Monday, August 29, 2011

Eating lower on the food chain

The bounty of last Friday's market trip. Can you believe I got all this
for four dollars and 8 cents? (2450 RWF total, 1650 for the fruits
and vegetables and 800 RWF for the beans)

We are consumers, make no mistake about it. We have to eat. Food at its most basic is chemical energy, transformed by plants from sunlight, that our bodies transform into kinetic energy. It also supplies us with the building blocks for all of our cells and a variety of other essentials. But let us not think in such scientific terms for now. What about taste? What am I eating in Rwanda?

Dining hall food: bean/veggie stew, rice, and potatoes (alternate in cooked
bananas every other meal). About three times a week, they have
cold green bean or cabbage salad and occasionally pineapple.

Cooked bananas are the staple food of Rwanda. Green bananas can be
cooked in a number of ways. Most of the time they are boiled and
mashed (called igitoki). In the above picture, some workers and I cooked
these in a fire when taking a break from building a fence. Cooked bananas
sort of taste like potatoes.

There have really been four phases to my diet here. In the first two months, I ate only from the dining hall by our school. I quickly got bored with rice/beans/potatoes/cooked bananas/the same veggie stews for lunch and dinner and white bread rolls for breakfast. When I started skipping meals, a change had to come.

My breakfast for most of the last year: a small banana and two fried dough
rolls. A bag of 10 of these unsweetened doughnuts costs about 500 RWF
(83 cents). I finally stopped eating them in July. They were essential
survival items until then, but I can't imagine eating another one.

In late January, Michele and I bought an electric hot plate in Kigali, about an hour away by motorcycle and minibus-taxi. We do have electricity most of the time, so we can cook on our own. This began the "Italian" dinner phase. We started eating amandaz (fried dough rolls) from the local market for breakfast, eating the rice/bean/potato/banana lunch at the dining hall, and eating pasta at home every night. Sauces for the pasta were tomato and tomato paste with basil, garlic and onion. It was a welcome diversification for the taste buds, though relatively expensive, as pasta is imported (but you can buy it just down the road for 700 RWF ($1.16 a bag)).

Basil and mint grow here well, as they do in our little raised bed herb garden
outside our house.

From May through July, we began the "Asian" dinner phase. Sticking to the fried dough rolls for breakfast and the dining hall lunch, we cooked veggie stir fries with rice each night. Soy sauce is available in bigger towns and a big bottle lasts a long time. Throw in the onions, garlic, peppers, and even basil, and you have got a new way of eating rice.

Stir-fry. Occasionally, we get peanut butter from the capital and mix it
with soy sauce to make peanut sauce. 

Now, in our final stretch (August-December), I think we have hit our culinary stride. We have started buying beets and carrots for borscht. These root crops are grown locally, as is cabbage. We no not add beef as many recipes call for, but we spice ours up with garlic, onions, salt, sugar, and some sunflower oil (product of Kenya). We now have borscht, pasta, stir fry, and beans/rice/potatoes as the menu options. Not too shabby.

Who knew borscht was so good? Ukrainians, Russians, lots of
Eastern Europeans, and a couple of our Australian friends, who introduced us
to this celebration of the root crop.

We skip out on the dining hall food for breakfast and usually dinner. If they are serving cassava greens, I also skip lunch. Some argue that we should be there for every meal to be with the kids, but I spend a lot of time outside of meals helping kids. Food is an important part of how I stay motivated.

Rice. I eat you every day.

Sometimes there are hard-boiled eggs (rarely more than once a week). ASYV produces its own eggs, but many of them are sold in the capital. The dining hall serves meat about once a three-month term. Meat is very expensive compared to grains and vegetables. This is true for ASYV as it is for people outside the village. I  remember seeing some chickens for sale after their egg-laying days were done (very little chicken is eaten here otherwise), and I asked a security guard if he would buy one. He explained why he would not: one chicken costs 3000 RWF ($5), but he could purchase 30 eggs for that same price. Even a single goat-on-a-skewer brochette, fairly cheap at 300 RWF, costs the same as a full plate of rice, beans, potatoes, and bananas.

Brochettes are grilled chunks of goat meat and fat. We don't eat them often,
but they are a nice change in taste. There are two stands you can
buy brochettes at the local marketplace.

