Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tanzania - this is a long one

So 10 days and 6 towns later and we have made it from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean!

We started our trip to the coast by heading north to Musoma. That trip, on a crowded public bus, took us past the gate to the Serengeti National Park. As we passed we got a taste for the animal life the newest wonder of the world holds as zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and baboons could be seen from the road. We figured this to be our "poor man's safari." In Musoma we camped on the beach on Lake Victoria, a very cool experience.

From there we were able, after several hours and a lot of walking, to find a bus headed to Karatu where we were to visit the Tanzanian Children's Fund Children's Home. Unbeknown to us, this bus trip went directly through the Serengeti National Park. Also unbeknown to us, and apparently to the bus company as well, foreigners are expected to pay to travel through the national park. Even in a public bus, not a safari vehicle. After arriving at the gate four hours into our trip we spent a good 45 minutes arguing with the bus driver and the park guards (we did not travel with the needed $100) who told us we would have to turn back, on our own, and walk back to Musoma. What they had declined to tell us at the beginning was that they accepted credit cards. We did end up having to pay but, in the end it was worth it.

While bumping along at around 60mph through the Serengeti (surely infuriating the people who had paid thousands to go on safari) we were treated to a true safari, and one perfectly suited for two people with such fickle attention spans. We saw plenty of giraffes, zebras, buffaloes, gazelles and other small animals and were lucky to see elephants, hippos, lions and even cheetahs (which is rare even for those people sitting comfortably in their safari trucks). Our driver did slow down a bit as we passed some of the bigger animals, but this was a public transport vehicle, not a tour bus.

When we pulled through the gate on the other side of the Serengeti (hours later and after stopping for lunch at a workers cafeteria) we entered a landscape that can only be described as otherworldly. A flat, white, desert plain stretched for miles with dozens of twisters swirling all around us. Masai herders were the only people around, leading their herds through the dust from one watering hole to the next. The scenery was too exciting for Jay who passed out, hard, and unfortunately missed the next part of the journey in which we climbed up and out of the plain. We ascended for probably 2 hours, Jay amazingly still asleep as his head continuously slammed into the window, to the precipice of the Ngorongoro Crater, the location of the discovery of the oldest known human skeleton. The landscape was incredible with elephants feeding on the edge of the rainforest that drapes the crater's walls, thousands of feet deep (don't worry, I have video so Jay can watch the scenery and himself pin-balling around the bus).

After again being asked for another $100 for traveling through Ngorongoro National Park - this time we refused and were allowed to continue on - we arrived in Karatu, just miles outside the park gate. We camped there for the weekend, became welcome regulars at the Number One Restaurant and Jay found his new favorite dish, goat intestine. On Monday we caught a ride from a friendly Italian couple to the road that led to the Children's Home. From where we were dropped we hiked, for several hours into the foothills of the crater. And hours later, no children's home sited, we found ourselves back on the main road. Luckily, and incredibly, we had enough cell phone service to contact the children's home and were picked up by their land rover. Another half an hour later and we arrived at the most astonishing facility we had seen yet.

India Howell, an American woman who fell in love with Tanzania, founded the home in 2003 for vulnerable children. The home itself now provides 69 children with an incredible place to grow up. The facilities are directly next to a local school that is also supported by India and is where the children attend, free of cost. Jay and I were stunned by the beautiful homes where the children live. There house mothers prepare delicious looking food and the rooms are far nicer than anything we have stayed in this trip!

We had a very nice conversation with India who shares our view that small, grassroots organizations are the best way to support the children of Africa. These organizations have people like India (or Bashir in Kenya or Lon in Ethiopia) that have a personal investment in seeing the children and their communities succeed. Good luck to India and all the staff at the Tanzanian Children's Fund!

