About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

Tales from Tanzania: Water, bricks & the ingenuity of Tanzanians

The hard work and ingenuity of the Tanzanians never ceases to amaze me. While traveling one day, we passed the man you see in the photo below, and several more like him. When I asked Simon (my driver guide for the day) what was going on, he explained that they were hauling water.

A water pipeline is provided near every major road and you are welcome to connect to it — but if you do, you get a monthly bill. As most people are unable to afford the connection or the monthly bill, they collect water from the public water point in town and haul it to their homes.

DSCN1399A little while later we passed several structures like this one. Can you guess what it is?

DSCN1217Don’t worry, it took me a minute to figure it out too. It’s a brick furnace.

The locals in this area make bricks out of volcanic rock and clay. When the bricks are dry to the touch, they are stacked into a chimney and baked in place for three or four days in a slow, low fire furnace of their own making. When the bricks change to a dark red color, they are ready for use. They are said to be superior to cinder blocks (another favorite building material here) in every way because they have a bit of flexibility to them and won’t crumble in an earthquake.

Kwa heri!

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Tales from Tanzania: Witnessing the resiliency of nature at Lake Manyara National Park

Our first game drive through the 285 square miles (460 km2) of Lake Manyara National Park did not disappoint. Covering 89 square miles (231 km2) of the park, Lake Manyara is a salt lake ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep. The lake’s high alkalinity comes from sodium bicarbonate, which leaches out of the volcanic rock in which it sits.

When we arrived, the surrounding area had recently flooded, causing serious changes to the landscape in several ways. The most drastic had come from landslides so powerful they had nearly covered the original ranger office.

When the area flooded, the level of the lake also rose, causing the surrounding area to have significant deposits of sodium bicarbonate. This sudden change killed all of the trees in the flood area.

However, by the time of our visit we were able to witness the incredible resiliency of nature, as the area had already started to heal itself. This is helped by the many underground springs which bring in fresh water, giving the animals clean drinking water and clearing out the salt deposits. The grass is already making a comeback and the rangers are confident that the trees will soon follow.

While the flooding was terrible in so many ways, it might have done the area good, as it gets very little rain. Each year 75 percent of the lake evaporates in the dry season, which concentrates the salts. Hopefully the floods diluted the salts, if only for a short period. And as you can see in the following pictures, the animals hardly seem to have minded the flooding.

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The baboons in Africa amazed me. As far as I can tell, they are the equivalent of a diurnal raccoon in the states. They are smart, quick on the uptake, like eating leftovers, and aren’t afraid to come take something that is shiny or smells good. We didn’t have any troubles with them, but we were warned not to feed them and were told tales of cameras and other treasures lost to the unsuspecting.

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The second coolest things we saw that day was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl with a fresh kill in its talons. It was surprising to see a diurnal owl here as most of ours are nocturnal.

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Being part of the science dork crew from the Museum, the coolest thing I think we saw that day was a hippo carcass. I was in a truck with a large animal vet that day, Mary Sue, so we spent a good bit of time trying to CSI the hippo. A clear indication that large predators are in the area, the hippo carcass was picked clean — except for the skin, which was too thick for anyone to eat.

Tales from Tanzania: Making beer, wedding skirts & attaching to chameleons with the Irwq

DSCN1314See that guy? That is Martin, and today we visited his house. He is one of the chiefs of the Irwq tribe, the second largest group in Tanzania (after the Maasi).

The Irwq (which is nearly impossible for English speakers to pronounce because it requires a guttural sound) are agriculturalists. The traditional Irwq house is built into the ground, due to a slight conflict with the Maasi who believe that all of the cows in the world belong to them. The Maasi would come to the Irwq villages in the middle of the night to “reclaim” their lost cows. To compensate, the Irwq started building their houses into the ground as dugouts so that when the Maasi would look for the Irwq houses, none would be visible.

In 1974, the president of Tanzania said that the Irwq couldn’t build thier houses in this manner any more because it used a lot of trees, and he understood the need for conservation. To stop the conflict between the Maasi and the Irwq, the president declared if the Irwq could prove that their cows had been “reclaimed,” the government would give them 10 cows to replace it. This eliminated any hostilities between the two groups almost immediately.

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Martin (our friend pictured above) is allowed to keep his house because he and his tribe teach traditional crafts and ways to the Irwq people (and a small group of HMNS travellers), somewhat like a museum. He taught us about two very important parts of his culture: beer making and wedding skirts.

The “local beer” is super important and is prepared before any big job, ceremony or wedding. To make it, corn is ground and mixed with yeast and cane sugar or honey. Finger millet is ground and added to this after a few days. It is then boiled and left to sit for two days. On the third day, it’s ready.

After trying the local beer, which I would say has the flavor of applesauce made from diluted vinegar, I think I will stick with Shiner.

The other skill Martin’s wife, Victoria, showed us was how to make a wedding skirt. The skirt is made from dried goat skins. Once the skin has been dried out, a special tool is used to scrape off the hair. The skins are then cut into wedge pieces and sewn into an apron shape, and beading is applied.

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When Victoria asked for volunteers to try the beading, I hopped right up! Sewing is a skill I can get behind. The beading is similar in technique to Native American seed beading and every pattern has a meaning.

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The blue river pattern, Martin explained, is a metaphor for life. The river goes up and down, just as life has ups and downs. In the rounded patterns at the bottom you can see the tree of life, and just above those you can see a gourd shape, which represents a calabash.

The colors have meanings as well. Yellow represents the natural resources and minerals, green for vegetation and black for the African people.

The best part of the visit happened in the last few minutes. Some of the village children were playing in the bushes and found a chameleon. Apparently the kids are taught that chameleons are poisonous (maybe to keep them from bothering them?), and I have heard a couple different versions of folk tales that say if a chameleon bites you, it won’t let go — and the chameleon becomes part of you. So the kids were willing to show us the chameleon, but from the far end of a very long stick.

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We, on the other hand, had no such worries, and you can tell by Dave’s face that he was tickled pink to get to hold it.

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Not that Pope Innocent: Revisiting the fruit cake’s bad rep and the Butter Letter

You may or may not have heard, but the Magna Carta comes to HMNS on Feb. 14, 2014 — because nothing says romance like an 800-year-old legal document.

I was researching the Magna Carta for our educational programming and had performed an Internet search looking for more information on correspondence between Pope Innocent III and King John (whose relationship is integral to the history of the Magna Carta for a number of reasons; you’ll just have to come to the exhibit to find out why).

I, however, was not specific enough in my search terms, so I found information on a different Pope Innocent and a different letter — this letter was titled, “The Butter Letter” or the “Butterbrief.”

Distraction ensued. “I must know more,” I thought. So here’s the story I discovered:

We all know that the fruit cake has always had a bad rep (and how it has survived this long with everyone making fun of it is a mystery). The stollen, a German fruit cake, was developed in the mid-1300s, and has been served at Christmas time from its conception. But it wasn’t very tasty for a number of reasons, including the fact that you were not allowed — by Church decree — to use butter OR sugar. Blech.

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Advent was a period of penitence and strict fasting. Part of the rules for fasting included the restriction of “luxury items,” including sugar and butter, and the lack thereof made baked goods taste awful (seriously, what’s even the point of baking without butter and sugar?).

In Medieval Saxony (now central Germany), Prince Elector Ernst and his brother, Duke Albrecht, decided they just couldn’t take it anymore. They had to have tastier baked goods.

So what do you with a problem like bad baked goods? Write to the Pope!

It took them FIVE popes to have their pleas answered!  Pope Innocent VIII sent them  a response — known as “The Butter Letter” — which granted the use of butter for their baked goods without having to pay a fine … but only for their household. The Pope was clever and put a condition in the letter stating that others could use butter for cooking, but whenever butter was used, a donation had to be made to help with the cost of constructing the Freiburg Cathedral.

Saxony figured out a work around to this problem in the 16th century, when the lot of them became Protestant.

Over time, however, stollen has become a delicious, sugar-covered confection and so we decided to taste this little piece of history for ourselves. Allison went to Angela’s Oven in the Heights and picked up a loaf right out of the oven and brought it to work. The baker allowed Allison to take some pictures of the final steps.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Holiday baked goods from  Angela's Oven.

Holiday baked goods from Angela’s Oven.

Oh history, how tasty you can be! Lecker (which means “delicious” in German)!