Sunday, August 14, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment