Author Archives: mytthumbs

A Small, Great Thing

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

  •                                                           – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Anyone who knows me in the slightest knows that the activity in my life that runs a close second to music is reading. They’re quite the same, really. The script is different, the language is different, but both the printed music and the printed word are merely doorways. My choir director refers to the music on the page as not the music at all, but a map to get there. I would argue it is the same with a book.

I recently read Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. Here was a door I thought I recognized. I would’ve, without hesitation, said I knew what was on the other side. But, I would’ve been wrong. Through her story, Picoult opens the door to an aspect of racism I hadn’t really thought about before. I know it exists, or at least I’ve read about it. This is the fact that on some level, even those who self identify as non-racist have unconscious habits that are rooted in racism. Seemingly innocent actions, when experienced from the other side of the door, are actually completely different experiences.

I was deeply disturbed by this idea. As a result of my white privilege, have I offended anyone? How prevalent is this among those who strive not to be that person? I imagine it’s more than I’d like to admit. This version of racism occurs not out of hatred, but out of a lack of understanding what everyday life is like for someone “not you”. We all live in such discrete, little hamster balls and, because the balls are transparent, we ignore them and assume everyone experiences life the way we do. We’re just bumping around like mad little hamsters playing bumper cars. We collide and we get jostled. We exchange pleasantries; glasses of wine, music, ideas, laughter, even shed some tears together. We may even write and talk about what the scenery looks like, how it differs depending on where your sphere has landed. Yet, most of us haven’t rolled through any of the open doors in the room.

As I roll around through my life in my sphere, I’ve never had someone move their purse to the other side when I walked by them on the street, I’ve never had someone change seats on a bus or cross the street when I walked by. My sons never had to be taught how to respond to a police officer if stopped to be sure they don’t get shot. No one has assumed I was the help and handed me his or her coat or asked me to clean up a spill. These things don’t happen on my side of the door. I can read about this till there’s nothing left unread and still have only a shadow of an idea what it’s like to be a hamster in the next room.


However, if you’re remain aware and if you’re lucky, someone will hand you a map that leads to a door where you get a glimpse of what reality is like on the other side.


My friend and I generally end up at our favorite restaurant/bar after choir rehearsal to decompress or celebrate as needed. Last week was no exception. The proprietor, an elderly gentleman with a one-track mind and a hearing issue, began to seat us at a table tightly sandwiched between two already occupied tables. It was rather uncomfortably tight quarters that didn’t allow for much privacy – plus I was on people overload and just needed to keep people at an arms distance (or two). So, I asked if we could be seated at a table just up the row that had more “personal space’ around it. Between the general din of the restaurant, Old Guy not listening, and both my friend and I trying to communicate to each other as well as to Old Guy, I ended up having to insist, a bit louder than respectable, on being relocated. All of this didn’t last more that a minute or two, but took place practically in the laps of the couple seated at one of the two occupied tables. Eventually it all got sorted and my friend and I settled down to the business of happily enjoying our first sip of wine.

However, I couldn’t really relax. Something was persistently nagging at the back of my mind like a baby bird trying to make that first crack in its shell. I found myself glancing around the room and noticed that the couple that had a ringside seat to our mini drama with the proprietor was black. Any other time this would’ve been fleeting and unremarkable and may not have been more than a blip on the consciousness radar. It would’ve been just another nice evening at the restaurant. But, I had read the book, and I noticed. In a flash I saw how my table troubles might have appeared to them. Without insight into my motivation, it probably seemed like I had a problem sitting so close to them, because they were black.

They didn’t seem to be bothered and were enjoying each other’s company, paying no attention to me. But I was bothered. I realized they’ve probably been putting up with this type of thing all their lives. Maybe over the years they’ve learned to deal with it in some way, but so what? The fact that it’s necessary in our society for someone to have to learn to handle things like this is unconscionable. So, after a few minutes of internal debate I decided to briefly talk to them. I didn’t want that incident to be a smudge mark on their evening.

So, I approached their table, introduced myself and quickly explained that I realized how I might have come across. I briefly explained my motivation for wanting to sit in a different location. The woman thanked me and graciously passed it off as no big deal. I figured that was the end of the exchange.

But the man, oh the man! His eyes caught mine and held them deep. “Thank you, “ he said. “Thank you for saying something.” His eyes didn’t let go. What did I see in those eyes? I saw centuries of invisibility while living in plain sight. I saw that invisibility fade only when another saw a mistake, felt an unfounded fear, or thought the other was in the “wrong” place. I saw that one moment when you realize you’ve finally been seen as an equal, when your right to exist is validated – when your humanity is recognized. I saw what white privilege really is.

Most likely that man and I will not cross paths again. We didn’t exchange names or addresses. But I’m quite certain we will remember what we saw in each other eyes. A fraction of a second showed us each other’s ancestral history, made a connection, shone a light; made a small, great change in each of us.

So, I encourage you to read a good book, attend a concert or the theatre or a dance recital. Look beyond the surface ink on the page. Notice who overhears you in a public place, be aware of multifaceted interpretations of your actions or words. Notice. What do you see in someone else’s eyes?


Marafiki (Friends)

Friends keep us from becoming so extremely narcissistic that we fall headfirst into our own navels. And when we do fall, as we surely will, they lift our heads up and show us something worth looking at. Sometimes they might have to grab a fistful of hair and yank. Those are the most reliable and faithful ones; the ones that love you the most. They brush the bellybutton lint off the tip of your nose, aim that nose in another direction, and continue to love you.

