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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving in Ethiopia!

Ever since I took my hunter's training and safety class at Davis, I have wanted to kill and prepare my own Thanksgiving turkey. Well, there are no turkeys in Ethiopia, but I did get pretty close - I killed and plucked and roasted my own Thanksgiving chicken!

Thanksgiving up here in the mountains was a blast. Three of our Peace Corps friends joined us, as did Eshete, Ambaye, our friend Shif, and two random Americans who were camping near to our house. We made a ton of food, and despite our limited resources, it turned out quite well! In addition to the chicken, we had green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, bread rolls, candied carrots, green salad, shiro for the less-adventurous Ethiopians, apple pie, lime meringue pie and a cake! What a feast! We managed to use every single dish in our house (and I had dish duty the next day, so lots of dish washing for me!) and most of our chairs, so I would call the party a success.

The highlight of the meal was when we went around and said what we were thankful for. Most people were thankful for the opportunity to be in Ethiopia, the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving away from home with friends and new family, things like that. There were one unusual 'I'm thankful for..." though. Shif, our Ethiopian friend and tour guide, said he was thankful for his mother, because she was the best cook in the world. To note, his mother was not at Thanksgiving, nor had she cooked any of the food that was on the table in front of him. It was pretty great! Then, when we asked him to translate what he had said into Amharic so that the other Ethiopian guests could understand him, he simply said "Thank you." :)

I have spent a lot of this week thinking about all the things I am thankful for. Being here, obviously - the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, to interact with local people and learn not only about my research subjects but also about life and culture in a place that often seems worlds away from my life in America. I'm thankful for all the opportunities that have led me down this path - the great education I've had access to, the University of Michigan Gelada Research Project for letting me join the team even though I'm a Princeton student, my supportive family who not only encourages me to do crazy things like move to Ethiopian to live with monkeys, but also is willing to come visit me here, my mental and physical health, the financial and emotional support that my extended family has provided, things like that. I'm thankful for my boyfriend Sam, who emails me every day without fail - even when he is traveling or has no power or is trapped in a blizzard or a flood - and who is taking time off work and school to live with me here for almost two months. He's not a traveler by nature, so coming halfway around the world simply because I asked him to is quite something! I'm thankful for all my friends and relatives back home who write to me and keep me from being lonely up here, and who send me crazy packages and letters even though it's expensive. And I'm particularly thankful for the community I live in here in the mountains - my two housemates Ali and Julie who provide constant food, love, entertainment and opportunities for deep conversations, our three Ethiopian assistants Eshete, Ambaye and Setey who cook for us, teach us about Ethiopia AND help collect all our data, our neighbors who bring us water and do our laundry and chase cows and sheep away from our study site and send their kids over to entertain us, our friend Shif who makes sure we have tomatoes and olive oil and fuel for our car, our Peace Corps friends Derek and Claire who share their house, their garden, their dogs and their care packages with us every week, and all the random Ethiopians who recognize our car and wave at us as we drive to work in the morning. Being here is such an amazing, life-changing experience, and the people really make it worthwhile. I am so excited that my family and Sam and his sister Ruth are coming out here in a few weeks to experience it with me!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying the long weekend. I'm off to build and decorate the gingerbread house that my Aunt Catherine sent me - another Barale tradition that will be continued here in Africa!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Keeping Busy

I can't believe it's already mid-November! That means I've been up here for more than two and a half months. The time is flying by - I'm always shocked when I look at a real calendar and find out the date! Data collection has been progressing really well. We've been getting on average 85 focals a week, although this week we managed 97 - hurrah! I am hopefully going to start some preliminary data analysis soon to confirm that the data I'm collecting is what I need to answer my questions. I think that social network aspect of my project will be especially cool - I have a TON of data on play groups, proximity, and grooming interactions. It will be really neat to work up the social networks and see how the different types compare to one another. I also have a bunch of basic data about juvenile behavior that I think will be really neat to compile and publish. I have 51 individuals ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years old (though most are in the 2-4 year old range); they come from 8 family groups with really different compositions, so that will be interesting to look at also. At one extreme is the J unit - it is composed of 2 adult females, 2 adult males, and a single male juvenile. At the other end is the Z unit - 7 adult females, 3 adult males and 14 kids (10 of which are in my study group currently). Looking at differences in social relationships in these widely varied early social environments should be fascinating. I can't wait to see what my data has to say!

I'm on a science binge at the moment because on Thursday, I had the opportunity to discuss my work with Dr. Martyn Murray, a Scottish ecologist who has pretty much the best set of jobs in the world (in my opinion). In addition to being a professor at the University of Edinburgh, he also is an author (he wrote a book that combines nature and travel writing with his personal experiences studying ecology and conservation in Africa) AND an environmental consultant for the EU (which is the capacity we met him in - he is traveling around Ethiopia looking at national parks as potential conservation investments for the EU)! Despite his many hats and responsibilities, he still has the time and the inclination to sit down with three young ecologists and talk science. And he brought us six cans of green beans from Addis for our Thanksgiving dinner! We had no idea he was in Ethiopia, let alone the Simiens, but word traveled through the grapevine of our friends that we were trying to get some canned green beans and he came through for us. It was a really unexpected and fun evening. It always rewarding to see where a background in ecology can take you, particularly if you are interested in jobs outside academia. Between my talks with Martyn and Patrick, the producer of the new BBC movie who also started out in graduate school for biology/ecology, the list of possible paths I can consider after Princeton has grown substantially since I've been here!

Back in the regular world of our day-to-day life, there are only a few other things to report. Julie and I had to disinter poor Tariku, the gelada that got killed by a leopard a few weeks ago. One of the other people on the project desperately wanted some tissue samples for DNA analysis, and offered to pay us in candy if we would get the samples for him. Digging up the decomposing body was NOT fun, but we do have 9lbs of candy on its way to us as a result! In other, less distressing news, I got a package of art supplies and pipe cleaners from my Aunt Sheila last week! The local children have been away at school since I got the package on Thursday, so I haven't gotten to share the treasure trove with them, but we have been enjoying using them here in our house. I made sparkly pipe cleaner crowns for Eshete, Ambaye and Setey, and have put the pens and tissue paper to good use as well. Art projects are a fun way to pass the afternoons up here, if it happens to be a day when I'm not responsible for lab work or dishes! I've also gotten several cards from my mom and my sister, and quite a few awesome packages filled with treats. Thanks to all of you! And thanks too to everyone who has donated money to help bring Titi to America - Ali has already raised about $400 in donations in just a few weeks!

Only three and a half weeks until my family, Sam and Sam's sister Ruth come to visit - can't wait to see them all, and can't believe it's already nearly December! We are having Thanksgiving up here in a few days, so there will be another blog post about that later this week. Til then, hope you all are doing well and that November is treating you well!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


We have gotten into a pretty regular schedule here. We get up at 6:15am each morning, spend an hour or so slathering on sunscreen, making breakfast, prepping collection tubes, and preparing for the day. We work all morning in the field, then return home for lunch, housework and lab. Some days we go back out to the field for a few hours in the late afternoon. On Thursdays, we go to Debark - very exciting because I get to check the post office box, read emails and eat roasted goat. On Sundays, we have a day off which we spend doing data entry, more lab work, showers and around-the-house chores like laundry and inventories. Every once in a while though, something happens that throws the schedule waaaaay off. Last Saturday was one of those day.

