Natural History

Weird he may be, but this little guy is king of the laundry line.

Weird he may be, but this guy is king of the laundry line.

The chameleon is a weird little dude.  From its roving eyes to its freaky feet, it has many characteristics that set it apart from your average lizard.


Chameleon eyes sit on raised stalks that rotate around.  Independently.  You may think it’s paying attention to you, a scary predator, but it is also following that tasty fly buzzing around.

Their tongues are lightning-quick, even if the rest of their bodies are sluggish from cold.  While other lizards wait to warm up for breakfast, chameleons can feast on insects early in the chilly morning.

Their zygodactyl feet have five toes split into two groups, all the better for grabbing branches and climbing trees.  Many of them have prehensile tails that also help them to hang out in the aboreal scene.

The prehensile tail:  good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

The prehensile tail: good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

They also have a funky walk:  a slow, lurching gait, as if it were grooving to disco music only it can hear.  I have no idea why it does this, but if I were a predator, I would certainly be put off.

A little dude, strutting his stuff.  Don't stop 'til you get enough, little buddy.

A little dude, strutting his stuff. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, little buddy.

Most famously, chameleons can change color, particularly the males.  Part of this is for camouflage, but much of it is for communication.  Like a full-bodied mood ring.  Guanine nanocrystals in their iridophores (think “iridescent cells”) rapidly change the overall color in some species (Teyssier, 2015).  When he’s relaxed, the crystals are close together and he’s a calm blue or green.  When he gets excited, the crystals spread apart and make him appear more red.  He can tell the ladies to come hither or tell competing males to back off.  He can warn other chameleons of predators in the vicinity. He can also regulate his temperature by increasing or decreasing the infra-red rays he absorbs.


The unique qualities and behavior of the chameleon has landed it in the myths of many cultures.  In the Zulu culture of South Africa, God was happy with humans, so He sent the chameleon to deliver the message that they should live eternally.  But the chameleon dilly-dallied, eating or basking in the sun.  God had time to change His mind, and instead sent the lizard to tell humans that they would die.  The lizard was much faster than the chameleon in delivering its message, so humans are now mortal.

The lightning-quick tongue has also led people to believe that chameleons can smite their enemies with lightning. This belief and the association of chameleons with mortality have made many people afraid of them.  Not Eddie, though.  Eddie is a student at the school where we live, and his gentle nature with small children and small critters has earned my deep respect.  He’s a bit of a chameleon whisperer, coaxing them out of trees and off laundry lines and showing the little ones there is nothing to fear from this weird, fascinating lizard.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

The beloved borehole pump.  Sweetest water anywhere--just ask the pig.

The beloved borehole pump. Sweetest water anywhere–just ask the pig.

My room-mates have an ongoing bet. Mike has wagered one rand that the borehole will run dry before the South African summer rains return.

KwaZulu-Natal is having a drought.  On the coast, there are bull sharks in St. Lucia that have been trapped in the estuary for eight years because low rains have left the mouth closed to the Indian Ocean.  In our inland area, the maize was half-grown at best, and the livestock are eating the trees because there isn’t enough grass.

The desolation of Cassia:  before and after the munchfest.

The desolation of Cassia: before and after the drought-induced munchfest.

In addition to the drought, there’s a historically huge number of students living at the school, and they do a lot of laundry.  All the time.  Our fences are constantly covered in yellow button-up shirts, and the borehole is having its mettle tested.

Our house does have plumbing.  When it was connected to the water tank on the tower, we could even get water from the faucet, not to mention in the flushing toilet.  But the tank burst, so we’re schlepping water from the borehole 100 m away like everybody else.  We’re also using gray water from laundry to flush the toilet and save hauling a bucket or two.

For folks who are too far from the school borehole, there are springs coming off the mountain.  Some even have pipes attached.  Jojo tanks seemingly in the middle of nowhere must be getting filled somehow.  Small earthen dams are scattered around the circumference of the mountain to water livestock.

Extracting water from the mountain:  developing a spring and an earthen dam.

Extracting water from the mountain: developing a spring and an earthen dam.

Frankly, the borehole life is pretty sweet.  We don’t have to haul water far, and it’s high quality.  During my previous service in Kenya, people would ask me if I had running water–only if you hit the donkey hard enough.  Miu River had low flow and salty water, but many women made their living with donkeys hauling jerry cans of water scooped from a hole in the sand.

People swear this salty water is what made their goat meat taste so delicious.  Miu River, Kenya, around 2000.

People swear this salty water is what made their goat meat taste so delicious. Miu River, Kenya, around 2000.

A fellow volunteer recently asked me whether it was necessary for Peace Corps volunteers to live in “hardship” positions.  Many of us are, and some of us aren’t.  For me, roughing it is all part of the gig.  First, it encourages me to live a simpler life than what I might live in the United States.  Second, it ensures that I live at the same level as the people I am serving and can empathize with them.  Third, I don’t waste water that I have to carry myself.  Water is precious, and I hope I carry some of these conservation practices with me back to America.

Everybody carries water, even the itty-bitties.

Everybody carries water, even the itty-bitties.

The South Peak in greener days.

The South Peak in greener days.

Winter is dry here.  This year, even the summer rains failed a bit, so the maize stalks are stunted and the grass is even dryer than normal.  There’ll be some skinny cows.

In September on Heritage Day, the school girls dress in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody climbs the South Peak, and they pray for rain.  I am told that without fail, it rains on them as they return, breaking the dry season with life-giving if sometimes merciless water.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

The South Peak is a bit more hiker-friendly than her sister the North Peak.  I can reach the first little knobby peak in about an hour from my house when I am determined.  The cow paths meander across the broad top; these “mountains” are really mesas, carved by erosion from layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

Obligatory housemate selfie:  Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

Obligatory hiking housemate selfie: Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

I see more flowers up here than I see in the fields by the school, perhaps because they have not yet been munched by the goats.  While there are some dams along the sides, there are also springs at the top where I am surprised by mud and fresh green vegetation.

Sweet surprises on top.  Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

Sweet surprises on top. Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

You can see clouds from far away.  And lightning.  My first visit to the peak was a bit more exciting than I bargained for.  Whether you have prayed for it or not, if you see rain in the distance, haul down as quickly as you can.

Weather from the west.  Lightning!  Gotta scoot down!

Weather from the west. Lightning! Gotta scoot down!


The Mountain.  Back in the summer when life was lush and green.

“There is magic in that mountain.”  I have heard that statement over and over again.  I get the full story from no one, but little tidbits of information here and there.

There are many small peaks in our area, but only one associated with this magic.  I hike near this peak several times a week and people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”  Of what, exactly?  Snakes?  Yes, we have cobras up here, but I grew up scouting for rattlesnakes, so I am cautious rather than fearful of snakes.  “Maybe there are other animals.”  Like what?  Cows, sheep, and goats run rampant up there, so I doubt there is any sort of predator.  Perhaps they mean the giant, multi-headed snake associated with the mountain.  The students here don’t quite believe in it, but they also don’t want to discount it.  They want to see with their own eyes.

One of the 12th graders told me that her mother saw the snake when she was a little girl.  A dark cloud shrouded the peak, and she saw a big, black snake go up into the clouds and then come racing back to the mountain as if it were trying to hide deep within it.  Shortly thereafter, stones fell from the sky.  The Nebraskan in me immediately thinks “tornado and hailstorm.”  The little girl in me thinks “giant snake smart enough to get out of the way.”

Enveloped in mist.  Get thee home.

Enveloped in mist. Get thee home.

When there is mist on the mountain, we know change is coming.  Weather changes, of course, but also life changes.  People also believe that the mountain brings weather, that thunderstorms originate from its very peak.

There are caves in the mountain.  I’ve been told that they run from the north peak all the way to the south peak.  Anyone who goes in too deep never comes out.  There is heat coming from those caves.  Our neighbor known affectionately as “Dlukula” said he’d take me to the caves some day.  I promise I won’t go in too far.

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Dlukula took Tom and I up to the top.  I tried to find the way myself, but the last push is very steep.  You can see EVERYTHING up there:  faraway schools and other peaks famous from the Zulu wars.  You can also see some of Dlukula’s cattle.  I don’t know what path they took, but I admire their agility.  The students tell me that when something seems amiss, like a goat with four kids or a cow on top of the mountain, it is the giant snake transformed into a disguise.

As in the valley below, there is not much wildlife on the mountain.  The mammals are all livestock, but lizards abound and we even found a cobra.  It appeared to be a pacifist, so we left it alone.  The wildflowers that manage to escape the munching mouths of the ungulates are wildly spectacular.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.  I’m not convinced.

This photo doesn't even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

This photo doesn’t even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

There’s some kind of antenna or weather station at the peak.  Dlukula doesn’t know what it is.  He said a helicopter just landed one day and somebody installed it.  Tom and I are planning a return trip to check it out . . . with permission from the great snake, of course.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Okala shows us how to farm algae

Algae farm on Jambiani beach

Dried algae at the Seaweed Center

Okala started his own non-governmental organization (NGO), Jamabeco. Totally home-grown with no foreign interest, his NGO focuses on marine conservation and education in Zanzibar. He doesn’t have a high school diploma, but he does have life-long experience with the ocean, ecological intuition, and the desire to preserve the habitat he loves and the people it supports.

