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letters from africa, nine months with shannon switzer Letters from Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer

jettygirl photographer shannon switzer
April 21, 2008

Dispatch No. 9: Things That Go Bump in the Night

Never wanted to:

• Be covered from head to toe in swarming safari ants
• Endure three bouts of Cholera (i.e. vicious runs and vomiting)
• Have dirty rat feet crawl over my face in the middle of the night, repeatedly
• Battle clouds of biting tetse flies
• Cross paths with a possessed girl
• Have parasites burrow into my flesh and lay eggs

Has happened while in Africa:

• Yes you guessed it- all of the above

For a lifelong beach bum, it has continued to be a rough transition from the tropical paradise of the Seychelles to the heart of the Dark Continent.

I've moved from the peaceful campsite of Busingiro to my originally intended field site in the Kasokwa forest. Now instead of sleeping in a tent I am living in Kibwona (Key-bwone-uh), an African village near the forest. Here Katie and I exist in a fish bowl (well a house that feels like a fishbowl, as little eyes are always peering in at us with fascination). We have a cook/laundress/cleaning lady all wrapped into one, who we essentially inherited from the previous tenants. Her name is Prossy, and we are the same age. That is according to numbers; however, if one goes by the wisdom-and-enduring-hardship scale, she is lifetimes older than me.

She has the most loveable two year old son named Edigar. He is full of fire that is one moment stitched up in contagious laughter, the next sprawled on the cement floor screaming in anguish, then back to laughing, laughing, laughing. I wasted no time teaching him the essential southern California phrase "What's up dude?" which he now walks around saying non-stop. He pronounces it like a little Asian kid "Wus up doo?!" and then automatically goes for the high-five. He relishes the high-fives immensely (I think because he's essentially getting praised for slapping someone). When he and Prossy go home after dinner, he takes the word goodnight and stretches it into at least 5 syllables, "Gggg-good-dee-night-tee", accompanied by the enthusiastic two-handed wave.

Prossy is a patient mother and uses her skills on me as she often has to patiently explain the curious village goings-on, of which there is never a lack.

"What are all those people talking about over there?" asks curious muzungu.
"Someone wants kill 9 people." says Prossy casually.
"Ummmm, excuse me?" stammers frightened muzungu.
"Yes he wants kill 9 people. Is ok."
"No, that's bad Prossy."
"No is ok."
"But I don't want to die!! I don't want you to die and what about Katie and little Edigar? This is very bad!" screams irrational muzungu.
"No is ok, just wants kill those people with who he is having relations."
"Relations? Like sex?"
"No, brotha, motha, cousin," laughs patient Prossy.
"His family?!? Why does he want to kill his family?"
"Don't know, he think they make witchycraft."
"Ah huh."
"Yes so is ok. You see, different cultures."

Despite Prossy's best efforts, I'm afraid I remain a hopeless outsider. The rhythmic drumming accompanied by singing and screaming in the middle of the night is apparently people at church (But at such an ungodly hour?!?). Our "guard" Niago, who also happens to be the only hybrid ogre-rastafarian I have ever met, is 6'7", nocturnal, responds with only guttural grunts and "ehs", and is nearly deaf (which means he plays his crackling radio on full blast into the wee hours of the morning), lives in a room attached to the back of our house. The enigma surrounding Niago is what or who he is actually "guarding." This is the one village mystery for which Prossy has no answer.

The other day as she was removing one of the most disgusting creatures I have ever encountered (chiggers replete with tiny eggs) from my paining toes, popping them out- bursting each one like an enormous zit with a writhing white head- we suddenly heard a terrible screaming. It slowly got closer until four somber women passed by escorting a young girl drooling and moaning like a sick animal, eyes rolling up in the back of her skull, and head olling around like a rag-doll. I stared in shock. Prossy asked one of the escorts something, and the woman explained that the girl's step-mom put a hex on her, possessing her with an evil spirit, and they were taking her to a witchdoctor to have it removed (well I am glad we got that cleared up!)

The latest intrigue is Mama Raden's sister, who has gone mad and is often seen sprinting around the village naked. Apparently she is trying to run-away, but when questioned as to where she wants to go, she gives a blank uncomprehending stare. Mama Raden has 8 kids and is known about town for her seamstress work. She has made a few skirts for Katie and I that are fantastic but always take a week or two longer than expected. She usually has a far-fetched excuse as to why they are not ready that we can never verify. We have two skirts in the works right now, and this time we are very understanding about their delay. Babysitting one's crazy sister must be a full time job.

When it gets dark we do everything by candlelight including bathing in a bucket and eating supper, which under other circumstances might be romantic, but in this case isn't. Our field assistant, Joseph, has dinner with us nightly and is sometimes accompanied by his girlfriend Lucky. Joseph has 3 children and is married to a woman with whom Lucky is apparently the best of friends (according to Joseph they tag-teamed him on Valentine's Day to make sure he got both of them good gifts). Katie and I are never sure how much of what Joseph says to believe.

The Kasokwa forest, where we study the chimps, is just a ten minute walk from the village. It is a very ragged long and skinny forest fragment. Imagine a thin strip of trees (not even 1 mile wide) that is buffeted on all sides by fields of sugar cane, except for one side which is hemmed in by the main road to town, and voila- you have the Kasokwa forest.

Thirteen chimps manage to eek out a living here, mainly by raiding the abundant sugar cane when the guards aren't watching. They seem to be depending more and more on the irresistible treats as the end of the dry season sees the last of the fruiting trees picked clean.

The kids of the group especially love this. One feisty infant in particular just can't seem to get enough (bless his soul, I think we really are related!). It's little Elvis who sports the largest ears I have ever seen on a primate. He is the most curious of the group and even playfully charged at us the other day with a piece of sugar cane dangling from his mouth. Just as he got close enough to nearly touch, a hairy black arm popped out of the neighboring bush and swooped him up…like the hook that grabs a bad comedian around the neck and drags him off stage. This was his mother Kemoso, who was clearly not amused by his antics.

Now that the dry season is slowly morphing into its rainy alter-ego one relentless downpour at a time (we got 5 inches the other night), I'm afraid Elvis' sugar highs will be fewer and farther between. All this extra water also means more mango flies. While mangos are a nice fruit, this trait does not carry over to their insect counterparts. They are foul beings that have a habit of laying their eggs on clothing, which then hatch and burrow into the unsuspecting clothes-wearer.

Of course, I've already managed to acquire one- the larvae is currently boring into my neck, directly over where my Adam's apple would be if I were a guy. It's fattening on my flesh and getting more swollen and itchy by the hour. Prossy says I have to let it grow a few more days, because then it will be easier to squeeze out (you're joking right?). Wish me luck, and take comfort in knowing that nearly anything you have to do this week will be more pleasant.

I hope this finds you all well and parasite free! Would love to hear from you!


P.S. There are finally some new photos up on my website under the Embu and Refugees (from my time in Kenya) and Wild Uganda galleries.


Shannon's Previous Letters: Burnt Sugar - 2008.03.05
  Crying for Kenya - 2008.02.01
  I'm in Love - 2007.12.22
  Ode to Surfing - 2007.11.29
  Bachelorhood and the BBC - 2007.11.13
  She Sells Sea Shells - 2007.10.23
  Unexpected Flight Delays Lead to Unexpectedly Good Times - 2007.10.05
  Whale Sharks, Sea Turtles, and Chimps- OH MY! - 2007.10.01



About "Letters From Africa - Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld SURF, Walking on Water, Mutiny Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at --Chris Grant









All Photos ©


Photo: Gabe Rogel


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