Tag Archives: lost congo memoir


Thirty years ago yesterday, “the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMR) published a report of five young men with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia who were treated at three different hospitals in Los Angeles, California.” (see This Blog Post for details). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly is a really fun journal to read. It contains the latest reports of, well, death and serious illness as a means of disseminating information in a way that will allow quick response. So, if there are suddenly a bunch of cases of some disease scattered across the country, this kind of reporting may allow the connection to be made to an event … quite literally, like the Superbowl or a Marching Band Competition or whatever … at which the disease spread, or perhaps a region of the country where vaccinations are being skipped, or where swine-based flu has jumped the fence into a human population, etc.

In the case of this report, the disease being reported was to eventually be named AIDS and the infection that caused it HIV.

So, happy anniversary AIDS epidemic!

I just have two comments on this: First, how I found out about a certain aspect of HIV infection (which turned out to be unimportant) and second, how everybody else found out about AIDS
Continue reading HIV, AIDS, MMR, NPR and WTF?

What is your comfort zone?

Today, I took out the trash. I may or may not have taken the trash out last week, but I can tell you that the last time I did take it out, whenever it was, I had to drag the trash barrel across ice. Yesterday I went to the gym without a coat or jacket. That made me have to decide if I wanted to go to the locker room to stow the contents of my pockets (car keys, etc.) or just keep those things in my pocket. The grass outside is green. We expect snow on Friday.
Continue reading What is your comfort zone?

The Curious World of Bugs

The old man crouched slightly as he took small tiny steps forward towards the woman’s ass. I didn’t see what was in is raised right hand, it was hidden from my view by his body draped with a colorful sarong. He crept closer, still crouched and still silent. She didn’t see him coming, but when he finally struck the woman hardly seemed to notice. His hand, it turn out, bore what looked like a hand broom of the type used to sweep the dirt floors of the mud huts and open barazas, but smaller, cleaner, and cut somewhat differently. He used it to strike a fly off her bottom and when the surprised insect hit the ground his foot sprung out as fast as a welterweight boxer’s fist mushed it to death.
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If your finger falls off, grab it before the dog gets it!

We were standing behind my friend Andre’s store in Isiro, Zaire, waiting for Andre to finish receiving some orders so we could sit down for some tea, or may be some beer, and do a little black market trading.

A big truck with a canvas top stretched over an iron frame was backing up to the loading dock. These loading docks had solid concrete bases set at the approximate height of a freight truck’s bed, and with a large concrete and steel canopy over the top to provide shade and protection from the rain. All this concrete and steal is normal for the region: Most houses are made of either wattle and daub or steal reinforced concrete slabbery, with nothing in between.

As it backed up, one of the workers who came along with the truck casually held the iron frame with one hand as he signaled the driver via the side view mirror to keep going, going, slower, slower, going, and just as he was about to signal for the driver to stop, the iron frame contacted the concrete overhang at exactly the point where the man’s middle finger rested.

When he looked at his hand, that finger was gone. When the truck lurched forward with the break set, the finger fell from where it was squished above him and he caught it.

He stepped off the truck onto the loading dock, down the nearby concrete steps and onto the street, and wandered, looking at his finger in his cupped hand and spewing small bits of blood, in circles.

My colleague and I spent the next several minutes doing the Bazungu thing … being efficient, concerned, active Americans among the slower moving seemingly uninterested locals. As everyone else stood virtually still, we got a bandage, got pressure on the wound, got ice (which was no small accomplishment, and in fact, I still can’t believe we managed that), and got the man a ride, sending him, and his finger (on ice) off to the clinic.

Then, we sat down and did our business with Andre.
Continue reading If your finger falls off, grab it before the dog gets it!

A hail storm of biblical proportions

When I was first in the Ituri Forest, I Noticed there were many kinds of plantains grown in the gardens there They varied by size and shape. One version seemed to have numerous black spots on the outside. When asking what it was called, I found its name was the same as the variety without the black spots. Eventually, someone realized that I was asking the wrong question, and gave me the explanation I was unknowingly looking for: “The ones with the black spots were the ones at a certain ripening stage during a storm in which rocks made of water in the form of what you call ice cream, sort of”

That is how you say “hail damage” in a tropical country in a a shared language with limited vocabulary in that shared language for frozen things.

Continue reading A hail storm of biblical proportions

Nyamulagira Volcano and Human Evolution

I had mentioned earlier that the volcanoes of the Virugna region in the Western Rift Valley (as well as other highland spots) have often been islands of rain forest separated from each other by different habitats, including grasslands and wooded savannas. this has produced an island effect that has been a laboratory for evolution, and it is likely that these forest islands (and others in the greater region of east Central Africa and western East Africa) have been the loci of evolution of many endemic species. (See Island Africa: The Evolution of Africa’s Rare Animals and Plants by Kingdon for an excellent overview of the Island Effect in highland regions of Central and East Africa.)

It is probably not a coincidence that two of the three subspecies of gorilla live within sight of each other (and of the main subspecies, the lowland gorilla) within this region. The Virunga volcanoes are not old enough to have supported island forests for the evolution of these specific subspecies, but other highlands in the region, or other volcanoes (perhaps in the Eastern Rift) may well have been the location in which they evolved.

And, as it turns out, there is reason to believe that the split between chimps and humans occurred on one of these volcanic mountain tops several million years ago. Or, at least, in an environment geologically similar to the upper reaches of the Virunga Volcanoes. But to tell this story right, I have to go back a few years.
Continue reading Nyamulagira Volcano and Human Evolution

The Volcano Nyamuragira: Some Context

Nyamuragira, just now erupting, is one of the numerous Virunga Volcanoes, which form a large cluster of volcanoes spanning the border of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, between Lake Ex-Edward (a.k.a. Lake Rutenzege) and Lake Kivu. The largest population center is Goma, on Lake Kivu, along the southern margin of the lava fields from these volcanoes, and made famous in recent years as the site of numerous excursions of warfare, refugee movements, and volcanic lava flows. I’ve written about Goma and a little about the Volcanoes in the Congo Memoirs.

Have a look at the following map:

Continue reading The Volcano Nyamuragira: Some Context

Congo Volcano Erupting

Mount Nyamulagira, 25km (16 miles) from the eastern city of Goma, erupted at dawn on Saturday, sending lava into the surrounding Virunga National Park.

About 40 endangered chimpanzees and other animals live in the area.

But the country’s famous critically endangered mountain gorillas are said to be safe as they live further east.


These are very special chimpanzees. I believe I’ve blogged about them elsewhere, but I’ll write new something about them soon.

I’ve driven though this range of volcanoes, and flown over them as well.

Erik has details here

Crocs Afar

One day, about six thousand years ago (or more like 15 thousand ? the timing of this is disputed) a volcano in the vicinity of Mwea, Uganda blasted a huge volume of stuff into the air, covering the surrounding landscape and choking off most of the life forms living in a nearby lake. (A very nearby lake ? the current configuration of the lake suggests that the volcano may have actually been beneath the lake at the time of the eruption).

Continue reading Crocs Afar

Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex (A falsehood) I

This is yet another in a series of posts on falsehoods. To refresh your memory, a falsehood is a belief held by a number of people that is in some way incorrect. That incorrectness may be blatant, it may be subtle, it may be conditional, it may be simple, it may be complex. But, the unraveling of the falshoodosity of the belief is a learning experience, if it is accomplished in a thoughtful manner and without too much sophistry. In order for a falsehood to “work” as a learning opportunity it is important to define the statement in terms of the thoughts the falsehood invokes in the target audience, which may be very different than the logic intrinsic to the statement itself. For instance, with the present falsehood, I will argue that civilizations actually are complex and primitive cultures actually are simple, when looked at in a certain way. However, most people look at this issue a different way, and get it wrong. Yes, I will be deconstructing some of your cherished beliefs if you are a run of the mill Caucasoido-occidentalonormative middle class suburbanite. Which I’m sure you’re not, but if you were…
Continue reading Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex (A falsehood) I

A Falsehood: The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned

Good morning and welcome to another installment of “The Falsehoods.” Today’s falsehood is the assertion that the poor have more babies than the rich, or that the poor just have more babies to begin with. In comparison to … whatever.

Continue reading A Falsehood: The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned

What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described. …

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