We did not eat much meat before coming here (Michele was a vegetarian entirely). We still don't eat much. I get the impression that Rwandans in general do no eat much meat, but I think it is more related to economics than any moral sensibility. In neighboring Uganda, where per capita income is higher, I observed that meat is much more of a fixture on the plate. Chicken, beef, goat, and fresh fish were widely available in local restaurants (obviously these things are available in tourist places), and I saw a lot of Ugandans eating animal proteins.

Dried fish is a local source of protein, but I don't eat them.
Their bones would actually be a good source of calcium, as people just
cook them in sauce and eat them whole.

We supplement what we eat in the village with food from the local marketplace, about 1.5 km down the hill.

Standard fare at a local restaurant in the nearby marketplace. This plate of
chips (potato wedges), rice, cooked bananas, and bean/veggie stew
costs 300 RWF, about 50 cents. 

Tropical fruits: yellow bananas, avocados, limes, and a couple varieties of
orange-tangerine-like fruits. When in season, mangoes are also grown

Samosas! These little wraps of fried filo dough filled with potatoes,
green onions, and hot pepper are the absolute culinary delight of my
experience here. I eat them every Tuesday and Friday when I go to the market.

Tomatoes are good, but I have had a couple bad experiences eating raw
ones. I now only use them to cook into stews and sauces.

Fresh at the market. Note the rosemary for sale in the upper left, which is
another herb that grows well here. The yellow fruits in the center
are a local eggplant called inhorge. I don't care for their bitter taste, but
most Rwandans I know like them.

People here think its hilarious when I tell them how
much it costs in the United States for fresh pineapple.
Shipping pineapples has to provide most of that cost-
eat local fruits!

One of the major differences here is the lack of refrigeration. Some local stores have it, as do plenty of places in Kigali. Refrigerators are expensive up front, but they are massive energy users. With no guarantee that electricity will be constant, you also run the risk of losing what is in the fridge. For this reason, things like cheese and butter are totally absent from our diet. You can buy cheese in Kigali- you can get Indian, Chinese, even pizza in the capital- but Michele and I rarely go there. We have eaten each of the aforementioned specialties only once in Rwanda (we didn't eat at restaurants in New York much either). We prefer to cook our own food or eat local inexpensive food (we save money that way for more important things, you know, like chasing down rare birds).

The fish plate, from a restaurant on Lake Muhazi, is local food for sure
but prepared for the likes of visitors. Priced at 3500 RWF ($5.83 USD),
there is no way most local people could afford this sort of meal. I have only
had it twice, as it is a 1+ hour motorcycle-minibus taxi-motorcyle journey away.
Also, this type of meal eats up 2% of my monthly stipend, not including
transport. Alternatively, for the same amount, I could buy 12 pineapples
or 70 samosas.  Easy decision.

Milk and a yogurt-like drink are very popular with local people. I find it
a bit sour for my taste. Michele likes it and has a favorite milk shop
that has a good refrigerator.

Without much meat or dairy products, most of what we eat is vegan. This is not a reasoned choice as much as it is a product of what is locally available and the lack of refrigeration.

A vegan chapatti taco. With a few friends, we have a fiesta night
every couple weeks. You find ways to spice up the constant
rice and bean combo. 

A large bowl of guacamole I made for a group of guests, with chapatti
for dipping. Chappati is a flat bread sort of like pita and is made locally.
I gathered the avocados from some forgotten trees near our nature park,
picked the basil from my garden, and bought the rest
from the market 1.5 km down the road. Local food, huh?

Lunch at another local restaurant. This meal included bean/veggie stew
and cooked bananas. Avocado was extra, but there was an interesting
sort-of-alcoholic fermented pineapple drink that I enjoyed (except for the
floaties, but I only saw those when the camera flash illuminated them.
No electricity at this rural establishment).

So what foods do I miss? 

Sure, there are a lot of foods I would eat if I were in the States, but I don't really miss them. I do miss two things. The former staple of both Michele and my diet for years was the corn tortilla chip. I miss their crunch dearly. We rolled through nearly a 16 ounce bag a day, as they go with anything, are cheap, take less time than rice/noodles, and they are actually quite healthy if made from only corn, oil and salt. In the USA, I always had the problem of too many chips and not enough guacamole ($2 for an avocado, unless on sale). Now, I have so much guac and no chips. A cruel twist, for sure.

The only other foods I miss are my calcium sources. Chocolate milk, yogurt, and cheese were a regular part of my diet. They are delicious and calcium-rich. I don't miss the taste so much, but I am worried about my bones. These are available in the capital city, where refrigeration is more available, but I make it there no more than once a month.

