Nigeria’s tomato crisis: Can you make stew without tomatoes?

Nigerians love their tomatoes, so their culinary life has been hit hard by soaring prices across the country caused by a pest wiping out crops.

In some markets you can pay as much as $2 (£1.40) for a single tomato.

The prices have been steadily rising since March – and last month a state of emergency was declared in the tomato sector of one state.

“This tomato crisis is no joke. My mom’s friend grows tomatoes and sent us a little box and my mom looks like she’s going to cry,” one tweeter said this week.

Halima Umar, a journalist in the BBC’s Abuja bureau who colleagues say is an excellent cook, says she used to buy a basket of tomatoes a week – but now her family is having to get used to life without them.

“I’ve tried using preserved tomatoes in sachets as an alternative, but they turn stews sour – and are also expensive because they’re imported,” she said.

Nigerian food blogger Dunni Obata tried to help out by tweeting a link to her tomato-less stew.

“@DooneysKitchen to the rescue… hoping the price of substitutes don’t go up,”one person tweeted.

Other recipes are also being shared, including by Olapeju Aiyegbayo, who runs the catering company Zurielle’s Pot in Ibadan.

She has helpfully posted videos on her Facebook page, showing how to prepare them.

Though not everyone who has experimented with the various recipes has been so complimentary about how things turned out. One man complained, not naming names: “This lady just messed up my rice and beans with this tomato less stew… shame on everybody responsible for this tomato crisis.”

Ms Obata explains why stews are ubiquitous in Nigerian cooking.

“Wherever in the world a Nigerian is, there is bound to be a stew in the fridge. Even people who don’t cook, manage stew,” she explains on her blog Dooney’s Kitchen.

Nigerian chef and food writer Nky Iweka, who calls herself “the executive Mama Put” – after the colloquial name for food stall vendors in Nigeria – said someone once told her that “Nigerian tomato stew (sauce to the rest of the world) is one of the world’s culinary wonders”.

“I’m inclined to agree. I use it in all manner of ways: To make bolognaise, as a pizza base, to eat with boiled rice, plantain or yam and of course to make our beloved jollof rice,” she told the BBC.

“So when I read about the tomato shortage in Nigeria, I understood their despair.”

Why is there a tomato crisis?

BBC journalist and tomato farmer Nasidi Adamu Yahaya explains:

The pest is actually a moth called the Tomato Leaf Miner, or Tuta Absoluta and it first appeared in early March. It has mainly affected states in the north: Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna and Katsina, but has also caused mayhem in Plateau and Lagos.

I have some land in Kano, from which I can produce about 30,000 tomatoes – that’s about 2,000 big baskets. I was lucky because I planted early and managed to harvest all the fruit by mid-March, but you can harvest until May and those who planted a little later, like my best friend, have lost nearly all their crop.

The moths ravage the whole plant – leaves, tomatoes and stalk. They’re like termites devouring wood.

It has cost the sector millions of dollars and affected 80% of farmers. But there is hope for the next season, as the Nigeria’s National Research Institute for Chemical Technology has told the BBC that it has developed a pesticide that should eradicate the ravenous moths.

However, Ms Iweka, says the fact that tomatoes have become a culinary staple is ironic as they are not native to Nigeria.

“Traditionally, we would not have used tomatoes in any of the wide variety of dishes we have: Yam pottage, bean casserole, okro soup, oha soup, onugbu soup, nsala soup.”

It’s the love of rice that has led to the tomato anguish, as “most Nigerians eat rice at least once a day”, she says.

“However, we do have other sauces that can be eaten with rice: Ayamase stew, thickened fisherman’s soup, curry, various vegetable soups, bean casserole.”

And the four quoted cooks have given the BBC permission to reproduce their recipes to help Nigerians through this time of “tomato-geddon”.

Nky Iweka’s Warri stew


Ingredients: Two red bell peppers (about 550g); seeded and quartered, one large onion (about 200g); peeled and quartered, one small onion (about 60g), peeled and thickly sliced, one scotch bonnet chilli, about 8g (or to taste optional); four tablespoon fresh thyme; 300ml groundnut or other vegetable oil.


Liquidise the bell peppers, quarter onion and chilli (optional) with little water – aim for a fairly chunky mixture. Place oil and sliced onions in a pan and fry until the onions turn black. Remove and discard them. Turn down the heat and fry the tomato puree for a minute or so and then add the thyme and liquidised vegetables.

Continue to fry the stew on a low to medium heat for about 20-30 minutes and the mixture will reduce. You will know it’s ready when the oil floats to the top. Any additions such as cooked/fried meat, fish or chicken should be made now. Cook for a further five-10 minutes to heat them through. Drain the oil and serve

Halima Umar’s vegetable stew


Ingredients: Three onions; eight to 10 potatoes; one medium cabbage; six carrots; four cloves of garlic and a few chicken breasts.

Instructions: Boil chicken pieces and set aside, then boil some small potatoes, drain and set aside. Heat the oil in a pan on a medium heat, add onions, garlic and carrots. Cook for eight minutes stirring continuously then add a small amount of chicken broth, now add the chicken pieces and the boiled potato. Add salt and seasoning. Reduce the heat and mix in corn flour with water and pour in. Then add some shredded cabbage and allow to simmer for few minutes. Serve with rice, spaghetti or anything you like. Serves five.

Dunni Obata’s tomato-less stew


Ingredients: Tatshe (red bell peppers); shombo pepper (long red chilli) use half or all; a few ata rodo (scotch bonnet or habanera pepper) – the bigger ones are not as hot as the small; ginger; three or four fairly large onions; half an iru (fermented locust bean) – if you like iru for fuller flavour use all and garlic is good alternative if you don’t like iru; vegetable oil; ike eran(hump of the cow); palm oil (optional but good to use if the stew is too hot.

Instructions: Blend all the ingredients into a smooth paste then check the taste. Here you can add more ata rodo (scotch bonnet) if it’s not hot enough. Place in a pot and bring to the boil this intensifies the pepper mix and develops the rich red colour. Heat the oil and add chopped onions, add more iru if you want and extra garlic. Add the boiled pepper and allow to fry until thickened. Lighten with beef stock or fried meat. Taste and then add more seasoning as need.

Olapeju Aiyegbayo’s stew with beef


Ingredients: One kilo of beef; one or two shombo pepper (long red chillies); one medium sized onion: two or three tatashe’s (bell peppers); a piece of ginger; palm oil; groundnut oil; salt; seasoning cube; two or three pieces of rodo (scotch bonnets).

Instructions: Cut up the beef, season, cook on medium heat with half a cup of water; de-seed and rinse the peppers. (Keep seeds if you want a hot stew). Blend peppers until smooth then in a separate pot add one cooking spoon of groundnut oil and one cooking spoon of palm oil. Next add the piece of peeled ginger for flavour then pour in the blended peppers. check the beef, it should be tender, sieve the stock and pour into the stew. Cook on a medium heat for 15-20 minutes stirring occasionally. After 15 minutes add the beef, reduce the heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool for two minutes.


9 Free Business Productivity Tools For Startups

Starting a business can be a daunting endeavor, especially if all you have is a cool product and not enough capital. In the tech world, or in any other niche for that matter, most startuppers fail not because they have bad products but because they are unable to generate enough consumer interest in their products. 

Considering overheads and other back-office expenses, this scenario doesn’t come as a surprise. So if you’re still starting out and find yourself strapped for much needed funding to keep your startup afloat, the following free business productivity tools are worth checking out.


# 1.

If you need a collaboration tool your staff are most likely to adopt with relative ease and minimum training, take the social intranet route. is the fastest growing social intranet that’s free for businesses with 12 employees or less. The application comes as a combination of several different work tools like CRM, project management, real-time streaming, activity planner, file sharing, to name just a few. As it is cloud-based, access can be anywhere, whether using your computer or smartphone. An upgrade to unlimited users starts at $99 per month.

# 2.

In this era of e-mail and instant messaging, you’d think fax machines are no longer relevant. But if aLinkedIn survey as reported by Mashable is to be believed, fax machines are still in until 2017 steps in.

As you might have already guessed from the site’s name, is an online service that allows you to send up to three pages of fax for free (maximum of two faxes per day) to any number in the United States or Canada. The site also offers premium pay-per-fax service should you need to send more.

# 3. is an online productivity tool that assists in task and time management. Remember The Milk essentially functions as your all-in-one task manager, electronic calendar and to-do list. Aside from allowing you to share and split tasks with other people, the application can be integrated with GMail, too.

The pro account is priced at $25 for one year and comes with exclusive mobile app features and Microsoft Outlook integration.

# 4. is an open-source group collaboration server that allows for sharing of notes, e-mail access, calendar organization, task management, address book maintenance, news aggregation, phone sync and journal integration. Kolab is secure, scalable, reliable, mobile and professional, ensuring productivity every step of the way. As a whole, the application requires some getting used to. But once you get the hang of it, the hassle can be all worth it.

# 5.

Formerly, is an accounting software that’s fast, simple and easy to use, offering unlimited invoicing and expense tracking. 100% free for small businesses with nine employees or less, it’s accountant-approved and specifically designed for non-accountants. You can also securely connect your bank and PayPal accounts or other sources of data, and your transactions are automatically imported into the accounting software.

# 6.

To make your business presence known, one surefire route to take is through the distribution of press releases. is a site where you can dispense press releases for free. And if you feel you don’t have the necessary expertise to create a killer press release, the site provides instructions on how to write one, even how to embed videos where necessary.

# 7.

One cardinal business rule is that businesses should have their own websites to boost their market presence online. is a free website creator that doesn’t require website creation expertise. Until you’re ready to go for more complex and/or self-hosted sites that would require monthly or yearly payments, is a good alternative.

# 8.

For those meetings or web conferences on the fly, is a simple-to-use teleconferencing application that allows you to review documents and designs, train staff, do product demonstrations – basically to get everyone apprised of company updates. You can do transatlantic web conferences and presentations, too.

# 9., which is short for “if this, then that,” functions like a computer program repeatedly uttering if/then logic all day long. With IFTTT, you set up “recipes” to assist you with task automation. For a recipe to work, you have to have a channel, a trigger and an action. Examples of channels are Facebook, e-mail, Evernote, LinkedIn, just to mention a few.

For instance, if you’re tagged in a photo on Facebook, you can create a recipe that would automatically download the image into Dropbox.

