Sunday, February 24, 2008

Amazing Grace and A Wretch Like Me

Habari za asubuhi. Good morning. Today marks our third full week away from home. The Kiswahili language continues to amaze and confound us. The structure jars with what our anglicized ears consider normal. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block we have encountered is the fact that this is a “noun class” language. While English verbs only change according to time (past, present, or future) and the singularity or plurality of the subject, Swahili verbs can change simply by what the noun is – if its a person, an animate or inanimate object, abstract idea, or place, the construction of the verb (and the adjectives on the noun) change.

When I first learned that Swahili was not a gendered language – in this way similar to English and unlike French – I thought this might make Swahili easy to learn. Not true. Instead of only worrying about which adjectives need an “E” to show off their Franco-femininity, Swahili requires you to remember a different set of linguistic rules for eight different classes of Nouns. For instance, the M-Wa class (‘m’ for singular and ‘wa’ for plural) consists of nouns which refer to people or living animals (dead animals are in a different class...the ‘n’ class). So when you use a noun from this class the adjective roots and verb roots will require the appropriate beginning. So a child is “mtoto” and falls into this class. So if I were to say the “mischievous child” I would say “mtoto msembufu” since “sembufu” is the adjective root. If I used another noun the same adjective could be (wasembufu, kisembufu, etc.). Confusing. But now throw a verb into the mix...such as Kupendeza (to love – ku is always the infinitive indicator) and you say Mtoto anapendeza, since “a” is the subject prefix, “na” indicates present tense, and “pendeza” is the verb root. Now I could say “alipendeza” for the past tense, and atapendeza for “future tense” not to mention the perfect and imperfect tenses. Now we are only on the 4th class of nouns and have four different rule systems to think through, but already our brains are drowning in a steaming pot of Swahili alphabet soup. Ok, now I have probably bored everyone out there, but bear with me, no more free Swahili lessons.

Our class has increased by one student this week. Ursula, the new student, is a Swiss-German in her late fifties who has signed onto a three year term to be Director of Care at the large Mwanzan hospital, Bugondo. She is hilarious simply because she is quickly enamoured and overwhelmed by the beauty that is Swahili, and even more quickly fed up with how “illogical dis all is. Ya, now zis is just stupit. Enough of dis already. Ven can ve go home!” Her frequent outbursts of annoyance are understandable since she has to translate all the Swahili into English and then into her native Swiss-German to make sense of it. Not to mention our teacher, Gaudence, possesses an inability – one common among Tanzanians apparently – to differentiate between the letter “R” and the letter “L”. We play and give plaise in church, and pray on the prayglound. A sign on our way to school actually reads “Site cleared for the construction of a new Raboritory” and Steve from CRWRC received a letter asking him to “Correct his Collections”. That alone has four possible meanings.

Jane, the receptionist at the language school, invited us to her church. We accepted to go and planned to meet her at 8 o clock at the Saba Saba market, about a 6 kilometer trip from our place. Bob drove us to the meeting point where Jane was waiting for us, we walked for another 10 minutes through the market and beyond to a small “church” that was more a living room with the couches and the chairs pushed against the wall, bright pink plastic flowers adorned a glass cube of a pulpit thrown into the center of the northern wall. Inside the glass pulpit was an arrangement of grasses and wildflowers. Immediately in front of the pulpit was a little table with a wicker collection basket draped in a doilie (unsure of spelling) (that is a lace-like covering for you non-Dutch readers). From the ceiling hung three large fold out ornaments in bright shiny tin-foil. The walls, near the ceiling, were decorated with pictures ranging from Christ on the cross to a picture of a girl and a cow wading in a rice paddy. Bumper stickers with slogans “God is All” and “Christ is King” are plastered in various places on the walls. The wall behind the pulpit is draped in large silk-looking sheets of purple, white, and pink. That is it. All the Christian kitsch you could handle rammed into one room that was stiflingly hot and scented with the liver and onions odour the human body tends to emit in such temperatures, provided the setting for what would be perhaps the strangest, and most definitely the longest worship service in my life to date.

