By Alexandria Simpson
Saraiya Ruano, who served as blog manager for The Eyrie between January 2009 and March 2011, spent a few months in Africa last year. I was curious about the time she spent there so I asked about her experiences. I figured other young birders might be curious as well. ~as
Why did you go to Africa?
I didn't go there for any school related study. I took an approved leave of absence from school for a Baha'i year of service. The Baha'i Faith is a world religion, and in the Baha'i Faith youth have the opportunity to take a year to serve a community. Youth live in a community and help hold gatherings for children, junior youth, and adults that facilitate unity within the community. Also, many times youth serve in whatever way they are asked, which may include things like helping at a school or things like cleaning a facility. Some youth choose to travel abroad, others stay close to home.
I went to Banani International School in Zambia, Africa. It's a secondary school for girls from 8th-12th grade. The girls stay on campus throughout the school year and live in the dorms. Each of the dorms has a dorm mother, who helps keep order and basically stays in the dorms with the girls as a mentor. I was there volunteering as a dorm mother. Some of the tasks included calling lights out and quiet time, being a mediator when arguments arose, and helping tutor the students with their homework. I also helped re-organize the school library and spent a little bit of time at the primary school, which was right next door.
After four months or so in Zambia, I came back to the United States and did the rest of my year of service at the Native American Baha'i Institute on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
Did you get a chance to share your love of birding with anyone there?
There were opportunities to mentor the girls in different subjects. Some girls would ask me to teach them a little about the flute and how to play, or how to draw. One girl asked if she could go with me on my walks to look for birds. She started her own notebook with sketches and we were learning the local birds together. I often didn't know what I was seeing so we went through the process of identification together. She was amazed by the variety of species and said she didn't realize that there were so many different kinds of birds.
One time we were looking for birds down by the primary school when we found a flock of small birds on the ground, among them a male Long-tailed Paradise Whydah. “I wonder how that bird flies” this girl said. Then she ran up to the flock and made them all fly. The whydah was very graceful in the air, flying up with ease despite its long train. The whydah became one of her favorites because of its long tail.
Mentoring others and passing along the things we learn is so important. Children and youth often have a fascination with the natural world around them and find it exciting to learn the names of birds. Observing wildlife can be interdisciplinary, both scientific and artistic. It doesn't just have to be about counting numbers and data, but also about learning to illustrate, draw, or write about your adventures afield.
Could you tell us about some of your favorite species?
I remember vividly the first species I was able to identify in Zambia. I arrived at the airport in Lusaka close to midnight. I was wide-awake and panicked because I had no idea who was picking me up at the airport. I had left home with a vague email confirmation from someone with connections at the international school assuring me that “someone” would pick me up. Fortunately, the school counselor picked me up; she was probably able to identify me by the concerned look on my face. I stood out like a sore thumb in the airport, with no idea what I was supposed to do. It all felt surreal, and as we drove along the Great North Road I couldn't believe I was in Africa. Going to Africa was a childhood dream. We almost got in a few car accidents on the night ride to the school, but that was just a taste of Zambian road etiquette. They are very bold drivers.
That night I stayed in the school counselor's house and slept to the sound of rain pounding on the corrugated roof. When I woke up I heard girls screaming and laughing. School was in session. I pulled aside the curtains and instantly saw a bird with a long red-brown tail flit from one tree to another. The tail feathers were at least as long as the body. I would see this bird later numerous times. It's bluish beak and flycatcher-build helped me identify it as an African Paradise Flycatcher.
African Wood-Owls were a regular part of my nighttime experiences. My window was a screen with glass panes that never fully closed, so it let in all the moisture and rain and wonderful nighttime sounds. One sound penetrated even my deepest sleep: the hooting of the African Wood Owl. There was a pair dueting in the large tree outside the 10th grade dorms, where I slept. In some African cultures, as in many cultures, owls are bad omens and messengers of death. One night the girls were socializing outside and I went outside to call quiet time so they could start coming in and getting ready for bed. Just then a wood owl flew low over the courtyard and I impulsively shouted, "Look! An owl!" I was just so excited (who wouldn't want to see this owl as it flew ghost-like over the roof and into a tree!) But just then all the girls started screaming and running inside. Later one of the girls told me that she believed if she heard an owl hooting on a branch, it meant she or someone in her family would die that very day. I saw many owls during my stay, including a pair of Barn Owls by the basketball court, but decided to keep it to myself.
Do you have a favorite experience you’d like to tell us about?
In Africa, students get a weeklong break three months into the school year. During the first break of the school year, I lived in the school counselor's house. One day I was making myself a breakfast of toast and homemade fig jam. It really was a treat after weeks of eating coleslaw, rice, and vinegar-cured beets at the school cafeteria. I was making the toast when I heard the characteristic squawking of a Meyer's Parrot (also called Brown Parrot). I stepped outside to look up into the fig tree for the parrot. But the tree was so high with many leaves, if there was a parrot up there he was blending in well. I was getting warbler neck looking for a parrot. The gardener saw me craning my neck and knew I was looking for the parrot.
“He is there!” he pointed into the air up into the tree. Real helpful.
“Oh.” I nodded and walked by his side to look from his point of view. I finally found the parrot through the thick leaves.
Then the gardener, seeing that I was satisfied with this look at the parrot, asked me if I would give him a tomato or onion in exchange for his bird-finding services! He was pointing to the onion visible from the counselor’s window. “This isn't my house," I had to explain, "And that isn't my onion, or else I would definitely give it to you.” From then on when I was in the counselor’s yard looking for parrots, he would always watch me and sometimes point it out to me. He knew this muzungu (stranger) was looking for parrots, which were probably so commonplace to him!