The last week has been rather busy and exciting, so I hope you have some spare time and a cup of tea in your hand for this post! I did some interesting interviews, made several trips to town and failed in an attempt at cooking in the school kitchen! I will begin with my work, as this is supposed to be a blog about ethnobotany! I apologise in advance for a lack of proof reading, it’s taken me so long to write this one and I need to get on with some work!
On Tuesday I interviewed the mother of one of the form 3 students. I have decided that I like interviewing women the most; they like to host, so I always get maize-based snacks! On the other hand, it’s hard to get women on their own, and I have to keep asking other mamas and children not to help the interviewee with her freelist! When I interviewed some teenage girls the other day it was especially hard, as there was group of toddlers laughing and staring at me, and a few kokos (grandmothers) trying to get their two cents in. The women are always friendly and kind to me, but they usually ask if I have babies and laugh when I say that I don’t (I’m a spinster). The girls I interviewed were sixteen and seventeen, both married, and one had her first baby which she nursed while talking to me. To me they looked so young to be wives and mothers but to them I was so strange! They both told me that they don’t treat the animals often, usually just the goat kids, but they both knew local medicines for the larger animals as well. After my nice, friendly interview with the mama on Tuesday, I got back to the school to find four warriors who had come to do interviews too. I was thinking ‘Wow, what a productive morning’, until I realised that they had stopped by the local ‘bar’ on their way, and were in varying stages of intoxication. The first was OK, but I thought something seemed strange with the second two I interviewed; they didn’t have half as much to say as most of the warriors I had interviewed previously, and we were getting through the interviews remarkably fast. Then the last one was so drunk he just kept repeating the same words over and over and was yelling instead of talking. It was pretty awkward when I realised the problem, but I proceeded with the interview as best I could, as I couldn’t really think of a polite way to say ‘Thanks for coming but you’re pretty useless right now’. The worst was to come. Usually I give people a kilo of sugar as a gift to thank them for their time; these guys wanted gongo instead. Gongo is the local brew of wheat and bananas which smells like paint stripper and seems to be drunk mostly by alcoholics. I haven’t given money for any other interviews and no one has asked before; usually people are very happy to get sugar (people put insane amounts of sugar in their tea here), but don’t actually ask for anything at all. And I wasn’t keen on getting these guys more drunk so that they could fall asleep in a bush on their way home later. On the other hand, I didn’t want any trouble. Thankfully, my interpreter talked the most sober one around to taking sugar for their families instead of gongo, and that one convinced his friends to accept the sugar without hard feelings. We parted amicably, but I don’t think I’ll ask them to help with my research again!
Speaking of local brews, I was talking to the indigenous knowledge teacher, Kephas, about a beer I had heard of that is brewed in the homesteads using honey, alovera (both local medicines), and sugar. I wanted to try some, but it isn’t on sale, and is usually only brewed and drank for special occasions such as weddings. Kephas asked one of the Maasai guards, Sakiri, if he could knew any one that had any at the moment. He told us that his daughter was married last week and if he’d known earlier he would have brought us some! This, we thought, was a crying shame, but he did offer a solution; give him 50,000 shillings for 4 kg of honey and he would make us some! Well, my birthday is coming up so we decided to take him up on the offer. The next day he showed up with at last 4kg of raw honey, with the combs and dead bees still in there. In a few days we will go and harvest some alovera, and Sakiri will teach us how to brew Maasai beer! We will have about ten litres for my birthday, so I guess we will be having a good party! I am excited to see the process, as well as to sample this medicinal beer! It’s nothing to do with ethnoveterinary medicine, but it will be an interesting ethnobotanical learning experience!
And while I’m on the topic of ethnobotanical expereinces, I had rather a bad experience with a medicinal tree the other day! Our staff cook was taken to hospital over a week ago and is still recuperating from stomach troubles, so the teachers have been taking turns to help the other cooks with our staff meals. On Thursday, it was my interpreter Samwel’s turn, and he told me that he can’t cook. He asked if I could cook rice and I told him ‘yes, I know many ways to cook rice’, so the next thing I knew, I was in the smoky kitchen, cooking in a huge pot over a wood fire. I was doing OK and was about to get the beans on, when I started feeling a bit dizzy. I stepped outside for some air and almost immediately started to black out. I managed to sit down on a rock with my head in my hands before fainting completely, but the dizziness didn’t pass and I vomited the two cups of uji (porridge) I had enjoyed less than an hour earlier. Samwel took water for me which didn’t stay down either, but thankfully I managed to get to my room and lie down before passing out completely. After some rest, a wash, and a change of clothes to get rid of the stench of smoke, I felt OK again. Everyone was very confused at what I could have eaten to make me sick so suddenly, and some people decided that I must have eaten a rotten carrot (I did not). Then I talked to Kephas and I told him it wasn’t my stomach, it was my head. He asked what wood we had been burning and I told him we had burnt logs from one of the medicinal trees. Apparently you can inhale this smoke to cure a head ache, but it is also used as a perfume (I get a bit queasy after 5 minutes in LUSH! so this started to make some sense). Kephas is sure that we must have been burning something poisonous as well, but I think I just inhaled a poisonous amount of medicinal/perfume smoke! It was unpleasant, but the only lasting effect was that I am now banned from the kitchen, and I can’t say I’m sad about that!
I don’t know when the cook, Gemma, will be well enough to come back, she is recuperating at an aunt’s house in Monduli town now. We hadn’t heard much about her condition since she was taken to the hospital, but we discovered her whereabouts when Alex and I were in town the other day buying exercise books for the students. We passed a house with lots of children outside, and as usual they all started shouting ‘Good morning! Good morning!’. However, the chant seemed to change to ‘Jennie, Jennie’, and I looked at Alex in confusion. I asked him ‘does it sound like they are saying Jennie to you?’, and he looked just as confused as I was, and agreed with me. Then I looked back and realised that one of the children was Maureeny, the cooks daughter who used to play in my room all the time and share my food! I went over to give her a hug but she ran inside so I left before anyone thought I was a kidnapper or something! It turned out that it was Gemma’s aunt’s house where they are staying for now, and we saw Gemma briefly as we walked by later. She looked a little weak but told us she was well. I hope that she and Maureeny will be back before we leave, I miss the troublesome little toddler!
We went to town a few times this week, and we had some interesting dala dala rides. They always pack these minivans so full that you marvel at how many people can fit in there, and then while you ponder this achievement they stop to pick up a couple more passengers! Well, one day last week, we were those extras, running and waving for it to stop (you can wait an hour before the next one will fill up). Sure enough they managed to squeeze us both in, with me sharing the driver’s seat! It meant he had to rest his arm on my thigh for most of the time to control the gears, and that my shoulder was squeezed under his armpit; it was probably the cosiest dala dala ride I’ve had so far! The way back was equally snug; I counted 15 (12 of whom were large men), plus a baby. That’s in a seven seater car. They must make good money from these ‘buses’ at 1000 shillings a person, at least by Tanzanian standards.
On the second leg of our return journey (the walk from the village of Monduli Juu to our village, Eluwai), we saw the whole troop of monkeys, including tiny babies. It was Alex’s first monkey sighting so we watched them for a while, until we realised that it was almost getting dark. We also saw a fox, which was small with huge ears and ran so fast that I thought it was a hare at first glance! So, it was a good week for wildlife!
The down side was that we ran out of water in our rain tanks, and people were having to bring water all the way from the dam, which is not only a half hours walk away but is also very muddy. There was a small amount of rain water left in one tank for drinking, but not enough for cooking and washing. Alex and I bought a 5 litre bottle of mineral water to guarantee our safe drinking water supply, but washing was tricky in a bucket of mud! Thankfully, the school had a truck drive up with a big tank of safe water, which replenished our supply after just a day or two of dirty showers! I just hope we get rain again soon, we are heading in to the dry season and it hasn’t rained for a couple of weeks now. It must be expensive to get a truck to bring water all the way out here.
We spent the weekend in Arusha finding solar supplies, so that Alex and Josh can get power to the boy’s dorm, what will be the computer lab (there are 14 donated laptops arriving in July), and the newly built library. It was nice to visit the city again, I feel more comfortable there now that I know phrases such as ‘I don’t need anything’ and ‘I am a student, I have no money’! We met a guy who was studying archaeology and had been living in Kenya for a few months. He told us that he had set a goal to eat three new animals in Africa, and had accomplished it with a barbeque skewer on his first day! I haven’t eaten any strange animals, just a lot of sour milk, rice and ugale!
We had to get a car to drive us back to Eluwai with the new solar panels and a lot of thick cables, and I have no idea how this low rider taxi made it down the ‘road’ to the village intact. Usually only motor cycles and four-by-fours travel that road, and the suspension on this little car did not sound happy! But we made it and now Alex is installing new electrical systems that will bring a lot more power to where it most needed.
All in all it was an exciting and successful week. I have done most of my interviews now (except the ones I need to discount because of the drunkeness), so now I can start focussing more on field botany, and preparing the booklet which I am making for the school to document the local veterinary medicines. With a bit of luck the new library will be finished and well-lit by the time my book makes it on to the shelves! That’s team work 🙂