Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Miracle in Old Mutare

A Request for Your Thoughts

As most of you folks know, I’m trying to head up a small team that will produce a book that will illustrate the natural wonders of the Africa University campus. Because of my own training, I will focus largely on vertebrate wildlife, and in a previous essay I explained some of the difficulties in photographing local mammals these days. As I have also suggested, we’ll probably include lots of frog pictures. Thus far we’ve photographed 20 species; some of them are quite beautiful, and others are plenty cute to attract at lease a few admirers. We are also approaching 20 species on our reptile-list. Most of these will be lizards (though we have one turtle-species in the photo-files, and we hope to add another), but, thank goodness, we also have a few snakes. In my previous work here I’ve had some dealings with pythons, including one that was the largest snake I’ve ever seen. This python made quite an impression on me, and I really wanted to write (for the eventual book) a short essay telling how I felt when I saw that animal. Such narration is not my usual style, and I’m worried that it will sound exceedingly hokey (cheesy? stupid? I don’t really know the right word) in a book that’s supposed to be more or less factual. So I thought I’d float a draft of my python-essay with you folks. And I’d love to have your comments, at some point.


Back in 1898, when Bishop Joseph Hartzell received his land-grant for “Old Umtali,” he could readily appreciate the scenic beauty and agricultural potential of the area. Still, the churchman from Ohio[1] might not have initially realized the full extent of his good fortune. He might not have known that his lands were—and would remain—blessed with an abundance of pythons.

In order to live long and prosper, African pythons must have three things: water, shelter, and an abundance of food. These requirements, of course, apply to wildlife in general, but Python natalensis—with slight poetic license, the Latin could be translated as “Christmas python”[2]—needs such resources scaled for a hatchling that could fit into your pocket and for an adult that could weigh more than you do. Around Africa University creeks, pans, and irrigation canals can supply water for most of the year, and the Mutare River never runs completely dry. Crevasses, caves, and abandoned mineshafts can serve as hideaways, but termiteria (whose entrances vary more in size than do the diameters of pythons) are most commonly used for shelter. A termite, or “white ant,” mound is icebergian in extent: its visible proportion scarcely hints at what is hidden below the surface. In this underground world, channels and chambers—any of which may be enlarged by sundry vertebrate inhabitants—provide refuges whose temperature and humidity remain constantly within python-acceptable limits. And when the clay surface of a mound bakes hard into laterite, these refuges become almost impregnable.

An African python will sometimes forage actively for its food, but more often it will strike from ambush. Perhaps because it can detect potential prey by an animal’s heat-signature against a cooler background, P. natalensis eats almost exclusively warm-blooded vertebrates. During their hatchling-year, A.U.’s pythons probably subsist largely on mice, which abound in both density and species-variety. Maturing youngsters convert to rats, plus some rabbits and a few birds. Over the years we have examined the scat left by adult pythons: identifiable remains have included a few claws from small mammalian carnivores and many horns and hoofs from campus antelopes.

The maturation-rate of wild P. natalensis is not known. In captivity, kept warm and fed all it will eat, a healthy specimen can exceed 2.5m in length within the hatchling year. In the wild this does not happen, for Zimbabwe’s winters are quite chilly, and depredation from ambush is in large part a matter of luck: some days you get the vlei-rat; most days you do not. African pythons are well-adapted for the feast-or-famine existence of an ambush predator. They are capable of very long fasts (for big adults, probably exceeding a year in the most extreme cases), lowering their metabolic rate to bare-existence levels. Then, when prey comes along, a python will take it—and, within some limits, the bigger the better.[3]

In other words, pythons hardly ever starve, so, although maturation can be quite slow, some pythons hang on, avoid the hazards of life for a few years, and eventually reach sexual maturity. Courtship and mating is well known for captive pythons, but these activities are seldom observed in the wild. Probably a patrolling male detects the special scent from the cloacal glands of a female;[4] he then follows her trail until he finds her, and mating occurs. Within about sixty days (???) after mating, the female will lay a whole bunch of eggs (perhaps as many as a hundred for a really big, well-fed momma). Most snakes abandon their eggs (or live-born young) immediately, but pythons are different. The female seeks a secluded spot (termite mound, mineshaft, whatever), lays her eggs, and coils her body around them. Then she initiates a series of contractions reminiscent of shivering in mammals. The metabolic heat produced by this intense muscular activity generates a great deal of heat, and, regardless of the ambient temperature, the eggs are maintained at about 30oC for the protracted incubation period (about 120 days). After the young do hatch,[5] the mother (apparently) loses all interest. And that is understandable; after all, she has endured a whole lot of very hard work throughout a very long fast, and she needs to go about the business of rebuilding her own resources (small antelope beware!).

We have some familiarity with pythons on the A.U. campus. In 2007 we have caught two pythons. The first was a 2m youngster in found in a molerat colony. As you can see from our photographs, this python was not at the peak of the species’ beauty. The cloudy eyes indicate that the animal is preparing to shed its skin, and the engorged ticks on its sides suggest that this snake had been spending a fair amount of time in mammal burrows. The second 2007 python was a freshly-shed sub-adult that we discovered one night about 50m behind our house.

