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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

Baobab Toilet Caprivi

God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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Here in America, we don’t hear a great deal about the Sahel, the great arid scrubland which stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coast to coast to the Red Sea coast just south of the Sahara Desert (I think the only time I have mentioned it, in thousands of blog posts, is when I mentioned the world’s most deadly snakes).  The Sahel is vast: it stretches for 5,400 km (3,360 mi).  It crosses some of the poorest and most sparsely inhabited countries of Earth.  Great droughts have hit the Sahel bringing starvation and horror to the semi-nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers who make up most of its population.  It is the scene of sectarian fighting, terrorism, instability and violence.  Most ominously, the desert is coming.  The world’s largest desert is expanding, pushing southwards into the Sahel (which in turn pushes further into the Sudanean grassland which lies south of the scrublands).  Imagine if half the United States was scrubland like the California chaparral (but with lions and Boko Haram); now imagine if turned to insane deadly emptiness like Death Valley or the Rub’ al Khali [shudders].

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The people of the Sahel are tough people.  Their ancestors survived the great drought from 1450 to 1700.  They have conceived a crazy titanic super project to prevent the Sahel from becoming the Sahara.  It is a beautiful and stupendous concept—one of the great endeavors which is being attempted right now, but since it is not being undertaken by the great democracies or by mega-corporations or by the Chinese (who are experiencing one of their periodic scary resurgences under a ruthless and driven Emperor), it has not been much in the news.

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The project is to create a great green wall to keep the desert out.  This wall will stretch across the entire continent and it will be alive, made up of millions upon millions of trees.  The green wall will stretch though 11 countries (but 9 neighboring countries will also contribute). It is envisioned as a living wonder of the world: a vibrant forest where once there was wasteland.  The hard lessons of China’s Green Wall and the Algerian Green Dam have allegedly been integrated into the ecological planning for Africa’s Green Wall.  The project launched in earnest in 2012 and already 3 million trees have been planted in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Ethiopia are said to be making real progress on their forest planting projects too.  If this project succeeds I will have respect for the African Union.

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Of course, I can barely plant an azalea in rich loam in temperate Brooklyn without it croaking: how are nomadic warlords going to plant thriving forests across a vast sun-baked badland and end up with a living forest?  The green wall may well fail or it might cause strange unanticipated problems, but it is wise not to write it off.  Over generations, humans remade the forests and savannahs of the world before we even had our vaunted technology.  Anthropologists and ecologists are coming to realize how much of what we though of as natural forest (or rainforest) was actually the result of thousands of years of human nurture and cultivation.  The Amazon and the Congo rainforests may owe much of their makeup to human activity over countless generations (I need to explain these further in additional blogposts…but one mind-blowing concept at a time!).  If the people of the Sahel are steadfast, determined, and clever, there might someday be a forest like the one the dreamers have been describing.  Wouldn’t that be something—just imagine one of the world’s greatest forests in Sudan and Chad and Mali…

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Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

I have been putting it off forever, but Halloween is rolling in and we need the A-list material… let’s talk about the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis).  Not only do black mambas have the scariest & sexiest name in herpetology (and maybe beyond), they fully live up to their fearsome reputation.  Black mambas are among the fastest snakes in the world—indeed they may be the fastest (it is apparently difficult to make deadly poison serpents run on a treadmill).  Their venom is a horrifying cocktail of neurotoxins including an exceedingly effective dendrotoxin which attacks the ion channels which allow nerve cells to communicate with muscles.

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Black mambas are diurnal ambush hunters.  They inhabit a giant swath of sub-Saharal Africa from the northern Sahel down to Namibia and Mozambique in the south (although they are absent from certain deserts and rainforests within this vast territory). The snakes live on small intelligent mammals like hyraxes and bushbabies…but surely they must eat other creatures as well.  In turn mambas are preyed on by the fearless yellow mongooses, snake eagles, and cape file snakes–which are seemingly immune to the poison.  Africa has some really intense inhabitants.  It goes without saying that people kill them too, out of dread.

Speaking of which, according to lore, black mambas are highly aggressive and attack with no provocation, but this does not seem to be borne out by evidence.  Knowledgeable herpetologists assert that black mambas are wisely afraid of humans (we are, after all, the most terrifying invasive aggressive species from Africa) and they try to flee us when possible.  Still if you happen upon one of these snakes it might be wise to avoid it rather than trying to impress it into submission with a list of our atrocities. They can strike with extreme speed and sometimes bite multiple times (which is bad news considering that a person bitten even once can keel over in less than 45 minutes and nearly all untreated bites are fatal).

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

In gentler moments mambas mate once a year in early spring.  Females lay clutches of 6-17 eggs which hatch in about ninety days. Baby black mambas emerge from their eggs with fully functioning venom glands, so don’t pick up the baby snakes no matter how cute they are (?).

[contemplates photo, passes out]

[contemplates photo, passes out]

Black mambas are not black! They are diurnal hunters and are thus the nondescript color of dust or contemporary office furniture–the better to blend in to scrublands, forests, and grasslands which they inhabit.  Their name comes from the insides of their mouths which are indeed as black as Goya’s nightmares. I knew a girl in junior high school who said “Oh mamba!” when she was impressed, which I thought was really endearing.  The word is apparently Nguni in origin (although the snake is more broadly known than the tongue it is named in).  Mambas are elipsids–close relatives of cobras.  The other species of mamba are arborial, but black mambas stay closer to the ground.  Black mambas seem to have faintly mocking smiles–so at least they are enjoying themselves [citation needed].

ssssmile!  You only live oncce.

ssssmile! You only live oncce.

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Fav-Afrique, the superb anti-venin which is going off the market because market incentives do not properly address real human concerns.  The anti-venin is a cocktail which is meant to counter the venom of numerous different snakes from central and West Africa. In that post, I promised to write about some of these venomous reptiles, which I have so far failed to do.  When I was looking at the list, one name stood out because it was the most dangerous snake in Africa (in terms of the number of people killed by its venom), yet I did not recognize the name at all-the West African carpet viper (Echis ocellatus).  This husky viper, which is camouflaged with a chaotic ladder of dark bars and pale stipples, is apparently Africa’s most dangerous snake—one of the deadliest animals in the word in terms of human mortality and suffering—but I have never heard of it.  Have you?

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The West African carpet viper doesn’t even have a good page (in English) on Wikipedia.  It is hard to find out about the creature without turning to 19th century explorers or freaks who raise it for a hobby.  Most of the web articles I found about it were scary medical papers about failed attempts to come up with effective anti-venins for the viper’s venom.  Here is what we do know about this tubby killer. Echis ocellatus can be found from Mauritania in the north down along the Bight of Benin to Cameroon.  It ranges east into the Sahel as far as Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  The snake is adept at surviving in dry scrubland on lizards and rodents. Females can lay immense clutches of up to sixty eggs!

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

That is all I could reliably find out, but we know that the animal is a viper—which provides us with a great deal of information.  Vipers are fearsome lurking predators capable of seeing infrared wavelength radiation (which means they can track prey in the dark based on body heat).  Some pit-vipers like American rattlesnakes are famous for warning intruders off—and apparently the carpet viper can rasp its saw-toothed scales together to make a warning sound, but this subtle warning often goes unheeded by firewood gatherers of the scrubland.  Based entirely on body count, Echis ocellatus must be an angry & short-tempered character (I have mercifully never met one—so my words are speculation).

There is more information about the venom of Echis ocellatus than there is data about the snake, but the information is frustratingly technical.  Suffice to say, the snake produces a formidable cytotoxin, a protein which is damaging to cells.  Bites from the viper are marked by terrible tissue necrosis and hemorrhage at the site of envenomation.  I’m really sorry—the main things I have found out from looking into this interesting but enigmatic animal is that: (1) The internet is still an imperfect information source about some really important things; (2) I need to read French to write about West Africa, and (3) do not mess with Echis ocellatus! Leave them be and tread with great caution in dust colored places of the Sahel!

Uh...

Uh…

The Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Africa's most infamous venomous snake

Sanofi Pasteur is a French biomedical corporation—the vaccination division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, the world’s third largest drug company. The company produces “Fav-Afrique” a highly effective snake antivenin cocktail used to treat bites from Sub-Saharan Africa’s ten most poisonous snakes…or I guess I should say they used to make Fav-Afrique.  Snake antivenin is difficult and expensive to produce: making Fav-Afrique involves keeping and milking extremely poisonous snakes and then giving this venom to large domestic mammals such as sheep and horses.  A course pf Fav-Afrique costs around $500.00—which is big money in Sub-Saharan Africa—and the production was already heavily subsidized by NGOs and governments.  Yet somehow the entire affair was not economically feasible for Sanofi Pasteur.   There are a limited number of fairly shelf-stable doses left, but the earliest anyone is going to make a comparable product is 2018.

This job looks hard

This job looks hard

Snakebites are not particularly deadly here in the United States where snakes kill maybe 2 people a year, however the reptiles of Southern Africa are more formidable…while medical and emergency infrastructure there is a lot poorer (and there are far more people who live closer to the ground) so an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people a year die of snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is a huge number—for comparison the 2014 Ebola outbreak which (rightly) scared the bejeezus out of everyone “only” killed 6,500 people.

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All of this makes me wonder anew about the way incentives work in the broader affairs of the world. I understand why medical companies don’t want to mess with a process which is dangerous and complicated yet provides little (or no) profit.  Would you want to do that? Pro-market adherents (who increasingly strike me as bastards) would probably argue that the price of a course of antivenin should be much much higher (which is the case here in America with our sky-high health care costs)…but who would then pay for it in Africa?  Should we not have antivenins—even though we know how to make very fine ones which could save many lives?

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

It seems likely that powerful NGOs like the Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières will step in and take over Fav-Afrique–once they build an organization to master the complicated process of producing it.  Perhaps the entire flurry of media attention (like this article) is a useless kerfluffle designed to get frightened people to read articles…but I don’t feel like it is.  I feel like this whole error begs larger questions of how our system works and doesn’t work.   I don’t have any answers to macro-scale resource allocation questions, but I can see the invisible hand of the market trembling and doing dastardly and stupid things and it bothers me.

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Of course all of this also begs question about what these ten super-poisonous African snakes are and where and how they live. I can answer questions about these amazing and formidable mambas, vipers, cobras, and puff adders!  I will be writing more about them in weeks to come…so even this poisonous cloud has a scaly silver lining.

Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth.  Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous.  Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppediusSteatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.  The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

The Dainty Fat Mouse (Wayne Ferrebee, color pencil and ink, 2015)

Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese.  It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).

Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered.  Perhaps it will have the last laugh.  It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture.  This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal).  I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!

Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Who doesn’t love cobras? These beautiful and dangerous snakes have fascinated humankind since prehistory.  Ferrebeekeeper has already written about a lovely red spitting cobra from East Africa: today we cast our eyes to sub-Saharan Africa to learn about the black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) another spitting cobra which lives across the great continent.

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The black-necked spitting cobra lives across a huge swath of Africa—from Northern Namibia to southern Mauritania in the west and from the Somali coast down to Tanzania in the east.  The adaptable snakes can be found everywhere throughout this vast range except for the jungle fastnesses of the Congo rainforest.  Except in dense rainforests, the snakes do well in all sorts of ecoregions and they are famous for thriving in scrublands, forests, grasslands, and deserts (as well as in new habitats like farms and cities). Although the snakes largely prey on small rodents, they are gifted hunters and can also live on virtually any small creatures (including arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians) and even on eggs.  Its own predators include a variety of fierce raptors and certain other snakes.  I find it alarming that Africa contains snakes capable of catching and eating a 2.3 meter (seven foot long) cobra which sprays venom!

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra comes in an assortment of colors from yellowish copper to olive to reddish to gray.  Many have distinct bands of red, white or gray on their necks (although some individuals are missing these bandings entirely).  The most dramatic specimens are glossy black with red or white necks—like death metal priests! Female snake usually lay clutches of 10-15 eggs, but they can lay up to 22 eggs at a time.  The snakes can be diurnal or nocturnal to suit circumstances (and their mood). Unlike the genteel red spitting cobra, black-necked spitting cobras love to spit venom and will do so at the slightest provocation (or for no reason at all—like Kid Rock).

In comparison with some of their relatives, the black-necked spitting cobras are not especially poisonous.  Only five to ten percent of untreated human bites prove fatal.  Their venom primarily consists of cytotoxins—compounds which damage cells instead of attacking organs or neuro-connections.  Although fatalities from bites is low, bites can be accompanied with substantial tissue necrosis.

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

In conclusion, the black-necked spitting cobra is a very interesting and visually striking snake (not to mention a born survivor) but I feel it would make an extremely poor housepet.

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

An Adult Male Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)

The greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is a magnificent large antelope which ranges down the east coast of Africa from the Red Sea to South Africa; and west through southern Africa to the Atlantic coast. Kudus are both browsers and grazers—they eat grasses, shoots, and leaves; but also fruit, roots, and tubers. They live in woodlands and dense scrubland where they conceal themselves amidst the thick vegetation. These antelopes are large: males weigh from 200 to 270 kilograms (430–600 pounds) and can stand 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) tall at the shoulder (although females are substantially smaller). Males have shaggy neck manes and huge elaborate spiral horns upon their noble heads. They use these horns for fighting, sexual display, and (possibly) fending off predators. When “uncurled” greater kudu horns can measure up to 1.5 meters or more (this strange maximalist manner of measurement seems to have been invented by (male) big game hunters).

A herd of greater kudus (female)

A herd of greater kudus (female)

One would not necessarily imagine that a 600 pound animal with giant corkscrew swords on its head would need to hide, yet the greater kudus live in a horrifying world of lions, hyenas, leopards, African hunting dogs, and cheetahs (to say nothing of omnipresent human hunters armed with every manner of inventive weapons). Fortunately, the kudus’ mixed brown coats with beautiful white syrup stripes allow them to melt ghost-like into the dry scrub, small woods, and forests of their vast habitat. If there was an adult greater kudu skulking in your rose garden, you probably wouldn’t notice it.

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Female kudus and their calves form together in little herds of half a dozen to two dozen individuals. Bachelor males form even smaller herds and mature males are solitary. Mating season occurs just after the rainy season. Males fight each other for dominance and then dominant males trail after females making plaintive guttural moans. Eight months later, when the grass and vegetation is at its peak, females give birth to a solitary calf (or occasionally two). There are three (or possibly four) subspecies of these majestic animals occupying slightly different ranges (as seen in the map below). Although hunting (and poaching) and habitat loss have effected the greater kudu, the great antelope have also benefited from irrigation, wells, and reservoirs. They are not endangered—or even threatened—so the world should be able to benefit from these exquisite adaptable antelopes for a long time to come!

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

Range of Subspecies of Greater Kudus

 

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

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It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

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Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

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