Monday, December 27, 2010

: Two lessons: Geography and Birding

I’m writing this on the solstice; summer for us, winter for our readers (both of you). As I recall, that means the sun is 23 ½ degrees below the equator, and because we are about 26 degrees below the equator, at noon I will have to look between my feet to see my shadow. And living this close to the equator means we don’t get much variation in the length of our days. Sunrise is roughly 4:30 a.m. and sunset is around 7 p.m. today, and this is the longest day of the year. I do miss the late summer evenings of the Pacific NW.
This is being written by the non-birder. We have a nest of black collared barbetts (I’m told) right out our front door. We watch them come and go all the time. What makes it interesting is their call. Each bird has a short call of a single note, but they are sung antiphonally so it sounds like one bird, one tone about four notes below the other, kind of like a European siren, but higher, quicker and more musical. It makes me wonder, if they both chose the same tone, would it sound like _________ instead of -_-_-_-_-_.
During the mating season, the male of another bird grows very long tail feathers. It makes him a handsome fellow but upsets his flight characteristics so that he is nose high and the wings are working very hard. It reminds me of a student pilot who has seriously miscalculated his weight and balance.
We hear another bird which I think of as ‘the Swazi bird’. His call seems to wander aimlessly, never hitting or maintaining a pure tone, but smearing from tone to tone, like a drunken whistler. If you’re not sure why I call it the Swazi bird, read my blog on writing Swazi music.
Finally, I make frequent sightings of full-breasted mattress-thrashers; the African variety is darker than the American but is less shy about ‘displaying’.
This is being written by the birder. The birds here are plentiful, colorful and in general have pretty calls. I have forty plus birds on my Swaziland list and about thirty new birds on my life list without having had much time to go out in the “field” yet. The poor “flyer” that Gary mentions above is glossy black with a bright red collar during mating season. Non-mating season he is just a brown non-descript bird with a short tail. We have multiple bright yellow canaries that vie with the barbetts to wake us up in the morning. The ‘Swazi bird’ is elusive and has not yet been identified. I am making no comment about the Swazi mattress-thrasher.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


A few days ago, we had the opportunity to play Santa’s Helpers, arranged by Kathleen who volunteers at Good Shepherd in Home Based Care. We drove down to the MR3, going under the clouds on the plateau. Following our recent rains, everything was lush and verdant green, but after leaving the MR3, the roads were as slippery as an Olympic slalom run. We drove far back into the bush—45 minutes—to get to our first NCP (neighborhood care point) and were greeted by a few boGogo and about 35+ OVC (orphaned and vulnerable children). Some little ones started crying when they recognized Kathleen, thinking it was shot time. The NCP, which is their “pre-school”, was a shed or “classroom” with walls you could see through. We had a good time playing with them, kicking/throwing balls & balloons and ‘dancing’. Then we handed out food and drinks and finally gave out little black plastic bags with simple gifts in them: dollies for the girls, trucks for the boys, and a little candy. Most of them quietly walked away carrying the bag—unopened. We had to show them that they could open the gift, and what was inside was theirs to keep. It was quite an experience! We also gave the boGogo emahiya (traditional over-scarf) knowing that if we gave them food, it would go to the kids. We drove another 25 minutes to get to the second NCP site and repeated the experience. It was a great day.
A great big ‘thank you’ to those of you whose wonderful contributions made this experience possible for us. It was one of the most meaningful and cheerful Christmas experiences that we have ever had. Many of these children have never experienced getting a gift and it was most humbling for us who come from a world of such plenty. Their eyes told the whole story. When we white people drove up in our big 4-wheel drives, they were apprehensive and scared. Their eyes looked so sad and old. Then one of the Swazis told them the simple story of Christmas and why we were there. By the time we had to leave, their eyes were all smiling and happy, just like children’s eyes should be at this joyous time of year. We so enjoyed playing and dancing with them and watching them enjoy their Christmas sweets.
So here is a sampling of pictures we took which need few captions. Kathleen is the other mlungu; she is from New York and has been volunteering here, off and on, for over ten years. If the kids seem well dressed, it’s because they were expecting us and it’s in our honor. We hope this captures the feeling and meaning of the season- - -and we hope that you, too, will be visited by Santa and that it will always be said of you, that you know how to keep Christmas well. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


