A Reading List in the Time of Coronavirus

All right, all right, it really does look like we’re all going to have to enjoy spring after being dragged inside (cozier if you’re south of the equator, winter coming on). If that’s what we’re facing, here are a half dozen books I can recommend for your quarantine time:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk • Nobel prize winner for literature, clever, engaging fiction.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris • The latest from a brilliant writer. It’s not what you think.

Prisoner by Jason Rezaian • Memoir of the former Washington Post reporter’s time in an Iranian prison.

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa • Tough stuff about the Syrian civil war.

The Capital by Robert Menasse • Acerbic portrait of the function, and disfunction, of the EU in Brussels.

The Salt of the Earth by Jósef Wittlin • Classic novel of a Polish peasant’s experience in World War One.

And here are a few waiting on my bookshelf. Since we were planning to be in Africa this spring, here are three books that were to be background for the trip:

A Grain of Wheat by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o • Classic story of late colonial Kenya.

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma • The facts of life in modern Zimbabwe.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste • I loved Ms. Mengiste’s 2011 Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. This one’s about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

And one more, a new release:

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon • Story of three orphaned kids in 1960s Laos.

At least we can enjoy traveling the world through books this spring, while staying indoors. And not touching our faces.

If you read any of these books please send your feedback.

On the road: Ngorongoro Crater

Here is my monthly travel column for 3 Quarks Daily, as it appeared on Monday:

On the road: Ngorongoro Crater

Godfrey points the Land Rover toward Ngorongoro Crater. The road is fine to lull the unwary, but before you know it there is one lane, then no tarmac, then mud and potholes and empty hills.

Close cropped with a natty little mustache, Godfrey is kempt, forties, paunch-softened,  with an easy smile. A veteran guide, he has been here before. Says it will take five hours to do the 250 kilometers to the crater and so it does.

No package tour jets preceded us when we flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport aboard a small plane from Nairobi, so the airport bank wasn’t open. Consequently, we have no Tanzanian Shillings.

Oxen pull plows across the fields. Buses are occasional and private cars are rarer than cows. At the time of this visit (several years ago), the road is primarily for foot traffic, human and animal. No matter how far from a village, people are everywhere walking on the roads, always. They only move to the verge, reluctantly, when a Land Rover thunders by.

The few vehicles you do pass are either chock full of ride-sharing local folks, or they’re hauling two or three white Europeans on safari, or maybe they’re jeeps that read something like, “Africa Wildlife Research Project, funded by Belgian government.”

What do you know, way out here Godfrey knows where to buy a few beers. Two hot Tuskers from Kenya, two hot Safari beers from Tanzania, a roadside bodega, no power, no refrigeration, just a handful of dusty beers on a shelf for four for five dollars at an anonymous shack, friendly enough, opaque to a stranger. Godfrey’s got this round.

•••••

The tectonic plates that mold and shape the earth are always moving, creating the great Himalayas, tearing apart the mid-Atlantic. Perhaps you have heard the general rule that the plates move at the speed your fingernails grow. That rule doesn’t hold everywhere.

While the Mid-Atlantic Ridge spreads 2.5 centimeters a year, the Great Rift Valley of Africa moves rather more slowly, around a millimeter. Even so there will come a day when the warm waters of the Indian Ocean will lap at, and then cover up, the cradle of human life, Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain.

For now though, and until it does, the Great Rift Valley is a singular tear in the earth, so long and life-giving that much of Africa’s history has occurred around it. So it is important to have some sense of this mighty 3,700-mile trench’s place in the world.

Its west and south are home to Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Malawi between Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika between Tanzania and Congo, Lake Kivu between Congo and Rwanda, Lakes Edward and Albert straddling Congo and Uganda, Uganda’s Lake George and Lake Victoria, on which Uganda’s capital Kampala and international airport at Entebbe lie, bordering Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, 

East and north, the newly forming Nubian and Somali tectonic plates separate along a line from south of Mt. Kilimanjaro all the way to the Red Sea. The rift continues under the sea into Jordan, crossing the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, finally fading like an eclipse’s arc across Syria and Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.

