Category Archives: Africa

Little Things

Teaching in the Tiger Kloof primary school and staying as a guest of Kathy and Mark Boobemyer has made me appreciate little things I usually take for granted.

  • Power always on without fear of load shedding. There is a backlog of power plant construction so South Africa shuts off power if there isn’t enough. So far this hasn’t happened during my month-long trip, but every hotel room is equipped with flashlights and the one steak restaurant in town advertises that they have a generator so are open even during load shedding.
  • Sufficient power and outlets to have several things plugged in at once. They must unplug the tea kettle to plug in the toaster. Also there are fewer outlets available. My phone, wifi port, I-pad, extra battery, and camera all need charging, but I can only do one thing a day.  
  • Printing. Students must pay about $0.20 per sheet, and with their limited economic means, reprinting a 9-page science report (to include my suggestions) for the Science Expo is a hardship.
  • A well-equipped science lab. Actually, I do not take this for granted; too many science friends in the U.S. dont have what they need either. With a large number of students and limited supplies, sharing is essential, but makes it difficult for everyone to have the best opportunity for learning. The high school lab at Tiger Kloof is beautiful, housed in a complex of newly rebuilt buildings funded by deBeers, but the lab for the elementary students only had enough equipment to do a demonstration, not for every student to do hands-on investigations.
  • Small classes. Here I taught 29 Grade 4 students at once. Keeping everyone on task is a challenge. There is not enough space to put their backpacks, no where to set up equipment for prep, and not enough space to walk around the room.  
  • Stools. Tiger Kloof has lightweight plastic stools in the science lab, and many of them are broken. Only the lightest students can sit on them without double-stacking. There are four plastic chairs which are considered prime, so there was a lot of maneuvering to see who got these thrones.
  • Hot water. I have running water, including a hot tap in the sink and shower, but the heater is broken. In the afternoon it is a warm 70F, so taking a cold shower is like jumping into a cool swimming pool, best done all at once. The folks in the shanty town have only a communal tap. They must carry water in big buckets to their shacks to wash, bathe, and do laundry. It is so hot and dusty here, even in the winter, that I cannot imagine how they cope. Many of the children at the soup kitchen were filthy, but most shacks had clean laundry out on clothes lines to dry.
  • Honesty. Students and staff must carry their belongings at all times because theft is rampant. Given the desperate circumstances of many students, I understand their reasons. It’s purely a matter of basic survival. The school, hotels, and individual houses are all surrounded by razor-wire or spike-topped fencing.  
  • School Bells and Chimes. There is an annoying siren which goes off at the beginning and end of each period throughout the school day. I thought the clanging NPS bell was bad, but this sounds like an air raid. The teachers do not seem to have a universal signal for silence. A clapping pattern has worked for me once I taught them the concept, but I do miss my gentle responsive classroom chime.

There are some little ideas that I’d like to bring home though.

  • All staff morning meeting from 7:15 – 8:00. Much of this was the kind of announcements that we have emailed, but it’s a personal way to get the news of the day. It starts with a bible passage and prayer and ends with a blessing.
  • Break time from 10:30 – 11:00, with tea, coffee, and catered treats (egg salad sandwiches, bran muffins, and biltong have been on offer) for the teachers. It’s a great opportunity to chit chat with your colleagues. Two teachers monitor the students, also on break.


Gum trees grow all along the sides of the highways. They’ve been planted by hand in perfect straight lines.  In three years the tall and straight tree is ready to be harvested for poles for building. A new tree will grow from the stump, but after one or two generations, the saplings are too bushy, making them only good for paper pulp. Then the field of stumps will be burned, recycling the nutrients back into the soil. Every iteration of this process was on view beside the highway.  

 Pineapples from South Africa make up 5% of the worlds supply. Most are canned or juiced for export. Ladies sell fresh ones from roadside stands, each with a delightful pineapple pyramid on top. We enjoyed delicious fresh pineapple for breakfast every day.

