Thursday, December 30, 2010

Speechless in Kazinga

It’s a long drive from Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park way over in the west, about six and a half hours in all, at Ritchie speed (ie fast).  The road was quite busy as everyone in Kampala seemed to be going ‘upcountry’, to their village for Christmas.  We, however, were going to the Jacana Safari Lodge in the Maramagambo Forest in the southern part of the Park.

We're now blasé...

...about baboons.
‘Maramagambo’ means ‘We’re out of words’.  As one of the rangers told us, his people had got fed up with elephants trampling their villages and crops and after years of fruitless appeal to the colonial administration to do something about it eventually gave up, hence the name of the forest.  Ironically, the administration did eventually do something: it set up what was at that time called Kazinga National Park.  As a result, in 1952 the elephants, and all the rest of the 98 mammal species and 610 bird species within the Kazinga area, were given priority over the humans.  The locals were banned from hunting and could only remain within the park if they restricted their activities to fishing.  Kazinga became Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) after the Queen’s visit in 1954, but was renamed Rwenzori National Park by Amin during whose chaotic government most of the animals were wiped out – eaten by a starving population. It is now QENP again and, you will be pleased to hear, the wildlife are flourishing once more.  The humans seem to be doing OK as well.

The Jacana Safari Lodge comprises eleven comfortable wooden lodges at the edge of a crater lake and surrounded by forest which goes right to the water’s edge. 
Rainforest right to the edge.
 QENP has many crater lakes scattered right across its huge area.  

Another crater lake in Maramagamba Forest

If you want a peaceful, relaxing retreat from the world, go to the Jacana.  Its excellent food is made from local ingredients and the staff are extremely courteous, friendly and helpful.  The lodges are built and furnished from local or recycled materials, and designed to minimise their impact on the ecology of the local environment. 
Lodge No 1: Zebra - the Ritchie's. You should just be able to make out the lake.

Dining en plein air

Fishermen returning at the end of the day.
In the morning you are woken by birdsong and the sun rising across the lake.  During the day you watch the vervet monkeys gorging on fruit and squabbling with any hapless red-tailed monkey who tries to join in.  You catch glimpses of colobus monkeys cleverly camouflaged among the leaves.  

Greedy vervet monkey
Hungry red-tailed monkey
'Colobus' to us, 'dinner' to chimpanzees.
Butterflies gather in clusters and, once, we drove through clouds of them dancing in front of our car. 

Butterflies by our lodge...
...and by the swimming pool.
At night you hear hippos grunting and chimpanzees calling to alert each other to the presence of food or the fact that it’s bedtime.

There are several groups of chimpanzees in different areas of the Park.  Those in the Maramagambo Forest are not used to human beings and disappear into the treetops as soon as you appear.  However, in one area of the Park, Kyambura Gorge, they have been tracked and studied for some years and have become habituated to humans.  According to tradition, the river running through the gorge had no name until a surprise flood washed away the belongings of the local inhabitants who came back from their subsequent searches empty-handed, exclaiming ‘kyambura’, or ‘I cannot see it’.  And so Kyambura the river became. 

Kyambura Gorge cuts right through the savannah
Descending the gorge.

Shoogly bridge, crucial planks missing part way.
Boys, despite this, your mother made it!

Not the sort of water you would want to fall into.
Despite its ill-omened name, visitors to the Gorge have an 85% chance of actually seeing chimps.  We were lucky.  The previous group had walked for six hours and seen nothing.  Our chimp photos aren’t great.  The rest of our group had splendid cameras which zoomed in and out and could even take close-ups of chimpanzee faces.  Our ‘point and shoot’ technology wasn’t really up to it and, anyway, we couldn't use flash at close quarters.  However, the experience itself was wonderful.  We listened to the chimps calling to each other, and watched them swinging through the branches and slithering down near our feet.  It was mostly males we saw as the females and children generally hide from humans.  One of the mature males, Hatari (meaning ‘danger’ as he is responsible for alerting the troup to any concerns) actually fell asleep on the ground a few feet from us.  Another member of the group, Majj ('water'), urinated on us from the branches above, not a particularly pleasant mode of communication.

Definitely four limbs, but where's the head?

A bit blurry, but it's definitely a chimp.
It’s a strange sensation to be within 3 metres of these, your species’ nearest relatives.  Apparently, we share 98.7% of our DNA with chimpanzees.  They do so many things which we think of as being peculiarly ‘human’.  Chimps may be ‘speechless’, but they communicate with each other very successfully either through calling or by thumping on the ‘buttresses’, or above-ground roots, of the tall tropical trees.  Apparently only the males are allowed to do this.  Any females who dare to try this form of communication are quickly beaten up and silenced. In Kyambura, there is a particular tree which chimps successfully use as ‘medicine’ for a range of ailments.  None of the rangers ever carry sticks for fear of sending out the wrong messages as sticks are used as weapons when chimps fight among themselves.  Although their diet is mainly fruit, chimps also hunt colobus monkeys or even small antelope, working together to surround and overwhelm their victim. When one of their troup is close to death, they carry him to a specially prepared bed of leaves in the upper branches on which they place fruit for him to eat.  There they leave him.  Once dead, the body is carried back down the tree and laid to rest on the ground.  By such actions, intelligent, violent or caring, chimpanzees can leave us speechless, stunned by their sheer ‘humanity’. 

Chimps' favourite food
Once empty, chimps use the shell as a cup
The Park is bisected by the Kazinga Channel, a natural waterway linking Lake Edward and Lake George, not to be confused with Lake Albert further north. (Those names!)  To the north of the Channel are the Kasenyi plains where many of the more ‘glamorous’ animals roam, the predators sticking close to their prey.  To the south is the much bigger area of the Kigezi Wildlife Reserve, of which Maramagambo is part, home to an unbelievable number of birds and beasts, including the famous tree-climbing lions of Ishasha.

Apart from forest, the Park is characterised by mile upon mile of savannah, difficult to capture in all its splendour on film.  Tall golden grass is grazed by antelopes of various kinds and buffalo in ones and twos or large herds. 

Uganda Kob
Herd of buffalo
Swallows swoop around the car.  Red-chested cuckoos perch on termite nests, or wherever they can.  

Red-chested cuckoo
Weaver birds go about their business, weaving.  Crested cranes, Uganda's national bird, pace regally.   

Crested crane
Elephants tear down branches from acacia trees, and sometimes the whole tree itself.  Elephants do well here as there are no giraffes and hence no competition for food.  And, yes, we did go ‘on safari’, twice with a guide and once by ourselves.  Although always on the lookout for something ‘exciting’, an elephant perhaps, or a lion, it can also be somewhat unnerving.  Seeing a huge heap of fresh elephant dung, one’s adrenalin rises and with it the hope of seeing this magnificent beast at close quarters.  At the same time one does wonder, ‘what’ll we do if we meet it face to face?’.  And, yes, our guide did confirm, elephants never forget. 

Matriach and the herd

Lone male expelled from the herd.
Cooling off among the floating weeds in the Kazinga Channel.
A boat trip down the Channel was the highlight of a holiday which was full of ‘highlights’.  Lots of hippos, more buffalo, more elephants and myriads of birds: great white egrets, African fish eagles, Egyptian geese, pied kingfishers, African skimmers, red-billed oxpeckers, hammerkops, African water lapwings, ibis, black-bellied bustards, hornbills, pelicans, grey herons, Goliath herons, hornbills, white storks and marabou storks (here rather pleasanter than their scavenging urban cousins).  

Curious buffalo down by the Channel.
Never get between a hippo and the water...

Great white pelican with curious hippo.
Goliath heron oblivious to hippo.
Great white egret and no hippos to be seen.
Egyptian geese and friends
Despite all this richness, however, much to our guide’s chagrin the lions eluded us.  Getting the chance to photograph a lion is the Holy Grail of many visitors to the Park.  We knew roughly where they were supposed to be but the dratted creatures kept moving around.  Most inconsiderate but hardly surprising.  If you were a lion, would you want to sit by the side of a track while tourists flash their cameras at you?  It is astonishing how determined people are to take ‘that’ photo no matter how much stress they cause to the hapless recipient of their attention.  Some of our friends on safari further north reported their horror at observing tourists take flash photos at close quarters of hippos and rhinos, neither of which are animals to be messed with.  More people in Africa are killed by hippos than by any other creature.  Get between a hippo and water and they basically squash you.  Despite our lion-less state, Stuart and I had seen so many wonders that we were quite relaxed about missing the King of animals.  We will, after all, be back.

Returning from our boat trip, at the end of our last day, we were bumping along the track not far from the gate into the Park.  Suddenly, ahead of us, we saw lots of vehicles.  The rumour had gone round that a lion had taken up position under a particular tree.  Four-by-fours parked three-abreast.  People got out.  Some clambered on the top to get a better view.  Cameras clicked.  People peered.  Others pointed.
Human predators harass a hapless lion.
We were speechless.

We left, lion-less.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Celebrating educational success

It’s been a week of celebrations, and we haven’t even got to Christmas yet.  To be honest, Christmas is going to be a bit low key this year as far as the celebratory aspects are concerned, though it’s going to be absolutely wonderful in other respects.  (For those of you who don’t know, we’re off to a wildlife reserve in the west for a few days, and hope to be chimp-trekking, amongst other things.)

The week started last Saturday with a trip up to Soroti in the far east of Uganda.   The drive took us about five and a half hours, the last three of which were along dead straight good quality tarmacked roads through papyrus swamps and rice fields until we reached the strange rocky outcrops of Soroti. 

Papyrus swamp as far as the eye can see

Rice fields near Mbale
Rocky hills rise above the plain in Teso region
Except in the trading centres, all the houses in the countryside are mud brick and thatch, though here and there more modern houses are being built.  
Houses in Teso, mud bricks drying front right
Businesses in the trading centre.  We didn't stay at this hotel.
Teso, the name of the general area, is very poor and suffered until very recently from the incursions of the LRA and generalised banditry, though you wouldn’t know it from a casual glance.  The road, however, is a ‘giveaway’, straight and tarmacked, though now rutted and crumbling in places.  Like other ex-conflict areas, transporting troops has been a priority.   Soroti town itself is run down, but then so are many Ugandan towns.  You can still see the rather tired and down-at-heel remnants of the original Asian stores and some dilapidated colonial housing.
The broad streets of Soroti
Once grand colonial building crumbling away
In fact the school we were aiming for, Pioneer School, was originally built by Asians for Asians in 1939, but taken over by Africans once they were expelled in 1972.  Most of the building has been allowed to moulder away, like many Ugandan schools, particularly those ‘up-country’.  We were there out of term-time and on a Saturday, so no children.  Our purpose was to attend an award ceremony for teachers who had enhanced their skills and were to receive a certificate of recognition.  

The course, for teachers of the thematic curriculum in P1-P4, was about developing ‘child-friendly’ schools, introducing active learning approaches, and engaging in action research within their own schools.   The project has been led by the Ministry of Education and Sports, supported by USAID/Unity, with some help from Link.  The course was taught through distance learning, with Coordinating Centre Tutors (CCTs) from Soroti Core Primary Teaching Centre (a PTC is a teacher education college) and other core PTCs providing support to individual teachers.  The Teso area was chosen because of its poor results in the primary leaving examination, and its high dropout rate.

Renovated building at Pioneer School
What a joyous occasion it was! Three hundred teachers of all ages, some with infants, crammed into the disintegrating classroom, or stood outside at the door.  They had travelled miles, many of them down narrow mud tracks from remote villages in the bush, to collect their certificates from various notables, including the Commissioner for Teacher Education (the civil service head of department) and the local district education officer (and us!).  

Teachers gathering in the disintegrating classroom
Proud recipient of a proficiency certificate
Five of the teachers gave moving witness statements about the impact of the training on them as individuals, and on their work within their schools.  They described how their attitudes to teaching and to children had changed and how they had learned to reflect on how they were teaching.  Despite the large classes, results in reading, writing and maths had improved through the use of interactive methods.  They now looked far more closely at the reasons for dropouts and low attendance, and tried to encourage children to return to school.  Sadly, as in most of Uganda, the most common causes of drop out apart from poverty were early marriage (with its much-welcomed ‘bride price’ for the girl’s family) and ‘defilement’ (rape) resulting in pregnancy.  The course had transformed the way they supported children.  They strongly believed that all teachers should be able to undertake such study.  One distinctive feature of the course was the fact that it involved teamwork through membership of a closely-knit mutually supportive group.  

A group of teachers gathers round their CCT mentor

Participants had persevered in quite difficult circumstances supported by their fellow students and mentoring by the CCTs.  The teachers who made it to through to certification felt they were part of a ‘family’, linked by the nature of their endeavour and the quality of their shared experiences.

Course materials depicting
active learning in a child-friendly classroom
Support for reflective practitioners
The award ceremony was an occasion well worth celebrating.  As each teacher came up for his or her certificate the excitement grew and the applause got louder, culminating in piercing ululations.  We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Luckily the ceiling did not collapse onto the
district education officer
We left Soroti on a high.  Teso might be poor, it might be a long way from Kampala but it looked as if things were changing for the better.