Sunday, August 14, 2011

Simply Unforgettable

Gombe - 8/13/2011

Everything seems to be spinning faster and faster, yet it’s so hard to believe that we’re almost done with our work here! All our various projects – water sanitation, multiple stoves, fuel briquettes, wind power – have reached (and continued in) a state of crunch time, as we all try to squeeze in the final tests and finishing touches that we can. However, in the midst of this chaos, there was one niggling little detail.

We still hadn’t visited Gombe National Park.

Gombe is famous for being the site of Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzee research and is home to three different communities of chimps, not to mention a plethora of other primates, birds, butterflies, and even leopards! Not that they’re seen – they’ve apparently got better things to do. Gombe is also notable for being about five or six miles away from Kalinzi, and about two miles away from Mwamgongo. Considering the closeness of the park, and the fact that we’re partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute, and the fact that chimpanzees are incredible, it was unthinkable that we not visit. So, in the middle of a weeklong spree of all-night stove testing and briquette burning, a group of four of us – myself (Colleen), James, Kim, and Dahms – took off for the forest. We took the opportunity to slip away after giving our group presentation to JGI in Kigoma. We caught a small boat going north for the roughly two hour ride, arriving at dusk on the shores of Gombe. After a slight misunderstanding with one of the proprietors of the cheaper lodging, we were directed towards the JGI research flats. We arrived to find Dr. Anthony Collins (Dr. Anton), a primatologist and researcher who has been working at Gombe for a great while, entertaining a group of grad students and professors from UC San Diego. Quite the pleasant surprise! As Dr. Anton said later, with our unexpected arrival we probably created the highest concentration of Americans in the entire Kigoma region. We were received very graciously, and spent the night in the comfortable flat accommodations.

The next morning, after being instructed on the rules of the joint (namely, don’t eat outside and watch that the door is always closed- baboons are everywhere), we went to get our tour arranged. We walked down the sandy path, weaving through the beach-tree thickets, greeted and scolded by robin-chats and birds too swift and flighty to be identified. Our guide, Gadison, led us off into the forest and not ten minutes later, we had our first sightings of chimpanzees. They were at the very tops of some incredibly tall palm trees, eating a palm nut breakfast. We squinted and craned our necks, snatching glimpses of huge dark forms shifting among the leaves, occasionally crashing to a different tree in a cacophony of swaying and bending palm fronds. As they moved among the trees, it was clear that their size and the noise of the leaves belied their skill and strength as they leaped between trees, grabbing the hanging leaves of an opposite tree and scaling up to its top. Soon, however, breakfast was over and the chimpanzees descended around us. Before long there was a male chimp not 20 feet away, eating wild mango and generally just exuded an air of complete nonchalance – surprising, since there was a group of gawking tourists right in front of him, but not so surprising when one considers that gawking tourists have been practically a daily event for many decades. We ended up following a group for about two hours, our guide narrating the soap opera lives of the chimpanzees. “That one, there, she is Gremlin. Her daughter Glitter had a baby, but Gremlin took it away.” Gremlin sits on the edge of a river, Glitter’s young daughter clutching her underside as Gremlin’s own two year old (Gizmo – you may begin to see a pattern with names) slides down from her back and tries wandering away. Gremlin pulls him back. Another one of Gremlin’s youngsters was a few hundred yards down the path. Suddenly he started calling for his mother, and Gremlin bounded towards him, passing within feet of us, as we had just been standing between mother and baby (whoops, breaking the cardinal rule of interacting with animals). Later, the family of chimps spots a troop of colobus monkeys high above – a favorite prey, but usually too fast to catch. The family begins sedately meandering through the forest following the troop above. Unfortunately for us, who were right behind the chimps, one of the key instincts of the colobus monkey when feeling threatened is to empty their bladder. We were gifted, then, by a light, warm, golden shower, the colobus’ greeting. How nice of them. We saw Frodo, the ex-alpha male who is famous for ruling with a iron fist and once killing and eating a human baby, now an old man wasted in his prime by illness – probably a good thing. His uncle Fudge decided to give a display charge, shaking trees and bellowing before crashing away down the riverbed “to remind the others that he is still a big man,” says Gadison, laughing. I was blown away by the ability of Gadison to not only identify each chimp at a glance but to, with the slightest provocation, chronicle the life and times of each of them. Eventually we had to with great reluctance say goodbye to the chimpanzee group and continue on through the forest. We scrambled up to Jane’s Peak – or at least, I scrambled; the rest of the group climbed. It was an incredible gain of altitude over a very short period, the path unbelievably steep and practically without traction. Added to the lack of grip, the narrow trail was bordered on one side by a sharp drop-off – great for views, less great when your feet slide out from under you. The view from the top was spectacular, and after a short break we took a second, far easier path down to a gorgeous waterfall. We relaxed there for a long time and spoke with a fellow visitor to the park, an Australian named Louise. [We later found that she was staying just up the beach from us, and she joined us for poker on the beach later that day. We played with rocks for chips, which was great if you ran out, since the entire beach was essentially rocks.] After a good while (which was still too short) at the waterfall, we headed back to the flats to feast on a wonderful meal prepared by Siwema, the flat’s housekeeper. It was a wonderful thing to come home to after a five hour walk and hike – food always tastes better when you’re hungry, and it was delicious to start with.

