Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Little Treasures in Donationland

One topic remains in the form four biology syllabus before I begin the process of revision and preparation for terminal exams in October. The topic is Ecosystems and as an aspiring ecologist one would think that I would be excited to teach my favorite part of biology. However, as I look at the neat list of bulleted points to cover I feel a rising sense of panic. Energy flow, nutrient cycles, disturbances and succession; these things I know well and are applicable to any ecosystem. Experimental design and ecosystem sampling methods; these are a little trickier when students are not used to investigative thinking, but I should be able to have some quadrat frames made over at the woodshop and the students will enjoy going outside. But when the syllabus instructs me to ‘describe the diversity and adaptations of plant and animal communities in the tropical woodland savanna’ then I get out my three textbooks and go searching. Nope, nothing in there. So now I ask myself, how do I teach students about an ecosystem which I know nothing about when they have lived in it their whole lives?

The strategy so far has been to teach the general concepts and then take the class outside and ask students for names and examples. When we were measuring the diversity of the plant community in the field behind the school, students were able to name all of the plants on the ground (including the different types of grasses) sometimes with two names, one in Chichewa and one in Chiyawo. The botanical know-how resulting from a childhood spent outdoors is quite impressive.

This week I did manage to find some information about the fresh water ecosystem in Lake Malawi. Microscopic phytoplankton (algae and diatoms that make up the base of the aquatic food chain) are surprisingly difficult to describe without pictures, so after leaving my class slightly puzzled and wondering about the sanity of their biology teacher (who had just claimed there were little miniature plants floating in the water), I headed over to the MCV library to look for some supplementary learning materials of the more visual variety.

The ‘library’ consists of three rooms. Each room is situated about two feet below the previous room and slightly off-center, giving the impression that they were glued together by a four-year-old. The first room is a quiet study area with several desks and a stack of newspapers available for reading. The librarian sit behind a small table with two notebooks in which she records who takes out which books. Unfortunately there is no register for which books are currently in the inventory. To find the books, one must descend into the other two rooms.

The fiction section is a dim cave crowded with simple wooden bookcases whose sturdying upper cross-beams give the feeling of 6-foot ceiling rather than its actual height of 10 feet. One can squat in the aisle (through which an average American would need to turn sideways), to scan the titles and discover a surprising range that is appealing to many literary tastes. On one occasion I came away with a pile of reading material containing, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

To find books of a slightly more factual variety, one must go down into the third chamber. Measuring 6-foot by 10-foot, the room feels a bit… squashed. One bookcase is devoted to old middle-school math textbooks and on the other shelves I have found a mixture of mostly old textbooks and other hardbacks that are vaguely grouped into categories ranging from biology to history. Several oversized picture encyclopedias lie in a pile on the upper shelves, and around one dark corner I found a tome on the history of mathematical thought. Gems like Eyewitness’ metallic-covered Electricity are mixed in with locally-irrelevant period pieces like Let’s Travel in Japan (from 1960) which are interesting for their comedic value, but pretty much useless to anyone here.

Considering that the library is stocked primarily through donation, I have been continuously impressed by the resources and entertainment available in it. However, one must go in ready to search and should not be frustrated by the lack of alphabetization or subject categorization that usually eases the way in such endeavors. As most things in Malawi, a trip to the MCV library is a bit of an adventure and takes a little extra time, but you never know what treasures you will find.

It was while searching for a picture of phytoplankton (remember my incredulous biology students?) that I found the greatest treasure yet. Shoved into a dark and spider-webbed corner I came across stacks of musty old National Geographics. Those iconic yellow borders cued my brain’s ‘superior-photography-here’ circuit and I automatically reached my arm back into an area I would usually reserve for the end of my broom and started flipping through pages. I kid you not, but the third magazine I picked up had five full-page photographs of diatoms as seen through a microscope. Mission accomplished in less than 5 minutes. Realizing the educational potential of these neglected annals, I vowed to come back the next weekend to count the treasure.

So, last weekend I spent two hours hauling the magazines out into the fresh air, dusting off mouse turds while trying not to think of Hanta virus, taping and matching covers to the coverless, and chronologically ordering them to encourage further utilization and organization of this unique resource. When three shelves were full of neatly labeled tattered yellow spines, I had tallied about 150 magazines ranging in date from 1943 to 2005. Granted, some topics are more useful than others, and while I find the June 1956 issue on Alaska to be fascinating from a cultural standpoint, students here probably wouldn’t see the appeal. But then they might find the 1972 article about the Barabaig of Tanzania to be similarly entertaining.

As a Land of the Poor (monetarily, that is), Malawi is also a Land of Donations. Case in point is the wonderful library just described. And whether it be ancient National Geographics, or the faded Frisbee golf disc that I found several village boys tossing around last week, these donations can yield a trove of little treasures. Unexpected finds appear every week; Jesse and I are currently enjoying season 5 of the television show House copied from another teacher’s “flash” (as they call USB drives here). And while some American cultural phenomena are sure to cross international borders (Rambo V for instance), I definitely did not expect to find a sarcastic medical drama with incomprehensibly fast dialogue.

The misplaced artifacts are not all of a material nature either. While calculating the height of a tall dark tower using trigonometry, I was surprised to learn that my students already knew all about Rupunzel and her golden hair. Every time I find such an out of place snippet of American culture, I can help but think, “How on earth did that get here?” I like to imagine its journey. Who told these students that story? Whose suitcase did the Frisbee golf disc travel in? Through whose hands has it been bought, sold, and traded? Then I look six months in the future and wonder what little treasures I will end up leaving behind.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

South Luangwa Photos

A few weeks ago my family visited from Alaska and treated me to a five-day safari in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park. The park is world-renowned for its wildlife and I wanted to share some of the spectacular visuals that we we fortuante to experience. Unfortunately, internet (as always) limits space, but I hope you can get a taste from the few photos posted here. This is definitely a different Africa than our home in Malawi.

Morning on the Luangwa River. Home to crocodile, herons, and hundreds of hippos (Jesse's favorite animal). The hippos come out of the river to graze at night and we could here them munch on the grass no more that a few metres from our tent every night.

A baboon basks in the morning rays from high atop a tree.

An elephant gets a little curious about the land cruiser. A good portion of the park's elephants are tuskless due to a genetic mutation selected for by elephant ivory poaching.

A lioness descends from her arborial perch.

Jesse does his Farmer John imitation amidst a clearing of dead trees- a testament to the previously high elephant population that kills the trees by rubbing off their bark.

The colours of the remnants of water.
The park is entering the dry season which corresponds to the
tourist season since animals tend to cluster at easily viewed water holes.

A close-up of Nile cabbage, the main constituent of the marshes.

My favorite marsh inhabitant, the saddle-billed stork.
A close second is the crownded crane, unfortunately not pictured here.

Opps, forgot to look this one up in the bird book. I couldn't believe the number of species of birds that we saw and our guide ability to name a birds flying 100 metres away boarded on the supernatural.

Jesse examining a dead version of his favorite animal.

A giraffe recieving a neck-cleaning.

Shocked by the appearance of my flash, this chameleon posed perfectly.