Back in 2000 we had found another python—a bit smaller—and implanted a radio transmitter into the animal’s pleuroperitoneal cavity. This enabled us to keep up with the whereabouts of the snake for almost 100 days. Although our radio-python spent a considerable amount of time underground, in termite nests, it was also a real mover, sometimes covering over a kilometer in a single day. We were interested to note that the python used every major on-campus habitat-type (and it once ventured off campus, by about 10 meters), sometimes ambushing in a flooded lowland field, sometimes hunting in the mountain rocks. Movement between these areas required that the snake traverse a broad agricultural landscape; inevitably it made these crossings by crawling along a narrow, overgrown fence-line.

When I (Ab Abercrombie) talked proudly about my radio-python, folks around Old Mutare would always ask about its size, and they would disparage the entire telemetry enterprise when they learned that the animal was little longer than the height of a tall man. “Wait until you see the big one,” they would say; “it’s six meters long—a real python.” Somewhat sensitive about the dimensions of my favorite python, I would reply with equal scorn, “There’s no six-meter python around here. That’s almost record size, and nothing that big could survive in the agricultural heartland of Old Mutare.”

Then, in December of 2000, at the advent of the summer rains, I had trekked to the southeastern edge of campus to examine a mineshaft where I had previously photographed a pair of porcupines. The porkeys were not at home, and it was with some disappointment that I descended the mountain slope to ford the Mutare River (there being no log-bridge at the time). I had entered a dense thicket in the narrow flood-plain of the Mutare and was forcing my way through the Fragmites stems, which were almost twice my height, when my eye caught a flash of sunlight on silver-gray scales. And there it was, stretched full-length by the riverside, the Python of pythons. There is no way I can describe this enormous snake; that would be like explaining what love is, when it happens, or like describing the Seraphim. For any person of the modern world, words would degenerate into silliness: “With twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.” As a scientist, I wish I could have laid a tape-measure along the snake; as a wildlifer, I wish I could have implanted a transmitter. And by gosh I’d have done those things if I possibly could have. But this was not a snake measurable in centimeters or locatable by radio-pulses. It was a snake outside of size and place; it was a snake belonging to the deep nature of Life itself…. Heck, I told you that words degenerate into silliness. Here is the simple truth. That snake was the best single thing that has ever happened to me, and I shall never want anything better. This was the real Python natalensis, the Christmas Python. (And if I could whisper something to you, I’d tell you how big I really think it was.)

[1] I write “Ohio” because that’s the state of residence that most mini-biographies quote for Hartzell. Actually, the man was born in Illinois and served his first church in that state. He was later appointed pastor to a church in New Orleans—to the only Methodist congregation in that city that chose affiliation with the Northern church after the denomination’s split. The 1896 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North, designated Hartzell as Missionary Bishop for Africa. Title to the land was granted by the British South Africa Company (whose big chief was Cecil Rhodes his own self). The BSAC had been granted the land by Chief Tendai of Manyika Land, in exchange for guns and “educational opportunities.” I don’t know whose land the chief gave away—or by what right. Anyhow, when I write the actual A.U. campus book, most of this historical stuff will appear in a separate chapter. But, for now, what are footnotes for?

[2] Nowadays the big pythons of southern Africa are considered to be a species separate from their big cousins to the north (Python sebae). The Latin name for the southern species is taken from the South African province currently known as Kwa-Zulu Natal. Natal (literally, “birth”) is the Portuguese word for Christmas.

[3] Except for the termite-eating scolecophidians, considered elsewhere, almost all snakes are adapted for taking large prey. Anatomically, the issue is, “how do you get big-diameter foodstuff into a small-diameter tube, when that tube has no equipment for slicing the foodstuff into pieces of convenient size?” In my herpetology course I talk at great (excessive?) length about swallowing-adaptations, which include stretchable skin, articulations of the quadrate bones, semi-independent lower jaws, and a flexible braincase. For now, let me say that, even among snakes, big pythons are real champions at swallowing really enormous stuff!

[4] Also in my herpetology course, I define snakes as creatures that live in a world of chemical information (loosely “smells”). In almost all snakes, special glands around the cloaca (the vent, where eliminatory and reproductive functions take place) produce substances with odors recognizable by other snakes. These are typically of high molecular weight and can therefore persist at detectable concentrations for a long time on the substrate where they have been deposited. Such chemical information is not apprehended by “smell” in the strict sense (sniffing through the nostrils that excites neural pathways interpreted by olfactory centers of the brain). Instead, the chemical messages from a snake’s cloacal glands are picked up on the tips of a snake’s tongue, with which the animal explores its environment. The tongue is withdrawn into the mouth, and its tips are inserted into a pair of openings in the roof of the mouth (the entrance to the vomero-nasal organ), from which the chemical information is relayed to the brain.

[5] In most python populations this occurs near the beginning of the summer rains, when food and thermal resources for the hatchlings are most readily available.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vexed by Small Things

“Woman Slices Hubby’s Manhood.” (Manica Post Headline)

“Now don’t get the impression that I care ‘bout what you do,

But when it gets close to Thanksgiving, I’d hide if I were you!”

(Song Lyrics by Lacy J. Dalton)

“I call him Footnote Ab.” (G. R. Davis, Wofford Biol.)

Although Old Mutare may not be the Center of the Universe, we do occasionally hear about goings-on in the rest of this world. Wednesday, for example, I learned that storms in Bangladesh had killed at least 1800 people. Such a tragedy lends perspective to one’s life, and on this Thanksgiving Day I must be grateful that my own frustrations have been less than the bites of anemic gnats! Still, being in a self-centered mood, I shall list my recent “gnat bites” and hope that they amuse you.

Minor Irritation 1: Neocolonial Exploitation. My first complaint is about Invigilation. This curious custom, by which teachers are required to monitor other folks’ examinations, is a holdover of British colonialism. I am scheduled to invigilate 12 exams. Fortunately, these have been collapsed into six examination-periods, but still, that’s more than 18 hours of watching students sweat. Furthermore, to insure the integrity of the process, an Invigilator is not allowed any personal amusements (such as reading novels or grading one’s own exams), and the Director of Examinations will come by to make sure that this rule remains inviolate.

Because I have other work to do, I griped a bit about Invigilation. The response was, “You don’t have Invigilation in your country?” The tone of voice can best be imagined if you raise an eyebrow and say, “You kill half the girl-babies in your country?” I responded, “No we do not!” The tone of my response can best be imagined if you raise both eyebrows and say, “Our Freedom Fighters whipped the imperialistic Redcoats bad at Cowpens, and if the Brits had stuck us with a stupid neocolonial custom like Invigilation, we’d have swum the Atlantic & burned freaking London!

Minor Irritation 2: Contagion. My second complaint is about the Botswana Boys. They have tried to be extremely nice to me. Last week, however, they gave a computer-virus (which I am still fighting), and then they gave me a bio-virus (not HIV) that has me hacking & coughing and sneezing through life these days.

Minor Irritation 3: Getting Stoned, again.
My third complaint is dental. Toward the end of last week I broke another tooth. (This time the small piece of quartz was in beans, not rice.) I made another appointment with the good Dr. K, and he fixed me up. This time the event was less pleasant than previously: (a) the more complex repair took longer, (b) nobody was singing “Immortal, Invisible…,” and (c) no injection was available (Zimbabwe has shortages, you know).

The actual complaint: I have learned that I’m the real Thanksgiving Turkey. I hope you will not think that Irritations One through Three have been sufficient to push me towards Un-Thankfulness. Nay, friends, I am a tougher customer than that; even Zimbabwe’s dental privations are as nothing to macho-man Ab Abercrombie (uh, at least not ex post facto). What has unsettled my spirit is an uninvited memory.

Now let me stipulate one incontestable fact before I write another sentence. I have heard tell, from absolutely reliable sources, that Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey is a fine man, a gentleman, a veritable prince of a fellow. It must be true; it is true, and I am an absolute turkey because I cannot transcend my vanity and let go of my anger towards this good man. I was first reminded of His Episcopal Excellency when I read the Post headline quoted above.[1] Then, on Monday, for my sins, I was forced to enter the J. Lawrence McCleskey Building—and was instantly bitten by the Black Dog of Depression.

Here’s some background. In the Year 2000, I was walking across the A.U. campus with a favorite student. This young gentleman, a thoughtful fellow who has gone on to do fine things, asked me, “Sir, why is it that all the buildings at this university bear the names of white men?”[2] I answered that I did not know. Then, in my vanity, I added, “…but I promise you one thing. If Methodists in the South Carolina Conference[3] ever give A.U. a building, it won’t be named for a white man.”

Now here’s a bit more background. When I was back in the States, while His Excellency, J. Lawrence McCleskey, was Presiding Bishop of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Noble Man Himself graciously requested that I come to Columbia and talk about raising money for Africa University. Of course I complied with this episcopal summons, and I made my stuttering, inelegant, half-assed case for scholarships. “But,” responded H.E., “perhaps a building is needed. A building would be so much more permanent.”[4] At that point I told H.E. about the complaint of my A.U. student—and about the promise that I had made to this young man.

Today the plaque that names A.U.’s Theology Building for the Reverend Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey is supported by four bolts and four ornamental screws. This week I have expended too much time trying to loosen ‘em.[5] Yesterday—I was so depressed—I actually prayed about my anger & my great vanity, and I think I have a solution that may save my neck on this Turkey Day. Shoot-fire, I even hope that His Excellency the Reverend Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey would approve. I’m just going to give the building an additional name. Yep, I’m going to print out a statement on a plain sheet of paper and post it over the (thus far) official plaque. I reckon that my statement will be allowed to remain for only an hour or so. But somebody will read it, somebody will remember it, and, well, some memories last longer than bricks. Anyhow, here’s what the statement will look like:

This building was donated, out of love for the people of Africa, by members of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. The fund-drive was conducted under the dynamic leadership of the Reverend Doctor J. Lawrence McCleskey, Presiding Bishop. Officially, this building bears the bishop’s name. In a deeper sense, it bears other names. These are the unspoken names of slaves who suffered in the ricefields of Charleston County, of Orangeburg students slain because of their protest against injustice, of preachers and politicians and school kids and game wardens and lint-head textile workers—of all children of Sand and Palmetto who learned to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly in the paths of the Lord. In recognition of these millions of unnamed saints, this building is now re-christened with the following two names that do resonate in the hearts of South Carolinians. This is now the

Marian Wright Edelman


Talmage Boyd Skinner


Marian Wright Edleman grew up a preacher’s child in the strong Black community of Bennetsville, South Carolina. Throughout her adult life, she has never failed to Speak Truth to Power, standing like a tough, wind-blown palmetto against the storms of injustice. Because of her love, the children of South Carolina, of the United States, of Africa, and of the world lead richer, fuller lives.

Talmage Boyd Skinner, part Amer-Indian and part White Boy, grew up hunting rabbits in the cotton fields of Anderson County, South Carolina. He became a Methodist preacher, and he served every congregation with a love that transcended every separation of this sinful world. Nobody has loved Africa and Africa University better than this man.

[1] I do not know why I was thus reminded. I feel sure that the Great Man has never had any problems in his marriage. Nevertheless, when I saw the headline, I glanced at the knife clipped to my pocket and thought of J. Lawrence McCleskey.

[2] This complaint would no longer be true at Africa University—not quite.

[3] I love the South Carolina Conference with an emotion usually reserved for kinfolks and foxhole comrades. Although one of American Methodism’s poorest Conferences, our girls and boys in the Palmetto State have given more generously than anybody else to Africa University.

[4] I am sure that I have quoted this statement imprecisely, and I am sorry for that. I was probably upset because of my prejudice that scholarships are actually more permanent than buildings.

[5] In our ag-school grading system, 5 out of 8 is passing, but that doesn’t apply to the purloining of plaques.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Saints and Labors III: American Saints with African Connections

“To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small; in all life Thou livest, the true Life of all….”

“Immortal, Invisible…,” Number 27 in the first U.Meth Hymnal

Saints from the Bayou Country. I’ve never found worship services to be much fun, and therefore I approached chapel last Wednesday without enthusiasm, commenting to my best friend, “If this isn’t inspiring, I’m gone.” As it turned out, I stayed for the full service because 07NOV was a morning of minor miracles. First of all, the chapel’s sound-system worked, and for once I could actually hear what was being said. Second, we had interesting visitors. As you will recall, in late summer of ’05 two massive hurricanes hammered the Gulf Coast of North America. Hearing this news, students and staff of Africa University—near penniless, as I have repeatedly emphasized—took up a special collection and sent it to U.Meth churches in Louisiana. On 07NOV a VIM team, comprised primarily of parishioners from those churches, arrived in Old Mutare. Personally understanding the nature of desperation, these Katrina survivors brought with them this world’s best cure for physical human need: Yankee dollars! Third, the VIM team included a Black pastor, and (another miracle) this American visitor was invited to preach. He screamed, shouted, waved his arms—and imparted a message of erudition, challenge, and hope. I have never before seen an A.U. congregation respond with such enthusiasm. The students streamed out of chapel, prepared, as the Reverend VIMmer Rudy Rasmus had ordered, to pass through any Samaria, bearing Living Water. (For some of our ag students, this will include best-practice techniques of irrigation.)

Future Saint of the University. One pleasant aspect of my trip to the USA was talking, by telephone, with Lavinia. I won’t tell you her last name right now, but I will say that I am living in her house. Lavinia is a big-time academic lawyer practicing up in New Jersey (or some such godforsaken clime). A year or so ago she applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to Africa, and in its wisdom the Foundation smiled upon her application. Therefore, next semester, Lavinia will be teaching and conducting research at Africa University’s Institute for Peace, Leadership, and Governance. This means that she will not be teaching ag students (her loss, and theirs), but she should have some interesting folks in her classes. After all, in Africa, what could be more interesting than exploring issues of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation? Perhaps Lavinia will even solve the problem of warfare over seats on A.U.’s town-bus. Anyhow, I am thankful for Lavinia. First, I enjoyed talking to her, and I am convinced that she will bring new, important insights to Old Mutare. And, second, I really am living in her house. Since I am not a paid member of Staff, and since (gratias Deo) I am definitely not a missionary, my claim to University housing was minimal. However, A.U.’s “Powers that Be” (& who knows who is really in charge here?) had to hold a house vacant for a Prestigious Fulbrighter, and therefore I got Lavinia’s house for a semester.

Because we should all want Lavinia to be comfortable in her marvelous house, I am tempted to stage a contest among the (3? 4?) readers of this blog. As part of her grant, Lavinia has license to ship a bunch of boxes to Zimbabwe—free, through the U.S. Embassy in Harare. What should we advise her to send c/o Uncle Sam? I think I can guess some of your recommendations. Wendy Campbell will doubtless suggest a crate of Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter. Lizzie Norman will recommend a Holmes mystery and two extra copies of Netter’s Anatomy. Vivian Fisher would send a few hundred memoirs about the First World War. I don’t know for sure about the rest of you, but personally I’d advise Lavinia to ship a really nice snake-cage. Last Friday a very friendly cobra showed up in Lavinia’s house. Being in an unsociable mood, I evicted the house-cobra to a distant locale. For that I apologize, Lavinia; you’ll never find another quite so nice; in fact, the consensus here is that you’ll see no cobras at all. Still, if you are very fortunate, you may come across some ophidian friend, and you’d need a nice place to house it.

Seriously, I am very glad that Lavinia is on the way. A.U. cannot afford to lose that Fulbright position, & the people here really need new insights into conflict resolution. So, were it in my power to Canonize, I would name Lavinia one of the Saints.

Sinner Redeemed. Archie Carr finished college with a Bachelor’s in English Lit, but in graduate school he got religion & switched to zoology. After sojourns in southern Africa and in the Caribbean, Dr. Carr returned to his native Florida. And over the years he became a sort of patron-saint for Southern herpetologists—partly because he could apprehend nature with amazing insight and partly (I admit) because some English teacher had shown him how to write so darn well. Archie Carr loved all things living (on his deathbed he asked a friend of mine to sneak a Short-tailed Snake into his hospital room), but he had a special fondness for turtles and frogs. I think Archie liked turtles because they endure. And he flat-out said that he liked frogs because they know the secret of life—which is to gather with friends on warm, rainy nights, thereupon to sing about the general joy of living & the particular hope of sex.

