Looking for goats in all the wrong places

Leave it to the goats to decide to go missing the same week we made a plan to start fencing in their pasture.

Our goats have previously spent the night away, during days when we would leave during the afternoon and they would get forgetful and wander too far off to return before dark. (In our community this time of year, everyone’s livestock is let to roam free on the fallow farms before plowing and planting start again.) In the mornings after they did that, Omari would go hunt them down and find them at a neighbor’s or in the hills nearby. But this time, they couldn’t be found anywhere. We called our various neighbors and fellow goatkeepers to keep an eye out, but not a single person had seen them.

The goats went missing on a Tuesday. Goats are sold to slaughter at the market on Wednesday.

Wednesday morning, I got up early and headed to the market. I was so early that there were only three measly goats standing in the auction section. I eyed them and knew they weren’t ours, then headed back to the motorcycle spare parts shop where I charge my phone and laptop. There I waited anxiously for morning to turn to noontime and the auction lot to fill. I told our motorcycle taxi friend that our goats had gone missing and that I was keeping an eye out for them at the market. He himself was convinced that they had been stolen. I took his words with a grain of salt, but as time wore on I heard more and more stories of how many goat thieves there were these days and I started to think they might indeed have been stolen.

As noon approached I went back to the auction lot, where there were now hundreds of goats and sheep among the many-splendored young Masai men in every color and shade of plaid “shuka”, which is what the fabrics the Masai wear are called. I found our neighbor Jafet, who is a goat dealer and had helped me buy my goats there. He said he would keep an eye out as well, although as a man who sees thousands of goats a week, I admit that I doubted his ability to recognize ours.

The sun beat down as I made my rounds through all the goats and sheep. Noon came and I decided to admit defeat and go home. Omari had scoured the territory looking for them but had not yet given up the search. We went up to the hills in the late afternoon, but the sun was sinking and still no sign.

The goats have been gone for two nights, I thought. They’ve never done this before.

Thursday morning, Omari continued the search as I walked back to town to withdraw some cash as we had run low. On my way, Jafet flagged me down and told me that if our goats had been stolen, they were probably taken to a city district nearby where most goats for the whole city of Arusha are slaughtered. I listened with growing concern and called Omari. I told him we should probably follow Jafet’s advice because he’s an expert and knows how these things go. So Jafet and I made it to the bus stand and got on a bus and then another to head to the slaughter district.

Halfway through our trip on the second bus, Omari called me. “Nimewapata!” “I’ve found them!” He told me. “They lost their bell though. It must have fallen off somewhere.”

Who could care about a bell at a time like this! I looked over at Jafet and he was mildly amused. I hung up in relief and we both agreed that we hadn’t known how it would turn out, so better that we were on our way to the slaughterhouse when we got the good news. We got off the bus.

“In case you ever need to know, though, the slaughterhouse and the places where they store up goats are back there,” Jafet said, gesturing to a lime-green two-story building across the street. He showed me around some more, then bought some type of grilled goat organ meat at the meat strip, and I paid for two Pepsis. He’s a man of few words, but we chatted about goats before we got on another bus and parted ways.

“Where did you find them?!” I asked Omari when I got home.

“I called my friend from back home, he’s a mganga,” he said. “Mganga” is a general term for a doctor who uses holistic/ natural medicines and who often has other spiritual or supernatural abilities.

“I told him our goats were missing and that I thought they had been stolen. ‘They haven’t been stolen!’ He told me. ‘They want to be stolen, but they haven’t been. They just wandered off and got lost. Where are you right now?’ I told him I was out on the hills looking for them. ‘Do you know where the southwest is?’ He asked me. I wasn’t sure of the direction from where I was. ‘Go home, then look to the southwest. Your goats are coming home from the southwest. You will meet them.’ So I went home, and looked to the southwest, and there they were, on their way back home!”

Later that day I was still incredulous as I tossed some corn bran to the goats, who looked a little haggard from their two-day expedition. This country, man. There’s no explaining what happens in this country sometimes.

And I never, ever want these goats to get lost again. That fence can’t go up fast enough.

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Two hands and a harvest

The past four weeks saw me bringing in the harvest, which turned out to be a solitary pastime. I took on the just-short-of-two acres of corn that we planted, and then went back to harvest about an acre of beans that had been intercropped with the corn on one side of our farm.

The sun shows itself and beats down in the afternoon, so most days I tried to get an early start. Neither of my neighbors on either side had started harvesting theirs, so some days passed where I didn’t leave our property and didn’t see a single other soul. The sound of rustling corn husks and the snap of cobs being broken from stalks filled my ears.

Our neighbor dog, Master, came over several days to keep me company, finding a shady spot in the field to snooze and watch me from. My flock of chickens patrolled the rows I already harvested, looking for earwigs and stray kernels that had popped off the ends of the cobs.

It seemed like a large task, but as I tackled it hour by hour and day by day, it didn’t seem so bad. Getting an early start to avoid the midday sun and taking frequent ginger tea breaks definitely helped make it more doable.

After about two and a half weeks, all the cobs were in, mounded on a blue tarp in one of our spare unfinished rooms. Then I started the task of shelling. I have a small aluminum hand sheller, with which I can shell about 10 to 15 kilos of corn in an hour – about 20 or 25 pounds. That’s enough to fill the basin I was shelling into; then I take a second basin and go outside to winnow the corn.

On a windy day, the distance between a woman’s hip and the ground is just the right distance to winnow. Pour the corn from one basin to another and the chaff and bits of cob that mixed in with the kernels will separate and fly off with the wind. The kernels rattle and hiss against each other.

Corn is heavy, corn is cool in your hand. Corn is what we harvested, and corn is what we will eat.

Five dollar compost bin

Every day, I pile kitchen scraps and farm waste in the same spot. But there is no pile. Each time I take the compost out to the compost heap, the chickens make short work of spreading it around, after which it dries out and doesn’t actually compost at all. As compost is a very important part of improving soil and gardening, I clearly had to address the situation sooner or later.

So today I addressed the situation. Most compost container designs are predominantly wooden or plastic, neither of which really work in my situation – wood is expensive and plastic deteriorates fast in this equatorial sun. Wire mesh seemed like a good option, so I based this compost container off of a design I saw in John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

This container is great because it is cheap to make and it is easily movable, making turning a compost pile easy: once it fills, you can remove the wire, set it up again nearby, and turn the pile into the new location.

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What you need:

  • About 3 meters (or yards) of chicken wire or other metal mesh, with a width of 1 meter/ yard
  • 5 pieces of wood (1x2s would work well; I used log-type wood I had), length of 1 meter or yard (however wide the mesh is)
  • Small (2-inch) finishing-type nails; they should be easy to bend
  • 2 metal latches (the kind with the swinging hook and eye)
  • Hammer
  • Saw (if you need to cut the wood to size)

How to put it together:

  • Take each piece of wood and hammer several nails in a line down one side (the more the better, really; I probably didn’t use enough). Leave about an inch of each nail sticking out.
  • Start with one end of the wire mesh and line the nails of one piece of wood up to pass through the mesh. I then curled the mesh around the wood and passed the nails through again.

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  • Bend the nails with your hammer and hammer them down flat. They should face both up and down, not all in the same direction, so the wire doesn’t slip out if the nails start to lift up.

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  • Lay the length of mesh flat and repeat the above steps on the other end. If the mesh has been rolled up, I put the wood on the inside of the curve, because the wood will be standing inside the circular structure once finished.
  • Eyeball where the halfway point and the quarters of the mesh are, and secure the pieces of wood on the inside of the mesh’s curve. Again, make the nails face in different directions, not all one way.
  • Join up the end pieces and screw in the eye screws for the latch. If the wood is hard, ding a starter hole with an extra nail to get the screw to go in.

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(Above: these are the hooks and eyes I ended up using because I couldn’t find the swinging-hook kind anywhere. The kind with the movable hook is ideal because it’s easier to open and close the container.)

  • Decide where you’re going to set up the compost pile (if you haven’t already!) Clear the area from weeds and dig up the soil a little with a hoe or shovel.

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(Above: where my old compost pile supposedly was. Don’t see it? Neither do I. Darn chickens.)

  • Set up the mesh container. It may be a little unsteady until it gets partially filled, like mine was. If this is a concern, you can brace the top with sticks or lengths of wood crosswise in the inside if you like.

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  • I stood inside the mesh circle and straightened out the mesh with my foot, that worked pretty well, as it had been folded.
  • Start filling your new compost container!

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Some tips for composting:

  • 1 cubic meter (or roughly 1 cubic yard) is the ideal size for a compost pile.  A pile smaller than that cannot generate enough heat to decompose properly; larger and it may get too hot, or there is not enough surface area for it to respire properly.
  • When adding anything that might attract flies, cover it with a layer of finished compost or garden soil that it is not exposed. This also helps to conserve moisture.
  • Your compost pile may get hot, but don’t count on it to kill insect pests, microbes that cause plant diseases, or noxious weeds (such as Bermuda grass or wild morning glories). For those kinds of wastes, you can burn them in a pit and then compost their ashes, which do have beneficial minerals and nutrients.

Some other things not to compost:

  • Leaves or cuttings from plants that have antimicrobial properties, such as eucalyptus or neem
  • Feces from carnivorous animals like dogs and cats
  • Meat and cooking oil (small amounts of oil or cooked meat is ok)
  • Glossy paper or chemically-treated wood

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That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?

What style of compost bin do you use? What techniques do you use for turning and finishing your compost?

Divide and conquer: what I did about the chicken coop

I have seven hens and had read somewhere that two nest boxes would be more than enough. It wasn’t.

Let’s just say I don’t think the author of that advice ever dealt with your typical Tanzanian village hen. These chickens only lay eggs once in a blue moon, but when they do, it’s like they move in to the box. They spend so much time rearranging wood shavings and feathers in there, then lay an egg, go away, and come back and look at it again. And forget about when they go broody. These hens would rather set outside in monsoon weather than miss a precious opportunity to hatch out their spawn.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their neurotic tendencies, these village chickens make great mother hens. I hadn’t let any hens set this year (okay, one snuck by me… I told you they were crafty, right?!) because of our move and crazy schedule of events, but I finally got some cross-breed eggs for two of my hens to hatch out. However a hen needs to set somewhere where she will not have other motherhood-crazed chickens clambering all over her. So I figured the time had come to improve upon our one-room coop that clearly was just not cutting it.

During the past couple of weeks, I had been slowly figuring out how to best make a mama-and-baby sub-section of the main coop. I was able to use all scrap wood that remained from our house construction, with total expenses being the cost of 3 meters of chicken wire, two plastic five-gallon buckets, a piece of sheet metal, and nails, hinges, and a latch. It may not be the prettiest thing, but it gets the job done:

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The top lifts up for easy feeding and cleaning:

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The nest buckets are removable and easy-to-clean:

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We finished it yesterday, thanks to Omari who saw I was a bit out of my league when it came to cutting sheet metal. Those edges can get razor-sharp!

Once we hammered in the last nail for the roof hinges, we had a good laugh about the tiny chicken door, and felt pretty accomplished with ourselves.

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Where do you let your broody hens set and raise their chicks?

