Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Book Shelf

So, I realize it's really not a big deal and all, but I'm very pleased with how my new book shelf turned out so I want to show it off. I made it myself and it actually works! (it holds books...)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Rainy Season Rolls In

We are now well into June and the rainy season has officially arrived!

It actually officially arrived in Chargel on the 13th of June at 1:30am when it started storming. It was our first "real" rain since October. That's right, after a good seven months with practically no precipitation we finally had rain. And boy did we get rain. Thanks to the handy rain guage my dad sent me I can tell you quite accurately that it rained right at about 3 inches that morning between 1:30 and 7AM.

The change of seasons is greatly appreciated and I am enjoying the drop in temperatures with the more overcast days. Unfortunately, the drop in temps (from about 130 to 110) is more than made up for in the humidity that just came out of nowhere. At the same time, when it is raining and the breeze is constant it feels great. And I love sitting outside under my overhang watching it rain with the rest of the compound.

During this past week, the first of the rainy season, we have consistenly gotten an average of about 2 inches of rain each day.

I understand that's the same kind of precipitation my family and friends back in Iowa are experiencing right now, which is leading to massive flooding and and disasters from too much water. Here, on the other hand, the ground was so completely dry that it is still soaking up the water as fast as it can fall. Any puddles that do form don't last long. Granted, there are areas near and along the river which get pretty muddy and will surely flood. However, they are expecting and hoping for that so they can turn it into well watered rice fields. In fact, with the severe food crisis hitting us here, if we don't have a strong and consistent rainy season, the people here may very well slide into a famine.

Which leads me into... with the rains comes plowing and planting!

It's quite amazing how literally overnight, with a few inches of rain, the ground went from being a dry, concrete desert to very fertile and workable. It's actually kind of scary how quickly and drastically it changes. Moreover, unfortunately with changes in global weather patterns, the farmers are saying that each year the rainy season is getting just a little bit shorter and the dry season just a bit longer. That fact, coupled with how this land and vegitation is able to go from desert to tropical, literally overnight, just doesn't seem very well balanced. To me, it comes across as a clear sign of how susceptible our surroundings and indeed, the world, really are to our actions and behaviors. And it's a clear sign that if that pattern doesn't change and the rainy season does continue to get shorter and shorter as the surrounding lands become more and more deforested and polluted, the people who rely on the rains for food will be in a world of hurt.

But despite my concerns for where the Gambia may be headed down the road in terms of sustainability and food production capabilities, I have been having a very good time plowing and planting in the fields with Lawo, Saikou and Bah Fodi.

As you can see, the equipment we use here may be quite reminiscent for my grandparents and more mature blog readers. But it gets the job done.

This year we will be planting two types of coos, corn (maize), rice and ground nuts (peanuts). Most all the food the plant will be used primarly for their own consumption needs for the next year. Much of the population here is still at a subsistance level of production and development in terms of producing food. There will be some farmers who will plant enough of a crop to sell it off at the market, such as ground nuts, but as the prices for grains and cereals continue to sky rocket, it is most likely that the people here will save as much for themselves as they can produce.

Now that the farmers are back in the fields for another season of crops, most of my projects will be shelved for the time being. As any farmer can attest, planting and sowing is extremely time sensitive, my projects are not. But that's fine with me. I'm excited for this change of pace and to experience Gambian farming. It will be a fun time working with the horses, learning about new equipment that I would have otherwise considered antique, and I already have an increased appreciation for the technology and agricultural advancements I grew up so accustomed to.

Additionally, after eight months of no rain, I'm excited to finally have a change of climate, of daily weather pattern, and the knowledge that soon the ground will be green once again! It's amazing how refreshing these rain showers are after now completing one year straight of summer, sunny, hot weather!

So, while you may not be too excited with the prospect for more rain on your side of the big pond, I say let it come! It's about time!

Answers to Some Good Questions

Hey Everyone

A family member of mine recently posed two good questions to me in relation to several aspects of the developing world. They are both very applicable to several aspects of my work here, so I wanted to pass these questions and answers on to you as well.

Please note that I do no claim to answer these questions as an expert on the subject, but am merely sharing my observations. Additionally, what is happening in my village should not be taken to broadly represent what is taking place across West Africa. But it is a clue as to how many Gambians in and around my area are handling these two issues in particular.

Question 1: I've read recently that there's a huge potential in improving the human waste logistics: latrines. Etc. And thus avoid a number of deadly diseases across the developing world. How is this thing handled in your village?

Sanitation is a problem. In my village each family compound has several "latrines" or holes in the ground used for "waste disposal." If you check out the pictures of my backyard you will get a good idea what they look like. It's basically just a hole dug about six feet into the ground and then reinforced with cement around the sides to keep it from caving in. This is the toilet system.

The good part to this system is that it is locally sustainable and as long as people are careful to keep them located a good distance away from the community wells, the water quality itself isn't really compromised. The problem is the lack of the use of toilet paper and the lack of hand washing...ever. So basically when the people finish doing their thing they rinse themselves off with a kettle of water using their left hand.

The importance of using the right hand, and the right hand only, for doing things such as shaking hands, eating, and such is very important because of what they use their left hand for.

But because people don't wash their hands with soap and hot water, no matter what they think, their hands, both their hands, are always really dirty. So as men and women shake hands and such, tons of germs are spread all over the place. As women cook and work with food, germs are spread into everything. And all this is on top of working with livestock, working in the dirt, and the constant exposure to the manure from their goats, cows, sheep, chickens and anything else that wanders through the compound past the kitchen or is carried in the air.

After a while you just kind of become desensitized to how dirty everything really is, and it doesn't seem that big of a deal. But now that I write about it and think about it again, it really is a hot bed for disease. (writers note: I always have toilet paper available) (And I wash my hands frequently with soap.)

But yes, because of this, it is very common to frequently get dysentery and guiardia no matter how careful or clean you try to be. In the West both of these diseases can be treated very easily with some pills, salt, rest and staying hydrated. But here, the leading causes for death among children are diarrhea and large part due to the uncleanliness.

Question 2: The other question relates to energy crops: one new possibility to raise energy crops that don't compete with food is a plant called jathropa. It yields poisonous oil that can be used as a feedstock for making diesel and it can be grown on a very dry land where probably other crops would not thrive. Have you come across jathropa, or any other stuff of such kind?

In regard to jathropa, yes, I am familiar with it. There is actually an organization/co-op here in the Gambia trying to spread word of the potential uses and development options with jathropa. Right now it is a fairly new concept, but the organization (I forget the name) is trying to encourage farmers to plant it around their fields as a way to help prevent erosion, and then having those crops harvested.

Some of the main problems they are facing is 1) The lack of a a clear system to collect the beans so they can be processed. Apparently it is best for the beans to be processed ASAP, otherwise it loses a lot of the potential oil. 2) Having the right infrastructure to process and store the oil. 3) Having a clear market for the product once it is processed. 4) In light of the impending food crisis from raising grain and oil prices, the farmers are not very willing to give up any of their land from corn, coos and rice to grow this new crop. Maybe in the years to come farmers will be more open to it, but in these next few immediate years it doesn't seem too likely for farmers to be willing to spare any of their farm land.

But they are now just in the early stages of introducing this as a legitimate product here, so these are problems that can be addressed along the way. When I saw their presentation, they would like to use it primarily to reduce the people's reliance on kerosine for lamps.

Our main fuel for cooking (and heat during the cold season, when it gets down to 70 degrees F and the people here start wearing coats) is firewood. That's one of the reasons why deforestation has become such a big issue here. The booming population is requiring more firewood, but the wood they cut down isn't getting replaced.

One of the ways we are trying to address this is by encouraging what we call "mud stoves." It's basically a small stove made out of mud, clay, and dung that is mixed together and then dried so that it becomes very hard. Before it dries completely it is shaped into basically a U shape so that the cooking bowls and such can sit on top of it, and then the firewood is fed into it from just one opening, while there are several small air vents in the back.

I'm actually glad you bring that up. I will be sure to blog about this more in the future. But basically, but using the "mud stove" it helps contain the heat much more, reduce the smoke that the women are exposed to as they cook, and cuts down on the firewood usage by about 2/3. There are quite a few major benefits to using this for cooking, but, most people aren't too interested in actually making in themselves, they just want one.

Many volunteers work with groups of young guys to make them and then the group of guys sell them as a kind of income generation thing for their group. I've been having a tough time getting people interested in it in my village, but I have been planning with a group of boys to start making them soon. My village is in a part of Gambia that is still quite forested, so they are having a hard time seing the need to preserve the wood when it is available. It's all a part of helping them plan long-term and understand "sustainability." (On a side note, sustainability can be quite a difficult and humbling concept to try to convey coming from the United States, where very little is sustainable.)

The Women’s Garden Fence is Finally Fixed!

It took many, many months of chatting up the issue, talking about the importance of keeping the women’s garden going, pointing out the food they could be eating had they fixed the fence earlier, and finally just dropping the issue on my part and letting things sink in, but the men and women finally organized and have fixed the garden fence so that the fence can actually be used during this rainy season!

After my first several months at site as I tried to talk up the issue and stress its importance, it became clear to me that the fence was not going to get fixed in time for it to really make a difference this dry season. So eventually, for my own good, I just dropped it and moved on to other project ideas. After all, if they are not interested in doing it in the first place, it probably won’t be too sustainable once I leave in a year and a half. So I let it go.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago, somehow the women and men got a renewed interest in the idea of wanting to fix the fence so they can actually use the garden during this rainy season. I’m not really sure what happened or what clicked, but I’d like to think it had something to do with the day I wandered around the village carrying two bundles of barbed wire asking where in the village I could use it, since it obviously wasn’t going to get used at the garden, and I was tired of having it just sitting unused in my back yard.

You see, each afternoon I tend to wander the village and just chat it up with people in the different compounds, getting a feel for what’s going on in town and what the people have on their mind. That day, my carrying two rolls of wire did not go unnoticed. Most all my conversations that afternoon went something like this, in Pulaar:

Them: Saikou, you have barbed wire.

Me: Yes, I do have barbed wire.

Them: What are you doing with the wire?

Me: Actually, I don’t really know. I wanted to use it for the women’s garden, but they don’t want it, so I’m looking for other uses.

Them: Oh.

Me: Yeah. Do you have any ideas?
(At this point I should point out that this day I made sure to visit the compounds of the organizers of the women’s garden.)

Them: (They would then jump into a conversation with each other discussing how they needed to get to work at the garden before I gave the wire away.)

Them: Saikou. They are saying they plan to fix the fence soon.

Me: They have been saying that for a long time. They have wasted an entire growing season, and I don’t feel like wasting another one.

Them: (More rapid-fire talking between the people in the compound.)

Them: Saikou. They plan to fix the fence Saturday. (This was a Wednesday.)

Me: Really? I don’t think they will.

Them: Yes. They will.

Me: Really?

Them: Yes.

Me: Great!

This conversation happened many times that day, and I think I did a pretty good job of getting my point across. As it turns out, they did gather that Saturday to cut new poles to hold up the wire, discussed how to purchase the nails for the wire, and a few days later the men got the wire nailed up around the garden.

So yes, it may have taken six months to get a women’s garden fence fixed, but I learned a ton through this one project. I now have a much more realistic and informed idea about how to address and handle other projects in the future. And I have a much more realistic outlook for how slowly some things take to get done.

But, in the end, the women have a workable garden again! And with a food crisis going on, and only expected to get much, much worse, I’m excited for the potential the women now have for being able to help offset the food their families consume and increase their nutritional intake. It’s not always easy, but it’s rewarding!

New Teacher’s Quarters: A bit of a tragedy with a happy ending

Each community that has a school, such as ours, also has teachers stationed to live in the community to teach at the school. As such, most of the time the school itself has an area with living quarters, since the teachers are moved from community to community at the government’s discretion and, obviously, need a place to live.

Unfortunately, during last year’s rainy season the teacher’s quarters building was hit by what I understand to be a very serious rain and wind storm, and the teacher’s houses collapsed. Since then the school has been facing the dilemma that the Ministry of Education and the government don’t actually have the funds to help Chargel put up new teacher’s quarters, thus pushing the teachers to live in compounds open and willing to take in the school staff for the time-being. While it is great of the community to take on the roll of housing the teachers, it really isn’t their responsibility, and the teachers themselves would prefer to have more private areas of their own where then can get more work done without as many distractions. After having several pleas for financial help declined by the Ministry of Education to help with this dilemma, I worked with the school head master to arrange the construction of 5 new locally-made houses built on the same site as the original teacher’s quarters building. It took quite a bit of pushing, pulling, community meetings and even some guilt trips to convince the members of the community and surrounding area that this was the best solution, and that it wasn’t practical to just keep waiting for money to flow in to pay for the construction of new houses.