Post-lunch, we tried heading out into the forest again only to learn that the park was deserted after noon, and we were unable to find a guide. We weren’t exactly crushed, however, because our temporary home was about forty feet from the beautiful blue waters of Lake Tanganyika. We spent the remainder of the day swimming and generally just lazing about on the shore, getting to watch a spectacular sunset which heralded the end of our day at Gombe. It wasn’t the end of our trip though. We still had to conquer (survive?) the water taxi ride the next day. You’ve already heard tell of the dreaded water taxi from the trip from Mwamgongo; this trip wasn’t nearly as eventful. Other than the truly extreme listing of the boat to one side, which resulted in everyone on the center planks sliding to the right and myself, on the left rim of the boat, nearly sliding into the belly of the boat, the ride was smooth and we reached Kigoma in good time. After a bit of shopping, personal and group, a visit to JGI to thank Dr. Anton, and lunch, we were headed back to Home Base, Kalinzi, to stay until we leave for good two days later.

To come full circle, I am still shocked to be leaving so soon, though we’ve been living here more than a month. I suspect I will remain shocked and disbelieving right up until the taxi comes to drive us south tomorrow morning. Currently the field station is in a state of complete disarray as people pack up, decide what to take and what to leave, and the last few tests finally get run. Things are definitely wrapping up here, and plans are becoming finalized for the final days. We leave for Kigoma tomorrow (Sunday), catch our twelve hour bus to Mwanza on Tuesday, fly to Dar on Wednesday, and on Friday the nineteenth the Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering summer trip, 2011, will be complete, as Emil, Thabo, and Kevin fly back to their respective destinations. The other four of us will stay an additional ten days to take advantage of the splendors of Tanzania before our marathon trip back to the States. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the trip so far, and foresee it wrapping up in much the same way as it has gone so far: unforgettably.


Back to the Old Stomping Grounds

Blog Post 8.9.11 – Mwamgongo

DHE’s involvement in Tanzania all started about 3 years ago, when DHE members went on an assessment trip in the Kigoma region of Tanzania. In search of an appropriate place for our student engineering projects, the group found Mwamgongo. This small fishing village is located on the northern border of Gombe National Park, site of Jane Goodall’s famous work with chimpanzees. The sensitivity of the park has lead to protective measures of the surrounding forests that have limited Mwamgongo’s supply of firewood. This lead to the first summer of work implementing the Rocket Stove and various sanitation projects in Mwamgongo, issues with the village’s gravity-fed tap system involving broken parts and subsequent contamination came to light. These issues gave rise to work last summer to create a system for documenting and reporting problems with the system. Since the first implementation trip in 2009, DHE has sent five additional trips and about 20 students to the region to continue and expand these projects.

Recently, Kalinzi has become our home-base village, since the Rocket Stove program in Mwamgongo has been turned over to a group of competent local builders. The focus of most of our work this summer has been in Kalinzi, but due to our long involvement in Mwamgongo, it was decided that we should stop by and see how things were going.

In an effort to save time and money, we decided to make the 8-mile hike from Kalinzi to Mwamgongo last Sunday. We set out with a good night’s sleep and with stale rolls with smothered with peanut butter in each hand. As we started our initial descent we passed a boy on a handmade wooden bike, complete with springs for suspension, zooming down a dirt path. Our request to take a picture was greeted with grins… and then with a dozen children following us for another 20 minutes. Eventually we were on our own and took our first break at the bottom of the valley. Visible outlines of each of our backpacks was apparent on each of our backs, where dark sweat patches indicated where evaporation had been inhibited. We thought that was a sign that we should drink some water, and so we did in the shade of a beautiful avocado tree.

