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.

Adaptations

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.

Folklore

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.

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Women are the backbone and muscle of rural African society.  In addition to cooking, tending crops, and caring for children, they haul water and carry firewood over long distances. To celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, I’d like to present Wonder Woman’s best accessory:  the Wonderbag.

My Wonderbag.  We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour's walk away.

My Wonderbag. We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour’s walk away.

The technology behind the Wonderbag is simple and almost as old as cooking itself:  insulate a hot pot so the heat will slowly cook the food.  Moving a pot from a cooking fire to an insulated bag has three benefits.

1)  Less firewood.  Or propane or electricity or whatever you’re using to cook your food.  Less energy means a smaller carbon footprint.  It means less time spent going to the forest collecting firewood and hauling it home.  If you are cooking over an indoor fire, it also means fewer particulates and reduced risk of bronchitis or asthma.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

2)  Less water.  Slow-cooking food means less water evaporation.  Hauling clean water is hard work, so anything that reduces water consumption helps.

3)  Less time tending the pot.  Anyone who has ever lived with me knows that I tend to get bored watching pots on the stove, resulting in many scorched meals.  With slow-cooking, I use that time for something else with no fear of burning the beans.

I’m from the Great Plains of America and we love slow cookers.  The crock pot is my favorite kitchen appliance by far.  Anything that tastes good over the stove tastes amazing in a crock pot.  With the Wonderbag, I cook my food over the stove for a while (5 minutes for rice, 30 minutes for beans), put in the insulating bag, and let it continue cooking slowly for 45 minutes to a few hours.  Easy peasy.  And no fear of electrical fires.

In the developed world, something like the Wonderbag means using less energy and water, fewer scorched pots in my case, and saving a little bit of time.  In the developing world, something like the Wonderbag means slowing down deforestation, improving respiratory health, and saving several hours per day that can be used for education or income generation.

Happy Women’s Day.

The impact of the wonderbag according to the World Health Organization.

The impact of the Wonderbag on a single family in the developing world according to the World Health Organization.

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.

My first Peace Corps experience was in Kenya, about 15 years ago.  I was teaching math, biology, and physics in a very, very rural secondary school.  There are certain joys found in rural life in a developing nation, and I was looking forward to finding them again here in South Africa.

However, my current site has been developed out of some of those joyful simplicities I remembered from Kenya, either because South Africa is generally much more wealthy and developed than Kenya or simply through the passing of time. Allow me to illustrate three examples:  bottles, baskets, and tuck shops.  Keep in mind that I am comparing one little village in South Africa today to one little village in Kenya in 2000.

Bottles

Coca-cola is everywhere, so Coke bottles are everywhere.  In Kenya (2000), they were glass.  You paid a deposit and the bottle was dutifully collected and re-used over and over, evident from the scratches it accumulated over its many lifetimes.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011).  Not only are the bottles glass, but they are of a reasonable, modest 300 mL size.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011). Not only are the bottles made of glass, but they are of a reasonably modest 300 mL size.

The bottles in South Africa, however, are mostly plastic.  While some of the larger municipalities have recycling, the rural areas have no infrastructure to take care of the mass of plastic littering roads, open fields, and school grounds.  I hoard plastic bottles, using them for science experiments, art projects, or to hand to the little ones so they don’t have to put their faces up to the pump and risk getting bonked in the head to drink some water.  The bottles that aren’t free-range litter end up in a burn pile.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Baskets

Many ladies from my Kenyan village were skilled basket weavers.  The kiondo or kikapu was the traditional gift for weddings and good-byes; I went home with a small fortune of them.  I have one fitted with a leather strap and enclosure that I use as a purse.  It’s beautiful and unique.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

My hand-woven purse is the only one of its kind that I’ve seen in South Africa.  Everyone carries pleather purses and bags made in China.  There are the traditional Zulu ukhamba, beautifully woven and traditionally water-tight, but I have only seen them in tourist shops.

Tuck shops

In Kenya, I rarely went to town to shop for groceries.  It required an hour-long hike up hill and a multi-hour wait for a matatu to come by. With the exception of pasta and tomato paste, I could get all my staples at the local kiosks known as dukas.  They were everywhere:  next to the school, next to my village, next to apparently nothing.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

Many teachers drive in South Africa, so they go to town for all their needs.  People who can’t afford a car can take a shared taxi; even the dirt roads are readily passable.  As a result, there isn’t the demand for a well-stocked, mom and pop shop around the corner.  It took a month for me to find the closest tuck shop a 20 minute walk away.

The bright coral blip in the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers.  A beacon in the wilderness.

The bright coral blip near the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers. A beacon in the wilderness.

Development comes with an increase in quality of life through clean drinking water, access to health clinics, and education.  Sometimes it also comes with a western-style consumerism that squelches conservation, improvisation, and indigenous technology.  I suppose it was the same phenomenon seen in my little Nebraskan town when the big box superstore 90 miles away edged out the local five-and-dime. I have no answers, only observations and a fabulous kikapu purse found nowhere else.

Around the world, people with access to flour and oil have fried dough.  I have a deep and abiding love for these heart-stopping, diabetes-inducing balls of deliciousness.  Allow me to highlight some of my favorites.

Largest

The South African amagwinya are by far the fattest fat cakes around.  The snack ladies selling lollipops and cheesy poofs at the schools carry these in a big bucket, and if you don’t get there before the kids do, you will miss out.  As big as my fist, these babies will stave off my hunger for hours, even if I split one with Colonel Tom.

Fattest fat cake ever.

Fattest fat cake ever.

Highest SA:V

The funnel cakes of America’s fairs and carnivals compete with the South African amagwinya in volume, but they definitely own every other fried dough in surface area to volume ratio.  If you like that crispy surface, you’re in luck!  Plus, it will be covered in powdered sugar or cinnamon.

