Eric Anholt (anholt ) wrote,

zambia notes (trip done)



Holy crap cellphones.

Seven years ago, when visitors were out at Chimfunshi, they were alone. No phones. No internet. The office (somewhere else on the ranch) had a packet radio they would fire up sometimes to do e-mail, but we didn't have access. It was just you and chimps and broken english or bemba to talk to the locals.

But when we stepped off of the bus at Muchinchi village this time (the nearest village to Chimfunshi), a man immediately walked up to us to offer help and the use of his cellphone. For $1, we got to use his phone to place about 5 calls to arrange our pickup from Chimfunshi, and this is a normal transaction for visitors to make here. On the way, as the bus passed through medium sized villages, probably ¼ of the buildings were painted with the colors and logo of Airtel, offering prepaid phone cards along with any other services (so you'd see restaurant/takeaway/phone shops, or general store/phone shops, or investment/phone shops, or barbershop/takeaway/phone shops). The prepaid phone cards apparently can be used for their face value in cash, because everyone needs them all the time and are always running at near empty.

Giving that guy $1 for phone usage and then being told he had to go disappear into the shop to refill it was I think the 4th time my sister and I looked at each other thinking “This is one of those things that sucker tourists fall for and he's going to disappear with our money, right?”, but as always it went wonderfully. There was only one scam that got we pressured for (a guy asking us for 4 units of some other currency for “tickets” while we were on the free-for-passengers Zambia/Botswana ferry, even though the women he bothered immediately before us didn't fall for it either, and we hadn't had to do that on the way over), but it was just too obvious. Anything that smelled just a little bit like a setup was fine.

It was also a relief that for the hour we stood around in Muchinchi, we didn't get hassled by a single vendor. In Livingstone (where we were staying on the Victoria Falls portion of the trip), and in Lusaka, the moment we white tourists exited any vehicle, there were immediately multiple vendors approaching us with the standard script:

“Hello what is your name? My name is X. Where are you from? I'm from the village of Y (never a city or even a significant town), do you know it? I would like to show you my crafts, these are things I make myself in my village...”

Finally our driver arrived, and my sister and I ended up riding in the back for the ~45min to the ranch. From the back of the truck, on the highway after dark, you could see more stars at once than I ever can at home in Oregon. At home I'm either in the city with all the light pollution or in the woods with trees in the way. But out here it's all dark because the power lines that crisscross the country never supply the little villages, and the land is flat and the trees are short. I think I would be willing to do a 11 hour bus ride again if I could get more of that.

Then at last were were at Chimfunshi, and things came back to me. Everyone sitting around the campfire for meals. Making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the kitchen for lunch when you're going to hike to the enclosures. No beer left because somehow the math of 24 students * X beers per student per day * Y days between shopping trips always comes out to “you needed more cases of beer”. Communication in the student group devolving into pant-hoots and food-grunts and clapping-and-pointing as we spend too much time around the chimps (turns out groups of students thrown together and exposed to the same stimuli will develop the same jokes!).

chimps
Delicious tungulus for the chimps

This trip, I split my time between hanging out with chimps, helping at the local school, and reading in camp. The chimps were almost as fascinating as last time – I spent many hours watching enclosure 4 (sinkie, nicky, commando, kambo, kit, ken, bobby, and a few others I never learned to identify). I spent less time watching enclosure 2 (with chimps I'd met last time – pal, tara, tobar, goliath, ingrid, ilse, lionel, etc.), mostly because ken was super cute to watch, especially when the older males like sinkie would roughhouse with him.

While chimps were slightly less intrinsically interesting this time, this was redeemed by the research going on that I don't remember during my previous trip. There was a group from Wisconsin that had a couple of research projects. One study was to throw in 50 peanuts, one every 30 seconds, and record who gets it. This let them determine dominance hierarchies, since chimps are awful at sharing (how many times did I see mothers steal food from their kids, or big males steal from whoever they felt like?). This provided objective information they wanted for interpreting their second study, which was to observe behavior when chimps were exposed to pant-hoots from chimpanzees they didn't know (i.e. recordings from the group down the road) as compared to recorded pant-hoots from groups they were accustomed to (the one across the road). Over the week I was there, there was apparently an increase in tension in the groups as they became concerned that their borders were being encroached upon. In one of the tests, I saw a group that was interrupted by a foreign call during feeding (it was unintentionally early) actually leave high-reward food and go single-file out into the bush to search the border for what chimp might have made that noise (one female stayed behind and had a *feast*, though).