The day started off normally enough. We got up at 6:15am, got ready to go, and made it to the field a little later than usual - maybe around 8:15am. When we got to Wuraba, the standard cliff that we usually find our monkeys on, only a few monkeys had come up from their sleeping area. Pretty unusual, as there are often several hundred monkeys grooming and foraging in the grassy lawn area above the cliff. We all trooped over to the cliff edge with binoculars to see what we could see. Just after we got there and were taking our binos out, there was a HUGE commotion down below us. Our Ethiopian assistants already had their binoculars out, and they started shouting too! "Leopard! Leopard! Gelada is dead!" We all started freaking out and looking everywhere with both binos and naked eyes. We saw a blur of movement disappear into the forest - apparently the leopard. We asked the boys if they could see anything about the gelada and they told us it was an adult male. Although they have extremely good eyes and are rarely wrong about anything pertaining to geladas, we didn't believe them. The literature and common sense say that a leopard could only take a juvenile or an adult female, not a full-grown adult male with long canines, lots of muscle, and fighting experience. The boys said they could see where the body had been taken, so we decided to forgo work and clamber down to where the kill had occurred. It was a beautiful and eerie walk - the forest down the cliff was much thicker and more tropical feeling than what occurs on the plateaux, and the monkeys and birds had gone creepily quiet in the aftermath of the attack. The hillside was very steep and we half-slid half-walked down to where the leopard had last been seen. Eventually, Eshete called back to us that he had found BLOOD on some leaves. We hurried over to where he was and sure enough, there was fresh wet blood spotting the undergrowth. We took a few samples with our DNA kit in the hopes we could use it to identify the dead gelada if we couldn't find him, and then continued, with me in the lead. Following the blood trail was like something out of a movie. We weren't trying to be quiet because we didn't want to surprise the leopard at his kill, but we were all justifiably freaked out and thus proceeded in relative silence. I was in front of the pack, since Eshete said he didn't see any additional blood and I wasn't convinced. A few feet further in to the forest, I found more blood, then a well-defined trail where something large had clearly been dragged through the undergrowth. More blood, more broken branches. Then I looked ahead for the next blood patch and saw the body.

The boys had been right - it was an adult male. He was lying on his stomach in a little hollow under some trees. We quickly gloved up and investigated further. His body was still warm and he had blood running out from a large wound in his throat. He also had two puncture wounds on one flank - clearly bite marks from the leopard. He was definitely dead, and as we looked closer, we realized that taking blood for an ID was unnecessary - this was Tariku, one of the older adult males in our study population. Tariku was the follower male in the T group. An old, smallish male with many kids in the group who loved to climb on him and groom him. We did what we could to tie him to a large stick and carry him out into the open so we could see better. Having done that, Julie and I climbed back up the hill to search for cell phone reception - we wanted to check in with the project advisors in Michigan to see what we should do with the body. On the one hand, what a great opportunity to take measurements and samples from a gelada we had six years of data on! On the other hand, getting Tariku back to our house without drawing attention to ourselves would be a challenge and we didn't want to do that without express permission from someone higher up. There was no reception at the top of the cliff, so Julie hopped in the car to search further afield while I began focaling the remaining T group geladas. Eventually Julie was able to get through to the Michigan profs (in the middle of their night, unfortunately!) and we got the OK to take Tariku back to our house for further study. Julie radioed me, and I radioed down to Ali, Setey and Eshete who were still with the body. They lugged him up the hill, met Julie and the car, and bundled Tariku up in a rain poncho. Then they picked Ambaye and I up and home we went. While Ambaye and I were walking back to the car, he asked me if I thought Tariku had gone to another country and pointed up at the sky. I guess some people believe in monkey heaven!

Back at the house, we laid Tariku out on a tarp in our lab. None of us were quite ready to deal with him, so we covered him and had lunch and tea instead. I also drove up to the campsite to retrieve the enormous scale the mule men use to weigh baggage. While doing that, I managed to attract the attention of all the adults in our village. They trooped back down to our house and started weighing themselves, their kids and their guns - apparently having the scale is a big attraction! After lunch, we set to work in the lab. We took all sorts of measurements - arms and legs and total length, chest patch dimensions, etc. We also took blood samples and some samples from a goiter-like parasitic growth on his arm. Hopefully we will get permission to ship those samples home so we can find out what type of parasite our geladas have. All in all, quite an experience. After everyone had finished weighing themselves and gone home, we weighed Tariku. He weighed in at 55 lbs - much heavier than any of us were expecting! It sort of explained why he was so difficult to carry up the hill from the kill site. After all that was done, we dug a grave for him in our backyard. We decided to bury him nearby instead of returning him to the leopard so that in a few months, we could dig up his skull and bones for more measurements. We buried him in the late afternoon. Eshete, Ambaye and the head scout Berarra came down for the burial and we said a few words about Tariku's life before burying him. Eshete threw some grass in the grave and said "This is for Tariku's dinner." All in all, definitely quite a day!

