Cut a Forest and Put a Man on the Moon

11 01 2011
Illegally cut mahogany log

Illegal sawpit logging in Uganda

Yesterday a Ugandan man and I were planning an environmental education training for teachers.  He was lamenting the poor state of the environment in Uganda and said that he wished Ugandans had the same sense of responsibility towards the environment that Americans have.  He said “why can’t we Ugandans see the value of the environment and the forests?”

I pointed out to him that the United States has actually cut down 98% of our original forests, and that we aren’t exactly model citizens from an environmental perspective.

His response was “Yes, but you have something to show for it.  We cut down our forests and have nothing – you cut down your forests and put a man on the moon.”

He has a certain point.  The rampant resource extraction of the 1800s in the United States made us a very rich country, and until recently that wealth was spread much more evenly across society than it is in many other parts of the world.

So here’s my question to you:  Why was the United States able to create national wealth from our resources when Uganda’s resources are just making a few people very rich?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


The Silence of Birds

29 10 2010
Starling Flock

Image from Flickr

I heard the roar from below, at a distance
Loud, like an elephant in the water or a boat being pulled up on shore.

Looking for the source, I saw nothing until I saw the cloud

Of small birds

A cloud of birds

Moving, turning in sync.

Silent, small birds, together make a roar.
Couldn’t we do the same?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

You Can’t Cram for Christmas

7 10 2010
Santa Claus

Image of Santa and his List

I realize that this might seem like the wrong season for this post (and, frankly, a bit off-topic for this blog).  But, really, it shouldn’t seem that way.  For those of us in the United States, we still have two major holidays between now and Christmas – Halloween in October, and Thanksgiving in November, not to mention Hannukah (I’m step-Jewish by marriage) and Kwanza somewhere in there.  No matter how early the retailers try to convince us to start our Christmas shopping, it somehow feels like we don’t really need to get prepared until after Thanksgiving.

But Santa’s no chump.  He’s not easily suckered.  This morning my son woke up singing a Christmas carol – you know, the one about him knowing when you are sleeping, awake, being good, being bad, when you are picking your nose and when you told your boss you were sick so you could go fishing.

And then we got talking about THE LIST.  And then we got talking about when, exactly, he starts working on that list.

And it came to me.  Sh*#!!!  I have to start being good now!  If Santa knows all these things about us, then presumably he doesn’t wait until after Thanksgiving to start his surveillance.

So, let this be a gentle reminder to you – it’s never too early to start being good.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

I Made it Into Orion Magazine!…Sort of

6 10 2010

My favorite source of inspiration, Orion Magazine, has an on-line department called “The Place Where You Live.”  I was very excited this morning to get their e-newsletter and notice that my entry on Uganda is one of their featured pieces.

Check it out here:  Orion Magazine – nature / culture / place.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Why Do Ugandans Hate Trees?

5 08 2010
Cutting down trees

Tree outside my driveway

The buzz of chainsaws is ringing in my ears as I write this.  I live in Kampala, next door to a large lot that was a school up until about a month ago, lush with big trees and flowering bushes.  The trees are frequent hosts to numerous falcons, weavers, turacos, gonaleks and many other birds, in addition to countless butterflies and lizards.  I have always envied the green shadiness of those school grounds when I compare it to the sparse compound in which I live.

But recently the mzungus who ran the school moved out, and within just a few weeks, the chainsaws have decimated most of what once lived on those beautiful grounds.

I just assumed that everyone living in my compound would feel the same distress I was feeling.  How could you not mourn the loss of life as you gaze at the piles of branches and stumps and stare at the ugly, bare chain-link fence that was once mercifully covered in bougainviller flowers?

But most of the people in my compound are Ugandans, and as I started to ask them how they felt about this, over and over I heard “Oh, finally it looks nice there!”  “Those mzungus didn’t know how to keep a compound!”  “It’s good that they are finally improving that place.”

