hide if you’re a giraffe.

My favorite animal to see on safari is of course giraffes, just because they are so big and gangly and crazy looking. We ran across one small family of about four, and then another big herd with 10 or so. We got up pretty close and watched the birds peck at the bugs in their fur and watched the giraffes munch on trees.

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The highlights of the park though were of course the big cats. We were very lucky this trip. The local pride of lions, lead by two 10-year-old males named Ginger and Pepper, had been hanging out near the camps and the guides knew where they were so they were easy to see. For better or for worse, the lions were extremely used to all the safari trucks around and we got really really close. One time when we stopped a lion sauntered over just to take advantage of our shade. When they get that close you remember how scary that really is. On the second drive of the day we even followed the lions around a bit at night which was really cool, because the whole pride, even the cubs, were on the move. We left them to their own devices after just a bit though.

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Let the prey come to you.

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Yawns are contagious, ya know?

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The dots on the right are actually another lion.

The single coolest part though was the leopard. Again, we were pretty lucky because we showed up during a string of leopard sightings. Seeing the leopard rounds out my personal “Big Five” so that was pretty cool. Our guide didn’t even notice it, but one of the women on the trip was just casually “oh, there’s a leopard in that tree.” So we got some good looks, especially as the leopard walked right by our safari truck.

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Even though I had to go all the way out past Chipata to see the park, it was well worth it. There was a wide variety of animals and you got to get really close and be able to see and appreciate them. Definitely a different experience than North Luangwa and again pretty cool to be able to do both.

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Bee-eaters enjoying the late afternoon.

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Adventures in Charcoal

Reading this week:

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  • Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
  • Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

So I spent some time trying to make charcoal. Specifically, I was trying to make bio-char, which is a fancy name for tiny pieces of charcoal. Adding bio-char to the soil can be really beneficial; it helps the soil retain water and can provide some nutrients. The proof of this is in the above picture, which shows maize a farmer is growing in a spot where he had previously made charcoal and where there are currently little charcoal bits in the soil. The farmers know that these locations are very fertile.

Usually when you go to make bio-char specifically for adding to the soil, the instructions have you use a metal drum. At the rice workshop we also learned to make bio-char using a brick kiln thing. But I didn’t have a metal drum and I was too lazy to make a brick kiln thing so I tried making it without the benefit of these things.

My first attempt was to try to make bio-char in a hole. Step one of this was to get a whole bunch of maize-cobs to make the charcoal with. To accomplish this I employed children. This was a disaster. There are maize cobs scattered all over the village, but I didn’t feel like gathering them myself. So I offered to pay kids one kwatcha for a bucket of maize cobs. Soon I had a deluge of maize cobs. But then kids started trying to cheat me, bringing me buckets of mostly trash with a few maize cobs on top, or one kid brazenly tried to mime that he was emptying an empty bucket of maize cobs into the hole and then asked me for the kwatcha. Kids started getting upset because very little kids would bring me a small bowl of maize cobs and then I felt obligated to pay them too, which the kids bringing me a whole bucket felt was unfair. Then I had parents angry at me that I was paying the kids in money instead of candy and the whole thing was terrible. Lesson learned: children are small and devious and are not to be trusted.

With the hole full of maize cobs, the next step was to cover it in dirt and light it on fire. The trick to making charcoal is to pretty much burn wood (or maize cobs) in the presence of no/little oxygen so it carbonizes instead of burning completely. When I first lit the hole on fire everything seemed to be going well. After I while I sealed it up and waited until the next day. I was disappointed. The hole was never really effectively on fire and I spent a lot of effort just digging up maize cobs.

The next effort was to make a pile above ground and then cover it with dirt. This is how people make charcoal for cooking and the like anyways. I got a little fancy, digging a depression in the soil and putting the straw down as a “wick” so I could light the bottom of the pile on fire effectively.

I made as big a pile of maize cobs as I could. I was pretty limited by the angle of repose, but it was a pretty alright little pile. Then I covered it in dirt (usually mud is better, because it clumps better, but the water was far away and I was lazy) and lit the sucker on fire.

