What I learned in Africa.

Rusty corrugated metal is not scrap; it's what you use to make roofs and walls.

Lane markings (dotted or solid) are merely recommendations. On a two-lane road, it's normal to squeeze between the two opposing lanes of traffic to pass the car in front of you. So is honking at the bicycles to get out of your way so you can complete this manoeuvre.

Passing pedestrians, bicycles, and other cars at high speed with six inches of clearance is normal.

Almost all signs, even official government signs, are hand-painted. Spelling, grammar, and typographic consistency are all optional.

Roads are made of dirt, rocks, and potholes. To drive down a straight road is to navigate a labyrinth. African drivers have developed a keen ability to see through dust clouds, generate a mental topography of the oncoming terrain, and estimate the depth of each bump and depression. Using this data they plan a winding route along the road (and occasionally off the side of the road) and adjust their speed just enough to keep you from being tossed out of your seat.

Just about anyone can balance anything on their head. They all learned it as children. Grown men don't do it, though; they consider it embarassing.

The side of the road is a place for:

  • Goats
  • Sheep
  • Chickens
  • People towing wooden carts loaded with dozens of tires
  • Broken-down vehicles
  • People standing around who were riding in said vehicles, waiting to be picked up
  • Overturned trucks
  • 8-year old Maasai children directing herds of cattle
  • Termite mounds taller than you are

A bicycle is more than a handy personal vehicle; it is also a cart and a revenue source. You can take your five 20-litre jugs of water, your bundle of firewood, or your sacks of produce for the market, tie them to your bike and walk the bike up the hill. Or, pile an extra person or two on the back of your bike, and you have just become a gainfully employed taxi driver.

Lots and lots of people really do live in little straw huts. To them it is neither charming nor pitiable; it's just how they live.

Walking 10 kilometres to get to primary school is normal.

Everywhere except the big cities, each car is followed by a dust cloud as long as a city block. Everything is covered in a layer of dust — the cars, the buildings, the people. On paved roads, cars are followed by great clouds of pungent black smoke. I have probably tripled my particulate intake for the year during this trip.

There's nothing weird about having a mobile phone but having neither running water nor electricity in your home.

Just honk and keep driving (slowly). The 20 baboons sitting in the road will get out of the way.

Three weeks of Swahili.

Swahili is straightforward to pronounce: it uses the five standard European vowel sounds, and the consonants work just like English, including "j", "ch", and "sh". The "r" is rolled. Otherwise, pronounce every letter individually, exactly as it's spelled. In short, you can pronounce Swahili as though it were Japanese written in the Roman alphabet.

jambo! hello!
— jambo!
habariyako? how are you? (what's the news?)
— mzuri [sana] [very] good!
ni me furahi kukutana na wewe I'm pleased to meet you
ni me furahi I'm happy

habari asabuhi? good morning! (what's the news of the morning?)
lala salama good night! (sleep well)
ume lala salama? did you sleep well?

mambo! what's up?
— poa [sana] it's cool

asante thank you
asante sana thank you very much
karibu welcome! / you're welcome
tena again
karibu tena come back again
tafadhali please
samahani sorry
asante kwa kunifundisha kiswahili thanks for teaching me Swahili!

barabara road
gari car
baiskeli bicycle
pikipiki motorbike
matatu a private minibus packed with far too many passengers travelling at dangerously high speeds, usually painted brightly with an exciting name like PIRATES or a Christian slogan

mimi me
wewe you
sisi us
sasa now
leo today
kesho tomorrow
chakula food
maji water
chooni bathroom

ngombe cow
kondoo sheep
mbosi goat
pondo donkey
pondo milia zebra
simba lion
masharubu beard (nickname for "male lion")
tembo elephant
swala pala impala
swala Tommy Thomson's gazelle (with the black stripe)
swala Grant Grant's gazelle (no black stripe)

jinalangu ni Ping my name is Ping
wewe je? and you...?
jinalako? what's your name?
hi ni nini? what is this? (great for learning new words)
hi ni ... this is ...

ndyo yes
hapana no
kushoto left
kulia right
mengi a lot
ndogo / kidogo a little

ni is
na and / with
kwa for
wa in
ya of
nini what
wapi where

chooni ni wapi [tafadhali]? where is the bathroom?
unatoka wapi? where are you from?
unaenda wapi? where are you going?
mimi naenda ... I'm going to ...

moja one
mbili two
tatu three
nne four
tano five
sita six
saba seven
nane eight
tisa nine
kumi ten

ishirini twenty
thelathini thirty
arubaini forty
hamsini fifty
sitini sixty
sabini seventy
themanini eighty
tisini ninety
mia hundred

ngombe tano five cows
mia nne na tisini na sita four hundred ninety-six

Lake Manyara and the Serengeti.