Kevin contends that the hike is best defined as “a bit intense”, but Kim insists “brutal” is a more accurate term, at least for those who do not enjoy the throb of lactic acid in their thighs. Part two of the hike felt like a straight-up climb. Stan and Kevin took the “more pain for less time” approach while Kim kept a steady pace up the trail, which was evidently created by people motivated to find the shortest line and not the gentlest grade. From the saddle that marked the end our climb, we could see east back towards Kalinzi and south down towards Kigoma, with a sweeping view of the surrounding hillsides, cultivated with cassava and other crops on impossibly steep slopes.

Next we walked along steep cliffs and down through uneven rocks to wind our way through several large hills. The change from the lush and forested landscape to barren rock was drastic and an interesting visual experience. After almost three hours of hiking we stopped for lunch on the path – granola bars and water to rehydrate.

At last we passed through the saddle of two hills and reached a “road” that leads down into the valley of our destination. The view from the top was breathtaking. Steep hillsides flanking the valley were grassy and dry with the occasional plot of terraced land – how people farm up there is beyond us. Lake Tanganyika, stretched out before us, melted into the clouds, giving the impression that the horizon was a continuum extending from the lake to far above our heads. We didn’t pause long to appreciate the view because we knew that our destination was three thousand feet below us, and they day was certain not to get colder. The “road” leading down has likely not been traveled by any vehicle since the original bulldozer that created the path. The combination of sand, loose rocks, and tired legs led to many missteps and slips. Zigzagging across the stupidly straight path in the midday sun was a brutal task, perhaps matched only by the job of those we passed walking back up the hill with baskets overhead. How these folk manage to complete their daily work without food and water (they are currently celebrating Ramadan) is beyond us. At the end of a full hour of sustained leg-pulverizing descent and a four hour journey, we reached the bottom of the valley. Greeting us was the charming lakeside hamlet of Mwamgongo and scores of children whose sophisticated vocabularies are dominated by the word “Mzungu!”

After setting up food and lodging with the housekeeper, we got in touch with Kambe Yote. Famous within DHE for his innovative and creative spirit, Kambe Yote has been instrumental in propagating the stove throughout the village. He and Habiba, the heads of the Technical Expert group, came over to discuss the project and to set up another meeting for the following day. Stan was itching to watch his favorite soccer team, Manchester United, playing in a championship game against Manchester City, which was being broadcast in town (which makes it very hard to figure out allegiances when everyone claims to be a Manchester fan). We partook of the game in a venue with a small TV run off a generator in front of stadium style seating made from boards three inches wide. The combination of these narrow boards and the just-not-quite-long-enough spacing between benches made for a bit of an uncomfortable experience. We were both struggling from dehydration and sore backs, but Stan was in high spirits – especially when Man U won the game in stoppage time. We finished the night with dinner: ugali samaki, otherwise known as a lump of flour paste and a whole fish. Bellies full and legs tired, we fell asleep as soon as the saggy foam mattresses interrupted our bodies’ capitulation to gravity.

Scheduled to meet with Kambe Yote early in the morning, we got up with the rising sun to enjoy a fantastic breakfast of chapatti, bananas, and tea. As Kambe Yote’s boat had departed late the previous night due to the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sundown, he returned equally late from his night out fishing. Returning with a boat full of three inch fish requires a lot of work, and it wasn’t until nearly 11 that he had been able to finish his tasks to setting his fish out to dry on the beach and tend to his equipment. Since he was running a bit behind, he sent Habiba and two VLAM members over to talk to us until he could finish up. We had the chance to talk about the evolution of the stove design that has been progressing on both their end as ours, as well as some of the issues they have encountered in spreading the design in Mwamgongo. Since the Rocket Stove has an inner chamber made of clay, the fact that the only two sources of clay in Mwamgongo are owned by individuals bent on making a substantial profit from their resources has been a significant hindrance. As we have learned to make the stove from soil collected from termite mounds (they grow back every year!), we shared this information with the gathered group. They were very excited about the prospect, and we are hoping that this will allow the stove to progress further throughout the village. We showed them the slight changes we have made to the design, and then set off for a whirlwind tour through the village. We found ourselves chasing Kambe Yote as he led us to kitchen after kitchen where women were cooking on the Rocket Stove, or one of the mud brick stoves modeled after the Rocket Stove. In the span of little more than an hour we visited twelve homes and got the sense that improved stoves are alive and well in Mwamgongo, and that Kambe Yote was in desperate need of sleep.

