Work

Introduction

Today I confront my Moby Dick: a blog entry about working in Namibia. It has been a challenge to relate without emotion. Since last posting, we did some stimulating travel, and continue to experience wonders and frustrations likely consistent with the experiences of other families living abroad. Any of that would have made fine blog posts with colorful photos, descriptions of distant locals, and whatever observations I’m capable of. Yet, I thought, there would be something dishonest about a series of dispatches from my self-proclaimed center of worldly adventure. What I really needed to do was write about the difficult parts of being here, and work is one of them.

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The office I’ve occupied this year. Must I turn every space I occupy into an electronics junk shop?

This has proved hard enough that I’ve put it off until almost the end. What follows is an account of what I’ve done professionally in Namibia. It is a long post. I’m sorry. I hope that if you aren’t interested in the details of what I’ve done, you’ll look at the  pictures and conclusions. I hope they are relevant to how you understand the world.

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A view of the building I taught in. Nice facilities.

Semester One

Strategy

Before coming I had decided that I’d like to teach high enrollment courses. The reason had to do with funding – according to my Fulbright proposal I was testing the hypothesis that education quality could be improved by offering more frequent, online forms of assessment. To be able to test my idea I wanted large numbers of students as well as material that was amenable to online assessment – material like that found in introductory CS courses. My plan was that I’d change a few courses and see if outcomes improved. This was to be a quantitative, scientific approach to teaching that none could deny involved observation, measurement, evaluation, and truth. Or so I thought.

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Students sitting for a first opportunity at final examinations. It’s a lot of students, and a lot of data.

Implementation

I began teaching soon after I arrived, taking a very light handed approach to offering data structures and algorithms. I partnered with the instructor from the previous year. We kept the examinations unchanged in terms of style and content, but made changes to how material was delivered. Unlike before, students would now have frequent (weekly) assessments done on computer. I took over the lectures, and made suggestions to practicum instructors about what material should be covered, and how. We based the course on one offered online and in a textbook.

In practice, an overview of the subject matter and weekly assessments was done during a one hour per week lecture that I gave to about 200 students. Then the five practicum instructors would supervise and supplement student efforts during a two hour weekly meetings with groups of about 30 students. Online assessments were superficial to grade, and students would get a lot of quick feedback on their progress.

The first challenges I encountered came in planning, and not teaching. It had to do with the rigidity of course offerings.  Course subject matter had previously been set by a curriculum review committee. Mostly, the standards were consistent with what I’d taught in the US, and reasonable. You might even say they are ambitious, but inflexible. In time, I learned that the established curriculum was not appropriate because students were not adequately prepared. There was little room in the curriculum to maneuver, or to take into account student’s backgrounds. This would reveal itself to be a bigger problem during the second semester. This difference between a curriculum on paper and what students were ready to learn underscored some of what might be called cultural issues related to working here – it is a surprisingly conservative mindset you step into, possibly derived from the old Dutch way of doing things which was extremely methodical and prescriptive.

Experience

Getting started, I had some good experiences. Namibian students were more emotive than counterparts in Montana. I got big laughs out of stale jokes and my accent was entertaining – I’d hear them repeat my statements to each other in a faux American accent. Students said good morning and talked to me on the way into and out of the classroom. Call and response questions mostly worked in that a lot of responses came in. At the same time, I was finding the classroom difficult to manage. After I said something they thought funny, it could be several minutes before I got back on topic. There was laughter, discussion, more laughter and a lot of loud talking. I wrote it off as being due to the novelty of an American professor, and something that would correct itself after they got to know me.

Eventually, we got through preliminaries. I’d cover material and then let students know things I didn’t think controversial, things like when the assignment is due. This is when my classroom would become unmanageable in a different way – shouting from the back, a rumbling drone of heated discussion, rolling eyes and shaking heads, high pitched exasperations. Eventually a student would raise a hand. I’d call on them, but I never heard them the first or second time – the classroom was too noisy, the accent new to my ear. Eventually, I’d get it – something to the effect that I was asking too much they couldn’t do the homework. I was quickly beset with a new sense of panic and despair. Really, was I being too demanding? But, I’d been trying so hard to show them how clear the objectives were, how worthwhile the tasks, how rewarding success. Weren’t they interested in what I was offering?

I’d taught the same course in the US, four or five times. Based on those experiences, I had a good sense of the assignments – challenging, but well within reach of all but the very worst students. My students in the US never complained about the objectives or assignments – maybe the delivery (me) was bad, but not the content. Computer science students generally agreed that data structures, algorithms, and programming were part of what they do. Throughout the first semester I kept thinking, where was this resistance coming from? What was I doing wrong?

Of the two types of assessments, one involved programming. The other was more like stepping through algorithms. I would say that with time and effort, most of them developed an ability to step through algorithms. Programming, on the other hand, was a complete disaster. The simplest way of saying it would be the upwards of 90% of the students simply could not program. At all. Not even elementary iteration and assignment. I think this was what was behind some of the loud eruptions in class. They weren’t just out of their comfort zone, they were outside of what they could even dream of doing.

I was sympathetic. I don’t know what they experienced before my class, and what they hadn’t been taught wasn’t their fault. I adapted. I altered the course. Instead of 6, now 2 programming assessments would be turned in. More time would be dedicated to teaching the programming skills needed to complete programming assignments. I would focus on definitions, descriptions, and stepping through algorithms. No longer would students need to ‘do’, instead they would just ‘say’. Mostly, they would say what I said. Students would get up in front of class and hold sheets of letter paper with numbers printed on them. Their classmates would sort them according to a method we were studying. I found things to enjoy, like the laughter of students during these little bits of  algorithm ‘theater’, but I remained troubled at how low I’d let standards fall. Ultimately we completed less than 25% of the material, well under a quarter of what Montana students did.  And, UM students had programmed, in some ways the ultimate demonstration of mastery of the subject matter.

Programming assignments were eventually turned in. Online, machine graded results were remarkably good, without exception 95% or better. Montana averages were in the mid 70s.  I spent a morning opening and looking at them, seeing what sorts of solutions were coming in.  In a morning I probably looked at 30 or 40, in no particular order. In my perusal, I didn’t find a single original implementation. They were all copies of solutions found on the web. It was disheartening. I think there were a few students out there that did offer an original solution, I met them later, during the next semester.