(I will insert here that you may notice a trend in my work focused on helping the people of the community and area take on initiative to brainstorm problem-solving ideas for themselves of then implement them on their own, without outside funding or help, in order to keep the solution sustainable and manageable for the people relying on the project/program/solution.)

We spent many Saturdays making mud bricks at the local quarry just outside town. And we spent many more Saturdays building up the mud-brick walls for the houses. It isn’t the most fun job one can do, especially when it is so very hot. But the men were eventually convinced enough of the need for the houses that they were more than willing to devote a huge amount of their time and energy to this project.

We then spent several more weekends cutting branches and grasses to build the roofs. As you have seen from my previous pictures, building thatched roofs is a bit of a job in itself as well. Once the roofs were finished it was time to begin preparing for the backyards and building a fence around the houses. One day a few of the men decided it was a good day to rake up the area behind the houses and burn the area clean. (That’s what they do instead of mulching to get rid of the stuff they rake up when cleaning out yards and fields.) Unfortunately, they picked a particularly windy day to do this cleaning and when they lit the raked up grasses on fire it quickly blew out of control and very easily burned down the roofs to all five houses. It was a bad day.

On top of that, because it has been so dry, there are no more grasses that can be cut to replace the original roofs before the rainy season. But if the mud-brick houses aren’t covered by the times the rains hit, they will quickly melt away. And that would be a big problem. Fortunately, the community was still convinced of the need to finish the houses and protect them before the rains hit. (At this point the first rains were expected within about one week.) The school ended up hiring some local carpenters to fix temporary corrugate roofs for the five houses. It won’t be the best structure, but it will keep the buildings from collapsing on themselves, and it will allow the teachers to finally have their own housing.

Hopefully around this same time next year I will be able to tell you that the teacher’s houses are finally complete, barring any unexpected rain storms intense enough to knock the houses over, tear the roofs off causing the walls to melt in on themselves, or another unexpected fire disaster.

All in all, experiences like this one lead to good “character development” for all of us involved. It’s about learning, accepting and moving on.

Time for an Update

Hey Everyone!

It has been a while since my last update. But I can assure that is not due to any lack of activity going on at site! Typically, May can be quite a low-key month. It is too dry and far too hot to really grow anything. And the heat greatly reduces the hours during the day that can actually be used for manual labor. This is typically a month when the farmers spend the day preparing their seeds and make sure everything is lined up so they can begin working in the fields plowing and planting as soon as the first rains come mid June.

But we have not been sitting idly by this past May. Here are a few highlights from the month.


During the same time I was learning bee-keeping for my in-service training at the end of April, several members of the skill center in my community were at the same place for trainings going on to make different types of craft items to sell. They have known about the concept of bee-keeping for quite a while and the two volunteers in Chargel before me tried to introduce the idea of working with bees for the honey and wax, but were met with minimal interest from members of the community. As it turns out, seeing is believing.

They came back to Chargel with a great interest in the concept of bee-keeping and the uses of honey and wax they could be getting. I was very encouraged when they actually came to me with the idea as their own idea and had even already organized a men’s group or “kafo,” who wants to begin making bee-hives from local materials.

Since this is actually the “dearth period” (yes, dearth, not death), the bees won’t begin really settling down and producing honey until September, giving us a few good months to organize and get ready to start bee-keeping this coming fall. Chargel and six smaller surrounding communities have each organized a men’s group who will make and maintain several bee-hives. I’m very excited about taking on this project and am planning to host an extensive training session in August for everyone interested with help of a few of my Peace Corps friends who have more experience working with bees.

This is a project I think has great potential for the farmers involved, and I’m very excited to help them take this on. Not only will it give them great access to working with the wax and comb for income generation, but they will also be able to easily add honey to their diet for nutritional and medicinal purposes. Additionally, having this influx of bee-hives will be great for the growth of several new cashew, mango and orange orchards we are starting at the edge of the village. I will be sure to keep you updated in the months to come as this project gets up and running!

Chargel Area Market

Chargel officially has a market! I have written before about the difficulty for women to really take on income generation projects since the two closest markets they have access to are both around two hours away by horse cart, and that’s just not workable when they are also caring for children, cooking, washing clothes, gardening and taking care of the daily projects going on in the family compounds.

Originally, the women’s groups I have been working with, and the community in general, though it would be a great idea if I would just write them a proposal for the people from “toubabadou” to just give them the funds to put up a huge cement structure to house the market, like they have at the more major market areas in the country. But after quite a few meetings with the community about all the aspects involved in organizing to build such a structure, the labor intensive work involved with maintaining it, and with the actual cost of something like it, we all decided it would be best to put up some structures made from local materials and see how successful the market actually is before moving forward with trying to put up any permanent structures of seeking outside funds. When it comes down to it, they can do just fine with local-made structures, just like they do in hundreds of other smaller local markets throughout the Gambia. The key is helping them realize they don’t need something donated or given to them from “toubabadou” for it to be good or successful. In fact, often times the key is trying to avoid, at all cost, actually helping them get something from “toubabadou” so that they don’t develop a dependence on foreign aid for the success and continuation of their project. I have much to share on the topic of foreign aid and donations to places like the Gambia, but those will have to wait for another blog of their own.

In any case, the community spent several days working together, men and women, gathering materials and actually erecting the market structures. (The main purpose of the structures is really just to provide shade, which is why 500,000 Delasi concrete buildings are definitely not necessary.) I was glad to see that they were even helped out by many people from the surrounding communities who want to see this kind of area market succeed.

And when the work was finally finished and the community could celebrate that they finally had their own market to work with, they did indeed celebrate! The women put on a program with food (pankets (like a donut) and rice with bean sauce), singing and of course, dancing! It was a fun time, and I’m glad to see the women and men working together on a project like this. It’s was rewarding to help them see that they really can do things like this for themselves, it just takes some brainstorming and organization. And even though it happened to get finished at a time of year where there really isn’t much to sell, we are all excited to see its success!

The Horse and Donkey Association of The Gambia

One organization I have been working closely with in village is the Horse and Donkey Association. This UK based aid organization raises funds to help provide donkeys, plows and carts to farmers in The Gambia who otherwise would not be able to afford these animals and equipment.

Farmers who are selected to receive a donkey are required to attend a training session to learn proper care and treatment of donkeys, as well as understand common nutrition and medical problems animals face, such as worms or malnourishment. Once a farmer “graduates” from the training they are “loaned” a donkey and the necessary equipment to help the farmer get started with their field work. The Horse and Donkey Association then sends out a field staff member to check up on the health and treatment of all the donkeys they have “loaned” throughout the country and as long as they are in good health and taken care of the farmers can keep them, but if it is clear they are not upholding the contract for animal care they agreed to, they will have the donkey taken away from them.

This organization visits the farmers in my village about once every two months, and it has been great to get to spend time with them learning about their organization and helping them become more integrated with the community and help address the farmer’s needs. And it has lead to some interesting learning experiences here at site. For example, one of the requirements from the contract they sign says they agree to provide a shelter for the donkey no less than 3 meters by 3 meters. But the farmers here just don’t understand why it would be a big deal for an animal to have a special house. After all, it is just an animal. Once it became clear to the H&D field staff worker and myself that the farmers really weren’t committed to building shelters for the donkeys because they didn’t find it necessary, it opened up the opportunity for what turned out to be a fun meeting for me to share our cultural differances. Basically, I was able to explain to them that how we “toubabs” tend to name our animals, provide special houses for them, and even sometimes let them live with us. I was able to better explain this by comparing their donkeys to Khiva and how I bath her, feed her and she lives in my house, even though she is an animal.

I can’t lie, they think we “toubabs” are pretty crazy in this regard and they laughed at the idea of having different houses for different kinds of animals. But they also understand why it is important to us and even how sometimes an animal can become a part of our family. In the end, they all agreed to build houses for their donkeys... but they still think we are funny.

So as you can see, I have been able to find enough to do throughout May to keep myself busy... most of the time. But I still find plenty of time to chat it up with people around the community, enjoy attaya with the guys my age who like to come over for “current events,” and help out with the projects going on in the compound. In fact, I even built a new book shelf for my house! I was pretty excited about how that turned out.

In any case, I hope this blog entry finds you doing well, enjoying the change into spring, and just a bit more clued-in to what exactly it is I am doing here in “The Smiling Coast of Africa.”

Until next time, God bless!