Saraiya Ruano, who served as blog manager for The Eyrie between January 2009 and March 2011, spent a few months in Africa last year.

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 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. 

Trumpeter HornbillTrumpeter Hornbill, photo by Saraiya Ruano.

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.

African JacanaAfrican Jacana, photo by Saraiya Ruano.

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

“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!

Stay tuned for part
two of this interview next week!