This is an attempt to update you on our recent activities, but we’re not sure when you’ll read it because we are unable to connect to the internet. (This is Swaziland, after all.) Attached are pictures of our adventure which need no captions. We took a different road down the valley to Big Bend, hooked back to Phuzumoya to meet our friends, Fred and Florence, for a game tour of Mkhaya game reserve in the bushveld. We saw 15 species of land animals and 30 species of birds in the 24 hrs we were there. (Of the four of us, three of THEM were birders.) The weather was overcast which made a pleasant visit and with our recent rains, the bush was very green. Our first drive was late afternoon in a topless Range Rover. Back in camp, we enjoyed a meal including breaded ‘shrooms, jewel squash soup, breaded impala, chicken, mixed veggies, and fried bananas in a cream sauce dusted with chocolate. We had our own stone hut with a high thatched roof, but open to the jungle sounds—the only thing surrounding our bed was one thin mosquito net. An early morning drive followed by a good breakfast, a late morning drive followed by lunch and, finally, our last drive which took us back outside the park in a heavy downpour—in the open Land Rover. We all returned to our place—in wet clothes—via a transfer in Manzini in time for Happy Hour.

This is an experiment: trying to load more pictures in a smaller format. We think you can enlarge them by clicking on them (I haven’t tried this myself).

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Mo and I have suffered culture shock on different occasions, but today’s lesson will be Music Appreciation, Swazi style. Swazi music is very simple. Think nothing more complex than four quarter notes in 4/4 time and a key signature of more-or-less C.
First of all, we’ll work on the rhythm line. This will be carried by a few Swazi males, at least one of which is tone deaf and another is in rapture or experiencing some sort of high. Put down four quarter notes of the same tone for the first measure; second measure is four quarter notes two thirds lower; now come up one third and another four quarter notes; finally, come up to the original tone and four quarter notes. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat ad nauseum. The words aren’t significant at this point—they’re mumbled in siSwati.
Now we’re ready for the soloist. The soloist will have a range of up to four or five notes—not necessarily in the same key as the bass line. Find a Swati who is suffering from a very sour stomach. It would help if he has recently lost his job and just learned of his HIV status. Tell him to start shouting. If he comes close to being on key or feeling the rhythm, poke him with a sharp stick. That’s about it except for dynamics: Everything is SD is fortissimo con brio.
If you perform your music in public, you’ll need to know the Swazi dance step. That means you will shift your weight from one foot to the other every other beat. The foot doesn’t have to leave the floor, but for high energy pieces might be lifted knee high. But keep it simple.
Now you have an understanding of Swazi music. In practice, this is found everywhere. You’ve read my complaint about khumbis; and at any public gathering, the music is always present at conversation-limiting volume and the guy on the PA system will jack the volume up, in that pause when the speaker takes a breath between sentences, so that there is never a moment to let the ear drum relax. Yesterday, we were at a function with a live combo. It was simply unbelievable, their lack of lyricism and tonality. By comparison, it made the River City Boys’ Band sound like the New York Symphony. So we rely on our i-pod with regularity to keep in touch with more western music. Debbie has been listening to Christmas music at this time of year and I have my usual favorites. (…and since my birthday, I still have The Music Man in my head. Ah, that’s what Sd needs, Professor Harold Hill!). Seeing no questions or comments, you're dismissed. We’ll talk more, later.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Happy birthday to: Jim (70 isn’t so bad, but don’t try it in Africa); Brad (hope you got the message 12 time zones away); Dave (father-to-be); and Laura (a BIG one). We hope they were all happy occasions—but indubitably won’t compare to mine.
You’ve seen my first birthday cake (at Gloria’s). My second cake (thanks to Sandy) was shared with nine other PCVs here at home. The occasion: a Hanukkah party arranged by Katie, one of our frequent visitors. We had latkes with sour cream and Mo’s home-made applesauce, kugel, fruit salad, and my cake was decorated with a miniature menorah. They all spent the night with us because some came from clear across the kingdom. I’ll let some pictures tell the story.

Some were first-time guests, so we heard some familiar comments which I think we haven’t shared with you. Upon entering our palace, they look around and say, “Wow, this is like a real house…and has a ceiling”. A couple of times, we’ve heard, “I don’t mind doing the dishes when there’s a real sink”. “I can’t believe I just flushed…and I’m still inside”. Katie is known to open our pantry door and simply stare, lustfully. A favorite comment of mine was when we were asking for some technical assistance from the younger set, apologetically, and Anna Mae said, “That’s okay, I have parents, too”.
(That's Katie in the kitchen. Kyra, our other frequent visitor, is in the back row, wearing green.) I had a happy birthday. We'll talk more, later.