I have a hard time understanding my effort as anything other than trying to placate an unruly mob with low standards. However, I did do what I intended and measured progress over last year’s offering of the course. I even wrote a paper about it. The table below is the key result from the paper.  It looks like everyone did better this year (Mean BO), and students with poor English skills as measured by high school leaving examinations improved the most. Maybe this is what one expects. The course offers more assessments and the ability to review the material being assessed with subtitles and other features helpful to people that don’t speak English as a first language. It’s a story that should make me feel good – I’ve empowered those who, through circumstances beyond their control, did not master English. Good, I guess, but for some reason it didn’t make me feel good. I just kept coming back to how little material we covered, and how superficially most understood it.

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Some data from the first semester course. I provided the so-called “blended offering” (BO).  A “traditional offering” (TO) from the previous year appears in the neighboring column. Scores on final exams were tracked between the two years, for a number of different sub-populations. Groups that did not improve in a statistically significant way are in pink. The group that improved most is in green.

I resolved that during the next semester I would address what I thought was the underlying problem, the lack of the basic programming skills. I could probably improve classroom management by being a little tougher, faster to move on, and less eager to try and share a laugh. I’d provide more guidance to practicum instructors, so that the experience was more consistent for students.

Semester 2

In the midst of what is feeling too much like a rant, I want to point out how well I’ve been treated by the administration. Firstly, it would have been easy for them to have demanded I do a lot more teaching. They didn’t do that. Secondly, I went to the former and current heads of my department and related some of my experiences. I didn’t get into classroom management or cheating. Instead, I stated that based on my experiences the previous semester, I believed that our students were seriously deficient in basic programming skills. In both cases, it was a good dialogue and they were genuinely helpful in terms of providing context and suggestions about how things might be improved. In the end, we agreed that I would teach the second semester CS course, Object Oriented Programming. It stressed programming, but students should have a notion of how it is done from a previous programming course they’d had.

Strategy

I decided that many, small assessments would be the best approach, and that we would be focused only on ‘programming’ before attempting anything involving ‘object oriented’. I was already in trouble with the standard curriculum,  but decided to ignore it. I needed an automated means of assessment, because this time there would be 273 students. The material might be remedial for some, but I would not assume the students know anything about programming. Nor would I get them involved with any complex software installation, like an integrated development environment. After some soul searching and a lot of rummaging around the internet, I settled on something called codingbat. I am still excited enough about the pedagogy to try and relate it here, what’s more, it’s relevant to my story.

Assignments are small ‘morsels’ of work – extremely well defined in terms of letting the students know what is expected of the code they write. There are hundreds of problems, progressing from the elementary (my 13 year old son did them) to the complex (I took as long as 20 minutes to solve a few). For an example of an introductory problem:

Given 2 integers, a and b, return their sum. 
However, "teen" values in the range 13..19 inclusive, are extra lucky.
If either value is a teen, just return 19.

Students complete the assignments in their browser. They submit the code they write by clicking a button, and are given instant feedback from a table of simple tests determining if the correct output results from various inputs. For example, in the above problem, if one neglects the “inclusive” part of the definition of teen, the unit tests look like the following. You’ll notice all input values of 13 or 19 result in a red error. Hopefully this tips off the coder that something is amiss at the ends of the teen range.

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Coding bat provides these helpful unit tests.

The end of the previous figure reveals another key feature – the “progress graph”. One is pictured below. It shows each attempt at a problem and some time information. A short dark red line indicates the code wouldn’t run, maybe the student forgot a semi-colon or has some other syntax issue. A tall line with soft red and green shows that the code runs, but only a green colored fraction of unit tests passed. Overall, an instructor sees the way students progress through problems: They formulate a strategy and try it. The first time, it doesn’t even run (short red). Maybe they have a misplaced parenthesis. It takes a few minutes and attempts to fix this. Then it runs, and they see an error in their strategy – only 30% of the unit tests are correct. It takes them a few runs to see it. They change some things, but introduce a new syntax error. That gets fixed, and finally they get it right, a solid green line. The whole process takes 10-20 minutes on average. Sometimes less, often more. I’ve done many of these and, for me, there is a satisfying sense of reward at the end.

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A fairly typical codingbat progress graph.

The instructor can see all the progress graphs for all students for all problems. Additionally, the instructor can see the time stamps and quantitative data that produces each progress graph.

Experience

As with the previous semester, I had a fair amount of resistance in the classroom. The feeling I got was that there was something underhanded or unfair about using a tool like codingbat. The course should be more like the course offered last year. There was also a lot of confusion arising from there not being a clear list of topics to study – a sequence of terms and definitions. The emphasis on being able to do something tangible like write a function did not sit well with students, nor did frequent assessment with objective standards for success. Student came to complain in pretty general terms, but when asked, they reported that they would just stare at codingbat without knowing what to do, that they had not been properly trained for something like this. I remained confident that this was the right thing at the right time.  I’d covered what was needed in class, and the website itself had plenty of review materials. Practicum instructors were going through everything a second time and offering assistance on particular problems. Criticism didn’t rattle me this semester.

I had not made much of it the previous semester, but the teacher I partnered with had a list of students and would insist students sign in on arrival at lecture and out on exit. I thought it was sort of petty, but quickly learned that without it students showed up and left at anytime during my lecture. Entries and exits were loud affairs with boisterous shouting, giggling, slamming doors, and shuffling papers or, worst of all, wrappers for bags of potato chips being slowly crumpled. Women that walked across the front of the room when entering or leaving were catcalled and treated to wolf whistles. I asked the security guards that sit outside the classroom to prevent people from entering more than ten minutes late. Something  was lost in translation, there was no change. I cajoled students and said unflattering things to them as they strolled in. No impact. I suppose the sign in sheet is what is required. One learns.

I made the rounds to the practicum sessions, trying to assist the faculty working with the codingbat material and talking to students about solution strategies. These were mostly depressing labs with some broken mice and keyboards, computers from circa 2006, poor lighting, and unreliable internet connections. In spite of the difficulties, the 5-10 students attending did manage some connection to the internet. I could tell because they were looking at Facebook. I think in my time visiting the practicums I worked with two different groups of students on codingbat. Instructors were often absent.

80% of the students failed the midterm examination.

At this point, it was clear to the students that my class was unfair. They complained to the administration. In addition to having unreasonable expectations about their ability to program, I’d failed to teach them object oriented programming. I had talks with various administrators. Once again, they were total reasonable, but I was embarrassed to be attracting so much negative attention for what many had to believe was just poor teaching. But, while this mess was boiling over, I was studying at the coding bat progress graphs and finding a lot of results like the following.

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A suspicious outcome from codingbat.

Remarkable. This student gets all the problems 100% right, the first time he tries. He’s either truly gifted, or he’s simply cutting and pasting the answers from a someplace like here. I decided to write some programs to evaluate student work habits.

Homework consisted of 2-6 coding bat problems every week or two, depending on how hard the material was. After reviewing some forty odd student progress graphs, I decided a student that was actually trying, or ‘participating in a meaningful way’, took at least an hour to do a homework problem set and made at least 3 attempts per problem (on average) before getting the right answer. My program would go through this data (273 students times 34 assigned problems) and find out who participated, how long they took, and how they did on assessments. The following shows the output of my little program.

HW1
94  out of  273  or  34% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 6
	avg. score:   96.8
	avg. time:    147.3 minutes
HW2
73  out of  273  or  27% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 6
	avg. score:   94.3
	avg. time:    159.9 minutes
HW3
62  out of  273  or  23% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 5
	avg. score:   77.7
	avg. time:    147.6 minutes
HW4
29  out of  273  or  11% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 3
	avg. score:   85.0
	avg. time:    103.7 minutes
HW5
48  out of  273  or  18% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 4
	avg. score:   83.8
	avg. time:    129.5 minutes
HW6
30  out of  273  or  11% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 2
	avg. score:   95.0
	avg. time:    105.5 minutes
HW7
12  out of  273  or  4% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 4
	avg. score:   75.0
	avg. time:    92.4 minutes
HW8
18  out of  273  or  7% participated in a meaningful way.
	total problems 4
	avg. score:   65.2
	avg. time:    104.6 minutes

My conclusion? On average, only about 20% of the class was participating but participation rates are falling off rapidly. Note that the material is getting more challenging for each homework. The average participation rate was roughly the same percentage that was passing the midterm and further analysis showed it was (mostly) the same people. Of those that participated, they needed on average about two hours a week to finish the problems. Two hours is how long they have in practicum each week, supposedly working under supervision. Those that participate are getting good grades on homework, considering that in Namibia a pass is a 50%. To me, it looked like:

Do what I ask, and do it during the time allotted, and you’ll pass.

It seemed fair to me. Why wasn’t anyone interested?

What to do?

Presented with several options, I chose the most cowardly. Another feature of the education system here is the ‘second opportunity’. Any major assessment must be given twice, I guess to allow students to show their true potential. I gave the same test again, making superficial changes. The first time around, I had circulated two versions of the midterm – raising havoc with the students that copied off their neighbors. None of that in the second opportunity. The second time they did much better, over 50% passed.

The final exam was not so different. A few new multiple choice problems, revised short answers, but otherwise a simple format amenable to cheating and rote memorization. In the end, 60% passed the course. This is a number I feel terrible about. It should have been less than 20% passing. On the other hand, proper functioning of the institution requires higher pass rates. 80% fail would make for a class of over 500 next year. Not something anyone wants to tackle.

Ongoing work

I got involved with some other things in Namibia that spanned the semesters. I count these as among my best experiences while here. One observation about satisfaction – when I was able to interact with individuals, I usually enjoyed them. It was just when I was working with an abstract, aggregate collection of students that I grew frustrated. In retrospect the high enrollment courses might have been a mistake, I met very few students teaching them. That said, the ones I did meet; like an Angolan with parents that want him away from a corrupt petrol state, or an orphan from the far North of Namibia, or a woman with parents that put her in German language schools for the opportunities – never mind the difficulty of quickly learning German. These people were amazing, and I will remember them fondly.

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Selling American (?) food (pulled pork and coleslaw on a bun) during the culture festival at my school. Those were the days, back when Trump was just a joke candidate.

Supervision

I supervised two masters student and one honors student. All of them did work with wireless sensor networks. I had thought, maybe correctly, that the challenges in developing a micro-controller (Arduino) based platform for environmental sensing would be well suited to the skill level of our students. I was partially right. I think it was harder for the students than I guessed, but they stuck with it and as I leave they seem to have made some progress and gained an appreciation for the work. That they got any work at all done is a little amazing given the system they are in demands they write a proposal, followed by a presentation, followed by a concept paper, followed by many revisions – it seemed like it took too long before they got to the point where they were able to just work. Add to that the fact that they are all full time employees somewhere, and it’s even more remarkable.  So, good on this front. Again, lovely people to work with and rewarding experiences.

Projects

I worked with an especially undergraduate good student to create something called an augmented reality sandbox. We took it on the road and used it as a vehicle for outreach. I liked this. It was enjoyable to watch young people figure out what they were seeing and then interact with it. It was also satisfying to share a sense of wonder about technology and the world.

 

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Students in the northern city of Ongwediva experiment with an augmented reality sandbox.

Workshops and Conferences

I taught a course on Arduino programming and interfacing to various gadgets. It attracted a small and motivated group of students, and made for a pleasant day of work.

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Bill interacts with a student while I lecture.

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The other Fulbright in CS, Bill Sverdlik, and I taught an Arduino course.

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The Arduino project students finished in a day – a remote controlled temperature and light sensor.

I attended a conference on “Culture and Computing”. Heck, I even contributed to a paper. Interesting group. See my ‘Villagers‘ post for a little insight into he sort of things that they do. I found it stimulating, just seeing how things are in another discipline. This is a group that dreams big, engages tough cultural issues, and occasionally gets something done. Kudos to them, and lucky for me to see an application of computing that I’d never even thought of.

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The most interesting thing I learned at the Culture and Computing Conference? This Malaysian tribe leaves elaborate messages for other members by arranging items found in the jungle. One arrangement and its translation pictured.