The one piece of research I got to participate in was a mapping project of enclosure 4 done by the Gonzaga student group we were attached to. Humans don't generally go into the enclosures, except for about 20' near the buildings for doing a bit of maintenance, so it's hard to see how much the chimps actually use their ~1km square enclosures. One day, all the chimps were brought in, and we got to transfer through inside, in ~6 groups of 3, to try to hand-map the trails through the enclosure (why didn't we just use GPS? Poor planning, there.). We visitors tend to arrive around mealtime at the buildings, so we have a biased view of the chimps spending all their time next to the human structure waiting for food. But what we found out there was a massive network of trails all throughout the enclosure, even in this oddball group that does less normal nesting behavior than enclosures 1-3 do.

The exciting chimp event while we were there was Milla's escape. While most chimps at Chimfunshi were rescued at a young age when they were being smuggled to be sold as pets, a few like Milla are more human socialized. She's an older chimp who before Chimfunshi was kept at a bar, smoking and drinking hilariously for patrons. So she had some different expectations from the more wild chimps, like having a blanket to sleep with, and drinking her water from bottles. She also was a much better problem solver, and while in the large outdoor enclosures she had figured out to take a long branch, prop it up on the electric fence, and climb on out. As a result, she'd been locked in a ~10'x10' cage so that she couldn't escape, and more importantly, couldn't teach the other chimps to escape. However, during a moment of confusion, her door was opened into another cage section, and thus she got out into the enclosure after feeding. The keepers expected her to try to escape, and sure enough she soon found a branch, and moseyed on up it and out into the world.

Since the keepers expected this, they had a video camera along for what would happen next, whih was mostly walking, sitting, looking around, and walking again. The only tense moment captured was when she made a big display dragging a wheelbarrow around by one hand. At one point she went to the keepers' hut where they make the nshima (maize meal) balls that are one of the food supplements for the chimps (this is not their native habitat, and I think the enclosures are too small to support the groups even if it was). She found the pots, put water in the pot, stirred the pot, and sampled the water from a spoon, as if she was cooking. She also did something that I think was mimicking washing dishes with one of the plates. Eventually one of the keepers got close enough to her to give a sedative injection by hand, at which point she was finally transferred to enclosure 5 where the 3 other escape artists live. This is a small enclosure more like you'd see at a zoo, with reinforced bars they can't break through and locks protected from being pried off, but at least now Milla gets friends and sun and things to climb again.

The school was fascinating. It was started 6 years ago, after my family started making earmarked donations for a teacher's salary. Teaching is done in English officially, though a lot of communication was in Bemba (the local language in this region). The morning class was ~7 students at the advanced level (averaging 5 present per day) who had some limited English and school skills, though there appeared to be a lot of rote learning. They could read and copy off the board, and sometimes respond to questions that had very structured answers, but open-ended questions went worse than in my sister's kindergarten classes. The afternoon class was the beginning 54 students, and it was chaos. How do you teach kids from age 4-12 all in one classroom? Especially when you don't have the ability to make copies, so you can't set one group up to work independently while doing something with another group of students at a different level. It looked like a lot of time at least half the class was just bored – either not understanding, or doing work they knew long ago. Still, it's better than before, when these kids were just playing around all day. Some are even going on to study in other schools and “make something of themselves” (the teacher is big on encouraging kids to become something more than subsistence farmers, and apparently has been successful at motivating many), and he's had some success in discouraging girls from pregnant at a young age.

class

"Mary wore her red dress" song in class

My mom and sister spent a lot of time writing and constructing reusable classroom materials. I was brought in as a cutter and contact-paperer. Previously the classroom materials consisted of a single badly designed curriculum book of each grade, 3 maps, faded posters of English color words, posters of English month and day names, and a few vocabulary-related posters that previous student groups had made. We added a reusable calendar, materials for doing songs to teach English, some posters for doing grammar lessons, and a string with clothespins in front so the posters could be temporarily hung up while doing a lesson.

The big news for the school while we were there was that Innocent (the Zambian general manager at Chimfunshi) successfully petitioned the government to recognize the collection of people that live next to Chimfunshi as a real village. With being a real village comes the support for having a school, which means that they'll have two teachers at 10x the salary our donation was providing. With that support, they'll be able to split the classes and more effectively teach, but also be able to get more classroom materials that are direly needed.

baboon
A student being groomed by a drunken baboon at the barbecue.
Seriously, people, hold on to your drink or the baboon will take it.

I'm now in Barcelona for the biking portion of my sabbatical. I'd like to thank daniels for hanging on to my bike whlie I was in Zambia, which saved outrageous amounts of money on shipping it that I would have had to do otherwise.

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