Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Canoe from the Cradle

Lake Victoria and plank boats at Gaaba, a port town near Kampala.
I spent the holidays with the lovely Sister of Saint Francis, a catholic order of nuns, and Lauren, here lakeside in Kampala, Uganda. Though my weeks has been filled with plenty of overeating, relaxing and wine drinking (or Balancing as our new term has been coined from the fruity South African wine Balance) I still didn't stray far from the boat yard.

Lake Victoria is in the Albertine Rift section of the Great Rift Valley here in East Africa. If you're rusty on your anthropology, this lush and extremely wet chain of lakes is known as the "Cradle of Humanity", where eons ago (more than 200,000 years) the first humans began to play around with consciousness, stand upright, use their extremely dexterous hands to make things like tools, and began to innovate. That's right, the first canoes undoubtedly came from the African Great Lakes, dug from single trees or even made from the papyrus reed which grows abundantly in the Lakes region. It would have been a funny sight, seeing your great grandpa (a thousand generations back) trying to ride a fresh log to make fishing easier, but make no mistake, he (or she) was one of the greatest inventors of all time.

Single piece paddles for sale at the port.

Yes, since being raised by quite a nurturing mother, Africa, we have used our environment to make many new things, and added quite a lot of ideas to the pool of possibility. But the boat I was able to help build this week lake side is a combination of necessity and ancient ideas.  Not necessarily a canoe, the plank boats of Northern Lake Victoria today are made as quickly and cheaply as possible, combining a couple board with nails in a way that works and has worked for a long time (more on the original plank boats of Victoria in the next post).

A central board is placed at the bottom and two slightly angled boards are added to that with a temporary ribbing system for support (later replaced by seat and carry boards). Two more planks are added to the side with a stem as a guide and a flat back board. A keep is added and strengthened with aluminum. I spent a few days in Gaaba and was able to help my new friends put the final nails into the useful little craft. Thus getting my canoe building fix and learning some new things.

Sealing the seams

Its hard to feel as if you matter with thoughts about the general scope of humanity here in the Great Rift Valley. But I am also continuously humbled by the scope of knowledge and ability for many of the people I meet to work harder then I believed was possible. I am even more so humbled by being continuously uprooted from culture to culture and place to place this year. It has taught me the power and beauty of simply being a part of it all. Even to contribute a single nail to these beautiful boats is an opportunity to be appreciated.

Just putting in a single nail.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Walking to Wenchi Crater Lake

Juniper canoes of Lake Wenchi

Into the mountains west of Addis Ababa, Sam Lewin (the infamous jazz rhythm master/ humanitarian) and I took the earliest cram packed minivan possible to the town of Ambo, famed for its sparkling and holy spring water said to cure medical and spiritual ailments alike. From this small bustling town, we walked up and up and up, covering a few dozen miles through tef (local grain) and livestock fields.  We were heading to the highest point in the region, a place of which I heard a rumor that there were dugout canoes! Walking our feet bloody, we certainly earned our view, as we peeked over the rim of 10,000ft high Crater Lake Wenchi.

Our view coming over the rim

Inhabited by around a thousand Oromo people, known for their farming skills, the environment of the extinct volcano is stunning, fertile and lush. It almost felt tropical, at such a high altitude. One crafty local farmer even shared with me his bounty of beautiful apple! So Sam and I ate the delicious local cuisine including plenty of wild, smoky tasting honey. Not to mention that I was able to admire, and paddle, the dugout canoes, crafted from single mountain juniper trees.

sitting on a mat of cedar leaves, the canoe was fun to paddle

The canoes are a rectangle shape, I'm guessing due to the relatively short stature of the juniper tree. We sat on the lake after a couple good floats and making friends and music with the local kids. We ate a few cattails, which are delicious by the way, and watched the sunset over the rim. At night, we also were lake side, bearing the cold to appreciate more stars that I have ever seen. The lakes of Canada, the mountains of Peru and Colorado, a dhow off the coast of Zanzibar, they all had amazing stars. But we were truly blessed this night with the hum of more light than dark. No thoughts, words, or attempts at poetry can make justice. We were grateful to be there. They are there, out in space, every night and day.

There is a small monastery church on the island in the middle of the lake. It is more than 600 years old and is sanctuary to a bell once owned by an emperor. We watched early morning canoes paddle to the island through the fog. It was quite a moment of peace amidst the chaos of our lives. What a holiday, as those important Christian dates are coming close, should be.

A few good Ethiopian horses carry us out of the Crater

I'm leaving the wonderful place of Ethiopia and headed back to Africa's Great Lakes to the hip and funky city of Kampala, Uganda. What adventures shall I find there?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Building a Tana Tankwa

The first knot
Building a Tana tankwa (papyrus canoe) is beautifully simple. The 3 meter long reeds are cut from the edges of the lake (trying hard to avoid the huge hippos and crocodiles who show only their eyes at the surface). After soaking a few bundles of dried (2-3 weeks) papyrus reeds, a handful are tied (using nylon rope, replacing a grass rope) to a wooden pole the length of the desired canoe hull. The two ends of the rope go each way up the side of the boat, to be looped and weaved around added papyrus.

Weaving in the bulk of the Tankwa from the central pole

The weaving process uses 4 to 8 large papyrus reeds looped onto the bundle with the cut ends pointing into the boat. The whole time the builder is careful to tie tightly and shape the boat as he wishes while tying.

Carrying more reeds to soak in the lake, note a large cargo tankwa in the background

The hull starting to take shape after an hour of weaving.
The reeds overlap each other, showing no exposed ends on the outside of the craft. A curved scythe (also used for harvesting papyrus along with local grain) is used to thin the ends of the tankwa.

Once enough papyrus is weaved upwards to make a suitable hull, the ends are lashed together, simply by looping the rope over and over to make a curved tip. To ease this process, the builder cuts papyrus from the ends, or cuts it down the middle, as well as bends it upwards.

Fixing the ends

Cutting the ends and tightening with the nylon rope
Cutting the ends, with a slight curve upwards (less so than the ocean ready caballito), a chunk of reeds are cut about a half meter long and added to the inside of the boat as a seat as well as form for the hull.

Paddling a new canoe out into the lake

Though water slowly seeps through the reeds, paddling the tankwa is easy and fun. Not a bad day, building a boat and the paddling it into the lake, all the while making lots of local friends. Cheers to Lake Tana!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Northern Ethiopia and the Source of the Blue Nile

Amhara youth paddling his papyrus Tankwa past a flock of pelicans
Wondering where I've been the last few weeks? I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and began traveling straight north into the highlands, lush fields of tef (local grain), cattle and sheep welcoming on the way. I came to the town of Bahir Dar on the southern edge of the massive Lake Tana, who's plethora of birds and humming and forested island monasteries (some 1400 years old) only seemed to celebrate the fact that I had finally reached it - the source of the Blue Nile.

Fishermen with papyrus canoes (Tankwa) resting in the shade of a fig tree
The driving reason for my trip to the Lake is the papyrus canoe or tankwa which line the banks and papyrus reed ecosystems of the lake, still used since the time of ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian civilizations shrouded this beautiful land in a sense of pride and mystery. I had a chance to build this unique boat with a local fisherman. Unique in design, yet strikingly similar in purpose to those reed boats of South America, building the boat was a happy and communal experience, those wonderful moments (to be explored more in the next post) with my Amhara friends will not be forgotten.

Blue Nile Gorge, south of Lake Tana, as the river flows to Sudan and on to Egypt and the Mediterranean

After building a Tankwa, the mountains of northern Amharaland kept calling me. The Amhara people are one of the most populous tribes of Ethiopia, dominating the highlands of the north country. The are the shepards of the Simien Mountains, a World Heritage Site and completely unique ecosystem of 4000 meter high plateau, whose baboon and ibex covered cliffs simply drop of the edge of the world, heading north to Eritrea.