Teak,  the hardest wood in Africa, is grown for use in furniture. Much is exported to be fabricated into furniture. We saw fields of sugar cane and many trucks full of the harvested stalks going to be processed into a cheap brownish sugar, sold locally. Better, refined sugar, is processed outside of South Africa. Corn is a staple crop, used in the locals’ main food, pap.  Here are some Tiger Kloof students serving pap and chicken stew to children in the shacks.

One of the Grade 7 students at Tiger Kloof did her science fair project on different recipes for building bricks, using cow dung as the main ingredeint, mixed with canes, corn meal, and/or soil. Her hope was to create a strong, waterproof, fireproof, and inexpensive building material that could be for making shacks that would be safer than the current wood and tin. 


St. Lucia

Since we were going on an outing instead of a game drive today we got to sleep in until 7:00; it’s amazing how much warmer it was than our usual six am.  Bernie, our ranger, drove us in a small mini bus to St. Lucia, a coastal town about one and a half hours away.

St. Lucia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its beautiful estuary and dunes. We went on a two hour boat cruise, seeing hippos, crocodiles, and many birds. After our amazing cruise on the Chobe River in Botswana, this was not super exciting, but it was a relaxing lovely day on the water. The estuary has a few oysters, but surprisingly no mussels or clams. Mangrove trees send up tiny roots that look like short grass to get air. This chokes out any other vegetation in the grove.

We saw several large herds of hippos. Each big group has only one bull (adult male) and many cows and youngsters.  When a hippo is about to give birth, she removes herself from the herd. If the baby is a female, she will return. If a male, she will stay away for months until it is big enough to defend itself from the bull, who sees any other male as a threat.  The small surfing town of St. Lucia has problems with the hippos wandering down the streets at night, looking for green vegetation to eat. 

We ate at a a local pub, having butter fish and prawns or calamari (and some good local beer), while Bernie told us about growing up in Rhodesia, in what is now Zimbabwe. She learned to use a rifle at age four and most of her childhood was during the war.

After lunch we wandered about the town for an hour. We bought some needed electronics at a camera store, a few tee shirts at a surf shop, had a delicious cup of coffee, and tried to use the ATM. Emma got a lovely beaded necklace from a curio shop.

At last we got to the beach, a huge empty expanse of dunes and sand going down to the Indian Ocean. These are the second largest vegetated sand dunes in the world. The water was a bit warmer than the air, but the strong breeze made it too cold for swimming although Emma, Andrew, and Tracy waded in. The huge waves were a beautiful blue-green color tipped with white foam as they crested. It looked like a great place for surfing although we were the only people in sight.

In the morning we ordered carved Monkey Orange ornaments from a street vendor. He takes the fruit, cuts open a tea-candle sized hole in the top, and scoops out the insides. Then he uses a small knife to carve beautiful scenes into the green flesh. As they dry, the colors will fade to brown and tan, but I may be able token the colors if I coat them in acrylic. In either case, they will be beautiful patio lights and Christmas tree ornaments which hold special memories of our African travels. 


An elephant died from natural causes at the 55,000 acre Phinda game reserve on Sunday. Rangers took the skull and tusks for identification and study, leaving the huge carcass where it fell. The trunk lay nearby, looking like a giant wrinkled slug. 

 Four members of the North Pride came to feed. Another two lionesses from the pride had taken their young cubs away from the group until they are older. The other two prides in the park (40 lions total) will stay in their own territories.

When we arrived at the carcass, a large male lion ambled under a tree and lay down, satiated from his 100 lbs of elephant meat.  He didn’t move for the rest of the morning. Too bad there wasn’t t a football game for him to watch in his post thanksgiving stupor.

An adult lioness worked the skin of the elephant, munching the fat off the hide with loud crunching sounds.  She  pulled at it to reveal more meat, but the hide is tough to tear. 

 The belly of the elephant was wide open, exposing huge white intestines spilling out. The lions were not interested in eating there. It’s mostly grass and partially digested leaves and roots. Not food for a lion. This view was downwind, so we quickly moved away from the stench. After another day or two the meat will be too rotten for the lions. Vultures, hyena, and other scavengers will move in, reducing the huge animal for a few scattered bones. 

 The youngs male lions came last. One of them chomped on the elephant’s scapula. They get their calcium from eating bones.  They also licked the fascia where the lioness had pulled back the hide.  Tear at the meat, lick the blood, crunch the bones…quite an immersive experience. After about an hour or two, these younge lions left also. We drove away, amazed at what we witnessed. 

Emdoneni Cat Preserve

This afternoon we went to the Emdoneni cheetah preserve for a tour and interactions. They care for injured cats, cats that have been abandoned after they proved to be poor house pets, and support breeding programs to repopulate and diversify the gene pool.

The first cats we saw looked like regular pets… until you noticed the orange fur on the ears, the dark black rings on the tail, the three barred striped on the neck, and most telling of all, the black fur on the back of the leg from ankle to knee. These African wild cats are the precursors of our domestic cats, but remain genetically distinct. Although they can breed with a house cat, the offspring are often infertile.  

  Next we saw caracals, a bigger cat the resembled a Lynx, with pointed hairs on its ears. These guys are amazing jumpers, able to hop 8 or 9 feet into the air. The guide tossed raw zebra meat high into the pen for us to get a great photograph. There were two different types, one with paler fur to better survive in the dry Kruger area, the others with darker golden fur that blends better into the reddish clay soil of Zulu Natal.

Servals are the tallest shaped cats, with long legs and an erect head. They have markings on the back of their ears that look like eyes. These false eyes confuse Hawks and other predators who might see the back of the servals sitting on a tree branch.

Built for speed, cheetahs have large nostrils, lungs that take up a large portion of their thorax, and efficient hearts that can pump 150bpm. A special gland on the bottom of their foot pads helps circulation; during the quick bursts of speed it somehow pushes the blood back up into the leg instead of letting the running pressure pool it in the foot. Their heavy tail is round near the rump, but flattens to a rudder, helping them turn and remain stable at high speed. Their bones are hollow, like a birds, lightening their weight to allow for more speed. The dark “tears” on their faces act like the black strips football players use to help reduce sun glare. This is a clue that cheetahs are daytime hunters.

The cheetahs had been feed earlier, so we were allowed to go into the enclosure.  One at a time, we approached the cheetahs head from the front. We its neck and rub its back, but not touch its face or belly. The fur felt rough and coarse, especially around the longer neck ruff.

Best of all was playing with a 3 month old baby cheetah. It was just like a giant kitten, chasing around a red cloth, pouncing on a shadow, and batting at a ball.

Big Game

We met Bernie, our ranger for the week, at 06h00 for our first game drive, what they call our photo safari adventures. Six of us climbed into the back of the Toyota Land Cruiser open safari car, bundled up in blankets, and zoomed off down the dirt road from the lodge to the preserve.  At 39 degrees F and 40mph speed, it was a chilly ride.  The sun came up just as we went through the guard gate.  

 Rhinos: our first sighting of the day was “somewhere in Africa, in an undisclosed location” where rhinos munched along the bank. With hippos in the water and warthogs and nyala nearby, this peaceful scene looked straight out of a Smithsonian Natural History diorama.  

 It has been a very dry winter, with only 60mm of rain this year. Last time it rained in Zambia was April 5.  The preserve is supporting the animals by putting out hay to supplement the natural foraging, but these feeding stations make it easier for poachers. The rhinos are each protected by armed guards, hidden nearby. If a poacher is seen, the guards try to arrest him before he can shoot, to learn about his confederates. Otherwise a gun battle with AK47 assault rifles could happen. One of the rhinos at the preserve was shot in the leg, breaking some bones. The staff put a cast on it, but it is still favoring that foot and seems to be struggling. We were not told what happened to the poacher.  

 The biggest rhino was an old female. She uses her long narrow horn to protect her young.  They recently found a dead young rhino, but do not know how it died. The rhino’s wrinkly  skin is 3″ thick so it is difficult to tell if it was shot or had died from natural causes. There are only white rhinos in the park, none of the rarer black rhinos. 