Even without analyzing any samples or comparing length and weight measurements to other geladas, we learned several interesting things. First, leopards can and do kill adult male geladas - and in broad daylight! Second, geladas don't seem to mourn dead adults. We've seen mothers carrying the corpses of their dead infants for days on end, but when we found Tariku's body, there were no other geladas anywhere nearby. In fact, the rest of his unit was up on the top of the cliff feeding, grooming, mating and socializing just like normal. It will be very interesting to dart subadult males in the spring so we can compare Tariku's length and weight to other males of similar size. Hopefully we won't have the opportunity to steal any more leopard kills - once was interesting but I think that's enough for me!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Help my lovely assistant Ali bring a dog back to America!

Hi all! We've had the opportunity to meet and spend a lot of time with a really wonderful Ethiopian dog. She desperately needs a home - she is living with two Peace Corps volunteers whose service time will be ending next year. My assistant Ali is seriously considering adopting her and bringing her back to America! She could really use any financial help that you can give to cover the medical and transport costs of this endeavor. Below is the post she wrote for her blog about Titi, the dog in question. Hope you enjoy reading it, and feel inspired to donate to the cause! There is a paypal button on the top of my blog and all the money we collect will go towards giving this special doggy a chance at life!

From Ali: Many of you know that I love dogs. A few months before I came to Ethiopia, my dog Beja had to be put down and it was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do . She was my heart, my best friend, my constant companion. I really hadn't thought seriously about getting another dog very soon after Beja's passing, but I have surprised myself in wanting this very special dog I have met in Ethiopia. Her name is Titi and she lives with some amazing Peace Corps volunteers, Derek and Claire, in Debark, which is the town we travel to every week to get our groceries. Titi has been through so much, and if you think it is hard to be a person in Ethiopia, it is 100 times harder to be a dog. You can see from the photos that her ears have been cruelly cut with scissors of a knife, something that all Ethiopian dogs endure as puppies to make them look meaner and improve their abilities as a guard dog. In Titi's case, she is about the worst guard dog there is, and a a couple minutes after meeting her she can be found slouched on your lap or feet pawing at you for affection.

Even though Titi is probably only 2-3 years old, she has already had at least 2 litters of puppies that we know of. Sadly, many of those puppies have died from disease. The last two, Messi and Chubbles, died only a week ago, news we learned while we were bringing food to them on one of our most recent trips to Debark. There is a photo of them in one of my previous blog posts.

So I have decided that I want to bring Titi to the States. When you are living in Ethiopia you really want to help everybody and everything, but this is not possible. I want to adopt a child from here, build a school, give people food, and all the other things that I feel could help someone, anyone. However in reality my life is going to go in a different direction. I am going to move back to California, get a teaching job and maybe Ethiopia and its problems will be a distant memory. After all, there are plenty of issues to put my energy into helping back in the California Public Education system. Something that is within the realm of my ability is to help Titi, and she, in turn, would help me by filling the role of my constant companion.

There are many things to consider when thinking about bringing a dog home from Africa. The first is, can I afford the $900 bill in air travel and other fees? The answer is sadly, no. However I can ask for help from amazing people who are reading my blog and thinking of me while I am in Africa. Bringing Titi to America would be so exciting for all of us who have grown to know and love her.

I will be posting a paypal donation button on my blog, and any amount would be greatly appreciated to help bring Titi home! If you don't have paypal and still want to be involved, you can send a check to Ali Von Striver 621 La Sierra Drive, Sacramento, CA 95864

Derek and Claire are kindly getting Titi spayed while she is staying with them in Debark, and any contributions will be going towards getting additional health clearances and the cost of travel.

I will hopefully be posting more photos of her later and updating this blog with news of our progress in making arrangements for her trip. One of which is to leash-train her and buy a carrier for her travels. So stay tuned and thank you very much for your support!