Category Archives: Africa

Dr. Elson Haas Travels to Ghana

Dr. Haas

Last summer, Dr. Elson Haas, author of dozens of books in the field of health and the founder and director of Preventive Medical Center of Marin, spent five weeks working with his 26-year old son Orion helping people in the villages of Ghana. Orion works with Global Brigades Africa, an NGO (non-government organization) supported by volunteers who provide medical brigades, clean water programs and micro-finance support to communities in Honduras and Ghana. “On average our medical brigade team saw 250 to 300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by a local school teacher and translator and two students,” says Haas. “It was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me to be able to bring my decades of work in integrative health care to people who are in such great need.”


Destination

I was part of Global Brigades Africa’s medical team as their “international doctor.” Along with two local Ghanaian physicians, and two sets of 20 medical students from England we provided the inaugural medical brigades, each of which took eight days, to two communities, Srafa Aboano and Ekumfi Ekotsi in the Central Region near Cape Coast, Ghana.

Cause

On average our medical brigade team saw 250-300 people daily, many in family groups with several children, being supported by  a local school teacher/translator and two students. Both clinics were held in schoolhouses which we made work for a triage room where temperatures and blood pressures were taken and health histories were recorded. My two fellow doctors and I met with patients in an adjoining room, and there was an  education tent nearby where people could receive public health support.  We also had a  pharmacy on-site so people could pick up antibiotics and other supplies and receive  information about how to take  any medicines that were prescribed. We treated many people for parasites and malaria, some high blood pressure and the very common “waist pain” which we call “low back pain” here.

After the four days of clinics, we had a “Public Health Day” that included education about water purification, which is my son’s focus with his work in both Honduras and Ghana, Malaria prevention, and physical therapy instruction about proper lifting plus stretching for low back pains. To me, this was a really important day with the idea that prevention (my career focus) and learning how to care for our body are the keys to really helping people, be it here or in Africa.

Highlights

Being able to bring my decades of experience in integrative healthcare to people who are in such great need was a truly great and deeply meaningful experience for me. In fact, this experience was so life-changing that, in some ways, it felt like a new life here in Ghana.

The people of Ghana made this trip quite special. Although they have very little in many ways compared to Westerners, their spirits were strong and their joy of life was active. They love to dance and play music, which they on our opening/welcoming ceremony day and our final day of farewell and public health education day. This area of Ghana is also very beautiful- it was  quite green and lush with the tropics. Our summer is their winter and the “rainy” season, where there is an abundance of fresh pineapple, mango and bananas. They also grow a lot of corn (it’s kind of chewy) that they use for many of their local dishes. What was also special for me is that I was able to work with my son and my daughter, Ishara, and her boyfriend Max, who came over for the final three weeks on my journey.

Challenges

The biggest challenge was to meet and treat people so quickly and the translation to communicate clearly (most Ghanaians speak Fante or Twi), yet it seemed to work quite smoothly overall.

Getting There

I arranged to join my son and Global Brigades for their first two medical brigades in Cape Coast area of Ghana in Western Africa. Although there are many long routes, I prefer the simplest when possible, so I chose to fly United from SF to DC and then nonstop into Accra, Ghana, on an overnight flight, arriving in mid afternoon on Father¹s Day to see my #1 son, Orion, and his cohorts for dinner and a good night sleep near the Atlantic Ocean.

Who Would You Recommend This Experience to?

Helping people in need in other parts of our wonderful world can be very rewarding, and especially to use my life-long skills as a physician for hundreds of people in Ghana and teaching the 40 plus medical students from England who joined the brigades is an experience that I will never forget and one which I will repeat in upcoming years. It¹s a fun, inspiring and gratifying way to see other parts of the world and to meet people from other cultures and get to more them much more than being a simple tourist.

Sherry Paul Travels to Africa

Elephants in KenyaDestination

I love my volunteer work with the Wildlife Conservation Network (WNC).  I am lucky to get to take passionate, committed lovers of wildlife to conservation projects all over the world.  One of the key promises WNC makes to its supporters is to provide them with frequent, quality opportunities to engage with the conservationists “upfront and personal.”  We do this both here at our headquarters in the Bay Area when we invite the conservationists to visit and we also sponsor one or two trips per year to take our supporters to visit the conservationistsʼ projects overseas.

Recently, I went on my second trip with WNC. This year we traveled to four countries in Africa:  Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique.  In three of the countries we stayed with the conservationists who head up the Wildlife Conservation Network projects.  The WCN partners we visited were:

– Uganda:  Dr. Gladys-Kalema Zikusoka who works with the endangered mountain gorillas
– Kenya:  Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamiltion, the worldʼs leading expert in elephant conservation and Belinda Low who works with the endangered Grevyʼs zebra.
– Mozambique:  Dr. Colleen Begg, who works to save lions in Niassa National Park

Cause

Wildlife Conservation Network, headquartered here in the Bay Area, is dedicated to finding and supporting “wildlife conservation entrepreneurs.”  WCN seeks out innovative and community-based conservationists around the world and provides them with the capital and tools they need to carry out their work.

When a person becomes a WCN partner, they must do a few things, including  working with an endangered species, employing only indigenous people, living in the host country year-round, and establishing educational and community programs around wildlife and environmental conservation.  On this trip, I acted as a tour guide for WCN partners. The purpose of trips like the one that I lead is to allow WCN partners to see what moved them the most. For some people it is the children of the local communities, for others the endangered species, for some it is rebuilding villages… it varies from person to person. Then, once back in the states, they can fundraise to help the cause.

Highlights

The overall highlight of the trip was being able to spend time with the scientists who are saving these magnificent species. It was also wonderful to be able to spend time with the local people and the children in schools.

Uganda: We spent three days tracking gorillas in mountains of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at 7,500 feet.  I have never been more exhausted, sweaty, filthy, or muddy in my life, but I had also never been happier. To come up upon a 400 pound silverback silently staring at you is humbling, awe-inspiring and breathtaking.  Iʼm a photographer and it was a constant battle whether to capture the moment with my camera or just sit and stare in awe.

In between our treks with Gladys, a doctor in Uganda who works to help gorillas, we were invited to visit a local community meeting.  Gladys heads up the group called Conservation Through Public Health whose mission is to conserve gorillas by ensuring the health of the local people.

We attended a meeting of about 75 villagers who are working to find ways to improve the cleanliness of the local water distribution systems in order to prevent sickness.  When we arrived to the little hut in the forest where the meeting was held, the meeting organizers had brought in “special guest” cushioned wicker chairs for us (as opposed to the wood chairs and benches they used for themselves) and put a little tray of cold bottles of Coca Cola next to our chairs.  Never let it be said that there is no hospitality in the primitive African rain forest.  We were so impressed by the villagersʼ dedication, commitment and professionalism toward improving their communities.  They all do this on a volunteer basis and speak with pride and conviction about their successes and challenges.

On our last day in Uganda we had a chance to visit the schools in Buhoma, the area where we stayed. Each time we entered a classroom, from kindergarten to high school, the children would immediately stand and begin singing a welcome song to us.  These children live in some of the most impoverished conditions in the world. Their schoolrooms consist of a dirt floor, one chalkboard, and, if they are lucky, a little table that acts as a desk.  Still, they sang to us with joy and were as polite and gracious as any children Iʼve ever met.

Rwanda:  Our funny and spirited guide, Francois, is highly in demand in this part of Rwanda as he was Dian Fosseyʼs lead tracker and right-hand man.  Of course, no one is allowed to touch the gorillas, but on our trek in Rwanda one of the baby gorillas actually came up to our most senior member (a delightful 70 year-old woman) and touched her leg.  She told me afterwards this was the highlight not only of her trip, but of her life (well, maybe except for the birth of her children and grandchildren).

Other highlights in Rwanda included meeting with Dr. Eugene Rutagarama, Director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, meeting Berra Kabarungi, Director of Women for Women International in Rwanda, and attending a ceremony with President Paul Kagame actor Don Cheadle from “Hotel Rwanda.”

