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August 6th Coup d'Etat [Aug. 9th, 2008|02:54 pm]
[Current Location |Rosso, Mauritania]
[mood |crappycrappy]
[music |Ani DiFranco - Untouchable Face]

So I'll do my best to give a run down of the situation for all those who may be concerned about events they've heard about on the news.

It's been an exciting week. More friends of mine are catching flights and returning back to the US. We had a 30th birthday to celebrate in Nouakchott. My host brother's wife had a baby, so there was a baptism. For all these reasons I packed my bags to go to Nouakchott on the night of the 5th.

On the morning of the 6th, I was sitting with my boss discussing training progress reports. Our training program director came in, and my boss says to him, "What's the news?" His response said something about people stealing things. I asked for a translation from the French. My boss told me that 4 of the head generals had been dismissed in the last 24 hours and now they were worried about the potential aftermath. Just at that moment, he was called away to an emergency meeting.

In five minutes there were people rushing all over the office pacing around with their cell phones to their ears. The coup had been announced and now the message tree for contacting all volunteers in Mauritania was in effect. Unfortunately they couldn't have timed it better, in that all the volunteers were more or less scheduled to come into Nouakchott for a meeting on the 7th. Everyone who wasn't already in had to turn back (some who had been traveling almost 2 days already).

There were small incidents on the street - people celebrating - cars honking & people ripping up posters of the president, hanging out of car windows. A fight broke out between two women in melafas, causing the military police to throw some tear gas into a crowd.

We were kept in lockdown with restricted movement (curfews and avoid time in public areas). I asked for a special escort to the bank (problems with transfering accounts Kiffa to Nouakchott - would take more than a simple transaction) even though I felt a little silly. There was supposed to be a march in support of the new government moving around the city - I took the escort just in case.

How are we doing? We're fine. I'm back in Rosso already preparing for my next sessions. All in all as a volunteer, I'm pretty sad about the situation. I felt that after the elections last year, things were changing for the better. The people working in the government positions seemed to be doing good work & working hard. I felt that the local people had a sense of restored hope and were getting motivated to work. Now programs will be on hold until stability is reassured - there are already reports that the EU, US and African Union have all condemned the coup. Non-humanitarian aid has been suspended. The situation with UNHCR and the refugees returning to Mauritania from the 1989 conflict with Senegal could potentially be put on hold again.

The new regime says that they will hold elections as soon as possible, but this basically means another year will go by where life will be put on hold - two out of three years of my service held up in politics... Anyway, I just wanted to write to let everyone know that there is nothing to worry about at this point. We are all hoping for the best and trying to sit tight until the dust settles.

Hope this finds everyone happy and well! I'll keep you all posted if anything else exciting should happen. xoxox
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August 1st... [Aug. 3rd, 2008|10:28 am]

So since it's been awhile... update... the longer I'm here, the more it's my life & updating seems silly. I realize that everything here is so different from everywhere else, so it's important to share... =)

thesis in.... check - visit to NY in April/May... saw friend and family... met my nephew who is cuter than any baby known to man - miss him terribly now after our 4 day sojourn together. =)

2+ year relationship over... details unecessary, but time to begin fresh & anew

left Kankossa in May... now the agroforestry trainer for the new batch of volunteers, living in a place called Rosso - but more like Senegal than Mauritania - access to A/C, internet, my own private bedroom - mashallah...

Training is half way over. Every day the trainees are one step closer to becoming volunteers. I'm trying to minimize the distance between the formality of "us and them" since really they will become "us" in a few weeks time.... they're already well on their way.

The day to day can be slow as we prepare for teaching sessions and things. I have a bit more free time than I'm used to. I signed an August 1st resolution on picking up the pieces to start the next year fresh - exercise, pay close attention to my vitamin intake & spend time on important things like language learning, family, friends, and stuff I like to do. We'll see if I can maintain it until September 1st - one day at a time... bonus if I can keep it going longer.

We took a trip cross country to take the trainees to their final site placements. All in all it was a success. Incredibly enough no one has let the torch die. The whole group is still here & regardless of their placement, they are making the best of it. (In general there are one or two people who see their sites and throw in the towel because it's just not what they were looking for & don't wish to spend two years of their life in a place that's not suited to their needs). My region got an explosion of 11 new people - it's a complete change in face from my days of living there. I'll be in Nouakchott the next year, but intend to visit them regularly - as is the familial relations we develop by our region. Two agroforestry volunteers will be headed that way - one as my replacement and the second in a site that hasn't seen a volunteer in about 6 years or so. The one will be living with my family, so she is now my sister...

Umm... what else? my host brother's wife had her first baby. I get to go to the baptism in a week! We're all very excited. I can't wait to meet my little niece, Aiseta Demba.

Plans for returning home to SF in the works - I get a month Sept/Oct - will try to see as many folks as I can, but will surely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people & general culture shock of familiarity with a place that has become unfamiliar.

Not much else to report, but wanted to share.
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In Rosso [Jul. 8th, 2008|04:36 am]
[Current Location |Rosso, Mauritania]
[music |America - A horse with no name]

Hey folks

I keep putting off writing this update - so I'll do it short and sweet, like ripping off a band-aid. Big events to report - 1) thesis in and accepted 2) training with new folks is underway 3) I'll be in Mauritania another year - a lot to process in a short message, but if not today it might be another month. =)

Rosso is a different place (where we're having training). The town is unlike the Mauritania I have come to know and love over the past two years;The city is large, with more people speaking French, kids don't throw rocks (actually not yet seen), people are friendly on the streets... all in all a pleasant place to be (also incidentally 10-15 degrees cooler than Kiffa and Kankoss).

so that's my brief note home. i am thinking about you, just no real time to write something decent.

Hope this finds my readers well!
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mini adventure... thesis... almost done [Apr. 16th, 2008|02:12 am]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |anxiousanxious]
[music |Billy Joel favorite hits =)]

Hey folks

It's been crazy the last few months... hard to put into words everything running about in my noggin. Everyday is a roller coaster of emotions as the finish line nears in sight. For the last month, my thesis has taken all of my attention. The hot season has officially begun.

I can't write a whole lot right now because my thesis really needs my attention...

But I had a couple great moments in the last few days that makes me reconsider all the frustration I've had since living here....

1) My site mate and I went to the mountains. I promised the cooperative I would return to collect seeds from them, but have been pressed for time. We were limited in time, but assured we could get to the little village I visited. Finding a car was a pain. There's a new place to catch cars, but not all cars leave from there. It took an hour and about 5 people to locate the place we needed to leave from... The driver said he wouldn't leave until the next day, so we sought out a car just for ourselves to the next town (Laharaj) where we could catch another ride. When we got to Laharaj, we stopped in to visit a man who I've met twice before... he was blinded after studying geography at the university. He spends his days at his house now with friends and family stopping by to look in on him. So we paid him a visit and had some tea.

The truck came and we climbed in the back... There's nothing more exhilarating than riding in the back of a truck on a clear night. To stand, holding the bars on with all your life and have the wind in your face. We chatted with the other folks in back. My pulaar is getting to a point where I can communicate, which is exciting... and a really nice teacher enjoyed practicing his english with us. Whenever there's a good moment, it always feels like a great moment... and talking to nice strangers in the back of a truck is a great moment (normally we are talked about or told we are bad for not being muslim). We arrived in the town at the top of the mountain, after a rough, bumpy and slightly scary ride. All the kids in town came running after the truck to jump on for a fun ride. I told them... don't do that you'll break your head open (I'm such an old lady now...) and they weren't sure how to react, except I think they were scared of the white girl. We found out that the town we searched for would be a 25km walk from this point. We didn't have the time nor the money to hire the guide, so we were stuck. We were welcomed into a home for the night as is customary in Mauritania when you seek shelter... We probably stayed with the richest person in town. We watched a Mauritanian soap opera in Hassaniya and ate well. The kids all stuck around to watch us do it.

At 4am, they awoke us to take the departing car back. We opted to go to Sani, so I could visit someone at the Fruit Tree Station. He, of course, wasn't there... So we had a pleasant day under the shade of a thatched roof hangar surrounded by fruit trees and date palms, about the best day in paradise one could hope for. There was no afternoon car of course, so we walked the 18km back to Kankossa. So although we accomplished nothing, it was a pretty great adventure. =)

2) I walked into the school director's office upon return. He handed me all the drawings of the environment the kids had done in my absence. I looked them over and decided the next day we should paint murals on the walls for all of those who submitted art work. I promised them sandwiches and ballbastiks (kind of like Kool-Aid in a little plastic baggie, you bite a corner and suck on it. Ideally they're frozen, but we figured as long as they were not hot, it would be ok.) I spent all day running around buying 7 kilos of goat meat, 7 kilos of potatoes (for french fries - never had them in a sandwich? try it - delicious), 4 kilos of onions, 60 pieces of bread, 5 liters of gas (for brush and hand cleaning), 12 cans of paint (7 colors), 15 brushes (all that existed in Kankossa), The kids were a bit of a terror. I had a lot of trouble getting the second graders under control. Thankfully the PTA showed up and helped me out. It started out as chaos, but turned out well in the end. The sandwiches and ballbastiks were greatly appreciated and devoured after the exercise. It was a definite exercise for me... not just in running around trying to remain in control, but having patience and biting my tongue at some kids behavior. I think the best thing I did was steal all the sticks away. Control in a classroom almost always involves hitting the children and since I won't do it, other kids were trying to help over zealously... Man... kids sure do fight a lot and boy, do they know how to complain! But in the end, I gave them my thanks and a couple kids stood up to thank me, too. The PTA was very pleased to see an activity for the kids like this, so I think I did ok.

So not the best summary, but it felt pretty amazing, so I thought I'd share!
K - now to my thesis...

And just to share something a little extra; here's my new favorite quote:

There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves by James Kavanaugh.

This is a book born in my heart, born in the pain of ending one life and beginning another, born in the excitement of the continuing search for life's meaning. Some people do not have to search, they find their niche early in life and rest there, seemingly contented and resigned. They do not seem to ask much of life, sometimes they do not seem to take it seriously. At times I envy them, but usually I do not understand them. Seldom do they understand me.

I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know -- unless it be to share our laughter.

We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we want to love and be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or to compete for love.
his is a book for wanderers, dreamers and lovers, for lonely men and women who dare to ask of life everything good and beautiful. It is for those who are too gentle to live among wolves.
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February 2008 update... [Mar. 13th, 2008|10:21 pm]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |cheerfulcheerful]
[music |Dolly Parton]

Where to begin…

I’m falling further and further behind in keeping up with my correspondence… The hot season is creeping in… African Soccer Cup madness coming to a close and another month gone by… My Christmas letters and packages are still arriving… it’s like the holidays last here for a good while longer, but it never stops being too far away from friends and family back home.

For any of you, who have noticed news headlines about recent events in Mauritania, I just want you to know I’m safe and doing okay. As volunteers living in small villages, we are safe from the happenings (mostly in Nouakchott, the capital). Between my local language skills and coming to grips with wearing the local attire (mostly dealing with windy days keeping my head wrap on and trouble tripping over the melafa – colorful burka veil worn by women here), I’m not much of a target as much as the media may make it seem for recent attacks on foreigners.

Things are finally on an upswing for a change. I had a bit of a rough time over the holidays. Nothing catastrophic happened, I just hit a rock bottom period in life’s unanswered questions of existence. I snapped out of it the minute my back up drive with all my files went caput on me. The impending thesis suddenly came to light and typed itself in a fervent and maniacal manner in a week.

With the 50 pages required under my belt (but still much room for improvement), my life as a volunteer still overwhelmed me. I had a small margin of breathing space: escape to Senegal to see my friend Emily and her husband as they celebrated their wedding. The trip lasted less than a week, but seeing a familiar face from my life back home who understands all the ups and downs of cultural integration in a West African context brought some reassurance that I’m not completely insane. At one moment, as Emily patiently listened to me therapeutically work through my observations and frustrations, she turned to me and said, “It sounds like you’re really enjoying your site and life in Mauritania.” I was a bit dumbstruck by it, but tried to maintain my composure as if I understood what she said.

The words sat with me on the whole ride back to site. I stopped and did an internal checklist. I spent some time with Senegalese volunteers as I traipsed around. They all seemed to be doing well. Their language skills were superior to my own. Their happiness was contagious. I saw myself in their world, but didn’t see a place for me in it. While we could talk and share bits of home or job stress, we live in two very different places with very different obstacles. I think the cultures are more similar than that of American culture versus Mauritanian culture, but that doesn’t mean comparisons are a good idea. I made some friends, if nothing more than short-term acquaintances, but highly valued the short hours spent together.

I was stomach knot-twisted, but in relatively high spirits returning to Kankossa. By some miracle since my departure from site, folks seemed to be getting better. A group was formed of vegetable producers in the area. The same thing I tried to do six-months ago, but now a much better initiative since it came from the people themselves. While I see some oversight and logistical issues for raising the community as a whole, I was proud of them for making this first step towards taking their own futures into their hands. People set out to do land surveys and selected the 40 most enterprising workers with the most successful production. This club of elite is better for me to try to conduct trainings, but still overlooks the smaller gardeners who are trying to catch up. I’m working out how to overcome this, but for now, I have a working group… and that’s a start. Their first meeting was a bit rocky (at least an hour of arguing over some issues), but shows potential for the near future.

In the honor and name of self led initiative, I decided to start conducting meetings with community groups to help them better define their problems and lay out how to attack goals for the future. Each meeting I conduct has an outlined activity to help this action in a stepwise manner. I will hold a weekly meeting with each group for an hour. We will help define the spatial limitations and resources, followed by time constraints, and finally prioritize what action needs to come first. This has snowballed a bit larger than I planned, since I thought I only had 5 groups: the vegetable producers, a new community youth center, and 3 women’s groups; the three women’s groups became eleven, but I still think it’s manageable.

My gardening name has become mud. I have yet to get my own garden underway and find my time limited for working with the school as I had hoped originally. I was able to get the ground broken and teach a small introduction to gardening to a 4th grade class, but there is still nothing to show for the big words I gave the school director weeks ago. And my world map still lacks Antarctica… Once I get through the next two weeks away from site, I hope to redeem myself.

In my short time at site, post-manic depressive episode, I was able to make some headway on a tree project in addition to my community meetings and floundering position as a gardener. I took a 5-day hike just over 100km to and from the local plateaus with my neighbor, the tree guru/traditional healer. I kept up with his drought stress tolerance only drinking water at available watering holes, but asked he slow his step for my fragile feet.

My project is to create a working tree handbook for volunteers and other workers in Mauritania. As a side project, I’m also trying to help build up a seed bank to help restart native species in areas that were devastated by the droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. During the journey, he introduced me to over 25 new species of trees. At our final destination on the plateau, I met a friendly cooperative women’s group who work hard in their gardens, but are limited in their capacities to generate an economy with the outside world. The women live with elderly generations and their children, as all the eligible and able working men are off in the cities to bring money home to their families and support a small village far off the beaten path. I struck a deal with the women to collect tree seeds for me this season to provide them with a little bit of extra income. It’s not a lot, but when I return, I hope to help them start a tree nursery so they can maybe find another market niche with the valuable resources at their fingertips. The true test will be to find that market where people will buy the trees. Native trees just don’t have the same popularity as fruit trees and other fast growing exotics, but I have hope.

While the trees were the reason for the adventure, I got to briefly see what life is like as someone who wanders in a land considered barren by most strangers. We spent days and nights with the kindness of strangers providing for our food, drink, and sleeping needs. We saw large herds of camels and cows, ran from a thirsty stampede of baboons at their watering hole, and spent time with some guys who live and herd their goats and sheep in a grove of jujubes until the supply of grass and water runs out. In the end I wasn’t able to save my feet, but the whole experience was well worth it. I had to trade in my cross-trainers for my trusty shower sandals that my feet are more accustomed to. Day 2, before we ever reached the foot of the mountain, my blisters popped. The splatter of liquid threw me off, but I kept in step only realizing later what it was. I’m now in painful recovery of swollen and bruised tootsies that need lots of extra love and attention. I’d do it all over again, even knowing what I know now in lack of proper foot care maintenance.

Upon arrival (after a good foot soak), I was informed there were television crews making appearances around town. My host family was sad I had missed the opportunity to speak to the cameraman about all the wonderful gardens of Kankossa. I was rather relieved. The next day Kankossa exploded into a festival of sorts. The crews set up interviews with community groups. I rode a donkey pulled chariot with my host mom to our local women’s center. Everyone dressed up in their finest and brought out all their beautiful hand crafted works for display. The boats paraded around the lake with men dressed in green and yellow (Mauritania’s colors), patriotically waving Mauritania flags. The vegetable producers laid out a sampling of all their colorful backbreaking labor. Everyone was jovial and in high spirits. The mood in Kankossa was unlike any I had experienced so far. All of this celebration for a 30 minute spot on Mauritania television, first in a series highlighting communities around Mauritania. The pictures and amateur video footage I took doesn’t do the event justice. I’m hoping to get a copy of the professionals’ tape when I stop in Nouakchott during my next visit.

So now I’m back in Kiffa… off to softball madness as we compete to hold our 4-year running champions title. I hope to see the volunteer friends from my recent trip to Senegal and meet a man to talk about trees amidst it all… (We’re also rooting for the Mauritanian team as the returned West African volunteers battle it off on the softball diamonds back home in DC).

As a side note, for those following… the cows and I are still at odds. While all my trees in the live fence died and now has little bearing in the matter, my family has now taken to using part of my house as a place to store the dry grass for the little-big muss makers. Now rather than having to chase them from the garden, I have to be careful to close doors behind me or else have to chase them from my living quarters. I am in the midst of a real life in your face farm enterprise. Cow feed to my left as I exit my room and chickens to my right… but it’s okay. Chasing them out of my home is something I can overlook, so long as I’m careful to lock up or not wander too far and they cause a real mess.
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Happy End of November! [Nov. 25th, 2007|03:05 pm]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |contemplativecontemplative]
[music |Elton John]

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
“pooder” dude
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.”
“What? Why?”
“Who knows…”

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…
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Blazing new trails... [Oct. 25th, 2007|07:40 pm]
[Current Location |Kiffa cyber.... so slow...]
[mood |annoyedslow connection]

Blazing new trails… literally. =)

So hello everyone, another rainy season nearly gone by. I have passed the halfway mark – only 10 months to go in my service. It’s time to buckle down and make things happen!

I recently attended an institute in Croatia sponsored by NATO entitled “Uncertainties in Environmental Modelling and Consequences for Policy Making.” My advisor at Cornell directed the two week institute, so I owe him a great many thanks for the unique opportunity to attend. If you have never seen pictures of Croatia, hop on the web and take a peek. The landscape is gorgeous – a nice contrast of red soil and white rocks, filled with quaint hilltop towns, olive groves, vineyards, and small harbors nestled along the coast. From the shore you see small islands scattered about. I enjoyed the views and the sunset, got in a good bike ride, a few runs through the trees, nice walks through the mazes of the old towns, a swim in the Adriatic, satisfying meals, and regular access to coffee a few times a day, in addition to the 9-5 daily conference schedule. There was a mix of people of all ages, careers, ethnicities, and levels of experience at the conference. Topics focused on various modeling principles and applications to real world problems. Debates came up with the theoretical science (at one point in arguing limitations, on the existence of the number zero), bias in measurements, scientific subjectivity, scientists as stakeholders in politics, etc. I’m including my notes at the bottom for anyone who wants more details.

I got a nice vacation holiday in the Netherlands as I traveled en route to and from Mauritania. I am jealous of people who have bought their homes, begun careers and have friends and family close, always accessible. I miss everyone terribly. The vacation was nice though. I got to be on a bike, go dancing, hang out with friends, use Skype with friends, see new places in the Netherlands and eat lots of cheese. =)

Now that I’m back… here’s my plan…

I’m giving up on my land owner, work together idea. People don’t want to work together. No matter how much it might help my teaching of techniques, it’s too much of a headache to get people excited about something that’s too foreign for them.

Instead… I bought a GPS (at the recommendation of my advisor). I will do murals at the school (world map, Mauritania map, and regional map). It will be a tool to try and help explain why I’m walking around mapping things in the community (resources, grazing areas, trees, etc.). This is the blazing trails part… trying to create comfort with a new tool and begin discussion for the community on how to think about taking hold of their own future…

I’m doing tests on different methods for nematode population control. Nematodes are roundworms, invisible to the naked eye, which do damage on crops (primarily build up over time due to poor rotation of eggplants and tomatoes, & maybe are an even larger problem due to an invasive exotic tree species in our area). I have four different treatments to test. I made a contact in Bulgaria at the conference who may even have another method that has potential… so we’ll see. =)

I hope to organize and conduct interviews with locals to build an environmental history for the area. This will become a chapter in my thesis, hopefully. I need to organize the questions I want to ask and make sure to sit with as many people as possible.

And finally… I want to make observations on project successes and failures to see if there is something to be learned in the world of development. All of these things have potential to be included in my thesis and will be helpful to the people of Mauritania…. Someday….

So… that’s my plan for now. I’m headed back to site any day now.

Love you all, miss you
Wishing you all the best!

My story of interest (always about traveling)…

Making my way back to site after my excursion to Europe… Well the trip from Nouakchott to Aleg could have been better to say the least. My host sister gave me a ride to the garage (place where we catch our rides to other places). First she had to drop someone off on one side of town. Every location has a different garage. We passed by 4 garages until we found the right one (if I had just taken a taxi from my hotel I probably would have saved an hour). I got a nice tour of some parts of Nouakchott though. She helped me barter with the taxi guys (baggage always requires discussion).

The trip got off to a bad start. There was a lot of argument at the garage. A woman did not want to ride next to a white girl for her trip. She actually cried – adult women never cry in public (typically men and women are segregated in the car – since by Muslim custom men and women who are unrelated are not supposed to touch). She ended up not traveling with us. Getting all the baggage to fit took some time. I had to continuously watch them with my smaller bag so they didn’t break my computer trying to squeeze it into the small spaces. In the end my red backpack had to be strapped onto the outside of the trunk, which is always alarming in the case that it comes loose at any point. I traveled with 6 men. Since the cars from Nouakchott along the paved road (guidron) are Mercedes, this means I shared the back seat with 3 men. I made sure to get an outside seat since being squeezed between men is always improper (they will try to put me between them for flirtation and touching privileges, even though they know it’s culturally unacceptable). We left Nouakchott at 6pm.

The road out of Nouakchott is a series of sand dunes and valleys. Our car began overheating with each climb over the sand dunes. After an hour, we had to pull over and wait for the car to cool off. The progress from this point was slow. We took 20 minute breaks at the top of each dune. Finally the driver conceded to putting us in another taxi (at about 11pm before Boutilimit, for those of you who know Mauritania geography). The new car already had one passenger, so we squeezed 5 people into the back seat.

We stopped shortly after to look at the aftermath of a wreckage between a large semi and passenger car. I couldn’t tell exactly what happened, but it looked like there was little chance the passengers in the smaller car survived. Traveling at night is very scary and the most common time for accidents to occur due to the nature of the small roads and poor visibility in oncoming headlights. Every time I see an accident, my heart beats fast and I remind myself that I should travel by daylight hours, even if it means wasting a day for getting work done.

I tried to sleep best I could in order not to think about the potential of accidents and head on collisions. My rationale is that in order to survive or experience the least amount of pain, it is better to sleep and be in a relaxed state if we should get in an accident. The car stopped again for dinner. I was so exhausted from late nights on the computer in Nouakchott, I took advantage of the space and laid down on the entire length of the back seat.

At around 330am, we pulled up to the gendarmes (military police post) for Aleg. (Typically there are gendarmes posts at every town – sometimes they make travel very slow, requiring a stop for identification card checks – well known taxi drivers generally wave at their friends and pass through without stopping). There was a van (known as a mini-bus here, or prison van, the name given by volunteers, since all the windows are small and have bars on them) pulled over at the stop with about 40 people milling about outside. The gendarmes asked us to step out of the car. He said there was a woman in labor in the van who needed a ride to the nearest hospital. At first the taxi driver said he would take her, but then it sounded like he would have to make multiple trips to and from the city of Aleg and changed his mind, since there were travelers in our car with 8 or more hours still remaining until they reached their destination. The driver told the gendarmes, there’ll be another car along… I couldn’t believe it! As much as I wanted to just get to bed and away from the 16 year old that had begun hitting on me, it was alarming.

I was lucky that the driver was nice and took me directly to the volunteer house (which is a half hour walk from the normal drop off point). I was able to wake the volunteers up inside to let me in. I crashed sometime after 4am, completely worn out. Normally a 4 hour drive turned into 10 hours…


50 Participants and 27 lecturers represented 27 different countries (Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States) at the two week conference. Attendees ranged from a wide variety of professions (students, academic researchers, private research groups, technical consultants, government positions) and fields (hydrology, soils, oceanography, ecology, informatics, economics, engineering, physics, mass communications).

The structure of the conference was to bring people from a wide range of backgrounds and experience in order to provide lectures and an open discourse to discuss issues associated with modeling as related to global warming predictions. The proposal was written around discussion of environmental concerns for populations that have been identified as potentially high risk areas should global warming continue at or above the current predicted rate. My attendance was appreciated due to the nature of my work in Mauritania. Most of the attendees were people who spend most time in research labs or behind computer screens and do not have access to the people or situations living in more sensitive climates. I gave an hour long presentation on Mauritania, Peace Corps and the master’s international program with Cornell University, and throughout the conference spent time discussing issues of daily life in Mauritania. Many people commented on the difficult living conditions and asked questions on my observations (both cultural and environmental). I offered to help connect people interested in performing research with contacts I have in Mauritania.

The conference covered a wide range of topics during the two week period.

Measurements: Spatial and Temporal Scales
Model conceptualization
Benchmarking and verification models
Calibration and sensitivity analysis
Validation and confirmation of models
Communicating modeling results and uncertainties
Decision making on the basis of model prediction
Soil carbon dynamics
Global climate change
Natural attenuation of contaminants and risk assessment

Brief summary:

Geostatics are used as a way to correlate data from one point to estimate for a larger area in order to represent larger trends. There are many ways that errors can result from these changes in scale variations. Measurements are scale dependent; resolving differences at different scales is one of the largest challenges to modeling. Models can be conceptually or physically based (spatially explicit). Conceptual models are simple while physical models are complex. Both have important uses, but understanding of the limitations is essential. Model complexity (number of parameters used), data availability and the predictive performance of the model all add up to the model performance and our process of understanding. The more complex, the less accurate the model predictions tend to be. A limited data set may or may not be an accurate sample of the larger processes at work.

Measurements of reality changes perceptions varying by the observer and the instruments used to collect data. Most natural systems are complex and heterogeneous, yet there are too many variables to be all inclusive for mathematical calcultation. Models try to make a more complicated system simple and homogenize the frame of reference. There are consequences and limitations of sampling that need more attention. Although bias exists, it is always a matter of interpretation. Inevitably the person taking data subjectively chooses which data points to collect with an instrument of certain limitations. Modellers often do not know these limitations and select parameters for models using their own selective subjectivity. Proper usage of computer programs and systems are often poorly understood. Errors regularly occur in programs with computation, such as floating point and rounding off errors (scientific notation and decimal point precision). In addition, the lexicon between the original modelers (computer scientists) and current usage in the literature has been obscured and is a problem for interpretation.

The UN recently held a Framework on Climate Change for ISO countries titled “The Future is in our Hands.” While the world wants a definite answer on questions about the future, the future has never been predictable. Determinism does not exist in chaos theory. Defining parameters for stochastic outcomes changes the probability and possibility to the extent that we are more likely to eliminate the extremities or events that are more unlikely to occur. There are accepted mediums of uncertainty such as weather forecasting. Scientists can predict within a relative amount of certainty what the weather will be in hours or days, but the further the future outlook, the increase in uncertainty. For policy makers, simpler models with deterministic outcomes are preferred in order to make better predictions.

Most scientists agree that human influence has a large influence on current climate changes. Current projections are under certain conditions. Coastal zones are more prone to vulnerability, but what is the possibility? Since most of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, what proportion of the population is likely to be affected? Currently countries, like the US, have the choice to spend money on science in matters of policy. If we try to make changes based on what we fear might happen, is that money wasted if it doesn’t happen? The largest problem in climate models is that we do not know all the factors and the states to predict outcomes. Currently one of the least understood influences will be the soil carbon that is being released at faster rates than originally predicted. Rates of change in levels of carbon dioxide release are difficult to predict, but correlations have been made to El Niño years and large volcanic events. There is a need for study and research in this area with models which have been oversimplified in the past.

Explaining model predictions clearly to the media is important. Currently there is controversy over sources of funding for science research. There is no balanced reporting in science. Media publications and scientific publications that are either positive or negative about climate change are not given equal representation in either sphere. There is much more information available in places where reporting is in English, unavailable for some. Research and context in other languages needs attention; translation in order to add to the current picture for English researchers who have access to more resources. Often times the media does not have the resources to cross check publications or statements to be certain the reports are accurately conveyed to the public. A large amount of skepticism in models has arisen from this poor miscommunication. Often there is no recourse for changing wrong or over exaggerated reports. In general the public will not pay attention to the science unless there is a doomsday prediction. Researchers need to become better stakeholders if they want their research to be well translated for mass media. Public support in turn helps for better policy making for the future.
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Where have all the cowboys and monkeys gone??? [Jul. 12th, 2007|02:01 am]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |working]
[music |Iron & Wine]

Hello world! It’s been a long while since I’ve written, so I hope that makes this letter that much more special and a better chance you’ll read it =)

I think I’m better adjusted at least the shock value of things has decreased, so that’s what I tell myself. I have done a good many things since the last report, but I’ll spare you the update and just share the interesting stories =)

Life in a transitioning country presents many bizarre encounters. People are learning the ins & outs of modern technology quite well. Most people have more advanced phones than I’ve ever owned. The user friendliness of modern technology is quite astounding, whereas farming which has taken a little while longer still has yet to catch on entirely. Some of the people with their fancy flip phones can’t manage to keep a garden. Many don’t understand that you need to water each and every day or things will die. I suppose things of convenience and time saving strategies will always win in the end. Millennia have gone into breeding plants and the associated craft while a whole society was pastoralizing their cattle or camel trekking their salt, slaves, gold and gum Arabica. I suppose I would also prefer the latest cell phone quick and convenient to toiling and sweating for some silly vegetables. (Phone charging is as convenient as taking it to your neighbor or a shop with solar panels or a car battery and picking it up at the end of the day).

Interesting things about nomadic societies and places without running water or electricity. What would you do without your sink? Shower? Garden hose? No toilet? Drinking water? Brushing your teeth? Washing your hands or your hair if you don’t have soap? Water a garden? Provide water for your animals? Eating with limited materials? The list goes on and on, many things that I take for granted nowadays. Yet even with all of these adaptations, most people are terrified of anything that moves. On a number of occasions I have had to save screaming people from small harmless frogs, insects or lizards. Now I know Americans can be quite squeamish as well, but Mauritanians probably spend anywhere from 90-95% of their time outside sharing space with these creatures and crossing paths with them constantly. Since settling the nomadic cowboy notion that I had when I first got here is pretty much sunk.

MONKEYS still exist in Mauritania! I thought most had gone on to greener pastures further south or in wetter parts of Mauritania. While I visited my friend Mike, we walked outside his village and caught a glimpse of the monkeys from a distance. Mike’s friend visiting from the states asked Mike to ask his host brother (who was with us) if people ate termites (we passed a termite mound). The host brother said, “oh, they are quite mean. They are big and black. If you throw a rock at them they’ll throw one back at you.” We were all dumbfounded until we realized he was talking about the monkeys. The word for termites and monkeys is very close in Soninke. I definitely saw one that looked near human size from a distance. I was glad that they wanted nothing to do with us. Since my visit there, I caught another glimpse of a monkey just outside of Kankossa. I wish there were more even if they do throw rocks. They’re pretty gosh darn cute.

The Ba’s versus the Diallo’s (I’m a Ba like my host mother, but all the kids are Diallo’s like their dad) So for whatever reason the Ba’s and the Diallo’s in Pulaar culture just can’t get along - probably something like the Capulets and the Montagues or the Hatchfields and the McCoys (not sure that’s the correct reference, but you know what I mean…). It’s mostly joking these days calling each other bean eaters and making farting noises at each encounter.

One day my neighbors (Diallos) came over dressed all silly making all sorts of noise with gourds and empty cans. Apparently there had been a fight in a small village between two Ba’s (brothers). They were eating couscous (just millet – that’s all they had). One brother took a larger portion than fair, so the other called him on it. He claimed he worked harder and deserved it. A fight ensued and one brother broke the other one’s arm by swinging a stick at him. So news travels fast and the Diallo’s were at our house to collect their dues from the Ba’s because of this event. As a Ba you are required to give money, food, clothing or anything else you are willing to part with.

The story behind it goes like this…
One day, two very good friends, Ba and Diallo set out together to go exploring. Weeks went by and they were able to refill their water but the meat dwindled and eventually ran out before they could reach a city to re-supply. Diallo sat in the shade of a tree unable to go on from weakness and near starvation. “Go on without me. Let me die under this tree. Save yourself,” Diallo says to Ba. Ba tells him he will go for help and be back soon. After an hour of wandering, there appears to be no options. Ba doesn’t want to lose his very close friend, so he starts a fire and takes a knife out. Ba cuts into his inner thigh and pulls out his own muscle and puts it over the fire. As soon as it is all cooked he returns to Diallo who is still under the tree. Ba tells Diallo, “I have found us some meat. You must eat a little and we will continue on and rest as you need until we come to a town.” A few days later they arrive in a small village. Both have their rest and lay on the mat made of palm fronds. Ba’s pant legs expose his wound as he leans back crossing his legs in the air. Diallo asks, “What happened?” Ba says, “You are my truest friend and I could never leave you to die out there, so I gave you what I could to keep you moving.” This story was told to me by Aiseta Ba in which the two are good friends. I have the feeling if a Diallo told it, they would have said that Diallo demanded it because Ba was in a lower ranked class than him.

So now during this period, we are in the hot season. This is the worst time of year for most. Aside from the extreme temperatures, scorching sand and return of some of the big ugly insects (getting bigger for the rainy season), most people are low in finances, suffer headaches from not drinking enough water and poor nourishment from the lack of vegetables now available in the market. Many fights break out in this time. For every fight the Bas are a part of, they sacrifice something to the family Diallo. I don’t know if the gesture is reciprocated if the Diallos have problems.

So… I like to talk about car rides here. There’s always a good one to be sure. Generally they involve a lot of pain and exhaustion by the time you arrive at your destination. Travelling in Senegal is generally better to get back to site in that the Senegalese believe when one person buys a ticket they get a seat all to themselves. Mauritania’s rule is fit as many as you can stuff in, charge a high price and drive like a maniac to make the cramped quarters even less enjoyable (this is 9 hour rides on a paved road between Kiffa and Nouakchott in a Mercedes, or the back of the truck for 4 hours from Kankossa to Kiffa speeding over dunes and through valleys catching your feet on thorny trees and bushes along the way). So my friend Donna and I were traveling from St. Louis, Senegal by way of the Goray-Bakel border crossing into Mauritania and Selibaby to get to Kankossa. The ride through Senegal had been a pain – Car depot arrival time 10am – departure 12:30pm) we waited for longer than usual until we could fill a car which only took us part way (Matam, in case you know your Senegalese geography). We found a new car very easily but people were pushing, yelling and shoving at us at the depot to get us to fill their vehicle (the opposite situation of leaving St. Louis). Once seated with dinner and our bags on top we got underway. I had to sit next to one of those people who gets a big kick out of bothering the foreign girls. The ride was not shaping up well… and then only to stop an hour later (9:15pm) because there were too many “bad people” on the road (they use the word for bandits in French). I told the driver we were in a bit of a hurry so we would flag down the next passing car so we could continue to make more progress. This is normal generally for drivers to pass off passengers when they don’t want to continue. I didn’t like the look of the town we were going to camp in. We got in a big fight about it. I was yelling at 5 or 6 Senegalese men in French. He was saying we had to spend the night. I was saying we will flag a car and it is his responsibility to pay that driver for us. He said we should have discussed this sooner. And I told him… well when you guys were pushing and shoving us around in the depot just to fill up your car it would have been nice if you had discussed the fact you weren’t planning on going far at all. Thankfully a car did come and stop for us. The driver yelled at the men saying that they should have been more understanding and not treating foreigners that aren’t native French speakers like idiots, especially Peace Corps Volunteers who aren’t your average tourists and are trying to be helpful. Just for that I was happy to continue on with this second car. We probably got another hour along the road, but we were well looked after at the place we stopped for the night. Arrive Bakel 9am. Rest with our friend who was saying goodbyes to everyone in his village, since he had to leave early because he is involved in training the new incoming class. Right now is a strange time for us as we make the transition into our second year and we lose all the volunteers ahead of us who we have spent a lot of time with and have much respect for helping us every step of the way…

The next ride from Goray to Selibaby (later that day… another 4 hours in the hottest sun of the day) was probably one of the more pleasant taxi brousse rides I have ever had. We were tightly squeezed in the back of the truck, but people were mostly friendly (not always the case) and were happy to test our language skills and teach us funny little Hassaniya limericks (Tea without mint, is like words without sense; For one who is patient, the shade and protection from the sun will eventually come; “Give me, give me,” and you don’t stop asking, so our friendship is over). Also the car was a very mixed ethnic group which can generally make things less comfortable, but these people were Moors speaking Hassaniya (Arabic dialect here), Pulaar and French and the Pulaars were reciprocating. At one point a Moor tried to tell a very over weight woman she was falling off her rice sack and squeezing him tighter in his space. She was an older Pulaar lady, who are generally treated with much respect and tolerance, so she didn’t respond kindly. He stood up and she fell off her rice sack. The whole car had a good laugh. Normally it would have made things more tense and uncomfortable.

So in case you’re keeping track… we’ve been traveling at this point for more than 27 hours…. We took a two night rest in Selibaby with the volunteers there before making the final leg of the trip to Kankossa. The day we were ready to leave we went to the ticket guy at the depot. He asked us our car preference, since there were two cars that would make the trip (a landcruiser or a truck). We preferred to ride to Kankossa and told him the land cruiser. He said he would call us when the car filled which generally would be leaving in the afternoon. Much to our surprise and happiness (especially since there seemed to be rolling black out power outages constantly in Selibaby) he called us an hour later to return. The process was a bit strange though. They put our bags in the back seat (places where passengers would normally sit) and rice sacks at the men’s feet in the middle row rather than on the roof rack. I didn’t think anything of it, just thought oh, these people must have bought all the places because they are in a hurry to get going. We leave the central market area and almost immediately the driver says we have no brakes. He turns the car off as we continue slowly drifting forward (rather than using the emergency brake) and continues to pump the brake – the car shuttered as if trying to turn over the engine. For a moment I thought he was going to drive us with no brakes, but then he pulled over. Who should roll up? The truck that had been at the garage. They moved the luggage over and we all got new seats. People from the street walked up, threw luggage in and hopped in back. All of this seemed really suspicious. We could understand a little of the conversation they were having. The whole thing was a set up because they wanted to switch cars. The driver had been hitting the clutch (popping the clutch… why the car acted like it wanted to turn itself on). All the luggage was stowed for most convenient access and other passengers were told to walk to the new meeting place. So basically they just didn’t want to tell us they wanted to switch cars. Rather they took an extra half hour to play the whole charade with us. The rest of the 8 hour trip (3 hour stop for lunch at the hot time of day in a town) was not pleasant with a guy yelling in my ear most of the time trying to marry me or Donna, whoever was more willing and able. And we got so sweaty that it’s just too gross to discuss. I had to change clothes (which is okay since I arrived in pants which is discouraged for women in Kankossa generally) and take a bucket bath immediately upon arrival in Kankossa. So concludes the 4 day trip it took us to get back to Kankossa.

I’ve been getting in fights with people more and more recently. That sounds like a bad thing, but really it’s positive because it means I’m getting better at my language skills and joining in the fun of the culture here. Fighting comes very natural to them and unnatural to me. Two ladies in the market of Kankossa were giving me a rough time since I haven't brought them wells or fencing… and just what exactly is my job that I’m doing for them… The discussion ended with me repetitively yelling my job description and as a volunteer, you tell me where I will find the money to bring all 100 people and their families fencing and wells (there are plenty of materials in my opinion at this point in Kankossa, so it makes me mad whenever they ask… especially when I’ve seen how they garden – they think they are entitled for handouts because that’s what white people do for the poor people of Africa – they don’t want to invest in themselves, they’d rather wait for the next aid organization that will listen to their plight). “WHERE’S THE MONEY???” I’m yelling at them… it was embarrassing. The whole market was laughing and giving me encouragement to keep up with them arguing. Finally one woman yells back at me, “I have 20,000 ougiya! I want a well and fencing! You go and find out the prices in Nouakchott and I’ll tell you what to buy for me!” The crowd gathered of course loved this. Everything is bargaining here and seeing how far you can push someone to see how much you’ll get out of the deal.

Another elderly lady brought me a palm frond woven plate she wanted me to sell at the International Jazz Festival market I would be attending to represent the cooperatives of Kankossa. I overheard her discuss the price with Aiseta in Pulaar – of which I understand some (numbers, a few basic verbs and a some other vocabulary). I heard her say. Well I bought it at the market for 280. How much do they sell for in Nouakchott? So she tells me she wants the plate to be sold for 1200. That’s a 400% mark up in which she’s probably cutting the original maker of the product directly. At the time I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t sleep on it that night. I called my mom for advice back in the states. So, the next morning after a nasty fight with the school director about miscommunication with another volunteer of which he is completely insulted by and I was trying to mend the pieces.

Last story and then I’ll be on my way. I have a good friend named Malik. He provided all the wood for me to have my very own hangar (tent) at my house to sleep under, when I first arrived in Kankossa. I enjoy spending a day with him and his family since he lives in the next village over and takes me awhile to walk there and back. I have been a bad friend and not visited the family for 4 months now. The last time I came was to congratulate them on a new baby…. (When I came again just recently the baby is now 4 months old… time is going by fast). I noticed he is having a lot of coughing fits and seems to be having trouble breathing. He is a heavy smoker. Mauritanian smoking is very harsh. He hollows out the middle part of an animal bone, and uses that as a one smoke at a go with his tobacco stuffed in. I told him that smoking during this time of year when it’s so hot might be the cause of the coughing and discomfort he’s in. He says, “No, no, smoking is helping me. It’s not painful at all. It just sounds really bad.” How does that work? “You see 8 years ago, when I was living in Guinea-Bissau, the local school teacher hung himself from a tree when he found out his wife had been cheating on him. We went looking for him when he had been missing for awhile. A week later we found him there. His spirit entered my nose when I breathed in the rotting body and has been giving me trouble ever since. When his spirit is agitated, that’s when I have the most trouble.” Everyone believes what they want to believe.

So that’s all for now…
hope all is well wherever you are reading this =)
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6 Month Summary of Kankossa & Mauritania [Feb. 27th, 2007|09:18 am]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |tiredtired]
[music |Alabama]

Hey guys

The sandstorms are a blowing outside these days. I'm in Kiffa to help out with an environmental lesson and tree planting at the girls' mentoring center. This weekend is a big wedding between one of the volunteers and a Mauritanian. We're all excited to be a part of it. Thought you might be interested in reading this response I wrote to a professor at Cornell who has been following my blogs. I'll post it to my blog for now until i edit it. It was good for me to summarize my points I think.... but like I say at the end... I sure was tired when I wrote it =)


Hi Peter,

Hope the new semester is going well. I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner. Email access is always problematic. Most of the time I just get the chance to read it. Responding takes a lot more effort. =)

At this point, I think I have a much better understanding of my community for which I am grateful. Of course, I’m expecting there to be some more surprises. I would be interested in looking over the PowerPoint that you referred to from John Gaunt’s lecture. I looked through my files that I brought with me, but haven’t had any luck recovering that lecture in particular. I have been thinking about the farmer field school model. The difficulties that I perceive from my community are that many of them really aren’t interested in gardening/farming because it’s not traditionally a part of their culture, so the idea of investment or improving technical skills are not highly favored.

I have learned some more of the history of my site that is quite fascinating. There are three distinct ethnic groups in Kankossa, Halpulaars (also known as Fulaan), White Moors (also known as Bidani), and Haratins (Black Moors, former slaves of the White Moors who gained their freedom only as recent as 1980, though lingering indentured servitude and “hidden” slavery is thought to exist – I have not been able to confirm or deny this). There are also a handful of Mendinke (from Guinea-Bissau), Bombara (from Mali) and Soninke families (descedents of the Ghanian empire, traditionally found over 100km southwest of Kankossa – on maps, there is triangular region on the southern border of Mauritania, known as the Guidhimakha).

Most settlements in Mauritania are relatively new due to the traditional nomadic lifestyles. Towards the end of the French West African Colonization, the French government invested heavily in two primary agricultural centers for research and development in Mauritania. I believe Kankossa was one of the chosen sites because it is the furthest inland year round water source; a suitable microclimate with the lake/rainy season river system settled between two large sand dunes.

Prior to this time, my site was frequently used as a watering hole for pastoralists and their domesticated animals. There may have been some small-scale subsistence farming, but it was negligible by all accounts I have received from the longer standing local population. The French Research Center, known as “Le Fac,” provided a stable form of income for many people, which began the settlement of Kankossa. The older people of the community talk about clearing the land and the trees, chasing the predatory animals away to make their settlements. What I find interesting is that I only recently made the connection to the true age of the site upon further questioning of the residents. Although I had heard about the land clearing, I wrongly assumed there had been a settled population prior to “Le Fac” because of the year-round lake.

“Le Fac” closed around the time when Mauritania gained its independence in 1960. There are many structures still intact from this time, some abandoned, others transformed into homes and government buildings. The original functions are now unknown to me, aside from the fact it was a center for agricultural research. I am interested in looking up records from this period of time, but do not know where to begin searching for this information.

People complain to me that the French maliciously left behind a disaster by introducing a “bad” tree, Prosopis julifora, a common tree used in Agroforestry, popular for functioning in windbreaks, dune stabilization, nutritious animal fodder and coppicing ability for woodlots. The government issued a statement in the mid-1990s that reported this tree was responsible for lowering the water table and increasing problematic nematodes in the soil. These claims are unfounded in the scientific literature that I have searched. I believe the nematodes are caused by poor crop rotation (eggplants, tomatoes and peppers are the top three cultivated crops). The water table has dropped due to an increase in population, loss of trees and general global warming. While I admit the tree does tend to grow like an invasive weed, it is responsible for holding much of the soil in place. People are cutting this tree at alarming rates due to the general dislike of the tree.

In 1970 and 1983, there were two severe droughts across Mauritania, causing the loss of many livestock and nomadic livelihoods, so more people have settled since this time. In 1980 or 1981, the Italian government sponsored an extensive irrigation project in Kankossa that was supposedly very successful according to accounts I have heard from locals.

In 1989, a conflict between pastoralists and farmers along the Senegalese River Basin fueled by long standing ethnic tensions and disputes between the two governments (Senegal and Mauritania when borders were drawn post-colonization) resulted in massive evacuation and displacement of populations.

The Italians were evacuated during the 1989 conflict. Like the buildings from the “Le Fac” era that are now abandoned, the Italian project stands today a ghost of its former glory. The cisterns, a large motor pump, piping, and large bunds remain fully intact.

All acquired knowledge is derived from “Le Fac,” the Italian Irrigation Project, NGOs (primarily World Vision and FLM) and the United States Peace Corps. Peace Corps has been a presence in Kankossa for over 20 years to my knowledge with the exception of evacuations in 1989 and again at the outbreak of the Second War in Iraq (the agroforestry program has been in Mauritania since 1978, predated only by an education program started in 1967).

A large majority of the people that were trained prior to 1989 are no longer present in the area. Gardening and farming are limited by the fact that most people are only the first- or second-generation by trade. Most of the population in Mauritania, including Kankossa, relies on the income generated by young men working in larger cities or abroad and does not rely on subsistence farming or gardening. The smallest ethnic “non-native” groups are the most skilled in their trade and choose to segregate themselves.

As far as cooperatives go in Kankossa, this is another interesting story….

In the early 1990s, FLM donated materials in order to start a federation of women’s cooperatives center so that every cooperative within a 10-15km radius of Kankossa would have access to a facility for training purposes, workspace and sale of products. The finished center encompassed restrooms, a classroom, a boutique, a gardening area and a room for arts and crafts. Shortly after the creation of this center, FLM also donated a grinding mill for sorghum.

The mill ran well for the first month/six weeks. The women were happy. The machine was not properly maintained. The machine began to eat more money than it produced. This center is not conveniently located in the main market place. A peace corps volunteer at the time suggested to the women that they move the mill to the market where they would be more accessible to their clientele and also mechanics for maintenance and repair.

At this time, the president (who was part of a polygamous marriage) died in office. The second wife ordained herself president and went to the Hakim saying there is a renegade group of women working with the federation’s mill outside of the center. The women did not want a conflict and allowed the mill to be returned to the center.

Shortly after, the self-appointed president chose to bring the mill home for the fêtes of Ramaddan for personal and familial usage. The rest of the women were able to have the machine returned to the center. The local government wanted no further part in the ordeal and impounded the mill in one of the buildings and removed the women’s privileges to the center.

FLM was soon after kicked out of the region (not out of Mauritania) for accusations of proselytizing. Women in various areas decided they liked the central idea but wanted to work in smaller groups. It is unclear to me if World Vision approached the women, or the women sought out world vision, but the materials were donated to set up 4 more federations of women’s cooperatives. This was done at some time around the year 2000.

Since arriving on site, no one had mentioned any of this to me. I called a meeting in Nouakchott, the capital city over 500km away from my site, between my Peace Corps boss and my host sister who had asked me to help her with a project. I didn’t understand all the details of the project, so preferred to have my boss present to see if this was something I could potentially do as part of my job. She had an NGO that wanted to donate sewing machines to these federations of cooperatives. She knew of the political problems between the groups and approached me because as an outsider, I am apolitical and without bias, so that I can more easily facilitate the distribution of the machines for community use rather than to only one family. When I returned to site I asked directly about the history of the federation of women’s cooperatives. The center that sits a half kilometer from my house was closed the 5 months I was in Kankossa.

They re-opened the center while I was gone, which leads to the story I wrote on my blog with the women’s cooperative and the garden with no water.

The outside organizations have setup the cooperative system and trained people in techniques for income generation and improvement in health and nutrition. In most cases the people that I work with are not adequately trained in technical skills. The underlying tension and distrust between ethnic groups and within ethnic social hierarchies is why people are unable to work well within the cooperative system.

So…. What do I conclude from all of this information????

During my two year Peace Corps service, I do not want to be a part of any distribution of materials since I know that the population is not interested in fully investing themselves into agriculture. The scale that people garden is not large enough for income generation, rather strictly for household consumption and is not profitable (much in the same way that most home gardening in the United States is more expensive than purchasing fruits and vegetables in your local market).

People are not interested in working any harder than is necessary. It has taken me a lot of effort to convince people to invest in their gardens just at the level of purchasing seeds. Seeds cost ~ 50 ougiya < $0.20 for 2 tablespoons of seeds and will produce ~ 100 plants due to inefficient techniques – these are approximate numbers based on observation, but I’ve never made the exact calculation.

I am also not convinced of their desire to invest by lack of control over their animals. I believe in many cases across the Sahel most conflict arises between more distinct relationships of pastoralists and agriculturalists. People in Kankossa have goats, cows, donkeys, horses, chickens, and camels which all roam freely. These are the same people that want the fencing to keep the animals out of the gardens. I would best define the people of Kankossa as settled pastoralists.

After all of that… this is why I lean towards the farmer field schools idea in that I can teach those people, who are interested, to try to ask questions about the environment, to convey the important uses of trees (both native and non-native), and perhaps even attempt to helping gardening techniques. “Why?” is a question they are not trained to ask, in large part due to the style of education system in which children are expected to learn everything by repetition and memorization.

Any feedback you have to offer, or questions that might help me would be greatly appreciated. I’m not entirely 100% sure or set on anything at this point. I do feel that the ethnic differences are not something that will be fixed any time soon, especially in the year and half I have left in my service. =) Those are going to be the biggest obstacles for any large-scale community projects at this point. I am not entirely sure that even small scale self help groups would work just in my observation that people tend to only work within their own families.

I hope this account is somewhat accurate and concise and hopefully provides a better picture. I am open to any suggestions. Thank you for your time and patience in reading this. I know it’s a mouthful. As someone new to the field, I’m guessing this kind of scenario is common just in different places with different people, but I thought I’d tell you all I know. I apologize for any confusion. I wrote this on a sleepless night and edited it best I could. =)

Thanks again

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Kankossa 2007 =) [Jan. 31st, 2007|07:29 am]
[Current Location |Kiffa, Mauritania]
[mood |calmcalm]
[music |Stan Getz]

Since the New Year, life has changed a bit for me in Mauritania. I returned to site after a brief training session in a small village near the border crossing for Senegal at Rosso. My assigned counterpart for the Peace Corps, Mohammed Lamine, joined me for the gathering. We went through procedures for cooperative organization, fruit tree establishment, biomass carbon production, improved cook stoves, food preservation through drying and canning and establishing an action plan for the next three months. While the experience was good to see the potential for what is possible and for my counterpart to meet people from other parts of Mauritania, I felt rather discouraged. Mohammed Lamine was very excited about all the new ideas, but being the eternal realistic optimist I like to call myself, I saw holes of where these ideas would be applicable at my site, Kankossa. The ideas are possible, but at the time I just felt defeated before I could get started. My disposition was far from cheery at the end, part of which could have been due to traveling so much or being around such a large group of people.

As we left Nouakchott, I said my goodbyes to one of the married couples in my group, friends that I had made here. The wife has been ill for most of the last 7 months, so they can’t say they didn’t give it a good try. I can’t hold anything against them for leaving. Knowing I wouldn’t see them again at the next gathering was hard to face. So my spirits were pretty low…

I spent two weeks at site after Nouakchott when I got a spell of dizziness and felt that a trip to relax in Kiffa would help me out. In the last two weeks I’ve learned some more things about Kankossa that could very well be the cause of the spinning sensation that I feel.

I was frustrated before leaving site in December by the large number of single person/single family cooperatives. I had surrendered to the fact that there is a lot of land with many landholders, so really it makes sense from the social standpoint that everyone would prefer to farm their own lands. I can’t fault them, but really they aren’t farming – most is primarily large scale gardening. I’m pretty sure at the large scale garden level cooperatives aren’t really necessary unless a community decides to fence in all the gardens in one place to conserve resources (water source, fencing, protection from animals, divided labor tasks). I know that they are all part of the cooperative system in order to receive free handouts. Unfortunately I think there are probably one or two small “real” cooperatives in the midst of it all, but it’s hard to sort them out.

In my opinion, those people who are naturally gifted with a green thumb would do well to continue at the pace they are at or even considering up scaling if they are interested in more profits. Kankossa is lucky relative to the rest of Mauritania that land is plentiful and water is readily available year round (except in very serious drought years – according to one elderly gentleman, the lake has only dried out completely once in his lifetime). People take advantage of the system, so as an outsider it is hard to understand and makes choosing to work with people more complicated. Do you choose to work with only those who work hard and are good at it? Or do you help those who don’t do it very well (mostly due to lack of resources) to put them in a better position to compete? If you do that, you’re cutting those who work hard in half since they will no longer have earnings for their hard work. The insight to why gardening is good for the health, body and mind has been lost in the midst of it all.

Apparently in the past there was once a federation of cooperatives to coordinate the needs and activities for all of Kankossa and the villages in the surrounding 10-15km. A center with 5 buildings and a large plot of land for a community garden was established by FLM over 10 years ago but sounds like has been a disaster from the beginning due to internal politics and poor foundations. My host mother, Aiseta, recounted one story in particular. FLM gave them a millet-grinding machine, which was poorly maintained and relocated to the market for better accessibility. The president passed away, the second wife of her husband (polygamous marriage), ordained herself president and went to the local government to cause a stir. The final outcome was the police locked up all the buildings. Various groups broke off and found new donors for centers directly in their villages. There is one on my side of the lake, which I heard about when I was first posted at my site, but had long forgotten about since it’s been closed this whole time.

A few individuals in the community told me the history and I was able to confirm everything through a shared journal kept by former Peace Corps Volunteers of Kankossa. I’m not sure what course of action to take. If enough time has elapsed maybe people will be willing to consider trying again. Should a once failed project get a second look? The resources are there, so starting anew just seems silly. I think it had a lot of potential but has dirtied the opportunity for any further community led projects.

Since I left the women held a meeting to discuss my role in the community. They decided to begin working together again, since before the break I was having difficulty in keeping up with trying to visit everyone. They decided to start a garden at my host family’s home since it is close to the river and she has enough land to spare. The fence was put up the next day. At the same time, the president left for Dakar because she received a phone call saying her daughter was extremely sick. The women didn’t come to the garden to get started by the time I returned a week later. I met some of them in the road after I learned about all of this.

This is how conversations go:
Women: Peace be to you
Me-And also with you
Women and me interchangeably (rapid fire & all at once – 2 minutes) How is your morning? how is the peace? how is your health? how is your family? how was your trip? How are you with the cold? How is your garden? How is your daughter? How is your husband?
Responses: Fine. Not bad, thanks be to God. Only Peace, thank God.
Women: So what did you bring us? Do you have a gift for me? Do you have the fencing, seeds, tools, money, donkey cart that we asked for?
Me- I didn’t bring anything for anyone. I treat everyone fairly and equally, which means I can bring gifts for everyone or no one. Since I am not a patron (person who has a lot of money), I do not have enough money to buy gifts for everyone. I did pick up some seashells at the beach to make necklaces to give to the children if you are interested.
Women: What did your boss say? What can you bring us?
Me – I went to a training workshop that discussed the role of cooperatives in the community – for people to work together to increase everyone’s wealth while working together. I have been told there is no funding as there was in the past for projects. There is a chance I will be able to do one project for money. As I said I will not bring things for only one person or one family, so it will have to be a project that is for the community.
Women: We want to do a garden together as a cooperative of women, but there is no land for such a project.
Me- I saw the fencing at my house that is intended for you to work on. Why haven’t you begun? Were you waiting for me?
Women: No the day after the meeting, Haika (the president) left for Dakar.
Me- During the meeting you decided to put up a fence for a garden at my house, correct? There is no reason for you to wait for Haika to return.
Women: When are you coming to visit our gardens?
Me- Right now I have to find my boss, Hussein, the agriculture inspector. But if you all want to work together I can plan a day to spend with everyone at the new garden. Does Wednesday work (thinking – 2 days warning, they will talk with the others before then)?
Women: Okay – Wednesday. Peace to you.
Me- Wednesday, Peace to you.

When Wednesday comes, no one shows except one woman. She says, “Come see my garden and then I will take you to the place the women are.” “Why don’t they meet us here at the garden?” I ask. “There is a new garden near the women’s center. They put up the fence and a tent yesterday,” she replies. “Okay,” I say with brows furrowed in confusion. So after a brief visit to her garden, where she shows me that the carrots and cabbage are growing, we go see the place they put up the fence. This site is further from the river, but close to the middle of Kankossa II. Most of Kankossa II’s activity is centralized around the market just as you exit from the boat landing – the women’s center is a 15 minute walk from there. “So what do you think?” they ask me. “Well the fence needs some work. Where is your water source?” I reply, after a quick observation. “We were going to rent water from the water faucet at the house over there (about 50m away from the garden), but now they want to charge us more so we don’t want to do that anymore. We’re not ready to work today. When are you free again?”

So we agree to meet again on Saturday and I will bring the tools Peace Corps provided me. Fast forward to Saturday. Every woman that comes asks me to dig her plot for her. I repeat over and over again, saying it is a cooperative garden, everyone should be willing to help one another out, but I must be fair and do the same for every individual. I cannot dig 30 plots for their gardens. “We are old and can barely walk,” they say… “so you have to do our gardens.” “I am sorry,” I say, “You will have to find someone else within the cooperative. I am not a member of the cooperative. If you want to observe me working in the garden I will dig a plot for myself.” They say sure, take as much space as you want. While I dig my plot – without water (the sand is dried out and hard like a rock), they outline their spaces. Some work, others stand or sit around. They talk about how rude I am, only doing work for myself, how I think I’m better than them. In my mind I say over and over again… you are in the peace corps… promoting peace… reacting would not be good. I am unsure if they know I understand them or they think the mind game will guilt me into helping them. Regardless, it really just makes me angry. It’s a good thing I’m swinging a pick to break ground to release the frustration I feel. When my plot is done, I join the session of tea in progress under the shade of a tree on the edge of the garden. I sit there quietly trying to listen to the conversation. They speak very fast so any opportunity I get to listen to improve my comprehension is good.