To a geologist, this rift system is one of the most electrifying places on the planet. Here is positively rhapsodic prose (for a geologist), from James Wood and Alex Guth in Africa’s Great Rift Valley: A Complex Rift System

basalt eruptions and active crevice formation have been observed in the Ethiopian Rift which permits us to directly observe the initial formation of ocean basins on land. This is one of the reasons why the East African Rift System is so interesting to scientists.”

The Ngorongoro Crater, the remnants of a volcano probably larger than Kilimanjaro, was born of these basalt eruptions a couple or a few million years ago. At some point long ago, further rifting caused the abrupt withdrawal of lava from beneath the volcano, resulting in its collapse.

Ngorongoro is the largest unbroken and unflooded volcanic caldera in the world, 2000 feet from rim to floor and a hard to believe 192 miles in circumference. Marshland and acacia forests separated by plains and a lake support 30,000 or 40,000 animals most of the year inside the caldera. A drive around the rim is the distance from Boston to New York. Imagine.

•••••

Ramadan has just ended and there will be a huge Eid festival in Arusha. All 200,000 Arushans (back then), Muslim or not, will be in the streets. In preparation, the little stream that runs beside town has become an impromptu car wash around a car lot named Dimple Motors.

Arusha looks like a friendly town, but driving through, it occurs to me that if you’d just dropped into Africa from Denver or Detroit or Duluth for the first time, the unfamiliarity might make you uncomfortable.

Do not fear. That will pass.

Before you know it you’ll relish the incongruous jumble of the African city. You’ll find yourself celebrating the difference from back home: A banner over the airport road marking independence (not that many years ago), sunshine filtered through dust thrown up by traffic on non-tarmacked roads, big welcoming smiles, bright sarongs and bare feet, baskets on girls’ heads, the scent of smoky-blue fires in pots on the roadside, shells of unfinished buildings stalled for reasons never to be known.

The waist-high trees of the Burka coffee estate stretch endless acre after acre, either side of the road. Impenetrable mist shrouds the steep eastern slope of Mt. Meru, off past the edge of town. 

Shade trees line the far side of town before traffic finally eases. Open-backed, full-polluting Tata trucks fly by, public transport. People stand in the back, clutching at the cab. Ramshackle stalls: “Lucky Feed Mill.” “Lucky Family General Store.” “Moona Pharmacy.” “Beuty Saloon.” All the way west from Arusha, Masaai villages of seven or eight or a dozen mud-walled roundhouses with thatched round roofs.

Here is a toll plaza, deserted. Godfrey never slows down.

“We pay our tolls through gasoline taxes now.”

Why don’t they just fix the damned roads? A western conceit. If there were money to fix the roads they’d use it to do a dozen more important things first, better nutrition, child care, malaria eradication.

Termite mounds rise three feet from red clay-colored dirt. African roadways belong to the people, as the roads of American cities did before the coming of the car. People scramble and scoot as, hell bent to deliver us to the crater (after which he’ll be off work), Godfrey pounds along, 80 kilometers per hour when he can, ruts and puddles or not.

It’s a straight road for multiple kilometers until a fateful right turn and farewell to tarmac at a signpost, “Ngorongoro 101 km” onto a road that promises a low-grade brain-jostling headache for days.

•••••

This was once an outpost of Deutschland. Germany came late to the Scramble for Africa and left early when it was stripped of its colonies after World War One. Its important colonies were only four – today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and German East Africa, comprising today’s mainland Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

Chancellor Bismarck felt more pressing Realpolitikal concerns back home in Europe: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he said, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.” Yet by 1884 as Britain and France madly staked their African claims, a sense Germans called Torschlusspanik, “door-closing-panic,” took hold, a fear that it might be left out. Traders felt mercantile pressure from their British and French rivals and let the government know it.

On his rise to power Bismarck declared that “the only healthy basis of a large state which differentiates it essentially from a petty state, is state egoism and not romanticism.” More than a decade later he reexamined his Africa policy, applied a healthy dose of large state egoism and with the support of the business communities in Hamburg and Bremen, Bismarck instructed the German explorer Dr Gustav Nachtigal to seize Cameroon, Togoland and Southwest Africa, now Namibia.

In early days, claiming swathes of territory merely meant visiting coastal clans and scooping up treaties at the point of superior European guns. Dr. Nachtigal claimed Togoland and Cameroon in July 1884. The captain of the German gunboat Wolf claimed Southwest Africa by the end of August, and they were off.

Meanwhile in the east a German explorer named Carl Peters leased the coastal holdings of the Sultan of Zanzibar. He made deals with local leaders for land to the north and south of British East Africa. Peters learned that King Mwanga of Buganda was shopping for an ally to help him reclaim his throne, offering treaties first come first served, and rushed to beat the British to a deal. He schemed to join German interior holdings with the coast to thwart the Brits, who in turn strove to tie British East Africa to their territory of Sudan to the north.

Carl Peters’s frenzied bit of the Scramble came to naught over European politics, for as Britain dreamed of the bits of east Africa that Peters had cobbled together, Bismarck coveted Heligoland, an island the Brits held just 25 miles off the German coast, as a Baltic naval base.

Germany got its island, Britain its colonies and so came a general settling of borders, enabling the British to build a railway from Mombasa on the coast to Lake Victoria (the ill-starred Lunatic Express). Germany would control land to the south, German East Africa, now Tanzania, home of Ngorongoro Crater.

There is hardly a trace of the German language in East Africa today. English, on the other hand, is widely spoken in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. It is overlaid on Kiswahili, a Bantu language that is either the indigenous, official or trade language of countries across east Africa, not only in Tanzania and Kenya but also in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, the north of Mozambique and Zambia.

The word Swahili itself derives from Arabic for ‘the coast,’ underlining the ancient connection between the east African Bantus and traders from the Arab peninsula and Persia, who for centuries sailed their dhows up and down the shores of east Africa. Swahili terms for numbers, times of day, for please and friend and travel and danger and many more, borrow from Arabic. Along with vocabulary from Arabia and Persia, some east Africans also got religion. Perhaps a third of Tanzanians practice Islam today.

•••••

In Welsh legend, a shepherd named Guto Nyth Bran ran so fast that he could blow out a candle and be tucked into bed before the light faded. He must have practiced on the equator. The equator produces the fastest sunrises and sunsets on the planet, since the sun’s apparent movement is vertical. As the sun sets, and just as it sets, colors fade like flipping a switch. The road crawls around the edge of the escarpment and Lake Manyara spreads before us outside the crater in black and white. In a minute it has disappeared into the dark. Then, over the north side of the hill, we bear down in a dive for the crater rim. All of the lodges sit along the rim – none on the floor.

Traveling counter-clockwise along the rim, my wife Mirja bolts upright. In the Land Rover’s headlights, she has spotted a leopard! Lying right in the road! It is gone in a flash. Stealthy and rare as they are, this is an auspicious start indeed.

•••••

END PART ONE. 

On The Road: In The Zambian Bush

Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 14 October, 2019 on 3 Quarks Daily:

Late morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a seasonal camp with just four huts of thatch and grass on a still lagoon, far out into Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, about 300 miles north of Lusaka.

Perched on a cliff above the Luwi River, today the little camp is empty, but for the permanent staff of six – permanent, that is, for the five months each year camp is open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and in late April a work crew of twenty rebuilds it top to bottom in order to have it open by June first. We’re first in, a little early at the end of May.

No other guests, just the staff, our guide Aubrey and a European named Grete, who will manage Luwi camp this season. Six months a year Grete is a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in the bush. Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”

•••••

There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark and huddle close-in around a coffee pot over the mopane campfire kept burning since sunset. Our party musters under a creeping orange sky as the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered birdsong declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you just stay away.

This morning, a walking safari. My wife Mirja and I will walk behind a rifle-toting scout and Aubrey, the four of us trailed by a young apprentice carrying coffee and biscuits, the “tea boy.” Isaac, a stoic, leathery bush veteran with a beret and a .357 caliber Brno rifle, will scout.

The grass between camp and the river is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocodiles on the opposite bank. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a rise just above the water’s edge, I cannot think why crocs would only inhabit the far bank. Watch your feet.