Cheetah: our second major sighting was a beautiful male cheetah, strolling down the center of the track. It obligingly posed for us, marked a tree or two, then gracefully disappeared into the bush. This is the only cheetah in the park; they are on the 8-year waiting list for a female. Their previous cat was bitten in the face by a snake and died.  Without enough cheetahs or other top predators, the impala population gets out of control.  

  Giraffe:  the graceful giraffe looks curious and sweet with its long eyelashes and inquisitive ears. We saw three walking along, munching on the tops of acacia trees. The older the giraffe, the darker the spots.  Male giraffes have bald tops on their horns but females have hair. 

  Wildebeast: when God finished making all the animals, He took all the leftover parts and put them together to make the wildebeast.  The horns of a buffalo, the neck of a goat, the mane of a zebra, and the body of an antelope: the wildebeast is a curious ruminant. 



We were sad to leave the wonderful friendly people we met in Zambia. Our week there went by too quickly!  As a protectorate of Britian rather than a colony, they gained independence in 1964. The Zambian flag is a fish eagle on a dark green background, representing freedom and nature, with three stripes: Orange for cooper and their other minerals, red for the fight for freedom, and black for the people. 

 When we arrived at the Livingstone Airport, we learned that is has been renamed after Mpundu Mutembo, a freedom fighter.  His statue was outside, covered up with cloth wrappings, awaiting its unveiling when the country’s new president is able to come for the ceremony.  Our driver, AJ, told us wonderful stories about the city, its history, and wildlife. He grew up in the town, and attended the local school. We were so pleased that he escorted us for much of the trip. 

 On our last night, Captain Vinnie was persuaded to take us to Livingstone Island, right at the top of the Falls. We sped across the zambezie as the sun set, hopped off the boat, and hiked to Angel’s Pool. While the sky turned from blue to pink, Emma, Andrew, Kate, and Tracy  hopped in the river just a few feet from the huge cascade (the rest of us didn’t have on our bathing suits for this spur of the moment trip) . By the time we got back to the boat, it was quite dark, but Capt. Vinnie zoomed back to the dock by moonlight, knowing the rocks, currents, and hippo habitats by heart.
 Edward, the front desk general manager garbed in a memorable red shirt, waistcoat, and beret, made sure we were well taken care of.  Kabuku, our butler, helped Patrick celebrate his birthday with a floral tribute using roses grown on the estate.

Yes, all these folks are in the hospitality business, but their friendliness was genuine.

Village life

Although our lodging in Livingstone Falls, Zambia was a five-star establishment that could have existed anywhere in the western world, just outside the hotel and national park were traditional lands. Families live in primitive conditions which looked like a historical reenactment, not 2015 housing.

Groups of round huts, one for each family, were scattered about.  These were made of a circle of tall branches, spaced about a foot apart, with smaller twigs woven in between, leaving a 6″ lattice effect.  

  On houses and toilets, the walls were filled in with mud collected from termite mounds, resulting in a smooth Adobe-like finish.  The houses have thatched roofs, made with grasses collected by the women but placed in layers by the men.  

  Kitchens are separate huts, with roofs and open sides for the smoke to escape.  The round house shape kees snakes from nesting in corners.  The toilets did not have a roof, leaving the top open to the air to dissapate smells. Some toilets are simply made of a round of thatch or bamboo twigs; this seems common near bars – I guess they relocate them frequently. 

 For people with greater means, a house may have a tin roof instead of thatch, or be made of bricks or concrete.  The government power company will not wire a mud house in case of collapse and possible electrocution, so only the sturdiest homes have power.  We did see one house with a small solar cell to generate electricity. 

 Water is collected in five gallon buckets from a community well.  We saw people using pumps alongside the road.  Children are not allowed to carry the heavy water; that would be considered child abuse.  The buckets are repurposed from cooking oil containers, paint buckets, and assorted other found items.  People seemed to have quite a distance to walk carrying one bucket in each hand, maybe two miles. 

