Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Field Day

Another note from the school and another chance for me to volunteer!This time they wanted volunteers for 'Field Day' or what we call 'Sports Day' back home in India.I saw that it was scheduled to take place just ten days after the school had reopened after Christmas.I was surprised because I knew there had been no preparations till then and children  in India are used to practicing for Sports Day programs at least a couple of months in advance!
Sports day in India takes place in the winter months of December or January and many schools make it coincide with India's Republic Day with children performing dances from different regions,a physical training display and the works, all beautifully orchestrated and coordinated.Here,we were going to have the field day in the peak of summer!I suppose any other time of the year in Nairobi would have been too cold and wet!
I mailed the  physical education teacher and was invited for a meeting which resulted in me being appointed the 'Team Captain' of a team!The elementary and middle school children had been temporarily divided into three teams as in this system there is no concept of school houses!This, in itself, is difficult for people from the Indo-Brit educational system to swallow as one of the remnants of the Raj era in India is that all schools have not just senior but also junior school houses.In fact,many of the cantonment area schools in Pune still have the names of long gone British or Anglo Indian head masters and headmistresses as their house names!These houses compete against each other with the winning house taking home the rolling trophy at the end of the year.Remember even Hogwarts has the house system!
As a team captain I was responsible for teaching a cheer to my team members a day before the event!I told the teacher that I was apprehensive about the fact that they would not be able to practice at all.She assured me that it was a fun day and I should not worry about anything.A 'fun' day?My own memories of a sports day from my school days in Pune encompassed countless minutes spent badgering the maid to make the P.T uniform spotless,scrubbing those white 'Bata'(yes,Bata was one of the handful of international brands available in the pre liberalization era!) shoes till they shone,hours of march past practice in the mild winter sun holding the school flag upright till my arms ached,shouting commands till I was hoarse, as I led the school in my capacity as 'Head Girl' say nothing of running relays,100m and 400m dashes and high jump and long jump practice.Had it been fun?Yes,it had!I supposed that the American system and the Indo- British system had their own concepts of fun!
Field Day dawned.There was no march past to the tune of the Army band like back home,no army officer had been invited as a chief guest(is it a way of showing gratitude for loaning schools the band?And in many cases schools 'borrow' the army ground too!) and there were no carefully choreographed performances in colour coordinated outfits.Reebok,Nike,Addidas ruled the day.They had athletics,swimming events,soccer shoots,long jump,relays and the tiny tots had the sack race and the three legged race as well.The children were relaxed and the older ones were wandering around eating,chatting and cheering as they awaited their turns for each event.The younger ones were supervised by teachers but were still having a fun day by rolling around on the ground,clapping and shouting to their hearts content!
I realized that the common aspect in each system was the zest,the enthusiasm,the exuberance and the excitement of the children no matter what the system of education being followed.Though the event here did not have the sepia tones of a Raj era photograph but instead was sprinkled with the colours of the star spangled banner, it was easy to see that the children had had a 'field' day!

Monday, 16 January 2012

An Eye Opener

 Mellowed red brick buildings.Bubbling fountains.Lush palms.Potted plants which were a riot of colour.Neatly paved pathways.Were we at the right address?Yes,we were.It was the Aga Khan Hospital,Nairobi.Normally I avoid hospitals like plague,but it was time for the children's bi-annual eye check up and I had been told that one of Nairobi's best opthalmologists had her consulting room there.So there we were,just in time for their appointment.We circled around the buildings looking for some parking space.I recently read that as far as parking space is concerned,Mexico is the worst place in the world and Nairobi ranks a close second!And we thought the parking problem in Pune was bad!We finally abandoned the car to the mercy of our driver and headed in.After all,punctuality is my second name and Indian Stretchable Time does not work for me!
As we settled down in the doctor's waiting room and prepared to await our turn,I cast an eye around.My gaze fell on a book of Numerology.And the author was none other than the doctor we had come to see,Dr.Prabha V Choksey!An opthalmologist who was also a numerologist?That was a new one!I eagerly opened the book as I love this subject and can never read enough about it.
The first thing I read was that all profits from the sale of the book would be donated to support children with albinism.Thanks to my biology teacher from my long ago school days,I knew,of course,that albinism denotes the complete lack of melanin,the pigment which imparts colour to the skin.But this was the first time I had come across a cause to help such children and I bought the book at once!
Later,when the eye check up was over,I told the doctor that I had bought her book and that I admired her cause.Then she told me something that I was not aware of.People suffering from albinism are the target of many superstitious beliefs all across Africa.Often their body parts are chopped off to be used in witch craft.Her foundation works to eradicate such beliefs and only educating the people at the grass root level will help.Albinos,besides suffering from skin problems,also have major eye problems but a pair of glasses does make things easier.But some of the people cannot even afford those and that is where she steps in.She is determined that these children find a dignified place in society and are given the means unlock their true potential.                                                                                                                                                                 Being blessed  with good vision ourselves,we rarely think how visually impaired people suffer.My mother and I used to record prescribed course books for visually handicapped students in Pune and today one of those students is a lecturer in a college and is on the verge of obtaining his Ph.D!I used to send out my own students from the college where I was teaching to be exam writers for such students.I hope it made them value the gift of their own sight!                                                                                                                                                                                                                    But Dr.Choksey had given me something new to think about and when I go back to Pune,I am determined to find out what is being done for albinos there and to help in any way I can.Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine living in that darkness twenty four by seven where inverters and generators can be of no use.Now couple that with a skin that has no pigment to absorb the sun's harsh rays.It will,indeed,be an eye opener!

Monday, 9 January 2012

A 'Happy' Birthday

A new year is also literally the start of a personal new year for me as my birthday comes almost as soon as the new year rolls in.This would be my first birthday in Nairobi and I decided to celebrate by paying a visit to the Nairobi National Park,something my husband had been urging us to do for ages!We finally succeeded in waking the children up around ten o'clock,(a formidable task since they were in the middle of their school vacation) and by eleven o'clock we were on the road.
This is the only time of the year when Nairobi roads are virtually empty with most folks being away on holiday and hence there was mercifully no scope of being caught in one of our notorious traffic jams.A thirty minute drive later we were at the entrance of the National Park.We made a quick stop at the entrance to purchase the tickets and then we were in,with the gate staff telling us that they hoped we would see plenty of lions!
I had heard from friends that one does not get to see too many animals in this particular park and so we were not really optimistic on that score.We had slightly more than a quarter tank of fuel in our car and we thought that would be more than sufficient for our 'safari'.A few hours later,we would realize how wrong we had been on both counts!
I was impressed by the neat,well maintained dirt roads and clear sign posts at every cross road which had names like 'Lone Tree',Cheetah Gate',Lion Valley' along with the number of kilometers for each destination.We decided to choose the most interesting sounding name every time and were soon deep inside the game park.
It seemed to be our day to spot babies!I have not seen as many baby animals as I saw that day in six years of traversing through all of Tanzania's prominent game reserves.May be the fact that I had been a new born myself on that particular day many years ago had something to do with it!
Babies everywhere in the world,both human and animal,look adorable!Maybe it is the innocence,maybe it is the guileless gaze that just brings adults to their knees!But a baby zebra ranks  higher than most on the cuteness quotient and imagine out delight when we came face to face with one!As we stopped the car and began clicking pictures,we could see panic in it's eyes and it pricked up it's ears to listen to the new sounds-the click of the camera,the children's squeals about how sweet it looked and the car engine.But the Mummy zebra stood stolidly there and placidly continued munching grass.She did not even glance our way.I suppose she was used to strangers gawking at her and would soon pass on the lesson to the little one!The minute we drove off,the baby zebra snuggled up to Mummy as if to reassure itself that people may come and people may go but his mother would go on forever....
We saw a whole flock of baby ostriches striving to keep abreast with the hens,lanky baby giraffes,baby impalas prancing around their mothers without a care in the world and even a minute,angelic looking baby wart hog!Now wart hogs will never win any prizes for looks(they resemble wild boar) but if I was judging the baby animals,the hog would have surely won a medal!
One message was loud and clear.Everywhere we looked we saw the babies sticking close to their mothers.We saw that Mother Nature has given the role of nourishing and nurturing only to the female of the species,namely the mother!The new generation is one where many of the children are being cared for by maids,care givers in creches or day cares,or by grandmothers.The impact will be seen a few years down the line and I have my fingers crossed when I think of the long term implications.The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world and what kind of rulers we produce remains to be seen.
We had been so engrossed in searching for animals and spotting them that we had lost track of time!After a quick trip to the Hippo Pool(we just missed seeing a lion that had been spotted there ten minutes earlier)  and the lake where the Maharabou Storks rule,we realized that our fuel gauge was almost empty and the danger light was flashing!Then began a race against time to exit the park before we were stranded in the bush without fuel!We raced towards a gate that our driver knew to be an exit only to find that it had been permanently closed a few years ago!We had wasted ten precious kilometers worth of petrol.We turned around and went back to the Hippo Pool where we met an armed ranger.He told us the closest exit was around twenty kilometers away and we set off again.I was praying that we would get safely out!Since it was my birthday,I hoped my wish would be granted.Much as we loved animals,none of us fancied spending the night with just them for company!
We did it!We came out in the nick of time and rushed to the nearest fuel station to tank up.Finally I began breathing normally again!My husband teased me saying that if that day was a portend of things to come, I was in for a tough year!I was so relieved at having got out of the park safe and sound that ,for once,I had nothing to say!
A dear friend of Dar days had invited us for tea and we enjoyed the delicious Ragda Pattice and Masala Chai that she had made.I even got a lovely unexpected gift from her.I guess a birthday is all about surprises,some super ones like my friend's party for me and some avoidable ones like an empty fuel tank right in the middle of the East African Savanna!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Of Ornithology,Archaeology,Herpetology,Herbology...

                                        The time has come,the Walrus said,
                                         To talk of many things.
                                          Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
                                          Of cabbages and kings!
                                           And why the sea is boiling hot,
                                           And whether pigs have wings!
                                                                          -Lewis Carroll

These are the lines that jumped into my mind as we were purchasing tickets to enter the hallowed portals of the Nairobi National Museum and I happened to  glance at the lay-out map of the museum.It told me that the museum encompassed a vast variety of subjects.My husband and I have been fortunate enough to visit some of the best museums in the world.We have visited the Hermitage and the Pushkin  Museum in St.Petersburg,the Aeronautical Museum and the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow,the British Museum,the Sherlock Holmes Museum and Madame Tussauds in London,a number of museums in South East Asia and the Middle East,the Tanzanian National Museum and of course Pune's very own Raja Kelkar Museum ,to name a few.So I was very eager to see what this museum had to offer and from the outset it appeared that we were in for a treat!The foundation had been laid under Kolonial rule more than  a hundred years ago and subsequently the Kenyan Government had taken it in hand.
As we entered the first hall,we were struck by the vast variety of birds on display.The sizes and the colours were truly out of this world!I always feel that when God was mixing colours in His celestial palette,He added extra dollops of colour while creating Africa.Hence the bright hues of the flora,the fauna,the birds and the beasts!I do not know if the late Dr.Salim Ali,India's most renowned ornithologist ever visited Kenya,but if he didn't,he missed something!
My daughter,a die hard nature lover,was pleased to note that none of the birds had been shot for the purpose of display .The taxidermist had stepped in after the bird died a natural death!What a relief for us vegetarians!
Africa is said to be the cradle of civilization and what better place to prove this than the museum?As we led the children through the hall devoted to the evolution of man as seen through the  remains excavated by the Leakeys and other archaeologists,my alma mater,the Deccan College Pune,where I studied archaeology came to mind.I explained the numerous terms to the children and as I uttered each word-pre history,australopithecus,aechulian,microliths,hominids,cleavers,carbon dating,I felt as if my own Professors were speaking through me!They say a man lives on through his children and I say good teachers live on through their students!
Then we came to what became my son's favourite part of the museum.The snake gallery!A wide range of live snakes are on display here and their colours rival those of the gems in a jeweller's shop!Coral red,jade green,citrine yellow,jet black,pearly white,Tiger's eye brown.....But do not be deceived!They are as deadly as they are beautiful!
After a quick cup of coffee,a Zulu veg burger and some delicious croquettes in the coffee shop and a visit to the souvenir shop,we were ready to tackle the next part of the museum.Steps made of mosaic led us to the herb garden and the botanical garden.The pieces of glass laid out in the shape of a tree glittered and shimmered in the sunshine and were just breath taking.We looked at all the fresh herbs which were familiar to us since most of them are used in Indian Cuisine on a daily basis.But it was fun reading about their many uses!
Finally we reached the botanical garden which is a green oasis of tranquility,complete with a pond full of creamy yellow lotuses-India's National flower!Paths paved with mossy bricks wind their way throughout the garden and there is plenty of shade under the canopy of a humongous variety of trees- some of them really massive. Palm fronds waved in the air,cacti had burst into bloom here and there and tall Flame of the Forest(Palaash) trees dominated the whole landscape.We took a leisurely stroll through the entire area replete with wonderfully carved wooden statues.A stream gurgled it's way through just outside the garden and the sound added so much charm to what was already a heavenly spot.
Then it was time to head out and we did so,albeit reluctantly.My daughter had the last word and I agree with her.Knowledge is found not just in the pages of a book and a museum need not be a dusty,musty place!The National Museum of Nairobi certainly proves both the former and the latter absolutely right!


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