Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lion-less Trees

An Irish neonatologist and I, who have been sharing a flat in Mbarara, have cleared our calendars for the weekend and are heading for the southern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park to see the famous Tree-Climbing Lions of Ishasha. We have engaged a 4-wheel drive and driver and arranged a pick up for noon on Friday.

The southern part of the park is remote and isolated, the safari lodges expensive at several hundreds of dollars a night, so I try to book us a spot in one of the park bandas. I try all the phone numbers listed in the tourist magazines and brochures. I try searching blogs of overlanders who have visited the park but none of those numbers work either. Then I try one of the ranger posts in another park which I find to see if they can help.

I find a fellow, who with typical Uganda courtesy, tells me that if I call back in five minutes, he will try to find the number. He has the number when I call back. I thank him profusely and can almost hear his smile across the line.

It isn’t really clear what we will find in the bandas, so we decide to take sheets, mosquito nets, towels, blankets and drinking water. We have lots of space in our rented 4WD.

The bandas are outfitted and even have chairs. The rangers cook a basic dinner for us and our driver and then offer to build a fire outside our banda after dinner. The only item from our stash of camping gear we needed at all is our drinking water for brushing our teeth and for mixing with the pint bottle of waragi (local gin) and orange squash we have brought for our sundowners.

We have reached the seventh empty fig tree, when my colleague sighs, another lion-less tree! I start to keep count. By noon we have covered almost the whole southern park and have reached lionless fig tree number 37. Even the vultures, who are thick in the tree tops in this area of the park, seem to have given up for the day.

We head off at 7:30 am to find the Tree-roosting lions. When you see the huge fig trees, you understand completely why they took to tree climbing in this local. The fig trees provide voluminous shade and have mammoth, smooth limbs but gnarly branches a lion can drape himself over while he waits in comfort for his wife to bring him his daily catch. The limbs extend horizontally for long stretches and provide a great view.

We decide the lions are off in the Congo on a family celebration and tell the driver we should head north to Mweya Lodge, the flag ship tourist hotel in Queen Elizabeth National Park for our planned lunch and swim.

Almost as soon as we seriously abandon hope of seeing the tree-climbing lions, we begin to see other magical sights. First there is an unusual yellow flower in the savannah.

Then we catch the Crested Eagle in silhouette above a brace of Colobus monkeys, distinguishable only by the long white tails hanging in parallel in a group of Euphobia trees.
A flash of brilliant blue brings us to a stop by the side of the road where we spot a pair of rare Giant Blue Turacos.

The following day is Eid on a Sunday so we see both Christians and Muslims making their way to prayer in the morning.

Sure enough we head off shortly after breakfast to follow a group of other vehicles to We cross Kazinga Channel and see a large group of fishing boats out, plying along the reeds in the

Our driver is determined to redeem himself and has been communing with his ranger colleague to find us lions before we leave the park the next morning. Sure enough we locate two male lions, outside the park, so we even save our park fees, devouring a waterbuck their spouses have provided. We think heading home we have got more than we could possibly have hoped for.ir dugout with heart-shaped paddles as one fisher casts the net and the other maneuvers the craft.
Photos: Tree-climbing lions; Great Blue Turaco; yellow savannah flower; Muslims at Eid; Crested Eagle;fishermen at work.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Stalking the Orange Potato II

After seeing the fine nursery of Orange Sweet Potato vines that Juliette had managed to maintain in her front yard under the overhanging matoke trees, we moved down the road closer to the swamp, to see if her friend and fellow community based health worker, Dovinia was home. Dovinia was there and happily greeted us, answering all my questions about Orange Sweet Potatoes.

Dovinia suggests laughingly that we call them Orange Potatoes rather than Orange Sweet Potatoes. This is the first time I heard that the potatoes were not sweet enough. In various tests , as the OSP has been shown to contain high amounts of sugar, so we are left wondering if the sweet potato here is somewhat different or if the taste itself is somewhat different. Certainly some people complain that there is a “different” smell to the OSP but then they tell you it is not too strange and one gets used to it. I wonder how much can be attributed to just being slightly different.She expressively told us how big the tubers were and what a fine crop she obtained. Then she told us how she waited for us to return to collect her Orange Potatoes because she had not been able to sell them. She had eaten some but many more had rotted because the people said they weren’t as sweet as the local variety. This was at a time when a debbe tin was selling for 7000-10,000 UgS.

But whatever the difference, both Juliette and Dovinia were inspired sufficiently to continue with them, without any outside encouragement, based on the fact that our project, which they trust an appreciate arranged for them to get the vines. It seems there are many different forces at work here and we could be better using, perhaps even exploiting, our influence as change agents

Dovinia tells us she knows they are better for people than the local variety but she didn’t know how to convince people. She felt they had to be special because our project had brought them to her. She was surprised it had taken so long for members of our project to come and check on them. I sense a big communication gulf that attaches itself to many of our best intentions. There was a community development coordinator for a short time who had introduced the Sweet Potatoes but after he left it seems no one even inquired as to how the farmers were making out. Dovinia, like Juliette, has provided vines to her neighbours and friends. She doesn’t know of anyone who kept on with them.

Dovinia is a tall, good looking woman who shines with vitality. Could this be the Orange Sweet Potato? She had managed to keep a ready supply of vines going by moving them into the edge of the swamp near her home.

When I asked to take Dovinia’s picture, she whips her head scarf off and stands proudly erect on the road still in her gardening clothes. Neither Dovinia nor Juliette speak English, so the conversation has to be translated, back and forth, with the help of both the driver and the senior facilitator, both of whom have excellent translation skills. It is tricky at times for them to understand my questions and for her to grasp what we are asking. But there is no impatience with the interruptions and explanations.

Dovinia laughs along with us as we stuggle to understand. Are the vines kept in the water or on the edge of the swamp? She seems to understand and appreciate that we are in awe of her dedication to the Orange Potato and listens carefully to our questions. We feel we have had a rich day.

On top of interviewing our Orange Sweet Potato adopters in detail we have also arranged for the field visits of our Community Facilitation Course to the community based health workers and communities in this area the following week. A lot of ground has been covered. As we are heading off I see a large group of Gloriosa Lilies, stunning on the side of the road. We stop to take pictures. The driver is learning how to do Macro shots as he is the only one who can scale the huge lip on the side of the road.

We are heading home out of the swamp when we come across one of our volunteers distilling waragi in the steam leading into the swamp. Waragi is local gin-like alcoholic drink made from bananas.
Angella points out the stills all around the outside of the swamp when the tiny streams flow into the papyrus swamp. The running water is needed to cool the vapours and convert them into liquid. there is a drum being heated with fire wood and a plastic jerry can with tube running into it to collect the distillate after it passes through the copper coils sitting in the water.
The whole apparatus is held together with banana fibre with the tube funnelling water onto the copper coils made from what looks like matoke outer casing of the stem. I am in awe at the ingenuity of the inhabitants and the productivity in the swamp.

We have passed a couple of “banana boats”, hollowed out logs which are used for brewing “tonto, or local beer, what is called “pombe” in Swahili. Waragi is distilled from the local beer it seems.

Photos: Dovinia; Gloriosa Lily; waragi still; connections.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Stalking the Orange Potato I

Two or three years ago I asked my friend, Anna-Maria, who is introducing Orange Sweet Potatoes into Uganda to provide some to the community based health workers that I help to train in Mbarara. Only I hadn’t a clue what “some” consisted of. Really, to my mind “some” were tubers or sections of potatoes with the eyes, like the ones that appear in my potato bin when I have been away from home too long. What I had not understood was that Orange Sweet Potatoes begin each planting season as a seedling. To have a sustainable crop one needs to have an annual supply of seedlings. This I probably should have known as seedlings are used to plant the regular sweet potato crops in these parts and I have noticed women carrying loads of vines around during planting time. Swamps are also found in certain parts and during the dry season it might be possible to keep the seedling alive by moving them to the swamps.

Anna-Maria was generous and provided a number of seedlings, advising us that she could not support the farmers and they would need to figure out a way to keep them going to have future crops. A number of people associated with the project began to grow Orange Sweet Potatoes. The project director put in a crop on her land which is somewhat distant from her home. The potatoes were huge, the crop which survived was bountiful but the majority were consumed by a herd of her neighbour’s cows who were unfenced as they are in many parts of the country. She and her family loved the taste of the potatoes.

One trainer put a crop into her small plot. The potatoes were large and many and everyone enjoyed them especially knowing they had increased Vit A levels and were very nutritious. But her vines did not survive the drought that came after the rains, so no second crop. It didn’t seem to me that I would not find any sustainable harvesting of Orange Sweet Potatoes in our area.

Recently I began hearing whispers about volunteers who had managed to keep the Orange Sweet Potatoes going. We have one vehicle for our project so our driver knows everyone and every place. I asked him to track down anyone who still had Orange Sweet Potatoes.

When I told Anna-Maria that I had learned of a couple of our volunteers who still had crops, she was interested. We have both been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Sticky and about how ideas spread. So I went out last week to interview those whom I could find. Certainly the unplanned spread of innovations is something we all could use more information

I located with the help of our driver, Nasser, and a senior trainer, Angella, who acted as interpreter, two wonderful ladies. Juliette is one of our original community based health workers. These CBHWs were originally trained more than 6 years ago and have had regular supervision and annual refresher training. They are committed, confident, skillful and knowledgeable about child health and they are motivated and enthusiastic. Juliette is a leader in her group and was chosen to be a trainer by her peers. This past year she was chosen for the whole sub-district of Rwampara as the Model Volunteer.

Her home is immaculate with a Tippy Tap in place, chicken pen woven from papyrus, an energy efficient stove and clear pit latrine. There is a stand of matoke (cooking banana) in her front garden and in the shade of the matoke there is a nursery of Orange Sweet Potato seedlings. She insists on digging one up when I ask her how she keeps it going. She tells me how she has given seedlings to a number of farmers in this parish but none have managed to keep their own crop going. When relatives have visited and noticed the size of the potatoes and the volume produced from a small plot, they also wanted to carry some to their homes in other parishes. So from this one energetic woman has flowed a small but important stream of innovative potatoes to the surrounding area.

As we leave Juliette’s home, heading for her friend’s place close to the swamp, she offers handfuls of seedlings to Nasser and Angella, who are inspired by her description of how she has kept her Orange Sweet Potatoes going. In Stalking the Orange Potato part 2 I will tell you why I call it the Orange Potato and what else is going on in the swamp.

Photos: Juliette with OSP; Juliette's OSP nursery; Chicken Coop; Handing seedling to Guests


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