Monday, November 11, 2012

Well, not much has changed in Vila Gorongosa during the last year.  We were told that so many things had changed that we would hardly recognize it.  Maybe it is difficult to see those changes from the outside…

Our journey from the airport to Vila Gorongosa yesterday could not have gone any smoother.   We ran into a friend from my time here during the fall of 2010 that just happened to be on our flight.  Jessica is an American lawyer who is currently studying environmental conservation in Cape Town.  She was all smiles and when asked how she was enjoying South Africa she responded, “I guess I’m living my dream!”  Gorongosa National Park (GNP) had offered to bring her in for a few days to work on some contracts.  The timing of her visit just happened to be perfect for us.  I had already been dreading the nightmare of securing a taxi with our 3 large bags + 2 smaller bags to the “bus stop,” where we would have had to negotiate a reasonable fare, secure our bags on top of the mini-van, and wait around for our “sardine can” to fill up.  The record number of people that Chris and I have experienced crammed into a “14-person” mini-van is 31.  In contrast to that miserable travel experience, after paying for our Visas ($76 each) and gathering our bags, we were given a very swift 2 hour-drive, the top speeds topping out at 100 MPH on a generously potholed tar road.  With dust in our hair and bugs in our teeth, we were dropped off at the front entrance of the GNP, where Janet (Complexo Janet) ferried us the rest of the way (30 minutes).

Upon arrival to Complexo Janet, Aida showed us to our room (my old room) where we were told that indoor plumbing, complete with Chinese-made electric showerhead, had just been installed two days before!  We were thrilled with the prospects of a hot shower before dinner.  Unfortunately, it was only while standing “sans clothing” under the showerhead that it became disappointingly clear that no water was coming out.  Not sure what the problem was.  Anyway, I reverted to a bucket bath, the tried and true (and cold) means of scrubbing the dirt off.  Dinner was chicken, salad, and the double starches; “sheema” and French-fries.  Chris added a couple of 2M (“Dois M”) beers to accompany dinner.  An interesting fact is that Chris only orders beer in this part of the world, and only when it is kept just a few degrees above freezing.

This morning, we were up at about 6:45AM, the sun shining through the window curtains.  I had a cup of Earl Grey tea, tea bags that I had acquired at the United Red Carpet Club in Johannesburg.  We lamented the fact that neither one of us had thought to pack the instant Starbucks “Via,” which should be at the top of anyone’s packing list who loves coffee.  Luckily, I was fully aware that Pousada Azul (another hotel) at the other end of town serves espresso.

The walk to town from Janet’s is about 25-30 minutes.  On the way in, we visited the park’s “Telecentro,” where my friend, Moreira, was on duty and asked about the Internet.  He informed us that the Internet hadn’t been working since the week before last.  Well, that certainly shot down any hopes of posting in the immediate future unless we made it to Chitengo (the park) later this week with Mr. Muagura. I also ran into a former colleague from the mountain and he told me that Director Muagura still had his home in Vila, even though he was now working most of his days out at Chitengo, about 90 minutes away.  When we arrived to his Vila office, we learned that he was in Beira for the day, however, and might be back tomorrow.  I left my phone number behind, hoping for a call in the near future.

Speaking of phones, the most amazing thing happened.  About 2 years and 4 months ago, when I first arrived as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Vila Gorongosa, I bought a cheap little Nokia phone.  Well, last year when we visited, I managed to use the same phone with the original Sim card, only having to buy pre-paid credit, which is available on nearly every street corner.  Local lore has it that if you go for awhile without using your Sim card that it will be “deactivated” somehow and force you to buy a new one.  The challenge is not the cost of the new Sim card, typically about $2-$4, but it is the fact that your phone number has changed.  So, this time, I wasn’t sure if my phone number would work due to the 12+ months of inactivity.  Well, this morning, I took my fully charged phone to one of the MCEL guys on the corner and added 100 meticals of pre-paid phone credit.  The phone sprung back to life!  All of my contact numbers were still in place, so I could call or text people easily, assuming they had the same phone number.  I got this strange feeling that it was almost like had never left…