Our trip to Rwanda culminated in a visit to the Genocide Memorial.  It is a small museum set amongst gardens and a mass grave for 250,000 of those who were murdered. During the genocide the  Hutu extremists dug mass graves to hide their vile killings.  Afterwards 250,000 bodies of the more than 800,000 who were murdered were exhumed and transferred to the mass grave at the memorial. Inside, the museum recounts the history and horrors of the long-standing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.  The last room is dedicated to the children who were murdered, showing a larger-than-life picture of the child and a descriptive panel such as this one:

Name: Francine Ingabire, Age: 12, Favourite Sport: Swimming, Favourite Food: Eggs and chips, Best friend: elder sister Claudette, Last words: “Save me mumma.” Cause of Death: Hacked by machete

It is not possible to exit the museum dry-eyed.

Kenya: Before flying to Samburu to meet with Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, we stopped for a tour of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, later run by his widow, Daphne. The elephant orphanage in Nairobi takes in baby orphan elephants from all over Kenya and raises them together until they are old enough to survive on their own. We watched the baby elephants feeding from bottles, playing
with each other, and goofing around like normal kids.

When we first landed in Samburu we met Bernard and Alfred who had brought us a delicious picnic lunch to enjoy before we embarked on our safari. As we drove to our lodge for the next five days, we were escorted by elephants, lions, giraffes, wild dogs, baboons, Grevyʼs zebra and camels.

Soon we arrived at Elephant Watch, where Oria borrowed a little tv so her warriors employees could watch the opening game of the World Cup between South Africa and Mexico. We were invited to gather around the tv with her staff and partake in the festivities. Of course everyone was rooting for South Africa, except one of our donors, the very same 70 year-old woman who had been touched by the gorilla. She had been born and raised in Mexico. Some of our happiest and most touching moments of the trip were sitting there with the Samburu tribesmen in the middle of nowhere, worlds apart in life experiences, yet coming together for a few hours to share in the spirit of the moment.

Our final stop was Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. After a 15 year Civil War which ended in 1992, Mozambique is rebuilding itself and in the northern area of Niassa the wildlife populations are now flourishing. Niassa isnʼt for the first-time safari-goer, however.  Unlike Tanzania or Kenya, where you step in your LandRover and within a few minutes you are amidst abundant wildlife, here you actually do go on safari, the Swahili word meaning “journey.” Although the park supports elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, sable, eland and zebra, getting to them and finding them in this lush and overgrown wilderness area is somewhat more problematic than driving up to them at the Ngorongo Crater in Tanzania. The upside is that once you spot something, you can be guaranteed that you will be the only vehicle for miles around.
After two nights at Lugenda and our first leopard spotting, we headed to the even more remote camp of Keith and Colleen Begg, WCNʼs newest partners. The only way to get to their camp is by canoe along the Lugenda River. We arrived two hours later and were immediately taken to visit the local school where the children ran out to greet us and sing to us. Another hour drive took us to the Beggʼs camp where they live with their two young children, Ellie, age four and Finn, 18 months. Their “home” is a tent pitched on top of their LandRover to protect them from the lions, which they study as part of the Niassa Lion Project.

This was our first night camping in tents as there are no lodges nearby. I was a bit concerned for my donors as this was not their typical “level” of  accommodation. But after sitting around the campfire on the banks of the river enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal, listening to Keithʼs and Colleenʼs stories
about living in the bush, showering under the stars, and sleeping in the pristine air, we all agreed the next morning this was best experience of the whole trip and we only wished we could stay longer.

Challenges

Anyone who has been to Africa knows that it is not the easiest place to travel. And while the WCN trips tend to be more “upscale,” we still spend most of our time in the bush with the conservationists. So, that means rugged roads, hours sitting and waiting to find wildlife or wait for them to “do something,” basic food, hot and/or humid weather (depending on the season), and, particularly in Uganda and Rwanda, exhausting hiking and uneven terrain. Not to mention having to let go of any shred of pride when the guides have to push you up the mountain by your derriere.