I hope you enjoyed this sampler of Rwandan cuisine. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kings of the catch

Kingfishers use their long, sharp bills to snag their prey. As the name suggests, they can be experts at plucking fish from the water, but many kingfishers do not eat fish at all. These non-fishing kingfishers are still pros at catching invertebrates and even vertebrates (I have seen a kingfisher eat another bird in Israel!). Let's take a look at some of East Africa's spectacular kingfishers.

The malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) spends its time around marshes
and swamps and catches aquatic critters. Mabamba Swamp, Uganda

Same bird as above? Nope! Note that this species, the African pygmy
kingfisher (Ispidina picta), does not have the extensive blue on the back
of the head. Also, it does not spend its time fishing in water- it hunts
on dry land. Photographed at Entebbe Botanical Garden, Uganda. This
species showed up to ASYV's Nature Park on one occasion, and that is
the only kingfisher I have seen on the property. Malachite and pied
kingfishers live at Lake Mugesera a few kilometers down the hill.

Here is a bird that resembles the African pygmy kingfisher, but note
that it does not have a blue crown. The African dwarf kingfisher
(Ispidina lecontei) has orange on top of the head with just a black mark
above the bill. It also hunts on dry land. Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda

The blue-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon malimbica) is a species that hunts
in the forest. Mabira Forest Reserve, Uganda

The woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) is very similar to the
blue-breasted kingfisher, but it does not have the blue chest. Details,
details! This species lives in woodland, which has fewer trees than the forest
and tends to be drier.

These pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis), which hunt exclusively over waters,
nest in the holes in the bank along the Nile River in Murchison Falls
National Park, Uganda. Most (if not all) kingfishers nest in holes in river banks,
termite mounds, or trees. 

A pied kingfisher gets ready for a dive into Lake Victoria, Uganda. Pied
kingfishers are a very widespread species; we first saw them in Israel.

A juvenile brown-headed kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris) in Arusha National
Park, Tanzania.

The giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) is actually the largest kingfisher
species in the world. Near Wildlife Education Center in Entebbe, Uganda

A striped kingfisher (Halycon chelicuti) waits in a palm tree in some
dry country, west of Arusha, Tanzania.

We did see two other species in Tanzania, the grey-headed kingfisher and the half-collared kingfisher, but we did not get pictures. You can probably find kingfishers near you, on any continent (ok, not Antarctica, but that is definitely not near you). In North America, the belted kingfisher is fairly common, but it is easy to miss unless you go looking for it. I have seen them at the New York Botanical Garden and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, New York City, and at Leawood City Park, right in suburban Kansas City.

For more information on kingfishers, you can get detailed information on their taxonomy at Don Roberson's Bird Families of the World. It is one of my favorite resources for information on bird diversity.

For information on the belted kingfisher, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds site.

Also, you can check a field guide to the birds of your area. For African species, I use the following three books (all are worthwhile and have distinctive strengths):

  • Fanshawe and Stevenson. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. 

  • Pearson, Turner, and Zimmerman. Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania. London: Christopher Helm, 1999.

  • Ryan and Sinclair. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The one, the only, the legend, part 1: SHOEBILL

If there is just one bird I would tell a non-birder to see, I would tell them to see a shoebill.

Watercolor of the shoebill, Balaeniceps rex, by Michele Cole.

I remember first reading about the shoebill. It was spring 2008; Michele and I had just returned from our honeymoon in Ecuador. A short trip to the Amazon rainforest had shown us a couple things: first, that we knew nothing of the spectacular world of birds and second, that both of us were up for adventures. We started to make a list of all the places and animals we wanted to see in life. Wild gorillas and chimpanzees made that list.

Our first birdwatching experience was in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.
After seeing parrots, toucans, herons, screamers, and all sorts of others,
we were hooked on birds.

Shortly thereafter, I stumbled across a trip to Uganda from the Birding Africa company called “Gorillas, chimps, and shoebill.” This seemed to satisfy both our primate interests and our growing interest in birds. But what the heck is a shoebill? We would soon find out, and the species has captivated us ever since.

My first look at a shoebill came in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. On the bottom floor of the African Mammals exhibit, just past the giant stuffed group of elephants, there is a display of the Nile River. Nile crocodiles and dozens of bird species accompany the hippos, but one bird stands center: a stuffed shoebill.

The shoebill is an odd bird. It stands at 1.2 meters (about 4 feet), making it taller than most herons and even some storks. But where herons  and storks have thin necks and are pretty skinny birds, the shoebill is stout. It looks like the football player of birds. It is greyish blue, has a feathery tuft shooting out the back of its head, and has big pale eyes covered by pale eye-lids when it blinks. The most striking feature of the bird is its bill, from which its current common name is derived (it used to be called whale-billed stork). The bill is long, but again wide. It is shaped like a clog, the type you might expect to see on the foot of a traditional Dutch woman. At the very end of this shoe is a sharp hook. There is no other bird that looks similar.

There has been much discussion about which other birds the shoebill is most related. It was considered a stork for some time, but is now thought to be related to pelicans. It is however, placed in its own family in the taxonomic classification system (Domain-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species). For many birders, its uniqueness and classification are alone reasons to see it.

Shoebill habitat: tropical shallow, flooded marshes and swamps
with floating vegetation like papyrus, reeds, and grasses. 

Another intriguing feature of this bird is its range and distribution. It specializes in feeding on the lungfish, catfish, tilapia, and water snakes that occupy marsh beds in central-eastern Africa. It mainly lives in the wetlands that surround the Nile River. This makes the bird fairly inaccessible. Of the 5,000-10,000 individual wild shoebills, up to 80% of the world’s population lives in marshes along the Nile in South Sudan. Swamps in northern Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo may hold up to 1000 individuals each. Up to 500 live in a giant wetland area in western Tanzania, but the terrain prevents people from seeking it there. Supposedly up to 50 individuals live in Akagera Naitonal Park in Rwanda, but we have specifically gone for it there a couple of times and failed to see it. About 150 individuals live in Uganda, which is where most birders see it.

Papyrus is an important plant species in the shoebill habitat.

The shoebill is noted as being “one of the most sought after species” in the field guide to the birds of sub-Saharan Africa. A website dedicated to the top 50 birds of the world ranks it as number 20 (out of 10,000 species). We sought the shoebill not for birding glory but because it has captured our imagination for years; indeed, it was one of the reasons we decided to live in East Africa. Before moving to Rwanda, I made a list of the birds we should try to see. The shoebill was #1.

We bought this small shoebill statue carved from wood by a local artisan,
who is supported by the Mabamba Wetland EcoTourism Association.

Since we live in neighboring Rwanda, we found that we could do the entire trip to Uganda without hiring a company to plan and coordinate.We planned our itinerary with the shoebill as the priority.  We would start and stay at the most reliable site for 3 days or longer if we needed to (we had two weeks in Uganda planned). We had another site on our itinerary just in case we missed it at the first site. Yes, it's ok to say it, we are crazy birders. But the shoebill is one crazy bird.

The one, the only, the legend, part 2: B REX

So did we see a shoebill in the wild?

Watercolor interpretation of Balaeniceps rex (shoebill)

Once arriving to Kampala, Uganda, from Kigali, Rwanda, on a 10-hour bus trip, we found a minibus taxi that could get us close to where we hoped to find our bird. After about an hour, we got off the bus taxi in a rural marketplace called Kasanji.  We hired boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) to take us the remaining 10 kilometers to the swamp. Helmets are not used in Uganda, and the muddy hole-filled road made for a scary ride. But it’s the shoebill we are talking about, and like I said, if there is one bird to see, this is it.

Michele is on the back motorcycle, a friend is in the middle, and I am
on the lead motorcycle, snapping this picture and hanging on.

At Mabamba Swamp, which is designated as an Important Bird Area, local tourism exists largely because people want to see shoebills. We hired a local guide and a boat for 70,000 shillings ($28 USD) and paid 5,000 shillings entrance fee each ($2 USD each). Rain delayed us for an hour, but soon we were in a 6-seater wooden canoe being paddled through a channel in the papyrus toward Lake Victoria.

We spotted one shoebill that afternoon. From a distance, the first thing visible was only its head with that enormous bill. Binoculars were firmly attached to my eyes at this point, and as we approached, more details were revealed in the flesh (in the feather!). We stayed with it until it flew off, and actually saw the same bird again on our way back to the boat launch. Shoebill, check!

The first look, just a head circled in this picture.

Shoebill showing well. Fantastic!

The satisfaction of seeing the shoebill, quite the unusual life bird. On my
notes, the exclamation point indicates it is is a new bird for me and the
star indicates it is a new bird for Michele. The shoebill is actually in the
background,  just to the right of the notepad in my hand, but you have
to enlarge the photo to see it.

Although we had our quarry on the first outing, we camped at Mabamba for three days. We took four boat trips total and saw shoebills each time. Our fourth and final trip was particularly satisfying. It took us nearly two hours in the mid-morning sun to find one. We just sat on the boat and watched it. Some three years ago, I first learned about this bird; now, there it is, as extraordinary as I had imagined. We saw it preen, open and close its mouth with a strange clicking noise, blink, wait patiently for prey, and finally launch into the air and disappear behind some papyrus. Exactly why this bird has meant so much to us I don’t fully understand, but we saw it: the one, the only, the legend, the shoebill, B. rex.

The last look, flying away. Goodbye shoebill... I hope we meet again.

Note on photographs of the shoebill:

  • All photos of the shoebill (eyes, feathers, bill) from part 1 were taken at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, a conservation and rehabilitation-based zoo.

  • All photos of the wild shoebills in part 2 were taken at Mabamba Swamp.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Elephants, Ostriches, and the Mighty Baobob Tree

Thundering. Towering. Too heavy to fly. Elephants. Baobob trees. Ostriches. They are giants and there are still places where these giants rule the land. Welcome to Tarangire National Park!

African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the heaviest land animal on
Planet Earth and are the second tallest, only shorter than giraffes.

Tanzania borders Rwanda and stretches east to the Indian Ocean. Tanzania conserves many large wild areas, among them Serengeti National Park and Selous Game Reserve (this reserve alone is twice the size of Rwanda). Michele and I visited Tarangire National Park and were blown away by some the giants we saw.

Sunrise at Tarangire National Park

Tarangire National Park protects 2850 square kilometers of wild lands, but migratory herds of herbivores spread out over an area seven times that size during the wet season. During the dry season, many of the animals flock back to the park for food and especially water in the swamps and the Tarangire River. 

Elephants live in family groups led by a matriarch. Mature male elephants
live on their own and only join the groups for mating. In this picture, a
herd of females and young cross the Tarangire River.

Tarangire is a mix of tropical grassland, woodland, and wetland. These habitat types meet and mix and thus support a huge variety of organisms. For example, the bird list for the park contains over 550 species; that is more than all the bird species found in the states of Missouri and New York combined. We saw 145 species of birds in the two full days we were there, including birds that are only found within the region, the yellow-collared love-bird, the ashy starling, the rufous-tailed weaver, and the grey-headed silverbill.

Baobob trees (Adansonia digitata) can grow for thousands
of years. This species can be found in savannas throughout tropical
Africa and supports many species of bats, birds, insects, monkeys, and
even people (who cook the leaves and collect caterpillars for protein).

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are the largest living bird on the planet. They
are almost entirely herbivorous (plant-eating). Males and females form mixed
flocks, but here three males shuffle their wings in unison (nice shot Michele!).

Just how big is a baobob tree? Count more than 100 cattle egrets in the
baobob on the left. Note that the left baobob is nowhere near as large as
the one to the right. Baobobs are not tall trees (maximum 25 meters), but
their giant crowns have an imposing presence on their surroundings.

Female ostriches have different colored feathers than males. Both males
and females stand about 2 meters tall, and adults weigh in between
90-130 kilograms (that' a big bird).

Elephants are strict herbivores; they eat grasses and leaves mainly but
can eat bark, fruits, and roots. Each day they can eat 100-300 kilograms of
food (I weigh about 75 kilograms), which is about 4% of their body weight.

Sunset at Tarangire... look closely for the elephant! 

Works Cited
  • “Annotated Checklist of Missouri Birds.” The Audubon Society of Missouri. Accessed 2 August 2011.

  • Donegan, K. 2002. "Struthio camelus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 02, 2011

  • "Checklist of the birds of New York State."  Federation of New York State Bird Clubs, Inc. Accessed 2 August 2011. http://www.npwrc.usgs.govnystate.html

  • Hankey, Andrew. “Adansonia digitata.” South African National Biodiversity Institute Website Accessed 2 August 2011.

  • Norwood, L. 2002. "Loxodonta africana" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 02, 2011.

  • "Tarangire National Park.” Tanzania National Parks. Accessed 2 August 2011.