The lowest point of the day was when we made the decision to drop by the last home of my friend, Tomas to visit his young widow.  We wanted to pay respects and give a small offering to the family.  These are the kinds of actions that I have learned throughout my experiences in Africa, the little things count.  Tomas was a member of our forestry team (and premier driver) who had passed away from complications of the AIDS virus.  Apparently, he was in total denial that was sick and chose not to take the drugs to fight the disease.  My good friend, Pela, commented,  “He should have been alive today… but he refused to get treated.”   She went on to say that she has a friend who took the medication, known as Anti-Retro Virals, for four years and eventually came up “clean” with no trace of the Virus.  She told us that she no longer has to take the medication.  I’m not sure this is what is recommended, but she no longer takes them.  I’d like to ask my friend, Dr. Megan Dunbar about this situation.  Is it possible that you can stop taking the drugs and “be cured?”  Research in this area is still evolving, especially as related to various drugs for treatment.  Nevertheless, I spoke to a young girl at Tomas’s last residence and his widow had left months before.  Pela told me that she had been “booted” out of the house in the African traditional style, the children remaining the sole beneficiaries of the man’s estate.

Additional notes of the day:

Visiting the meat market in the center of town.  Words cannot describe the experience of seeing freshly butchered goats, with their “parts” spread out over a wooden table, including severed head, available for your dining pleasure.

Watching a couple of children gather ripe “caju” (cashew) fruits and nuts from a tree on the side of the road.

Walking up the hill to the “panaderia” to buy fresh bread rolls.  Bread is baked fresh daily and most people don’t purchase sliced bread.  It is all white bread.  No wheat, rye, or sourdough.

Popping in to the Loja De Indiano (Indian shop) for a cold drink.

Pela dropping by after work to join us for dinner.  Pela is a wealth of information for us, as she is Zimbabwean and speaks multiple languages, including English.  We are hoping she will (again) join us for the trip to Zimbabwe later in the week.  On multiple occasions we have paid the school fees for her children, ages 10 and 12.  I’ll always remember shopping with the kids the last time and the little boy being in awe of the brand new yellow pencils that we purchased for him.  This time, I hit the Dollar Store before we left and bought for each of them: 2 lined paper composition books, a puzzle, and a box of 16 yellow pencils.  When we go to their grandmother’s home for a visit, we will also bring a (big) live chicken and some other cooking items for the grandmother.  Chris loves doing this.  There is something sort of satisfying about spoiling someone, however briefly, who is doing the right thing for their family.  A lot of people don’t get to meat that often here.  Chris commented that it is like bringing a whole pile of Omaha Steaks to a person in the United States.

Tuesday, November 12, 2012

Just in case I didn’t think that Muagura was amazing enough, yesterday I was told that several days in the past week he was searching for a “downed” plane within the park perimeter.  In his newest role of Director of Conservation for Gorongosa National Park, no longer Director of Forestry, he can be called upon for virtually any task that the park needs.  The reports that I heard were that a small private aircraft with 3 people on it, from Malawi, had gone missing in the park.  A week later, they still hadn’t found it.  In a desperate attempt to locate it, members of the search team had visited a traditional healer where they had partaken in a ceremony (the healer drank some hallucinogenic tea) in hopes of locating it.  Reports were that the healer was not only able to “vision” where the plane is (in the Urema River) but he was also able to tell the team what the occupants’ last words were!  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

This morning Chris and I were able to catch a lift with Pela and her vehicle going to Nhancucu, the base of Mount Gorongosa.  The purpose was to check in with 3 women there who are working with the Eco Health Project.  When I was here two years ago, Pela was working as a health extension worker, walking from house to house gathering information about each member of the family.  Most questions pertained to childbirth, number of children surviving/passed away, health of the family, distance to the health clinic, nutrition, cooking, etc.  Pela was promoted from about a year ago to be the coordinator a closely related project.  Essentially, due to the fact that the midwives cannot be paid for their work with Eco Health, they have implemented an offshoot income generation project in the area of art.  The ladies are hand sewing shopping bags, wine bags, and string backpacks.  They are also rolling paper beads necklaces and making seed jewelry.  These products are then sold in the Gorongosa National Park gift shop.

Bumping down the road in the 4WD was about as enjoyable as I remember (not).  You’re lucky if you survive it without getting a concussion, as the road is very rocky and steep.  The worst aspect of the trip, however, was seeing the condition of the mountain.  The deforestation and agricultural cultivation was much more extensive than I could have imagined.  There were extensive rows of corn, beans, and cassava sprouting along the hillsides up to – and within the park zone.  Clearly, the moisture levels are better this year than they have been in the past, so the yields are likely to be much better.  It certainly is a conflicted feeling when you are hopeful that people have productive harvests, but you see how much destruction has taken place.