Getting There

Four days before we left, British Airways went on strike so instead of flying London to Entebbe, we ended up flying Emirates: San Francisco to Dubai and Dubai to Entebbe. Although it took an extra several hours, it was well worth it. We spent the night in Dubai and had a chance to explore this fascinating city, not to mention getting a good nightʼs rest paid for by the airline.

While many of our flights were charter flights, the main stumbling block will come when you have to transfer through Nairobi. Both of our major delays occurred there. But, you soon come to learn that in Africa you just “make a plan” and go with the flow. This is not a trip for the impatient.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

You do not need to be a WCN supporter to go on one of its trips. They are for anyone who considers himself or herself to be a global citizen and cares about indigenous people and their environment. If you have a passion for adventure, a love of wildlife and compassion for other cultures, these trips are for you.

The next WCN trip will be an exclusive trail riding expedition to the remote Bale Mountains in Ethiopia with WCN partner Dr. Claudio Sillero, the worldʼs leading expert on Ethiopian wolves. The trip begins November 16, 2011.

For questions regarding Wildlife Conservation Networkʼs Donor Travel Program, contact Sherry Paul at sherry@wildnet.org

Barry Hoffner – Caravan to Class

Sausalito resident Barry Hoffner was so inspired by his trip to Timbuktu, in the West African nation Mali, that he decided to celebrate his 50th birthday by launching a project, Caravan to Class. He hopes to rebuild the educational infrastructure of Tedeini, a village that he visited. Caravan to Class was formed in January, 2010, and after a couple of months of selecting an NGO (non-Governmental Organization), doing a study on the needs of the village, and putting together a budget, Barry is now in fund-raising mode. He hopes to be able to begin construction/renovation on the school by early Fall, and is looking forward to bringing his family to Mali once construction has begun.

Destination

I simply had a long-time dream of getting to the famed “middle of nowhere” Timbuktu. I was told that if I was going to Timbuktu I should not miss the amazing music event, “Festival au Desert”, in the Southern Sahara Desert, outside of Timbuktu, Mali. So, I used the festival as a reason to fulfill my one of my “bucket-list” objectives.

Cause

While at the festival, I decided to take a guided camel trip to a village not far from where I was camping. My host, the son of the head of the village, told me the interesting story of his people, the Tuareg, and their transition from a nomadic lifestyle to moving to the village of Tedeini. The Tuareg migrated from the Atlas Mountains in the 6th and 11th centuries to escape the Muslim invasions from the north. Today the Tuareg population numbers roughly 5 million centered around the countries that ring the Sahara Desert, mainly AlgeriaLibyaMali and Niger. Due to desertification of former Saharan oasis and national boundary issues, many Tuareg have settled in villages and have given up their nomadic lifestyle, creating the need for permanent schools. I saw that the education of the children was suffering. Many of them were not in school, there was no longer a functioning well at  the school, the teachers were uncertified, and the mud-brick buildings had deteriorated over the years.

Mali ranks in the bottom five countries on the UN Human Development Index and dead last in literacy at 26%. In the villages of the Southern Sahara desert, literacy are even lower, particularly for girls.

Upon returning from my trip to Mali, I launched Caravan to Class to rebuild the school for my friends in Tedeini.

Highlights

Mali is a beautiful place. I loved the diverse mud-brick architecture of the Mosques, the stars at night in the Sahara desert, the mysticism of the animist Dogon people, and most of all the amazing graciousness of the Tuareg, a nomadic people of the Sahara.

I was personally fascinated with how engaging the Tuareg men, women, and children were drinking the ubiquitous cups of sweet/bitten tea, learning how to navigate by the star constellations, and the social customs of their culture.

Challenges

Although my trip was great, it was not without its challenges. In Mali, time is simply not important; there is plenty of it. Every car ride  encountered multiple delays – flat tire, hit goat, over-heated radiator… However, you need to adjust and get used to that or you will simply not enjoy  traveling in Africa.