One of Okala’s interests is mwani (seaweed) farming. In addition to its ecological awesomeness, algae is used in products ranging from ice cream to pharmaceuticals. People in Zanzibar have been using algae for ages, but have depleted much of the native populations. In the 90’s, a Danish group brought Eucheuma spinosum to Zanzibar in order to establish seaweed farming.

It’s hard work. Your day has to work around the tidal schedule, you’re working in hot sun, and much of it is spent bent over. Initially, the algae only brought 40 Tsh per dry kilogram (less than 3 cents). With multiple buyers, the price has increased to 450 Tsh per kilo, but that’s still only $0.30.

The Seaweed Center in Paje increases the return on seaweed farming by eliminating the middle man and processing the seaweed locally themselves. Dried seaweed (you should check out their solar dryer!) is ground to a powder and used to make soap. The soap also contains locally grown herbs and spices.

Local leaders like Okala and local industries like the Seaweed Center provide Zanzibari solutions to Zanzibari problems. Folks like me can provide expertise when needed (if you need a phycologist, give me a call!) and consume their products.

By the way, any porifera experts out there? Okala needs a sponge hook-up for his next venture.

Rainforest in Murangu

It gets drier somewhere in the middle

The coastline at Bagamoyo

When I told people I was going to Tanzania this summer, at least half of them remarked, “Wow, it’ll be hot.”  Really?!?!?!  Hotter than a Georgia summer?

While most places near the Equator are hot and jungle-y, east Africa tends to be much cooler and drier.  The plate tectonics that made the Great Rift Valley, the great lakes of east Africa, and Mt. Kilimanjaro have left Kenya and Tanzania high and dry (but not a desert, generally).  The high elevation in parts of these countries make the temperature nice and mild.  Mountains to the west also block the west African monsoons, leaving a drier, less humid climate compared to west Africa or South America.  Plus, June and July tend to be the cool season for most places in Tanzania.

Yes, I went to the Equator to escape the Georgia summer heat.

Topography dictates climate here.  There are rainforests in the highlands, arid regions in the central plateau, and hot, humid coastal regions.  By itself, Mt. Kilimanjaro has 5 major biomes as you climb up:  rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and the glaciated (for now, anyway) summit.

As we drove from Moshi to Dar es Salaam, the landscape changed quickly along the way.  Lush trees gave way to cactus-like Euphorbia and then again to coconut palms.

The socioeconomic status of the people changed, too.  Part of this change is politics, but a lot of it is the difference in biomes.  The mountain regions have lots of rain and good soil, so the population is much wealthier than that of the drier regions in the middle.  Even though delicious fruits come out of some of these dry places, much of it goes to waste because it either can’t be transported before it spoils (solar dryer!) or there’s no market transport them to (open up, world).  On the coast there are fishermen and lots of international trade (formerly ivory, gold, and slaves–a tale to be told in another post).

It’s not the Sahara, folks.  Tanzania is a country of biodiversity and cultural diversity.  Even in Zanzibar, I’ll be sitting more coolly than I would in Athens, GA.  Drinking coconut juice.

A stream of safari ants near Kyalavo, Kenya.

Every culture has their own sayings and proverbs.  They usually come with a cultural context that might not be translated literally, but that context gives insight into the culture.  In Kenya and Tanzania you will find proverbs everywhere–on kangas, in children’s stories, and in everyday conversation.  I thought I’d share a few inspired by the natural world.

  • Macho ya chura hayamzuii ng’ombe kunyua maji  (the eyes of the frog won’t stop the cow from drinking water).  This is one of my favorites.  Probably because of the cartoon image that comes to mind.  My own take on this saying is that people will do what they need to do, regardless of frog eyes.
  • Wingi wa siafu ndio nguvu yao (the multitude of ants is their strength).  Siafu (safari ants) are eating machines.  They will eat anything organic in their path so hide your babies, your chickens, and anything else you value that can’t run away.  They freak me out.  They did me a service once, though.  The outhouse I had during my Peace Corps service was notoriously infested with cockroaches.  The siafu came through and then, no roaches!  One little bitty single ant won’t do much more than draw a little blood, but a stream of ants is a force to reckon with.
  • Bahari itatufikisha popote (the ocean leads us anywhere).  This saying inspires both a feeling of helplessness from the overwhelming power of the ocean and of adventure or possibility from the vastness and wonder oceans have to offer.

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