One turns to me, “Do you speak and write French? Will you write something for me?” I say, “There are people here who speak and write French better than me. It would be better if you ask them. Again, I have been asked this by many people, so what I do for one I must do for everyone. I cannot do 30 cooperative write-ups in French for you to receive materials from World Vision. To me, everyone works hard and in the same manner, so the write-ups would all be the same.”
“Can your director bring us a well or pay for the water to come to the garden?”
“Any project involving money will take at least 6 months and a lot of planning. I cannot write for money before this gardening season is over.”
“Can you go to World Vision for us and ask them?”
“No. You know where the office is. You can go for yourselves as a cooperative.”
“Well, if you can’t do that, will you go to the Hakim (kind of like a governor for the departmental capital – which is what Kankossa is…) for us?”
“I cannot go to the Hakim for you.”
“Will you go with us?”
“Why do you want me to go to the Hakim’s office with you? Because I am a white person, and that will help you? I do not speak Hassaniya well. I am not a member of the cooperative. By Peace Corps rules, I am supposed to stay away from politics. I can go to him for a project of my own, but cannot go to his office representing you. You must represent yourselves.”
So… at the end of the day people don’t understand why I am here. I don’t fully understand my position here either. I see myself as an extension agent in order to provide technical assistance, which no one has really asked for at this point. Everyone just wants me to bring things for them – either directly or indirectly.

My first objective when I returned to site was to track down my local boss (the Agriculture Inspector). On my first visit some of the kids in the neighborhood said, “He doesn’t work there anymore.” Now I was only gone for a month at most, but I suppose anything is possible. There was no one around to ask so I decided to give him a call – no phone reception – so return the next day. One of the veterinarians happened to be there this time. He explained to me in French that the new government has divided the office from agriculture and environment into two separate offices.

My boss, Hussein, was presently at his home awaiting his relocation to his new office. The new agriculture inspector had yet to arrive. After three more attempts I was able to finally track him down (took two weeks in all) at his house. He directed all of my inquiries to the new inspector’s office. I’m not sure exactly what his new position requires of him. I asked about a community tree-planting project. Without trying to help with the logistics for planning, he simply said, “Not possible. The goats will eat them and no one will water.” I’m guessing if there is any potential he should be able to help, especially since he so proudly took ownership of a project that involved sand dune stabilization on the dune behind the city side of Kankossa. As a side note I asked him about the size of the dune changing over the years. He stated that since his sand dune project the dune has been reduced in size. I didn’t ask, but I wonder where did all the sand go? How efficient were your stabilizing efforts if the dune that once stood 70m is now half the size? Potentially he was exaggerating. Your guess is as good as mine – either into the village below or continues to move south towards Mali. I suppose that it would make sense that initially the stabilization would take awhile to hold the soil in place.

The day I tracked down the agriculture inspector was more exciting. Anytime I can accomplish 3 or more tasks in a day to be more efficient makes me extremely happy. My mission: (1) find a technical advisor my Peace Corps boss recommended I track down (2) meet the agriculture inspector (3) buy 50kg of rice, my rent equivalent, and get it across the river for my family. I got all three done in an interesting sequence of events, but still it happened. The new agriculture inspector seems like a good man. We plan to tour the countryside to visit the villages together.

Since yesterday there have been some exciting events that have transpired that give a glimpse into daily life in Mauritania. I travel to Kiffa for rest from site and taking care of basic needs… one of those needs includes banking.

My recent trip to Kiffa has been another adventure to say the least. I took time off site in order to recover from a dizzy spell I've been having. The temperatures have jumped passed 100 degrees now, so the relatively short winter period of cold nights is pretty much over (unless it's just an odd heat wave, since generally the hot season doesn't come until March).

The banking system has decided to change to internet access to link up with the other branches. Now considering that my own internet access is pretty bad, imagine going to the bank and having to wait for your information to rely on a dial up connection. Yesterday when I hit the bank (had no option as my pocket money had dwindled), the crowd was amazing. It took me 30 minutes to realize that the line was turning the account slip into the guard on duty. There was a group of about 25 men pushing up against the counter and another 20 women sitting around the small foyer. It really was interesting as far as social commentary goes. I was surprised for how much fighting the Mauritanians seem to enjoy most people were in check. At one point a man ran in off the street and the whole crowd jumped back in fear (I think he was just one of the crazy folk left roaming the streets). He left as quickly as he came and all returned to normal. I got an up close view at the clothing. The women's melafas are beautiful tie-dye designs generally, but the men's boubou's are also quite intricate with stitching patterns and designs in all different shades of blue. We like to say that Mauritanians enjoy wearing large sheets, since that's what it feels like to us when we put them on... the melafa is a colorful burka - 6m of fabric - with convenient knot at the end for keeping spare change and a boubou is a large sheet with holes for arms, head and lower body with a fancy pocket in the front for tucking valuable things like cell phones and money. Three and a half hours later I left after making my single transaction. Never before have I appreciated the convenience of having an ATM card - think about it next time...

After that I wandered around the market in the 100+ degrees to pick out veggies for my round of cooking dinner at the house. (I wear a sweatshirt now at 80 degrees, so it's hard to say exactly how hot it was). Right now is the most exciting time in the market since arriving in Mauritania, I must admit. There is so much color since all the fruits and veggies are in season. I actually have a variety of carrots and tomatoes to choose from! There is lettuce, cucumbers, squash, eggplants, and bell peppers.... Before I didn't even realize how slim the pickings were until this season arrived. There are so many smells and colors. The flies proliferate (they especially like the fish), buzz in your ears, tickle your skin, and dive-bomb into your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I had fun dropping in and spreading my spending to as many vendors camped out as I could. Last night we reaped the benefits of a fresh salad and eggplant parmesean.

Today I plan to return to site. Yesterday I walked into the delegation for the Ministry of Rural Development. I was surprised to find a new face behind the desk. He introduced me to a woman who works with extension agents in my region, the Assaba. I told him I would return with my job description and my quarterly report. So today, I dropped that off and set out to track down the new Ministry of the Environment. I was told it was near the governor’s office. I wasn’t sure where that was, so I walked to the police and then to City Hall to ask. They directed me across town to a place near the hospital. “Look for the armed guards behind the large mosque and you’ll be at the place,” they said. In the end I found the office no problem. It was a long trek through a lot of sand and trash, since those are the two things that Kiffa seem to have no end of.

En route, I was witness to a fire that broke out in a private home. Every one in the vicinity came running. There are no firemen here. The only city with firemen is Nouakchott, the capital. The people were unfortunate in that they didn’t have a faucet at their house, so there was no water to put out the fire except from barrels of water collected at the lake. I was amazed at the number of people who started helping out in the fire brigade. I thought I might be able to help, but didn’t want to cause more problems in an already alarming situation, so I left as quietly as I could since they had plenty of hands to help.

I soon found the office. The director was out of course. I left my papers with the guard there. A third man was there and asked me questions about the Peace Corps. Before I could answer him, the guard rattled off my job description for me. I was amazed. It was the clearest definition of my job that has ever come from a total stranger. He explained that I’m not here to bring anything but help with ideas and provide labor when I can. His explanation was much better than what I’ve written here. He says that he lived in Kankossa for 8 years in a house shared with Peace Corps Volunteers. In the short time that I sat with them, I felt a small boost of confidence that maybe I really can find something that will be of use to my community.

Currently I’m thinking about starting environmental education/technical training classes for adults. I would also like to try that community wide tree project, even if no one waters them and the goats eat them all… I think it’s worth a try. I think about the heat and the wind blowing the sand across Kankossa and think trees can do nothing but help. =)

The fire at the house was still smoldering when I left my meeting. As I walked past the roof had disappeared, probably caved in, my guess. The mud walls were still standing. I could hear the wails of women and children. I felt pretty helpless in any way that I could do anything.

As a side note, we are becoming more Mauritanian every day. Since one of the volunteers ipod's has died we invested in a local music source (radio with cassette player). There is a nice pile of tapes from former volunteers collected in Kiffa (the most recent is Jewel's first album - when did that come out? 1991? 1992?) The current favorite loved by all is Andrea Bocelli... I'm sure you would know it if you heard it. You would recognize it from some late night infomercial about classical romantic music with a couple sharing a bottle of wine snuggled by a fire to be sure.

Back to site! Love to you all =) XOXOX
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