This is happening all over Kampala.  When I was living here in ’04-’05, right behind my house was

Where once there was forest...

a small but lush½-acre forest backing up onto a papyrus marsh.  I used to walk there every morning, and recorded over 70 bird species on that small piece of land.  It was also a safe haven for side-striped jackals who were remarkably still surviving in the city.  When I returned for a visit in 2007, nearly every tree was gone.  To add insult to injury, the forest was cleared to make way for something that will be ironically named “Forest Village Botanical Garden” if they ever finish it.  If you want to market yourself based on the idea of a forest, why not just leave the forest there in the first place?

And this isn’t an issue of poor people cutting trees to have firewood so they can eat.  The man who owns the compound next to me right now seems to own half the neighborhood.

Beyond my own selfish desire to have more trees around me, this is a city that needs trees and their ability to filter pollution out of the air, reduce flooding and moderate the heat that sometimes makes it unbearable to walk around Kampala.  Paul Theroux, in his book Dark Star Safari, writes about Kampala in the 1960s when it was famous for its streets lined with flowering trees.  Those trees all seem to be long gone.

Uganda is losing most of its natural forest cover.  A lot of money is being spent in the rural areas to replant native trees, plant mono-culture woodlots for firewood, and improve regulation and enforcement to reduce illegal logging.  But what about in the urban areas?  We need trees here, too, but I am not aware of any efforts to plant trees in the cities or even to protect the ones that already exist.  There are, remarkably, some very large, old trees remaining in Kampala.  We need laws to protect those trees, and we need education to let people know why trees are important in cities.

Kampala is still a relatively green city, but how long will that last?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Jane Goodall visits Uganda

3 08 2010
Dr. Goodall in Kampala

Dr. Jane Goodall speaks in Kampala

Few people have had a greater impact on how humanity sees itself than Dr. Jane Goodall.

This inspirational woman was in Kampala Friday evening to give a talk at a fundraiser for the Uganda branch of the Jane Goodall Institute.  It was part of a tour of East Africa commemorating 50 years since she started her groundbreaking research observing the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in 1960.

Her story is a tribute to the power of perseverance and tenacity.  As a child she fell in love with Africa through reading the Tarzan books (and lamenting that he “chose that other, wimpy Jane”).  At the age of 8 she decided she wanted to study animals in Africa.  However, the odds were against her.  She came from a poor family, so her options in the Britain of that time were limited.  Perhaps more significantly, she is a woman, which meant that she was discouraged from following her desire to study animals because, of course, women can’t be scientists.  Instead, she was steered towards a secretarial course after finishing secondary school.

In her favor, though, were an iron will and a supportive mother.  “Jane” landed herself a job as Louis Leakey’s secretary in the Natural History Museum of Nairobi in Kenya in the late 1950s.  This soon led to her involvement with his paleontological digs at Olduvai Gorge, and his recommendation that she undertake the study of the chimpanzees in Gombe despite the fact that she had no scientific training whatsoever.  His faith in her was not misplaced.

Very little was known about chimpanzees at the time, but research funding was hard to come by.  With Leakey’s help, Goodall was able to procure funding for just six months in the forest (where she was joined by her mother, since the Tanganyikan government would not let a young woman go into the forest alone).  She had to work fast.  Unfortunately, three months in, the chimps would still not let her get close enough to gather any useful data.  Four months in, she was able to get closer to them, but still had very little interesting information.  She and Dr. Leakey both knew that it would be nearly impossible to get any funds to continue the study unless she had some type of a breakthrough.

That is when she changed humankind’s view of itself.  In those days, humans were often called “Man the ToIn the Shadow of Manolmaker,” as it was believed that the ability to make and use tools was one of the most important abilities that set us apart from the “lower animals.”  It was a large part of what made us what we are, and that elevated us above the “brutes.”  But then she saw the chimp she had named David Greybeard peeling leaves off a stick and placing it into a termite mound.  The termites reacted to this invasion by attacking the stick, after which they were pulled from the mound and eaten by David.

Not only had this chimpanzee used a tool, he had modified it to suit his purposes by first removing the leaves.  He had, essentially, made a tool.  This was the breakthrough she needed, and the moment that launched her along the path to becoming the Dr. Jane Goodall who is, today, one of the most influential conservationists and scientists on the planet.

But it launched the rest of us along a path, too.  Her work made us rethink what it means to be a human and how we can relate to animals.

She was criticized at the time by the scientific community for developing a relationship with the chimps she was studying.  She named them and referred to their relationships and feelings.  Standard practice was to assign a number to each individual and record actions and behaviors without attaching any meaning or emotion to them.  Perhaps precisely because she had no scientific training, she did not feel the need to restrict herself to this cold, objective view of the individuals she came to know so well over time.  I believe her scientific insights were richer as a direct result of her seeing the chimpanzees in Gombe as more than biological shells.

So if at least some animals have the intellect to create tools and the emotional capacity to feel, then what, if anything, makes us distinct from other animals?  Wild animals have been shown to exhibit empathy, altruism, and intra-species murder, so those talents are not uniquely ours.  Love and sadness certainly seem to be expressed when an elephant mother carries the carcass of her dead baby for days after its death.

Is it the ability to self-reflect?  To be aware of our existence and wonder what our purpose is on the planet?  This is certainly the source of much of our suffering and joy, but how could we ever know whether other animals struggle with their sense of purpose or not?  Perhaps any limitations we see in animals are actually just limitations in our tools for understanding them.

I don’t know if we will ever have a definitive answer to what sets us apart from other animals, or even if there is anything that does.  However, I am grateful to Dr. Goodall for forcing us to step back and realize that the things we think we understand about ourselves and the other creatures we share this world with might actually be wrong.  If we move forward with humility, perhaps more of the world’s wild creatures will begin to share their gifts with us the way that David Greybeard shared his with Jane.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

5 Things I Love About Kampala…but probably shouldn’t

29 07 2010

I have just returned to Kampala after a month in the States.  A lot has happened here while I’ve been gone that I should have been writing about.  The bombings, the African Union Summit, the deportation of thousands of Rwandan refugees…all important, timely, newsworthy things.  However, the wonderful feeling of homecoming I experienced coming off the plane has put me in a philosophical mood, and I have decided to focus on the timeless things rather than the timely things.

In that spirit, here are the ­­­five things I love about Kampala but probably shouldn’t:

The Driving.  C’mon, let’s face it.  When another car is in your way, it is really cool to be able to just drive up on the sidewalk to get around it.

The Corruption. Yes, corruption is probably the number one problem holding Africa back today.  However, (he says sheepishly), there are times that it is really convenient.  Like if you should just happen to come out of the airport parking lot and neglect to go all the way around the traffic circle before heading for the exit.  I figure it balances out all the times I get pulled over for absolutely no reason at all.

Driving a big ol’ dirty diesel 4×4 without really feeling guilty.  As an environmentalist, if I was still living in the U.S. I could never allow myself to drive the car I drive here.  I just couldn’t justify the emissions or the low gas mileage, and I love feeling superior to those people driving Cadillac Escalades on Los Angeles streets that have never seen a flake of snow.  At the same time, I will admit to being a bit of a closet car-guy.  I like trucks, and learned to drive a stick-shift off-road at the age of 11 in the deserts of California, while undoubtedly doing irreparable damage to thousands of years of cryptobiotic soil development.  Of course I feel guilty about that now, and see good gas-mileage as the measure of all that is holy.  Here in Kampala, though, the equation is different.  This is one of those wonderful places where you sometimes need four-wheel-drive just to get around the urban core.  My Pajero has a trailer hitch that rests a good two feet off the ground when it is level, but there have been several times recently that I have gotten it hung up on the edges of potholes in the Industrial Zone, Kisimente, Bugolobi and, believe it or not, Kololo.  I hope the city never fixes them, or I might need to get a more responsible car.

The Pollution and Burning Trash. Strange, right?  How could anyone possibly love that smell?  Well, here’s the thing.  Scent is the sense most connected to memory, and every time I emerge from the purified, sterilized air of an airplane into the raw, honest air of a developing world city, I feel like I am stepping out into every place I have ever traveled to.  It stirs up a feeling of adventure in me that sends me right to the nearest world map.

The Humidity. It just makes my hair nice and bouncy.  ‘Nuff said.

There.  Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’ll try to make my next post a bit more enriching.  I hope you love the place where you live, too.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala