This is Africa [Guest Post by Nicola Bulled]

My anthropologist friend Nicola was in Thohoyandou with us for a short time, but her critical eye and very unique perspectives made quite the impression on me. I hope to write more later on what I’ve learned about humanitarian aid, but below are some of Nicola’s thoughts on public opinions of Africa. If you’d like to read more, it reminds me of something I wrote last summer.


Upon arriving at my rather dismal, what some describe as “ghetto,” accommodation in the burgeoning city/town of Thohoyandou , Limpopo Province, South Africa, my apparent discomfort was frequently met by the phrase, “This is Africa!” As an African, a South African, I find the dismissive phrase disheartening at best, derogatory at worst. What exactly do people mean by the words, “This is Africa”? 

We often forget that Africa is a very large continent.  The total land area of the United States of America, China, India, most of Europe, and Central America together are not as large as the 58 countries that make up Africa. Just as the United States is distinct from India or China, so is North Africa distinct from southern Africa, East Africa from West Africa. Indeed, Africa is full of contradictions in race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, politics, and culture. In South Africa, shopping malls host stores selling products of Italian fashion designers, and grand houses line the streets with the latest in luxury interior design, all hidden behind high walls, electric fences, and security gates. The South African president has erected multi-million dollar homes for his wives and his post-presidential years.  Yet, while some people live a life of luxury, many more continue to living in townships and squatter camps and ‘ghettos’ with road signs and scrap materials used to build makeshift shelters. They depend on communal water sources and ablution facilities and have limited, if any, electricity.

What then “is Africa”?  Perhaps the shear contradictions, the vast inequities within communities, countries, and the continent is “Africa.” Do we accept the deterioration of public buildings due to laziness or allow corruption and the inappropriate distribution of resources? Do we accept that Africans fail to voice their concerns and give up their right to vote because they feel that no one is listening and their fate remains in God’s hands? Do we just stand back and watch Africans and the African continent get raped, pillaged, and murdered, because after all, “this is Africa”?

Rather than accepting the inequities and injustices that Africa and Africans have endured for centuries with a simple and dismissive statement, is it not the time to start asking, “What is Africa?” It’s time to ask, “What do we want Africa to be?” Anyone that has had the good fortune to stand in the midst of the collective African voice in song understands the strength of Africa. Africa must no longer be disenfranchised; Africans must have a voice that refuses conditions of deprivation and oppression from national or global leaders. Following the call of US President Barack Obama, as global citizens we must ensure that Africa becomes much more than just “this.”



My Better Half

I’ve been having some fantastically funny dreams here, and I thought I might share the craziest of them so far. It’s a pretty great one to explain in person, but I still figured the text version might liven up this blog:

In this dream, I wasn’t entirely human. I was a half-human-half-cow thing. However, I wasn’t split the cool way like a centaur; I was split down my medial___ axis. I had two cow legs on my left side, but on my right side I had one human leg and one human arm (just like my own real limbs). This definitely sounds like a crappy pretense for a children’s movie, but it gets sillier.

You may be aware that the mapping of the brain’s motor control is “switched” in that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa. This random fact determined a large part of the issues faced by my cow-human self. My human brain (right side) could only move or control the cow side of the body (left side), and my dumb cow brain (left) had no use for all the potential of my human side (right). This led to some serious frustrations. Here’s some example of internal dialogue I had:

Human brain:                     Let’s walk get some water over there.

Cow brain:                          Mooooooo.

Human brain:                     We can open this latch to get out of this paddock. Heeeeere we go. Use that opposable thumb right there.

Cow brain:                          Mooooooo.

The one thing the cow brain was intelligent enough to realize was that it could control the cow-side of the body by causing pain. The cow brain would control the human hand enough to pinch my tongue and pull it in the direction it wanted to go. The human brain would eventually have to oblige in order to stop the intense tongue tugging. All this makes the cow brain sound like a separate entity, but you should understand that I earnestly felt these moos as much as I felt my frustration at them.

I could make friends with other cows who tolerated my human side, although they bored me terribly. I could even make friends with humans, ones that were accepting of my absurd condition. Unfortunately, I couldn’t speak to them successfully because my human brain was in control of a cow’s mouth. I became a very good listener and would moo apologetically or in support when appropriate.

The only part of this dream that doesn’t seem like some sort of cartoon act was the odd brand on my right shoulder (human side). It was a large, square X with dots on either side of it, something like: •X•

The mark was all in black with precise lines. When my human friends noticed this mark on my arm, they all immediately changed demeanor. I suddenly seemed to terrify them with my presence as if I had just given Hitler my full support or suggested drowning puppies. People would end conversations abruptly and then leave without ever returning. My cow and human brain had no sense of what caused this reaction. My human brain had the wisdom to suggest covering it up so that people wouldn’t be scared away, but the cow brain had no capacity to hide the brand using its limited motor skills. In the end, I was one funny-looking creature with no real connections to others. Mooooooo.


If people really like this one, let me know and I’ll post more!


Early Lessons Learned

I’ll have you know that my journal is so much more exciting than this blog. I hope that anyone who is enjoying this chronological listing of activities gets the chance to sit with me and look over my notebook which is really where I process things. It’s as experiential as possible, as it includes textures, quotes, impressions, and visualizations of my travels. Some parts are nerdy, such as my improvised seismograph of riding the dirt road to the village, and some parts are more functional, like my calendar, driving directions, and newly-tried-foods list. Some parts are even faintly creative like the remnants of our paper beards (to be explained later).

Close quarters have been a general theme of the summer. I doodled it in my very “Jeffersonian” journal when I first arrived, and it’s been interesting to meet everyone within this context. Unfortunately, it means that our opinions of friends here are sometimes affected by seeing their frilly underwear drying proudly on their porches. Fortunately, we are getting to know each other well AND still getting along very well. We’ve learned who greets the world every morning by brushing their teeth outdoors, and we also know who gets stir-crazy the fastest. I don’t know any faster way to spend the summer than by having a limited amount of time with people you genuinely like.

Another one of the running themes has been shown explicitly and implicitly to me. One of my first conversations with Chief Lucas kept coming back to the idea that money is life. When I asked how most cooking was done, he said that it depended on if you had the money to buy an electric stove. When I asked about toilets, he replied that those with money have flush toilets, but most use pit toilets. The same divide was mentioned when I asked about children going to school because they need uniforms. One of the most common requests in the village is for employment so people can bring money home. On the same note, some rastas I met in Ghana used a call-and-reply of “more money” and “more life.” Last summer, I told them I disagreed. “No, no! There’s more to life than money,” I chided. But it’s really hard to be sure of that when education, medical care, and even time with your family are all really controlled by your finances. This lesson sounds very materialistic, but I feel it’s an important one for me because it will shape my future pursuits in development and aid. What good are better medical treatments if those most in need can’t afford them? How useful can clean water be when a family feels helpless because they can’t afford proper nutrition? At the very least I need to understand economics and public policy better than I do now before trying to address any of these issues.

Speaking of future coursework and development work, here is my current plan for graduate education. [These ideas have changed about once a week since May, and this current rendition has lasted about two weeks now, but nothing here is set in stone.] In May 2014 I’ll be done my undergraduate degree, and by December 2014, I hope to finish my MS in BME at CMU (yay acronyms!). I hope to start the 2-year Masters of Public Health (MPH) program at University of Pittsburgh, especially if I can get full tuition funding. During that time, I want to look into a Fulbright student fellowship so that my MPH thesis is based on global health research. I’m also trying to use Duolingo to teach myself French so that I’ll have more countries where I can understand the native language. This all take at least 4 years, which is certainly enough of a plan for me. One year ago I had no clue I’d be in Africa again, and it’s fun to think about how little I know about where I’ll be in five years.

On Friday (July 19) we went to the student bar on campus. Just imagine an elementary school cafeteria with bright fluorescent lights. Now insert a small bar counter and bartender in the center of the room and start playing loud, low-quality music. Seven of us headed there from Acacia (our lodgings) and ended up sitting in a large booth with our UNIVEN friends for a lovely couple of hours. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, so it almost seemed like I was back at CMU!

One of those UNIVEN friends also invited us to a wedding on Saturday. We were very nervous about attending because we know how expensive and planning-intensive weddings can be. Apparently weddings here are more of a community gathering than a precisely scheduled event. The wedding party arrived in a caravan of loudly honking cars. Dressed in our best clothing, we shuffled to the back of the huge picnic shelter and awkwardly tried to stay out of the way. The wedding ceremony and reception were combined into one 3 hour event. There was a 45 minute-long, emphatically yelled sermon about marriage, covenants, and divorce. My favorite excerpt has to be when the preacher explained the cultural significance of Jesus turning water into wine. “Wine at their weddings was like the meat at our wedding!”

A live band supported fantastic little dance breaks mixed in with the toasts and vows, both in English and Tshivenda. There were plenty of women wearing the traditional Venda clothing (like the skirt I just bought!), but the wedding was not a traditional Venda wedding. We noted that the newlyweds did not display as much affection as American couples tend to show. I’m not sure if that’s a cultural difference or just something different about this couple. Also the provided meal was had a fast food approach; it was a functional and easy to share meal rather than a sit-down banquet like I’m used to.

Courtney, Oliver, and I went to a Catholic mass the next day. This was only my second ever mass, but there were some obvious differences. Most notably, they didn’t serve communion. Also, the service was going quickly and probably would have lasted just one hour if they hadn’t started the announcements section which was at least a 45 minute community meeting about planning and logistics. Church services here regularly last at least three hours, so our two hour experience was a relief (at least to my impatient character). I find that South Africans have outstanding patience for everything (except driving).

Some other lessons learned worth noting here:

  • Outsiders who are somewhat similar to you can be even more intimidating that outsiders who are nothing like you. This is one small benefit of being from a different culture than the communities you’re doing field work with.
  • Just because someone says “thank you” does not mean you helped them or did the right thing. People say thanks just because it’s the polite response to an action. Discerning if you’re doing something useful or helpful is so much more complicated than the face value of someone’s response.
  • Ironically, I feel like I belong better in groups where I don’t technically belong. For example, I’m not a brother of AEPi (that fraternity I talk about all the time), so any time I’m invited or included there, I know it’s because people want me to be there. However, being part of an assumed open invite, like a group that I’m already a part of, is difficult for me because I rely on consistent positive reinforcement (aka I’m needy). Moreover, I’m just sensitive to being wanted around. I like who I am, but I never want to force my presence on someone else who doesn’t necessarily appreciate me. This is also evident in the parties I throw; I love creating a scenario where I know people attend if they want to be around me.
  • No matter how personally responsible I’ve learned to be with my car, laptop, keys, wallet, etc., I’m still naturally prone to losing things. I managed to change at the gym and leave an entire outfit there. I believe my favorite bra, jeans, and belt have been whisked away to a new home.
  • Suitcase locks do not protect belongings kept in soft-sided luggage. Hannah accidentally locked herself out of her bag by locking it up and then temporarily losing the key. For a week she’d say something like, “Oh! I have Benadryl if you need it. Nevermind, I can’t get to it.” Finally I approached it with the few lock picking techniques I’ve seen online, but wasn’t successful at opening the lock. Laughingly, I realized that you could just pull the zippered openings to either side of the lock.


Recently, our lab work has been more interesting because we’ve had to pick up all the duties of our graduate mentor, Teri. While she was away on a quick vacation with her boyfriend (now fiancé, congrats!), Hannah and I had to take over more of the data recording and analysis, as well as deciding what to do the next day. As soon as Teri left, we had a day with almost entirely blank petri dishes, controls and all, which yields no significant research information. We suspect the water source we had used (our UCK stream) is no longer being polluted with raw sewage, which is great for the environment, but not for our research when we’re expecting another two or three orders of magnitude on our bacterial counts. Despite the lame results, this wasn’t something we could have or should have predicted, so I didn’t worry about it. The next day we had to consider our research conditions (volume, pre-filtration or not, single or double filter papers), weather conditions, and the measured turbidity to decide what dilutions to use for the samples. We had to balance the concerns of limited research supplies and time against the threat of missing another day’s data. Picking dilutions is like selecting the microscope lens you’ll need twenty four hours later; if you’re right you get a great view of the cells, else you’re left with unfocused frustration at the loss of time and resources. Thankfully we selected an appropriate range of dilutions—not the ideal range, but a fitting one all the same.

As far as data management, I think Hannah and I streamlined the recording and copying process when we took over the lab notebook, but it seems like we might have missed one day’s data… All I can tell from my detective work on my personal notebook, the lab notebook, the contaminated loose-leaf papers we keep in the lab, and the spreadsheet is that we ran a day of tests on July 18th. We’re not sure if we lost the petri dishes, forgot to count them, or counted them and lost the results, but it’s a loss all the same. I keep hoping we’ll walk into lab and find a sheet of our results just sitting underneath the lab bench where it had fallen or something fanciful like that. I’m such a nerd that even my daydreams are research related.

The rest of the week went well, especially because it included three days of not being in the lab. I really do love this program, but it’s pretty evident that I don’t belong doing lab work for the rest of my life. On Tuesday, Hannah and I had the chance to revisit the Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative where the ceramic water filters are made. This time we went back for a lesson on traditional pottery, which was a very welcomed artistic outlet. We sat down on the concrete floor, each with a placemat (a piece of carpet), a round plate, and a blob of clay mined from the natural deposits just outside. The potter taught by example, almost an entire pottery lesson without verbal communication. She started by balling up the clay, pushing it into a disk, stretching up side walls, and smoothing the sides with a plastic scraper. The women do not have or use the typical pottery spinners I’ve seen in the US. To make a rounded pot, you spun the plate as you worked and hoped that you had a steady hand. Unfortunately, if you weren’t working fast enough or well enough, the potters had a tendency to take the clay from you and fix it. As a very independent and driven student, this frustrated me intensely. How was I supposed to learn to make pottery if they didn’t let me make pottery?! When my pot was too small for their interests, they added clay, even though I really wanted a small pot that I could bring home. When they took the pot away from me for a second time, I got defiant and just started working on a new, even smaller pot that I would be able to start and finish on my own.

Then I realized that we each got to make a few pieces of pottery, not just one… I started realizing how foolish I was for being so frustrated. They were showing me what to do with the first pot, but I was going to get more chances to practice and learn. From that point on, the experience was entirely lovely. I finished one round, traditional pot; my tiny, defiant little bowl; an oval dish with quaint side handles; and a small scotty dog (go CMU!). I’m pretty sure the women thought the dog was just a really ugly cow since that’s what they had shown us to make, but another potter stopped by to make a point of how nice my oval dish was. As she was complimenting me, she taught me how to say, “she’s great,” in sePedi (a local dialect) and I taught her how to say “circle” and “oval” in English.

We had to leave the shaped clay there for a couple of days to dry out before being painted/glazed and detailed. I’m not entirely sure that the pieces won’t be “touched up” by the potters before we get them back, fired and finished. If so, I certainly don’t blame them. We did make our own pottery, but I imagine they feel that our results reflect on their cooperative, their tradition, and their livelihood.

Every free hour of Monday through Wednesday involved some sort of planning, internet searching, or wondering about my mom’s visit. Our trip together, which was sort of a vacation from a vacation for me, started bright and early Thursday morning.


Monday, Man Day, and Mandela Day

I had a pretty rough Monday… We collect samples from a local runoff stream that is atrociously polluted. It smells terrible, and we recently talked to a waterworks official who stated plainly that there is raw sewage being dumped in this stream. In lab, we run a membrane filtration apparatus that vacuums contaminated water through small filter papers that trap coliform bacteria so that we can incubate them in petri dishes and count them later. Occasionally the aspirating flask fills up to the top while we’re busy working. That’s when the vacuum pump stops expelling air and starts spraying water… waste water. Sometimes this is a bubbling, dripping mess, and sometimes this is a sudden spray of our effluent test water. Regardless of my attempts to catch the water with a large bundle of paper towels, a small amount of water was still sprayed all over me. Some semi-processed sewage water ended up on my head, neck, and lab coat. I continued cleaning up the lab in a hurry and was anxious to get home. I hopped into the shower with the only antibacterial soap we had: our dishwashing soap. On Sunday night I had found and cleaned up the bizarre little cut on my ear, so I had a very specific concern about killing any microbes in that area. At least I took a moment to laugh to myself about literally scrubbing behind my ear.

Nicola, another post-doc from UVA, arrived Monday afternoon. It sounds like her anthropology work is largely focused on critiquing the Water and Health in Limpopo (WHIL) research being done, which of course creates an interesting dynamic. No one really likes to have their livelihood questioned from the inside out, no matter how necessary a critical eye is. Her arrival coincides nicely with a lot of the questions I was already having trouble specifying. How do we apply technical research in a way that doesn’t harm local culture, economy, or dignity? Can effective change in a community ever come from outsiders? I came to South Africa hoping to find some direction or indication of what I should focus on within humanitarian aid, but so far have only found more complexities and more questions.

Monday was also Sid’s last night at Acacia so we had a full cookout after work. Hannah cooked for the herbivores, and Sid cooked for the carnivores. We ate lamb and marinated steak right off the grill, and then had a more civil dinner of pita, hummus, and falafel—all homemade by Hannah and her cooking minions. I stayed up pretty late just chatting with Sid by the fire, playing with the coals, and preparing for Tuesday morning’s surprises.

Oliver is the only guy in our REU team, so he spends a lot of time with us girls (Courtney, Vivien, Maya, Hannah, Carly, Teri, and myself). Courtney took it upon herself to prepare a “Minnesota Man Day Mandate” for Oliver. The silliness described herein should really be experienced, or at the very least seen via pictures, for full effect. We made tie-on beards out of gray yarn and also a paper Viking hat for Oliver. We woke him a little before his alarm to see us wearing beards and instructing him to, “Get up!” and follow the moose tracks. There were yarn and hand-drawn moose tracks leading to the other chalet. Inside, their cottage was decorated with paper snowflakes and icicles and a large moose head. We had a hearty breakfast of toast, eggs, and sausage to celebrate Oliver’s tolerance of the high estrogen levels.

On Tuesday night, we had a goodbye party for Carly at her favorite restaurant in Thohoyandou. There’s a gas station combined with a very sketchy looking Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese restaurant that we’ve visited a few times. No one has gotten sick yet and the food is delicious, so we keep going back. Afterwards, Hannah surprised Carly with another awesome homemade treat: carrot cake with coconut icing. Carly’s obsessive love for avocados prompted us to garnish the cake with avocado slices and pecans. Hannah and Carly both tend to call them “avo” for short, so others of us have taken to finishing their words by yelling out, “CADO!” in reply. Carly’s team will be continuing the Tshibvumo filter research without her, which I understand to be a fairly daunting task. Her leadership, humor, and interpersonal skills will be sorely missed for the rest of our trip here.

Wednesday was a fairly quiet day. Hannah, Nicola, Teri and I headed to Tshibvumo to collect water samples from their canal. We had a chance to speak with Chief Lucas for a few minutes and make plans for next Wednesday. When we asked the chief about observing Mandela Day (Thursday), he gave us a quick speech about how Father Mandela saved his people from slavery and oppression. Next Wednesday, we will hopefully come and talk with him for a while more and then head up to the ever-elusive Source!

By Wednesday night, we were told prepare a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation on our research for a local high school. Thursday was Mandela Day, a national day of community service. Hannah and I were excited to be involved in the local community, so we volunteered to present the ceramic filter project (which really isn’t what we work on daily). We gutted and edited an old UVA PowerPoint and prepared three parts for Hannah, Clement (UNIVEN microbiology student), and me to present. At 1 PM we were ready to caravan to the high school. At 1:30 PM we left that building. At 2:00 PM we left UNIVEN. By 2:30 PM we had been told we were heading to Tshapasha. By 3:30 PM we had arrived in Tshapasha and dropped off half our group. By 4:00 PM we were shuttled to a further away school in Tshibvumo and realizing that our presentation should be focusing on education, not our research. We listened to an hour long motivational speech for the entire school, encouraging them to study, pray, and apply to UNIVEN. The speakers switched back and forth between Tshivenda and English, while I enjoyed the awesome view of the mountains. As the sun was setting, the students were split into groups by interest, so we presented to about 12 students in their last year of classes who were interested in science and mathematics. We still used the PowerPoint, which was almost entirely off-topic, but we related it back to our academics as much as we could. Hannah is interested in water treatment because it’s a major part of public health. I’m working on the filtration devices because it’s a part of civil and biomedical engineering, and Clement is testing the biocidal effects of the filters because it’s a part of microbiology. Our visit was mostly pointless except for that explanation, stating that we are here and successful only because of education, and encouraging the students to apply to college. Hannah and I, of course, were very amused by the whole thing. We got the chance to hang out with rural high school kids and drive through different areas than we had seen before, and we made some new UNIVEN friends. But altogether we could have been so much more effective if we had just been told we were going to a career day, not a research presentation! We finally returned to Acacia at 7:30 PM. Our “hour of service” had taken more than six hours of confusion, travel, and patience, but I certainly enjoyed the new perspectives it offered.


Mungana Wanga – My Friend

We were driving back to Acacia (our home base) from UNIVEN (work) when Courtney started playing “Space Jam.” All four of us in the car started rocking out, dancing, and singing at full volume. “HOOP! There it is!” We started to approach the guard post, but Oliver temporarily parked the car in the middle of the dirt road. We had to finish enjoying the song before trying to going through the gate, of course.

We drove into our compound (acting semi-normal) after the song ended. Then “I Believe I Can Fly” started playing. We rolled down the windows and pretended to soar as we drove to our chalets… but then we kept driving around. We circled our cul-de-sac just because, and then we saw Sid talking on the phone outside. The new goal was to harass him with our self-confident serenades. As we continued doing über slow doughnuts in the gravel, Sid walked further away to avoid the noise. Persistent as always, we decided to drive right off the road and onto the grass after him. We circled him, belting the lyrics out the open windows, laughing uncontrollably, and flapping our imaginary wings. He eventually gave up on his phone call and just stared at us in laughable acceptance.

It was one of the most spontaneously silly actions I’ve ever seen, especially from a group of over-achieving international development nerds. The REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) group here is seriously something special. Out of the 108 applicants to this program from across the country, the 8 of us were chosen to come here. Six of us live together at Acacia Wildlife Resort (there’s no wildlife other than the pesky monkeys) and have been having more fun together than I could have ever predicted.

The next day (Wednesday, July 10th, I believe) I went with some of these same characters to Tshibvumo (our village research site) to work on their project for a day. [RECAP: Hannah and I work on a project that involves collecting field samples to quantify the effectiveness of paper filters imbibed with silver and copper nanoparticles. The other four REU students at Acacia are doing a pilot intervention study using ceramic filters with silver nanoparticles to create clean drinking water in a local village. They have given 50 filters to households so that the affluent and effluent water can be compared over time.]

I went with this other team to visit 16 houses and collect water samples and IRB-approved survey information. With five of us there, we were a little over-staffed, but there was normally something to keep us busy. I tried to speak and learn as much Tsivenda as possible, and made a friend by doing so. A woman named Agnes decided she liked me, that we would be friends, and that I deserved a small gift. Her daughter (granddaughter?) had beaded some beautiful, traditional, round necklaces, so she gave me one. My new beaded work of art is specifically a vhulungu, or a headdress worn like a hippie headband. My UNIVEN friend Khutji (COO-tchee) suggested I bring back a bottle of honey for Agnes, but so far she has not been available when I’ve back to the village with honey.

I also played with a young kid who could only talk in Tshivenda with me. His happiness seemed directly and linearly correlated with his altitude. If he was on the ground, he was gloomy. When held at waist height, he lighted up, and he laughed intensely when you lifted him overhead. I never found his name, but have taken to calling him the elevation kid in my mind. If I wasn’t paying distinct attention to him, he would pull my hand around him as he turned, enveloping himself in a hug. Needless to say, I didn’t want to leave him, and I hope to see him again next week.

After collecting a total of 30 water samples, we all headed back to UNIVEN to test the samples on membrane filtration. We moved as efficiently as possible just to barely finish everything by 6 PM. The Tshibvumo team’s work regularly goes from 7 AM to 6 PM. Oliver and I returned to Acacia and decided to relax as best we could. We turned on “über chill” music, turned off the lights, and just laid on Hannah’s and my beds until dinner time. It brought to mind the quote from Pulp Fiction about the true friendship of happily enjoying no conversation at all.

The work week ended with a campfire on Friday night and another of many discussions about dreams. Sid and I both have pretty interesting dreams, and I hope to share three of mine on this blog when I find the time. So far they’ve involved harmonicas, cows, primary colors, and giant buckets.

Saturday morning, Hannah made amazing French toast with extra challah from the night before, and we headed off in caravan for Blyde River Canyon. The drive there was pretty fun just because Kate, Sid, and I had good, loud music and great views of South Africa. When we arrived, we went for a short hike down the river canyon and saw some outright disgusting-looking baboons. Afterwards, the whole group raced to the boat docks and started our guided tour of the dam, lake, waterfalls, caves, cliffs, and wildlife, all leading up to a beautiful sunset. Although we didn’t see any live hippos, we did get the chance to see a dead one floating in the water, presumably killed by one of the still-alive crocodiles we spotted.

While dinner was being prepared, Hannah and I took a quick break from the group to run a shopping errand and visit the resort’s trampoline park. After 10 minutes of intense bouncing and flipping, we ran back to our lodges like nothing had happened, but I was as happy as could be to practice a few back layouts. After dinner and serious consideration of everyone’s “spirit animals,” I got a chance to swim under the stars in the heated pool before going to bed.

After staying up until 3 AM, I thought it was a good idea to go on a 6 AM waterfall hike. I got up, got dressed, and then became the reigning emperor of the porcelain throne… So much for hiking. After a couple more hours sleep and a very light breakfast, I tested my stomach and decided (once again) to go hiking. This time the group was headed for Hippo Valley, an 18 km (11 mile) hike.

What started as a group hike turned into a chance for individual trail running. We don’t get much personal space, privacy, or alone time here, so I was thrilled to be out in nature all alone! At the opposite end of the 9 km trail route was a fantastic expanse of boulders overlooking a long, rocky, river bend and enclosed by imposing cliffs. I spent more than half an hour just climbing around, lying on the rocks, and looking for hippos until Oliver brought news that it was definitely past time to head back. Together we ran back down the trail and caught up to the other parts of our group, those who had turned around without reaching the end. I don’t think I have felt so physically challenged and simultaneously physically fit since early high school.

Despite feeling like the hike was a personal success, it also had some personal tolls. My ankles are still bruised 6 days later, and I ended up with a decent number of cuts from pesky branches. One such cut happens to be on the upper back side of my ear, close to where the cartilage meets your skull. I never would have been able to see the cut if I hadn’t used my camera to take a little video. I’ve never considered that this is a place that could be cut incidentally, but there I was with dried blood in my hair and a sensitive left ear. Sid got very protective and tried to put a bandage on it (Ha! Like any reasonable bandage is going to stay in the crease of my ear!?), and a tipsy medical student has offered to suture it for me. I turned him down by saying I was going to sew it up myself. [Don’t worry. I’m fine and not being too crazy. Also, this cut becomes relevant later.]

After the hike, we had a much-needed water and ice cream break before hitting the road again. At 2 PM, the ideal plan was for us to begin the four or five hour drive back to Acacia so that we wouldn’t be driving in the dark too late. However, we were so close to the famous “Panorama Drive” that we chose to do a little sightseeing on the return trip. First we stopped at God’s Window, a mountain top rainforest with sprawling views of the area. You could see the mountain’s shadow steadily creeping longer, and the horizon was an obscured mix of haze and clouds. We headed next to Lisbon Falls where we were the absolutely last visitors of the day. Not satisfied with staring from the natural cliff sidelines, Oliver and I ran upstream to where the rocks allowed you to climb into the ancient riverbed. It was hard to tell where exactly these great waterfalls were coming from because the contributing streams flowed through such deep cuts in the ground. Oliver nearly jumped over one of these streams; leaping just four feet across to a lower platform would have traversed a 30 ft. deep crevasse. Sid, Kate, and Hannah joined us on the rocks, climbing all the way to the falls’ edge. The view from lying on your stomach, looking over the edge next to the fall, was astounding and dizzying. The downstream river flowed straight towards the sunset, so there we sat at the top of the falls, with water rushing and falling down on either side of us.

We only left Lisbon Falls after completely soaking up the sunset… which meant our entire drive home would be in the dark. In South Africa, this is considered a major “no-no.” We had to drive slower in order to deal with other drivers’ obnoxious high beams and the unexpected potholes and speed bumps. Approaching the town of Pilgrim’s Rest, we started to see a lot of orange light and smoke. I had initially assumed it was a large waste burn, but it was clearly too big for that. We couldn’t tell what was on fire. The whole mountaintop, the entire town area had lines of bright flame. I guess it had to have been some giant control burn to prevent worse bush fires, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more hellish site. I guess we stumbled across Mordor in South Africa.

We were lectured the next day about arriving home later than we should have. And it’s true; we weren’t prepared to deal with any car issues or other more serious surprises. But on Sunday, I felt closer to my friends here and I felt more perspective than I have in a long time. My friends have winked and whispered it to me, all agreeing that we know it was worth it.


Take a Bow

[Hey, all! Thanks for reading, and please disregard any typos. I’ve had very little time for editing. Please Google any unfamiliar terms/places/foods used here, because I also haven’t had the time or abundant internet access to add hyperlinks.]

Now that I’ve been here for two full work weeks, I feel like I can finally talk about our project and explain what I’m up to. My research advisor has devised a new type of filtration paper using inexpensive silver and copper nanoparticles. In lab tests using manufactured, contaminated water samples, the filters successfully killed coliform bacteria. Our summer research is focused on replicating those results in field samples to bring some validity to the filters’ real-world application (hopefully).  The typical workday starts with collecting samples from a stream, either in the rural village we’re working with or close to our lab on the UNIVEN campus {this source is so disgusting that we’ve titled it UCK for all lab purposes}. After lunch, we start membrane filtration of the original sample and run some of the sample through one of the various paper filters. The filtered water is then also tested for a before-and-after comparison. Membrane filtration allows us to get an estimate of the bacterial dangers of drinking a water sample.

The cool part of our lab work is that we get convenient data points just 24 hours afterwards. The petri dishes show color-coded e. coli (blue) and other coliforms (red). So far we’ve shown that the nanoparticles (not just the physical paper) are killing the bacteria in the village canal samples, but that’s not saying much because their water is not extremely infected. We’re testing more disgusting water sources to push the filters to their limits. If they still seem successful with disinfecting really gross water, we’ll start testing even larger quantities of water.

One of the locations we would like to collect water samples is called “the source,” which makes me feel like we’re in the matrix. We’ve been promised a hiking tour of the upstream source of the village canal’s water. The chief has postponed the tour a couple times, so we’re waiting patiently for the chance to hike 5 kilometers uphill in the rural areas of the Limpopo Province. The surrounding mountains are beautiful, and I can’t imagine a more interesting way to explore than being led by Chief Lucas. [We were just told at the end of today that we’ll be hiking on Thursday, but I still don’t fully expect it to happen.]

Being prepared on any given day for being in the field, in the university lab, and away from our hostels has been an interesting challenge. On any given day I bring two water bottles, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, sunscreen or a hat, a notebook, my camera, a piece of candy to give away, duck tape, a bandana, a bag lunch, a long skirt for meeting chiefs, pants for working in lab, and all my electronics. The candy, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and duck tape have certainly come in handy for myself and my teammates. Our lodging situation isn’t safe to leave any valuables in during the day, so we bring them with us or leave them in the trunk. On days when I’m going to be around children, I try to also bring a coloring notebook and crayons, but I haven’t had a chance to use these yet. Instead my camera has been the best play toy because I keep it attached to my belt (in appropriate scenarios).

So that’s pretty much the background and basics of our daily work. So here comes the more fun stuff. Thursday we celebrated Independence Day with a large cookout bringing together various semi-related groups of UVA and UNIVEN students. It was a great environment to sit with new people and ask them about their current project, previous travels, and Fourth of July traditions. Afterwards Sid invited people to come along to a casino. Of all the Americans, I was the only one with enough energy to go out still. I had never been to a casino before, so it was pretty exciting. I sat at the black jack table and learned from Sid how to count cards, but I was mostly too distracted to keep it up. It turns out I’m bad luck for him anyways, but he broke even for the night just before we left.

On Friday night, some of my teammates made plans to go to a local nightclub called the Migeroni (aka Macaroni). After a hectic parking job and just barely following the UNIVEN students’ lead, we started to get comfortable and hit the dance floor. While there, a few of us were given Venda names by a man named Emanuel, who we just found out is also tribal chief. I was renamed Alilali, meaning one who doesn’t sleep until she has reached her goal. I took this as a compliment until I realized it may or may not have an alternative connotation…

On Saturday morning, I jumped on the chance to visit the fabric market before we left on our weekend trip. I tried on one of the traditional Venda skirts, found out prices for the Kaiser Chiefs soccer jerseys, and was encouraged to try some unusual foods. On the side of the street, there were stands with bowls of dead insects for sale. I was given the chance (and a lot of peer pressure encouragement) to try a flying beetle. It was hard to make myself even touch the bugs, let alone eat them. I eventually psyched myself up and shoved it into my mouth. It tasted like roasted salt crackers with an after taste of bad lettuce. Then immediately I was handed some of the termites, which were smaller but had more visible legs and antennas. They weren’t quite so tasty, but they did have a crunch and saltiness similar to popcorn. We have some of the traditional mupani worms to cook and eat at a later time, but they are going to be a bigger challenge to eat. Frankly, they look like stale goose turds. Seriously, Google them.

My group then picked me up and headed to Leshiba Wilderness, a fantastic nature resort known for its safari rides. To reach the front gate, you need an intense 4 wheeling vehicle or a ride in the safari truck. The roads character is evident by road signs such as, “10 bumps to Leshiba.” The front gate also had an interesting sign: “Do not drive over rhino droppings. Dung beetles have right of way.” As soon as we arrived, we set off for a hike during sunset led by the resort’s adopted dog. She took us off trail for a bit to a fantastic outcropping before we headed back downhill. We cooked dinner as a group, played Frisbee, and baked cookies to eat around the campfire (we couldn’t find marshmellows and I’ve been craving them). Just before leaving for the fire, some of my friends noted the extremely slippery nature of the dining room floor. In a quick turn of events, we shoved the furniture to the center of the room, started blasting music, and pretending to be speed skating in circles. This group of high-achieving college students really knows how to throw down like the craziest of children, a quality that I truly appreciate and enjoy. When we finally showed up at the campfire, the others mentioned that they could hear us (and specifically my voice) belting, among other songs, Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

When all the lights were out, we had a chance to really enjoy the night sky. I have never seen such a spectacularly clear view of the milky way from horizon to horizon. There was about one shooting star per minute and just an incredible multitude of twinkling, impressive stars. There also happened to be about 7 horses roaming the night that crept up on us during our stargazing session. Horses don’t normally alarm me, but it’s not a particularly comfortable occasion to be surprise visited by horses while you’re lying on the ground. After a couple different approaches, the only way we got them to leave us alone was by issuing personal insults such as, “Your shoes are so last year,” and “Your mother is a HOR…se.”

Early Sunday morning we headed off on safari vehicle. We found a warthog in his burrow, a bunch of warthogs rolling in mud, a group of giraffes, vervets, a harem herd and a bachelor herd of impalas, a wildebeest, a bushbuck, rock rabbits, and zebras. The Indiana Jones style truck had a seat on the very front left corner over the headlights where you could ride alone and enjoy an unobstructed view. Just as I was enjoying my turn as a decoration on the car hood, we found rhinoceroses! I had to join the rest of the group in the protected areas of the car in order to safely get closer. There was a male, two mothers, and two toddler rhinos enjoying lunch. Their shapes, noises, horns, and behaviors were fascinating.