Following our visit with India and another night camping in Karatu we caught a ride to Arusha with an older British man who owns a farm in the area. The ride was, once again, spectacular. It took only about 15 minutes to descend probably close to 2000 feet off a high plateau to another arid valley. We then ascended back up to Arusha which is located directly at the foot of Mt. Meru. While there we visited The School of St. Jude's. This is a great example of what one person can do for a local community. Australian Gemma Sisia founded the school to provide free education, now on two campuses, for 1200 students. It's massive, new, beautiful dorm facilities (complete with landscaping and horses) caught us by complete surprise as they looked more like a luxury mountain retreat than a school for poor children.

Arusha is one of the largest cities in Tanzania, home to the East African Community, and the jump-off point for safari's. These ingredients make for a lot of people who want to sell you everything from the "special stuff" (ganja) to black-market safaris. We were more than happy to move on after just one day in town.

The next stop was Moshi, a smaller but similar town at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We spent a day staring at the clouds that surrounded Africa's tallest mountain but were never treated to a glimpse of the peak. We took a tip from some new Swiss friends to take a day in Lushoto, a village located in the north-eastern Tanzanian highlands.

We hopped another ride to Lushoto which took us up a winding single-track road into rainforests that disappeared off thousand foot cliffs that dropped off directly to the savanna. Not knowing anything about Lushoto, or where to stay, we followed signs through the rainforest for about four miles before reaching Irente, a site located directly on the end of the highlands. We arrived at the cliff edge just as the sun was setting over the vast savanna thousands of feet below. We camped there, above the clouds, on the precipice of the cliff falling asleep and waking up to one of the most incredible vistas we have ever seen. Living above our tent in a tree house was Allan, an Australian artist who is spending four years traveling the world and painting portraits in every country he visits. We will get you a link to his work once its available!

We hiked back out of Irente the next day and caught a bus to Tanga where we are today. Tanga is located on the Swahili coast which is known for some of the most spectacular beaches in the world. It is also, interestingly enough, the site of a major World War One sea battle between the British and Germans. Our plan was to travel by boat to Pemba Island before moving on to Zanzibar. However, after further advice from locals (and finding out it was illegal to take one of the small sailboats across the channel) we have decided to move on to the small resort area of Pangani where we can catch a boat directly to the "spice island" of Zanzibar.

So, off for a bit of much needed R&R on the beach! (By the way, Jay shaved today for the first time in two months - watch out ladies of Pangani)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

SSSF's newest student/Lake Victoria/Tanzania

Our brief stay back in Uganda after our dizzying trip to South Sudan was definitely highlighted by all of Acen's kids being back in the home. While the place was certainly a madhouse, that is with nine kids running around all day, it was especially nice to be able to meet South Sudan Scholarship Foundation's newest student. Werro is six years old and has been in Uganda for just one term. Stunningly enough, having known no English while in Sudan, she was able to communicate perfectly with us in her knew language. She also never stopped smiling the entire time we were there. A tiny girl who was visibly still effected by the disease (she is currently under treatment for syphilis) and hunger she left in Sudan, she was constantly laughing and playing. Werro, unlike other SSSF students, does have a loving family back in Sudan. However, her mother is physically handicapped and her father is blind. Without intervention from SSSF she would have little chance of ever receiving an education let alone being able to play as any child should; two things I can assure you she is taking full advantage of today!


Back in Uganda we also had the task of trying to overcome the incredible misinformation surrounding ferry travel to Tanzania. The buses heading to Tanzania would carry us around much of what we aimed to see in the country. Our first attempt was thwarted at the dock because immigration officials had left hours before the ferry was due to depart (logic need not apply) and we could not get an exit-stamp. Finally we were able to find a ride aboard a cargo ship from Jinja, Uganda to Mwanza, Tanzania. We spent the day of our departure in Jinja, a bustling colonial town and near to the source of the Nile. That night we slept aboard the ship before being jostled awake by a four in the morning departure. The sunrise on Lake Victoria proved spectacular.