I don’t know how many frog species live on the Africa University campus. Presumably the total is between 16 (the number I’ve observed thus far) and 39 (the max that Alan Channing [2001] considers possible for Manicaland Province). I do know that A.U.’s anuran fauna is highly diverse (we have eight Families here; that’s about like the entire USA, which is a bit bigger than our 600 hectares), and I do know that virtually all species are rain-dependent.

Rain, and frogs, should not be taken for granted in southern Africa. In wintertime, you typically don’t see either one, and if you do, the vision is fleeting & pretty much irrelevant. But during September the cold abates, and in October the days are actually warm (= hot, if you’re a Yankee). November, as I have suggested, is for Old Mutare the month of Maybe. During November the southward progression of the solar equator gives us more daylight, more input of radiant energy that can heat the air and cause it to rise. Rising air, pushed ever higher by still-warmer air beneath it, begins to cool, and as the air cools to its dewpoint, water-vapor within it begins to condense. When the condensing droplets reach a critical size, they fall to earth—as convective precipitation, summer rain, the Rain that gives life to Zimbabwe’s people and frogs.

As any Zimbabwean can tell you, in some years this miracle does not happen. Moisture-bearing air-masses fail to move down from the Equatorial North and fail to cross the Afro-Montane Highlands that shadow us from the Indian Ocean. Obviously, no amount of convective uplift can squeeze water from entirely dry air, so drought results. During drought-years Old Mutare becomes as dry as my statistics lectures: maize-plants shrivel before they bear, children go hungry, and A.U.’s frogs have nothing decent to sing about. But in a good year, summertime brings the rains to Old Mutare. Agricultural toil is substantially rewarded. Termites emerge in clouds, thick as water; young children catch them afly and eat them like popcorn. Pangolin and aardwolf haunt the margins of civilization. Church crowds sing with thanksgiving. And the frogs of Old Mutare go wild with a joy that would delight the heart of Archie Carr.

Of course, not all frogs are alike. Toads are the gamblers among our local species. It doesn’t take much to excite a congregation of toads; give ‘em a light October shower, and they’ll risk their eggs in some temporary pool, hoping that the tadpoles will at least be safe from aquatic predators. Ridged frogs and reed frogs demand a little more out of life. They’d like some assurance that their eggs will hatch before they dry, so these animals seek more permanent water such as intermittent streams and agricultural canals. Rhacophorids (= Afro-Asian treefrogs) and rubber-frogs are among the cautious ones, and if you listen for their singing on nights of modest rains, you might consider them puritanical in their breeding habits. But let the skies break open! Then the rhacophorids will ascend the trees that lean over dry ponds a-filling. There, in ménages of two to a dozen, they will stir their reproductive fluids together to construct foam-nests that will protect their eggs until the tadpoles can free-fall into the waters below. And the rubber-frogs, with their gaudy skins of UGa red and black? On a perfect night you can run your hand through the right water-course—and have a rubber-frog attempting to mate with each finger (& perhaps 2 with the thumb).

So, during the month when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, this is the big miracle that I am praying for—the breaking open of the skies and the affirmation of Life by the frogs of Old Mutare. Oh bear my petition before the Almighty, Saint Archie Carr.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Saints and Labors, II

It’s now November, the scariest month in Zimbabwe, and things have been slightly unquiet in Old Mutare since my return from the States. Our ag students are restive because they are covered up with tests—entomology earlier, curve-fitting yesterday, genetics Monday, production econ and plant physiology still to go. Meanwhile, the University has announced a mid-semester tuition increase, payable immediately, and food prices in our dining hall have tripled in the last two weeks. Because one of our busses was wrecked (only 1 fatality), transport to & from town is now a real bitch: pushing, shoving, and physical rudeness rule a Hobbesian waiting-line at the bus-stop. Vague rumors hint that the V.C. (= Vice Chancellor, equivalent to a U.S. university president) might resign. Elaborations suggest that my noble dean could replace him, but Prof Tagwira is not actively seeking the post. The dean of the Theology School is said to be less reticent; she gave me some leaves of spinach, presumably not in solicitation of my (irrelevant) support. Actually, the V.C. seems quite content to me, and I see no reason whatsoever to credit any of this speculation. I just think that nervousness generates gossip—and that people are nervous because it’s November.

To share our November disquietude, we have another VIM team on campus. These good folks are from Indiana & Ohio, and their ostensible mission is to dig a latrine. (I am not making this up.) More important to me, they brought the three laptop computers that Terry Fergusson had purchased for the Ag School. My dean was ecstatic about the computers (particularly about their price), thanking me so effusively that I was embarrassed to ask for repayment (but I did). Of course the problem of allocating the laptops will be, uh, interesting; several faculty members have eyed them with more lust than Jimmy Carter ever felt in his heart. I reckon that, because it’s now November, people are nervous about what blessings they do and do not receive, so perhaps a new laptop could be interpreted (a la Max Weber) as a sign of divine favor in a scary season.

In November it’s no surprise that exploitation of the campus’ natural resources is increasing. Yesterday I came across a new camp of 6 gold-prospectors on the second mountain. These folks had no place on the river and were hacking at a quartz vein on the dry hillside. On the near mountain my trail-camera snapped photos of two hunters (one with a rifle) and their seven dogs. In official (and legal) exploitation, our fields are been plowed & disked: they await either soya or maize or both; decisions will be based on factors of economy and weather.

As November begins, the general preoccupation of agricultural eastern Zimbabwe is rain. We’ve had a few teaser-clouds, drifting in from northern convections. And Wednesday, in response to higher humidity, a Natal puddle frog called in an Ag Building sewer-drain. Needless to say, he was captured, photographed, and released. Today the skies are crystal-clear again, the frog is silent, and farmers are apprehensive.

As November matures, ceremonial gourds will rattle in local church-services while the people pray for rain. If none falls before mid-month, some folks will climb the highest hills to tiny Zimbabwes (roughly = stone walls) and petition gods brought southward with the Bantu invasions. Meanwhile, the VIM teams will praise the Lord and enjoy the picture-perfect weather.

I have started writing this blog-entry on 2 November. (I definitely should be planning lectures about Analysis of Variance, but I don’t feel good enough to contemplate Latin squares and completely randomized designs.) Halloween has passed, uncelebrated: with November hard a-coming, ghosts here were not considered especially funny. All Saints’ Day, on the other hand, had more significance, at least to me. In my last blog I tried to honor a few present-day saints by name. But anybody with sense knows that the greatest saints are seldom specifically recognized. A mother pretends she’s full so that her kids will eat a bit more. A man gives a few kgs of mealy-meal to a stranger. A cook is up at 4AM to buy bread for people whom she scarcely knows. The host of such saints is countless, and each provides a window beyond the scariness of this immediate month. And so, to heck with November fears! Come rain or no, the saints will keep right on laboring, until, for all of us, “…hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, alleluia!”

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saints and Laborers

Put on the Gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer; where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.

“Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”

The other day, after Wednesday’s worship service, I saw Tendai Tagwira. When I first met Tendai, back in ’93, she had just begun primary school. I saw her again in 1995 and 2000, during which years she was a quiet, polite, and highly articulate child. This year I met her as Dr. Tagwira, a most recent graduate of Zimbabwe’s medical school. Of course I asked about her internship, and she replied that she would be assigned to a public hospital in either Harare or Bulawayo. In either case she will be dealing with lots of HIV/AIDS cases—so I suppose she’ll need that Gospel armor, even if (as a thoroughly scientific physician) she calls it “surgical gloves.” And I guarantee you that “where duty calls or danger,” Tendai Tagwira will not be wanting! You see, Tendai comes from good stock. I know her folks.

Tendai’s mother is named Margaret. While working for her Masters degree in Public Health, Margaret Tagwira spent the better part of a year serving a village, out in “the communal areas.” The communal areas are territories that even the greediest white people did not bother to steal. Communal-area land is bare, rocky, dry—and in some cases, almost vertical. A village in the communal areas typically has only two latrines, segregated by gender; it may also have a single, reliable water-point, or it may not. If you make it to the communal areas in your 4X4, children will stare as if you had beamed in from a Star-Trek galaxy. In other words, the communal areas are parts of Zimbabwe that do not appear in the tourist brochures, and if they receive any medical care at all, it is through the heroism of Zimbabwe’s public-health workers, from the hands of people like Margaret Tagwira. Today Margaret works mostly at Africa University. Her major field is subsistence-nutrition, and she knows an awful lot about raising mushrooms.

Tendai’s father is probably my best friend in A.U. And he’s one of the real old-timers, having taught at the University since it opened its doors back in 1992. By graduate training, Professor Tagwira is a soil-scientist, earning his PhD in a unique program run jointly by the University of Zimbabwe and Michigan State University. Because of his academic reputation, Prof Tagwira has received plenty of high-dollar job offers from universities in South Africa and the USA. But he sticks with A.U., where he makes less money in a month than a beginning Wofford teacher makes in a day. (In case you think that living in Zimbabwe is super-cheap, I should tell you that a can of Coca-Cola costs about two bucks, and a gallon of black-market gasoline might run as much as $10. Bread, I admit, would be much less expensive than in the USA. But then, of course, there is no bread in Zimbabwe.)

Margaret and the Professor (uh, he’s my dean, and, friendship not withstanding, a lecturer in Zimbabwe never calls a dean by first-name; otherwise, the known universe would disappear) have four children of their own, and they have adopted two more. These good parents swear that, regardless of economic collapse, all six kids will receive full University educations. I hope that, like Tendai, the other Tagwira children will get lots of scholarship aid.

Anyhow, I was awfully glad to see Tendai. She still has her daddy’s great, big smile (“her sweet smile…”; that’s kind of a Wofford joke), and she’s a real doctor now, even if she does paint her toenails that gaudy purple. I’m glad for her, and I’m glad for Zimbabwe.

Now let me shift continents—because I don’t want you to assume that I consider sainthood a purely African virtue. For reasons I shan’t explain, I had to make an America-run last week. In logistical summary I can report that the world is big, that Delta Airlines gets an A for flying & a C- for cabin hospitality, that Spartanburg has great Chinese food, and that I missed seeing most of the people I really wanted to see. In psychological summary I’ll admit that a whirlwind visit to the States can engender culture-shock. I mean, from the politeness of southern Africa, I descended to the highways of Atlanta. In this concrete jungle I watched a dangerous predator in a black Toyota cut off a speeding ambulance, despite siren & flashing lights: thus I was caused to wonder (and not for the first time), “Where is Billy Sherman now that we really need him?”

Despite the perils of the road I made it to Wofford College, where, for all too long, I sat in my office, bemoaning my fate, cursing my loneliness, and generally enjoying my well-developed sense of white-boy guilt. Then I saw my first American saint, the good Dr. Hettes, who showed up with a Care Package of printer-cartridges and dry-erase markers from Wofford’s Biology Department. Then along came Terry Ferguson, who dragged me off, bodily, to get a flu shot (for which he offered to pay). When we’d returned to my office, Terry asked me, “Do you really need my help in Zimbabwe?” I admitted that, for various A.U. projects, I did very seriously need the assistance of a geologist. “Then let me use your computer,” Terry said. He sat down, pulled out a credit card, booked a ticket on the spot, and handed me his flight itinerary. (Terry had already bought three laptop computers for the A.U. Faculty of Agriculture. I hope we get paid back for ‘em. In any case, my gratitude to Terry knows no bounds.)

OK, folks, I have one more personal note. My work load here has escalated a bit, and I’m way behind from my America-trip. Therefore, for at least a little while, I need to be teaching and “wildlifing” real hard, and those activities probably won’t leave much time for blogging. I’ll certainly try to write more before November is too old, but in the meanwhile I hope you saints and laborers will forgive my neglect.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Walk on the Wild Side

The trip to Mana Pools National Park did not start auspiciously. To begin with, I did not want to go. This was true for three reasons: (1) Chronic pains led me to dread a rough truck-trip that would last longer than air-passage to America. (2) I was paranoid about safety factors; listed negatively, these included hyenas, Immigration officers, and (especially) vehicle accidents. (3) I had way too much work to do on campus. But A.U.’s Wildlife students were going to Mana Pools, and it was my duty to teach ‘em about the wonders of nature, right? And what could be more wonderful than a park of 2196km2, a gazetted World Heritage site along the mighty Zambezi? So, I went.

But back to start-up problems. I shall forebear from discussing the logistical headaches of arranging food, transport, and Park reservations. (These problems were largely addressed by Daniel Nzengy’a, A.U.’s full-time Wildlife instructor. And let me simply say that if Eisenhower had faced comparable difficulties when planning D-Day, only the Red Army could have saved the Jewish people from extinction.) Still, one start-up, uh, issue, must be described. On the Wednesday afternoon prior to our Thursday departure, one of my Wildlife students came to my office and announced, “Bad news, Prof, the boys are in jail.” An English explanation (mixed with what were probably Tswanan curses) revealed that two of my Botswanan students had caught a ride into Mutare. There, with my camera, they had attempted to photograph a particularly colorful male tree-agama. This lovely lizard had led the boys a merry chase down a dusty back alley before he came to rest on a jacaranda tree—behind the Ministry of Prisons Building. Unfortunately, the boys snapped the picture. And they got caught. And they were accused of being spies for the nation of Botswana. And the Embassy of that noble Republic refused to intervene.

So, the word was, “Prof, you got to go help us get the boys out.” I tried to swallow my disappointment: I’ve never seen a multiple spy-hanging, and I had a spare camera suitable for photographing the event. But, alas, duty called, so I stuck a U.S. $100 bill into my left sock and got into a typical Botswana-car. (This probably means nothing to you gentle readers, but any loyal Zimbabwean could tell you that if a Motswana has X dollars to spend on a car, he will allocate 0.9X dollars to the vehicle’s sound system—which will have its volume set at max, playing unmusical English lyrics in which some Americans accuse other Americans of doing unspeakable things with their mothers.) Anyhow, we headed towards Mutare, in a Botswana car, rapping all the way. Personally, I had little faith in my ability as advocate-professor: being an Undocumented Worker, I rather expected to join “the boys” in prison, and I fervently hoped that the jailors did not allow Motswana to bring their sound-systems into their cells. (Uh, and geesh, the camera had my name on it! Silently I rehearsed my gallows-speech: “I regret that I have but one life to give for, for freaking Botswana?”) Clearly, however, God loves fools, and before we actually reached the jailhouse, Mutare's Captain of Police had released “the boys”—probably because it is considered cruel & unusual punishment to imprison decent Zimbabwean axe-murders with loud-mouthed Botswanan lizard-photographers. Anyhow, we picked up “the boys”; they were whooping & hollering & explaining (occasionally in English) how much fun life was. In other words, the on-again, off-again trip to Mana Pools was back on.

Our departure from A.U. was a disappointing event. On Wednesday night we had been scheduled to take the Faculty 4X4 crew-cab pickup plus an equipment-trailer. I'd known that this would cramp us for space, so when the University minivan arrived at my door at 0430 Thursday AM, I was greatly relieved, assuming that we’d been given our requested second vehicle. Looking at the field-supplies and diesel-cans, I said, “I hope the other folks won’t be as crowded as we will.” But of course I had misunderstood: the Faculty 4X4 & trailer had been committed to a VIM team, so nine people went in one vehicle with scarcely enough space for our supplies alone. To compound my depression, I made the mistake of examining the minivan’s tires: three were basically bald, and the fourth had an embolism the size of a baby’s fist in its sidewall. But what the heck; I was committed, so I climbed in, sitting mostly atop a skinny Motswana who had been out of jail for < style=""> And we were on the road.

In my opinion, the story of the trip itself should be written by a Homer (or at least a Tennyson), because it certainly was an odyssey, and I certainly felt as if I had sailed beyond the Western Isles. We cruised out of Manicaland and into one of the Mashonaland provinces. In Harare we fixed our flat spare tire and stashed 40 liters of diesel for use on our return trip. When we reached Chinoyi, the Botswana boys broke out & shared the South African cookies they had managed somehow to acquire. At every police roadblock—and there were many—we were greeted by smiles and good wishes: “Africa University? Good, good! Safe journey!” And, after about 12 hours of extreme closeness on the road, we reached Mana Pools National Park.

Of all the National Parks in Zimbabwe, Mana Pools is unique, for only in Mana Pools is the visitor permitted—I am tempted to write “encouraged”—to commit suicide-by-large-vertebrate. At any time during daylight hours, visitors can walk anywhere in the Park. (Technically, this is not permitted after dark, but I cannot believe that anybody would know if you decided to violate this one regulation.) And ample opportunities for sudden death certainly exist. I saw an enormous Nile croc for which a skinny Motswana would have scarcely comprised a decent snack. Elephants wander through the camp-ground unimpeded. Lions are available to incorporate a tourist into the food-web. (This year, A.U.’s Wildlife majors joined a team that was radio-tracking lions. One lioness was well-hidden, and she broke cover only after the trackers had gotten pretty darn close. The armed safety-ranger took off like a scalded housecat, a maneuver that elicited mass hilarity among the four Botswanan students.) Hyenas, of course, will eat you too, and I’d been particularly worried about ‘em because I’d heard tales that vast numbers of the beasts frequented the campground where we pitched our flimsy tents. Reports of hyenas were by no means exaggerated—shortly after dusk, one sweep of my torch (= flashlight) disclosed a dozen pair of yellow eyes—but this proved to be a good thing since the hyenas finally scared off the two Cape buffalo that had been blocking our access to drinkable water. (You may be sure that a fair number of people are killed at Mana Pools every year. More than half of the deaths are caused by buffalo. The two old bulls that stared balefully at us for several hours were within < style=""> They blocked access to minivan & water-point; and, judging anthropomorphically, I’d say they looked meaner than Dick Cheney. So, anyhow, I recanted every bad thing I’d ever said about hyenas, and I was delighted when they slinked into the flight-zone of the buffalo.)

Overall, as you can guess, we had a tremendously good time, and in retrospect the buffalo just added sweetness to the experience. Mana Pools is a magic place, with a dry, rugged escarpment sloping abruptly to a wide floodplain inhabited by thousands of highly visible CMV’s (= “charismatic mega-vertebrates”; that’s what cynical wildlifers call big mammals). The Zambezi River, with its heartbreakingly lovely greens and blues, spreads half a click wide toward the parched, hazy mountains across on the Zambian side. At night one hears the “um-vum-vum-voo” calls of hippo, the chortle of hyenas, and the occasional cough of a lion. At daybreak, Egyptian geese and saddle-billed storks float the waters or stalk the river's banks. In the heat of the afternoon, an elephant or two will wander through camp, checking out the smells to determine whether you have brought any fresh fruit. (If you did, you’re screwed.) Oh, and one more thing: the Botswana boys will cook, cook, cook, cook! I have no idea where in the Zimbabwean economy these students found so much food, but give ‘em a couple of enamel pots plus half a cord of mopane split-wood, and they will flat feed you some serious grub. I ate so much that, by Saturday afternoon, I was lying on the bank of the Zambezi, probably resembling a croc that had just consumed a brace of unwary tourists.

And yes, Dean Wiseman (= Director of Wofford’s January "Interim" Term): Mana Pools will indeed be the locale I’ll suggest in my Interim ‘09 proposal. In order to register, students will have to meet two criteria: (1) they must be able to cook as well as the Botswana boys, and (2) they must not be able to outrun their instructor.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Quick Note from Wendy

Dear Friends,

Ab asked me to preface the latest blog about bushpigs, sustainability, and Africa University with something light-hearted and affirming. I am a bit torn as to how to handle this request. I personally don't think there is need to add any preface to what Ab has written. I think his stories come directly from his honest and pure heart. But, I do want to honor any and all of Ab's request regarding this blog.

As I guess some of you know, I am posting Ab's blogs to this website partly because it may be easier to do here in the States and partly because of some well-founded hesitation on his part about posting them himself on public computers in Africa. Ab has called me the "editor" but in all honesty the only editing I do is tinkering a bit with the spacing and a little bit of uploading and downloading of the pictures.

In regards to his subsequent comments and observations about AU being perceived in his mind a "city on the hill" and the internal debates that occur when that city is torn between the critical need for sustainability and the harsh realities of life, I imagine we can all think to times in which something/someone we have held as ideal, in no fault of her/his own, cannot maintain those standards that we have built up in our minds. I think this speaks very clearly to how important it is for all of us, and especially those of us in academia, to not lose sight of the reality and immediateness of life when talking about the theory and knowledge on how life should be.

And, I also suppose Ab gives us all a good lesson of how important it is to stopy and notice the small beauties in life and how interconnected we are. My thoughts right now are both with Ab and the bushpig.

Warm Regards,