Spilling the beans: harvesting and cooking beans, made simple

It’s hard to think of a food more universal than beans. The United States is the fifth largest producer of dry beans in the world, producing about 1.5 million metric tons in 2010. Tanzania is, incidentally, the seventh largest producer, producing about 1 million tons per year. From delicious burritos at the bus stop’s taco truck on the Pennsylvania turnpike, to experiencing beans on toast as a breakfast food in the UK, to being fed makande (a dish of beans cooked with cracked corn) in Tanzania, beans have been a part of the diet everywhere I’ve lived.

Nevertheless, cooking fresh beans can be intimidating, especially when harvesting and shelling them yourself. The beans we planted on our farm have been blighted by a range of pests, so I have been harvesting them little by little to cook most days, before the insects munch their way through every last pod.

If you’ve planted beans in your garden or farm, harvesting them before they completely dry is a great way to get fresh and delicious beans that cook faster than dry, stored beans. You can also keep shelled beans in the freezer… if you have a freezer….

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Harvest pods that have started to turn pale or dry out. If the pods are still as green as the plant (like the one on the left in the picture above), the beans have not firmed up enough and it will be a pain to shell them. You should be able to see or feel the beans through the shell, which should have started to turn pale green, yellow, or tan, and may have a papery feel to it.

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Don’t wait too long to harvest or the pods will shatter. Unless you want to be hunting around on the ground for your beans, make sure you catch the pods before they dry out completely and drop their beans to the ground. I (unwisely) planted several different types of beans all together, some of which evidently have matured much faster than others and have begun to shatter.

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“String” the beans from the stem end, along the outside of the curve. Then slide your thumb down the inside to push the beans out of the pod. I’ve found this is often the easiest way to do it. You’ll get into a rhythm once you start.

Rinse the beans in cold water. Strain them from any dirt or sand that may have dropped off the pods. Also throw out any wrinkly beans; all should be filled-out and smooth.

Bring to a boil in plenty of water, then simmer. Make sure the water doesn’t dry up – it sounds obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally burned beans. The water will eventually get a reddish-tea look to it. The beans will turn wrinkly, then smooth again. The skins will start to look loose on some of them. Taste periodically until they are the consistency you prefer. The process usually takes less than two hours for me. (I also always make sure to cook my beans a little longer than I think they need; they get creamier the longer you cook them.)

At this point, you could let the beans cool, then store them in their stock in the fridge or freezer for later use. If I’m eating them right away, my favorite simple method is this:

-Chop up two or three small- to medium-sized onions for every two cups of cooked beans.
-Saute the onion in oil (I use sunflower but any cooking oil will work). Add a few cloves pressed garlic and cook a few minutes more.
-Add the beans along with the cooking water. Watch for hot oil splatters.
-Add chopped or grated carrot. One or two per two cups of beans is enough.
-Once carrots begin to soften, add one or two chopped or grated tomatoes (grating tomatoes?! Yes, they do that here in Tanzania).
-Add salt, pepper, and chili powder (if desired) to taste.
-Cook until the mixture thickens and turns creamy.

And that’s it! What do you do differently when cooking beans? What are your favorite bean recipes?

What’s for dinner? Something somewhere outside

The sky drops mist and a light scatter of rain in the mornings. It tings against the metal roof of our house with a noise that sounds like a rainstick when you’re inside. In Tanzania, rain is a blessing, but now it just serves as a bitter reminder of the end of the rainy season. We will not see rain again until October.

We have two acres of corn growing, with beans and cowpeas mixed in as well. At harvest in a few months, those two acres should, God willing, render about 5 gunia bags, or about 500 kilograms, of corn – maybe more, maybe less.

Considering Omari, the dog, and I have been slowly munching our way through less than two gunias from last year (and still have half a bag left!) I think all that corn should be enough for the coming year.

In Tanzania, corn is king. Hard white corn is grown, predominantly for human use as corn flour, which is cooked into ugali – a starchy, stiff porridge not unlike polenta (but white). One of my favorite meals is ugali dagaa – ugali served with a dish made from small, anchovy-like fish (dagaa) cooked in a tomato sauce. (We add chili powder because it’s delicious spicy). If I were to have a comfort food here in Tanzania, that would be it.

