Thursday, March 29, 2012

Giraffes in Kenya

Now that our daughter Karen has had time to select from the mass of photos taken during our 3-week trip to Kenya in late November and early December I can share some with you.  These are all of giraffes, and feature the three species found in various parts of the country.

First up, the beautiful Reticulated giraffe (my favourite), found only in the north-eastern part of the country. These ones were photographed on Borana, where the cover picture of my entire website was taken a few years ago.

This series from Borana showing an animal getting to its feet was not taken by me, but either by Karen or her husband Robert.

Might as well have a feed now that I'm up

We had three cameras on the go the whole time and the other photos below are more difficult to assign.

We saw this bull seeming to take shade under a big thorn tree in Nakuru National Park

He is a Rothschild’s giraffe. How can you tell? There are two features. First, the Rothschild is the only one in Kenya that has no varied marking below the hock or carpus (aka, and mistakenly, known as the front knee). Second and only present in the bull, there are five horns.  The three in front, two larger and either side of the ears, and one knobby one dead centre. The other two can only be seen from the rear, and are smaller that the side ones. Take a look and you will see them. 


These Rothschild’s were also in Nakuru NP, and two of the bulls were competing in the necking ritual. Quite a contest.

Rothschild’s giraffes were once restricted to the extreme west of Kenya and the last remnant population was translocated to Nakuru about 30 years ago from Solai, not far from Kitale and the Uganda border. There are Rothschild’s in Uganda, most abundant in Murchison Falls NP.


Then we saw Maasai giraffe in the Maasai Mara where we spent two delightful nights at the Porini  camp of Gamewatchers. (Porini is a Swahili word mean “in the bush”, “in the wilderness” etc).

I love the way this fellow's mane falred as he ran to catch up with is herd-mates

I had saved an extra giraffe treat for the family on our last day. We went to the Giraffe sanctuary near Nairobi and there saw a few Rothschild’s giraffes that had been there since 1979. You can see more about them at their website here. Some of the giraffe are so tame that they will take food out of the mouths of willing tourists - Karen included.

However, the guide warned us that if you stand too close, and have no food to offer, the impatient would-be feeder might well bludgeon you.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

World Storytelling Day

March 20 is World Storytelling day and around the globe tellers will gather and share. Not just the 20th, but on dates near it. In Saskatchewan the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network Inc. and the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre
 help coordinate events around the province and I was able to get to several such affairs in and around Saskatoon. This fabulous piece, titled Circles Close was designed and crafted by Leah Dorion was used as major drawing card by the SALN. You can see an array of her work at her website.

I have already written about the Saturday night get-together at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
A major event, designed primarily for school children, was actually two events, two weeks apart, at the SICC’s White Buffalo Youth Lodge. I was able to get to part of both days and meet up with Barry Akenakew and Darryl Chamakese, who were both so helpful in sharing stories and letting me use them in Of Moose and Men. I was more or less lost in the crowd of several hundred children from schools all over the city, but I did have a chance to meet and listen to new-to-me tellers and heard new stories.

John Spyglass had four sessions, two on the 15th, and two more on the 29th. He is an experienced teller and delights in using his large collection of artifacts to build his stories.  With pupils from the smallest grades he used a mixture of reading, games and “dressing up” to keep the children enthralled for some eighty minutes – quite an achievement for this age group.



One thing he did was classic. About 45 minutes in, when the children might have become restive, he suddenly switched and got all the kids (and the teachers) going with versions of “Incy Wincy Spider” (aka itsy bitsy spider). Of course they started with the standard one, but John then took it all to new levels by having us perform the rhyme in various voices, angry, sad, funny, quiet, loud and so on.

On either side of the rhyme he showed us many different pieces of traditional art. A beautifully decorated cradleboard and moss bag had a big doll inside it and one of the children must have had a memorable moment when she was selected to wear it. Other children donned headdresses and various garments.

In the session on leap day John’s audience were older – from grade nine. The room was packed and John changed up his performance to fit the group. Partly because we hardly had room to move and partly because of the ages of the audience he only demonstrated the various items. Here he is holding a buffalo headdress as he explains its significance.

 I leap-frogged between various sessions but made sure that I heard Barry Ahenakew’s wonderful tale of the buffalo child in full. Like many (maybe most?) good stories this one can go on for a long time, but Barry crafted it to fit the time available. Of course I am not going to even try to re-create Barry’s telling, with is voice changes, actions and mood swings, but basically the story revolves around the challenges faced by a young boy who grows up among buffalo (bison) but returns to his human village to marry and have children. He goes back and forth between the two societies, shape-shifting all the while. For the ending, you will have to find a way of hearing the story from Barry.

Darryl was not so much a teller during these two days as he was a facilitator, but I did manage to capture a quick snap of him and Barry, with crowd of children behind them at the end of the morning session.

I was only able to take in one other event. Elaine Greyeyes, daughter of renowned storyteller, the late Freda Ahenakew gave us an account of her mother’s legacy. Freda compiled, edited and wrote twenty books of Cree stories. As Elaine said, her  mother was preserving the culture in an important way.  We both feel that the writing down of these stories is vital. At a time when so may old cultures are falling under the hammer of lost language, modern toys (smart phones and the like) and a general wish of the younger generation to “modernize” the ancient stories, be they from Africa, Canada or any other culture, can only be preserved in the writing.
One Cree elder told me that by writing the stories one kills them. Most of the people I have met, and all those I have mentioned in this post, agree that they are not so much killed as placed into suspended animation. When re-told they are resurrected. Indeed that may often be adapted ot the audience, something that is often a vital part of the storytelling craft.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rhino Poaching Update

There has been quite a lot of interest in the rhino poaching situation in the last three weeks. There was a recent NBC TV news report that I have linked to lowder down, and then the report in National Geographic magazine that really caught my eye for two reasons.

You can find the article, by staff writer Peter Gwin, on line here. If you only have access through the web you will miss some of Brent Stirton's remrakable photos. A double spread of a rhino suspended upside down under a helicopter is very striking, especially as the helicopter is out of shot. All you can see is the cable and a wide swatch of Africa. If you do not subscribe to the magazine, take a trip to your local library.

The first nice surprise was to see, on the editorial page, Peter Beard’s iconic 1968 photo of a black rhino coming straight for the camera. There are four men who seem to be standing on something behind the rhino. The man at the extreme left of the picture looks so much like me, with his bald head and face shape, that many folks are convinced it is me.

This is because Peter Beard was kind enough to allow me to use the picture on the front cover of my first book Wrestling with Rhinos: The Adventures of a Glasgow Vet in Kenya. (ECW Press 2002) Peter’s wife, and agent, Nejma has just told me that the man is Ken Randall, a friend of theirs.

The second excellent element was that the article not only told how modern poaching is done, but also gave an excellent update on the HOW of the use of rhino horn in Vietnam, not to mention the extraordinary prices now being paid. Not only is there a remarkable photo by Brent Stirton of a woman pseudo-named “Ms Thien” preparing a dose of “medication” but there is a link to a short video of that process.

I did write to the magazine’s editors. Of course there is not much chance of the letter being published, but I thought I’d share part of it with you.

"I write to congratulate writer Peter Gwin and photographer Brent Stirton on the excellent article about the resurgence of rhino wars in Africa. I have been involved with rhino since the late 1960s and treated my first two cases in Kenya’s Meru National Park during the late Peter Jenkins’s tenure as chief warden.

Although Gwin refers to the 2000-year history of rhino horn in TCM it might be interesting to give your readers some other elements of that history, which goes back quite a way. One of the most interesting comes from a 4th century Chinese pharmacist who wrote: “The horn is a safe guide to the presence of poison; when poisonous medicines of liquid form are stirred with the horn, a white foam will bubble up and no further test is necessary.”  This effervescing property may have saved the lives of many potentates. Among those who are known to have use cups made from rhino horn were England’s Queen Elizabeth I, France’s Louis XIV, and Rudolph II of Germany, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1552 to 1612.  All of these people lived in an age when poisoning was a popular way of getting rid of unwanted rivals and enemies.

In was glad to note that Gwin did not perpetuate one urban myth. Many print media have played upon the fact that sex sells papers, and have claimed that rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac. I quote from the text of The Trouble With Lions: A Glasgow Vet in Africa:

“There are two small tribal groups who believe that horn has this property. In India’s state of Gujarat, men use it by applying some ground powder to the penis just before intercourse, and in the Nakasongola region of Uganda, just south of Murchison Falls National Park, it is believed by some that rhino horn ash helps stimulate sexual desire.  Perhaps the shape of the horn, and the prolonged courtship and copulation (up to an hour has been recorded) engaged in by rhinos, are what leads to the misconception (to coin a pun).  Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame, with typical throwaway humour, suggested that the aphrodisiac myth might be simply related to the fact that rhino horn is a “big sticky-up hard thing.”

One other note of interest is that Peter Beard allowed me the use of his iconic rhino photo, the one you used alongside your editorial, for the cover of Wrestling With Rhinos. It was fun to see it again in the original."

That disturbing NBC TV report can be found here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wanuskewin beadwork exhibit

Andrew McDonald, the marketing and Sales Manager at the park  has kindly sent me some pictures from that display and I am sharing them with you. There were five hides in all. This one appears to show the early phases of the battle

The scenes are from the Battle of Little Big Horn, and in the first one it looks as if the US cavalry are very much in control as their charge is in line abreast. This has always been the "correct" method of charge for cavalry. It is deadly.

The bead-work is not clear in this long view, and I now realize why I mistook the images for a fairly crude piece of art work.


 Andrew’s next two photos, taken at much closer range, show how badly mistaken I was. Take a look and you will see what I mean.   As I mentioned, there are five beautifully decorated hides in the series. The rest of the works in the exhinit are well worth a look-see as well, so get yourself out to Wanuskewin when you get the chance.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Wanuskewin Stories

In Saskatchewan February is Aboriginal Storytelling month.

On Saturday the 25th a small but enthusiastic crowd braved a nasty storm to get themselves to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park (found here)This is the striking entrance to the building.

As one enters the main section another buffalo, surrounded by hangings, stands out.

We all had the chance to wander round the gallery and admire the fascinating collection of materials dedicated to the horse. There was a full-sized horse front and centre, and some forty paintings, many by Allan Sapp, of scenes depicting the use of the horse in (relatively) modern times. The most striking items were five beautifully decorated elk hides, each one depicting scenes of some brutality, with horse-mounted cavalry and aboriginal peoples at war. It was not until I leaned over and took a close look at the work under the glass covers that I realized that every item in the entire series, containing hundreds of figures in excruciating detail, down to pistols, head dresses and the caps of the cavalry, was created with beads, thousand of tiny beads.  It would have been great to be able to show you a picture of at least one of the hides, but of course galleries do not allow one to take them, and I could not get hold of one electronically. If I get the chance I will post again, as they are truly stunning.

Andrew McDonald, the marketing and sales manager of the centre, had organized the evening’s events and it was he who told me, in an email, that these beaded elk hides were given to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park by George Pekwawa for the Mistatim Exhibit. The hides depict the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Chief Sitting Bull defeated General Custer. It is thought that descendants of Sitting Bull, who fought in the battle, created the works. Following the battle Sitting Bull found asylum here in Saskatchewan where he stayed at Ft Walsh. The hides are thought to be based on a series of drawings that Chief Red Cloud was later commissioned for.

Before the main event we had a chance to sample Chef Kevin Merasty's delicious berry crumble, mostly Saskatoon berries, as you might expect, and everyone who had braved the winds had a bowl of his creation and a dollop of ice cream. Hot chocolate optional. Not too shabby!

Lamarr Oksasikewiyin of the Traditional Native Games Organization (found here) led off the activities, focusing on the children who had come out on a stormy night. He first got everyone involved in one of the oldest indoor games, which most of us learned at a very early age. Here you can see one of the parents about to pass on her start to the string game. 

Lamarr then began with children’s games that were originally designed as preparation for the vital art of hunting or for learning patience in the harsh dark days of winter. He told us that the storm was a hidden blessing as it was on nights like this that games and storytelling became important because it mirrors the winter camp and times in the tipi. He had the youngsters playing a game we all recognized. Today we can purchase a fancy version called pick-up sticks. The old version involved willow twigs, and Lamarr selected a marker that was the key to unlocking the fallen sticks. The kids were quickly involved.

Then he called for volunteers, who promptly stood and started to try and hit a ten centimetre toy bison with a weighted turkey feather from a range of about two paces. Of course the two paces varied with the size of the child. It is not as easy as it sounds. You can see the bison (pale brown, hanging on a string) right of centre about 1/3 of the way from the top, level with the top of the window. No wonder there were no hits.

While the other adults visited the gallery I stayed to watch the puppet show being put on by Cheryl Hoftyzer. I've been trying to post a short clip here for the last 45 minutes, but the Blogger program is having a hissy fit. It is defintely home movie stuff as the lighting was not the best, so perhaps it doesn't matter. Cheryl ran the puppets as we learned the entrancing the story of the beaver and his tail with its moral issues about pride.

Alex Ahenakew gave us part of his family history after explaining the importance of the smudge. As he performed this ancient ceremony his grandson joined him and then a little girl who could not have been more than about two, left her father’s lap in the story circle, crossed the floor and went over to lean into the smoke spiral. She has obviously been shown the ropes. Alex wound up with a delightful explanation of his maternal grandfather’s name, which is Atimoyoo, or in English, dog’s tail. It involved shape shifting and the acquisition of a beautiful horse.

Darryl Chamakese, seen here in the checked shirt beyond his audience is the Cree language developer at of the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre (found here). It was he who gave me two fascinating stories for my book Of Moose and Men (publishers web info here). Darryl did a wonderful job with one of the many Wesakechak stories, this one about the time that the hero of that long-running saga fooled a bunch of waterfowl into giving up their lives for his meal, only to be outwitted by that cunning carnivore, the fox. Of course in the end Wesakechak got his revenge and forever changed the coat colour of the wily beast.

Finally Lisa Wilson gave us a brief reading from her history of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. You can find out more about the institute here.

Then it was time to head home. Luckily the storm had abated, but we did hear that further south it had been severe enough to lead to closure of some highways. A good evening to be indoors with like-minded people and out of the cold.