I initially left a hole at the top to let it start to get really on fire. It made a whole lot of smoke, which is a good sign as far as charcoal-making goes. After I felt like it was good and on-fire, I piled more dirt until the smoke stopped escaping, and then left it to burn for the night, checking every once in a while to fill in holes. I actually wound up waiting I think three days, because it was still on fire.

After uncovering the pile I was pretty pleased with the result. There is a lot of dirt mixed in with the charcoal, but I was pretty okay with that; I was just gonna mix the charcoal in with dirt anyways. It is hard to see from the picture, but in the center there is actually a pretty good amount of charcoal in its own little pit in the center.

The charcoal comes own as pretty easily recognized maize cobs, just now they’re black. Maize cobs aren’t too dense, so they’re pretty easily smashed up into tiny little bits of charcoal, which I am excited to add to my soil so hopefully I can really grow some great stuff this year. I have been looking forward to this planting season for months now and I am excited for the rains. After getting the technique down, I made a few more piles of bio-char, especially using all the dried-up weeds and grass I cleared from my yard in preparation for planting. It’s gonna be awesome!

Integration Workshop

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Me, gesturing at chicken poop.

This past week we held the Integration Workshop down in Kasama. This thing was kinda my baby and was quite the hoot.

Here in Zambia, Feed the Future funding is being cut in favor of other countries. Feed the Future has been a really great program here in Zambia, and has been the funding source for a wide variety of food security-related workshops. That’s especially valuable for us agriculture volunteers, as a lot of the funding for programs in Zambia is via things like PEPFAR which focuses on HIV/AIDS. So Feed the Future has been all about giving love to us agriculture volunteers so we can bring counterparts to learn about improved food techniques (anything from beekeeping to orange-fleshed sweet potatoes).

The upswing of Feed the Future funding getting cut is that staff asked around for ideas of what to spend the remaining money on. I have been getting into Integrated Agriculture recently, so I suggested an Integration Workshop. Integration and Integrated Agriculture is all about combining different farming systems to be more efficient and waste less. The big upswing for farmers is that it makes all sorts of different farming practices more sustainable and more profitable. In fact, my new mantra is that fish farming alone is pretty useless. The fish are cool I guess, but it will be hard to raise them well and so you won’t and it’ll be hard to make money because you’re spending money on inputs like fish feed. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there when it comes to integration, but a lot of people just don’t think of ideas so I thought a workshop that presented all these ideas would be really useful. So I made the suggestion and typed up a proposed schedule and they decided to go ahead and implement it. Neat!

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Manure tea demonstration. Poop water smells like poop.

As part of scheduling for the workshop, staff asked me for suggestions for well-integrated farms we could go to. I suggest my host dad’s. He has a copy of an integration manual from 2002, and has been steadily applying ideas from it to his own farm. His fish ponds and gardens are pretty awesome right now, and one of the big advantages of taking people to his ponds is that he has only been at it for a year. A lot of times we take the counterparts to well-developed farms, and I think it is hard for the counterparts to think of where they want to be in 10 years, or they view it as a daunting amount of work. But by showing people what they could accomplish in just one year, I thought it might be inspiring for some folks.

At my site I was in charge of demonstrating some “natural alternatives.” These are generally home-made versions of fertilizers and pesticides that people buy in the shops. Fertilizer is one of the most expensive agricultural inputs, and if we can get people to use animal manure as fertilizer then we’ll save them a lot of money, and probably the environment as well. In the topmost picture I am gesturing underneath the chicken house, with the emphasis being that a raised house makes it easy to collect manure. A lot of people let their animals just go free-range, but that makes it impossible to collect manure. By keeping animals in a night shelter, you can use all that manure in your fields.

Besides just applying manure directly to fields, it is pretty easy to make manure tea. All you do is put some manure in a mealie meal sack that filters water through it easily, then put the sack in a bucket, and add water. You let the “tea” “steep” for about a week, then dilute it some, and you have some pretty effective fertilizer! For free! Besides that, I also showed them how to make some natural pesticides using chilis, and another method for making fertilizer with compost. Meanwhile, down at the ponds, my host dad was showing everyone his whole neat pond and garden setup. I like giving my host dad opportunities to show off because it really keeps him motivated to keep doing more.

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Muka was excited for the workshop because we ate lunch there, and he got the scraps.

When we first rolled into my site I was actually a bit disappointed, because I was told we would be rushing a bit so we could go to yet another site, but it worked out pretty awesome. The next site we went to was perhaps the next level from my host dad’s farm. It was a farm owned by a cooperative of 24 people. They had a very large, well-integrated farm with two whole chicken houses (including an incubator), very large gardens, and several fish ponds. The exciting part with them is that they had just managed to purchase some equipment to make it easier to till and plant a large amount of land. That meant more profit for the same amount of labor. And the most inspiring aspect was that it took only three years to get to that level because everyone worked hard.

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It was impossible to get the cooperative’s whole setup in one picture, but they had fruit trees, gardens, animals, and ponds.

Overall, I think the workshop is a success and I hope we can leave the tools behind for people to do something similar next year, with a different source of funding. It is really vital to get the farmers inspired by showing them concrete examples and giving them hands-on activities. And integration especially is a project that requires thinking about the inputs you have and the goals you want to achieve. Once you get people in the mindset to maximize their resources, their farms just really take off. I told my counterpart he has two more years to achieve what the cooperative did. I think he’ll pull it off.

North Luangwa (Family Vacation Part 7)

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Reading this week:

  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (it’s… eh.)
  • Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein
  • Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

With most of the vacation over, my family decided to do one last hurrah and booked two nights in North Luangwa National Park at Buffalo Camp. I was a little unsure of this trip when they told me they had planned it. A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers go to South Luangwa National Park but I had never heard of anyone going to North Luangwa. It was, however, awesome.

Getting there was a long day for us, because we were coming down from Mbala and we were driving for about 10 hours total, with half of that being in the park itself. We arrived at Buffalo Camp after dark, but the place is pretty luxurious so that was fine. We largely had the place to ourselves. Buffalo Camp bills itself as the authentic bush camp experience, and that is probably true, but the “roughness” of grass huts is a little belied by flush toilets and 24/7 hot showers. This rough bush camp was nicer than a lot of lodges I have stayed at in Zambia.

We wound up going on three safaris total over the course of our two nights there. First thing in the morning, after a delicious breakfast and coffee, we set off on a walking safari. North Luangwa is best known for its walking safaris, and it did not disappoint. The bar was actually set pretty high right off the bat, because about 200 yards from the camp we ran into two lions (we were still in the truck at the time). Seeing the big cats is pretty rare on any safari, so right off the bat the whole trip was worth it.

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Mark, the owner of the camp, has a lot of experience with the park (having grown up there) and with leading walking safaris. As you can see from the above picture, my family isn’t exactly the picture of adventure readiness, but Mark made sure that even my 92 year old grandma had a pretty awesome walking safari. We didn’t see anything too crazy on the walk, but we did see a lot of impala, zebras, wildebeest, and water buffalo. The coolest part for me was probably mark pointing out things like lion tracks that we were following. And even if we didn’t see a single animal, the landscape was gorgeous and worth the trip. It was really your stereotypical African veldt, made even more stunning with the imposing Muchinga escarpment in the background.

After walking back to camp and having lunch, we set off for a driving safari in the afternoon. The driving safari let us go all the way down to the Luangwa river, where, lemme tell ya, there are a lot of hippos. I don’t think we saw anything too crazy on this part of the trip, animal-wise, but the highlight of this part was having sundowners right on the banks of the river. Mark set up the drinks and we had some time just to hang out near the river. That let us see hippos moving around, yawning, and even a fight or two. It was far better to be on the top of the embankment than down near the river, but seeing some action is always pretty awesome.

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After the sundowners and the sun going down, we set off for a bit of a night drive, but the only thing we really saw were some rabbits. We were of course hoping for leopards and all that, but it was still a really cool experience and after returning and dinner we settled in for the night. I fell asleep that night to the sounds of lions and leopards growling at each other across the river.