We rode through Lake Manyara National Park, where we saw lots of baboons and some adorable giraffes, along with a few vervet monkeys and a few elephants. I really enjoyed watching the baboons play. We stopped at a pond full of yawning hippos, and watched them get in and out of the water and chase each other around.

Then we continued past Ngorongoro into the Serengeti, where we saw thousands of zebras and wildebeests scattered across the plain in little groups, and a few dozen zebras, wildebeests, and gazelles up close. We also glimpsed a few spotted hyenas and, way off in the distance through binoculars, a couple of lions. The lions were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon; one was even lounging around on its back with its legs flopping in the air. On our way to the lodge we stopped for a big herd of buffalo that were leisurely crossing the road in front of us.

I took probably a hundred or so pictures today, but can't upload them right now. Got to get to bed — we leave tomorrow morning at 5 am for a hot air balloon ride!

Leaving Lusaka.

We left Lusaka and returned to Nairobi yesterday.

This place has quite a few interesting birds. I caught this stork landing on a billboard.

Here it is walking over to join its pal.

We got stuck in a long traffic jam on the way to the hotel. Whenever cars are stopped, there are lots of people walking around trying to sell you all kinds of stuff.

The work part of my trip is over. Tomorrow, I start a safari in Arusha, Tanzania! I expect to have Internet access less often or not at all, so you might not hear from me for a while.


We spent our third day in Zambia touring health facilities in the Mumbwa district. On the way there, we passed little settlements along the highway.

Unlike in Kenya, the extremely poor here built their structures out of plain sticks, or bricks (in the background). I didn't see much corrugated metal for walls. Perhaps bricks are easier to get here for some reason.

The square dirt huts were still common, though.

This is the administration building of the main district hospital for Mumbwa.

Here's the sign for the hospital, in front of the stores building.

Inside the stores, the stock levels of supplies were tracked by hand using the green bin cards you see here.

There was a large supply of antimalarial drugs in this particular store — but it was all about to expire in the next two months. (After manufacturing, the drugs last two years.) Most of it would go to waste, since it can't be returned to the central stores within six months of expiry.

These were in the parking lot outside. I'm told the hospital does have another working ambulance, though.

We also visited some rural health clinics, which were much smaller. In one of them, all the supplies were kept in the head nurse's office. In all of them, the supply of antimalarial drugs was incomplete — they were out of stock in at least one of the four doses, which meant that they would have to break pills in half or combine pills to produce the correct dose. Despite having incomplete stock, the stock in the other sizes was also within a month or two of expiry.

In this particular district, these situations were probably not life-threatening concerns, because the malaria burden was quite low here. But it was still worrisome how much medicine would be wasted, and how poorly the stocks were maintained.

I didn't get any photos in the rural clinics because my camera's battery ran out.

Lusaka 4: wacky bank machines.

The craziest thing happened when I went to use an ATM at the strip mall on Tuesday evening.

The starting screen looked like this:

After I put in my card, it asked me for my PIN as usual:

But after I logged in, this was the screen that appeared!

I couldn't resist pressing the "ADJUST CASH" button to see what would happen. Here's what it offered to do:

I decided that going further might get me into trouble, and hit the CANCEL button.

This was entirely repeatable. I did it again to take these pictures. And then I tried an ATM at a different bank and it did exactly the same thing. I found a few other confused people wandering from ATM to ATM, wondering why they weren't working properly.

I wonder how long it took the banks to figure out that something was wrong.

Lusaka 3: malaria medicine.

On our first day we visited the National Malaria Control Center. We're trying to understand some of the problems they face in stocking and distributing malaria medicine.

This is a truck outside of Medical Stores Limited, which is the storage and distribution company that the government contracts to distribute all medical supplies. We were particularly interested in the antimalarial drugs and rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, but these were only a tiny part of what MSL stocks and ships.

We weren't allowed to take pictures inside MSL.

Lusaka 2: brands.

Although I heard that Zambia is a poorer country than Kenya, there was a surprisingly upscale strip mall attached to the hotel where we were staying in Lusaka. This is what the entrance to the movie theater looked like:

Nearby were several fast food places.

In Kenya I had seen a brand called "Chicken Inn", often next door to "Pizza Inn" and "Creamy Inn", which sells ice cream:

A close imitator in Kenya is the "Kenchic Inn":

Well, it turns out Zambia has "Zamchick":

Not to be outdone, some beef producers chose the brand "Zambeef". EXCELLENT MEAT.