Sweetest

Of course, the Americans take the gold in the sugary category as well.  The Boston Creme is a pudding-filled, chocolate-covered pillow from heaven (actually, Dunkin Donuts).

Most delicious

The Hawaiian version of the Portuguese malasada is my favorite of all fried dough.  I love them plain, simply dusted with sugar, and hot out of the fryer.  But they also come filled with puddings (lilikoi, anyone?) and there are some made of poi (who doesn’t love purple food?).  Cape Cod malasadas are okay, but the Hawaiians have raised this fat cake to a whole new level of sublime.

Partaking in the finest malasada in Honolulu!

Partaking in the finest malasada in Honolulu!

Honorable mention

The Kenyan andazi isn’t as big as an igwinya, as sugary as a Boston Creme, or as delicious as a malasada.  However, these simple little angular doughnuts hit the spot.  In some regions of the country, there is even a hint of coconut.  And if they are made by my sister Wavinya, they rival the malasada in supreme flavor.

The happy couple walking down the aisle.

The happy couple walking down the aisle.

Msane is a quiet man.  He is also very sweet.  He calls on the younger kids to speak during assembly, he can be encouraging while still acknowledging the challenges facing educators in rural South Africa, and he always gives me a big hug when I return from Peace Corps meetings and workshops.  One day, he came to work with a radiant smile.  He had gotten engaged.

He invited the entire school staff to the wedding, even though some of us had not known him long.  Early on a Sunday morning, we put on our finery, piled into the hired vehicle, and rode the three hours to Mtubatuba, my favorite name in all of South Africa.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

The white wedding had many of the elements of an American wedding:  wedding colors, bridesmaids and groomsmen, vows, exchanging rings, cutting the cake, and a big, white dress.  The speeching and preaching went on longer than I’m used to, continuing into the meal.  The bride was shy and the groom was in love.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

After the wedding, we went to the groom’s home for the umabo, or traditional Zulu wedding.  Family members dressed up in their traditional costumes to sing and dance. A gift was presented to the king and he danced his appreciation.  The bride’s father danced to show his satisfaction with the bride price.  The bride’s family presented gifts of blankets and pillows to the groom’s family, and not just as a “come and get it” queue, passing out blankets and checking off a list.  Two by two, the family members came, lay down on a mat, and were covered with their new blanket.

Family of the bride:  preparing the blankets.

Family of the bride: preparing the blankets.

There was a little old gogo wearing ankle shakers made of tin cans.  She moved too quickly for me to study them or to even get a photo, but I think I have a new project for Grade R.

There was so much back and forth and singing and dancing during the umabo that I’m sure I had no idea what was happening.  I just knew that I was ridiculously happy to be able witness a Zulu traditional ceremony and to wish health and happiness to sweet Msane.

I love color.  My clothes are arranged in rainbow order.  I can spend hours re-arranging my yarn stash into different color combinations.  Even my PhD thesis was inspired by the diversity of pigmentation in cultures of Trichodesmium.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.:  the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.: the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Gogo Squirrel asked me to help her teach creative arts in her 2nd grade class, and I peeked over her shoulder as she flipped through her South African curriculum.  The color wheel popped out at me.  Forget symmetry or bean mosaics, I wanted to teach color theory.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school.  Alas, how I miss rain.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school. Alas, how I miss rain.

Our perception of color is a combination of physics and biology.  Visible light covers a small range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum (400 – 700 nm), and these wavelengths can be separated by a prism into a visible rainbow.  Our eyes have three different kinds of cones that detect red, green, and blue, and with those three channels we can detect millions of colors.  Remove any one of these cones, and you get color-blindness.  The mantis shrimp has 12 cones. That’s insane.

There is some overlap in the detection wavelengths for human cones, especially for red and green, resulting in fun effects.  Concentrated yellow food dye looks red.  Green or yellow algal cells can produce a red tide; ocean water goes from blue to green to red as more blue/green light is absorbed, red light is backscattered, and the upwelling color hits the sweet spot between human red and green cones (570 nm) when a bloom develops (Dierssen et al, 2006).

When South African students learn about the human eye in grade 12, all the detail they are given is that the retina has rods and cones.  No red-green-blue, no shift from yellow to red, no understanding of why chlorophyll appears green.  They study the genetics of color-blindness without understanding what makes a person colorblind.  I have to get my color fun in the fundamental phase.

Well, if they aren't used for Winogradsky columns, the bottles may as well be used for color theory.

Well, if they aren’t used for Winogradsky columns, my bottle collection may as well be used for color theory.

In Gogo Squirrel’s 2nd grade class, I made a color wheel for them.  I used food dye in soda bottles to show them how primary colors mixed to form secondary colors, and they did their own color mixing with play dough.  After rolling balls and snakes to our hearts’ content, we drew flowers. Gogo Squirrel was very strict; each flower must be the right size and have exactly five petals.

After admiring the color display in 2nd grade, the grade R teacher asked me to repeat the lesson in her class.  It was a big hit.  Mixing colored water elicited awes and applause.  It’s wonderful to watch a child’s first experience with play dough, and they somehow managed to keep it out of each others’ hair.  They are young and new to school, so their flowers were wild and unconstrained.

The ladies of Grade R display their snakes.

The ladies of grade R display their snakes.

As my grade R kids grow up and learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, I hope they think about chlorophyll and why it’s green.  When they learn about photosynthesis, I hope they think about the elctromagnetic spectrum and how pigments are tuned to absorb specific wavelengths.  I hope their flowers stay wild and unconstrained.

A selection from the masterpieces of Grade R.  Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

A selection from the wild masterpieces of grade R. Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.