First blog post

This is the post excerpt.

Taught and researched forest ecology at Oklahoma State University for 30 years.  Retired from OSU on June 30, 2017.  Joined Peace Corps Tanzania to teach high school biology.  Arrived in Dar es Salaam July 11, 2017.  This is my blog.

Gerry Auel and Steve Hallgren were sworn in September 21, 2017 in Dar es Salaam as Peace Corps Volunteers to serve as high school teachers in Tanzania.

Charcoal Production and Use in Mufindi Highlands

Charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue produced by removing water and organic volatile compounds from wood by thermal decomposition called pyrolysis in the absence of oxygen.  Because water and organic volatile compounds have been removed, charcoal compared to wood has advantages of light weight, burning at a higher temperature and giving off very little smoke.

Artisanal production of charcoal from wood is ancient. It involves building a tight pile of wood and burying it with turf while leaving a small opening for igniting the wood.  The wood burns under low to zero oxygen by glowing combustion that releases a lot of smoke and steam and leaves behind about 60% by volume and 25% by weight of charcoal.

The favorite wood by far for making charcoal in the Mufindi Highlands is black waddle (Acacia mearnsii), a fast growing extremely invasive tree species native to Australia. Although wood from pine and eucalyptus is very abundant, I have never seen anyone make charcoal from them.  Black waddle grows everywhere in thickets and does not need to be encouraged or planted.  When the trees get to about 30 feet tall and 6 inches in diameter it is common to see them cut and converted to charcoal on site.

It seems everyone will produce charcoal when the opportunity arises.  Our neighbor collected a small amount of wood from clearing a field for planting maize and made charcoal from it right in the field in a couple weeks. 

Just about every store has charcoal for sale in small buckets up to large 100-pound bags.  It is sold along the highway and some producers ship it to the city to sell at a much higher price.  We pay about $7 for a 100-pound bag that can last a month or two depending on whether we use it to heat the house during the cold season.  The quality varies a lot.  Some charcoal bags contain a lot of unchanged wood that produces abundant smoke.  The size of charcoal in a bag can vary from large volumes of small almost unusable dust to enormous chunks that need to be cut to size.

Black waddle thicket.
Black waddle as big as it gets. It is not a long lived species and it is cut often.
While preparing his field for planting maize our neighbor collects all the wood from cut trees to make charcoal with the help of friends
The tight pile of wood is covered with turf. One end is left open to ignite the pile.
The open end is finally covered and the charcoal making process of controlled pyrolysis continues for several days producing a lot of smoke and steam.
There are some large commercial operations in the neighborhood. The wood is brought to a central facility for charcoal production.
Charcoal production procedures are the same regardless of the size of the operation.
Small roadside operation.
This load of charcoal is likely bound for Dar es Salaam where the price of charcoal is three to five times that of the village where it is produced.
We buy large bags of charcoal delivered by motorcycle, and they last a couple of months. We use charcoal only for heating water for bathing and washing dishes. This contrasts with families in the community who do all their cooking on a charcoal fire in a jiko shown in the photo. The flame is from wood kindling to start the charcoal. Local families cook meals on two or three jikos in a kitchen either attached to the house or separate. All the cooking is done on the floor. We do our cooking on a two burner gas stove that is fueled from a bottle that must be replaced every three months.

Selous Game Reserve

The Selous Game Reserve is four times larger than Serengeti National Park. Most of the enormous reserve is set aside for hunting. Only a small part of the northern end is available for watching game. The safari company we hired picked us up at the hotel in Dar for the trip to Mtemere Gate at the northeastern edge of the reserve.

We entered by Mtemere Gate in lower right and exited by Matambwe Gate in upper left. Rufiji River Camp, one of Foxes Safari Camps, near Mtemere Gate was our lodging and meals for four days and three nights.
Game drive starts as soon as we enter the reserve.
Ten 10 is at the end of the path.
Heading to breakfast we find evidence a hippopotamus on a foraging trip the night before had used his own feces to mark the path as his territory. That explained the noises I heard. We are happy he made it back to river before dawn.
Popcorn and beer overlooking the Rufiji River before dinner.
The cook is from our village. His wife is the produce vendor we visit most often.
Wonderful sunset.
In distant western hills a dam is being constructed on the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge as part of a hydropower project. It will flood thousands of square kilometers of Selous Game Reserve and change water flow downstream.
Guides can identify paw prints of leopard, cheetah, wild dog, hyena and etc. that were prowling the night before. Maybe we can see them before they hide for the daytime nap.
The African wild dog ( (Lycaon pictus) is one of the most endangered and elusive predators. There are over 800 wild dogs in Selous, making is a prime location for viewing them in their natural habitat. It is distinguished from Canis by dentition highly specialized for hypercarnivorous diet and lack of dewclaws (Wikipedia).
Whistling thorn acacia (Vachellia drepanolobium svn. Acacia drepanolobium attracts ants for a symbiotic relationship where ants protect the plant and live in hollow thorns. It can form nearly impenetrable thickets of single species.
Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), also called common wildebeest, white-bearded wildebeest, or brindled gnu. In Selous it is represented by C. t. johnstoni (Sclater, 1896), Nyassaland wildebeest. This subspecies occurs from Mozambique north of Zambezi River to east-central Tanzania. It is very different from the subspecies found in the Serengeti.
Selous has numerous lakes that fill from water backed up in the Rufiji River during the rainy season. Although many are permanent, the water level drops considerably during the dry season.
They are very interested in nearby wildebeest, but not enough to move.
Hippopotamus path from the lake where they spend the day in water sleeping and digesting and short grass fields where they forage at night. Notice in the path has two lanes beaten into the soil by heavy footsteps. Apparently they use the same path for long periods and can travel 10 to 20 km at night. Also, you do not want to get between a hippopotamus and water when they are returning to the lake in the morning.
Hot springs that feeds algae clogged pool.
Elephant dessert.
Desert rose ( Adenium obesum ).
Grave site of Frederick Selous for whom the reserve is named. He was a famous big game hunter and early conservationist, who died at Beho Beho near the grave site in 1917 while fighting against the Germans during World War I.
Termites produce huge colonies where the king and queen remain together lifelong, up to 40 years, during which they produce around 100 million offspring. The photo is appropriate to our 40th marriage anniversary, May 26, 1979 to 2019. We can stay together at least as long as termites without the 100 million offspring.
Lakeside picnic lunch.
African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer).
White-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) nesting in river bank of Rufiji River.
The location of the nests in holes in the river bank would seem to be very secure from predators.
Nile monitors (Varanus niloticus) living just below the nests are a serious threat to the bee-eaters. Yes, there are three lizards in the photo.
During breakfast on last day view west toward Refiji River.
Two hour drive to Matambwe Gate provides abundant views of wildlife.
Not easy to cross ditch with such long legs.
Just outside the reserve on the way to Iringa, it is fitting the last view of wildlife is wild dogs.

Trip to Banking Town

The trip to banking town is a Peace Corps Tanzania ritual. Every month we went to our banking town, Makambako, to visit the bank and shop for fancy stuff like chocolate, coffee, hibiscus tea and popcorn. We learned to shorten the trip to only part of the day and sometimes got home for a late lunch.

We catch the Mufindi to Mbeya bus that passes the school about 6:30 every morning and arrives in Makambako about 8:30. The distance is 66 km, 41 miles.
Makambako is a crossroads where the road to Mbeya turns east and the road to Njombe turns south.
National Bank of Commerce.
Zanzibar Restaurant closed during Ramadan.
First we get breakfast at Zanzibar. My favorite juice is passion-avocado. I order a chipati (tortilla) and omlette to role together and coffee with fresh milk. Gerry likes the chicken soup.
The only post office for miles around.
Picking up a package can be tedious and time consuming.
Coffee and chocolate.
Maziwa is milk and it comes from Njombe not far from Makambako. We buy cheese.
Gerry bought a bicycle here.
Makambako has a decent produce market, but we do not buy much produce here due to the long bus transport back to our village where there is a very good market.
How many types of greens?
Spices, Popcorn, hibiscus tea and honey.
Bulk beans and grains.
Retail beans and grains.
This part of the market is pile shopping where the vendors cut open bundles of used clothes from America to sell at very low prices. The opened bundle makes a huge pile of unsorted clothes to search through. There are two bundles being opened in this photo.
High quality clothes are sorted and hung for display at a higher price. The full range of brands including Columbia, Patagonia, Old Navy and etc. are found here, sometimes in pristine condition and at a very low price.
Do you see a pair of shoes you like?
After a long day shopping we stayed at the Shinkansen Lodge, a very nice hotel named after the Japanese high speed train. Then we learned to get the shopping done soon enough to return home the same day.
On the way to the bus station.
Sometimes a trip to the toilet is a good idea before a long bus ride. The pay toilets at the Makambako bus station are back there.
Men and women pay Tsh 300 = $0.15.
Sometimes you meet the woman fruit vendor from town on the Noah ride back home.

Mufindi Highlands Agriculture

The Mufindi highlands are characterized by undulating landscapes with gentle to steep slopes and soil derived mainly from granite that is deeply weathered and consists of a mixture of red and yellow clay loams with dark humic top soil. In most areas the agricultural productivity rating of the soil is medium. Elevation ranges from 1700–2200 m.

The mean annual rainfall of 960 mm falls from November to April. There is a long dry season from May to October.  The area has high annual potential evaporation, 800–1200 mm. The prevailing winds blow from east to west. Mean annual temperature is about 20°C. The warmest months are October to December and the coldest months are June to August.  The highest temperature in December may reach 30°C and even during the cold months the temperature never drops below 5°C.

The vegetation is mainly unmanaged grassland and some remnants of scattered native species of miombo trees and shrubs. Although 92% of the district is arable land, only 40% of arable land is cultivated. Forests, rocky outcrops and water bodies cover 8% of the district. Most of the land is in the hands of small landowners and there are some large landowners including Unilever Tea Tanzania Limited, Mufindi Tea Company, and Sao Hill Industries owned by Green Resources AS.

Mufindi is a big producer of both food and cash crops. The main food crops are maize, beans, Irish potatoes and wheat. Although vegetables are readily available is the markets, vegetable production is small. The major cash crops in order of importance are tea, sunflower which is a food and cash crop, pyrethrum (chrysanthemum) and coffee. Major livestock production includes cattle, poultry, goat and sheep. The forest industry is fairly large contributing to timber and paper production as well a wood for charcoal, cooking and fencing.

All land is used for something: upland crops in large fields of maize, wheat and sunflower; bottomland crops in small plots of beans, peas, tomatoes and greens; and upland plantations of pine and eucalyptus.
In early June the maize planted in December is drying and the wheat planted much later in mid-February is green. Both crops are harvested in July and August.
Lowland irrigated crops are planted year round.
It takes four oxen to pull the plow. They also use small tractors on hire.
A jembe is used to finish field preparation for planting maize soon after the rainy season begins in November.
Maize left to dry in field until August and harvested by hand.
Maize is dried further at home on open ground.
Threshing (kupukuchua) maize at home before storing in large bags.
Corn as high as an elephant’s eye.
Sunflower seeds dried on sheets on the ground is made into oil used mainly for cooking.
Sunflower seeds drying in Makambako.
Wheat planted in mid-February, late rainy season, is harvested in August, middle of dry season. Reaping, threshing and winnowing are done in the field.
New planting of sweet potato cuttings.
Beans, beans, beans.
Greens and taro (large leaves).
Sukuma wiki; kale, collard greens; Brassica oleracea var. acephala
Bamboo (Oxytenathera braunii) cultivation for ulenzi, bamboo juice fermented to produce an alcoholic carbonated.
Coffee under banana. The coffee is not being maintained.
Bee hives. They must be African bees and they looked a lot like the European honey bee we have in America. Honey is extracted by the farmer and sold in the local market in reused bottles.
Bee hives are hung from trees and placed on posts above the ground to avoid army ants and other predators such as snakes.
This land was originally open grassland and scattered miombo woodland. It was cleared long ago for agriculture and industrial forestry. Growing trees for many different products has become a popular activity for farmers who often grow their own trees from seed. There are large producers of seedlings.
Cattle are grazed where there is grass in plantations and non-cultivated land between crops. I have not seen improved or dedicated pasture. Some farmers move cattle daily to find pasture where they can. Others keep their cattle in a fenced area and bring them cut grass. A teacher told me he has to cut 80 kg of grass each day for his dairy cattle.
Not easy to separate a calf from its mother. The three calves are held in a cow shed through the night to protect them against dogs.
The still unhappy mother looking toward the shed where the calves are held.
Calf shed on left and cattle pen on the right.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. Its summit is 4,900 metres (16,100 ft) from its base, and 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level. There are three volcanic domes: Kibo, a dormant volcano is the highest, Mawenzi and Shira are both extinct volcanoes and lower.

We planned a summit trek with two friends, Mara McKown and Brandi Rajala, Peace Corps Volunteers and teachers who trained with us in 2017. We chose Gladys Adventures from Moshi and were very happy with their service. Apparently the trek was a long walk on a well established trail to a very high elevation and the greatest challenge was the effect of low oxygen at over 19,000 feet.

Gladys recommended a seven day trek on the Machame route to maximize the pleasure of the trip and the chance of summitting. The Peace Corps doctor recommended Diamox ( Acetazolamide) 250 mg tablets and staying hydrated to combat altitude sickness . We did both and none of us had any symptoms of altitude sickness. That was a fortunate outcome, as studies have shown up to 75% of Kilimanjaro climbers experience acute mountain sickness.

At the Gladys Adventures office in Moshi we got a briefing for our Kilimanjaro trek by Head Guide, Bosco Liweuli.
We did the 7 day Machame Route.
We were cited as: Steve 4-Machame 7 – Bosco, Simon, Ken. Simon P. Pallangyo and Kenedy Juma were Assistant Guides.
Porters are limited to 20 kg load that was weighed at entrance gate.
The trek began in montane forest that was bathed in heavy mist and light rain.
First introduction to the team of 19 who will assist our ascent of Kilimanjaro.
Machame Camp, first night. The green tent sat five persons for all meals, two orange and white tents in the center were for the four clients, the blue tent held the toilet, and the large dark grey tent in the background was the cook tent and sleeping tent for porters. There were a couple extra orange and white tents for the guides.
The small blue tent held a portable toilet that functioned perfectly for the seven clients for seven days. It was tended to by the Toilet Master, Paul S. James who cleaned and carried it the entire trek.
Kenedy asked each of us questions about health every evening before dinner and every morning at breakfast.
We measured pulse rate and blood oxygen every evening and morning.
Bosco reviewed the day’s trek and gave a briefing about the next day every evening.
Frequent rest and water breaks were welcome. Porters moved at their own speed.
Shira 2 Camp, second night. The destination was in view for the rest of the trip. It was the peak at the left end of the large mountain.
Sunset with clouds careening over Shira Peak.
Hot dinner every evening served in style.
Mohamed Koua, waiter, brought hot coffee and tea to our tent every morning.
Breaking camp at Shira 2 for the third day of the trek. We each carried rain gear, snacks and three liters of water. My pack weight, 8 kg.
Frequent rest and water breaks, alpine desert.
Washing hands for hot lunch at Lava Tower.
They even set up the toilet tent for lunch. Notice porter fetching water with white bucket in center distance.
Giant groundsel (Senecio kilimanjari).
Giant lobelia (Lobelia deckenii).
Sign in at Barranco Camp, third night.
Barranco Wall, the most fearsome part of trek, from camp. We tackled it the next morning.
Mohamed serves breakfast before we tackle Barranco Wall on day 4.
Breakfast porridge is so much better with Nutella.
Not so bad.
Very unfortunate trekker had to leave the mountain before reaching the summit.
Signing in at Karanga Camp, fourth night.
Karanga Camp.
Last break before push to Barafu Camp. About 100 climbers attempt to summit Kilimanjaro each day.
Modi (Mohamed) served dinner soup, part of our last hot meal before rising at midnight of fifth night to start the summit climb on day 6.
Mara and Brandi eager and anxious about the summit climb tomorrow.
Rebmann Glacier near Stella’s Point. We were above the clouds for much of the trek. Kilimanjaro glaciers do not move and are shrinking.
Stella’s Point to Uhuru Peak was a walk in the park at 19,000 feet.
Summit at 8:30 AM. Steve(l to r), Simon, Gerry, Brandi, Bosco, Kenedy and Mara.
Furtwangler Glacier in foreground and Northern Icefield in background.
Rim of Reusch Crater is the horizon from middle to left edge of photo.
Kersten Glacier.
When Bosco was a porter in 1993 Rebmann Glacier in the middle-right covered the path. Mawenzi volcanic cone.
The descent took less than half the time of the ascent. Barafu Camp is on the ridge right and above center.
Mawenzi volcanic cone with Rongai Route arriving from left and Marangue Route from right, lower middle left.
One of the last views of the summit and its glaciers. We were still in alpine desert.
Reentering Moorland Zone on way to Mweka Camp, sixth night.
Mweka Camp, sixth and last night. Bosco says goodbye for the group who made our trek adventure very pleasant and successful.
Breaking camp at Mweka Camp, day 7.
Montane Forest.
The mist and rain increased as we descended toward Mweka Gate.
Back in Moshi right on time.
Congratulations and a certificate of completion for each of us from head guide, Bosco.

Our Garden

We wanted a garden for a distraction, for fun and because all the teachers had gardens or fields of crops.  Most teachers grew maize, so we did too.  But we ate very little of the maize.  It was like field corn and rather difficult to prepare for eating.  Maize is by far the dominant crop in Mufindi Highlands.  It is used mostly to prepare ugali, a very thick and gluey mixture of water and maize flour that resembles grits and polenta.

We started the garden almost immediately upon moving into the house.  First, a fence was needed to keep out chickens that were very abundant and free ranging. They eat little plants and make dust nests that destroy young plants.  We hired a farmer to build a fence made from wood slabs left over from nearby logging operations.  As there had never been a garden in the yard, a dense thick grass turf had to be broken.  Then we got to work planting everything for which we could find seeds.  The climate is mild with a dry season from May to October and a rainy season from November to April.  The warmest months of December and January have highs that rarely exceed 80°F and the coldest month of July sees high temperature in the mid-60s.  And it never freezes.  So the weather is good for cool season plants.  We planted parsley, arugula, tomato, broccoli, carrots, Swiss chard, zucchini, bell peppers, potatoes, beets, okra, sunflower, peas, beans and maize.  Okra, parsley, arugula and peas failed.  It was too cold for okra.  I do not know what happened to the peas and parsley.  The arugula seed was too old.

One improved maize seed for high elevation and a teaspoon of DAP in each hole. High density planting.
Planting banana pups for two sweet banana trees and one for cooking.
The weather is mild all year, no frost, and it is possible to plant new crops continuously. But irrigation is needed in the dry season.
Dry season begins in May and ends in October. This photograph is near the end of the dry season.
One year makes a big different for the papaya and banana. They look large but I doubt we will get any fruit before we leave in September 2019. This is photograph in May at the end of the rainy season. They let maize dry in the field for a couple months before harvest. Maize harvested now cooks fast and can be grilled or boiled to eat on the cob.
Climate and soil are nearly perfect for potatoes. The abundance of high quality potatoes, often called Irish, is reflected in the numerous ways they are cooked and served.
Broccoli did well but seemed to be always close to bolting.
The only tomatoes available were Roma and they were very successful the first year. A cool period with lots of rain led to fungus infection that nearly destroyed the crop the second year.
Carrots did well the first year and not so well the second.
Swiss chard continued to produce for 18 months after planting through two rainy seasons and a dry season.
Pineapple from the stems cut from fruit bought in the market. May produce fruit but not sure when, as it is too cold for this crop. These plants are 18 months old.
Okra got of to a good start and then fizzled, too cold.
Passion vine from a cutting. After one year it began growing very rapidly and producing abundant fruit. We get several per day.
Hermaphrodite papaya on left and male papaya on right. Passion vine on fence. Hibiscus shrubs both sides of gate. Cooking banana tree in right background. All are about 16 months old.
Hermaphrodite papaya that may produce fruit. The cool climate slowed its growth.
Male papaya flower.
Male papaya produces abundant flowers that may pollinate the hermaphrodite flowers on a nearby tree. I believe the hermaphrodite flower can self pollinate. The male plant will not produce fruit.
Biological control. Spiders were everywhere by the end of the wet season. They got very big. Notice there are at least five in this photo.
Stay out of the garden when the army ants pass through. They do not make nests and are constantly on the move, so usually move on after a few hours. I do not think they have a toxin for stinging but they do bite. I stepped into a group while visiting the compost bin and by the time I got back to the house five minutes later they were in the hair on top of my head. They were all biting. I had to take off all my clothes to get rid of them.

The School

I teach biology at a large high school with nearly 1,500 students.   Secondary schools in Tanzania provide ordinary level (O-level, forms 1 to 4) and some large schools like my school also provide advanced level (A-level, forms 5 and 6).  Primary schools provide seven years of schooling (standards 1 to 7).  That means the grades in O-level secondary school are equivalent to 8th to 11th grades and in A-level they equal 12th and 13th grades.   At my school there are about 900 O-level students and nearly 400 A-level students.  The A-level students are all female and board at the school.  Many O-level students walk to school from home and some board at the school.  The boarding students come from every part of Tanzania, sometimes very long distances.

school long term
Head of School Office
Head of School
Second Headmaster (l) and Discipline Master
First Academic Master
School Medical Officer
School Medical Officer
Each school day begins with an assembly. The Head of School gives an inspirational message and announcements. Advanced level (grades 12 and 13) girls’ dress code is maroon skirt, white shirt and blue sweater. Ordinary level (grades 7 to 11) boys wear blue slacks and girls were blue skirts.
Cleaning the environment under watchful eye of Teacher on Duty.
Parent Teacher Association Meeting are the same everywhere.
Getting to class in the rain.