After a huge team brunch, we headed to check out the artist recreation traditional Venda village, paid for our rooms, and headed back to our lodging in Thoyandou. Even the ride back was exciting just because it was a relaxing time with friends who appreciate good music and spectacular views of South Africa.

This morning (Monday) we went to visit a different neighboring village’s chief. This chief was much more traditional that Chief Lucas and required the kneeling and compliments and utter respect we were told about during orientation. Keeping your head tilted downwards is not a comfortable way to have a two hour community meeting… The chief and his advisors were very insistent on knowing the details of any future work in their village, which we frankly knew very little about. We were there simply to ask their interest in further interactions with UVA, not specifically with us. In fact, no one probably knows exactly what will be done for them; that’s exactly what needs assessments are for. After all the translating, repeating, and careful tiptoeing around being roped into false promises, we took our bow—literally—and left.

P.S. We got some of those results back about the super disgusting water being filtered with the nanoparticle-infused paper, and we got like 4-5 log kills! (That means the filters are pretty awesome so far!)


The Wild Things and the Little Things

As may have seen from the previously posted picture of Captain Cori, I had a very amusing Saturday. Our group of 10, staying at Acacia Wildlife Resort, visited the group of 8 staying at Shiluvari Lodge for the day to have a braai (cookout). We had a day of cooking, grilling, eating, and relaxing, and the boat ride took us out onto the lake creaked by the Albisini Dam. We threw some chicken pieces at the crocodiles, but they didn’t have any interest. Soon after I learned how to drive and park the boat, we packed up and headed “home.”

On Sunday, five of us squeezed into our rental car and drove to the northern end of Kruger National Park. As soon as we drove in, there were elephants on the road in front of us. And off to our right, warthogs! [They have such big heads and shoulders, but they’re really cute.] We drove a self-guided tour through the area and found zebras, babboons, bushbucks, impalas, giraffes, a jackal, vervets (little grey monkeys), ostriches, nyalas, and a wildebeest. Ostriches walk so oddly, and zebra are really just striped horses, similar down to the noises and mannerisms. As we were heading out of the park, we came across a rather large elephant that was in the road and slowly walking towards the two cars ahead of us. For a few minutes, we were watching attentively and backing up to allow the elephant’s, the other cars’, or our own escape. The elephant eventually de-escalated the situation and allowed us to pass. And right before we left the park, I captured a video clip of an elephant flattening a thirty foot tree, complete with the noises of the trunk bending and snapping.

The plan for Monday was to drive to Tshibvumo, the village where part of our team is distributing ceramic water filters and surveying and recording results. Unfortunately, the locals were not ready to be enrolled in the study, so after another chill meeting with the chief, we collected samples from the canal where people draw water and headed back to Thoyandou (where we are staying). The chief was also heading to town, so we ended up giving him a lift! We spent an hour car ride asking him questions about his kids, his village, his view on politics, and his preferences. Occasionally we’d have to give him comparisons from the US like how we don’t normally live with our grandparents or have more than ten kids or buy our children homes when they’re in school.

In the afternoon, my project got started in the lab by running control tests on the untreated canal water. It was a very slow start because the lab we’re using is brand new and not fully stocked. We ran around the lab and sometimes the campus looking for deionized water, an ice chest, tongs, beakers, a graduated cylinder, and soap. We only found three of these, so our lab test quickly became a test run rather than a data collecting opportunity. We also found that our fridge for storing samples was cooling them to -10 degrees Celsius, which froze them very quickly and ruined almost any chance at accurate sampling. Later, we were surprised to find that the tap water can’t even be trusted for rinsing or washing because it occasionally changes from clear water to brown much.

After all these frustrations, being thirsty and tired, and feeling like this was going to be one long, frustrating summer, the UNIVEN student working with us made one comment. “Isn’t this fascinating?” He was so academically interested and invested in this small lab test to see what coliform bacteria was in this village’s drinking water. His excitement inspired me, and this was my real first moment in South Africa where I recognized exactly how pampered I am as an American student. Lab tests are easy and boring for me because I’ve had access, training, and practice in and out of classes. But to someone else, this was a learning opportunity and a new chance to apply intellectual skills.

On Sunday night, I did an intense hour of yoga with Kate in an 8 x 8 ft. room with a couch crowding us. I hadn’t realized that yoga could be exercise, rather than just stretching. It was a fun challenge, and afterwards I fell asleep like a rock. Just last night, we were invited to play volleyball with 2 UNIVEN students and 3 other UVA students. They tied up a long roll of trash bags as makeshift net, and we played five very haphazard games. We only ripped the perforated net substitute twice, fixing it with small pieces of string we found. Tonight, we plan on Vivien teaching us swing dancing after dinner. We’re still cooking all the time, playing Frisbee, playing the question game, and preparing for the fourth of July, which is going to be a huge party. It’s really great to see all the awesome little things we entertain ourselves when the internet isn’t such a viable distraction.

P.S. Speaking of internet connection: I finally got to Skype with Eric today! I hadn’t heard his voice since I left two weeks ago, and it definitely was the perfect little thing to make my day.