Once inside, Jane invited us to sit on the couch directly opposite the pulpit. A position that would prove to be quite unfortunate since it was next to impossible to avert the gaze of the preacher, thus impossible to take a doze in the sauna like conditions of this church. Once assembled the church began its worship with a time for open prayer to God. At first there was a bit of mumbling as each member laid their petitions before God, but by the twentieth minute, these prayers had reached a frenzied pitch with women sobbing and wailing, wiping the tears from their eyes. Some of the younger men were pacing to and fro in a spiritual delirium while some of the younger girls rocked back and forth on the sofas. Vanessa and I exchanged looks (yes our eyes were open after about the 5th minute of this not-so-silent prayer) and wondered, not for the last time, how much longer would this go on. Turned out it would go on for almost 25 minutes. Next we sang. The singing was beautiful. The leader would sing out a tune and the congregation would chorus it back. Without books or sheet music they wove together an astonishing diversity of rhythms and voices into a pulsating harmony that transcended differences with its beauty and its truth.

Sunday school was led for the whole congregation by an angry-looking woman of formidable size. She was a preacher (distinguished from pastors... only men are considered pastors apparently) who must have assumed the spirit of Jonathan Edwards somehow, because in her presence I just felt like a sinner in the hands of an angry God. She would yell and scream and whisper and cry; she ran the entire gamut of emotions within this Sunday school message that ran the better part of 45 minutes. Ok, that was obviously the sermon, now what?
I like to think that what followed was some type of religious dance party. Two boys started hammering out beats on the bongo drums which worked the small group into a frenzy. The size of the group made it, unfortunately, hard for Vanessa and I to obtain the anonymity we so desperately sought. But in a 10 X 12 room where you are the only two White skinned people with burnt noses, anonymity was not an option. Now I know Self-knowledge/self-awareness are a vital part of any honest student’s life (I think Dooyeweerd even said “Know thyself” should be written on the doorposts of philosophy). I agree. And I’ll concede I’m pretty stiff even for a white guy. I’m not the first one out on the dance floor and I’m usually the first one off. Now after some awkward clapping and shoe shuffling I thought to myself, “Okay, you’re not doing so bad. If you can maintain this semblance of rhythm for another five minutes, I’m sure this will end and if they don’t give me an A for effort, at least I’ll get some sympathetic nods.” Now Vanessa was not helping me out here too much, in fact, she had a sweet position on my right hand side near the corner. As far as staying anonymous goes, she had me beat. Well, five minutes rolled by. I stopped clapping. Another five and I stopped shuffling my feet. Another five (and all this time the beat is getting faster, the drums are getting louder, and the room is ripe with the salty smell of moist skin) and I even start to stop the natural swaying your body does when it senses a beat. Okay, what time is it? I wondered. By the way, I’m wearing black dress pants and a long sleeved dress shirt, so I’m pretty sure I was contributing to that liver-and-onions aroma wafting into my nostrils. Sour Irony.

The dancing provided a spectacle, I’ll admit, neither of us were bored, despite this lasting the better part of an hour. There was jumping, war-cry-like shrieking, clapping, jazz hands, and intermittent shouts of hallelujah! and Amen! Before the end I was roped in by a woman twice my age shouting something in Swahili that got the members to laugh. “Hapanah, Pole. Asante Hapanah” (Trans. No, Sorry. Thank you, NO!) I tried to say, but was taken into the middle of this Soul train. What to do??? The lawnmower was not appropriate, the worm even less, the twist... well that wouldn’t be so bad, but no. To my relief, my dancing partner saw the deer-in-the-headlights look in my eyes and proceeded to escort me back to the edge of the circle where I could observe from a relatively safe distance.

Now we have been going for over two hours. It’s ten O’clock. I’m hungry, tired, and unbearably sweaty. But now it is time for the real sermon. The Sunday school was for the children (just a note: there were two children present) and this was for the adults. The same women spoke but there was a different translator who raced to match her speed and her fire. She really laid into us and I’ll be honest, when she began her sermon with a blood curdling scream I was pretty freaked out. She proceeded to examine the passage of Christ’s transfiguration, but from what I gathered, her message basically reiterated the story about six times. Plus the time spent by the translator reiterating the same story into English, I think that the whole sermon could have been shaved down by about 10 times. Nevertheless, this was another hour long ordeal. So now it is eleven o’clock. Worship is an endurance sport out here, honestly.

Well I’d love to go on in detailed descriptions about the next hour and a half, but you get the gist of it. There were a few more songs, an offering, a time to meet everyone, and then another time of communal praying. When all was said and done it was around 12:30 and began just after eight. I’ll admit, I felt somewhat inferior to these people who could worship so long without tiring; in fact, the church which neighbours with Steve and Jan (they told us this when we visited them later this afternoon) had been worshipping for about 24 hours in a row. It’s almost cliché now, but the African Church is truly on fire for God.

And then I got to thinking. Despite all my negative interpretations and sceptical evaluations, this service in a stuffy one room home in the impoverished countryside outside Mwanza was the closest to a heavenly experience one can get on this side of glory.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Then when we first begun.

Friday, February 22, 2008

road to the language school.
our back gate.
reading in the bonda.
dining room.
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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ancient African Wisdom

...all about me, heaven and earth and all that they contain proclaim that I should love you, and their message never ceases to sound in the ears of all mankind, so that there is no excuse for any not to love you. But what do I love when I love my God? Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcom to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God.
But what is my God? I put my question to the earth. It answered, "I am not God", and all things on earth declared the same. I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them, but they answered, "We are not your God. Seek what is above us." I spoke to the winds that blow, and the whole air and all that lives in it replied, "Anaximenes is wrong. I am not God." I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but they told me, "Neither are we the God whom you seek." I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, "Since you are not my God, tell me about him. Tell me something of my God."
Clear and loud they answered, "God is he who made us." I asked these things questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they gave.
Saint Augustine. Confessions. X.ix
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Sunday, February 17, 2008

I am because YOU are.

Hello all. Since the last post, much has happened here although time seems to have slowed down. Right now we are staying on the Africa Inland Church (AIC) Compound in the guest house of Bob and Esther Jeffers, a missionary couple who have served in Tanzania for 30 years and are full of interesting stories about life in the wild. Apparently Tanzania has modernized quite a bit even in the last ten years, and at its worst (the late 80s/early 90s) the socialist government of Tanzania had even shut off its borders to trade and it was impossible to buy anything (except locally grown fruits and vegetables) in the stores. Bob and Esther have been incredibly hospitable and have opened their home to us and have shared many of their stories and insights into what we can expect when we get to Kahunda and begin our work.

Now life in Mwanza is interesting. Like Dar there are frequent power outages, but unlike Dar there are also frequent water outages. In fact, in our first six days here we’ve had running water twice, both of which times we managed to nab a cold shower. But when it is about 30 degrees plus every day, two showers in a week is not enough. To drink water here is also an event. First the water has to be boiled for 20 minutes, then run through a triple layered filter system, than shocked with a sterilizing fluid. Because this process takes such a large part of everyone’s day, no one was impressed with me on the first day that the water stopped working when I used a full cooler of the drinking water to flush the toilet. In my defence, they may have been even less impressed if I had not, but live and learn.

The guest house here is nice. We have our own room with a little kitchenette and dining room, shower and bathroom. Small but “gezelic” (spelling?). There are a few downsides to this place though. First, the neighbour’s cows, which seem to be in perpetual labour, are about 20 yards from our window and let out blood curdling moos every 20 minutes. Then there are Bob’s demon-possessed dogs which are right outside our window. Now these would not be so bad if it were not for a homeless man and his Dog who decided to put together a makeshift home of plastic bags and logs right outside our window on the other side of the wall around Bob and Esther’s property. As I type this, these dogs are already going at it. On top of all of this, there is the Muslim call to prayer over the mosque loudspeakers that reverberate off the rocky hillsides and lake water with stunning clarity. The noise is an unbearable cross of Bollywood and Machiavelli.

Ok, but enough whining. Things are looking up. Mwanza, as I said earlier, has a much more provincial feel than Dar Es Salaam and Vanessa and I have felt much more secure in traveling outside of the gated communities of CRWRC and into the city. We walk each morning for our Swahili lessons – a good 20 minute walk into town – with incredible views of Lake Victoria and its many islands and Granite hillsides. (Not to mention the plethora of Birds to see on the way – see pictures.) Despite this being the rainy season, we’ve only had a few brief showers and mostly sun for which we are thankful – especially because the rains can really make the roads quite bad, and in some places inaccessible.

Learning Swahili is fun because there is only Vanessa to laugh at me brutalize words like Nne...pronounced “NN – Nay” (means ‘four’). Our teacher is Mr. Gaudence. Actually it may just be Gaudence, but we’re both still unsure if that’s his real name. It, apparently, means happy, which is fitting for this guy because he laughs a lot, and usually for no apparent reason. We both laugh with him with that “I-have-no-idea-what-is-so-funny” look in our eyes, which just gets him to laugh harder, with his nostrils flared and this almost nervous look in his eyes. I hope to get to the bottom of this soon.

There are many things that are interesting about Swahili, from the little bit we’ve learned to date. First, where English has separate subject and verbs, the Swahili combines them to form a single word and, depending on which of the eight noun classes it is in, will follow a different set of rules for how to make the word. So, par exempla, when we say “It was” we separate the subject “It” from the verb “to be” and change the verb to “was” to indicate a past tense. The Swahili make all of this one word. “Kuwa” is the infinitive form of “to be” and “i” is the Swahili subject form of “it”. In order to make the verb tense past they add “li” as an infix. (Suffixes go after, Prefixes go before, and the Infix goes – you guessed it). So to say “It was” you’d say “Ilikuwa”. This comes in handy in many of the simple dialogues since KUWA, like our “to be,” is the most used verb form in the language.

Another interesting aspect of the Swahili language is the length that formal greetings take place.
Typical conversation:
Person A: Hodi! Hodi! (Knock! Knock!... Can I come in)
Person B: Karibu! (Welcome!)
A: Hujambo? (Jambo = the news or issues, u = subject form of you, H = negative indicator.... So, there is no news or issues with you?)
B: Sijambo. Na Wewe? (Sijambo = yes, there is no new news/concerns with me. Na Wewe = And you?)
A: Sijambo. Mama Hajambo?
B: Hajambo. Na wewe, wtotos hawajambo?
A: Hawajambo. Na wewe...
(now I think this can go on indefinitely, but what they do is ask about the issues or concerns with each other’s mother, brother, sister, grandparent, cousins, nephews, roommates... ad infinitum)
B: Habari za hapa? (loosely translated: How is here? How is your place?)
A: Nzuri Sana. Na Wewe, Habari za huko? (How is there?)

(This proceeds into asking each other how their home is, how their work is, how their morning is..etc. and responses range from Nzuri = good to salama = peacefull with kabisa or sana added to mean “very’ or tu added to mean “just”)

Quite interesting, and, Gaudence says, the reason that many Tanzanians are usually late for meetings and events is that they spend 30 to 40 minutes of their walk to work engaging in these dialogues. But things are changing.

One morning on our way home from class two small girls in matching school uniforms followed behind us, whispering and giggling. Getting the feeling we were being followed, Vaness and I turned around and tried to strike up a conversation with our newly acquired Swahili. “Hujambo?” we tentatively asked. “Sijambo” they giggled, along with a string of bouncing noises we didn’t comprehend. Then in English, “Do you have cents sir? Cents? Money?” Later in the week, we drove with Steve to buy some new laying hens for his place and were swarmed by a group of young boys asking for money. In Swahili, Steve berated them for asking us for money before they had even properly greeted us. The traditional forms of greeting are an important custom of tribal life and reveal the interdependence of social networks that make up the identity of most Tanzanians. A common phrase among the Tanzanians which highlights this is “I am, because you are.” Yet such disregard for custom is becoming the recent trend among the Tanzanian youth and is indicative of a turning away from the importance that community and social networks have played in tribal Tanzanian life and a move towards (what is typically viewed as Western, especially American) form of individualism. Of course, such a division into either/or arguments is an inaccurate simplification; in fact, the money that they are asking for is (if obtained) used to support the individual’s network of friends and extended family.

I can sympathize partially with the youth, especially after living in a culture where you really only greet those on the street you know, and even then a curt nod and simple “hello” does the trick. It’s fast, efficient, and wards off any unwanted small talk. But perhaps this breakdown in communication has become such a normalized part of my world that it no longer is the problem it perhaps once was. In fact, if I think about the recurring topic of discussion concerning the damaging consequences surrounding Internet communication technologies, I wonder if all the worry and concern will be laughable in ten or twenty years time. This isn’t to say that the breakdown isn’t serious. It is in Canada (and the larger West) as it is here in Tanzania.

Both experiences with the begging children brought to my mind a letter written by Julian Barnes in his “Letters to London”. Barnes writes that he remembers how at each Christmas, carollers would come singing down the London streets, stopping door to door in order to spread the Christmas cheer. However, by the late 80’s he noticed a subtle, but important, change in this Christmas ritual. The carollers no longer sang for the sake of singing, but would come to the door, palm extended, waiting to be paid for the goods they were delivering. Carolling had become a business transaction of sorts. Make of Barne’s account what you will, but the turn to capitalism comes at a cost. In “Choruses from the Rock,” T.S. Eliot gets at this when he writes:

When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city’?
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community.’

Barnes’ letters were written as a running commentary on what he perceived to be the negative social repercussions that supply side taxation and trickledown economics had had in England. In Barnes’ book, he claims that the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. But is that the case?

I am no economist, but perhaps Рas the clich̩s go Рthe sacrifice that capitalism makes is a loss, or rupture, in the social fabric into which man was created to live. It places primacy in the individual and self-interest over genuine altruism. When this becomes a structure for a moral code, as is the case with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, almost anything an individual wishes to do is permissible.

But don’t get me wrong; when the ideas behind socialism and the ideas behind capitalism gain legs, the race is not even a contest.

Here is a fascinating excerpt from an interview Thatcher gave with the magazine, Woman’s Own that begins to explain how what is commonly (at least from the Academics I studied under) believed to be the endemic problems of the Capitalist agenda:

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no Government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour

Unfortunately this is often where Thatcher is most misrepresented, but I think what she means here is that in order to look after our neighbours we first have to make sure we have looked after ourselves; in other words, the best (and only) way that one can truly look after their neighbour is if they are looked after themselves. As far as that goes, it makes sense. Here in Tanzania, according to the stories of missionaries who have been here the better part of 30 years, people feel obligated to look after their neighbours to the point where they will do so even if it means they do not know where the money for their next meal will be. This is the tribal system of social economics: If Joe gets paid Friday and Lucy and Alice know this, they can ask for money and he is obligated to give it to them, even if he knows the likelihood of seeing that money again is nil. If someone in the community is industrious and makes some money, he is perceived to owe his larger community. This is why it is hard to get ahead, because once you do you are quickly taken back down to the common denominator. Also, people simply do not live for tomorrow. They live for today. If they have a debt that must be paid Sunday but their brother asks for money Saturday, they will give the money without hesitation. Now in part this may be a strong application of the passage about looking to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but one of the many things separating us from the animal and plant kingdoms is the ability to have a savings account.

This whole way of thinking seems to me unfortunate and frustrating to say the least.

Change is slow. Partly because Tanzanians who grow up in Tanzania do not know any other culture and resist change and partly because the few who go to the States, Canada, or Europe to study rarely return. Another part of the problem, I think, is the confusion Western missionaries face in regards to offering solutions. The top-down approach of missions has been abandoned for something more symbiotic, but this shift seems to have created some ambiguity as to where, when, and how someone from the West can make suggestions about another culture’s problems without being patronizing? Even before this can be done, though, a problem has to be identified and labelled as such? Is the problem even a problem, or is it merely an aberration from what we consider normative?

Here is a passage from Cannery Row, a book given to me by a friend before leaving. At first I was a bit annoyed with Steinbeck’s style, by the end I was more than annoyed with his rather dark vision of life that is whitewashed with his turn to the basic relationships that unite people in a community. Despite my cynicism of his overall worldview, I think he takes up the debate I’ve been thinking about the past week (but in the American context) with incredible insight:
“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we that we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Is Steinbeck right? Is self-centredness implicit in a system that places a lot of stock in individual production and consumption of goods? Are these two visions mutually exclusive? They may be now, but they weren’t always.

Can things improve? Can we use words such as “better” to compare cultures or must we be trapped in the relativistic vocabulary of “difference” only? Personally I think both need attention, and the problem is not either/or but a question of when. When do we draw a line and say this practice is problematic and here is a possible solution? When do we embrace the difference of another culture and celebrate the diversity of God’s kingdom? In the aforementioned poem by Eliot he goes on to provide an image in which individuals and, by extension, cultures can grow and change. They must, like the Jews under Nehemiah, build with the sword in one hand and the trowel in another - constantly uplifting that which is good while warding off the evil from within and without. But again, this puts us in the categories of Black and White, categories that demand a universal or normative standard. An unsavoury concept to many.

Ok, so that’s a tangent, but one that has flavoured the conversations we have had over the past two weeks. If any readers have thoughts, questions, concerns, or insights, I am all ears. Type away.

Oh, and this Saturday Steve, from CRWRC took Vanessa and I to the Serengeti. Hope you enjoy the pictures.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day Trip to Serengeti National Park.

Monitor Lizard.
Shade is a hot commodity on the Savannah.

Don't remember the name of this bird, but had an amazing amount of colours on its wings.
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Sick. Eagle was just taking off as we drove up.
Asante Sana.
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Reticulated Giraffes. They run in slow mo. but (according to Dave) they can kill a lion with one well placed kick.
A Dikdik. These tiny Bambi-looking creatures are very rare...and look like a Rump Roast on legs. Bottom of the food chain??
Maybe (definitely) lower than the Dikdik on the food chain is the Maribu stork.
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These lions were lying quite a ways off the main road in some long grass. There were about 6 females and 2 males.
The silver backed Jackal. Supposedly rare, but we saw seven running alongside the main roadway early in the morning.
The Kate Waterbuffalo. Enormous and ornery.
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The Gold Crested Cranes doing what they do.
We just happened to look back at this tree alongside the road and noticed a Marshall Eagle sitting right at the top.
An elephant emerging from the Thistle trees.
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Inspecting some animal Dung. Tasted like Zebra.
Tilapia Fish from Lake Victoria.
Stampede of Wildebeests...almost.
The Secretary bird.
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Mama and Baby Baboon.
Shotgun Simba room. SWEEET!
Gerrit, Henry, and Isaac collecting weaver nests (which are incredible). Henry is such a scrooge.
The glorious Western edge of the Serengeti Park.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Black Storks making their nests.
Granite boulders.

The road up into the hills. (About a 15 minute walk from our place).
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