(Sunrise over Lake Victoria)

While the ship did not appear all that sea-worthy, in the end, we both agreed that this leg of the trip was far and away the best travel experience yet. We were the only two passengers on the ship and we had a great bunk room in which we spent two peaceful nights. While it certainly was not overly exciting, the spaciousness, calmness and quiet were an incredible change of pace from bus travel. We were only in sight of land for the first several hours after departure from Uganda (during which we crossed the equator, unknowingly, for the third and last time), but that early scenery was beautiful with small fishing villages dotting the shores of small islands and peninsulas.

We spent the majority of our full-day aboard the ship playing cards and lying about on the deck of the ship, only being chased inside by the monstrous clouds of mosquitoes that we passed through several times. These swarms could be seen miles away and looked more like thunder clouds than masses of insects. After leaving sight of land around ten that morning we did not see another sign of human life until twelves hours later. In a Twilight Zone type of scene that first sign of life was miles and miles of fish farms. Atop each of the thousands of buoys that held up the restraining nets was a solitary bulb. These silent dots of light surrounded us for as far as the eye could see and on every side of the ship for hours.

We arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania yesterday around five in the morning. Mwanza is a beautiful town that sits atop several hills overlooking Lake Victoria. Homes are constructed on and around rocky outcroppings and smooth boulders jut out from around the hotels and restaurants in the city center. We enjoyed lunch at a second-story hotel bar right on the shore of the lake. Having not known what to expect, Mwanza has been a great surprise and has certainly added to what have been some very needed, very relaxing few days!

I have been battling a slight fever so we will spend another day here before moving on to Musoma. From there we will travel through the Serengeti (since we are traveling on a shoestring we hope to get a little bit of a safari out of this leg of the trip) to Arusha where we will visit a children's village and a school for children who would otherwise be unable to afford the cost of school fees. We also hope to visit the nearby Ngorongoro Crater, the supposed site of the inception of human life.

Keep checking in and be sure to leave comments and questions!

Friday, August 14, 2009

South Sudan

Two years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time working in an incredible place; the semi-autonomous South Sudan. There I met a people who are at once heartbreaking and inspiring. They look desperation in the face every single day and are able to overcome it with incredible humor, hope and faith. I was excited to bring Jay to a place I grew to love but at the same time nervous at what type of progress had been made in the past two years.

This past week we have stayed with Acen's extended family just outside of the capital, Juba. To give an idea of the level of development there, South Sudan is a place the size of England and France combined and has less than 20km of paved roads (this is up from 5km in 2007). All of those roads are in Juba. There is some electricity in the capital, although it comes from a diesel-fed generator that powers a tiny portion of the offices of non-governmental organizations and government. All of these offices also have personal generators however, as they can only expect one to two days of power a week. Residents do not even dream of benefiting from the large generator.

Acen's family has no electricity and no water. The women have to walk well over a mile to get all of the water for cooking, cleaning and bathing (in fact, the women do pretty much everything from home construction to cooking, cleaning and even brewing the local alcohol that they sell to soldiers for a modest income). Even with what little Acen's family has their hospitality is incredible. We were treated to meat every night, a luxury they rarely enjoy under normal circumstances. Every neighbor stopped by to greet us and all went on at some length (the Sudanese are known for their drawn-out formalities) about how appreciative they were to see us staying in a real Sudanese home. There are some white aid workers in Juba but they all stay in relatively comfortable homes with provided transportation. So we were certainly a rare sight on the local buses and on the walk home from the bus stop.

We were also able (after way too much hassle and bribery) to make a trip to rural part of the South. It took us five hours to drive the sixty-miles to our destination (weighted down by the seven officials and security personnel needed to insure our safety and access). While the place we visited was stunningly beautiful it was also extraordinarily tragic. The area, located between Juba and Uganda, is of great strategic importance. As such, it was decimated during the Sudanese Civil War and, for much of the time since the signing of the peace agreement, was occupied by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army. The LRA are known for (among other atrocities) abducting young boys and girls for use as soldiers and prostitutes as well as for cutting off fingers, breasts, genitals and lips. Signs of these tragedies were evident on many of the people who watched us curiously from the roadside.

(A typical South Sudanese school)

Almost everyone we met here was a recent returnee from internally displaced camps in Juba and Khartoum or refugee camps in Uganda. What is most appalling is that they were forcibly returned here from their camps where at least there were hospitals and schools. In this area there is one school with just one teacher who had only a high school education. The rest of the teachers are mostly-uneducated but literate volunteers doing everything they can to help their people. There are just two primary health care units to provide for tens of thousands of people. These tiny mud huts are stocked with nothing but soon to expire first-line anti-malarial drugs and no way to diagnose the disease. The two community health workers who staffed the clinics have not been paid in months and they themselves are starving while trying to help their neighbors.

The people themselves were angry, and justifiably so. Traveling with the chief of the area we were obliged to stop at a funeral that was being held beside the road. The funeral was for a two year old boy who had died of malaria; an easily preventable and treatable disease. He had come back from Uganda with his mother months earlier where they had access to the drugs they would have needed to treat the boy. Back home in South Sudan they did not have the money to travel to Juba to get the needed medicine. As the chief said, they had to "give up and let the boy die." His tiny gravel grave is placed directly in front of his mother's hut's door signifying that he was her first born.

(A typical health care center found in South Sudan)

To add to the problem, tribal violence wracks South Sudan with return to war with the North all but imminent in the next months. The people repeatedly told us they were being brought back to die; and many are. South Sudan is in desperate need of help. We are doing our best to remove students from these horrible situations at the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation, but we need your help. Please pass along our web address to friends and family in a time of ever increasing need:

To end with a humorous note (for you, not for Jay, Acen and I). We returned to Kampala yesterday and were prepared for the long journey. We were not prepared for the lack of suspension and the 40 plus speed bumps we hit in a three-mile stretch (still no idea as to their purpose). We also stopped about five hours from Kampala to get food at a gas station. Incredibly, an hour after we had left the gas station we ran out of gas. So, after leaving at five that morning we arrived back in Kampala at midnight.

We will update with our plans again soon and with stories about the newest additions to SSSF!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SSSF students, 2 years later

Almost two years ago I met several students while working in Southern Sudan who were at the end of the line in terms of education. They were in only the Fourth Grade. This past week was the first time since the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation (SSSF) was founded that I have been able to reunite with some of these children and to meet some of our newest students.

For the past five days Jay and I have been staying with Acen, the caretaker of the SSSF students and the woman who first alerted me to the crisis these children were facing. Living with Acen is Sarah, one of our newest students and sponsored by the Mount Mansfield Winter Academy (MMWA) in Stowe, Vermont. She is a junior in high school and attending one of the most respected schools in Uganda. Jay, Acen and I were able to visit her school after weaving in and out of traffic and briefly getting lost on motorcycles. Sarah was attending another school under another sponsor but was dropped this past year. She was facing having to return to Sudan before SSSF and MMWA stepped in to provide her scholarship.

After our visit to Sarah's school we hopped back on the motorcycles, Jay comfortably wedged between myself and our driver (yes, three grown men on a dodgy Chinese motorcycle), and headed for Manasseh's school. This was an incredible visit for myself as Manasseh was the inspiration for SSSF as the face that first told me of the hardships faced by students in his shoes.

This day he walked through the door of the headmistresses office a new person. Strong, healthy and beaming Manasseh looks nothing like the hungry, sick and exhausted boy I met in Sudan. I spoke with his teachers, all of whom told me what a diligent and motivated student he is. We were only able to meet briefly but we will get to see him again soon after the next leg of our trip, Sudan.

(Manasseh [furthest to the right] with his new family:
[right to left] Sarah, Werro, Opio, Moga, Acen, Ocen)

Yes, we will be backtracking quite a bit when we leave for South Sudan (today or tomorrow depending on the status of our permits) but this is one of the most important parts of the entire journey. There we will meet with several NGO's to discuss their role in the development of Southern Sudan while also doing some legwork for SSSF.

This was a quick update as we have to run back to the Sudan People's Liberation Army's office to check our permits, but stay tuned for updates from Sudan and to hear the story of SSSF's newest and youngest student!