 Everywhere we drove, women were walking alongside the road carrying baskets or plastic buckets of laundry or fruit on their heads. Most were wearing western style blouses or tee shirts, but traditional cloth skirts. Men pushed wheelbarrows of sticks, carried one long log/pole (for a house?),  or pushcarts of bananas for sale.

These photos are not great; we took them through the car window.

En route to Chobe  National Park, Botswana

Tuesday, July 27, 2015

On our walk from our room to the hotel breakfast this morning we saw a herd of zebras, baboons scampering from branch to branch and two giraffes munching on treetops. This was a great start to a safari day.

We left for the hour-long drive to Botswana, riding in a modern shuttle bus with two honeymooners from Italy.  The road was recently paved, smooth and straight. Our guide told us that the contractor had narrowed the road, pocketing the extra money, making it difficult for cars to pass. The road was fairly busy and ran through a national park and some traditional villages.

After we dropped the newly weds at the small Livingston airstrip to catch their bush plane to northern Botswana, we headed to the banks of the Zambezi. Along the way we passed a line of 18-wheeler trucks, 40 or so, pulled off to the side of the road waiting their turn to cross the river on the ferry.  The wait is three to six days. Truckers sleep on the ground and cook food using charcoal made by the local villagers, sold along the road for $3 for about a bushel. There are a few food stands, a bar, and a picnic table or two.  The World Bank has funded 50% of the cost to build a bridge, with the remaining paid equally by Zambia and Botswana.  It is supposed to take five years to build, but the only sign we saw of progress was a lot of land being cleared for new housing for the future bridge-builders.  I think they’re coming from Korea.
Fortunately we did not have to wait to use the ferry; the seven of us climbed on a small motor boat. We arranged ourselves in the plastic chairs bolted to the bottom of the ….(sorry, I can’t move the picture to the right place!)





 boat in staggered rows of three, (two chairs on one side and one chair on the other, alternating rows) to balance the load evenly, then pushed off. No life vests, no safety talk, just the smell of diesel fuel and the put-put noise of the motor. A local man in a dug out log canoe docked as we left. I guess the river is about 250 meters wide there, it’s 40′ deep, and flows smoothly. Fortunately we made it safely.

Crossing the river meant we crossed into Botswana. We had to get our passports stamped in a small government building.  Blue-uniformed workers with elaborate shiny gold badges looked at computer screens while the fluorescent light bulbs in bare fixtures flickered and buzzed on and off overhead. They stamped our passports with barely a second glance. We had to step into disinfectant against hoof and mouth disease, then climbed onto a Toyota Land Cruiser, and were on our way.

Preparations for Africa

Yellow fever, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A and B – these are all the vaccinations I needed for Africa.  The travel clinic also prescribed malaria pills and the antibiotic Cipro,  in case of traveler’s diarrhea, and recommended a comprehensive first aid kit.  The 65-page booklet specially prepared for our trip describes other scourges to avoid – dengue fever, rabies, parasites, opportunistic crime, ATM skimmers, rip tides, lions and sharks.  It provides further helpful information such as the Embassy emergency numbers and advice on travel insurance.

I’ve sprayed my outdoor clothes with insecticide (see photo) which works for 42 days or six washings.  This should help ward off disease-carrying mosquitoes and annoying flies.  If this product does what it’s supposed to, I’ll be spraying all my summer clothes to repel pesky Maryland mosquitoes too.

Packing for safari, town, adventure, and teaching is challenging enough; planning for the different temperatures to be comfortable in equatorial Botswana (high temp = 89) and warm enough in wintry Vryburg (low temp = 30 and no heat in the school; the students wear coats indoors) means my suitcase is full.

Reading travel and geography books about South Africa and Zambia make me realize that, despite all the dire travel warnings, many of the areas we will visit are modern, urban centers with skyscrapers, universities, and clean water.  It is a continent of contrasts. We here in the USA are incredibly lucky. Colonialism and apartheid set up terrible oppression and although some folks live in relative affluence and safety in these cities, millions of other people struggle to survive. The diseases I’ve been vaccinated against, the prophylactic medicines I’m taking, and my overall health and strength mean I have advantages unavailable to the citizens.