A troop of baboons feeding on the edge of a cliff

 I spent three nights with my Turkish friend Haydar, hiking along the cliffs among troops of baboons, watching out for the Simien Wolf, Hyenas, Jackals, incredible eagles and the Walia Ibex, a species unique to Ethiopia. My wilderness addiction has been satisfied. All I can say is wow. Go to the Simien Mountains and see for yourself, watch that self change.

Standing on the edge of the Simien Mountains

Look forward to the next post about building a Lake Tana tankwa and paddling it amongst the reeds, and the hippos!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Story of Steel: Lake Victoria and the Haya Mtumbwi

Sunrise from Bukoba

I've just had a newspaper full of senene or fried and spiced grasshoppers, a local and seasonal specialty here in Bukoba, Tanzania. I've made it to the Tanzanian side (south west) of Lake Victoria, the world second largest body of fresh water (after Lake Superior). Those crunchy bugs tasted delicious after a long morning spent paddling the Mtumbwi and fishing for Nile Perch (the invasive species known for annihilating at least 200 native species and nearly destroying the freshwater ecosystem. I had no problem reeling in as many of these destructive buggers as possible near Bukoba's bird haven islands.

Dozens of metal Mtumbwi scattered on the Lake Victoria shores

The people of the Bukoba region are the Haya, who still maintain a distinct language and number more than a million people in the area. The Haya have lived in the region for more than two thousand years and are commonly noted to be amongst Africa's (and the world's) most developed civilizations in antiquity. More than 1400 years ago, the Haya people invented a form of high powered steel manufacturing, as well as being one of the first civilizations to produce steel on a large scale, hundreds of years before anywhere in Europe.

Paddling the Mtumbwi for netfishing
Yet today, that steel making knowledge can only be seen in its influence on the world and region, but not in its local production. A few elders at the early end of the century still mad the knowledge of crafting kilns, but overtime, industrialized steel from the rest of the world has replaced the need for making steel here in Bukoba.

That same impact of necessity has created the metal canoe that Haya locals in Bukoba can be seen paddling out to fish. The sheets of aluminum, usually used for roofing as well, can be molded like a canvass from a wooden bow, stern and set of ribs. Thanks to the innovations of Haya in ancient times, cheap metal of available for the use of Haya today.

Man in Kidea fishing for Nile Perch with line and bag to put caught fish

The Kidea (Key-Day-ah) is a small bamboo boat (filled with foam) that I saw fishing this morning. A few different men were paddling these one manned boats just a kilometer off of shore. This style of boat apparently comes from the Mwanza region (to the east), used by a neighboring tribe to the Haya. Though not very quick, the Kidea is stable and inexpensive, bringing in a solid day's catch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

To be a Zanzibari Fundi

Mponda with Finished Ngalawa model

The Fundis (or master craftsmen of Nungwi) are not just boatbuilders, they are problem solvers, masters of the ocean, fishermen, and artists. These past weeks I have had a barrage of intense and wonderful experiences opening my eyes in what it means to be a Fundi. We finished our model Ngalawa (though I'm only partway finished with a smaller one on my own) and now I feel pretty confident about the layout of the boat and how to build a large, open ocean, Zanzibari dugout canoe. Our week began with a maiden voyage in the reed at low tide, careful not to step on urchins chasing the incredibly fast little boat.

Building an Ukafi (Swahili for paddle)

We spent a full day with adze and block plane building a gorgeous Ukafi (though varnish isn't a traditional step, I felt it was worth the protection). A curved blade is a normal design with a pointed tip. The heavier the better, it seems.

Dropping anchor at a good fishing spot

I went fishing yet again, but this time in an Ngalawa in the open ocean, pulling up fifteen or so whitefish with my line, though Juma, the Ngalawa owner must have caught 40! I finally got to see how the Ngalawa is with a paddle and sail in the sometimes rough Indian Ocean.

Adze practice
Then we began finishing a dhow, one that unfortunately I won't get to help put into the water. I learned to wield the adze with accuracy and deliberateness as well as use a bow drip and and seal the boat with cotton. Ive learned the processing of designing the dhow and building it but am far from having the immense knowledge of  a Nungwi fundi.

Mponda and Mkadara (octopus fisherman) measuring the dhow ribs

Thus my time has come to an end in Nungwi. Everyday I learn both how much theres is to know and how little I do. My respect for the people who uphold these beautiful traditions has grown in each of these days. A This week I move from Zanzibar into East Africa's great lakes.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Daily Epics: Living in Nungwi

Helping to put a Dhow in the water
 I'm too busy net fishing in dugout canoes to be writing a blog! However worry not, I'll give you a few tastes of the moments which make Zanzibar one of the most incredible places on Earth.

All day, every day, the beachfront boat workshops fill the air with a symphony of hammering and woodcutting. Yet this week the music change dramatically from hammering to grunts and "Pull!" as I got to take part in launching a Dhow (in Swahili Dau) with 50 other local boys and men, hauling hard on the ropes as the keel rolled over logs into the sea. Though this wasn't a boat I worked on, I still was infiltrated with the pride of being a part of the community which builds such beautiful boats. 

Two Mtumbwis, or dugout canoe without an outrigger.

Mponda finishing a model Dhow
 Then I've been net fishing with a group of locals, who own dugout canoes called Mtumbwis, made from single mango trees. We take two of the canoes and make a huge circle with nets, as 15 or so of us smack the water with sticks to scare an assortment of reef fish into the nets. What an intense and rewarding job.

Finally, we are finishing our models and now i'm ready for the big boats (See a picture of the finished Ngalawa model at sail in the next post!). I could spend many life times here and know little compared to the many-generation craftsmanship here in the Nungwi boat yard. Yet being a part of it all is wonderful enough. Last night I got to play goatskin, coconut palm drums by a fire with many local and non-local friends. What a celebration it was! Seriously, we're at the ocean, what's not to celebrate?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Learning the Ngalawa, Learning the Sea

Ngalawa and Dhow builder Mponda with a one person Ngalawa, note the low tide.
Ive begun to learn the Ngalawa. A traditional double outrigger sailing canoe made from a solid tree for the hull, the Ngalawa is a beautiful sight coasting across the reef. Fundi (Swahili for master) Mponda is truly an incredible artist and teacher. For the past week we have been working intensely on a model Ngalawa, of just one Zirah (the elbow to middle finger traditional measurement), or roughly a half meter. After building this model, and a smaller model on my own, I will know the process of building the Ngalawa and be able to work on the larger ones.

Cutting the bow with an adze

After finding our wood (usually Mango brought from Pemba, the northern Zanzibari island) digging out the hull can begin, shaping it very thinly with an adze and a block plane.

The array of tools used for building the model and large Ngalawa alike

Once we have built the hull of the model Ngalawa an intricate rigging system for sail and outrigger must be built, which will be the focus of the next post.

Last week I went sailing on a Dhow with my friend Yotta, the captain, and his crew of four. We sailed out 50 miles into the ocean and dropped our nets as the sun was setting. Sleeping under old pieces of sail until the moon rose, where we could see to pull the nets and fish back into the boat. Sailing together by night back to Nungwi we made it just as the sun was rising again. with a fresh pot of ugali, or corn flower, to eat with a tuna we had caught.
Yotta deciding where to drop the net.
 I had never slept on a boat, without a motor, in the open ocean. This was true wilderness. No boat, no signs of other humans, except for the wooden dhow right under our feet, rocking in the waves. I have always grown up on rivers, and it hit me, the ocean is a entirely different environment.

I have a lot to learn about the Ngalawa, the way of the ocean, and Zanzibar culture before I will freely sail my own Ngalawa and catch the delicious fish of the Zanzibar reefs. Day by day, however, I become more rooted, more embedded, more intrigued, but most importantly I learn how little I know and how much there is to know.
A beached Ngalawa after putting the Merengo (outriggers) on to the hull.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Zanzibar the Beautiful

Sunset at the Dhow building workshops, northern Zanziba

It has been a spicy, complicate, beautiful, and fishy welcome to the unique archipelago of Zanzibar. A semi-independent nation with Tanzania, the small islands off the coast of eastern Africa that make up Zanzibar have perhaps a 50,000 year continuum of human history since the first human explorers floated cut logs from the mainland. Overtime, Arab, Africa, European and Indian traders converges on these islands not only trading goods, but ideas. Known informally as the spice islands, Zanzibar is not just unique because of the cinnamon and ginger in the amazing local chai, but because of its multi-spiced culture. Eating chapati in an Arab style coral house while speaking an Africa language (Swahili) is just a mild mid-day example. And everyday I spend here it is more and more clear that this is not the Middle East, Asia or even Africa. THIS is Zanzibar.

Zanzibar Dhow anchored at low tide
This amazing melting pot, and the sustaining of an island population with fish, wouldn't have been possible without the Dhow. Approximately a 1400 year old tradition, when traders first started inhabiting the spice islands, the Dhow was, and still is, the main mode of getting the job done and supporting this intricate economy. I am living in Nungwi, the very northern tip of Zanzibar's largest island. I am staying at the Mnarani Sea Turtle Conservation Pond, right on the beach, literally next to Zanzibarr's largest dhow construction community.

Two Zanzibari fishermen sailing a Ngalawa
 Yet the Dhow isn't why I came to Zanzibar. Its the fast and beautiful boat the predates the Dhow by an unknown amount of time, perhaps thousands and thousands of years. It is the Ngalawa. The Ngalawa is a think double outrigger canoe often used with a sail to fish the biodiverse coral reefs of Zanzibar. The Ngalawa is an ancient and amazing tradition and I have become the apprentice of a man named Mponda.

Zanzibar the beautiful, the majestic dhow sail

Monday, October 22, 2012

Building a Caballito

Carlo selecting reed bundles on Huanchaco beach
Building a Caballito begins with selecting four solid bundles of reeds of more than two meters in length. The boat is built in two main hull pieces, each containing a mother piece and a child piece, which goes inside of the mother piece one meter from the stern.

Victor and Carlo begin typing the mother bundle together

One the bundles are prepared, broken pieces and unwanted reeds discarded, the mother pieces are tied together four times around at the base with thinner rope.

Carlo putting foam in the child piece
Once a little foam, obviously a new practice for better floatation, is put inside the child piece, both child ´pieces are wrapped tightly.

Tying the mother and child together
The child pieces is then put inside the mother piece, using a reed as a measuring stick, one meter from the back end. This creates a basket on the back used to put fish in, so they wont flop out in the waves.

pulling tightly on the ropes
Once tied tightly, and tightened twice, the two hull pieces, with both mothers and child pieces, are tied together using larger rope, roughly eight times. An intricate tying system runs the rope laterally on each side to the next full hull encircling of the rope. Over the basket, rope runs on each side for the placement of bamboo for strength later.

Using larger rope to ties the entire thing together, basket in the back for fish can be seen here
Using the knees, the hull is bent upwards, allowing the boat to buck over the waves easily, and giving it its characteristic shape. Once bent, the boat is tied even tighter to maintain its shape.

finishing touches on the tip, curved high to buck over the waves
The ends are tied tightly until they come to a point no larger than a human thumb.

Carlo carrying the boat to the water, note to pieces of bamboo placed in the basket for strength.
When the boat is finished, it can be carried dry over a shoulder. It weights roughly one hundred pounds at this point. When wet it can weight much more. The fisherman sit, as if sitting on a horse, just one large rope pass up from the basket, right in the center of the Caballito. Ridding the Caballito over the waves is a beautiful experience. With feet dipped into the cold water, and full body rocking, it is an quick and natural connection to the water.

Riding over the waves to go fishing