What's in a name?

The name Claire comes from a Latin expression meaning "brilliant." Well, I'm not one to argue with that but naming a blog after myself seemed a BIT too conceited. Instead, I chose "African Chiku." Chiku is pronounced "CHEE-koo" and is a common name amongst African children, meaning "chatterer." This summer, I am traveling to Tanzania on a National Geographic photography trip for three weeks and we are required to maintain a blog. When naming my blog, I discovered a title that not only fits the experience but my own personality as well. Ask anyone I know and they'll claim I love to talk. What about? Anything. Nothing. Whatever, whenever and wherever. I am an African Chiku.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

CAUTION:not for people who can't sit still for long periods of time. (AKA: this is freaking long.)

June 16: (Peace, Love, and AK47s?)

Today we were assigned to groups for visiting the leprosy center and computer cafe in shifts. My group traveled to the leprosy center first. The people there are so kind it’s unbelievable. A side-effect of leprosy is losing fingers and toes, one which most of them experienced, but yet everyone remained joyous and in good spirit. It begs you to again ask the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Well, we’ll let the religions figure that one out. Afterwards, Mkalla walked (or should I say, ran) us back to the house so we could drive to the computers in the jeep. Though our car ride with Peter was not as eventful as the one with Erin, we were later told, it was interesting driving on a paved highway in Africa in daylight for the first time.

Lunch was delicious as usual, but we had to hurry over to the dairy farm shortly after so we could have more time walking around and taking pictures with the UAACC kids. Rachel and I had befriended Digna, a 21-year-old girl at the school, and had walked with her earlier also. However, this time we decided to walk even further than before. We even walked into a neighboring village, saw a school that was in the process of being built, and were presented with the opportunity to ride a donkey. Though I passed, Rachel seized the opportunity, which was funny because the donkey was so small that her feet could still touch the ground.

When we returned, I showered and spent some one-on-one time with the stars out in the backyard. It was a good day… or at least so far it was.

Fifteen strangers with AK47s. You need my passport? Oh, okay that’s not nerve-wracking at all… Hearts pounding, lips shut, and ears pressed against the wall, we waited either for Peter to return and tell us everything was alright or for the shocking sound of a shot fired. During this time, my roommates (Sarah, Kylee, and Lindsey) and I devised a plan to escape, worst-case scenario. Out the window? No, the windows are barred. Under the bed? No, that’s kind of obvious. Play dead? Oh, who are we kidding?! Push the bunk bed against the door as a blockade and use it to crawl into the hole in the ceiling? Now, that’s a solid plan. The sounds outside were getting louder. The tension inside was getting thicker. I could hear the tone of their unified voices, and I could hear the protectiveness in Peter’s. Soon, though, all was silent. Everything was alright. Peter returned and I felt as unthreatened as I had before when I lay in my bed, headphones on, music playing, now with only one remaining question: why is Babu in the bushes with a ponga?

June 16 (Letter to Lana 2):

This is pure madness. First the list of creepy/gross words and now this:

Dear Lana,

I just returned from looking over my pictures outside on this circular concrete slab behind the house that offers a direct view of what else but the sky. Naturally, though my eyes were glued to the computer screen, struggling to figure out this craziness called Bridge, I took some time to lie on my back and just look up. I couldn’t help but marvel over the stars, and how phenomenal they are. Lexi even started to play Airplanes to get everyone in the mood. It was pretty great. Then, shortly after, I walked inside and read your letter. You’ve got to be joking. A quote from Blue Like Jazz about stars?!? We are so connected, it’s ridiculous. I’m starting to think V was right: there are no such things as coincidences.

I miss you tons,


June 17: (A confusing start)

Who is playing music this early in the morning? I mean, come on. I rolled over, felt my iPod dig into my side, and traced my headphones back into my ears. Well, this makes a little more sense. I truly am my own worst enemy. Haha well, that may be a tad dramatic, but mere seconds earlier I was thinking of some unkind words I could express to the source of this noise. I looked at my phone: 4 a.m. I’ll let it slide... I’d like to apologize for this self-indulged humor, by the way; I’m not always like this… just usually.

After waking up a second time, I climbed down from my bunk to join my fellow breakfast-crew members (group D represent) for preparing French toast, cheesy eggs, and freshly-cut fruit. I made the French toast mix, which was quite delicious might I add, and went on to cut up the pineapple. The outside of the pineapple was really thick so they gave me a big knife. BAD IDEA. I think I probably cut my fingers more than I cut the fruit. (My cuticles can attest to it, actually.)

Well, enough about myself. After breakfast, the UAACC kids came over again and took us around for three hours, which was fun because we actually got fewer stares when in smaller groups. Crazy concept, right? After venturing out, we returned for a big lunch together before they had to leave. Or, better put, before we had to leave. You see, today was shopping day. Mama Killerai was just as excited as we were and took us into Arusha and on to the Masai market. My favorite thing about today: bargaining. I love to bargain. Part of me feels guilty like I’m leaving them with no money to feed their families for the night. However, the other part of me knows that there are plenty of other gullible tourists who are willing to pay good American money for some little trinket that’s not worth a dollar. Not so great for those people, but it works out great for me.

June 18 (A day of appreciation):

First thing after breakfast, I attacked my laundry with a vengeance. With buckets full of water, detergent in hand, and the motivation of a girl with no clean pants after only one week, I plunged into the chore. The water quickly transitioned from clear to brown, causing me to fill another bucket. However, this technique proved ineffective judging by the funky smell my dry clothes later produced. Great… Never will I ever again take my washing machine for granted.

Next on the agenda was the orphanage where I saw some of the cutest kids I’ve ever met. Adorable little ones with eyes that make you melt in a heartbeat. After being swarmed, I finally gave in and let them take pictures with my camera. I’ve never seen kids so happy to take a picture. It’s crazy how we appreciate things like getting our own camera, but never really appreciate the simple act of getting to shoot with it. Why don’t we appreciate the small things just as much as the big? They’re just as much of a blessing.

We headed out to the Masai food market next to eat lunch and pick up our goats. Yeah, you heard me: goats. For dinner our last night in Maji Ya Chai, we are hosting a huge party for about 60 people, at which goat is being served. Yes, the two events are connected. Only at the Masai market can you eat lunch, stuff your live dinner (that only cost 50,000 shillings each) in your trunk, meet two rappers named Barack, and be offered a cow and tanzanite for one your friends (though that was pretty funny, Erin). After lunch, we returned to the locked bus and waited outside while Erin and Peter bargained for the goats. This one boy, Barack (“like your president,” he later added), began to talk to Sarah and I as we walked back to the bus. His English was very well-developed, and he told us it was because “English is the language of business in the music industry and since he wants a sponsor to help him with his music, he taught himself.” He would say things like “America has a people and Africa has a people, but we were all one people.” I have never met a person so inspired by such a profound thought. He proceeded to tell us about the poverty in Africa compared to the rich Americans he sees on TV. We had to explain to him that he can’t trust everything he sees on television… he didn’t quite understand this concept, but then again neither does half of the U.S. By this time, Rachel had joined in the conversation along with everyone else in the market, it seemed. Barack rapped for us, sang a bit of Bob Marley and told us he would’ve sang some Michael Jackson if MJ had only realized that God had made him black, not white, for a reason. How could you not love this kid?! We were literally surrounded by a hundred Masai tribespeople, but yet I was not the least bit nervous. I knew I should have felt threatened by Barack and his friend Barack, two strangers that I’d just met, but I felt like I could trust them. You can find friends in the strangest situations.

With goats “baaing” in the bottom of the bus, we stopped for gas before continuing to the waterfall. I looked at my completely empty water bottle. I don’t think it really hit me that we were in Tanzania until I found myself in a shed staring at a whole in the ground, with no toilet paper in sight. Not many people can say they’ve shared that experience.

Already thinking that my day had been pretty monumental, it somehow proved me wrong when our bus ended up in a ditch on the way back from the waterfall. The road through the village which leads up to the waterfall was so steep and bumpy that we had to get out and push the bus multiple times, one of which I slipped, emitted an enormously heinous scream, and landed on my knee as well as my camera. Don’t worry though, despite the bruise on my knee and the small scar on my lens cap I was still able to hike up the huge hill for about 15 minutes until we reached the waterfall. That wasn’t tiring at all… The waterfall wasn’t exactly worth it if you ask me, but at least the rest of the group enjoyed it. According to Jacob, it was as if “God was throwing up on you!” Haha what an expression. After turning around though, I assumed we were home free. Everyone was hungry and we were ready to get home, but no. I saw a flash of green and before I knew it, I was sitting in my bus seat at a 45-degree angle, not because the chair had moved but because the bus had. Our bus was in a ditch and there were definitely not enough of us to move it. All of a sudden, people from the village began to come out and help us push our bus up. It was miraculous: all these people who didn’t even know us wanted to help us. It made me happy to see such a random act of kindness and made all the other speed bumps we’d encountered worth it.

Saturday, June 19 (Chillin’ like an African, goat guts and all)

We were given a “chill day” today to counteract the stress of yesterday, which was nice, but it also made me appreciate how packed our days usually are.

Tonight was our party for Maji Ya Chai. We had the sodas, entertainment, and the goats. When I went through the buffet line, however, I did not realize that what I was scooping out were the innards of the goat. That was quite the experience…

Sunday, June 20 (Bittersweet Goodbyes)

When we woke up this morning, we knew we’d be leaving Maji Ya Chai, but it still hadn’t hit us yet. We had been there for a whole week, and it was practically our second home (but with cold showers in the bathroom and goat guts in the front lawn), making it harder than I thought to say goodbye. It’s so weird how quickly relationships can form. Though we were not leaving each other, we were leaving the three men (Babu, Dominique, and Munici) who had been watching over us night and day, the Mamas who had been graciously cooking for us, and the neighborhood kids who had become so used to seeing us mzungus (white people) around. I was in a routine: wake up, eat breakfast, go on the Nat Geo adventure, eat lunch, venture into the village, take pictures, eat dinner, talk by the fire, talk way past “lights out,” sleep, repeat. I felt like I had been doing this for years, I felt like Babu had been hiding in my bushes to protect me for years, I felt like Maji Ya Chai had been around me for years. However, after mere hours of driving, I felt like Maji Ya Chai had not existed at all. It was just a blur in my trip. Time is a very strange concept. It’s something that is supposed to remain the same for everyone, but somehow finds a way to be subjective, changing your view of it in a blink of an eye. Mind-boggling, I know. I still haven’t quite figured it out yet myself.

On the way to our campsite with our guide Killerai and our driver Simon, we saw a lot of wildlife. At one point, we came across a wilderbeast that a lion had recently killed. However, the lion left some meat on the bones so, naturally, Simon and Killerai pulled out their pongas and cut off the remaining meat. We later had this meat cooked for our dinner. Despite my earlier feelings of disgust, I tried it and was extremely surprised to discover that it was delicious! When in Africa…

June 20 (Letter to Lana 3):

Oh, Lanista,

Shuffle. It’s a scary, but awesome, tool. You never know where it might take you. Today, we left Maji Ya Chai on this huge open truck, wind in hair, rain in face, and headphones split between Sarah and mine’s ears. The funny thing is that I didn’t really mind the rain because I was having so much fun! We jumped from Death Cab to Jonas Brothers to Nappy Roots to Backstreet Boys in a matter of minutes. And then, of course, Dancing in the Moonlight came on and made me think of you and your letter (which I read earlier because I was in dire need of it!). I was honestly surprised with myself that I still knew every word. I feel like I’ve been cut off from the rest of the world, which I realize now is a bit ironic considering I’ve only been gone for 9 days, two of which I resided on luxurious airplanes containing personal televisions on the seat in front of me. Anyways, I just wanted to say that when I read your letter, it brought me a great supernatural delight!

Lots of Love,


Monday, June 21 (Pride in Strides)

My tent-mates, Sarah and Betty, and I had a bit of a struggle last night. It seems our tent is slanted downhill? Hmmm… so positioning our sleeping bags horizontally was probably not the best decision. Sarah woke up on Betty’s pillow, Betty woke up on my sleeping pad, and I woke up on all of our luggage. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best night’s sleep. Next on the agenda? Climb a mountain. No big. Despite my heavy breathing and scratched up arms though, I had a blast. At one point, we climbed one by one onto a tree and then scaled through a cave with no bottom. We literally straddled between two rocks, walking very slowly so we wouldn’t lose our grip. As a person who is very afraid of heights, this was a big triumph. When we got to the top though, it was all worth it. The view was phenomenal and I was so proud of myself for climbing through such difficulty.

Just an observation: Later that night, the Masai men who were watching over us danced and sang for us. It’s always interesting for me to see how much culture influences these two universal arts. Though we perceive their dancing as strange, they perceive ours as just as strange, also. It’s a strange world.

Tuesday, June 22 (Suffering on two accounts: dying goats and men with multiple wives)

This morning we left for our second campsite, thirty minutes late, of course. We drove for a little while and then Simon dropped us off so that we could walk through the wilderness and see animals. However, we were not told that the walk was 12 miles long until about 2 hours in, or at least that’s hen we realized they were serious about it. Though we didn’t see much, let’s just say it gave me a lot of chances to have intriguing conversations in my head with myself haha and it did make our 2 o’clock lunch much more rewarding. Afterwards, we re-loaded onto the M.A.N. truck and headed towards the Maasai boma that we would be staying just outside of for a night. After setting up our tents and showering, it was just about time for dinner. What’s on the menu? Goat, of course. Cause of death? Suffication. Location? Right in front of my horrified eyes. In the African culture, to have a goat killed in front of you, for you, is an honor. I didn’t think this would faze me because they had killed two goats in front of us in Maji Ya Chai. But this was different. Last time, Babu cut the goats’ throats, short and sweet, but this time, the goat suffered. This I couldn’t deal with. Killerai explained to us though that this method preserves the blood, though. Why was this important? After killing it, they pour the blood into a bowl, pass it around, and drink it. Oh, okay. Rachel, Camryn, Kylee, Betty, Jacob, Cade, Travis, and Peter tried it, but there was no way I could go anywhere near that. After the ceremony, we were given a tour of the boma while the Maasai that watch over us were cooking the meat. At the boma, all the kids crowded around us for a picture. We also were able to buy jewelry and look inside one of the huts to see how they live. We returned to the campsite afterwards for dinner and were able to ask questions to the Maasai men about their culture. Interesting fact: Most Maasai people are Christian, but are also polygamists. Erin actually pointed this out to me. It’s weird to consider that people of the same religion as me can have such radically different beliefs. This, of course, sent my mind into a whirlwind. It definitely didn’t change my view on polygamy, but it made me think about the smaller differences between my beliefs and others’ that I’m close to. Sometimes it’s helpful to see what others live by to discover what you yourself live by.

June 22 (Letter to Lana 4):

Dear Lana,

Your letter that I opened today made me feel special. Special that I have such a great friend that she would compile a series of letters that were both thought provoking and entertaining. I love the letter that you sent me today because it fit. I can’t really describe what I mean by that but I’ll try my best. Today, we went on a four hour trek through the African brush. We were told beforehand that we had to be quiet as not to scare away the critters (that’s sort of a weird word…), but I didn’t realize that meant virtually NO talking. As you are probably thinking to yourself right now, that doesn’t sound like something Claire would enjoy. However, it did give me the opportunity to think about your letter and its content, which I greatly enjoyed. It just fit so well! Your letters bring joy to me every day, Lana, and are the perfect remedies for my random bouts of homesickness when they present themselves on 4-hour treks and such.

Thanks, buddy!


Wednesday, June 23 (The Nomadic Dream)

I feel like a nomad. Spending one night in an unfamiliar place and then packing up and moving the next morning was a completely foreign concept to me until now. I never really realized how important a home was until I was completely without one. However, I’m realizing how much I enjoy carrying everything I have on my back and rolling out. Well, after rolling out today we went through some national parks for a safari before reaching our next campsite. I also tried my very first red banana, another delicious Tanzanian delicacy. After trekking through the parks, we reached our campsite and met Massimo, the National Geographic photographer who would be traveling with us and giving us pointers for the next couple of days. Let me just describe him for you real quickly: fiery, expressive, and Italian. He is one of the most interesting people to be around. I can already tell even though I just met him that he is a true character.

Thursday, June 24 (Live and learn)

Today was our first full day with Massimo. Peter and Erin have stressed to us what an opportunity it is to just be in the presence of such a prestigious photographer, but I don’t think I fully grasped this until I began to observe him on safari today. He takes 1 picture to my 10 but it somehow turns out twice as good. Every time our truck would stop to take pictures of some wildlife, I watched him to see if he would take a picture or not. Sometimes while somebody in our group was snapping a hundred shots per animal, Massimo would just sit quietly, lens cap on, and watch. This also made me appreciate the experience more. A lot of the time, when I have my camera in hand, I tend to observe through my lens rather than my own two eyes. However, using the Massimo-method, I can do both. It’s a beneficial way to challenge myself, making my experience better and my pictures cooler. Try challenging yourself sometime and see what happens. You might like it! After all, the expression is “live and learn” not “live or learn.” (Just a little advice)

Friday, June 25 (Circle of Life)

While my sister was turning 13 in Houston (happy birthday, Lauren!), I was turning into a safari guru in Africa. Today we went into the caldera and I witnessed the circle of life. But surriously. (That was for you, Lana.) Before descending into the “crater,” we were given the opportunity to take pictures of the breathtaking scenery. When I say “breathtaking,” I mean it quite literally, considering it was freezing outside, and I could not move, much less function with a camera. It was beautiful, nonetheless. Upon entering the bowl-like structure, we were told that a lion was somewhere up ahead, feeding on its new catch, which happened to be a zebra. While the lioness ate it’s striped meal, hyenas waited in the distance and vultures hovered overhead. At first, I was a little repulsed because, personally, I love zebras. They are just so simple to understand because with them everything is black and white! (haha punny, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.) However, as the lion began to finish up, hyenas began to close in, and vultures began to float down, I realized that this is just the world we live in. Life and death, predator and prey. If it weren’t for zebras, then lions, hyenas, and vultures couldn’t survive. We all receive something from everyone, which contributes to our life positively or negatively. It’s an amazing concept.

June 26 (Whoever put the “good” in “goodbye” was either lying to themselves or a huge pessimist)

Today we are leaving new friends again. This departure perhaps is the saddest one I’ve experienced yet. We dropped Massimo off at the airport and then Killerai and Simon dropped us off at the O’Neal home. Killerai was by far my favorite person to meet on this trip and it seems so strange that I’ll never see him again. It’s weird how close you can get to people after only one week. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when we have to leave Peter and Erin after three whole weeks with them…

June 27 (The thick line between Africa and America)

Today we learned a native dance from students at UAACC. After they taught it to us, we responded by teaching them the cupid shuffle. It was so much fun to see how different types of dance can be taught to all different people and how everyone adds their own style to it. However, this was not the most interesting part of my day. Pete O’Neal just showed us the documentary of himself and allowed us to ask questions afterwards. I have never met someone who has been through so much in his life: a black panther forced to leave the United States due to false charges who fled to Africa and still can’t return. Wow.

June 28 (Bidai, Tanzania)

It’s our last full day at UAACC and though I’m ready to return home, I am going to miss it here: the orphans constantly surrounding you, the UAACC kids wanting to learn more about you, and the food, of course.

It’s been such a journey.

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