Getting There

We departed from San Francisco on Air France, headed for Paris. We then went on to Bamako, Mali. It took 4 ½ days from Mali’s capital to reach Timbuktu, including 3 days/nights on a “pinasse” (Malian river boat) on the Niger, Africa’s third longest river. The “pinasse” trip itself was a great adventure, traveling past hundreds of small villages along the banks of the Niger, including the village where Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s most famous musician, lived (and is laid to rest).

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Anyone seeking a real/diverse African (non-animal) adventure. East Africa is great for those who love safaris and wildlife, but West Africa is perfect for anyone interested in the diverse and engaging African cultures.

Coco Hall Travels With Big Purpose

Coco Hall of Sausalito has a passion for helping elephants. Recently, she, along with her son, a former neighbor, and two fellow elephant-lovers, traveled to East Africa to learn more about wild elephants and gorillas and see them for the first time.

Destination

Originally we were headed to Africa, Kenya and Rwanda, with the ultimate goal to see wild elephants and gorillas, however, thanks to lots of travel books, we found out that East Africa offers so much more.  I traveled with an amazing group including my son, Ash Anderson, my former Sausalito neighbor, Andy Upjohn, and our friends Joyce Poole and Petter Granli, the directors of ElephantVoices. Joyce grew up in Kenya and speaks fluent Swahili, and is an elephant expert. She has studied elephants for over 30 years, and has discovered that elephants use powerful calls to communicate over long distances, the ability of elephants to mimic sounds made by other animals and machines,  and the production of calls below the level of human hearing, to name a few.

We stopped at the baby elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust outside of Nairobi.  If you think puppies and kittens are the cutest, you haven’t seen a herd of baby elephants. We walked right into the pack and were pushed, shoved, slapped, sniffed, and sucked on.  The babies are given a keeper as a surrogate mother, which seems to work.  Almost all of them eventually return to the wild.   I adopted a baby on the spot. You too can adopt a baby elephant online.

Cause

Our mission was to help captive elephants and other African animals. I have been active in trying to help elephants, both captive and wild, for many years. However, the issue of mistreated Elephants is not only present in Africa. With all of America’s circuses and zoos, only 40 of the 500 captive elephants in North America are living descent lives in two sanctuaries (The Elephant Sanctuary and PAWS Ark2000)

There are people all over the planet trying to help captive Elephants, including Joyce and Petter of ElephantVoices.org, whom I was lucky to work with.

Gorillas also need help. According to gorilladoctors.org,  There are only 720 mountain gorillas left in the world today. Of the 300 or so gorillas in Rwanda, only five groups are habituated to humans (the others are not accessible to tourists).  All are remotely watched over by a group of veterinarians who intervene with antibiotics and other medical care only when completely necessary.  Before I decided to go and visit some of the gorillas that can be near humans, I was assured by a gorilla advocate that it did not hurt the gorillas to have visitors, and that the visitors actually help conserve them. In Rwanda, 40 people a day split into groups of 8, visit the 5 gorilla groups for one hour.  Passes are very expensive and must be bought 6 months in advance because they sell out quickly. The money from the passes is used to protect the animals, pay the rangers, and conserve their habitat. Former poachers are employed as porters and paid $10-$20 by the tourists who choose to use them. For more information go to; gorillafund.org or gorilladoctors.org

Highlights

The trip was basically one giant highlight. We particularly enjoyed spending two days off road with Joyce Poole and three hundred elephants in Amboseli. It was also exciting to see wild animals such as hyenas and jackals, and seeing gorillas with my own eyes was unforgettable. We loved simply being in nature; listening to the constant symphony of birds and loud raucous choruses at night, looking down the spectacular Rift Valley

Meeting the people of Africa, such as the Maasai, and seeing and appreciating how they live was very touching. On a walk through a rural “neighborhood” on the edge of the Rift Valley, we came upon a group of a dozen or more children aged 2-14 who were singing. The oldest, a young teenage girl said they were singing because they were happy. They asked us to sing a song for them. The only song that we all knew was a sad Beatles song. They were not impressed. However, I think we did a little bit better singing Mary Had a Little Lamb with a rock beat. The encounter gave us all a feeling of happiness. I guess it can be contagious.

Rwanda was the real surprise of the trip.  I scheduled only three days there thinking it would be scary and unpleasant.  On the contrary, it was clean (they have one day a month where everyone in the country, said our guide, including the president, goes out and cleans the streets and countryside. It appeared to be true.) The roads were good and the terraced farms and houses all neat. I loved the fabric the women walking along the roads wore, and on the way to the airport, we suddenly were in a dusty place with people and scooters packed all around our car.  We said, “where are we?” and were told, “You said you wanted to buy fabric, we’re at the market.” This was not a tourist market, but it was vast, and sold basically everything. There was a building full of spectacular fabric and I spent our allotted 15 minutes bargaining for as much as I could fit in my bag.

However, not everything in Rwanda is beautiful fabric and magnificent marketplaces. If you go to Rwanda, you will not want to miss the Genocide Museum, a beautiful yet sad place where hundreds of thousands of people are buried and you will be told about genocides. Be prepared to cry.

During our trip, we very much enjoyed spending five days on the east coast of Kenya in Lamu, a very early Asian trading city and Unesco Heritage Site.  The Swahili and Arabic cultures merged over the centuries and are now inseparable on this tiny island of no cars, winding streets, 5.a.m..call to prayers, women in burqas and donkeys everywhere The museum and Swahili House Museum are small and unsophisticated and not to be missed.  Lamu is surprisingly unscathed by tourists.  We also went on a boat trip there.  The boat was a refurbished dhow, a traditional Indian ship.

We stayed south of Lamu, a 30-minute walk down the beach, or ten minute ride in a skiff, in Shela at Kitani House.  Absolutely lovely.

Challenges

Although Africa is vey beautiful, parts of it, such as Nairobi, are dangerous. We never went into the city, but even the outskirts are unsafe. Houses have big fences, hedges, and armed guards. Other dangers present throughout Africa include malaria and some of the animals in the parks. However, with the proper precautions for malaria and well-trained, experienced guides in the parks, you should be safe.

We had a bit of a challenge when hiking up a mountain. On the first day we hiked for two hours uphill in six inches of mud, in the rain and mist, surrounded by nettles with umbrella sized leaves and pickers to match. However, we had rain gear including rain pants, jacket and hiking boots, as well as hiking sticks.

Getting There

Getting there is easy but it’s 9,585 miles away.  I flew to Amsterdam on KLM and stayed there for one night.  I had just enough time to go to one museum and have one Indonesian meal.  The next morning we continued on to Nairobi.  We flew in country twice between Nairobi and the parks, and to Lamu.  I enjoyed the drive to Masai Mara from Nairobi but after that, I preferred flying.  We flew to Kigali from Nairobi, and made an unscheduled stop in Burundi. On the return, I flew from Kigali to Nairobi to Amsterdam, and finally ended up at SFO. It took 36 hours from end to end, no problem.

We enjoyed staying at Basecamp Explorer, a super eco-friendly travel company.  Their lodges are completely “green.” They have won the highest awards for their ground breaking ecological approach to travel, and they were Obama’s choice when he went to Kenya.  We stayed where he stayed in Masai Mara. Their Wilderness Basecamp is beautiful and simple, on a special conservation area next to a safari guide school.

In Amboseli we stayed at a gorgeous lodge, Tortillis Camp.We adored their  great food, wonderful people, beautiful views, and comfortable “rooms”.

In Nairobi, we stayed at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, which had beautiful rooms, a restaurant, a bar… it’s a “happening” place! We loved sitting with the owner, Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, at dinner. She is amazing, a contraceptive scientist who works with both humans and wild animals.

go-safari.com/Volcans/GovernorsRwanda.htm

gorillasafaris.net/

Who would you recommend this experience to:

This is a peak experience for all animal lovers.  If you go to see the gorillas, definitely buy two permits each and go up at least twice because you never know what the results will be.  For those of us who are mad about elephants and work to help them, especially in captivity, seeing wild elephants is a must. The contrast between even a superficial look at a captive elephant compared to a wild one (or herd) will be a learning experience that will buoy you on through years of often frustrating work.