I started thinking about friends last February 29th. I remember that day because it was particularly difficult for Blandina (see my post titled “One Little Firefly”). She came to my house completely unable to handle the emotions of the day. This happened again in May, and both times the entire Standard 5 class was her escort. They made sure she was settled; they looked in on her at morning break and later brought her some lunch. They sent emissaries throughout the day to check on her, and after school they came to play with her until Lisa and I shooed them away at dusk. I remember the expressions of worry and concern on their faces. It brought back memories of them crying at her mother’s funeral as if it was their own mother who was lost. They knew when to speak and when to quietly sit beside her. They didn’t ask questions or try to artificially draw emotional conversation from her. They were simply and solidly there.

For safety reasons, Blandina is now living with me and separated from her friends in Berega. She has made new friends and is thriving, but the village children were part of her life her whole life. The village was all she knew. This was her tribe, her customs, her universe. The first time I took her back for a visit, the tsunami wave that began with the death of her mother pummeled her again. She thought that Berega was no longer her village. She felt that the once comfortable, predictable and safe village had been stolen from her. Indeed, that it had betrayed her. She won’t be roaming the dirt roads with friends or sitting next to them in class. When she goes “home” during holidays, it will be to a new village. She won’t be going to sleep in her own bed, in her own hut, in her own neighborhood. She won’t even know her neighbors or any of the local children. She won’t be cooking and doing chores alongside her mother.

Life isn’t fair and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

I’m beginning to realize that, although true, the above statement is also incomplete. You can’t control the inevitable pain that comes with life, but you can cultivate friendships. This last year was a difficult one for me, as well. The feeling of isolation and disequilibrium that is part and parcel of moving was compounded by dropping into the middle of a third world village. I didn’t know the language, the culture or a single living soul. To say it was difficult is an understatement. Yet, through what I’ve heard dubbed “trauma bonding”, I got to know the other volunteers, and that took the edge off.

All of this has brought back memories of my first friend, Lulu Hamada. The Hamada’s had a tire swing next to their vegetable garden. On those slothful summer days when we had nothing to do, we’d idly sway, wiling away the time as we prattled on in our endless, childhood banter. Scrawny cats of all colors and sizes skittered about as they stalked unseen creatures, or sought shelter from the sun. Donned in faded blue overalls with cuffs rolled up, white shirt and wide brimmed, pointed Japanese hat, Lulu’s mom, Alice, would be bent over tending the snow peas, zucchini and other garden delicacies. The hot, primal scent of the earth swirled into our nostrils and drugged our brains. Pear and walnut trees stood tall and majestic as sentinels in the background, their shapes distorted by the heat waves of Indian Summer.

I remember the day my Uncle Clarence passed. The family was gathered at The Ranch to comfort and console Auntie Anna. I can still see her sitting on the arm of the wine-red, leather couch with her sisters, her friends, surrounding her as she sobbed uncontrollably.   I wasn’t quite sure how to handle all this. I was heavy into the “I’m-going-to-be-a-nun” phase of my life and, as such, didn’t’ really see my uncle as dead in the final sense of the word. Why, then, were my aunties so distraught?

I also saw this as the perfect opportunity for my nine-year-old self to slip out undetected to seek the sanctuary of the tire swing and Lulu’s friendship.

We lazed on the swing, as usual, only this time there was a solemnity that blanketed the air and clawed at our skin like dark, sinister, tendrils of smoke. I think Lulu just let me talk or be silent as needed. She understood words weren’t always necessary between friends. Maybe we exchanged our different thoughts about the afterlife, I don’t recall. My memory has long since lost the words of that conversation, but the lasting affirmation, comfort and peace it held is as fresh as if it occurred this morning. Years later, she gave me this gift again at the graveside of my father. We don’t see each other much anymore, except for funerals, which is when we turn up for each other. I will never forget Lulu brushing a tear from my eye at my dad’s grave. She uttered no words, just looked deep into my eyes, smiled and gently brushed the salt from my cheek.

Lulu was my friend from birth, my earliest friend. My cousins were next, though we often fought like siblings. My mother and aunties modeled friendship among sisters, I saw the male version between my father and his brothers. Friends. Look for them. Let them find you. Marafiki. Yūjin. Amigos. Amichi. Freunde. Filoi. Copains. Hal nabqaa aisdiqa’an. Call them what you want, but embrace them. To this day I can’t see a tire swing without reliving memories of my friendship with Lulu and our lazy childhood days on The Ranch. My neighbors have a tire swing in their yard. As I watch Blandina and her new friends play, I can’t help but wonder if they’re forging the same quality of memories I was fortunate to make. I regret that we never had a tree in our yard big enough to put up a tire swing for my own children. If I ever have grandchildren, I will be sure to find a place for one. That swing can be where they and their friends can laugh and play, swing and spin, or just get away from the adults. It can be the place where they develop freedom and independence, friendships, philosophies, fantasies and maybe even start a rotten fruit war. Maybe, just maybe, they will blur the new lines of societal expectation and grow up to make their corner of the world a place where friends can find each other.

Note: I began this post several months ago, but didn’t upload it because I don’t have any decent pics to go with it.  However, if I continue thinking like that I’ll never get anything posted ever again.  So, here you are.  There’s a couple in the works to follow later.

Mwizi wa Maembe (The Mango Thief)

This post is dedicated to Liz Clibourne.

Vasco with Ball A.JPG

Vasco in his Sunday Best.  This is the cleanest I’d seen him to date.  He’s holding what the children make for soccer balls.  They have no torus, so they make them.  The balls are made out of old plastic bags and held together with fabric or string.  They actually work pretty good!  

You don’t have to live in the village long before being indoctrinated into the Holy Trinity of Berega: there is little food and not much variety, there are a lot of hungry kids, and stealing from wazungu is okay because they can always get more (true, but annoying as hell).

“Hodi.” The traditional request to enter and visit comes from the back door. “Karibu,” Liz and I reply, “Welcome.” On the porch we find a typical village waif. Vasco has been here before as a tagalong with some of the Bishop Chitemo students. The Kaguru people tend to be short, so although he is nine, he looks like he’s six or seven. He has dark, liquid, hopeful puppy-dog eyes and a heart melting, disarming smile. He is also filthy. His ill-fitting clothes are literally rags, his skin covered in layers of red dust. Clothes and body are so embedded with dirt and grime, the original color of both can only be guessed. He has that village kid smell; a combination of dirt, smoke, sweat and stale urine. I see scraped knees, bruises, and broken sandals. Vasco has never been to school.


“Hello, Vasco. What do you want?”

“Teacha. Cuhlah.” He looks past me into the living room. His eyes scan everything in sight.

“You want to color?”

“Cuhlah. Papah,” he replies, and continues to scan.

“Alright Vasco. Sit down. I’ll get them.”

“Teacha. Cuhlah.” Scan.

Ndiyo. Yes.” Neck crane – scan.

Armed with a box of crayons and some scratch paper, he settles himself into a porch chair and entertains himself.

“Okay, Vasco. Time to go home. Naenda nyumbani.”

“Teacha. Chupa.”

Chupa? Bottles?” I hold up an empty water bottle. “You want bottles? He nods. “Alright. Enjo. Karibu.” Come here. Come in.

He doesn’t need our bottles. You can pick them up from any fire pit or road side in the village. He just wants to have something to call his own and show off to his buddies. From her position on the couch Liz studies the kid as he follows me through the living room into the kitchen where we keep the empty plastic bottles. His head systematically surveys the room.

“Look at him! He’s casing the place!” Liz chuckles from behind her book.

He was indeed, and he found his prize in the form of the mangoes in our fruit basket.

December is high mango season. At the sokoni in Morogoro, you can get all manner of mangoes from the small sun-yellow ones to the medium size green ones, to the huge orange and yellow ones. The latter are gold. You can’t get them in the village. The only mangoes you can get here have enough fiber to choke Euell Gibbons, and are picked green. You can find them right next to the green oranges, but you’re going to spend a week flossing the strings out of your teeth. Liz and I were on a layover in Berega before continuing on our Christmas travels. We had brought home several of the large mangoes.

“Teacha. Embe?” Mango? His hunger was pleading with us through his eyes.

To my shock and wonderment, Liz hands over one of the precious fruits. Liz does not share mangos. Neither can she resist an obviously hungry child. I thought Vasco’s eyes were going to jump right out of their orbits. He said, “Asante.” Thank you. He shot out of there faster than street-meat out of a mzungu.


The next day he brought reinforcements and stole the rest of our mangoes.


“Little thief!” I spat. Liz and I were discussing what to do. Those mangos were destined to be dinner. We had been looking forward to them all damn day. I felt betrayed. Hours later I was still madder than a wet cat.

Liz takes a sip of her coffee. “If we do nothing he figures he’s gotten away with it and one day he’ll either get his ass beat to death or get fired.” Getting “fired” involves one thief, one tire, a bit of rope, petrol, a mob, and at least one match.

“Right, but if we rat him out, he gets beat, and I mean beat, at home.”

“Well, considering they kill thieves around here, we need to find his Baba and tell him.” Liz said.

“Good point.”

But it’s not a good solution. Vasco has a reputation around the village as a thief. We want him to answer for his crime, but, at the same time, we want to protect the kid. I mean, he’s annoying as a saddle bur, but he’s only nine! We also recognize this kid is smart…a sneaky little thief, but smart. He is always thinking. Intelligent eyes can’t hide.

“Well then, Liz,” I said, throwing myself on the couch in distain. I was still a little pissed. “We have stolen mangoes and a smart kid. What the hell do you suggest we do?”

“Put him in school.”

“Excuse me?” I’m thinking maybe some of those mangos she’d eaten had fermented.

“Put him in school.” Oh yeah, they were definitely fermented. 100 proof.

“Liz. He’s nine, never been to school, doesn’t know squat, and has never had to behave. He’s a Wild Child, for god’s sake!”

“If he’s as smart as we think he is maybe he’ll turn it around.”


That is how The Mango Thief ended up sweeping our porch every morning for two weeks (to pay off the mangoes) and started the school year as the oldest kid in Chekechea (kindergarten).


He had a bit of a rough start – something about a torch getting stolen from the school choo (outhouse), passed around, broken. It earned him and a few others a little “vacation”. But, as it turns out, Liz nailed it. Vasco is a back porch regular now. He comes by several times a week to greet us in both Kiswahili and English. He still sweeps and takes great pride in it, even though he long ago paid off his debt. After he settles his broom neatly in the corner, he asks for paper and a pencil and practices writing his numbers and letters. Right from the start Teacher Martha taught him how to write his name. He carefully puts his name to paper, looks up at me and flashes that award-winning smile. Recently we’ve started conducting simple conversations in English. They’re only two or three sentences long, but we’re communicating. Today I noticed he is teaching himself sight words. What really gets me is straight out of the chute he decided every word I teach him in English, he would teach me in Kiswahili. If I try to get him to understand one complete sentence in English, he makes sure I can understand a sentence in Kiswahili. And he doesn’t let me get away with sloppiness!

“Good morning Teacha.”

“Good morning, Vasco. Did you come to greet us?”

“Yes, Teacha. May I sweep?” he asks, pronouncing each word carefully. He sets about making sure the porch is dirt and leaf free. But today, today is different. He doesn’t ask for his paper and pencil, or for me to read him a book. Today, instead of propping the broom up in it’s corner when finished, he leans on it, and looks me straight in the eye.

“Teacha,” he says.

“Yes, Vasco?”

“Teacha. Thank you for school.”

Vasco in Uniform A.JPG

Brand new uniform, belt, socks and shoes.  He was so proud!

Vasco in Uniform B.JPG

That award winning, heart melting smile.

Kwa rafiki zangu wanaopenda wanyama.


Loxodonta africana.  Tarangire National Park has the largest tembo/elephants.

Kwa rafiki zangu wanaopenda wanyama.   For all my animal loving friends.  Here are the safari pics I promised.  As far back as I can remember, Africa, her people, and her animals were always in competition with classical music in my soul.  Lions especially.  The battle still rages.  For now,  Africa has the upper hand.  I really must resolve this – but that is fodder for a different blog.

I generally shoot around 550 pics a day on safari, then cull them down to between 80-100.  This is a compilation of what I consider the best of each culled set.  I’ve included the Kiswahili name for most animals.  I still have to identify some of the birds, so for those I don’t know I’ll just call them ndege/bird.  My 2 year old toddler command of the language isn’t up to that yet.  I’ve also included most of the scientific names for those of you who are big science geeks like I am.  This post is mainly pics with mini biology lessons peppered with biological terminology.  Sorry, not sorry – can’t help myself.  If you’re not interested in the science, just scroll through and enjoy the pics.

Be forewarned – I’ve included some graphic pics of animals killed by lions.

An estimated 20% of Africa’s large animals reside in Tanzania.  My goal is to visit each and every park and conservation area at least once before I leave.  Anyone care to place a wager?


Loxodonta africana, Tarangire National Park.  Due to poaching, tusks this long aren’t often seen.


Red Dirt Elephant.jpg

This is the matriarch of the herd.  The red coloration is from the red dirt she threw all over herself.  This is both protection from sun and parasites.  Yes, elephants can get sunburned. There is a lot of iron in Tanzanian soil.

Elephant Skull.jpg

Ever wonder what an elephant skull looks like?

Fish Eagle.jpg

Ndege/Bird.  Haliaeetus vocifer, Ruaha National Park.  African fish eagle.












Fish Eagle in Flight.JPG

Ndege/Bird. Haliaeetus vociferRuaha National Park.  African fish eagle in flight.

Mom and baby giraffe.JPG

Twiga.  Giraffa camelopardalis reticulate, Arusha National Park.  Reticulated giraffe mama lovin’ on her new baby.  The calf was less than a month old.  You can tell because it’s height still placed him under his mama’s belly.  One of our volunteers, Bette, converted this into a painting  for me.  Thanks Bette!

Reticulated Giraffe family.JPG

Twiga.  Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata, Arusha National Park.  Retiulated giraffe family.  You can see how small the calf is.  Arusha was so green and lush!

Maasai Giraffe drinking.JPG

Twiga.  Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi, Ruaha National Park.  This is one of my favorite pics.  This is a male Maasai Giraffe.  It is also known as the Masai giraffe and the Kilimanjaro giraffe.  It is the largest of the 3 giraffe subspecies and the tallest land mammal.  Hmmm….can you have a tall aquatic mammal?  If you look closely, you can see the difference in coloration between the Maasai and Reticulated giraffes above.

Blue Balls.JPG

Tumbili / Monkey.  Male (obviously) Vervet Monkey, Clorocebus pygerythrus, Ruaha National Park.  Also affectionately known as Blue Balls.

Blue Balls Face

“Hey!  My face is up here!”


Clorocebus pygerythrus.  Arusha National Park.  Female Vervet Monkey and infant.  In both the Vervet and Blue Monkeys (below) troops, the pregnant and postpartum females seemed to gather together in maternity groups.  I don’t know if this is always true or true of all monkeys, but it was interesting.

Blue Balls Infant.JPG

The Vervet Monkey infants are kind of creepy looking.  Alien-like faces and giant tarantulas for hands and feet.

Blue Monkey and baby.JPG

Tumbili / Monkey.  Cercopithecus mitis, Arusha National Park.  All African monkeys are old world monkeys.  This is a Blue Monkey mama and baby.  Not the best framing, but it’ll do till I get back there.  Blue Monleys aren’t really blue, but in the right light (which I didn’t get) there is a fine ring of hair around the face that can sometimes look blueish.

Okay, the biology teacher in me needs to give a mini anthropoid evolution lesson.  All anthropoids began in Africa.  Somewhere around 30mya some decided to get outta Dodge and migrate to South America.  There they evolved in isolation and became the new world monkeys.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the African anthropoids split into 2 major groups.  The hominoids became the old world monkeys and the hominids became the apes; which includes humans.  We did not descend from apes or monkeys.  This is a common misconception that drives me absolutely nuts.  We share a common anthropoid ancestor with them.  We are 98% genetically identical to our cousins, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), because we share this ancestor.  If you don’t believe me just go watch an elementary school yard at recess.

Elephant Ears

Tembo / Elephant.  Loxodonta africana, Ruaha National Park.  This big bull just finished a nice refreshing bath.  Wish I could’ve joined him.  This day was blazing hot.

Fun factoids: Elephants emit infrasonic sounds.  These are sounds with frequencies lower than 20 Hz; lower than humans can hear (20 Hz is our lower limit).  Low frequencies travel farther than high frequencies and are thus ideal for long distance communication.  This is very important for elephants because they live in very tight knit family groups.  These infrasonic sounds are considered a defining characteristic of all three African elephant species.  Yes, there are 3 species of African elephants.  The savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) which resides here in East Africa, and the forest elephant in central Africa (Loxodonta cycloits), have genetically distinct mitochondrial DNA.  The west African elephant has been diverging from the other 2 for a couple million years.  Not long.  The genetic studies are very recent and I could not find the binomial name for the West African subspecies.  FYI, there are also 3 subspecies of Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, and they also emit infrasonic sounds.

Agama A.JPG

Mjusi / Lizard.  Agama agama, Ruaha National Park.  This is a dominant male.  Lesser males and females have muted colors.  also known as the Rainbow Lizard.

Agama C.JPG

Mjusi / Lizard.  Agama agama, Ruaha National Park.  We have these in Berega, too.  The males will bob their heads attempting to look suave and attract the ladies.


My second safari to Ruaha yielded not one, but two sitings of lions guarding a kill.  I have yet to see an actual hunt, but I can now say (okay…brag) that I’ve seen 3 lion feasts in my life.  Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll someday get shots of the hunt.

Simba eating close.jpg

Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo.  This was taken on private land bordering Tsavo National Park, Kenya.  The land owners granted the research team access to their land for the duration of the study. The reddish cast on the pic is from the red light used for night shots.  It’s easier on the animals than bright white.  We weren’t really interested in pissing off a lion.

The above pic was shot in ’05 when I joined an Earthwatch expedition as a data collector (aka, lackey).  The study was to determine why the maneless lions of Tsavo have juvenile manes or no manes at all.  They were also studying why lions in this region go man eating more often than in other areas.  I highly recommend the film “The Ghost and the Darkness,” with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.  The story is true, I’ve read the book seen the bridge.  These lions are the decedents of the lions in the movie.  Hollywood, of course, used full-maned lions.  These lions are juveniles.  There is no way to tell if they are male or female from this pic.

Male Lion A.JPG

Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park.

Lion Kill_Giraffe.JPG

This is what the big boy above was guarding.  We saw him chase off a jackal.  I’m thinking he must be in his prime to have brought down an adult giraffe solo.  That bloated stomach?  Can’t tell you how glad I am it didn’t burst while we were there.


Tai / Vultures.  I think these are Ruppell’s Griffin Vultures, Gyps rueppellii.  Ruaha National Park.


Tai / Vulture.  Gyps rueppellii (?), Ruaha National Park


Alright, when from a distance you see trees loaded with vultures, vultures in the air and vultures on the ground, you know you’re about to see something pretty cool.

Buffalo Kill.JPG

…and we did.  Problem was, there were vultures everywhere except on the carcass.  Hmmm….  Cape buffalo, Synerus caffer (or at least it was).

We were on a small outcrop of land above the kill.  I’m shooting pics and zooming in; still wondering why the vultures were being so tentative.  Finally, a few started cautiously moving in one at a time.  Eventually the rest ran, flew, swooped, and hopped over.  They began just ripping this buffalo apart like there was no tomorrow.  A flock of vultures can strip a carcass of this size clean in 20 minutes.


At one point this buffalo was obliterated in a whirling, tangled mass of feathers and beaks.

Suddenly, my view became a confusing conglomerate of wings, beaks, and feet.  The vultures just exploded in every immaginable direction. It happened so fast I didn’t realize what I was seeing – until the feathers cleared and I was staring into the face of a charging lioness.  I completely forgot I was looking through a zoom lens and just absolutely froze and missed the damn shot of a lifetime.  We were in an open top Land Rover and she didn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.  We were not far from her – maybe 15-20 feet.  By the time I collected myself she had stopped on a dime and turned.  The pic below is all I got of that charge.  She could care less about us.  She was after the vultures.

Lioness back of head.JPG

Simba / lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park.

When she went and hid behind the little cliff, we knew the vultures would return.  There was going to be an encore.

Lioness charging A.JPG

Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park.  The charge begins.  She went from zero to top speed in fraction of a second.  It was vehement.

Lioness charging B.JPG

Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park.  This is absolutely my all time favorite shot.  I had no idea I had gotten that vulture in the pic.  Lions can take out several vultures in one swipe.  If you look closely, the lioness is missing the tuft at the end of her tail and her left eye is blind.  Must’ve been one hell of a fight.  That’s probably why that vulture still lives; she couldn’t see it.

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Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park. The quantity and velocity of dirt displaced by this cat could almost have become shrapnel.  Her belly may have been stuffed with meat, but this mama was movin’. Just pure muscle.  An unadulterated powerhouse of motion.

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Simba / Lion.  Panthera leo, Ruaha National Park.  I cropped and enlarged her face so you could see her blind left eye.  I’m partial to cats with blind eyes.  My cat back home is also blind in one eye.

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A boring shot, but it does show how lucky we were.  This is normally what lions do 23 hours a day.

The  female is on the right and there’s a 3rd male out of sight guarding the kill.  A bit strange since a pride consists of females and their cubs.  Males come in for mating and otherwise exist in small bachelor prides or go it alone.  They weren’t mating because a mating pair will not hunt for the 3 or so days of….well, you know.  I’m not sure what was going on here.

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Simba / Lion.  Panthera Leo.  This young male was sleeping under a tree approximately seven feet from the truck.  At one point he opened his eye and stared my camera down.  I admit it was a tad unnerving.  Lisa, my housemate, is going to do a digital painting of this is cool colors.

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Swala Impala / Impala.  Aepyceros melampus.  The females lack horns.  Seriously, these are so abundant we started calling them rats.  Trying to get a pic face on like this was hard.  They look directly at you until you put a camera up to your eye.

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Ndege / Bird.  Dinemellia dinemelli, White-Headed Buffalo Weaver.  They live in large, communal nests.

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Ndege / Bird.  Dinemellia dinemelli, White-Headed Buffalo Weaver in flight.











Crested Crane

Ndege / Bird.  Crested Crane, Tarangire National Park.  Balearica regulorum.  One of my favorite birds.

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Ndege / Bird.  This is a Spectacled Weaver, Ploceus oculars.  This was taken in my backyard, which is literally Africa.  I’ve gotten 25 different species so far and all I’ve had to do was sit on my butt and shoot.  There’s a few I’ve seen but haven’t gotten the pic yet.  BUT…the most exciting part is Lisa is going to take this pic and do a water color painting for me!!


Kiboko / Hippo Hippopotamus amphibious.  This hippo was blowing bubbles in the river just for the fun of it.  Be a hippo.


I call this one “Diva.”


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AAAAAA.  Relax your jaw, relax your tongue, relax your lips.  EVERYTHING should be relaxed.  Support, sopranos, support! (The pic is overexposed, but I still like it.)









Equus quagga / Plains Zebra (formerly Equus burchellii).  Ruaha National Park.  This mare was having a grand ol’ time rolling in the dirt.  Those of you familiar with horses know this only happens immediately after a bath.


Equus quagga / Plains Zebra.  Ruaha National Park. Feelin’ sassy after that nice roll.  I love the black and white stripes against the green.  The stripe pattern on a zebra is as unique as our finger prints.

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Tragelaphus strepsiceros / Greater Kudu, male.  Ruaha National Park.  The majesty with which he walked cannot be captured in a still shot.  Just think “Bambi’s daddy” and you’ve got it.

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Bucorvus leadbeateri / Southern Ground Hornbill.  Ruaha National Park.  The one with the red head is the adult.

Having the honor of being the largest hornbill in Africa, this is Zazu’s cousin (Kudos if you got The Lion King reference).  There is a lot of myth surrounding this bird.  They are harbingers of rain be it welcome or not.  If they are feeding in a field, that’s where you want to graze your cattle.  They will bring you wealth, BUT, if one lands on or near your house and you don’t’ chase it away immediately – somebody is going to die.  It’s bad luck to kill one, unless you need rain.  One thing they do that isn’t myth is they’ll break the windows in your house because they think their reflection is another hornbill needing chasing off.

I haven’t heard their booming, call in the early morning because, well….morning.


Scopus umbretta / Hamerkop.  Tarangire National Park. Not much to look at except for that head.

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Lamprotornis superbus / Superb Starling.  Tarangire National Park.  They have an oil gland that makes their feathers so shiny.

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Lamprotornis superbus / Superb Starling.  Ruaha National Park.  It looks like it’s singing, but what it is actually doing is cooling off by panting.


Notopholia corrusca / Black-Belly Glossy Starling.  This one was in my back yard.


I’ve spent hours just sitting on the back porch shooting pictures of birds.  I’ve heard more than I’ve seen, and I think I’m up to 25 different species so far.  There’s a big, black hornbill that is teasing me.  Either it shows up when the lighting is really poor, or it hides in the branches and I can’t get the shot.  Oh…but I will.






Took me a while, but I finally got this next one.  When it flies, all you see is this brilliant, breathtaking flash of magenta.


Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Violet-backed Starling.  Sometimes this bird is hard to see.  The sun has to hit it at just the right angle.  Also taken in my backyard.


Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Violet-backed Starling. Front view with that yellow eye. Another backyard shot.


And last, but not least, the leopard.  I’m told it’s rare to spot a leopard because they’re nocturnal.  They’re not always out in the middle of the day, and if they are they’ll be camouflaged high up in a tree asleep.  They  don’t sleep out in the open like lions do.  We were headed toward our lunch stop when I glanced out the window and saw her tail bobbing above the tall grass.  Pure.  Luck.

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Panthera pardus / leopard.  Tarangire National Park.  She had just emerged from the tall grass and was loping toward her next tree at a leisurely rate.  That tail has a life of its own.  The fluidity of motion  this animal possesses is absolutely entrancing.

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Panthera pardus / leopard.  Tarangire National Park.  We followed her to the tree and drove right up under it.  Didn’t phase her one bit.

Alright – there’s your animal pics.  I’m hoping to head toward The Serengeti and Ngorongoro this summer, then Ruaha again, Mikumi and a couple of other parks. Going back to Zanzibar is also on that list.

Oh, sorry if the formatting is messed up.  A post looks one way in the “edit” window and another in the “preview” window.  I don’t have the patience to sort that out.








One Little Firefly

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Our little Blandina a year or 2 ago.  Isn’t she just the cutest?  I love her hair.  Photo credit: Liz Clibourne.

On the 2nd day of our new school year, one of our little vimulimuli (fireflies), Blandina, was promoted from Std. 3 to Std. 5.  She just beamed! She was so proud of herself and so happy!  Blandina is a cute, brilliant, kind child with a strong yet tender, wise soul.  She is quiet but in no way shy; a true introvert.  She will look you right in the eye and say nothing while communicating volumes.  She knows who she is.  I have no doubt she went straight home after school and told her mother the good news with all the exuberance a girl of 9 or 10 years can muster.
Later that same evening, Blandina’s mother fell victim to senseless human violence.

The entire village, including school staff and her classmates, attended the funeral.  As soon as she saw her friends she wailed and screamed at the top of her lungs before collapsing in the arms of her best friend, Grace.  Her friends held her up, sat her down and just let her have at it.  They cried with her, even the boys.  Blandina chose to spend the better part of the funeral surrounded by her school family.  She sat in my lap tucked in fetal position, head covered with her kanga, and quietly sobbed.  Yet, she was able to accept the silent support of both staff and students.  When her father sent for her, to gather her for the viewing and burial, she just couldn’t look at her mom.  The, irrevocable finality of that first, hollow thud of earth as it hit that pine box caused her to threw her head back let loose a sound I didn’t know was possible for human vocal cords to produce.  I hope you never have to hear a child make that sound.  Never.  All the women of the family joined in – her sister, aunties, grandmother.  Hours later and into the next day we could still hear them from all the way across the villlage.

Hell of a way to start a new school year and my first solo week as director.  Makes unfinished classrooms, not enough furniture, no electricity or running water, a shortage of books, pit toilets and a M.I.A. teacher seem like a walk in the park.
Life isn’t fair and owes us nothing.  I don’t understand why someone like Blandina, a child born into a life fraught with hardship to begin with, has to have this Hell heaped upon her.  Some say what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.  Looks to me that what doesn’t kill us will double its efforts and try again.  All I know for sure is the only answer God has given me in all this craziness is a solution, not an explanation.  That solution is education, education, education.  I am convinced education would have prevented this tragedy.
I’m beginning to understand that education is active prayer.
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“Teacha.  Do you have to stand so close to take my picha?”  Photo credit: Janet Eschweiler.

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“Teacha.  Can’t you see I’m working here?”  

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“Teacha.  Seriously.  I’m going to mess her up if you don’t make her stop swiping my stuff.”



I haven’t mastered the art of night photography, so no vimulimuli pics.  But keeping with the spirit of mulika, here’s a sunset for you.

Fireflies. Vimulimuli. My favorite way to end the day is to turn off all the lights, sit on the porch and watch the vimulimuli. I listen to crickets chirp and bats flutter. I listen to the Laughing Lady, night birds, and cows lowing as they settle in for the night. Music drifts from somewhere in the village and bush babies cackle in the trees above my head. Even the annoying buzzing of the ubiquitous mosquitos contribute to a peaceful end to my daylight hours (yea, yea – malaria; whatever.) But the vimulimuli are the best. No matter the nature of my day, I can sit and watch them flit and flash and dance in the bush like the magical creatures I imagine them to be. Blinking, repeating pinpoints of brilliant, brief, bright magic.

       Mulika means “to give light to.” I think I shall make this my theme for 2016. I will do my best to “let my little light shine.” It does fit with #7 of my seven Rules for Life: Practice smoothing the paths of others. I am officially Director of the school now. It is my turn to be a blinking, repeating pinpoint of brilliant, brief, bright magic. After 5 years of hard work, commitment, dedication and love for these kids, the now former Director, Liz, feels the need to move on and serve elsewhere (after a nice long vacation, of course. Safari njema Liz!). So, the job fell to me as the oldest and most experienced wazungu teacher here. Not much for qualifications, if you ask me. There is much shida/trouble to deal with right now and the first day of school will be a shida storm of magnanimous proportions. In addition to solving unresolved issues from last school year, we need everything from new students to sponsors to an actual school building, textbooks, desks, teachers…the list is endless. And we need it all yesterday. I don’t even have a written job description, but mulika sounds good to me. Time to be a little kimulimuli.

According to the Church calendar, today is Epiphany – the climax of the seasons of Advent and Christmas. To me, these have always been seasons of light. The lights on the tree, moonlight on snow and lake, a cozy fire in the hearth, the ribbon of skiers carrying torches as they glide down the mountain, candles in the hands of carolers, the star over the manger. Now this year I add the light of the vimulimuli on a hot, humid evening. This is our Epiphany here under the Southern Cross.

On January 18th our students will show up and we will teach them. One day they will graduate and go forth as new blinking, repeating pinpoints of brilliant, brief, bright magic. Their magic just might rebuild our world.

The African Children’s Choir

(For those missing my usual smattering of pics, I promise my next post will be nothing but pics from the 3 safaris I took over break.)

Thankfulness in the Shadow of Cholera


The entrance to Berega Hospital on a slow day.

On Thanksgiving Day, while us Americans, the Brits and our Belgian doctor were celebrating Thanksgiving Day Tanzanian style, the first cases of cholera began to appear in our village. The hospital is filling and we have already lost at least one child (not one of our students). This is an extremely serious and contagious disease, and there will probably be more deaths. The government is sending a medical team today who will set up an isolation camp at the edge of the village on the abandoned airstrip. Today, three days after the first cases presented, there are 31 confirmed cases. Our doctors think it’s possible we’re on the cusp of a serious outbreak.

Hospital Truck

Hospital staff awaiting the vanguard of the government medical team.


“Downtown” Berega.

My perspective on what it means to be thankful, or mindful, has modulated a bit. I’m sitting here wondering if any of our kids have been admitted today. I can feel the sting of tears just thinking about it. I’m drinking clean, filtered water, have a flush toilet and soap to wash my hands; bare basics I never thought twice about back home. I never had to worry that water from the tap was so unfit to give to my children that it could kill them. I didn’t have to haul the day’s water up from the river in a bucket on my head, or carry a 60 lb. bundle of firewood just to boil that

Fetching Water

Fetching water.

water or to cook. I never had to worry about where my children were going to get their next meal, or whether or not they’d be playing near (or in) where someone had just relieved themself. I never had to boil the milk I gave them in case it contained tuberculosis, or watch them get bloated worm bellies. I never had to worry that their anemic little bodies couldn’t fight off malaria, or that it would develop into cerebral malaria. Hell, the most serious disease I had to worry about them getting was chicken pox. Back then, if a neighbor kid had it you’d just send your kids over to play so they’d catch it and get it over with.

Std 4 Class Pic

The class pic I took of Standard 4 on our back porch. I’m closest to this class, but losing any of the kids would devastate all of us.

So, this holiday season I am both mindful and thankful that I’ve been given the privilege to observe and take part in someone else’s very different reality. I am thankful that my education allows me to understand that the tents at the edge of the village are where you want to go, not avoid, if you’re sick. I am thankful for vaccinations and quality medical care; again, something I’ve always taken for granted. I am thankful I can afford toilet paper so I don’t have to use my left hand.

Carrying Wood

This is that bundle of wood that weighs about 60 lbs. This lady has a ways to go before she gets back to the village and, as you can tell from the lighting, it’s almost dark.

            But I am mostly thankful that this alternate reality now has a face. Indeed, it has many faces. It is Mariam and Maria that carry the daily water to school, it is the other Maria who empties the buckets from the school latrines. It is the dirty, dusty, smelly little village kids that should

Village Kids

Dirty, dusty, smelly little village kids. But you have to admit they’re cute.

be in school but aren’t. It is the faces of all 136 of our students who run up to gives hugs whether we’re in school or just around the village. It is the boys that bring the cows and goats home and the girls that carry the water. It is the village women who try to teach me to speak Kiswahili and the children from Mgugu, the local government school, that say hi and now call me by name. It is the mentally disabled boy who drools and can’t speak but is full of love, and Bestie the mentally disabled man who “herds” his 2 pet goats. It’s the little 2 year old that yells, “Hi!” every morning from inside his house as I walk to school. It is the lady that sells us eggs, Stan the Taylor who makes our clothes, the young Maasai mother in the maternity ward who’s new son weighs only 1 kilo. It is Jackie at the

Joyce at Sunrise Cafe

Joyce from Sunrise Cafe.

duka (store) who wants to be a mining engineer, Joyce at Sunrise Café who dances with me on occasion, Asefiwe the choir director’s young daughter who tries to teach me song lyrics. It is our student Hasan’s bibi (grandmother) who washes our clothes, and Frida who begged to clean our house once a week because she is a single mom and needs to feed her 5 children and sick mother. It is Ruth, Isaac and Mapenzi the local Hands4Africa staff who want better for their children. It is the men,


Asefiwe singing her little heart out as she leads the Children’s Choir in song. She isn’t one of ours, but I love this kid.

women and children at the hospital waiting their turn to be seen. It is the Maasai women of Ifunde who make it a point to say hello when they see me on their forays to Berega for Monday Market. It’s the Laughing Lady  we hear every night from across the gully, and the friendly laughter of the women in the village when they hear me butcher their beautiful language as I’m trying to learn it.

This reality, the reality of poverty and disease, is the face of everyone I meet each and every day.


Minge. He lives way out of the village with his family. I frequently run into him on my walks.


This is Nelson, who I also run into on my walks. He carries a machete and a hoe in case anyone wants to hire him to clear brush. This is the only place I know where a lone woman can run into a man carrying a machete and hoe in the middle of nowhere and fear doesn’t even cross your mind. As it should be.

All of these people have changed my perspective on my reality; of privilege I grew up with and never questioned. I don’t feel guilty about how I was raised or how I raised my children. Every parent wants to provide their family with the best they possibly can – there’s no shame in that. It’s just that I didn’t deserve the circumstances of my birth any more than the people born here deserved theirs. It’s just what happened. But because I’m living here, if for only a short while, my reality and my good fortune of being born into privilege, is now inseparable from the reality of the people who live in Berega.

Little Joyce

Asefiwe’s little sister, Joyce. All this kid does is laugh, and smile, and hug. Happy, happy little girl.

So, on this 1st day of Advent I will, as usual, enter my annual season of reflection and expectation. As I do so this year in the face of cholera, I am mindful that the people of Berega and the facet of life that is theirs, are now and forever will be a part of who I am, and who I am becoming.

Rahabu A

Rahabu enjoying Children’s Choir rehearsal. She looks about 18 here, but she’s really only 10.


Rehema feelin’ the Spirit at rehearsal.

Dani and Duck

Dani eagerly anticipating step 1 of getting our duck ready for dinner.


Couldn’t find Stan today to get his pic, but here’s a shot of his taylor shop. Sunrise Cafe is just to the left. Guess there was no hanging goat today.  Maybe the goats get a Sunday reprieve.


Village boys goofing off and just generally being boys.

Pasco with Recorder

Pasco about to get his recorder swiped.