What other free business productivity tools can you suggest?

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Rescuing Warsaw’s overgrown Jewish graves

Nature has taken over some of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries. But a group of volunteers is trying to ensure those buried in them aren’t forgotten.

Alicja Mroczkowska, one of the organisers, hands out gardening gloves. We’ve a choice of rakes and shears for implements. Alicja says the less energetic ones among us can do the railings. She decants black rustproof paint into small pots.

Our little band of a dozen volunteers heads off into Warsaw’s main Jewish cemetery, past the statue of Janusz Korczak – the orphanage director who died at Treblinka after he refused to be parted from the children in his care.

Okopowa Cemetery lies behind a high red-brick wall, right in the centre of the Polish capital.

But it is a million miles in space and time from the city’s slick glass towers and ticking pedestrian crossings. Birds dart between tall acacias and maple trees. Nature has got the upper hand on once-imposing 19th Century sepulchres. In some places, sandstone headstones look like they’re drowning in waves of pale green creepers. Time, here, is measured by the speed at which ivy grows.

The cemetery is vast. So far, enough of it has been cleared for 82,000 names to be entered into a database. But up to 200,000 bodies may have been buried here in the past couple of centuries.

One of the volunteers, Karol Sawicki, hacks and rips at weeds that have plaited themselves over a concrete tomb. ”Look at this!” he says eventually, revealing a marble plaque. ”1942. Sasza Glazman. He died in the ghetto, 32. My age, roughly. I wonder what his story was. We’ll never know.”


There are 1,400 Jewish burial places in Poland. Under restitution laws, these are gradually being returned to the Jewish community. But according to the country’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, there are only 40,000 Jews living in Poland today. There is no money to maintain the graveyards. Hence our little army of plucky volunteers with packed lunches, a wheelie bin and a wheelbarrow.

A white sweat line is edging its way higher and higher up Karol’s black cap. We stop for a break. I ask him if he’s Jewish. ”I have no idea,” he says.

“I have my suspicions, like thousands of Poles. My granddad was an orphan. He had three birth certificates with three dates from different villages in Ukraine.”

Karol is a manager for a children’s retail clothing chain. I ask if he takes part in the cemetery clean-ups because of a faint Jewish voice inside himself? ”Maybe. Probably,” he says.

These are matters that, until recently, were not easily discussed in Poland. The post-war Communist years didn’t mark an end to anti-Semitism. The present nationalist government applies so-called “memory politics”.

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It’s a policy that frames Poland’s history around two things – the heroism of Catholics who saved Jews and the wartime deaths of three million non-Jewish Poles. Such a weighty agenda does not leave space for some of the by-products of genocide – collaboration, greed, betrayal – and that which Karol calls ”the kinds of things that go on in all families”.

Monika Siwczyk is painting the crumbling art nouveau railings ringing a grand grave on the principal pathway. ”I love Jewish culture,” says the 43-year-old professional translator. ”It’s missing from Poland today.”


Monika, who is blonde and blue-eyed, has been researching her family’s history. She points at her tanned forearm. ”Look at my olive skin. I have found a picture of the sisters of my great, great grandfather. We think they were Jewish. I look so much like them.”

A tram bell rings in the distance. It’s a sound I might have heard a hundred years ago, when a third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish. A group of tourists walk by. They’re speaking Hebrew – young Israelis on a school trip.

”I’ve chatted to some of them,” says Karol. ”They are visiting Poland to learn about the Holocaust. It’s part of their curriculum.”

Karol would like to see the state of Israel contribute to the survival of Okopowa. ”We can only do so much. Even a ruin needs maintaining. But Israel won’t help. Israel wants people to go and live there. It considers Poland to be a closed book – history, finished,” he says.

The volunteers at central Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery are fighting a losing battle against the creeping of time and of ivy. But Karol and Monika aren’t discouraged. It’s their history, too.

In just a few hours, Karol has cleared a section of six graves. He’s meticulously raked the ground around them.

For a short while, until the weeds grow back, the sun can brighten the blackened concrete tombs of six strangers who died in the ghetto.




9 French Words We Should Be Using In English

French has many “why don’t we have a word for that?” words and even more that are just plain beautiful. Here’s a short list of my 9 favorite French words.

When learning a foreign language, new words stick with you for different reasons. Some words express a cultural concept, an idea intrinsically bound with the language and culture that you are learning. Other words express a concept or idea that is familiar, but for which there is no equivalent word or expression in your own language. These are the “of course!” words, the “why don’t we have a word for that?” words. Then there are words that are just plain beautiful. Like music or poetry, these words just speak to you, resonate with your core. Drawing from all of these categories, here is a short list of some of my favorite French words.

1. Dépayser

verb: to leave your comfort zone


This seems like an appropriate place to begin because this word describes something that is fundamental to learning any foreign language: exiting your zone of comfort. The verb dépaysercontains the word pays, which means “country”, and the prefix de-, which, like in English, can suggest removal or negation. So a literal one-word translation might be something like “decountrify.” To be dépaysé (adj) – “decountrified” – is to be out of your element, to break or change your habits, to be disoriented. The noun dépaysement – “decountrification” – can be translated as “culture shock” or “disorientation” or “change of scene.” Dépayser can also be used reflexively – se dépayser – so you can even “decountrify” yourself or break your habits. So, while you don’t literally have to leave your country to leave your comfort zone, this word suggests a fundamental relationship between your habits and your culture. It may be the very antidote to this next word…

2. Nombrilisme

noun: self-centeredness, egoism, self-absorption

Nombril is navel or belly button, so this word is literally “bellybuttonism” and roughly translates as self-centeredness, egoism, self-absorption, etc. It is petty and detail-oriented, concentrating on a single issue to the exclusion of all else, a certain kind of childishness. English also has “navel-gazing” by the way, but nombrilisme seems to capture so much more by elevating it to the status of a doctrine – its an -ism after all! And it doesn’t stop at the individual bellybutton; it can refer to a collective, national navel-gazing, a tendency to relate everything back to one’s own country, e.g. nombrilisme américain, nombrilisme français, etc. If you want to learn a foreign language you’re going to have to stop gazing at your navel – get out there and decountrify yourself!

3. Vachement

adverb: very, truly


When we examine those symbols that lie at the very heart of French culture and identity, there is one that we cannot ignore: the cow – la vache – an animal so important to this country of cheese and cream that it has transcended description and association to become an adverb, which can be applied to just about any verb or adjective for emphasis. The word is vachement, which literally translates to “cowly” and just means very, extremely, truly – a more colorful and emphatic très. Listen for it and you will hear it constantly – but no one seems to realize they are saying “cowly”! Vachement is part of the fabric of everyday expression, its connection to la vache seemingly obscured, a testament to the supreme ubiquity achieved by the cow in France. It is all things and no things.

4. Chauve-souris

noun: bat

Chauve means bald and souris means mouse, so a chauve-souris – a bat – is literally a “bald mouse.” And while I can somewhat understand the association, it seems like its lack of hair is one of the more mundane traits that distinguish the bat from the mouse. What about FLIGHT, for example?! Shouldn’t it be a souris volante (“flying mouse”)? Maybe the person who gave the bat its French name encountered it for the first time while it was sleeping. But even then, you’d think “upside-down mouse” would come to mind before “bald mouse.” This is, at any rate, a very strange mouse – vachement bizarre.

5. Avoir le cafard

idiom: to be depressed

Are you feeling blue? Down in the dumps? Well my friend, it sounds like you’ve got the cockroach. Avoir le cafard literally means “to have the cockroach.” And really, who wouldn’t be feeling a little down if they were stuck with one of those things.

6. Chou

noun: cabbage; adj: cute

The noun chou means cabbage, as well as a host of other vegetables when combined with certain other words: chou de Bruxelles is Brussels sprout, chou chinois is bok choy, chou-fleuris cauliflower, chou-rave is kohlrabi and the list goes on. But cabbage in the French language transcends the mere culinary: it can be a term of endearment for a child (mon petit chou = “my little cabbage”), a baby (bout de chou = “piece of cabbage”) or for a significant other (je t’aime, mon chou ! = “I love you, my cabbage!”); as an adjective it can mean adorable, lovely, cute sweet etc. Tu m’as apporté des fleurs ?! Comme tu es chou ! – “You brought me flowers?! How cabbage of you!” Regarde ce bébé-là, comme il est (vachement) chou – “look at that baby, isn’t he just (cowly) cabbage!”

7. Ronronner

verb: to purr

The verb ronronner is not only excellent practice for your French r-gargling, but by pronouncing it correctly you will already be doing the thing it describes: purring (like a cat) or humming (like an engine).

8. Coccinelle

noun: ladybug/ladybird


This word is just plain fun to say. It springs forth from the soft palate and bounces back before slithering out through the teeth, only to liquefy back across the entire palate. It takes your mouth on a one-word journey across five consonants and three vowels that are alternatingly sharp, bright, bouncy, and fluid. And to what creature is bestowed the honor of this ecstatic word? Why it’s none other than the humble ladybug to the Americans, ladybird to the British. And whether you know it as ladybug or ladybird, I think we can all agree that this is a pretty unimaginative way to refer to a polka-dotted flying thing. Francophones: 1, Anglophones: 0

9. Dépanneur

noun: repair person (European French); corner store (Québécois French)

And finally, a shoutout to my friends in Québec – I haven’t forgotten you! A list of all the amazing words and expressions to be found in Québécois French will have to wait for the next article. In the meantime, I leave you with dépanneur, by far not the most interesting or entertaining French-Canadian word, but a favorite for personal reasons. In standard French, apanne is a breakdown or failure of a machine. The verb dépanner means to fix, repair, mend, but takes on the broader meaning of to help out or to come to the rescue. A dépanneur (in standard French) is by extension a repair person or a mechanic. The Québécois take this idea to its logical conclusion: a dépanneur is the corner store where you buy your booze and chips. A frequent panne that I encounter is lack of beer and chips. In Montréal, the dépanneur was always there to help.

Many thanks to Julie P., Patrick R. and Agathe C.


Can 3 Average Guys Learn French In One Working Week?

Three average guys set out to learn as much French as possible in one average week. Unfortunately, an average week is a working week, which means squeezing in their studies around their nine-to-five jobs. Read on to discover how they managed.

As you can probably imagine, Babbel is packed full of polyglots. A few days ago I was loitering by the coffee machine while two colleagues were shooting the breeze in Québécois. He’s English and she’s German. It makes no sense. Why don’t they just speak English?

This kind of behavior is impressive, but it certainly isn’t normal. These are people who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of excellence in language; when they’re not working at a language learning company, they’re either studying for degrees in linguistics, out with friends from all four corners of the world, or complicating the idea of leisure time by reading grammar books for fun. Such commitment is admirable, but what about the rest of us? What about us normal folk who work a 9-to-5 and require a dose of caffeine before even considering human interaction? How can we learn a new language?

I had an idea that I wanted to test, so I recruited two colleagues from the marketing department, Alberto and Stefano. Alberto comes from Cadiz at the southern tip of Spain, Stefano from the south of Italy. Our task was to attempt to learn as much French as possible in one working week. This would mean fitting our studies around our day jobs, exploiting opportunities to go for lunch with French colleagues, and populating chat messages with whimsical French commentary. Then, come the weekend, we would each have two days of intensive lessons with our own personal teacher, followed by a dinner and a monologue in which we would display our newfound prowess in the French language. The plan was to have the theory — all the basic grammar and vocabulary — under our belts by the weekend. We wanted to be conversational by Sunday evening. I asked our teachers — Marion, Anne and Laure — what they thought of this aim. Here’s what Marion said:

“I like the idea of challenging yourself to learn something new in a restricted period of time. I think that can focus the mind and get you off to a flying start. Doing it in a working week is a different proposition entirely though. I wish you all the best and think you will make some significant progress, but I don’t expect the world.”

Hmm. We commenced the challenge as soon as we awoke on Monday morning. Here’s our account of the week, along with a few tips we picked up along the way for how to squeeze effective studies into a busy working week.

Day 1 – Monday:

Stefano: “Monday was dedicated to planning the week. When you’re short on time, it’s always tempting to dive straight in, but you inevitably use your time less wisely if you do this. I’ve always been quite a talkative Italian and consider myself an auditory learner. I’ve never learned French, so I decided my first step should be to get acquainted with the music of the language. I researched French radio stations to which I could awake in the morning and listen at work. I then downloaded some podcasts for my daily commute and identified the Babbel courses I wanted to begin with.”

Ed: “I completely agree with Stefano — planning is paramount. Unfortunately, I’m not the most disciplined student, but I am very motivated. As such, I often can’t resist the temptation to dive straight in, as he put it. I’d thought of a way to counteract this lack of discipline though: I practice the tedious habit of checking my phone when I wake up. I cycle through the latest Instagram images of the beknown and unbeknown, scan mails and catch up on the news of the past twenty-four hours. After half an hour of this, I normally feel sufficiently awake to ingest breakfast and a coffee. I determined to alter my routine for this week, waking up half an hour earlier than normal in order to use Babbel on my phone for about sixty to ninety minutes. I figured this would be such a minor change that I would barely need any discipline to bring it about. Perfect!”

Alberto: “I’ve got a dog who demands a walk each morning, so I don’t have the luxury of spending an extra thirty minutes in bed. I planned to integrate some study time into my walk, sitting on a bench for twenty minutes and completing a few lessons. Ed was pretty focused on grammar and building his own sentences. I wanted to get the really basic stuff done — greetings, platitudes, things like that — and then focus on set phrases and idiomatic expressions for particular situations. I figured this would give me an advantage at the dinner at the end of the week.”

Day 2 – Tuesday:

Stefano: “I awoke to French radio, got ready for work and set off on my bike. My first podcast taught me the numbers, so by the time I arrived at work I’d conquered 1 to 100. I think it’s important to determine how to study your new language based on your preferences, but also on what’s situationally viable; the podcasts became a staple of my morning routine. I sit close to a French colleague, so I started chatting to her both on the computer and verbally. Both of us have a slightly mischievous side, so I quickly picked up quite a few colloquial expressions… ”

Ed: “My alarm woke me up at seven sharp, and I reached for my phone robotically. It took me a few minutes of staring bleary-eyed at the screen until I was fully conscious of being conscious. I scrolled through to the course on the verb être (to be) and then to the modal verbs. I love modal verbs. If you can conjugate can and must and might and have a few basic infinitives under your belt, you can start forming fairly complex sentences very quickly. After thirty minutes I could conjugate pouvoir, devoir and vouloir in the present tense. With my remaining thirty minutes I learned about twenty common verbs. I then made inane, schizophrenic conversation with myself while I got ready for work:

Me 1: “Oui oui, je peux parler français.”

Me 2: “Ah, très bien, je veux apprendre le français aussi.”

Me 1: “C’est bien, mais tu dois beaucoup étudier.”

Me 2: “Oui oui, c’est vrai.”

Conversational in one week? Bah! I was conversational in one morning!

Day 3 – Wednesday:

Alberto: “I have to admit I was struggling at this point. Work had turned out to be more stressful than I’d expected, and I only had time to study on my phone before work and a little during my lunch break. I was so exhausted when I got home that I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth, let alone a book. I also felt like I couldn’t really disconnect mentally from work in order to fully connect to my studies. I was living for the weekend.”

Ed: “I was happily residing in a parallel universe, roaring along and convinced of my certain victory come Sunday. The only reason I refrained from gloating was Alberto’s I-will-kill-you-stare. I met Anne, my teacher-to-be, for coffee in the early afternoon. I was a little nervous — this was the first proper conversation with a native speaker (actually, the first one not with myself) — but it went swimmingly and was an enormous motivation. I’d studied the different tense forms of all those delicious modal verbs, packed out my vocab with some useful nouns, memorized all the common conjunctions and prepositions, and started adding adjectives of emotions and feeling: J’étais très satisfait de mon français.

Day 4 – Thursday:

Stefano: “One of our beloved colleagues had her farewell party last night. We’d kind of made a pact not to stay out too long. Unfortunately, that pact lasted exactly as long as the first beer. Only Alberto managed to pull himself away from the festivities at a reasonable hour. Ed came in today looking utterly zombified, so I don’t believe he made any progress this morning. That said, we did all corner our poor French colleagues last night — by about midnight I was convinced I was fluent. Two things I learned: it’s important to unwind now and again, and French people can be very patient.”

Day 5 – Friday:

Alberto: “The last few days of the week were less intense, which afforded me the time to really get stuck into the courses and topics I was interested in. I studied a lot of the food-related vocabulary I would need for the dinner. I even got a little carried away, and now consider myself something of an expert in French words for herbs. I feel better prepared for the weekend’s intensive course now.”

Ed: “Thursday was something of an impromptu break for me, but I was well and truly back on it today. I went for lunch with a French friend from my university days and we spoke pretty much the whole time in French. It was hard work — by the end my brain was as cooked as the gallettes we ate — but it was great to see how impressed she was. It was also a little strange to communicate with her in French having only communicated in English since we met six years ago. I have to admit that it’s these kind of moments which really spur me on. Bring on the weekend!”

Day 6 – Saturday

Stefano: “I’m not sure the word weekend is wholly appropriate; in many ways this felt like the beginning. We had to consolidate everything we’d learned and really begin to use it. Each of us had a classroom adjacent to one of the others. If you were quiet you could hear the French murmurs in thick English and Spanish accents. We revised much of what I’d studied and Laure, my teacher, adapted the class to my preferred learning style, so there was a lot of talking and laughing and colorful cue cards.”

Alberto: “My mind blanked a little when I first entered the classroom. I felt as if I’d started learning minutes before. Marion, my teacher, had also prepared the class with my needs and desires in mind, and we started embellishing the cooking vocabulary with the key verbs in past, present and future so that I’d be able to describe what we were making at dinner. I find starting with these more concrete, tangible areas of language makes things much simpler than if you begin with abstract concepts (that’s Ed’s approach).”

Day 7 – Sunday

Ed: “Yesterday was really fun. We’d started around eleven, and it was a huge relief to know that we didn’t have to mould our studies around our working hours anymore. Today was a little different. There was definitely an awareness of time pressure, as well as the concern that we were all about to make fools of ourselves at dinner. This concern was quickly allayed by the easy manner of my teacher, Anne, and by the fact that I was speaking quite fluidly, if not fluently. We went a bit further than I’d expected, venturing into the area of giving opinions. For me, this is when actually speaking the new language becomes interesting; when you can confidently say that you’re expressing yourself in a foreign language. By the time the dinner came round, I was more worried about preparing the chocolate mousse than I was about speaking French.”

Stefano: “I was an Italian in a German supermarket pretending to be French. After we’d bought all the food, we headed over to Ed’s place for dinner. He and Anne were already chatting in French and whipping up a mousse when we arrived. Once Laure and I had prepared the quiche, we took a bit of time out and played a guessing game. It was funny to see how each of our approaches had equipped us with different advantages merely within the context of the game; Alberto knew all the food-related vocab we were being tested on, while Ed was rocking the descriptions. I fell somewhere between the two, but was much more adept at releasing the odd colloquial expression every time I guessed right.”

Alberto: “When we sat down to eat, I think all of us quickly realized it wasn’t going to be easy to enter into conversation. It’d been fine in the classroom when the conversation had been one-to-one, but trying to edge a sentence in with three native speakers at the table after a week was very difficult. All three of us listened attentively and we all professed to understand the large majority of what we heard. That was an achievement in itself, but not the holy grail we’d sought. We offered plenty of wine, exchanged lots of platitudes and complimented the chefs, but fell short of debating the merits of laicism. Next week perhaps.”

In Conclusion

As Alberto mentioned, the dinner was a lot of fun, but it was difficult to get into conversation. Following the dinner, we all took our place in the hot seat to talk about how the week had gone. This gave us the time and the freedom to really show what we’d learned. Our accents were all over the place, but I was extremely impressed by the amount of progress we’d all made in such a short space of time. After seven days, we could comprehend a lot of what we heard and express ourselves in one-to-one conversations. Je suis satisfait.

Gorilla became the star of London Zoo

Footage of the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, Harambe, who was shot on Saturday after a child fell into his enclosure, left some viewers convinced that he was trying to protect the boy. The idea that gorillas can be gentle is not a new one – Guy the gorilla, one of the stars of London Zoo for three decades was renowned for his amiable temperament… even if he looked a bit grumpy.

If heart failure while undergoing treatment for bad teeth hadn’t claimed him in his early thirties, one of London’s most famous residents might have turned 70 on 30 May.

Nobody knows when Guy the gorilla was actually born, but the authorities at London Zoo gave him an official birthday, and every year Regent’s Park was deluged with birthday cards.

The lowland gorilla, captured as an infant in Cameroon, arrived at the zoo from the Paris Zoo in exchange for a tiger on Bonfire Night 1947 – hence the name – and spent his first night clinging on to a tin hot water bottle.

The zoo’s record with gorillas had been poor. It had exhibited seven young gorillas between 1887 and 1908, but none survived more than few months. Before Guy’s arrival London had been without a gorilla for several years.

“In 1947, people were still suffering from the privations and associated rationing of wartime, even though the conflict had been over for more than two years,” says Russell Tofts, of the Bartlett Society, which studies methods of keeping wild animals.

“A zoo offered escapism from all this for the citizens of London and beyond, and it was important for zoo bosses to ensure there was always something new and exciting worth seeing there to entice people through the gates.”

Guy rapidly became a star attraction – his celebrity as Britain’s most famous animal eventually rivalled only by that of his close neighbour across the zoo, Chi-Chi the giant panda.

Gorillas, with their close relationship to humans, and with their disturbingly human-like appearance, had long exerted a fascination, but since their “discovery” by Europeans in the 1840s they had also been burdened by an image of savagery.

Despite his morose appearance and the way he sometimes hurled himself around his small cage, Guy helped to correct that misconception. His 240kg bulk and immense power belied an exceptionally gentle disposition – he was noted for holding and carefully examining small songbirds that flew into his cage before letting them go.

“Gorillas don’t have the same facial muscles as humans, so they can’t smile, and that makes them look grumpy,” says Tofts. “But they are gentle animals. Give something to an orangutan and it will take it apart and examine it to see how it operates, and give something to a chimpanzee and they will tear it about destructively.”

The public loved him, and flocked to visit. In the late 1950s, the zoo attracted two-to-three million visitors a year. Today the figure is about half that.

Such was his fame that the mighty England cricketing all-rounder Ian Botham was dubbed Guy the gorilla as way to sum up his muscular approach to cricket – and life.

Decades after his death in 1978 Guy remains a tourist attraction – stuffed and on display at London’s Natural History Museum.

There are few single animals that have played a greater role in helping to educate the public about natural history.

But was Guy’s celebrity also a disturbing example of poor animal management? Certainly for a large part of his life he was kept in a barred cage, and far too close to human visitors, whose viruses posed a significant threat to his health.

The timing of Guy’s arrival perfectly captured a growing sense of public engagement with nature, says Dr Andy Flack, an expert on zoos at the University of Bristol. This was partly due to the anthropomorphic representations of animal life portrayed in the classic Disney films of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Dumbo and Bambi, in which the stars were given recognisably human emotions.

“Animals became familiar to us in ways which perhaps they hadn’t been before,” says Flack. “As a great ape and thus among our closest living relatives, Guy was easily transformed into an object of affection and esteem.

“Guy was an important ‘star’ attraction who kept visitors coming through the gates.”

US job creation in May falls to lowest in five years

US job creation in May fell to its lowest level in more than five years, a sign of economic weakness that may limit the Federal Reserve’s ability to raise interest rates soon.

The Labor Department said that employers added just 38,000 jobs last month, the fewest since September 2010.

The jobless rate fell to 4.7% from 5%, the lowest since November 2007.

But this was partly due to people dropping out of the labour force and no longer being counted as unemployed.

The government said a month-long Verizon strike had depressed employment growth by 34,000 jobs. The strikers would have been considered unemployed and counted in the figures. But even without the Verizon strike, non-farm payrolls would have increased by just 72,000.

The goods producing sector, which includes mining and manufacturing, shed 36,000 jobs, the most since February 2010.

Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, has hinted that interest rates could rise soon if US jobs growth picks up.

Ian Shepherdson, of Pantheon Capital, said the chances of June rise were now “dead”, while the prospect of a July rise was “badly wounded”.

‘Bad, bad, bad’

The dollar immediately weakened after the data was released as investors speculated that a rate rise this month was unlikely. The main share markets opened down, led by a 0.6% fall in the S&P 500.

Mohamed el-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz, said “this unusual jobs report puts the Fed in a tricky position”.

Analysis: Andrew Walker, BBC World Service economics correspondent

This is a weak report even if you make an allowance for the strike at Verizon. The number is still weak, and still short of what’s needed to keep up with a growing population.

There’s no mystery about weak job growth at the same time as there was a marked decline in the unemployment rate. That was down to people dropping out of the labour market. If someone is not looking for work they are not counted as unemployed even if they would like to have a job. The number “not in the labour force” rose by more than 600,000.

So, it is a disappointing monthly report. Still, unemployment below 5%, however the US got there, suggests a labour market doing a lot better than many other countries.

Joey Lake, US analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, described the jobs report as “bad, bad, bad: there is no positive spin to it”.

He pointed out that the Labor Department also revised previous monthly figures lower.

“The labour market slowdown will make the Federal Reserve reconsider its next move,” Mr Lake said. “It reduces the chance of a June rate increase and makes it more likely the Fed will wait until July, after the Brexit vote, which will also reduce the political risk from abroad.”

Recent US data on consumer spending, industrial production, exports and housing had suggested that the economy was gathering speed after growth slowed to a 0.8% annualised rate in the first quarter.

Consumer spending surged in April on the back of sales of big-ticket items such as cars and household appliances. Sales of new homes reached an eight-year high in April.

Many economists had expect growth to speed up in the April-June quarter to an annualised pace of about 2.5%.

Hubble clocks faster cosmic expansion

The Universe may be expanding up to 9% faster than previously thought.

This new assessment comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, which has significantly refined the rate at which nearby galaxies are observed to be moving away from each other.

It reinforces the tension between what we see happening locally and what we would expect from the conditions that existed in the early cosmos.

These have implied a much more sedate trajectory for the recession.

Science now has a big job on its hands to try to resolve the conundrum, saysAdam Riess from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and the Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore, Maryland, US.

“To be honest, with this latest measurement we’ve really gone beyond what we might call ‘tension’; we’re missing something in our understanding of the cosmos,” the Nobel Laureate told BBC News.

The issue at hand is the so-called Hubble Constant – the value used by astronomers to describe the current expansion.

It is a critical number because it helps us gauge the size and age of the Universe.

One way to pin down this value is to measure the distance and velocities of a large number of stars in a good sample of galaxies.

In Dr Riess’s new study, to be published shortly in The Astrophysical Journal, this was done with the aid of two classes of very predictable stars.

These are the cepheid variables – pulsating stars that puff up and deflate in a very regular fashion; and a group of exploding objects referred to as a Type 1a supernovae.

Both shine with a known power output, and so by comparing this quantity with their apparent brightness on the sky, it is possible to figure out their separation from Earth and thus, also, the distance to the galaxies that host them.

Some 2,400 cepheids in 19 nearby galaxies were used in the survey, and these helped calibrate roughly 300 Type 1a supernovae, whose particular properties enabled the team to probe a slightly deeper volume of space.

The work gives a number for the Hubble Constant of 73.24 kilometres per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is 3.26 million light-years). Or put another way – the expansion increases by 73.24km/second for every 3.26 million light-years we look further out into space.

It means basically that the distance between cosmic objects will double in another 9.8 billion years.


This is the third iteration of the project led by Dr Riess and has an uncertainty of just 2.4%.

But there is another way to determine the constant, and that is to look at the expansion shortly after the Big Bang and to use what we know about the contents and the physics at work in the Universe to predict a modern value of the expansion.

This has been done using data acquired by the Planck space telescope, which earlier this decade made the most detailed ever observations of the oldest light in the Universe.

Its Hubble Constant value was 66.53km/s per megaparsec.

The disagreement with Dr Riess’s number is more than just a minor inconvenience. When using the Hubble Constant to calculate the time from the Big Bang, the offset equates to a difference of a few hundred million years in the near-14-billion-year age of the Universe.

The STScI scientist says the resolution is likely to be found in a better understanding of the “dark” components of the cosmos.

These include the unseen matter in galaxies (dark matter), and the vacuum energy (dark energy) postulated to be driving an acceleration in the expansion.

The gap could also be plugged by the existence of another, but hitherto undetected, particle.

The often-hypothesised fourth type, or flavour, of neutrino would fit the bill.

“This would change the balance of energy in the Universe and it would speed it up,” Dr Riess said.

Answers will surely come from the new space telescopes and particle detectors due to enter service in the next few years, he added.

Scientists discover an inherited gene for MS

Scientists say they have found a gene that causes a rare but inherited form of multiple sclerosis.

It affects about one in every thousand MS patients and, according to the Canadian researchers, is proof that the disease is passed down generations.

Experts have long suspected there’s a genetic element to MS, but had thought there would be lots of genes involved, as well as environmental factors.

The finding offers hope of targeted screening and therapy, Neuron reports.

The University of British Columbia studied the DNA of hundreds of families affected by MS to hunt for a culprit gene.

They found it in two sets of families containing several members with a rapidly progressive type of MS.

In these families, 70% of the people with the mutation developed the disease.

Although other factors may still be important and necessary to trigger the disease process, the gene itself is a substantial causative risk factor that is passed down from parents to their children, say the researchers.

The mutation is in a gene called NR1H3, which makes a protein that acts as a switch controlling inflammation.

In MS the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the protective layer of myelin that surrounds nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscle weakness and other symptoms.

Studies in mice show that knocking out the function of the same gene leads to neurological problems and decreased myelin production.

The researchers believe stopping the inflammation early might prevent or delay the disease. They already have drugs in mind that might do this by targeting the NR1H3 gene pathway.

These drugs are in development for other diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Researcher Dr Carles Vilarino-Guell said: “These are still early days and there is a lot to test, but if we are able to repurpose some of these experimental drugs, it could shorten the time it takes to develop targeted MS treatments.”

He said the same treatments might help other patients with progressive MS – even if they don’t have exactly the same gene mutation.

Dr Sorrel Bickley from the MS Society said understanding how genes influence a person’s risk of developing MS is a really important area of research.

“Whilst the gene variant identified was associated with rapidly progressing forms of MS in the two families studied, the variant itself is rare and most people with MS won’t have it. This research does however give us an insight into how progressive forms of MS develop, which could help to inform the development of new treatments in the future.”