|Happy End of November!
||[Nov. 25th, 2007|03:05 pm]
Happy Holidays!Happy Ramaddan! Happy Halloween! Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hannukah! Merry Christmas! Happy 2008! (just in case, I’m behind and trying to get a head…)
I’m behind in emailing I know & keeping in touch. I guess I posted here just a month ago, but don't think I sent out a mass email simultaneously... I’ve been stressed about trying to figure out just what I’m doing with my master’s and what exactly my work is within the community. I’m past the point where I should know people’s names and how to communicate in the language. It’s a bit terrifying to be honest. We have now completed 17 months of our service. We’re on the downward slope until the end of our service. I could finish as early as the end of July. I probably won’t actually be done until September and home to the US in October.
So here are the highlights on my journal … I warn you… it’s a small novel and really rough around the edges. You’ll have to scan through if there’s a topic you think you might want to read up on. I also witnessed my first live birth! A goat… but I spared my readers from the details… =)
Tree Nursery work with the inspector
Four landowner plan more or less a failure
Good garden visit/bad garden visit
Cell Phones, Home Finances and Mauritania
Riots in Kankossa, one fatality
Grass Wildfires – nomads versus city folk
Project ideas – jujube live fence, me versus the cows
New school director who I like!
Hope this finds everyone happy, healthy and well!
Last I wrote, I was in Kiffa and celebrated Halloween with my region mates. Leaving Kiffa was hard. I didn’t want to go back to Kankossa. I don’t know what it is about readjustment to life here, but I seem to fight with myself every step of the way. I let little things stand in the way of actually finding my own happiness and contentment, regardless of how foreign the situation may seem.
I had to wait at the garage for about 2 hours until the ticket seller, passengers and driver had all decided when it would be appropriate to leave (Garage is the place where they put us in cars and round us up like livestock into the backs of trucks). I was exhausted from night after night late on the computer trying to get those last precious few hours of work in before it’s time to go back to Kankossa. No concentration to read, can’t sleep while leaning against the building, no leaning forward on one’s hands to catch a bit of shut eye… you never know when they’ll call everyone into the car. I refuse to play the game of pushing my way onto the truck, which means I generally get a bad seat. Thankfully the men were kind enough to let me sit near the cab of the truck, closer to the women. I actually like to dangle my legs over the side of the truck. It’s fine and dandy as long as you’re paying attention to any possible obstacles that pass by at 40+km/hr. Trees with the thorns are of course the worst and quite painful… not always avoidable.
I stayed city side in Kankossa when I arrived since it was late. The phone reception was only working to send text messages. Apparently somehow I missed my host brothers at the Kankossa garage who came to take me home (in my defense, I didn’t know they’d be there to meet me). My welcome home was pretty mellow. The biggest change is that the other side of the lake is now lit at night. Actually I’ve only seen the lights on once… my first night back in town. They’ve been off since… I did something to my knee, so basically sat with Aiseta for two days under our tent. They want to keep going with my group project idea (just work primarily with 4-5 landowners), even though there’s a strong lack of interest. In my opinion it wasn’t a bad idea, but for my community they weren’t interested so it’s basically a flop. I’ll continue to work with the land owners I selected, but I have to re-strategize how it will work. As I left for Kiffa this last time, I met with the fourth landowner, Malik. He chose to drop out completely saying that there’s no money in gardening – so now he’s become a fisherman sending his fish to Mali – land of little to no fish therefore the profit’s incredible…
I would very much like to work with my host family in their garden. The trouble is, it all turns in to me doing the work. So I’ve decided to take a big step to the side and focus on planting trees. I don’t think it’s fair for them to profit off my hard work – a free laborer – something no one else in town gets. As I work on my trees, I’m still available to help in the gardens and do some work, but keeps the kids better involved in the whole process –especially since the physical labor I do is temporary – they will need to continue once I’m gone, so better they learn, in my opinion. This of course can make things a bit problematic and frustrating, but it’s what is fair I believe.
So, after a day or two of rest I went to see my boss, the agriculture inspector (his office is across the lake). He sent me on a mission to help start a tree nursery in a town just to the south. I had visited this town just before I left for Europe & did a tree nursery with one gentleman, but what you do for one family, you must also do for the “opposing” side (this town has a history of not getting along). I went with just the driver. He helped to interpret the words I had forgotten. When I finished with him and all their kids, I stopped by to see the first nursery. I gave him some more tree seeds for the tree sacs that were without trees growing. He went into a whole rant and rave how no one helps him with anything. He asked me about “pooder” (insecticide) and got angry with me when I said I had none to share. I tried to explain that it is poison (especially the stuff they send here to Africa) and is unlabeled here (therefore we don’t know proper application or which species it will target). Also – farming isn’t perfection, even with “pooder” you’re bound to lose a couple plants (but maybe you’ll add poison to the water which will go to wild animals, domesticated animals, kids who swim there, etc…). He didn’t want to listen to me. What good is it, having someone come so far to do nothing but talk… So that was sad, but more or less sums up a good majority of what people think about my presence (or so they make it seem). It’s kind of amazing with the lives they lead with all the chaos and all… the majority of people I come across are strong believers in perfection – at least over things that they believe are within their reach and are possible to control… control freaks you might say.
I found a quote that I liked in the book I’m currently reading that conveys my sentiments a bit. I like just the line – “Nature is an ironic jade.” I added a bit after to explain Dostoyevsky’s train of thought…
Nature is an ironic jade… Why does she create the best human beings only to make fools of them afterwards? Is it she who is responsible for the fact that the only being recognized on earth as the acme of perfection – is it she who is responsible for the fact that, having shown him to men, she made him say things which caused so much blood to be shed that if it had been shed all at once, men would have been drowned for certain.
- The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Part II, Chapter 10)
So I thought about this a lot while in Croatia. Humans are quite silly and somewhat self-righteous to think we can actually gauge and predict nature’s path. But then, I’m just as bad as anyone else. I’m attracted to the glittering leaves moving in the wind, the funny looking insects crawling about, social interactions and networks between beings, all natural phenomena that are more or less naturally adapted works of art… I’m all about collecting “data” on it all… applying abstract numbers to a system that grows more complex at every new discovery that is catalogued for by fitting or not fitting other trends. In our defense, we adapt just as we always have, so in many ways natural sciences are the study created by an adaptation of our big brains to interpret our surroundings and learn from them.
I briefly met a man just after this tree nursery planting who took me to see his garden. He has trees and plants he’s brought from Mali (where they tend to be more garden/field savvy). He explained observations he’s made in his garden and how he experiments to see if he’s wrong or right. I asked why he gardens. He said he’s traveled all over Africa (working and moving along) to see all the cultures and hear the languages that borders don’t come close to accounting for. These are my words, but convey his general sentiment, “I enjoy gardening and realize its importance. Every aid agency that comes has an agricultural component to it – so that demonstrates how important it is and there must be money in it. Also no two soils are the same. Sowing seeds will change every time due to the soil and it’s up to us to know how to properly manipulate the “system” (soil) to raise those seeds – it’s not all about watering. Not to mention, how fabulous is it that we can grow our food and feed our family and friends with our own bare hands??? Lastly, I don’t understand why Kankossa is so compartmentalized because as farmers we would get along much faster in our understanding of our environment if we talked and shared ideas from within the garden. Unfortunately people’s greed and disinterest in gardening has led to a lack of community to help those who aren’t in our radar.” He gave me a papaya tree from his nursery and seeds for trees he saw in Mali that are adapted for drylands and would probably be accepted by locals. I planted it and told my host family to water it while I did some work for the agriculture inspector (since I knew I might be absent for a day or two). I was absent from the garden two days. It was dead and dry as a bone when I returned… =(
Later that week, a good friend of ours took me to see his garden too. He just started gardening again after a few years of hiatus. He planted beans and okra which he happily waters each day. The land is a beautiful spot on the lake, away from neighbors, with nice sturdy fencing. He bitterly explained that the inspector had made promises to him about giving seeds and other materials to him, which he ended up not doing. I’m not sure I altogether understand why you would need lots of materials for such a tiny piece of land. I can understand the disappointment and maybe the false hope, but you have to reason the materials he has to give away are limited and more likely to go to someone more serious that a person who “dabbles.” He told me the fencing was bad (some of the nicest, well placed fencing in my opinion). I was going to say you could plant trees along the fence to make it more sturdy and protect from animals. Just as I began to say, “yeah there’s something we could do…” He cut me off, saying great, I would just need a little more chainlink fencing and a couple things of barbed wire. When I finished my train of thought he definitely looked defeated. He has decent consistent work (better than most) and a brother who just visited from Spain who brought a gift of a portable DVD player for him (in a town where we have limited to no electricity – so which gets charged by a generator or ideally solar panels for a small fee).
I do not believe this scenario is the same for all households, but if people just managed their finances better, they could certainly afford the things they ask for. I suppose in the end, if the white person was here and had stuff to give away, I’d ask too… So many ask who have the means, that it makes my job discerning who is truly struggling and could use the help is deserving. Makes it downright overwhelming.
I would love to do a survey to see how much people spend on their cell phones. Every family has at least one. The phone itself costs at the lowest, maybe 10,000 ougiya (that’s for the low end – no color and without fun features… most people have color faces, a camera, & the ability to play mp3s – I suppose to be fair I have no idea about current phone technology trends back home – I hear there’s an iphone now… I’ll be curious if that gets here - probably won’t due to the lack of computer access to add in your mp3s). To charge a phone (since we have limited electricity available) it costs 100 ougiya each time (needs charging anywhere from once every three days to once a week). Phone cards are generally about 1000 ougiya apiece (lasts about 20-40 minutes for talking in country – greetings take 2-3 minutes – so maybe will last you 10-15 phone calls).
So if I buy a decent phone (probably will only last a year, due to sand or else I’ll drop it in the lake or down the toilet – happens more frequently than you’d think)… I dunno exactly how much the nice ones are… we’ll say 25,000 (I think that’s an underestimate), charge my phone’s battery and credit once a week (52 weeks x 1100 ougiya = 57, 200) – So a low estimate for annual expenses would be 82,200 ougiya (since credit wise they do offer nice recharge moments where you get an additional 50-90% added to your credit if you recharge during bonus periods). (1000 ougiyas = is about $3.75). That’s $300 dollars a year – which goes a long way here… you can buy 9 or 10 sacks of rice (a sack of rice is now about 8,000 ougiyas) with that money – that will last a family of ~8 adults (my family averaged over meal times which fluctuates with visitors) for a year. That’s my low estimate – some of these phones were selling in the $100 to $200 range when I left the US – perhaps prices have been lowered as new models come out with features I don’t know about. It varies by family of course – I see some people buy a few cards a week where as others maybe once every two weeks. Personally I can only afford to buy a phone card about once or twice a month on my Peace Corps salary & primarily just use text messaging – much cheaper (when I subtract out all my other expenses). Most people talk on their phone quite a bit. Kids are bad offenders, boys calling girls who live next door to show off their masculinity and wealth… how often you can call your girlfriend improves your status to be sure… It’s astronomical to me & I think a study should be done on finance management, because I wonder if people even realize how much they’re spending. Being a little more conservative of a spender would stretch their money much further. It’s a matter of keeping up with the Jones’ (only here it’s the Ba’s, Diallo’s, Cheikh’s or Sidi Mohammed’s).
It’s from this idea, as well as my recent revelation that she would be interested in learning more about accounting that I have decided to set up a three day seminar covering calendars, garden production and home finances. I’m trying a different idea this time. Last year I tried to include anyone and everyone at all levels. This time I’m going to try to work with just the people who I know work well and will benefit the most at organizing what they’ve got. With the calendar, I hope they will begin to make more observations in their gardens, which will help them become more in tune with insect population dynamics and beginning to think about rotations and planning how to best compete in their local market against the unbeatable low cost of foods that are imported from other parts of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, and Morocco. I hope to encourage them to encourage those around them. Often times, people can be quite discouraging when someone fails once at something. There is very little support between people even within the same family and tribe. Outside of the tribe, I don’t even think I touch the surface in seeing true interactions of social relations. So… I want everyone to think before they speak about the person they are talking with and how to best help that person do something better rather than take it from their hands and do it for them. The old Chinese proverb is actually well known here “Catch a fish, a man eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.” I don’t know how to facilitate this, but somehow demonstrate and let them know they have the ability to bring up the level of their community.
So the winds are blowing hot air from the north in the dry Sahara now… Hot dry winds bring about funny changes in people. I would liken the situation to the bizarre behaviors that arise when the Santa Ana winds hit southern California each October. The boats have a harder time fighting the winds as they cross the lake, skin dries out, lips get chapped, always thirsty, sand everywhere... People have more fevers (in my opinion they’re dehydrated and don’t realize they should be drinking twice as much). As I was easing back into my Kankossa life and getting ready to go visit gardens to see how the season is starting off… riots break out…
I was in the garden watering my trees & could hear strange popping noises coming from across the lake as well as an elevated level of people noise (shouting and general agitation). I looked over the fence to my Pulaar neighbor:
“What’s going on over there?”
“It’s the Moor kids breaking stuff in the market.”
My family said people are unhappy about how food prices (rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, oil, powdered milk, sugar, tea leaves) have been on the rise. The news had announced small protests starting the previous day in larger cities across Mauritania. High school kids nationwide took to the streets to throw rocks in the market to show their anger. After an hour or so, a faction of the mob split off to break into the mayor’s office and hakim’s residence, which is just across the lake from where I live (a hakim is an appointed overseer for the county – kind of like a house of representative equivalent in the US system). I heard them pounding on the doors and the glass breaking. We could see kids running around and the gendarme (military police) cars driving around. You could hear all the warning gunshots going off in order to restore some sort of order. There was dust in the air, so it must have been quite a commotion. Once inside the hakim’s wall, the kids continued to throw rocks. They hit one gendarme who was holding his post pretty hard (some say he was knocked unconscious), fired a warning shot to keep the crowd back, which accidentally hit one kid. He was rushed to the hospital and then on to Kiffa. He never recovered – the only fatality in all of Mauritania during the three days of riots. A new hakim had just been appointed and arrived in Kankossa at 4pm that day to a messed up house. Concrete is pretty solid though, so aside from broken doors and windows there’s little to no evidence the riots ever took place. More gendarmes came from Kiffa to control people’s movements and monitor activity around the market and town for the next few days. We were told to maintain a low profile so as not to agitate anyone by our presence. We got all sorts of concerned texts from other volunteers as the news spread across the country.
It’s interesting to hear an account from the different ethnic groups. If you talk to a Moor, the riots are a sign of Mauritanians uniting together in order to take a stand against their government. The new government is at fault they say… they should get rid of those duty taxes for ships bringing in imported goods! (Elected at the end of March this past year – how much badly could they have set back the country in just 7 months?). If you talk to a Pulaar, they question the motivations – while it’s true prices are on the rise – why would it happen to occur the same month repatriations would begin reinstating exiled victims from the 1989 conflicts?
Is it an opposition party that orchestrated the whole thing? Is there a desire to show instability in the new government? Why would it be primarily the moors raising their fists? Wouldn’t you expect a more united front amongst all ethnic groups if it’s a question of an oppressive government or overwhelming food prices? Is it as simple as people are really just upset about the food prices? – because as I’ve tried to explain things as far as I can tell – all the goods they are upset about are imported and not grown in Mauritania – the price of fuel’s up over $100 a barrel…
According to a friend of my host family, they held a meeting in which all parents of students and teachers were invited to attend. The Wali (governor) blamed parents and teachers for not having better control over the kids. People complained that World Vision (a local NGO) and other aid agencies have done nothing to help us! Apparently he said something along the lines of… Nothing to help you??? Where have you been since the wildfires have been breaking out? Your kids went into the market trying to destroy public and governmental property – how can the money needed to repair damages help lower the cost of food? Are you helping your fellow countryman? World Vision has been helping victims displaced by wildfires have their basic needs met and offering all their assistance to the government to help contain the fires. Kankossa’s a problem that everyone knows about. You’re not fooling anyone. No one here works and expects food and everything else to be handed over to them. No one feels sorry for people who are overweight and sit under their tents all day every day drinking tea and eating. (Disclaimer… I wasn’t at the meeting. The message was delivered to my family in Pulaar. I asked for a translation and that’s the jist of the message translated to me by host mom, which I believe is probably biased).
So we had temporary minimal movement and a relative halt to activities. Just as things started to look clear for more mobility, we had a visit from a health volunteer that lives in Kiffa. He’s writing his thesis on a project funded and directed by the World Food Program. For three days we tracked down various children malnutrition “centers” (by center, we mean, there’s a woman in charge of overseeing cooking for kids at someone’s home and distribution of dry grains for pregnant mothers and breastfeeding mothers) around Kankossa and their participants to ask them for their opinion on the current status with the project. What problems they could identify and how the program could better serve the people… I met many women that I didn’t already know in the community. The centers and the project are intended to help mothers realize the importance of properly feeding their children the foods with more nutritious value. In many cases, it appears the mothers may or may not know who provides the food or why. They don’t know if it’s schedule to come on a regular schedule. Mostly they were afraid to lose the program. They said people and kids are weak and poor here in Kankossa, which is why the program came. You can see an improvement in the kids since they came, but if they were to go away you would see the kids grow weak and tired again. Rather than help to change behavioral patterns for the better, a dependency niche has been created.
But then there’s an exception to every rule… One woman though answered that she had learned more about taking care of her kids. She consciously thinks about her purchases in the market now. The program helps especially when money is tight. It was her belief that if the center would close mothers would be more aware than the were before. It becomes a matter of means and whether or not you can afford to make the right purchases. In addition, it was also interesting to see the various participants that I know who have kids in the program. One of the two definitely didn’t need to have their kid there. She’s a tiny child, but with an attitude, fussy, and refuses to eat (even refuses the ‘center’ food). The household is highly respected and has one of the best gardens around – no reason to be malnourished. They have received outside help (donation of materials and continue to receive regular donations of money) so how is it they have a kid in a program such as this, when they should be financially stable? Many kids receive food even if they’re not in the program. Who’s going to turn away a crying child when you have enough for 70 others you feed with this program each day? What’s one more kid or a handful more? Is the program helping? It’s not set according to the means of the family necessarily – just on the visible signs of malnutrition of the child itself. I suppose if there’s a free meal for most, in a communal society, everyone gets a piece. It’s like my mom always said with my valentines… you’d better make one for everyone. It’s not very nice to give things away in front of others if you don’t have enough to share. No one likes to be left out.
In addition to the protests, the other exciting local news revolves around wildfires. Eleven people killed in our county within the last two months. Countless animals lost along with 180kg of dry grass (don’t know if that’s accurate or not). The hot, dry, winds are not sympathetic to people who are careless in their use of fire. The townsfolk point fingers in two directions – the nomadic livestock herdsmen cooking and making tea not respecting the settled people’s resources & charcoal makers not properly looking after their fires. There are three main year round lakes in our relative area. Each one attracts grazing traffic coming from all directions. There’s a general understanding and informal pacts made between open space land owners for allowing free grazing rights, but I wonder how much longer people will be sympathetic as the settled populations grow and become more detached from their nomadic roots. If it’s not tied down or there’s no fence it’s a resource to anyone who comes through. The problem of the wildfires is that when the hot season comes, the animals that aren’t transitory will have a definite struggle in trying to find food. Last year during the hot season people told me all about the starved and dehydrated animals along the guidron (paved road) scattered like rocks between Kiffa and Aioun (next regional capital along the paved road to the east). The rains weren’t very good this year. Crops are shorter and less productive say the farmers. It’s noticeable in the availability of grass already that we will be in short supply. Animals will probably have a hard year ahead of them, which means so will the people since the animals are kind of like a bank for them. Banks only exist in large cities with electricity… I’m guessing there are less than 50 across the country. I imagine I would be fairly untrusting and willing to put my money in one if I didn’t think I could have regular access to it. If you have extra money and can’t put it to good use, buy another cow, sheep, goat, camel - you can always sell them or eat them when times get rough. There are lower risk investments (more drought resistant species) and high risk ones (basically cows & sheep).
I suppose donkeys could also be factored in some how. They aren’t eaten, but are an important source for transportation and/or work. Donkeys carry people from the surrounding villages in the countryside into town to visit the hospital, buy and sell things in the market, or just to visit friends and family. In town donkey carts provide an important job niche for boys; ages 7 or 8 to about 15 – not highly respected for older people who have this as a job, although there are people who suck up their pride since a job is a job. Donkey carts carry women to the market and heavy goods home. Donkeys carry people, food and harvests to and from the fields. Donkeys are used as traction animals to do the first plow of the fields. They’re not really strong enough for this, but no other species have been bred to do this work and it’s only for a few weeks each year. Having an ox or bull would be expensive to maintain for the rest of the year. Horses are prized, but very expensive, not very drought resistant, and not readily available (at least in Kankossa – in places with mud, they seem to be more prevalent… maybe sand is problematic for horses).
I’ve got a number of project ideas rolling about in my head these days. I’m trying to get a live fence going of thorny jujube tree’s to help reinforce the existing chain link fence. Goats and baby cows are pesky. One brother puts the baby cows in this area each day so they have access to the lake to drink water (I’ve never once seen them drink from the lake). Instead they eat the beans, sorghum and henna. I got frustrated because they plod alongside the fencing when their moms return at the end of a long hard day of eating grass… just where I planted my trees. I said I would protest and refuse to drink the milk in order to prove my point. One of the kids agreed and said he’d protest with me and stop milking the cows. My host mother said she and the cows will just go take a vacation in the countryside together then, since their company isn’t appreciated. (this is all in good humor…) So we’ve negotiated the baby cows will be fed and given water outside of the fenced-in area.
My garden is waiting on plastic sheets to arrive from Nouakchott to do a quick look to see what’s the cheapest and most effective way to control plant parasitic nematode populations. Plant parasitic (aka root-knot or root) nematodes are problematic for agriculturalists and amateur gardeners worldwide attracted by certain plants and repelled by others (probably some sort of chemical response – I know they’re repelled by chemicals in marigold roots at least…). Nematodes are small, unsegmented, round worms generally found in the soil surviving on organic matter, bacteria, insects or plants. Plant parasitic nematodes attack the roots and are easily recognizable by distinctive galls found on roots. The adults penetrate the root, live inside it, and lay their eggs there. Damage to the roots interferes with the plants ability to deliver water and nutrients to the upper portions of the plant. The openings in the roots increase the plant’s susceptibility to exposure to harmful bacteria or fungi. Some nematodes transmit viruses between the plants. Typically nematodes aren’t the primary reason for killing the plant; rather they weaken the vigor of the plant, making it more susceptible to be harmed by other factors. Plants of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes) tend to have the majority of problems. The microscopic creatures can live anywhere, but are found in higher concentrations of soil with lots of mobility (aka sand – larger pores).
The nematode appearance has been correlated to an exotic species of tree (Prosopis juliflora, from South America) that was introduced for sand dune stabilization projects which may naturally harbor the variety of nematode that attacks the garden. There is a questionable nature about these trees and the lack of understory vegetation, but I think maybe it’s just some allelopathic nature – like how plants have trouble surviving near walnut trees or eucalyptus (changes the pH of the soil). In my opinion there is a build up in the soil because people do not rotate their crops year after year. A problem left year after year can potentially cause a build up of the population and can eventually lead to problems in other crops as well. Regardless they are problematic across the country and have been quite devastating for vegetable crops since they were identified as a nuisance. I plan to look at three treatments; the plastic is for soil solarization, neem treatment using leaves of a tree as an insecticide, and a 5-week peanut rotation. There’s been some sort of miscommunication with the last shuttle that made its delivery because it forgot to stop in Kankossa. I am now trying to locate the plastic and see if they can try to deliver at some point before Christmas. If not, the idea to try solarization (lay clear plastic sheeting in order to make the soil uninviting to the nematodes) may not work at all. So I’m hoping for the best. I’ll try it regardless.
At the school, we’ve just gotten a new director. I had met him at the school he worked out previously. Since we already knew each other, I was able to tell him directly and easily – I want to plant trees, paint murals on the walls, and hold a class in the garden. No problem he said… start today if you’d like =) So I did right then and there… transplanted some neem trees into the school yard. He had kids organized into teams to water within 20 minutes… Amazing when you get so used to hitting walls and trying to go against people’s inertia. Some things are so easy…