The next morning we were heading out but we got one more walking safari in before we left. Instead of following the Marula river, like we did before, this time we walked around a floodplain some and then wound up at a watering hole. They’ve built a little blind here so Mark’s guys served us some drinks and then we were instructed to sit pretty still and quiet. Shortly after we settled down all sorts of animals started showing up to the watering hole for a drink. I was hoping for a rhino but I was not disappointed to see a whole herd of impala, zebras, wildebeest, and even some warthogs come down for a morning drink. There was a hippo in the pond just sort of hanging out, and gobs and gobs of birds like herons and storks poking around the pond for something to eat. Not a bad way at all to spend a morning, lemme tell ya.

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Mom, getting that shot.

This was the last major adventure on the family trip and I think they had a good time. From the camp, we spent a few days making our way to Lusaka, from whence the family flew out and I returned to Kasama for an Integration Workshop. I am really glad they got to come, and although it is impossible to really see “Africa” in anything less than a lifetime, I think they got a good taste of at least my neck of the woods. I am always excited to show off my home here. Mom showed me her final entry in her trip journal, and based on what she said I think they got a pretty good feel of some of the things Zambians face and how they live. If you can make it to Zambia, I do recommend the trip.

The Village (Family Vacation Part 6)

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Aunt, uncle, host dad, potatoes.

Reading this week:

  • Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
  • Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley
  • Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (I think their argument is a lot better for explaining the world post-1500 than “since the Neolithic”)

The highlight of the whole trip for my family, and really the whole reason they came to Zambia, was to finally see my site. This was quite an experience for them and I am really glad that they were able to come.

A lot of volunteers, when their family visits, spend at least one night at their site. Since I had a total of nine people, I decided this wasn’t particularly feasible and so we just did a day trip. That was enough though. I had warned my host family we were coming, so I sent my host dad a text to confirm we were on our way, we loaded up into our vehicles, and off we went.

One of the best parts about my site is that I am in a valley, and right at the entrance of the valley you get a magnificent view of the whole area, including some of the surrounding villages and the fields, looking way out even to the Tanganyika escarpment. On the way in we stopped there and took pictures. I wish they could have seen my village during the rainy season when everything is lush and green, but it is still a gorgeous view. After photos, we continued on our way into the village picking up a whole trail of kids along the way. Since a car driving in full of my family was probably the most exciting thing going on that day, every single kid in the village was following my family to my doorstep.

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My uncle explaining something or other to an enraptured audience.

As we got out of the car my host dad and mom came out and greeted us, and that was fun for me to have my real dad and mom meet them. Introductions were made all around and I brought my family over to my house to get a good look. I think they were pretty impressed with my setup but maybe that is my ego talking. The family was probably most amused by all the kids since I guess they’re not used to having a gaggle of dozens of children enthralled by your mere presence. My aunt and uncle took the opportunity especially to put on some little mini-shows for the kids; they had a previous job putting on live plays of poetry for school assemblies so this was right up their alley. Even my mom got in on the action and the kids all seemed to love it.

Since I am always excited to show off my host dad’s ponds and gardens, I dragged the family pretty quickly down there and gave them the whole tour. My host dad came along of course and had a good time explaining everything we were doing together with to my family. I know that it was really my host dad doing all the work, since all I am is an adviser, but the family was pretty impressed by all my host dad had accomplished and thought his gardens and ponds were really very beautiful. Same, fam, same.

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After viewing the ponds my host family invited us over to lunch which was really very nice of them. We were a big crowd like I mentioned but my host dad I think had a lot of fun hosting us. That was really cool my host family got to see how I eat lunch every day. By this point in the trip they had already eaten some nshima, but it just isn’t the same in a sorta fancy restaurant as it is with good ole’ fashioned home cooking, you know?

In addition to lunch, my parents had wanted to give some gifts to my host family to thank them for taking such good care of me. From America, my family had brought some nice pocket knives and kitchen scissors, which I thought were pretty good gifts. To this stack I added some little things I was planning on giving to the host family anyways, like a packet of watermelon seeds for my host mom. So I arranged for my mom to give my host mom a small stack of gifts, and for my dad to hand my host dad a small stack of gifts. Smiles all around and everyone really had a good time. A little after lunch, having thoroughly viewed the village and having had my two families finally interact, we packed up and headed out. Quite the experience for both parties and I am really glad it could happen.

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I don’t know who most of these children are.