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: 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)!

Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Tales from Tanzania: Wandering after dark & the trees that make elephants and baboons drunk

Jambo!

Now that we have a good Internet connection to the Internet (there aren’t a lot of Internet cafes in the middle of the Serengeti), I thought I should update you on our adventures!

The second evening in Tanzania, a brave few were fortunate enough to be taken on a late afternoon nature hike. We were in by dark, however, as we quickly learned that most of the adventures end promptly around 6:30 p.m. — when the sun sets. There are no fences at any of the places we overnighted and, as the animals — large and small — roam freely, you need to be in by dark!

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

We had several birders on the trip (a very helpful thing on a trip like this!), so as they were spotting their feathered friends, I was looking for smaller critters like this awesome matabele ant crawling across some acacia leaves.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Termite mounds are also abundant across Tanzania. Termites need water to make their mounds, so if they have no access to water, the termites can dig up to 100 feet down to find some. Lots of things here eat termites, including some people. When roasted, they have a nutty flavor.

I don’t know a lot about plants, so I was astounded to learn that there were that many varieties of acacia. On this trip alone we saw 16 different species — my favorites being the wait-a-bit tree and the whistling thorn acacia. I was also surprised to see aloe vera here. Rather than a squat little ground plant like we have in the U.S., the aloe here grows into tall, thin trees. Below, our guide is showing us the marula tree.

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

Photo courtesy of Nicole & David Temple

It supposedly has medicinal properties and can be made into an after-dinner liquor named Amarula that aids in digestion. The leaves of the tree “make elephants and baboons drunk,” and so the elephant is used as the label image on the bottle.

Kwa heri!