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.