Sunday, August 30, 2009


Being back in St. Louis is a strange feeling.
I love being home - I appreciate NH considerably more than I did when I was in high school. I attribute that to a number of things. First - I know that I am a much more mobile individual than I was. My future is not going to be the next 60 years of my life in Manchester. I know for a fact that I will be on a different continent in four months. I know that, wherever I go to graduate school, it won't be in NH. Second - I think it's grown on me since I'm not there all the time. The Mississippi River is no match for the Atlantic Ocean. Hanging out with my family and cats and dog, friends from high school, and the proximity to Boston/good Indian food (really, there's more good Indian food in NH than in St. Louis!) make home a happy place. Also ... I think the whole "not being in high school any more" does wonders for my feelings towards Manchester.

Similarly, I suspect I will appreciate St. Louis much more in about 5 months than I do now. It really is a pretty cool city - but it's full of crazy contrasts that I feel much more aware of, and much less prepared to do anything about, than I'd really like. My career at Wash U started out with an introduction to community service opportunities here in a several-day-long pre-orientation program, but for whatever reason I just never continued with any St. Louis community service. That short introduction, though, was pretty terrifying. Literally 10 minutes from campus, a little boy was killed by a pack of feral dogs while he was playing on a playground. Multiple people die daily in shootings up in North County, and the news is published in short, choppy, paragraph-long articles with the emotion of a report about the weather. I know that there is similar, if less stark, contrast in other places I've lived, and that institutionalized racism permeates pretty much all of the United States, but I've never really watched it before. And part of what makes me so uncomfortable with St. Louis is that I can't help but feel like I'm part of the problem - just another white girl from the suburbs who comes in for four years, gains some knowledge, and then disappears.

But then there are the really wonderful parts of St. Louis. The St. Louis Zoo. Swing dancing, the Cards, the Loop, Chuck Berry, the Museum of Westward Expansion. Kim Massie (I was there!), City Museum, Thai Pizza Company, the fact that people smile when they pass eachother on the street. And school.

This semester has started off with considerably more promise than I was expecting, especially considering my course load. My classes, with only one exception, are fun so far, and should be keeping me busy yet interested. Tab is teaching my Non-Human Primate Evolution class. It's definitely an adjustment going from being in the field in the next tent over, to being back in a teacher/student environment. He no longer checks to make sure I'm peeing enough, for example (although that was only a concern at the beginning of the season when I wasn't used to drinking a liter and a half or so of water a day!) - but the Turkana experiences keep on coming up in class. I get mentioned as someone who knows what field work is like, and when we were going through modern primate diversity, he said something along the lines of "These are guenons and Irene is really interested in them!" It's kind of cool, although strange.

We were talking about naming conventions for fossils (it turns out you should never name your fossil after what you think the phylogenetic relationship is, because you're probably wrong. Palaeopropithecus, for instance, is not an ancestor of Propithecus. And, to be honest, Propithecus isn't really "before apes," either - just a prosimian), and he said that you should name it something interesting, like Mlanyama sugu - which, rather than being a boring Latin name, actually means Notorious Meat Eater in Swahili, and refers to this awesome little creodont from our localities. Sugu is Swahili for notorious.
This is also Sugu - the best dog in all of Turkana. Whenever our trucks went into town, or to a number of any places, we ended up being the matatu service. One day, we were driving out north and a group of women piled into the back of the truck to visit a settlement about a 20 minute drive away (considerably longer to walk). One woman had a dog with her, but we assumed he'd be staying behind.

This was not the case. Our truck headed out, and this dog - Sugu - started trotting along behind us. He followed us the whole drive, running intrepidly along behind us. We'd slow down to go over a particularly treacherous stretch of rocks, and he'd get a little closer ... then we'd speed up over the flats and he'd disappear, only to pop up again as we slowed down to go down the side of a wash and slide back up the other side. Poor guy, he was so intent on following his woman that he didn't even get distracted when we drove through a herd of goats!

John Mark had told me a story explaining why dogs always chase trucks. It seems that there was a dog who traveled by matatu at one point in time. He gave the tout a 50 bob coin, expecting change back. But the matatu reached his stop before he was given his change, and he got out of the matatu without collecting it! To this day, dogs chase after cars because they want their 30 bob!

Sugu made it to his destination safely, and was rewarded with water and a good scratch behind the ears. It was a heartwarming tale - the Homeward Bound of West Turkana!!

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Said to the man at the railroad station, 'I want a ticket just for one.'"

The great partially-across-the-continental-US train trip has officially ended, after six different trains in two days! I left NH yesterday morning, and we hopped on the Orange Line. Though we were initially warned away from South Station due to a "medical emergency," the Red Line got us there in the end.

I made the wise (for many reasons) decision to purchase some fruit and mixed nuts from Au Bon Pain, as well as Diet Pepsi. This ended up being more important than I realized, because by the time I decided I was hungry and ready for dinner on the train, there were no more vegetarian foods other than m&ms, which while wonderful, only provide so much nutritional value.

The first person to sit next to me on the train was a guy with his fiancee - they're both majoring in forensic anthropology at U-Mass Amherst. He noticed that I was reading the Primate Ecology and Social Structure chapter on callitrichidae (including S. fuscicolis, the Peru monkeys), and asked if I was a phys. anthro person. That was exciting, but he went to sit with his fiancee as soon as a seat opened up, and he was replaced by a lady with her two moderately obnoxious kids who proceeded to snore her way through Pennsylvania and most of Ohio, preventing me from sleeping very much.

We got to Chicago about 45 minutes later than anticipated, but it was still enough time to see Sandy and one of his roommates, who took me out for breakfast at this amazing place called Yolk. I was STARVING by this point in time, having only eaten French Toast, fruit/nuts, and a bag of m&ms all day, which was good because the food came in GIGANTIC quantities and was quite good. I had a Farm Breakfast, or at least part of it (declining the sausage gravy and two pieces of bacon - enjoying the scrambled eggs, biscuits, and what homefries Sandy did not steal). Then Sandy and his roommate drove me back to the train station where I promptly got on the train to St. Louis and, since I had no snoring woman next to me, took a nice four hour nap. Taking two metrolink trains to get back to campus rounded the trip off nicely.

Taking the train is different from flying for a number of reasons - coach class on trains seems infinitely more comfortable than on planes, paying for food doesn't feel quite as terrible, the bathrooms, while still small, are more abundant, and it's a different crowd on trains (my favorite was the guy in front of me with dreadlocks and a mandolin ... I wanted to make friends but he slept from Boston until he got off the train in Albany). From Chicago to Missouri there were a number of Mennonites - for some reason, they are permitted to take the train, but not airplanes. I'm not entirely sure what that rational is.

You also see a lot more dilapidation in the places you pass. Rural America is full of crumbling, rotted out buildings. For every well-kept farm with a lovely painted red barn and waving corn, there's a burnt silo next to a collapsed house and a Quonset hut (nothing against Quonset huts, of course). Racist and homophobic graffiti seem to be the main themes, especially in Indiana (although pulling into Union Station, we were greeted with graffiti wishing us safe travels. I guess Illinois is nicer than Indiana?). The amount of trash lining the tracks was really terrible, and all in all it was an eye-opening trip. It did end with a rainbow over East St. Louis - I'll let someone else search for that pot of gold.

While en route from Boston to Chicago, I finally got around to typing up my Akisuam Ng'aturkana - my Turkana lessons. The Turkana guys (and Fritz) wanted to learn how to use the GPS to enter data, find our localities, etc. so one afternoon when we didn't have enough tires for both trucks to go out collecting, after lunch I gave a quick GPS lesson. This picture, also courtesy of Tony, shows Boniface (standing, red shirt), Fritz (standing, aging hippie), Martin (sitting, striped shirt), and John Mark (sitting, green shirt), and me! After the GPS-ing, I told the guys I wanted them to teach me Turkana.

As the season had progressed to that point, I'd picked up a few things organically. "Ejok," for instance, is how you greet someone, "Ejoka noi!" is the appropriate response. Ng'akipi is water (very important), and yau is bring (table manners in Kenya are very demanding). But they started telling me things like, "When Boniface comes back, say _____ in Turkana - it means 'Why were you sleeping instead of finding fossils?' This would invariably be met with gales of laughter, so whoever I'd parroted some Turkana at would tell me something to say in return. Threatening people with "Mam eprot" (no beer) when they didn't find fossils was a big favorite. Of course, this got complicated and though I was sort of picking out bits and pieces, I wanted to know more, and particularly some grammar. So Martin and John Mark sat down with me and my notebook and we went through the things I already knew how to say (in addition to greetings and water, things like food (akimuj) and "What is your name? My name is Irene" (Ng'ai ekirikong'? Ekirigong' Irene!). The next most important thing for me to know, it was decided, was animals! I learned everything from goat (akine) to hyena (ebu) to flies (ng'ichuch). Several days later, I learned people - mama (itwo), friend (lokone), and so on. So now, my vocabulary deals with ng'itieng' (animals), awi (family), erang'i (colors), akwarna (days), and numbers (1-10). Plus personal pronouns, a number of verbs, and a rough understanding of how to conjugate them. This way, next time I go to Turkana, I can say, "Abong' nabo! Abuni ayong' alo Amerika, alosi ayong' kiremuni lokone, ka tokana, etami ayong' Ng'aturkana!" I'm back! I've come from America, I'm going to greet my friends, and now I understand Turkana!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Story from Kenya

The drive from Nairobi to Kitale would have been fairly uneventful, except I didn't know how to use the bathrooms in the Delamere rest stop. Many toilets in Kenya, while attached to plumbing and such, are holes with footprints on either side. I guess this should be pretty self-explanatory, but I was intimidated and decided that I really could just wait until we stopped somewhere for lunch. Of course, there was no lunch stop, and there were no other rest stops. So 8 hours later, with perhaps the fullest bladder I have ever had, we arrived in Kitale and I made my way (quickly) to the restrooms in the hotel, only to find another hole with footprints on the side. This time, I got over my intimidation pretty quickly...

After a relaxing Tusker, which was certainly not paid for by the NSF, and the first of many meals of miboga (bila nyama - without meat) and chapati, we adjourned to bed where I slept the night beneath a shockingly blue mosquito net. The next morning, after I called my parents and woke them up, I went with Matthew, Stephen, and Jen to purchase all of our produce from the Kitale market.

The Kitale Market is perhaps a 10 minute walk from the Al Akara Hotel where we stayed. Kitale early on a Sunday morning is quiet - the only people out are dressed in nice clothes, walking to one of the many churches in the area. They have more important concerns than the two wazungu women walking with the two Kenyan men towards the market. Jonathon drives one of the trucks out to the market so that we can dump the produce directly in the truck bed - we pass the Hilux with the ridiculous orange tarp on the back as we're walking.

The Kitale Market is slowly getting started - women in kangas are unveiling huge piles of tomatoes, onions, papayas, mangos, potatoes, and an unlikely assortment of beans and grains. The mood is genial - old mamas joke with each other, the young mamas set up their children next to one another and flirt with the few men who are setting up shop. I am completely overstimulated, even with as few people here as there are. Jen, who has the money for this trip, follows behind Stephen (the cook, with the master list), and Matthew, who seems to know everyone here. I trail along behind, catching sidelong, curious glances from women, and sort of terrified stares from little kids.

Watching Matthew and Stephen bargain is truly impressive. Jen and my presence seems to be a handicap - a number of times, I hear something to the effect of, "Unataka bei ghali sana kwa sababu tuna wazungu!" (You're charging high prices because we're with white people), but the women insist that prices in Kitale are higher this year than last year because of the drought. Stephen is not impressed with this excuse, and Matthew argues prices down to what he deems more reasonable levels.

A few women stop to talk to me, and are amused when I answer them in Swahili rather than English. At this point in time, my Swahili is considerably more halting and stilted than it should be, but apparently still impressive enough for an mzungu wandering around the market. I get the name of a few little girls, and they amuse themselves staring at the hair on my arms for a while.

In the end, we spent just about 5,700 ksh on enough produce to fill the entire truck bed - a little less than $80 on huge amounts of potatoes, onions, mangoes, papayas, eggs, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, green beans, peas, pineapple, bananas, sugar, watermelon, chickpeas, oranges, cucumbers, and cabbage. Would you believe the only thing that didn't make it from Kitale to camp was the papayas? They were in the same bag as the watermelon and got properly squished.

Also of note, based on the Uganda articles from last night:
LRA Team in Peace Talks Resigns ... because Museveni wouldn't sign a temporary cease fire so that the LRA leader felt comfortable coming to the peace talks, so HE never signed the peace agreement.
IDPS in Northern Uganda (I believe they're talking about the Acholi in refugee/IDP camps) are exploiting forests and say they won't leave until they're given other productive land to live on. It's reminiscent of the upcoming removal (supposedly sometime soon) of illegal settlers from the Mau Forest in Kenya. Of course, there are people who are more powerful than the Ogiek community who were hanging out in the forest illegally, but that's a different story. It all goes back to Moi!

* The picture of the market was taking by Tony, who was also in Kenya this summer

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away!

I've been meaning to start a blog, and perhaps even make it interesting to people who aren't me! I think that will probably be hard to do for now, but once I head to Peru, it'll be nice to have an established place where I can direct folks who want to read about me chasing monkeys. For now, I want a place where I can aggregate articles and pages that interest me ... a place where I can geek out about things I'm learning ... and whatever else occurs to me. Maybe I'll write out stories from Kenya with more details, too. Or just stories about things in general. We'll just have to see.

So here's a trail I've been following...

I watched this documentary, War Dance, earlier this year. Central and East Africa are things I'm interested in on a "I like primates" level, an "I like Swahili" level, and an "I like people" level. Plus I'm a sucker for dancing, and the trailer with the kids singing and dancing reminded me an awful lot of the girls from Wema singing Dancing Queen last summer. Uganda has a country-wide music/dance competition (this article gives a really interesting background and talks about the Ugandan constitution from 1995 and how kids acted as speakers for the government in these performances) for primary school students. This documentary follows a group of students a refugee camp in northern Uganda from the beginning of their school's practice until the actual competition.

The kids are members of an ethnic minority in Uganda, the Acholi (incidentally, the Acholi are part of the Luo ethnic group, who also live in Western Kenya. Obama's father was Luo, as is the current prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga. I heard all sorts of interesting anti-Luo talk in Turkana this summer, even from guys who are ODM supporters, but Kenyan politics are far too complicated for one parenthesis!). The documentary is interesting, with some strange choices (for instance, they have the little kids reenact a number of terrible things that happened to them in front of the camera, filmed in very melodramatic ways that really detracts from their incredible story. The film is predictably depressing in general context and predictably uplifting in the end, but worth seeing. The Lord's Resistance Army isn't something that gets a lot of play in the Western media's coverage of Africa, which is why my dad knew that this article, about Vertigo Comic's updated version of the Unknown Soldier, would make me so excited. Also exciting - more media coverage of northern Uganda - apparently Uma Thurman and some other people are going to be in a movie called Girl Soldier about a harrowing sequence of events, and apparently protesting the use of child soldiers.

I haven't read any of the new Unknown Soldier yet, but I hear that the trade paperback comes out soon. I plan on stopping at Star Clipper on the Loop to hear what the comic book experts have to say about how I can get these books!

OK - well, my plan was not to go on for quite so long. And I can keep going, but I need to finish packing so I can head to bed. I leave for school on Thursday!