The beans growing on our farm have been hard-hit with a plethora of insects, as well as intermittent rain that encourages rot. I have been harvesting beans little by little most days to cook for dinner, because if they are left in the field, most will not dry out or set up properly.

So far, in terms of food groups, that takes care of grains and protein (supplemented by the hens’ eggs, and the inevitable extra rooster to slaughter). We still have to buy vegetables at the market; we moved in right at the end of the rainy season and do not have running water, so planting veggie beds would be rather impractical in terms of water use. There are, however, many harvestable greens growing on the farm, as I found out a week or two ago. (Whatever would I do without knowledgeable neighbors to point out the edible weeds?) Wild mchicha (amaranth) is everywhere, and is delicious when sauteed. Tender cowpea leaves are also often commonly harvested and cooked.

What’s left – fruit? Well, that’s a long time coming. We planted banana “trees” at the end of our long narrow farm, and I have been slinging water buckets every evening to keep them from drying out. Maybe in a year or so we will have bananas.

What’s left to buy? Salt, oil, sugar, tea leaves, rice, wheat flour, spices.

Milk, fish, and meat when we need it (not very often).

And the veggies – until the next rainy season, that is.

Project: Homestead

The environment is similar enough and different enough to know that it’ll make a good home here. The nights are chilly, around fifty degrees. The mornings are rainy. There are wailing children, crowing roosters, bleating goats. There is a giant mountain as the backdrop to it all.

In April I finished up two years of service with the Peace Corps here in Tanzania. I was in the Dodoma region, which is a dry and central area which boasts lots of baobabs, ancient rock art, and the best milk chai in all of Tanzania (in my humble opinion). I was an agriculture volunteer, the first ever placed in my village. I don’t think I was very successful at implementing change, but I think that the community is finally getting momentum, enough to work successfully with the volunteer who has replaced me.

I have moved north. Mount Meru towers over Arusha town, obscured by clouds more than half the time. Not always visible but always perceived. She towers over our house, over the chicken coop, over the corn. She towers over the low and crowded town of Arusha. She even towers under the rainbows that grace the rainy evening sky.

During my service, I met the man who in May became my husband, and we decided to buy two acres outside of Arusha, build a house, and try to make a go of it here in northern Tanzania, which is Masai territory, unlike the village where I served with Peace Corps. Omari is Mrangi, a tribe which has historical ties with the Masai. Warangi are traditionally crop farmers, whereas Masai are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists who raise cattle, goats, and sheep. The pastoral lifestyle, however, is rapidly becoming impractical and difficult, and many Masai also now own land and farm and don’t move with their herds.

And as for me: I’m 26 years old, a girl born, raised, and educated in suburban New Jersey. The closest I have ever come to growing my own food was watering my mother’s porch tomato plants during hot and humid New Jersey summers. I studied animal science in college, but my track record of keeping animals healthy hasn’t been flawless: my chickens have taught me more about infectious disease, parasites, and nutrient deficiencies than I ever learned in school. I was never great with languages; I didn’t even get a score worth anything on my AP French exam in high school.

So why am I now trying to homestead, grow my own food, and raise my own livestock, surrounded by non-English speakers, you might wonder?

In the Peace Corps, agriculture volunteers advocate simple and inexpensive means of improving farming and animal husbandry techniques. After two years of learning about how to do Tanzanian agriculture better, I figured, you know, why not put my money where my mouth is? You spend two years living in a community of people of whom most are subsistence farmers. If they can do it through thick and thin, I think I could try too. I may not be farm-smart, but I’m pretty book-smart, and hey, people have even taught themselves to swim before, just by reading a book.

So with a little help from God, Omari my husband and man-helper, and perhaps some friendly and concerned intervention by our new neighbors who know better than I do:

I think I can learn how to homestead.