PictureThe fateful corner as it looked on move-in day in May. The basket on the left disappeared after one day. The basket on the right is the one that was eaten through.
JUNE 16: The slow boat that brought us to Cobué a few days ago did indeed bring batteries back to the lodge to better charge the solar-powered office.  Unfortunately, the fittings are different from the fittings for the system currently in use.  The current batteries are losing charge rapidly.  Thus, no charge for computers in the office and extremely limited internet, a few minutes at a time.  There is no guarantee that anything one does online can be completed before the signal cuts out.  The lodge is working to fix the problem, but of course one does not simply order parts online or by phone and have them shipped here overnight.  I cannot imagine anything can be done about the problem this week before I must leave again.  We work out a system whereby we each go to the kitchen, which does still have solar power, and charge our computers one or two at a time in order to avoid overloading the kitchen’s circuitry.  Then we run back up to the office, hoping that the internet might be working when we get there.  There always seems to be a solution or at least temporary fix here no matter where one goes; it just takes some time and patience.

Today is the Farm Lunch that Marcos and I had shopped for in Cobué.  The Farm occasionally hosts these luncheons to welcome or say farewell to volunteers or simply to invite staff and volunteers to visit the farm and share a meal.  I am curious whether they had any use for the tomato paste.

On the way to the Farm, I tell everyone I want to stop by my hut to see if housekeeping had come to sweep and pick up laundry, since they had not had reason to do this for a few days and I wanted to make sure they knew I was back.  They had in fact not come yet, so I thought I might put my clothesbasket outside to let them know I was here.

As I glance down at the clothesbasket, I notice that there is a sort of muddy dirt on the top of some of my clothes.  That’s odd, I think. There was definitely no mud on this trip, especially on the part of the trip where I wore those clothes on the top of the pile.  I pick up the shirt to investigate and find it covered in termites.  These are not the termites I know from home, but African mound-building termites (Macrotermes michaelseni). They are long insects, at least a half an inch long, with white bodies and orange heads with powerful jaws.  See the previous post for a picture of a completed home for these bugs. Apparently a colony had begun to build a mound under my clothesbasket while I was gone, coming up through the hard-pack mud floor.  In the dark last night, I had simply tossed my clothes into the basket, not normally being accustomed to checking for giant clothes-eating termites before retiring for the evening.  Unfortunately, the moisture in the clothes only encouraged the colony to send a message to all its workers to gather and feast overnight.

I quickly snatch up the basket to begin a salvage mission.  They have already completely eaten through the bottom of the basket, though, and the clothes simply fall through.  I throw the basket outside far from the hut to get the termites latched to its side out of the way. Next, I frantically grab the clothes up and dump them on the chair outside on my “porch.”  The giant swarm of white, grubby-looking bugs that had been under the basket begins to sink into the floor, disappearing as if by magic, looking for all the world as if they are going down an earthen drain.  I go out and pick up a shirt and begin beating it against a tree, whipping the cloth as if I were snapping a towel.  Many of the termites fall off, but some are firmly latched on.  I have to physically pick them off, one by one.  One of them is not happy at this interruption in its meal and gives me a good bite with its powerful mandibles.  It hurts!  I dispatch the beast and resume my rescue mission.  I have to decapitate some that are firmly latched on and then pick off their heads.  As I am continuing the laborious removal, someone comes to check on me and see why I haven’t rejoined the group.  I show them what is happening and tell them to continue to the Farm, I will be there soon.

When all the termites are off the clothes as far as I can tell, I do an inspection.  They have eaten sizeable holes in many of the natural fabrics.  The one exception seems to be my woolen hiking socks, which indicates they have discriminating tastes; I would not want to munch on those either after this past week’s hike.  The one long-sleeved shirt that I brought and wore to church services is completely ruined, large holes all over it.  In total, I may have lost three shirts and at least one pair of pants.  I leave the clothes on this chair to continue to dry while I head to the Farm in a foul mood.  Maybe I can think of what to do while I eat lunch, if I can regain my appetite.    

PictureMy shelves, also from move-in day. The new basket is on that top shelf now.
When I get to the Farm, news has already traveled as to what has happened.  People point out that I can still use the pants with holes for hiking, which is true.  A couple of volunteers offer me shirts, and I learn that there is a sort of clothing storage box from which staff often get articles of clothes that former volunteers and guests have left, either intentionally in the case of the former or through forgetfulness for the latter.  I am welcome to avail myself to this store as well.  I begin to feel a little better; there are possible solutions even if everything has been ruined, which it hasn’t.  Calming down, I remind myself of what I have learned, that I will still be better clothed than well over half the people I have met in the villages even if I do nothing more than wear only the eaten clothes I now have.

Farm lunch was rice, beans and chicken.  The beans have a sauce with a distinct tomato flavor; my curiosity is satisfied.  We watch a video the Trust has posted online of the farm staff and volunteers building their chicken house.  Though it has been viewed many times online by this point, the staff has never seen it.  The video has portions in which the video is sped up to show the lapse of time in the building process; the staff finds this technique very funny and laughs uproariously every time it happens.

After lunch, I head back and carry my laundry to the office to figure out what to do with it.  It is quickly whisked away and sent off first to boil and then to wash.  We’ll see what comes back and what shape it is in.

This entire trip I have been very careful to return items to their plastic bags, to screw lids tightly, to zip everything up, to seal and lock all my bags.  I was just beginning to think I was being over-zealous and was about to relax these precautions.  Did the termites do me a favor, then?

I come back to my hut later that afternoon.  I find the floor swept and a new laundry basket in a new spot.  It is on my top shelf, where it will certainly remain for the rest of my time here!    

This evening, we have the honor of being visited by Peg Cumberland, who is justly a legend in the region.  This English doctor has worked in Mozambique for seventeen or eighteen years now, which means she began her work here during the civil war.  She has been in Niassa Province for nine of those years.  Her first two years in the region, she had no permanent residence. She simply walked from village to village with a backpack of supplies, staying in people’s homes.  She still does this when she is “on the road,” though she now has a nice, neat home in Chicaia at the Cobué border, near what is now called “Peg’s Beach.”  She has worked toward building small clinics in the villages for treatment and for health education.  I have seen the fruits of her work in many of the villages I have visited.  The school, the church and the clinic are always the three points of civic pride for the villages that have them and are always the best maintained buildings – certain signs that a village has “arrived.”  Cobué also has a maternity clinic, built in cooperation with Peg Cumberland’s Anglican charity and the Manda Wilderness Community Trust.  She has also been directly responsible for the training of over four hundred local volunteers who now provide first-line care in these clinics.

From time to time, she comes through Nkwichi and stays for dinner or even overnight, simply to recharge her batteries for a much needed retreat.  We had a wonderful conversation about medicine and about choirs, her time here and the music in the villages.  I was thrilled to have finally met her; anywhere one travels in this region, one has only to say “Dokatala Peg” and the person to whom one is speaking breaks out in a smile. “Have you seen her?” I am sometimes asked.  At last I can say I have.  Maybe our paths will cross again before I leave.  It would certainly be a pleasure.

POSTSCRIPT: JUNE 18:  All my laundry arrived back this day.  It turns out that one pair of white hiking “under socks” that I mainly have used here as socks with my tennis shoes at the lodge have been thoroughly eaten through and cannot be used any more.  I have two other pairs, though.  My long-sleeve “dress” shirt is also unusable, but I knew that already.  The two other shirts end up having small holes and look as if I had pulled at them in places; they can still be worn.  One pair of pants has holes, but it can be worn on hikes – just not otherwise, since some of the holes are in shall we say strategic places.  Despite what I thought about their good taste, there are some small holes in some of my wool hiking socks, but they are all still usable, thank goodness: these were actually the items I was most worried about!  Some holes will undoubtedly get larger in the next few weeks, but not so big in the time I am here as to affect their use.  I will not need to borrow or take any clothes; there is nothing wrong with making do with what I have.    

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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013