We said our goodbyes and headed back to the Field Station for an afternoon of digesting what we had seen and learned and reflecting about the growth and development of DHE and where we see things going in the future. Sitting on the front stoop of the Field Station, we were two very conspicuous Mzungu’s (wazungu would be the appropriate term) in a very conspicuous location near the waterfront. Since children in the village roam free pretty much as soon as they can walk, we had an audience of roughly thirty children watching our every move. How watching someone write in a notebook can be entertaining escapes most Westerners, but these children were paying rapt attention to what was termed by the 2009 summer trip as Mzungu TV (MTV for short). Eventually, the sun hung low enough in the sky over the Congo that gradually the children heard their mothers and their stomachs calling, and trickled away.

A beautiful sunset crept downwards through the clouds, illuminated a blazing display of yellows, oranges and pinks that lingered after the final sliver of the famous big African sun had disappeared behind the silhouette of the typically shrouded mountains across the lake.

We ate a dinner of the staple wali-maharage (beans and rice), and made our way quickly to bed in anticipation of the next morning’s early departure.

Having selected to make our exit from Mwamgongo on the local water taxi rather than to hike back out, we woke up before dawn to throw our few things into our packs and head down to the beach. We watched a tantalizingly empty water taxi depart while we were waiting for the housekeeper to come by and collect the key, and then headed down to the landing typically used by the water taxis. The next boat in seemed promising, but after a few sacks and people had been unloaded and the growing throng of potential passengers pushed to board, a local began pushing the boat away. Shouting and pushing ensued, evidently due to the fact that this was not a Mwamgongo boat, and thus should not make any money off of Mwamgongo. Not wanting to incur the wrath of the local protectionists, we waited for the next boat. Easily twice as crowded, this hometown hero pulled in sitting much lower in the water, and we climbed on along with what seemed like most of the village. We found a seat on one of the many large thwarts running across the boat, and our dangling feet soon found sacks of assorted produce to rest on. Oil drums, fuel canisters, sacks brimming with beans, rice, dagaa (those three inch fish mentioned earlier), more sizable fish, and tattered burlap sacks bristling with scrap metal were all arranged by an agile crew. This task accomplished, the 55-hp engine came to life and began moving the 30 foot wooden barge. Very shortly after pushing off, we passed a sign on the shore announcing the beginning of Gombe National Park, and very shortly after that, the engine cut out. A few minutes of siphoning fuel and we were on our way again.

Watching the sun rise to illuminate the shoreline slipping by and seeing monkeys swinging in the trees was a very cool experience, and helped to take our minds off our uncomfortable seating arrangement. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the predawn coolness was appreciated, and the temptation to take a drink of water despite the many observers of Ramadan on the boat became severe. Eventually we succumbed, preferring the stares we received to the dehydration we were experiencing. When we finally got to Kigoma we pulled in next to a big wooden freighter named Nipe Kazi (Give me Work) and hopped off the boat. Neither of us made it without getting our feet wet, much to the amusement of the other passengers.

After a quick supply run through town, we grabbed a taxi to Kalinzi and thoroughly enjoyed the cool breeze blowing through the windows as we climbed the road back to our home in the highlands.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Time Flies When You're Having Fun... (8.3.11)

…Or when you’re working so hard you forget to look at the time. It’s incredible how quickly time passes here. Monday marked the beginning of our 14 day countdown until we leave Kalinzi and begin our journey eastward to Dar. Seeing the days on our calendar getting crossed off one by one has pushed the throttle to the floor, and we’re pushing hard to get as much as possible done by the 15th.

Instead of slowing down last weekend, we filled it with SODIS testing, performing burn tests on various coffee husk stove concepts, and smashing up biomass in preparation of our final batches of briquettes. We each tried to take a bit of time for ourselves so that we could come out of the weekend with a full charge, but it was certainly no cabin retreat.

Sunday was a handful, to say the least. A bemused local pausing to watch from the front of the field station might easily have thought that they were looking at the center of an enormous wazungu circus. James and Kevin Dahms, having traveled to Matyazo and learning that many farmers near the dry mill have been building their own coffee husk stoves out of termite clay, set about building one of their own. Being the multi-tasking maestros that they are, they managed to run preliminary emissions testing on the metal CH stove while also experimenting with various ways to construct and light their mud brick creation.

While fluctuating wafts of clean air and smoke indicated the respective success or failure of the CH testing being performed outside, the rest of the crew worked to make preparations for the upcoming rocket stove training session. To prepare for teaching the women how to use the updated modular mold set, Kevin and Kim designed notecards that depicted how to use the molds and assemble the completed bricks.

Though our Sunday had kept us all busy, we had a relaxing evening of dinner (Tuma’s delicious cooking), a great round of Karata Moja, and conversation below beautifully bright stars.

Monday was an early morning for James and Dahms, who headed out to Matiazo to meet again with Prosper. They returned triumphantly with pictures of the clay coffee husk stove whose construction they had observed. We learned that many farmers had previously owned metal stoves based off the sawdust-style stoves used at the German mission, but had grown tired of the frequent breakages due to the intense heat created by coffee husk combustion and it’s destructive impact on commonly available metal. Since it is difficult and expensive to get metal of the quality used at the mission, they began building stoves out of clay. Seeing this innovation and creativity is really inspiring to us, and has led us to the conclusion that a metal stove such as we have been designing for the past year or so may not be the answer for this community, as the clay stoves are a good alternative to the high cost and low quality of metal stoves built here. We hope to be able to share some of what we have learned with the farmers building the clay stoves so that they can build stoves that are both inexpensive and clean burning. The boys will head back on Friday, once the stove built Monday has dried, to fire it up and assess how it burns. Since we still think we have the best coffee husk-burning metal stove design out there, we intend to continue optimizing it. Pursuing this end, James and Dahms spent today, Wednesday, sculpting hourglass-shaped flow materials from metal mesh so they can conduct emissions tests tonight. …Quite literally, they are planning on taking several-hour shifts to conduct tests for the next 24 hours. I think we have just enough Africaf√© to get the through the night!

Today marked part two of our clay-tray rocket stove training session with our stove women. We had hoped to show them both how to create the bricks and construct the stove at our first meeting on Monday. Unfortunately, the bricks we made last Friday were not quite dry yet, prompting the second session. This was just as well, because the first meeting was productive but long – many of the women had to run back home to break the fast for Ramadan. The highlight of the meeting was our discussion with the women about how to set up the rocket stove program in Kalinzi before we leave. These women essentially formed their own union right in front of our eyes – we are anxious to see how the program turns out when DHE returns to Kalinzi. Today, the women showed up again to see how to assemble the stove bricks. Our snafu of not having enough clay to cement them together turned out better than expected, as Faida suggested that they use the loose bricks to practice putting them together properly. Our productive afternoon ended by socializing with a few of the women.

SODIS testing has taken a unique turn lately. Thabo and I have been running out of ideas for testing different sources and variables, primarily because we’ve found that the water sources here are actually pretty clean. We needed a way to really prove the efficacy of the SODIS method. On Kevin’s suggestion, we created a “super positive control,” which is a nice way of saying “poop samples.” I’ll bypass the gritty details of how we achieved our E. coli-rich sample, but the upshot of it all is that SODIS has been super effective at eliminating fecal coliforms. This is great news!

While we’ve been busy with our projects, we’ve found some time to have fun as well. Yesterday morning, before Kevin, Dahms and I headed to Kigoma for a short meeting with JGI and to run errands, we jogged to the nearby soccer field to play Frisbee. As Tuesday is a market day, numerous people passed us on their way to the market, slowing or stopping to watch our crazy antics. In the evenings we’ve continued to play Karata Moja, but have also become interested in stargazing. Not that we know any of the Southern Hemisphere constellations (although Dahms claims to see Orion’s belt and his bow and arrow…), but we’re having fun making up our own and looking for shooting stars.

Unfortunately our work ethic and fun breaks have been dampened by many of us feeling under the weather the past few days. Perhaps the fact that we haven’t had a day off in over 10 days is catching up to us… Everyone in this group is a trouper though and we’re pushing on through the weekend. With one final push of meetings, presentations, and last minute tests, we’ll finally be able to go to Gombe and Mwamgongo next week.