Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

Using Their Powers For Good Instead of Evil October 26, 2008

Filed under: Rats — Jen @ 5:57 pm

“Some people cringe when they see a rat, but Bart Weetjens smiles.  A Belgian product designer, Weetjens devised a way for these often reviled rodents to help solve a global problem:  how to locate land mines, some 60 million of which are scattered in 69 countries.  Dogs are often deployed to sniff them out, “but I knew rats were easier to train,” says Weetjens, who bred them as a boy.  Rats are also light, so they don’t detonate the mines they find; they stay healthy in tropical areas, where many explosives are buried; and they’re cheap to breed and raise.  In the late 1990s Weetjens chose the African giant pouched rat, with its very sensitive nose, for Pavlovian training:  If the rats scratched the ground when they sniffed TNT, they got a reward.

More than 30 trained sniffer rats, aka HeroRATS, have started sweeping minefields in Mozambique, where they’ve cleared almost a quarter square mile.  Weetjens also trains rats to screen human saliva for tuberculosis and is mulling new missions, such as finding earthquake victims buried in rubble.  Lives saved, health improved, mine defused – nothing to cringe about here.”  ~Alan Mairson

National Geographic, October 2008


It’s Not So Much the Heat But the Humidity October 18, 2008

Filed under: Pictures — Jen @ 3:31 pm

I’m sitting on the hard wood floor of my bedroom next to my open veranda door. Supposedly it’s cooler down here, right?, since heat rises. Even so, I’m sweating. Not dripping, just a perpetual state of stickiness. It’s Spring now, so we’re in the season of stickiness from the time we leave for work until we take a coldish shower before bed. Next it will be the season of waking up crabby on top of damp sheets and smelling our clothes for the least mildewy ones to put on. That’s the dripping sweat season and the season of multiple daily cold showers and clothes-changing. It’s hard to even think about looking beautiful then.

On a particularly humid day

The effect the humidity has on my hair.

The effect the humidity has on my hair.


Beware the Wrath

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 3:18 pm

I’ve finally done it. After nearly a year of ignoring kissy noises and “baby” hollered after me on the street, I can now confidently tell someone off in Portuguese. And be understood. The wrath of Jen can no longer be contained.

The flip was switched a few weeks ago, on a Wednesday, a few hours before I was scheduled to fly to Maputo. But I still didn’t have my passport. I headed to Immigration, determined to sit there and/or raise a stink (no matter how culturally-inappropriate) until I had my passport in hand. It was not a good moment to even look at me the wrong way as I walked along Goto market, across a busy main street, and down a wide, sandy median before the turn-off to the Immigration office.

It was on the median that someone yelled, “Olá, baby! Ba-by, o-lá!” Surprising even myself, I spun around and marched back to a seated man and his buddy fixing something metal. I pointed a finger in his face and said, in English because it’s what automatically exited my mouth, “That is VERY rude!” Wide-eyed he looked around requesting help, “Inglés? Inglés?” I switched to Portuguese and explained sternly that he doesn’t have respect when he calls someone “baby”. He apologized while his buddy watched on, trying not to laugh.

Two days ago a young man called me baby as he walked past. I turned around and said, “ExCUSE me?” He looked surprised. I told him it was disrespectful to call a woman “baby”. He said, “Then what should I say?” Seriously?! He really asked that? “Senhora,” I said. “Olá, senhora.

As if being called “baby” isn’t enough, today I was followed as I ran some errands in town. In one shop I happened to notice a young man because he had quite pale skin and was nicely dressed. I noticed him again in another shop but didn’t think anything of it as there were many people busy running errands before shops closed at noon. As I was about to enter a third shop, I felt someone’s arm around my waist. It was the same man. I pushed away and yelled, again in English because it was so automatic, “Don’t touch me!” He looked really irritated and responded in English, “I was just trying to get by. DAMN!” He was not. Then he followed me into a fourth shop. At that point I had had enough of Beira and escaped to my favorite air-conditioned café for a little treat and respite from the streets and men. Thankfully I ran into a female friend there who wanted to visit for awhile.

Also, thankfully on the days when I’m most fed up with Mozambican men, I’m reminded that they’re not all scum. After the café I returned to a little photocopy shop where I had left a stack of copying earlier, my whole reason for coming into town in the first place. The gentleman who helped me was delightful – cheerful, friendly, polite, competent, well-organized, and he also gave me a discount. I should have thanked him for balancing my perspective on Beira. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to say that in Portuguese.


Mysteries of the Deep October 9, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 8:21 pm

Yesterday one of my teammates was going through a list of things we need for the office: envelopes, stapler (half a dozen are lying around the room but none work), hole punch (I pointed to a perfectly functional one in front of him and asked, “What’s wrong with that?” “But we need more.” “Why? Why can’t we just have one?” “Jen, remember when we only had one computer, and we all had to use the computer?” “Yes, but everyone needs to use computers everyday. We don’t all need to use a hole punch everyday.” “Well, you’ll see one day when many people need to use it.” “Fine. We’ll buy one on that day.”), Portuguese-English dictionary, and an atlas. He asked if I had money in the Anti-Corruption account for these things. I said, “No, remember all my money is going toward food?” (That’s a long, frustrating story which I typed out but never posted.) I continued, “So we can buy envelopes and probably a stapler. But I have a dictionary on my computer.”

At this point, my new assistant jumped in, “No, it’s impossible” in a you’re-a-liar-you-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about tone. I said clearly, “Yes. I have a Portuguese-English dictionary on my computer.” Again, “No, this is impossible.” I said, “Come here. Let me show you.” So he and another teammate came over to my laptop, and I double clicked on Firefox, then clicked on Portuguese-English Dictionary on my bookmarks toolbar. He still did not believe me: “How is this a dictionary? This is not a dictionary.” I told him to give me a word. “In English or Portuguese?” I told him either. He said, “Bread.” I typed in ‘bread’ then clicked on ‘English to Portuguese’. “Wow, pão,” both guys said, very impressed. I got up and started moving to one of the desktops and said, “Let me show you on this computer.” In an I-know-better-than-you tone, my assistant challenged, “No, it’s not on that computer.” “Oh, yes it is. Let me show you,” I said as I sat down in front of Yahoo Brasil and began typing the URL. He started arguing with me again, “No, it can’t be,” until he saw the same dictionary pop up on that computer. I saved it in favorites and showed them how to access it.

By this point, my other teammate was catching on. He pointed to another desktop and said, “Put it on this one.” So I did. Then he said very matter-of-factly, with a grin on his face, “Now we don’t need to buy a dictionary.”

(My assistant just looked confused.)

At the end of the day, my assistant asked me to show him how to do an internet search. He wanted to look at sites for English lesson plans (he’s in his second year at the pedagogical university, studying to be an English teacher). He knew how to do a Google search but didn’t know what to do beyond that (as in clicking on one of the many options that Google lists). I showed him how there are 2,030,000 sites that have something to do with ‘English lesson plans’. Wide eyes. Then I explained that he really only needs to worry about the first ones as they would be most pertinent. I showed him how to click on an option, although unfortunately our internet hasn’t been working properly and won’t actually open any websites. He asked, “But when I can open a site, then I can print, right?” I explained that it depends on the website; some sites would allow you to freely print examples of lesson plans while others would charge. He was confused. I compared it to borrowing free library books or buying books at a bookstore. Still confused. When he asked, “But how can I pay?” I finally understood the confusion. In a society where all financial transactions are done by handing cash to a real live person, the idea of paying to print something from the computer doesn’t make any sense. Who do you give your cash to? And if I can print a Word document, then why can’t I print something else? I said, “With a credit card.” I was about to further explain, but he said, “I think I have a lot to learn about the internet.”


Kruger National Park October 3, 2008

Filed under: Pictures — Jen @ 10:13 pm

“Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

…Readers will be put off if you do not mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.”

From “How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina