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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Final Entry from Africa, December 6, 2010

sectitle-exseries20-01 Victoria Falls from the Cliff WalkVictoria Falls from the Cliff Walk

December 6, 2010, Illala Lodge, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Woke up this morning to the sound of animals screaming. I assumed it was the baboons, so I didn’t bother to investigate. But on my walk in to the dining hall, I saw in the near distance a wild dog, trotting in the same direction as I was walking, unhurried. He looked over at me casually without slowing down. The screaming I’d heard turned out to be the gazelles alerting everyone in the vicinity to the arrival of the dogs and in the savannah I could see a mature wildebeest, chasing two of the dogs away from an acacia, where she had hidden her children. Normally a wildebeest would be dinner for a pack of wild dogs, but we had come across these dogs yesterday, feeding on an eland. An eland is enough meat to feed a pack of wild dogs for over a week. These dogs were not hungry and so today was the wildebeest’s lucky day.

20-03 A mature flying termite moundA mature flying termite mound

When a flying termite community is dying, a male and female pair will leave the nest. The king follows the queen who is carrying a small piece of fungus in her mouth, looking for rich soil near abundant vegetation, but not too close to another termite nest. When she’s found what she’s looking for, she digs a shallow troth and drops the piece of fungus in it, and then she and the male will gather food—leaves and pieces of bark and wood—for eight days, placing it on top the fungus. The fungus feeds on the leaves and bark and wood, which is too tough for the termites to digest, turning it into a residue that’s an easily digested stew that termites can feed on.

When the king and queen have gathered enough food, they burrow underground and shed their wings and will never fly again. The queen lays eggs that the male fertilizes, over and over again. The first hundred or so litters—each litter containing hundreds of termites—are workers who fly off, collecting more leaves and bark and wood, returning to the nest many times a day. As the season changes, the material brought back to the nest changes, and in the autumn respond to the change in diet and begin to give birth to soldier termites. These soldier termites will protect the nest from birds and the aardwolf and other predators, including various forms of mongeese and lizards and snakes, who find the termites good eating. If too many of the soldiers are away on errands, it’s not difficult for the workers of other tribes to enter a nest and get out with some of its larder.

20-04 Abandoned termite moundAbandoned termite mound

When the queen’s supply of eggs is coming to an end, she is murdered by one of her daughters, who becomes the new queen. This second queen is less fertile than the first, and this is true for each succeeding generation for the next 40-50 years, until the 12th generation.

The termite mounds are made up of waste carried by the workers out of the nest. Birds love to feed on the termites, especially in the rainy season when the plains flood and only the tops of the mounds are visible. Soon plants are growing on these mounds, as the birds sit above the nutrient-rich soil, depositing dung, which often contains seeds of plants that will within a year or two turn the mound into a flower pot, with plants growing out of it and into it at once. Following the 12th generation, as the roots begin to grow thick, choking the nest, the final queen dies, and two termites fly off, a male and a female. The female carries a piece of fungus in her mouth. She is looking for some good soil to start a new community.

20-05 A male dung beetle with a perfect dung ballA dung beetle with a perfect dung ball

Today we watched a dung beetle roll a ball of dung the size of a billiard ball on the sandy trail. Late November is beetle mating season—just after the rains. This time of year male beetles use their front claws to shape a piece of elephant dung into a ball. When it is as large and as perfectly round as possible, they will pick it up with their hind legs and walk backwards like a car in reverse.

The first beetle we found had formed a near-perfect globe and moved it quickly and accurately over the sandy trail until it came up against a tree root. He left the ball and climbed the side of the sandy bank to look around. Finding a easier path, he went back, picked up the ball with his hind legs and pushed it laboriously backwards up a constantly shifting wall of sand until he reached the green above the trail and motored off.

The second beetle had a pathetic dung ball. It was more like a snow-globe with a flattened bottom. It wobbled and lurched, most of the time sideways, and flopped its way down the trail. Within moments, a female dung beetle landed nearby. She was impressed enough by the size of the ball to investigate. If the dung ball is large enough (which means plenty of food for their children), and well-shaped (which means he’s agile, which means he’s young), and the beetle can move it quickly (which proves he’s strong), it tells her that he has good genes and will be a strong protector of her and their children when they are their most vulnerable. If she approves of his effort, she’ll take over directing the movement of the ball, steering it toward a spot of rich, protected soil she’s selected as the perfect spot to raise a family. Then she will leave her eggs in the dung and the male beetle will fertilize them.

20-06 A fertilized dung beetle eggA fertilized dung beetle egg

When this female landed, the probably very young male went into a paroxysm of calisthenics, heaving the clumsy ball to the right and left like a muscleman, lifting it with one leg and then the other. And for the grand finale he did a shoulder stand and tossed the ball back and forth between his feet. But she wobbled and took off, looking for a beetle more like the one we saw earlier. But the male dung beetle was not discouraged and picked up the ball between his hind legs and clumsily motored down the trail. Ka-flump. Ka-flump. “That one’s going to have trouble finding a mate,” Mat laughed.

20-07 Elephant familyElephant family

December 7, 2011, Illala Lodge,Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

The Unexpected Consequences of Reasonable Behavior

Elephants—the largest land mammal on Earth—are now protected across southern Africa. Hunting is illegal and all fences have been torn down so that wild animals, including the elephants, can move freely, even across country borders.

20-08 Protecting the childProtecting the child

There are over 70,000 elephants in the Okavango Delta. Chobe National Park alone has over 120,000 elephants. Botswana can maintain 15,000-45,000 elephants, but has over 190,000—more elephants per square mile than any other country in the world. And that number is rising quickly, as elephants have no natural predators past the age of ten, and can live as long as 70 years and spawn seven generations before they become too old to mate. In their wake they leave acres of broken branches, trees torn out of the ground, shrubbery stripped and dying. A herd of elephants will eat an entire hillside of leaves and bark and brush in a single day. Botswana is losing a hillside per day per herd of elephant. And the rapidly disappearing bush and acacia that the elephants prefer are the only habitats of grazers—gazelles and other deer-like creatures—and the stalking grounds of the lion and leopard.

20-09 Grazers on the horizonGrazers on the horizon

The current over-population of elephants in Botswana has led to some elaborate plans to manage the herds. First biologists tried to control the elephant population by putting birth control in their food supply, but the elephant birthrate actually increased. Then the government used helicopters to push 15,000 elephants over the border into Angola and Zambia and Namibia where they’d been hunted almost into extinction, and transported another 500 to Mozambique, but because poachers are not pursued very aggressively in Angola and Namibia and Mozambique the elephants made their way back to Botswana, destroying everything in their path.

20-10 Lone adolescent elephantLone adolescent elephant

So the countries of southern Africa allowed regulated hunting on special hunting preserves. These are called concessions and we drove past several on our way to camp. Hunters from all over the world—but especially Spain and Germany and Russia and Japan—pay over $100,000 to hunt a bull elephant on a game ranch. But since everyone wants to bag only the most impressive bull elephants, soon only the weaker and smaller and less healthy animals were left alive to reproduce and the herds were weakening with each new generation. And the elephants that remained were quickly becoming dangerous. An elephant has an excellent memory and if you kill an elder elephant or a child, the family members will kill any humans they come across until they themselves are put down. So now government rangers go out with the hunters and kill the entire herd.

20-11 Get back!Get back!

Even under ideal conditions, working with elephants is dangerous work. James was part of a group of rangers that tried to free a young elephant from a wire snare. They decided to sedate the elephant from a safe distance—about 100 yards—and then remove the snare, sterilize and cauterize any wounds, and monitor the situation from a safe distance until the elephant was fully functional. But when they shot the elephant with a tranquilizer dart, it ran a short ways and fell over. The mother—who saw its child run a short distance and fall over following the arrival of the rangers and a gunshot—believed her child had been shot and killed. An elephant can run much faster than a human, and she ran the 100 yards and picked up their Land Rover in her tusks and hurled it after them as they ran away.

20-12 Crossing the highwayCrossing the highway

When Africa began to realize that wild animals were their third highest source of income and a potential growth industry, wildlife sanctuaries the size of Germany and France were created in Botswana. That’s a lot of territory to cover for a country whose biggest crisis is not elephants, but AIDS. Soon the rewards offered by the government for catching poachers became more lucrative, and the penalty for poaching became a minimum of 20 years in jail, so some of the poachers fought back, and several rangers were killed. So the law was changed and the rangers were under orders to shoot first and ask questions later, but not all of the dead hunters were poachers—some of them were fathers and sons who were feeding their family the only way they knew how.

20-13 Skull on the pathSkull on the path

The vast numbers of elephant skeletons found on riverbeds has created the myth that elephants can anticipate their death and will go to a special area to die—an elephant graveyard. The truth is much more mundane. An elephant has seven sets of teeth. As they grind one set into nothing, the next generation takes its place. But there is no replacement for an elephant’s seventh generation of teeth, so when an elephant loses its last set of teeth, it becomes too painful for them to eat and the animal will slowly die. But first it makes its way to a river and fills its empty belly with water.

20-14 Even a dead tree is beautiful (and home to migrating birds)Even a dead tree is beautiful (and home to migrating birds

The overgrazing by the elephants is not a total loss. Even a dead tree is beautiful, James tells me. And the elephant eats a lot but doesn’t process it well, so their scat is full of partially digested foodstuffs that become feasts for smaller animals. They also carry seeds across the savannah, and as they walk across the countryside in search of water, they create paths that will be used by other animals. And as they bathe and splash, they spread water to areas that would otherwise be dry. But their migrations are creating problems for any animals that share the land with them—including humans.

20-15 Elephant watering holeElephant watering hole

Each year the elephants are taking up more territory and there are laws prohibiting fences and interfering with the animals in any way. But if the elephants are in your garden, and this garden is your only source of food, what are you going to do? You are going to get out your flares and your wife will rattle sheets of metal and your children will risk their lives chasing the elephants in the dark, trying not to come between a mother and her children, knowing that if she gets a sense of how small you are, she will kill you just to get you out of her way

20-16 Elephants on the horizonElephants on the horizon

West African Music, Part II

1. Ali Farka Toure & Ry Cooder: Amandrei

Ali Ibrahim Toure (10/31/39-3/7/06) was a singer and guitarist born in the village of Kanau on the Niger River in the region of Tombouctou of Mali who moved to a nearby village of Niafunke while still an infant. He was the tenth son of his mother but the only one to survive past infancy and they gave him the nickname of “Farka” (donkey) in the hopes of giving him its strength and tenacity. He was the first African bluesman to become famous in Africa and then throughout the world. His 1994 LP with Ry Cooder was an international hit but marked his retirement from music until 1999, when he released Niafunke, an album of more traditional African music. Martin Scorsese made a film in 2003 about the roots of the blues (“Feel Like Going Home”) featuring Toure and Corey Harris (a blues and reggae musician). In 2004, Toure became the mayor of Niafunke and spent the money he’d made from music to create roads, build sewers, and fueling a generator that brought the village electricity. He died on March 7, 2006 of bone cancer.

Ryland Cooder (born March 15, 1947) is a guitarist, singer, and composer born in Santa Monica, California, who has worked with Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Randy Newman, Earl Fatha Hines, Judy Collins, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart, The Doobie Brothers, The Chieftains, Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, Pops and Mavis Staples, Flaco Jimenez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Linda Ronstadt, Freddy Fender, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and the Tuvan throat singers. He produced the Buena Vista Social Club album. He was ranked 8th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

2. Momo Wandel Soumah: Felenko Yete

Momo Wandel Soumah was a singer, composer, and alto saxophonist from Guinea who died suddenly on June 15, 2003.

3. Lijadu Sisters: Life’s Gone Down Low

The Lijadu Sisters, Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu, are identical twin sisters from Ibadan, Nigeria who performed from the mid-1960s until they retired from music in 1980. They performed with Ginger Baker’s band Salt at the World Music Festival at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and were one of Nigeria’s top stars in the 70’s and 80’s, and in 1984 released Double Trouble on Shanachie Records, and they moved to Brooklyn, New York, and performed with King Sunny Ade. They were featured in the music documentary Konkombé and in the Nigerian installment of the PBS documentary in Beats of the Heart in the late 1980s.

4. Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou: Imidiwan

Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou is a Nigerian guitarist and singer born in 1962 who was expatriated to Libya in 1984. In 1987, he founded the group Tagueyt Takrist Nakal to perform songs in support of the Tuareg people. His music was banned by the Nigerian government and were passed hand to hand on cassettes, not only in Nigerian but also Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Libya. In 1995, following a peace agreement, Abdallah returned to return to Nigeria. In 2005, he moved to France and created a band called Desert Rebel and the documentary film “Ishumars, les rockers oublies du desert.

5. Boubacar Traore: Mouso Teke Soma Ye5.

Boubacar Traore is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist born in 1942 in Kayes, Mali.He was nicknamed Kar Kar (“the one who dribbles too much”) because of his peculiar soccer play. He taught himself how to play guitar and became a star in Mali in the early 1960s but made no recordings and had to work odd jobs to support himself and his family. When the opposition party overthrew the Malian president Modibo Keita, Boubacar, who was associated with the previous regime, was banned from the airwaves, and his popularity faded in the 1970s. In 1987 he was rediscovered via a profile of him on Mali TV, but shortly thereafter his wife died in childbirth and, grief-stricken, Boubacar moved to France and did construction work to support his six children. A British record producer discovered a tape made of his radio performances and tracked him down and he was signed to his first record deal in 1990. He was featured in the book Mali Blues and the 2001 documentary Je chanterai pour toi (“I’ll Sing For You”), as well as appearing in the film Blues Road Movie (2001).

6. Herbie Hancock, Tinariwen, K’naan, & Los Lobos: Tamatant Tilay

Herbert Jeffrey Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 12, 1940 is an American pianist, keyboardist, bandleader, and composer, and one of the first musicians to embrace synthesizers and funk music. He began studying classical music at the age of seven, and at the age of eleven performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony. In 1960, he left Grinnell College, and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins. (He would later graduate Grinnell College with a degree in electrical engineering and music.) He recorded his first solo album Takin’ Off on Blue Note Records in 1962, including the song “Watermelon Man,” which Mongo Santamaria made into a hit single. The album also impressed Miles Davis, who was putting together a new band and invited Hancock to his Second Quintet in May, 1963. At the same time, he recorded with Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, and Freddie Hubbard, as well as several solo albums. In 1983, he won a Grammy Award for Instrumental Recording for “Rockit, and in 2008, his album River: The Joni Letters won the Grammy Award for Album of the year, only the second jazz album to with that award.

Tinariwen (The Desert Boys) is a collection of Berber musicians formed by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who grew up in the Tuareg refugee camps in Algeria after watching his father’s execution when he was four years old during the Malian uprising of 1963. Ibrahim saw a western film around this time where a cowboy played a guitar, and he made his own out of a tin can, a stick, and bicycle brake wires. Ibrahim wouldn’t obtain his first real guitar until 1979. In 1980, he went to Libya for military training as part of the Tuareg army that would return to Mali to fight for the freedom of their homeland. There he met other musicians and formed a band that began writing and recording revolutionary songs on cassettes, which got copied and passed from hand to hand. In 1990, he and the other members of the band returned to Mali to fight for its independence. Following the signing of a peace agreement, the members of Tinariwen put down their rifles and began performing music full-time.

K’naan (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) is a poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist born in Mogadishu, Somali. His aunt—Magool—was one of Somalia’s most famous singers, and K’naan’s grandfather—Haji Mohammad—was a poet. His father left Somalia before the civil war, and sent him hip-hop records, from which he learned English phonetically. In 1991, he fled with his family to NYC, and then to Toronto. In 1999, he performed a spoken word piece criticized the UN for its failed aid missions to Somalia in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Senegalese singer Yousso N’Dour was in the audience and he invited K’naan to the 2001 album Building Bridges, and his world tour. In 2002, he released his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which won the Juno Award for Rap Recording the year. He has recorded with Nelly Furtado, Nas, Mos Def, will.i.am, Kirk Hammett (Metallica), The Roots, and Damian Marley. His song “Wavin’ Flag” was chosen by Coca-Cola as its anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and became a Top Ten hit in eleven different countries.

Los Lobos (The Wolves) is a band from East Los Angeles, California. In 1980, they opened for Public Image Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. In 1983, they released their first recording, an EP entitled … And a Time to Dance, which earned them enough money they were able to buy a Dodge van to tour the country. In 1984, they released their first album How Will the Wolf Survive. In 1995, they won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Peformance for “Mariachi Suite,” and they scored the film Desperado.

7. Lobi Traore: Dunya

Rokia Traoreis Bambara singer, songwriter, and guitarist born in Koulikoro, Mali on January 26, 1974.Her father was of the noble class and a diplomat and she traveled as a child to Algeria, Saudia Arabia, France and Belgium. Bambara nobility are not allowed to play music and there was no tradition for a woman to play guitar when she began publically performing as a singer/songwriter guitarist. She also plays the traditional African instruments the ngoni and balafon and sings in the Bamana language. She released her first album (Mouneissa) in 1997 She has recorded with the Kronos Quartet and in 2011 she wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona.

8. Laidu: Rokia Traore

Lobi Traore (1961-June 1, 2010) was a Mallian singer, born in the village of Bakaridianna on the Niger River. His album Bamako was produced by Ali Farka Toure in 1994.

9. Tinariwen: Cler Achel

See above for more information.

10. Samba Toure: Amandrei

Ali Farka Toure asked guitarist Samba (no relation) to join his band for a world tour in 1997.


Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


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