I presented a paper on the first semester’s teaching at a conference in Singapore. Singapore is excellent. Education conferences, meh.

Conclusions

Based on my measurements upwards of 80% of the students are not taking their studies seriously. These student do not participate, are cheating on assessments, and learn little  of what is being taught. They continue to pass the courses through second opportunity examinations, and will graduate with credentials in computer science but no ability to do the things computer scientists do.

I’m not sure which is more depressing, the 80% of non-participating students , or the 20% that are. It is the 80% that dominate the direction the course takes, effectively bullying the instructors into offering meaningless courses they can pass. The 20% that does work learns little because the instructors need to dilute material to satisfy the unruly majority. Yet, it is clear from the data that the 20% of students participating students are working hard and taking nearly all the instructor’s assignments seriously.

I draw back and think to myself: you are a fool for believing you could come in here and change things.  You have naive ideas about helping the world and they have caused you to have your feelings hurt, and now you’re lashing out. 

Namibians have their own understanding of what’s important. From conversations I’ve had, their heart resides far away from Windhoek in a village that is green and fertile. A place where people grow what they need to eat, and supplement that with animals they raise. Homes are constructed with their own hands, and people take time to talk to each other. Elders are afforded great respect, and families stay together. The climate is gentle, the lifestyle carefree.

This idealized village life rivals anything I can offer from my culture. What can I say? Work hard and learn to computer science. You could live in a small apartment in a crowded city where you have little job security,  work long hours, and have almost no connection to the Earth or the people around you? Maybe my way of life is a sickness.

In the SADC trading region Namibia is part of there are more than 230 million people, and probably many more, like 330 million, but census data are hard to get in these places. The region is as large as the United States, and connected by road, rail, ports, and a communications network. Throughout, there are well stocked shops with a tremendous range of things to eat sold at a very reasonable price. Here is the rub:

You can not feed 230 million people without an industrialized economy.

For an industrialized economy, real skills are needed: architects, engineers, journalists, planners, doctors, nurses, scientists, tradesmen, financiers, technologists, computer scientists, and more. Either southern Africa develops those skills, or it becomes a collection of client states, dependent upon the well meaning acts of other nations for the most basic tenants of survival. In several cases, like Malawi, Zimbabwe, or Mozambique, the client state is already fully developed.

If we aren’t producing skilled workers, where will they come from?

South Africa presently has many skilled workers. For this reason South Africa is the only net exporter of food in the region, and it is because of South Africa that the region functions as it does now. However, the future of South Africa is increasingly uncertain and undergoing a flight of capital and skilled professionals. Even the continued provision of training is in doubt. “Fees must fall” protesters have halted instruction and are destroying facilities on campuses.

Africa does offer a lifestyle that is attractive to many (see this blog). Perhaps Africa can attract skilled immigrants? Unlikely. Governments in this region are hostile towards immigration. Work permits are notoriously hard to get and the region consistently ranks close to last in terms of places to do business. The increasing crime and corruption as well as forced business partnerships with the indigenous black population and uncertainty about property rights further erode the possibility of immigration offsetting the shortage of skills.

The best and brightest here usually go overseas to earn a degree. Those degrees holders form a small but skilled group. If they return perhaps they can meet the needs of the industrialized economy. Current trends seem to be that fewer people are needed to control larger portions of the economy. Maybe this will work, albeit with a highly inequitable distribution of wealth. A small core of elite, western educated Africans, managing the larger society only to the extent that most people don’t starve. I guess there isn’t too much harm in that, although it doesn’t sound very stable.

There are the Chinese. They’re serious about this place, and have all sorts of skills. I wish them all the best. Just, please, stop it with the rhinos.

A concluding statement. My review is pessimistic  – civic breakdown and mass starvation. I’ve been in Africa on and off for the last 24 years, and have a pretty good command of the history of the continent. Whether it be colonization, imperialism, apartheid, de-colonization, kleptocracies, the HIV/AIDs crisis, Islamofascism, resource dependent economies, malaria, astonishingly high rape and murder rates, or the deep corruption of Jacob Zuma’s South Africa, things have always, somehow, carried on without the worst happening. I suspect that will continue, with or without computer programmers from the Namibian University of Science and Technology.

Villagers

The government here is interested in preserving Namibia’s cultural heritage.  For this to be actionable, specific definitions are needed. Here, it refers to what comes to us from previous generations – artifacts, knowledge, folklore, language, places, ecologies. The heritage should be recorded now, as it is under threat from cultural homogenization, modernity, markets, technology, media.

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The five on the right are Herero village elders, engaged in a co-design process for software that will help them capture indigenous knowledge.

Computer scientists are involved in preservation: the archives are electronic, the data are hierarchical. Because people best acquainted with the heritage are the least westernized, and because the work of capturing the information is done best by those same people, data acquisition is a challenging  human-computer interaction problem.

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Cultural Artifact: A vessel used for the fermentation of milk.

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The headman speaks. He’s got a certain gravitas. Love his number two in the background.

My colleagues at NUST are developing a technological means of recording cultural attributes. They travel to remote villages that have resisted modernity and work with tribal leaders to develop software that lets them record the physical and intangible aspects of their culture. Think iPad with special software that runs the camera, video, and microphone. I’ve been after them to let me tag along since I got here. Last week I finally got to go out with them. We visited a Herero village some 90 minutes drive from Windhoek.

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Colorful home compound in the village.

Observation one – this Herero village is amazing! I’ve visited a lot of African villages, and often wondered things like; Why not plant flowers to make things beautiful? Why not grow some herbs to make food tastier? Why not pick up the garbage? How about feeding the dogs a little better, or picking some of the ticks off their hides? What about a domestic cat? They kill snakes. A little paint? Of course, I don’t have any right to judge this, but I confess to thinking it. Coming to the point, I saw all of this in the Herero village. Maybe they are wealthier? I hear a prominent minister lives there, perhaps directing the flow of government funds? Maybe they have different priorities? Who knows, but unlike other villages, it’s a place I could like being for more than a brief visit. It had a certain relaxed and pleasant vibe.

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Unfair comparison, but this is Havana, an informal settlement outside of Windhoek. Very different from the village.

Observation two – the family structure of the Herero. According to my Herero colleague, who admittedly enjoys provoking people, a man’s role in society is to spread his seeds far and wide without regard for consequences. A woman with a child assumes ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the child. OK, you say, where to even start with that?  What about an economic system that is rigged against women? What about the need for male role models? Well, these are addressed by a strong convention that men must materially provide for and guide children born to sisters. Why? Those children are unquestionably direct kin. The children from a man’s current beloved – who knows? In addition, raising children with a person you have negotiate sex with is an insurmountable challenge. Take sex and fidelity off the table by raising children with immediate kin. A far easier task I’m told. All I can say is that I never really thought of that.

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Herero make a very tasty yogurt drink. Watching whitey slurp it down never ceases to amuse.

In other news…our friends Alden and Sally visited. 74 years old! They seemed to have enjoyed it here, which is always a worry when someone spends so much time and money to get here. Winter has come. As the saying goes, it’s not so much a season, but more a time of day. Bitter cold from 6-9 AM and very pleasant until around 9 PM, when the cold works its way back into the house. Soccer has been a source of some emotion. Our half white team is said to be spurned by referees that are always black. I disregarded this at first, typical white paranoia. But now, I dunno…

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These villagers are doing alright.

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Abe finishes a winning match on penalties.

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Alden and Sally Wright, hiking above Windhoek.

Midway

We are now just beyond half way through our time in Namibia. There is a certain resignation in knowing that some of the most exhilarating and novel experiences are behind us. Also an acknowledgement that life is now lived with the challenges posed by Africa, without the same reward of new experiences. Then again, there are slower adjustments, differences in the business of life that burrow in and take hold of something deeper than relatable events like a snake spitting in your eye, or a trip to Zimbabwe. For the most part, we are carrying on with our lives, but in a way that is unique to this place. It is not the topic of blog posts, but rather something internal, harder to relate.
But relating the experience is what I’m doing, so I’ll fill you in on a few highlights of the last month that may be diagonally interpreted as relating to living.
I suppose the biggest feature in our lives is climate. Is it different elsewhere? Does a climate determinism rule our lives? I dunno, but I notice people posting screenshots like the following to social media. As with so much of social media, I suppose the purpose is to inspire envy. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. We are beginning our sixth week of seasonal weather like below (hence climate?) and it does have an impact. Burdens are easier to bear, tensions diffuse quickly, the body feels strong. It’s exactly what I was chasing when I came here. Having acquired it, I try not to take it for granted.
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Our 6th week of what I consider to be perfect climate. If only there were a little more green.

This month I left Namibia to participate in the PhD defense of a Swedish student.
The woman presented, then I interviewed her for an hour while everyone else listened. The idea is that they hear how she answers my questions and make up their mind about her viability as a PhD. I do not vote. I was called ‘the opponent’. She passed easily and it was interesting to have such an intense, prolonged conversation in front of a crowd of people. Like Charlie Rose.
Then she had a party. About 60 people attended, including her immediate family, her Italian boyfriend’s family, and a lot of friends. They had assigned seating at two long rectangular tables, and I got the place of honor across from her. Everyone eats, drinks, sings songs, and toasts. There is a ‘song master’ and a ‘toast master’ that keep things moving. The weather there was fine, the tulips in bloom, and a lovely river wound though the center of town. The sun set at midnight and rose again around 3 AM. Much of the older architecture is still in tact, as is the wooded and very green park along the river. Buildings are painted in Scandinavian reds, blacks, yellows, and pinks.
Coming from Namibia, I thought everything was too expensive. Food was appealing to look at, but less to eat – comparatively bland. People talked about the Syrian refuges, and Russian assertiveness. The community around the University was thoroughly international, much more so than most American Universities I visit – non-Swedes in Uppsala are a bigger fraction than non-Americans are in the US.
 Frustrations come and go in Namibia. A recurring one has been the boys’ school, in particular the poor mathematics and lack of after school activities. There’ve been some positive developments lately, after parent teacher conferences that should have taken place 3 months ago. Rather than go on about the frustrations, I’d rather mention one of the highlights – Abe is in Model UN. I’ve had such good conversations with him about women’s rights, water security, HIV-AIDs, terrorism, and gun violence. All topics for debate at Model UN. He prepares a position from a country’s point of view and then presents it to his peers and a teacher at the end of the week.  I also think he looks sharp in a tie and coat, don’t you? He’s a good inch taller than me now.
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Abe in has Model UN attire, including a Swedish dress shirt.

Soccer continues to be a thing for us here. It is, at times, poorly organized. For example, we don’t often know if there are weekend games until Friday evening. This takes some getting used to. My new insight into how winners and losers are determined – it is all just nutrition. Take a look at the photo of Zach below, preparing for an indoor match. All these kids are his age. So, our kids are winning in the nutrition wars. I had hoped for more.

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Who’s the biggest? The best fed.

In other news of Zach, he had his 13th birthday this month. He was part of a three way birthday party with one other boy and a girl. So, both genders well represented. They went to a bowling alley. There are no fucking rules here. The kids would walk down and kick pins over or hurl the ball at the pins from 3 feet. A bored Bastar bar keep would say, ‘I wish they would stop that’ to no one in particular. When girls aren’t in their Catholic school girl uniforms, they favor tops that don’t cover the navel and yoga pants. The boys don’t really seem to get it. Sorry, no photos.

Love the following Toyota van with a model name that I don’t think is coming to America soon.

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And I thought they just used Hiluxs – they’ve got their own minivan!

Finally, a puzzle from Scandinavia. Just what the hell am I supposed to do?

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Any guesses about this? Maybe has something to do with Brexit? Europeans…

 

Mugabe

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Uncle Bob.

Title: Robert Mugabe
Artist: Sam, an apolitical Rastafarian from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Media: Paper made from elephant dung and local grasses. Black and white dyes applied with brush.
Notes: In spite of destroying Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe remains a revolutionary hero in much of Southern Africa. Indeed, Windhoek’s central street was re-named “Robert Mugabe Avenue”. This hero status may have prevented action from regional power brokers such as South Africa. The man is 92 years old now, and most just hope he will die soon.

 

Road Trip

Driving to see the countryside, meet the people, and experience whatever cultural  highlights exist is a common form of recreation. The car provides control of the experience, adaptability to changes in plans, and when distances are significant, allows one to experience the transit as deeply as the destination.

Do the same thing for more than a few days, and it becomes something else, a ‘road trip’. During a road trip the transit takes on a life of its own, the kinetic imperative moves to the forebrain, a clear mission with simple quantitative objectives is formed – today, 575 miles. Ready, set, go! The instinct is deep, recall Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, pretty much all of Tolkien, Homer’s Odyssey, or if you prefer movies, Little Miss Sunshine and Easy Rider.

I often meet non-Americans that fantasize about an epic American road trip. If possible, they would rent something that rational gasoline taxes have made prohibitively expensive in their country; a big truck, a Cadillac, a Mustang. Stay off the interstate, experience the ‘real’ America.

It is a thing, this road trip, but, is it a thing in Africa? Here, in the worst cases one finds all manner of animals on the road, menacing immigration officials, security checkpoints that are really bribe collection stations, strict regulations regarding the import of cars, massive pot holes, blown tires, exploded radiators, communication hassles, a difficulty in booking accommodations, credit and cash problems, and a fundamental lack of information about what to expect.

But, it is still a thing. In general, the difficulties are diffused or assumed by experienced hands. For example, “overlanders” are massively equipped 4x4s that haul tourists around. Groups drive, recreate, eat, and camp together, eventually becoming chummy to the point of insularity. The group begins to assume its got an inside track to the meaningful experiences and ignore the fact that there are two other identical truckloads parked in the neighboring stalls.  Conversations in this crowd are predictable enough; what did you do today, and where are you going tomorrow?  It is really for the youth with lots of wine, weed, and kissy-kissy shit at the camps. Ah, is that jealousy I hear in my description?

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Overland truck tour. As they say, don’t forget to drink enough Diet Coke, the heat here is unbearable.

Groups of local and South African whites like to travel together in cliques of trucks. They pack massively, with full bars, refrigerators, tables, and chairs, all manner of cooking accouterments, cots, and serious rubberized canvas tents on the roofs of their trucks. One can rent a rig similar to this, but it’s a hassle to cross international borders with. If you don’t have friends, you can sign up for a guided self driving tour with an experienced leader.

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The self-driving safari has a certain appeal.

As for us, we found a Zimbabwean dude named Tickey (pronounced tee-kee) that works with a Namibian to provide small group tours. They rent a large mini-van of the sort commonly used to haul tourists to and from the airport, and to provide commercial bus routes all over Africa. Tickey is a very experienced guide, and knows most local languages, regulations, customs, as well as when and how to watch for obstacles on the road. Tickey cooked for us, did all the driving, arranged for and paid for all accommodations, answered innumerable questions, identified wildlife, and hustled us through immigration and road blocks. For the curious, 9 days of this type of travel cost our family of 4 about $4500 USD.

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Option 3: The Tickey mobile tour.

It was fantastic! Best family trip ever. Beyond locale, much of the enjoyment came down to the sort of people we were on that vacation. Tickey was a formidable force for good times, with big laughs and just the right amount of concern for your enjoyment. We were joined by another Namibian Fulbright couple, Kevin and Gerry, who provided balance and cool to our often bombastic family dynamic. The sights and experiences were intense and memorable. See a photo log below, below the map of the tour. We follow an anti-clockwise route from Windhoek.

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Finishing off our first lunch at a roadside picnic area.

Day 1: Visit the bushmen in Ghanzi

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At our first stop we took a walk in the bush with the native San people. This man is 70 odd years old.

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Abe’s height was remarkable to the bushmen. Is to me too, come to think of it.

Day 2: A flight over the Okavango Delta near Maun Botswana

Day 3: A canoe or “makoro” trip through the Okavango Delta

Day 4: River cruise on the Chobe River, Northeast Botswana

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The sun sets over the Chobe.

Days 5-6: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

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We made it!

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19 years ago, I visited Victoria falls. I’m no less impressed now than I was then.

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Abe ponders the meaning of it all.

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It may be that “Rhodes must fall”, but his legacy lives on in this impressive bridge.

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Zach gears up to jump off the afore mentioned bridge.

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Zach enjoyed the jump. Julie did not.

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Crossing the line, but not immigration, Abe and Julie in Zambia. Kind of.

Day 7: Ngepi Camp, Northern Namibia

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Perfect! The only regret here was staying only one night.

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Our room on the water made Julie smile.

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As the sun set, the animals made themselves known through their awesome noises. Hippos, birds, and elephants all through the night.

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The locals ferry tourists at sunset.

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It’s easy to take smiling kids for granted in Africa, but they provide a joyful setting. Here, on a village tour outside the Ngepi camp.

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The long drive back to Windhoek. A pleasant stopover at something called Roy’s camp. Completely nice, but just not as photogenic as what we’d experienced previously.

 

A Freakin’ Cobra Spit in my Eye

Back to the click-bait headline in a minute.

It has been a month since I last blogged, time for an update. Some blog worthy things have happened in the last month, but I they have been a struggle to articulate. For example:

  • I finished reading a couple of books about modern South Africa and the massive challenges it faces due to deep, endemic corruption and a large entitled class of petty bureaucrats. I thought I’d write about why attempting to make a life here isn’t a good idea, in spite of the fact that it is completely awesome here. Maybe I’ll just provide links to the books: A Rumor of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy, and How Long Will it Survive?: The Looming Crisis. Rumor is more accessible, How Long more detailed and insightful. They both come to the same conclusion: it’ll have to get worse before it gets better.
  • We visited the Namib desert and I experienced some of the mystical desert mumbo jumbo I’d hear about in places like Sedona AZ, or Moab UT. I’ve been to those places, and sort of get it, but never got star crossed enough to say, buy a Kokopelli figure for my garden wall. I’ll never explain why it is magical in Namibia, but here’s a try: everything is in its most elemental form; earth, sky, sun, moon, day, night, hot, cold. Your senses are never dull because there is this strong, pure signal – no noise, no distraction, just a smooth curve separating earth and sky. Cold nights. Hot days. Clear skies. Bright stars. Yeah?
  • My dad visited for 8 days. It was great to see family, and share this place with others. Here we are watching the sun set from a high plateau near Windhoek.

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    Me and dad watching the sun set.

  • Both boys had their first soccer tournament. Dad watched. I had been critical of dad, coming all that way just to watch sports, but I think he got more insight into Namibian culture watching the scene along the sidelines than most packaged tours provide. In the US, (too) much is made of soccer being ‘boring’. To find space for 12 teams in each of the age groups, games were 13 (U15) or 10 (U13) minute halves. This put crazy pressure on teams to score quickly, and then defend. It also made for the most exciting soccer that I’ve watched.

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    Abe’s team, celebrating victory.

  • Baboons have been raiding the house. Three times now. They are increasingly aggressive and last time one brazenly walked through the living room to the refrigerator while Julie and the kids sat there! I bought an axe handle to threaten them with and Julie got these cool plastic snakes that they are (apparently) afraid of. Doors are kept shut through the daytime hours to keep them out. At night… well read on.

Finally, the story of the zebra spitting cobra. We were watching television, and just about to go to bed. It was about 9:45. The sliding glass door was open and a cool breeze was coming in at our back. Marie suddenly started to bark. Not the normal notification of something outside bark, but an intense focused bark, looking into the corner of the room. We all turned at about the same time and saw a snake in the corner of the room, some 6 to 8 feet from where we sat. Julie and the kids ran, and I headed outside to get my axe-handle baboon defense weapon. I was confident I could eliminate it with a smack from my stick, I’d done this before with snakes when I lived in Malawi. When I came back with the stick, I saw it was under some drapes, so I made scraping  circular motion with the stick to slide it into the open. It worked, and once exposed the snake reared up and flared its hood outward. I thought, wow, cool, a cobra. Then it sprayed me in the left eye. It took a while for me to put together what had happened, and I started to get disoriented and clumsy. I smacked it dead with the stick, then went upstairs and showered, trying to get the venom out of my eye.

What followed was a long night of pain and irritation.The strike was remarkably accurate, there was a small area between my eyes that was irritated from the venom,  my entire left eye, and that’s all. It felt something like having rock salt and hot pepper oil  ground into your eye –  dry, watering, irritated, and inflamed. Somehow, there is a lot of tenderness as if bruised. Full immune reaction with clogged sinuses. Also dizziness, confusion, some clumsiness.  I learned that submerging the eye in a bowl of water helped, but I couldn’t manage the pain well enough to sleep before about 4:00 am.

While I suffered, my family researched snakes. Wikipedia says:

The venom of Naja nigricincta can cause massive hemorrhaging, necrosis and paralysis in bite victims. These snakes can also spit its venom, hitting their enemies with great accuracy and causing temporary or permanent blindness.

Nice. Ultimately, they found a snake hotline in Namibia. 24-7. The fruits of civilization! They phoned, and the person (Francois Thert!) said that if the eye is flushed with saline water, that is about all that can be done other than pain killers. I didn’t really want pain killers, so we decided not to go to the hospital.

And that’s the tale. See the video an photo if you’re interested.

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Ouch. Venom in the eye.

 

 

Abe’s Soccer

We spent a lot of our time in the US either taking our kids to soccer practice or matches. I confess that I find it absorbing, watching those matches. Although both boys started practicing with Namibian teams mid-February, we haven’t had any real matches until this weekend. It sounds silly, but there has been this sports void in our life, a notable absence of invented drama.

The venue was Katatura, which is a township of Windhoek. Clear poverty there, but a vitality as well. Be sure to look at the backgrounds in the photos – a broken down truck, a wall improvised from sheets of galvanized steel, people watching the matches from their yards, a little girl in a dress that picks up a loose ball and slings it back over a fence and some 20 yards (ok you won’t see her, but I did).

The facilities were very good – newish, artificial turf field, shaded bleachers, shaded areas for the players to sit, a ‘center’ with administrative offices, I’d guess nice locker rooms (we didn’t get to use), and indoor press boxes behind the bleachers. Centers like this are how, I suppose, people like Sepp Blatter could secure FIFA votes from countries like Namibia. Looking closer, one sees that the administrative building has little to no furniture, and there is garbage in some of the rooms, there are signs that maintenance is lacking, all the shading structures are irrelevant until the late afternoon because fans and players face east. The sun is so intense that late in the afternoon the coach held a thermometer near the field and measured 158 F (70 C). Most incredibly, the field is too short by several meters, and matches played there can not count towards whatever international accounting of matches takes place. The reader is encouraged to speculate on how contracts for construction were awarded. They have a word here you might not know: tenderpreneur. I love the jokes here!

Matches were 2, 30 minute halves to allow for more teams and matches. No half time break, just switch fields. Abe’s team did very well, winning all four of the matches and never being scored on. The closest match was 4-0. OK, it was a blow out. But there were still some fun moments to watch. I’ll switch to photos and introduce what I think is a very good (by Pacific Northwest standards) team with apologies to the young athletes I didn’t get a clear shot of.

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Nicholas – center mid. Finnish. Father is one of the coaches. They are a family that is very focused on soccer. He is extremely skilled and athletic, playing a critical role on the team.

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Oliver – center back. German Namibian. The youngest player on the team. Solid due to his size.

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Philip – this kid has the sort of speed we could build a team around in the US. Here, he’s just another outstanding striker.

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Florian – Left wing, German-Namibian. Enviably good posture for a giant. He must be 6’1″. His power lets him move through the defensive line with ease.

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Jonathan – Namibian right forward. Another powerhouse, about 6’2″. His role is to blast through the back line, and he does.

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Jonathan sets up a pass to Rejeef, Namibian center mid. A fast striker and excellent passer. The coaches run a lot of substitutions on the front line.

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Alex (facing camera) – Namibian. Center forward. Fast runner.

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Kyle – Scottish-German-Namibian. Fearless and aggressive goalie.

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Issac – Namibian – left back, he takes the ball forward quickly.

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Andrew – Namibian, right wing – our leading scorer and team captain.

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Andrew has seemingly unlimited physical power and speed. 

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Andrew consults with coach Klaus, a hard living German-Namibian.

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Abe – center back, American. Just happy to be playing with this crowd. Nearly 6’3″ now, the tallest on this team of giants. Abe wins all headers.

 

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A rare ball handling event. His confidence has sometimes been lacking here, he mostly makes one-touches, although he’s gotten much better at crossing the field with passes.

 

Independence

On this three day weekend, Namibia celebrates 26 years of independence from South Africa. We’re spending it in Walvis Bay, a deep water harbor and bay that remained part of South Africa until 1994 – four years after the rest of the country. I guess this place was strategic.

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Hip architecture and fine sunsets are the business of Walvis Bay, seen here from the roof of our Airbnb unit.

We visited the Namibian independence museum about a month ago. At the time,  I didn’t see a way to fit the experience into the blog. Independence weekend may be the way to go. The museum was designed and constructed by Namibia’s unconventional partner, North Korea. I was amazed to learn this. I didn’t know North Korea had partners. After some research, I learned North Korea builds museums and state houses for Namibia. Namibia, in turn, uses its rich guano deposits to manufacture munitions for North Korea and (or?) Namibia. Deal!

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Exterior of what some locals call ‘the coffee maker’. Independence hero Sam Nujoma in foreground.  I don’t know what he’s been reading, Nabokov? Tom Clancy? Photo credit goes to this much more even handed treatment of the independence museum of Namibia.

Inside, the history of the Namibian peoples’ oppression is documented and a struggle narrative developed. The portion dealing with oppression is disturbing and accurate. Namibia has a shamefully thick catalog of racially motivated inhumanity.  Resistance to oppression is portrayed as an epic, armed struggle for self determination. This is contrary to my understanding of the independence struggles, which involved political rather than military victories – ultimately, few people could rationalize fighting for white minority rule, a stupid way to govern. In addition, the economic and social stigma of being a white South African was difficult to bear, even for the most stubborn racists.  Regardless, this museum presents the story of Namibia in the terms Namibians prefer to tell it. Eventually, I hope that the ‘mists of time’ allow the story to be understood in the same and different ways.

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The people, enchained. Abe, free.

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The darkest period of the struggle.

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Victory at last. “When the smoke clear, you can see the sky again. There will be the chopped off heads of leviathan.”– M.F. Doom

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The post-colonial, post-apartheid and inclusive society of the future. White people take note, we must bear our shame in our socks. It’s OK, we’re on a stress reducing low carb vegan diet.

The opinions stated here are my own, and do not represent the view of the the Fulbright Scholar Program, or the United States Department of State.

 

Good Stuff?

In this material culture of ours, any move must be accompanied by the question: “so, have they got good stuff there?”. Yes, I think, they have all the stuff we’ve got at home, minus a few things like Haagen Dazs, guns, brightly colored down coats, and techie pocket knives that clip inside front jeans pockets and can cut through a seat belt in 0.349 seconds.

But, do they have special things in Namibia, things that are kinda cool, but not readily available in the US?

Maybe. Today I want to describe three nice things that readers outside of Africa might not have.

Kuba Textiles

I really dig these Kuba textile wall hangings. I started enjoying them back in 2010, when I first spied them roadside in Namibia. Since then I’ve learned that they are produced from palm fibers, according to clearly defined gender roles, in the remote areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo. That’s where Conrad’s Kurtz was in “The Heart of Darkness”. It’s also the setting for V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”. The locale adds to the mystique for me.

What I really love though, is that they establish pattern, and then break it. Over and over. The pattern has these mathematical qualities; waves, weaves, and warps. Compare it to jazz. To me, the textiles can represent all of the beauty and frustration to be found in Africa.

These reside in our main living area, just above the TV. I stare at them all the time and don’t get bored.

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Kuba textiles on our wall.

Braaistand

World wide, I think people like to ‘cook out’, or ‘barbecue’. In this part of the world, they are passionate about braai, which takes place according to strict conventions. Hard woods that burn down to coals are used. Alternatively, but really only in emergencies, charcoal briquettes. The use of gas grills is highly suspect, and they are not generally available. The woods used feel like something that should be used to make fine furniture – dense and rich in color. The process of allowing the wood to burn down to coals takes  a few hours. Often, more wood is added to replenish coals. This makes the braai an evening of gathering around a fire with mere notions of time constraints. Contrast this to the American version, where the cooking and eating part of a barbecue gathering has a clear beginning and end time.

I like it. Most homes, including ours, are equipped with a braaistand, which I show below. It is “good stuff”. Not shown: a cool, meat illuminating light inside!

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Our built in braaistand. In foreground: remarkable wood, and a wax-alcohol mixture that is effective at starting fires, but smells awful. Instructions: 1) Place firelighters at bottom of box on right, 2) fill box with wood, 3) ignite firelighters. 4) As wood burns, coals will drop through grate to bottom when they are ready. 5) spread coals, and cook!

An Ephemeral River Bed

Ok, you can’t really posses this but I suppose it is good stuff and I ran out of things. I enjoy walking with the dog out here, and then into the hills beyond. Eventually, you come to a dam. We see all sorts of birds (like a crimson-breasted shirke!) and a few animals. Early in the day and close to sunset the temperature is great, the sun angle is low, and the walks are idillic. This is a great thing that you can’t buy, but you have to be here to experience. I suppose renting this place is helpful in assuring the experience, so, who knows, maybe you do buy (access to) this sort of thing?

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A dry river bed provides a nice walking area. View from bedroom window. Note electrified wires and satellite dish – less spectacular fixtures of our existence.

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We all miss our dog Louis. He was a fun part of the family, a comic element of life – a little dog that likes to live large. Zach wrote about missing him in an essay for English class. The teacher was sympathetic and told us; look, get a dog from the SPCA. Love it. In a year, when you depart, my husband and I can take the dog on our farm and care for it.

So, we got a dog. Mixed feelings here. It’s easy to love a dog, but hard to leave one. I fear another heartbreak in a year. Then again, it isn’t such a big deal to take a dog back to the US. I’m excited about that possibility. DNA, what better souvenir is there? These genes are interesting. I think these african mutts, they are really whatever can survive; cunning and guile, a short coat, a smaller body, some assertiveness, and maybe a touch of cuteness, in case the humans are watching.  Her name is Marie.

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We miss you Louis! Here he is with Abe on our final morning in Missoula.