We visited the tree nursery or “viveiro” above the waterfall, which produces 50,000-60,000 trees per year.  I connected with Sylvestre who monitors activities in the area and also presented him with a live chicken and some cooking items.  There was a herd of cattle roaming the background.  I feel that from what we witnessed today that the war on deforestation here will likely be lost within 5 years.  It will then turn into an agricultural project.  Coming to this realization, it makes me wonder if I really felt that it could end any other way.  People are so set in their ways of doing things (in Mozambique or America)… and it is extremely difficult to change them.

On the way back down the mountain we purchased some sweet little pineapple.  See, even I am a problem!

After arriving back to Janet’s, Chris and I passed out from the heat for a few hours.  It certainly is a lot hotter than I had anticipated with temperatures in the upper 90’s with high humidity.  Though we have air conditioning in the room, the electricity cut off at least three times within 3 hours.  At some point, I took off all my clothes and plopped myself down on the tile floor in order to gain some relief!  When we finally got up after the hot nap, I said to Chris, “If it was any hotter…” and he added, “We would have burst into flames.”

This evening, Muagura joined us for dinner.  Hot and tired from Chitengo, he made the extra effort to come and see us.  We ate chicken and talked about the happenings in the park.  He spoke about the missing plane from Malawi and the fact that he is getting 2 dozen phone calls a day from South Africa giving him direction of where to look for it.  Also, there are now 800 guerillas from an opposition political party holed up in the park.  It is intensifying enough to where he has been given the directive not to interact with them, too dangerous.  Unfortunately, the rebels look at anyone working with the park as supporters of the government.  It is disturbing to think of this number of rebels having to be fed and maintained out in the bush.  This conversation led to a discussion of Muagura’s primary duty, to reduce poaching of animals in the park, mostly a large variety of antelope, but any animal or human can get snared in a poacher’s trap.  Muagura’s explained to us that he actually has to coordinate the ambushing of poachers, sometimes several operations in one day.  This is very dangerous work… not to mention that there are no laws against poaching, not even in the national park!  Protocol is that they lock perpetrators up in a small park jail, bring them to trial and then they are released.  Just like the case of logging, if there is not national policy supporting the efforts of the park, how will they be successful?

On a happy note, Muagura told me that he will travel to Portugal and Italy to be recognized for his work in forestry.  In Italy, they will honor him for having orchestrated the planting of over 50 million trees!  What a hero!  I am reminded of a very funny day two years ago when Marty (my fellow Peace Corps Response Volunteer) and I asked Muagura about Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for planting trees in Kenya in 2004.  Now, I have never seen a trace of jealousy in Muagura until that particular moment, when he responded, “That prize should have been mine!” We roared in laughter.

Additional notes of the day:

The two little boys who sold us 15 cent straight from the field pineapples wore (reddish) soil-colored “tatters” for clothing.  I gave one of them a protein bar and he took off like a rocket.

We’ve heard that the new company that took over Chitengo, Vis-a-Beira, has done a considerable amount of building and will be renting new bungalows for $350 a night!

Thursday, November 14, 2012

In the morning, we were able to catch a ride on the back of Mr. Muagura’s park truck to Chitengo.  We wanted to see the building that has been occurring by Vis-a-Beira (company) and to use the Internet.  There was some correspondence we needed before arriving to Zimbabwe.

One of the most pressing topic of the day was the issue of locating the small plane crash.  The brother of the one of the victims, who has been serving as part of the search party, was optimistic that they may have finally found it.  They had enountered an area with smashed bush, that couldn’t have been done by an elephant, and it was near part of a lake.  After a $5,000 reward had been announced, the community stated that they had seen the plane, they saw its lights, saw it turn and then witnessed it disappear into the lake.  The search team, along with Mr. Muagura, and the police, were waiting for a helicopter to show up in order to get a closer look.

The afternoon at Chitengo was hot and dusty.  They are building new cottages and renovating some old facilities.  There was no dampening of dirt, so lots of dust.  Though Chitengo surely wasn’t much to see on Thursday, we are optimistic that in a year it should look completely different.

Unfortunately, the end of Thursday at Chitengo was disappointing for the search team.  The helicopter arrived an hour late and then suggested to the search team that it would be best for him to fly around the site himself.  An hour later, he returned – and Muagura figured out that he hadn’t even gone to the right location.  He then proclaimed that he was nearly out of fuel and left back to Beira.  It doesn’t even need to be said that he left a very disappointed search team behind.  I just could not imagine the level of frustration being felt by the family of the victims.  We were told that the helicopter was to return the next day.