In these first few minutes Aubrey has already explained the three territorial zones of animals: the zone of awareness, the warning zone and the zone in which instinct takes over and the animal attacks. We don’t think we’re in anybody’s zone, but step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch the sun establish sovereignty.

Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches into a long, slow bend to the right, the near shore sandy cliffs. There is another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond, just before the bend. Nature blossoms with sound. Nothing manmade is here to be heard or seen.

Below the bend on the opposite bank, Guinea fowl go grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets indistinct in early light. A hippo breaches the brush, late getting back home, and scatters them.

Hippos don’t eat fish. They graze outside the water after dark, eating around 40 kilos a night. Which takes a lot of grazing. This one pauses at the water’s edge, jerks up his head, snarls, snaps ineffectually, and plunges into the river.

“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. Oxpeckers are opportunists. In Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, these birds ride on giraffes’ backs and get a nice aerial view. Here in Zambia, these local oxpeckers have water taxis.

The pod rests, still as autumn leaves the day before they fall. Only their heads and backs are visible, the rest of them covered with water lettuce.

If this were a painting you’d scoff. Too elaborate to be real. But it is real, and we stay for long moments until the morning shadows have crossed the river and sunlight reigns.

Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November are perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede, forcing the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in increased conflict and danger from predators. 

For now in May, there is peace. Crocodiles eat catfish in the lagoon. The grass is green and tall and thick. Hippos gorge in the fields and live in the river.

Aubrey shows the way hippos change the landscape as they come and go from the river, creating indentations on the water’s edge that grow when it rains, collapsing the soil into gullies and washing it into the river. Other animals use and widen the trampled paths, which extend far up onto land. Eventually hippo trails may even evolve into rivers.

We set out away from the river on a sandy-bottomed hippo trail a meter wide, the grass on either side too tall for us to see ahead or to either side. Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.

It’s one thing from a safari vehicle, but holding the attention of a hundred buffalo is an entirely different experience when all that’s between you and the herd is grass. They get our scent and turn with the precision of a murmuration of starlings, presenting a rather more solid wall, impenetrably long. They form up and stare intently. Aubrey’s “zone of awareness.” One steps forward and sniffs for the group.

•••••

The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard prints. Aubrey and Isaac study them and judge they’re from last night or earlier this morning, because they’re still largely undisturbed. If one had overlapped the other, we could judge whether the leopard followed the hyena or, more likely the opposite.

Aubrey brings us to the trunk of a tree to examine puku fur, very soft, and explains that this puku fell victim to a leopard. We know that leopards take the fur off, he says, and this fur is clearly not digested. And, under a mopane with its strong, nearly horizontal branches is a good place for a leopard to take a meal, since at any danger he can hoist his kill up and away into the tree.

We are walking through grass mostly over our heads, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. From Dutch through Afrikaans, spoor means ‘track’ in two senses – first, the scent or track an animal leaves, and second, railroad tracks (A map of the Dutch rail network is a spoorkaart).

Aubrey categorizes spoor for tracking wildlife: aerial spoor, like branches or grass pushed back by passing game, ground spoor, like footprints and sign, and other evidence like droppings or dislodged stones or the water lettuce we see far from the river, which has been carried up on hippos’ backs.

Isaac and his .357 Brno lead us down into the riverbed itself, where there is more than a month of footprint history since the last time it rained: elephant prints with lion prints inside, hippos, every bird and no humans tracks except ours since the end of the rains.

Here is a lion kill. We know this because of the remnants of the victim. Unlike the leopard, lions eat the whole unfortunate animal, and in this dung are fur and bone fragments.

Isaac stares ahead all the time as if something is always about to happen. He scans above the grass with field glasses.

He’s retired from the park service and keen to pass on the oral tradition to the guides and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.

The grass gives way to trees, larger the farther from the river. A particular bird flaps and cries and flies out in front of us. Aubrey says it’s trying to lead us to a bees’ nest, because if we disturb the nest we will help it eat them. (Almost like honeyguides, birds that collaborate with humans to find honey in Mozambique.)

Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite entirely dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against a furry, live thing in there, one very large arachnid. Aubrey laughs and gently picks him up by a leg and puts him on the ground in front of us.

It’s a baboon spider, he says, a type of tarantula. It’s hairy, several inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. Frightening damned things, they are big and robust enough to loosen soil and excavate burrows with their jaws and fangs.

This fellow’s North and South American cousins have barbed hairs on their abdomens which they can fire defensively like porcupines with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant does not have that capability. It is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.

I shudder; Aubrey offers consolation: Another tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.

A different kind of spider has built a funnel-shaped web in a tree trunk with what Aubrey calls “telephone lines” extending upward from it to the side of the trunk. Aubrey explains how the spider lives safely below and can tell by the vibration of his phone lines when something flies into his funnel. He is thus called up to dinner.

•••••

At first measure, Luwi bush camp was rustic, but after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the opposite bank, and sharing coffee with a stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks now, with its thatch cottages and en suite facilities, its pot of coffee and wildlife magazines.

They’ve put on omelettes and sausages. Mirja retires to a hammock to read Surviving in the African Wild while I sit in chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in shade, and we listen to the hippos in the river and the wild array of birds.

The grass in front of camp extends several hundred meters to the riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds daub at the horizon under cerulean sky. Alone in camp we sprawl out careless, camera here, camera bag there, a pile of Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.

Later, high broken clouds provide escape from the full sun. Now, in May, Aubrey thinks these look like October skies, in the month before the rains. The dry season doesn’t yet hold full sway.

The night sky is simply magnificent. We find south with the Southern Cross. The Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky. The lantern casts unsure light under a splayed out Milky Way.

Aubrey grows melancholy by the fire. Where once he had three sisters and three brothers, now he’s the head of the family. He has one sister, and matter-of-factly explains the others died of “natural causes.”

Motionless, he stares into the fire and into his past, and turns to us. His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home.

A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.

“This is African life.”

HIV? He just shakes his head. He has grown concave with gloom.

The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard about maize and making ends meet:

A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag, head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag, unsuspecting.

A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.

Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe. 

He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens. It’s hard to understand it all, but in outline, in Zambian folk practice a prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed.

The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.

In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. A log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.

The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back. “I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.

•••••

Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers around the pot of coffee. Tropical boubou shrikes sing in duet, so much at the same instant that you think it’s one, with a curious detail at the end of the call that sounds like a cross between a snare drum and plucking a guitar string.

Aubrey’s spirits are bright again. He wants to know about where we live and when he learns Mirja is from Finland he’s apologetic, but he can’t understand how anyone can live where it’s cold.

“The coldest I’ve ever been is at Bangola. It’s over the escarpment,” he says.

The mist was so thick you couldn’t see ten meters, he marvels. He does allow, though, that he’d really like to see snow before he dies and I offer that he might consider Table Mountain in Cape Town. But for Aubrey, South Africa might as well be the moon.

A Good Day for Giraffes

As a major giraffe fan, it makes me happy to read this good news in the most recent newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants:

“The 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species took place in August in Geneva, Switzerland. CITES was established by the UN in 1975 to ensure that international trade in wild species of flora and fauna would not threaten their survival as species. Currently 183 nations are parties to CITES. ATE and other NGOs either attend the CITES meeting as “non-governmental observers,” or advisers from the sidelines. Either way, we work to persuade attending governments to conserve species, not profit from their destruction.

This most recent meeting attained some important victories for vulnerable animals. Proposals by southern African nations to reopen the international ivory trade by allowing the resumption of ivory stockpile sales were defeated, as was a proposal to reopen trade in white rhino horn. The conference stressed the need for governments to address the existence of legal ivory markets, and the EU promised to tackle the huge market across its 28 member states. Australia also announced its intention to ban the domestic trade in ivory and rhino horn.

In a huge victory, giraffes were granted protection from unregulated international trade. This is an historic move, and marks the first time giraffes have been granted such protection. Giraffe numbers have dramatically declined (in some areas, up to 40%) during the last 30 years, due to habitat loss, poaching, disease and war or civil unrest.”