July 27, 2003
Mali seems to be a living juxtaposition. I have travelled throughout the world, but have never visited a place where such kind people could live in such a beautiuful natural setting but in such a disturbing world.
Since I have been here, I have met a man who built a hangglider from scrap materials and actually flew it; have been offered tea by complete strangers; and have made ‘friends’ with Malians just by sitting on the bus or watching a soccer game on the street. On the way to the internet cafe I saw two parties in the street with live music and dancing. In Dogon country I witnessed one of the most spectacular natural vistas I have ever seen.
However, all this exists in a land where most people die before 50; malaria and other diseases seem to be more of a way of life than an epidemic; and homelessness is a fact, not a problem. The sewers in the city are meant to be covered by cement blocks, but many sewers are still left open on the sides of the streets. There are no trash cans (as we know it), so people just litter wherever. The markets are an array of nauseating odors, from rotting fish to animal defecations.
I doubt there is any city in the United States which has such a poor infrastructure and is so polluted than Bamako. But, amidst such poverty, you learn to appreciate any little luxury. Here, a first class hotel is one that has a toilet and a shower. A 'smooth' highway is one that is paved. A nice taxi is one that only stalls once or twice on the ride and where all the door handles work.
One thing which I sort of disliked in my more recent travels is that you can always find someone who speaks English and you can always find food and lodging that is just like home--in otherwords, it's possible (and likely) to travel thousands of miles from the US to experience something which is not really unique. This trip has satisfied my thirst for the extreme travel experience. And, athough I have been able to fall back on pizza a few times, most of the trip has been so completely unique, that, for one of the first times, I really am beginning to miss all the luxuries which I have become accustomed to back home.
More than anything else, it is the people that make Mali not only a bearable place, but a country which I am proud to have been to. Earlier, I mentioned how much of Mali looks like the slums in Brazil, and,if I were to have come here alone, I probably would have imagined most of the people to be violent crooks (in Brazil people never go the slums) and would have stayed in the toursist hotels, never eaten in any of the shacks--and never experienced the people, who really make Mali great. (ironially, it was our only real tourist adventure--the one to Dogon country, where they actually have tourist camps built for the Americans and French--where we got sick). Were it not for the extreme generosity of people here then not only would this trip have been unproductive but also probably unbearable. Unfortunately, most of my interactions have been secondhand (with Tim as a translator) and i really wish I spoke French or Bambara (besides 'hello', 'how are you', and 'get lost').
This trip has been an eye opener into the developing world and I now have much more respect for how many people in the world live. It's hard to imagine how life is here from the documentaries and infomercials to donate money who live off a dollar a day, but once you're here you not only realize just how hard their lives are, but also just how hard it is to improve themselves in such a poor and isolated environment. Honestly, I can't wait to get back home to TV, air-conditioning, and fly-free food; but at the same time, I can't wait to use my new-found knowledge and experiences to help make the Kinkajou and other related endeavors successful.
Human Use of the Kinkajou Prototype
After the Field Test in Mali there are several aspects of the Kinkajou product design that I would like to change for manufacturing, some of which I recommended in my thesis but couldn't afford to implement in the prototype, and others that I was lucky enough to discover on this amazing visit to Mali. The first apparent change to the prototype is to make the spools more easily accessible from the top of the housing. This is something that I specifically noted in my thesis as necessary in the actual product, but in the production of the prototype a snap release or swivel lock was something that was too expensive and time consuming given our very tight production time. Our experience in Mali has only reconfirmed the need for a quick release type fastener, as many of the teachers noted that they woud like to change the cassettes more often than the Kinkajou team had speculated.
A second change to the prototype would be a change in the focusing ring and advancing dial to more closely match what was specified for in my thesis. I think color scheme in the 3d model was more visually appealing and appeared more cohesive than the maroon with black, which was used because it was more readily available in our lab. This is further justified by the fact that in photos of the Kinkajou the dials and focusing are harder to see because they are black and would be easier to distinguish to the user if they were lighter than the rest of the housing. After observing the user, most people sort of had to squint to distinguish the maroon from the back in dim lighting as I had expected they might.
One user need that I did not forsee was that the focusing ring would need a stop to keep the lens coming completely off. It seems silly now, but until it happened once i didnt really think it would be so hard to screw back on. Because of such small threads on the projection lens this would actually be really good idea to make sure the lens doesnt fall out and get scratched or broken.
Finally, I think the finger hole for the fast andvancement of the microfilm could be smoothed out, to something closer to the original design which called for an inverted dome rather that a through hole where the user puts their finger. Both the test users and the engineers tended to take a pencil and put it in the hole instead of using their finger. So possibly an even better solution would be a small protruded handle that could fold down when not in use.
Overall I was very pleased with the performace of the Kinkajou prototype in terms of people's reactions. When we asked "do you think it is hard to use or confusing" the response was usually like "of course not" or "theres nothing to it" because there were so few features that the teacher had to worry about. To take a product to a rural village in Africa, where any technology is a luxury, and have a teacher say the equivalent of "piece of cake" about using the Kinkajou was truly exciting to hear.
The Things I Never Knew
"I'm going to Mali to work on a thesis project."
"No Mali. Its a country in Africa."
I think that is how my explanation of this trip should start because I am pretty sure that is how all my conversations went before arriving in Africa for the first time. Honestly, I didn't know anything about Mali myself before the Kinkajou project. After being here for three weeks I think there are many things about Mali that I couldn't have imagined without experiencing them for myself. I knew that I would be sleeping under a mosquito net. But only after being too tired to set one up last night did I get bitten 15 times on the unlucky leg that stuck from between my matress and my bedsheet. I could get malaria like most Africans eventually do. But I am lucky enough to be on medication to prevent the disease.
I knew I could get a little sick, like most travellers do. My stomach has been troubled, to say the least, for three or four days. But I didnt know that the water that people drink out of is a cloudy greyish brown, comes from the same water that animals use, and it is served in a plastic bag. We brought chlorine and water purifiers and bought bottled water and still got sick.
I knew that people went to the bathroom in a outhouse with a hole in the ground before I came to Mali. But when I went to Dogon country and had to use one of those bathrooms in the middle of the night during a rainstorm I was reminded of the childhood panick of going alone to the bathroom. Instead of just a walk down the hall, I was wading through puddles that I hoped were only water.
Toilet paper and antibacterial soap are priceless, and knowing that other people dont have then makes it easy for me to see why it is condisered rude to use your "dirty hand".
I knew that the architecture would be like nothing I had ever seen. But when passing a Tuareg tent that bordered sand dunes of the Sahara I cant say I was truly in awe of how people can survive anywhere. And it is funny to discover that people in Mali just dont see why right angles in houses are all that necessary. The door scrapes the ground a little and the windows are propped open with a stick, but the rain will wash much of the mud huts away so they will have to do it again next year. Rebuilding the ancient mosque after the rainy season every year is like a village party where everyone comes to help and to celebrate. Instead of being sad at its loss they are glad it is reborn. I didnt know that the people in Mali, thought by many westerners to be "muslims and therefore potential terrorists," could be so welcoming and generous.
I knew that people in Mali were poor, but the fact that i can spend more money on dinner at cheap restaurant is more than some people make in a month is something I was never forced to think about until I was trading CFA in a village. The fifty cents I was bargaining for was so much more to them than it was to me.
I knew that people worked during the day and went to school at night and that it cost a lot of their time to learn to read. I didnt know that to go to school could mean having to farm less (meaning eat less) every day, or that you cant save for tomorrow what you dont even have today. I knew they read by candlelight but it never really hit me that doing so meant sacrificing their eyesight. I knew that the Kinkajou was a really fun experiment for a MIT student to build but I couldnt imagine that this project could help so many people.
I knew that our team would do well in Africa, but I didnt know that Kateri (and her mom) packing extra cough drops could make me feel so much better. Tim's jokes made my stomach hurt from laughing (pestomaker), which took my mind off of the actual stomach pains. Liz was there to cheer us on, and share in our excitement of strange looks, broken down taxis, and bus stations. Beto would do whatever was best for the team (including sleeping on the floor...sorry). Martin was my best friend and I am glad someone made sure I drank enough gatorade and kept the creepy crawlies out of our hut .
I knew our trip would be fun... but this was incredible.
Charge Controller for Kinkajou
Photovoltaic (solar) cells and human-power generation represent two possible means of recharging batteries in off-grid rural communities. What we need a simple, low-cost robust circuit for connecting both DC appliances like the Kinkajou microfilm projector and their batteries to various power sources.
What we're looking for is a circuit for the Kinkajou that we can connect to something like a pedal generator or solar panel and:
- run the Kinkajou directly from the renewable power source
- run the Kinkajou while charging the batteries with the extra juice
- charge the batteries directly while Kinkajou LED is switched off
The charge controller has to be smart enough not to overcharge the batteries, and it can't overdrain the batteries when the generator is off. In addition to the Kinkajou projector, such a circtuit could be applied to any battery-operated device intended for rural communities, like a radio or Light Up the World's solid-state home lighting systems.
July 28, 2003
This afternoon, we took a tour of the electronics industry in Bamako, looking for components and technicians. This is part of our general search to determine the feasibility of manufacturing devices like the Kinkajou locally. With Mustafa's help, and a reference from Ibrahim Togoloa at the Mali Folkecenter, we hit the jackpot. The electronics market near Dabanani in the Grand Marche had everything we could ever want in terms of components. If they didn't have the original part, given an example they could scavenge pretty much any part we would need from the handy piles of junk circuit boards and other discarded components.
This shop in particular was very well organized, with tiny labelled drawers of components stacked up to the ceiling.
We only had time for a brief survey of local electronics talent. These gentlemen fixed TVs, VCRs and other consumer electronics--parts that if broken in the States would more than likely be thrown away.
According to Ibrahim at the MFC, Malian technicians are incredibly resourcesful when it comes to resurrecting broken components. He's also confident that if we could provide the assembly drawings, we wouldn't have trouble finding people who could put them together locally.
APAF Muso Danbe
Earlier this evening, we participated in THE meeting we've been looking for. APAF Muso Danbe is a Malian NGO that runs night-time courses for young women in Bamako. The nine-month program ordinarily runs from October through June and is intended for girls who haven't had any previous schooling. The first-year curriculum, conducted entirely in Bambara, covers literacy and numeracy, maternal and infant health. and domestic skills like cooking and clothesmaking. Madame Dembele, the energetic and charismatic director of APAF, organized a special class session for our benefit, which brought four instructors and almost seventy young women (plus twenty of their babies) to the Mairie of Quartier Mali for an evening literacy course. It was exciting to finally get to see a real literacy course in action, and we received mountains of useful feedback on the Kinakjou design.
The teachers jumped right into using the Kinkajou. They said that the projector design worked well with the reading exercises they give to girls who have completed the basic literacy module of the curriculum. Adama Traore, an instructor at APAF, and his colleagues used the World Education reading curriculum to lead an hour-long reading session with the students.
After the class, we held a question and answer session with the students. They enjoyed the novel presentation of their course material, and at least one student said it was like going to the movies. Once the students left, we held a review session with the teachers and Madame Dembele.
The classroom was orderly and everyone--including the twenty babies--seemed happy to be there. We are very grateful to the indomitable Madame Dembele for organizing this fantastic event! We would also like to thank her colleagues and their students for being so generous with their time, patience and interest.
Notes from APAF review
BACKGROUND: Follow-up meeting with Madam Dembele nee Jacqueline Goita and her students. There are approximately 800 women in the program in 6 classes between the ages of 15-22. They do offer exceptions to women older than 22. These are women who have not received traditional education before. The night time class (1.5 hrs long, weekly??) teaches women how to read and write, IEC (Informacion ecoute communication), cooking, clothesmaking, trade, health and maternal issues, as well as social behavior. Orientations are held during the day and the actual class is held at night. Currently all teaching is conducted in Bambara, but they are looking to expand the program, which runs from October - June to a second level which would include lessons in French. Current classroom tools include books and the chalkboard. Some classes in Bamako are lit, but those in the villages are not. After completion of the program evaluations are presented and gifts are given to the best students. The worst students are given T-shirts to encourage them to try harder. If there are students who fail the course, they may take it again. The program is funded by NGOs so that the students pay nothing. They don't always have enough books for the students to read.
LOCATION: Mairie de Quartier, Mali
TIME: 8:30 PM, Jul 28
ATTENDANCE: 67 Women Students (20 Infants), 3 Teachers, and the Kinkajou Team
- Maria Goita, Director of the ONG Apperie a la promotion des aides menogeres, (Bambara) l'honneur de la femme
- Madam Dembele neé Jacqueline Goita
- Adama Traore, Animateur ONG APAF Muso Danbe
- Guidioama Home, Secretaire/Director
- Doh née Roreian Goita
- If it is too dark in the room the teacher cannot see the students in the back of the room and does not call on them
- Pictures are too small and faint, line weight is too thin
- What if it breaks? How will they fix it?
- Overall, they liked it
- For learning how to read and interpret images it works well
- Very grateful that we tested the device with them first
- Currently they do not have enough books for the class
- Able to give all students same reading material concurrently
- Most useful for students who already know how to read and are learning something new from the material on the cassette. May be most useful in all classes once the students know how to read.
- The letters show up great ("c'est tres bien")
- Economical (saves energy from using lights which costs approximately 75k-100k per class per month, cost of books)
- Made for night use
- Fun for students - like a movie theater that creates something different from their daily lives
- They think the students were more interactive than usual - asked more questions, were attentive, answered questions and volunteered to read aloud
- Very easy to use, even getting started
- They think it will make the students feel better learning with new technology instead of old torn up books
- Everyone can follow along at the same point in the readings and teacher can point out text for entire class
- Depending on a machine
- Maintenance - suggested that each country has a team that is trained to fix and maintain the device, otherwise it is garbage
- How long will it last?
- Where will they get batteries? What is the cost?
- How can they make their own cassette? Especially important for villages
- Students can't write at the same time because it is too dark and writing is taught by mimicking the teacher
- The students noticed a few typo errors in the WE program (p. 44, p. 48)
- The light began to diminish after 20 minutes of running it. This is because we had not substituted in a set of fresh batteries before the class (they were the same batteries we had been using for the entire trip)
- New batteries produced a bright image
- Slight flickering in the image
- Need to determine optimal picture height and angle of projection
- Words were bright enough and bold enough for everyone to read
- Images were too small, fine lined, and detailed to be legible
- Page numbers need to be larger
- Blank pages confused the teacher, indicated end of tape
- From an outsider's perspective it looks like Mdm Dembelenee holds a dominating presence. She is a woman of her word. The group of over 60 women came together in a community and support network. It looks like a great program. They have chants and clap to break the ice. They encourage each other with applause after a woman answers a question correctly. Women are welcome to bring their babies to class and many of them do. In attendance there were 67 women and 22 babies. The meeting was very exciting. It was like watching our dream come true. 6 months ago I would have only imagined being able to show the Kinkajou to a classroom full of students and we had over 60 women being taught by a teacher with the Kinkajou. - Kateri
- The Kinkajou seemed to mesh seamlessly with their class. The teachers and students immediately understood how to use the device. The teachers were able to teach with it quite easily, and the students seemed eager to learn from the Kinkajou. The biggest problem with the device is that the projection is too low-it should be raised by at least 2-3 feet; the problem with using a book or box to raise the projector is that it obstructs the view, angling the Kinkajou produces a distorted image. After this first real Kinkajou test, I am excited about the prospect of its viability, but first we must: drive down the cost, determine an ideal manner of producing content, raise the projected image and determine some means of local maintenance. -Beto
- The problems experienced having the image projected so everyone could see are the same ones experienced with slide and LCD projectors even in modern classrooms. This is the reason why most projectors are hung from the ceiling.
July 29, 2003
Footprints in My Memory
The most memorable moment I have embedded in my head is when we came out of Dogon Country. Watching the sunrise over the cliffs was a breath taking experience but witnessing the poverty and the reality that the people lived through was like throwing cold water on me in my sleep. Our guide had hired some teenagers to carry our bags for us. At first we saw it as a way for them to get out of their daily chores and earn some extra money but I began to observe more closely the feet of the girl who was carrying my bag.
Her heels hung out behind her beat up flip-flop sandals. Bright red blood glistened in the sun from a few cuts on her feet. I just felt horrible as I followed behind her in my $70 hiking boots with nothing on my back. Tim tried to take the bag and carry it for her but she just ran ahead and refused to be called weak by her peers. She was strong enough to do it. I watched as she flirted with one of the other teenage boys who carried another bag and I admit that her mind was not on her painful feet, but I couldn't get over it. When we reached the car I had already decided that I was going to give her my generic Teva sandals. She needed them much more than I did.
When I gave them to her she didn't know what to do with them or how to put them on. So I unstrapped them and helped her to ease her painfully blistered feet into them. She didn't ask for my shoes or for help from any of us, but the guilt weighed so heavily in my mind that it was the only reasonable and Christian thing to do. The girl thanked me several times and wore a big smile as she showed off her new shoes to her friends. After I got up I had to walk away to keep from crying in front of everyone.
The events of that day keep coming back to me sometimes haunting me in my sleep. Did I do the right thing? Will she think now that each time she carries a heavy bag for a white person that she will be given a nice "castaway" item from the Western world? Will she learn to take care of herself or will she let the boys she flirts with hurt her? There are many grim realities here in Mali and in other parts of the world, including the US. What I have learned towards the end of this trip is that even if I go around giving up all my belongings, though it is the Christian thing to do, I will only end up naked after helping a small number of people. I will teach people to depend on handouts and the kindness of strangers rather than depending on themselves.
I think Design that Matters is trying to make the greatest impact for the most people, not by giving away free computers that they cannot maintain themselves, but by providing them with valuable tools to help them help themselves for a better future. This trip has also helped four students from the US to learn valuable lessons that cannot be taught in 4 years, even at MIT.
And They're Off
Kateri, Martin, Stacy and Beto--the Kinkajou team here in Mali--left for Paris on an Air France flight from the Bamako Airport late this evening. It's been a busy three weeks, and together we've learned a lot about the Kinkajou project and about development in general. Alas, I was so busy saying goodbye that I forgot to take any pictures. All I've got is this shot from our second-to-last team dinner. What better setting for our last big meal in Mali than, well, Appaloosa, a bizarre Tex-Mex restaurant in downtown Bamako.
As for our actual goodbye, all I've got is this photo from Liz's camera, of the Mande Hotel on the banks of the Niger River where we had an impromptu dinner with Perri Sutton from JSI.
In addition to being a former Mali Peace Corps volunteer, a superlative ice-breaker and an all-around fantastic person, Perri works with Barb Garner at World Ed. It was the perfect book-end to the student experience, reconnecting with the organization that put us on the road to Mali in the first place. Thank you again to Barb Garner for helping us to get started, and thank you to Perri for such a memorable evening!
July 30, 2003
Welcome to Abidjan
This--the tarmac outside Abidjan's Felix Houphouet-Boigney International Airport--is the closest we'll get to a nostalgia tour of Cote d'Ivoire for the time being.
And the stewardess says, "Welcome to Abidjan."
A lot has changed in the seven years since I was a Peace Corps volunteer building latrines at elementary schools.
No news from Soubré in ages. I can't imagine what life has been like the last couple years for Lambert, the mason I worked with, and my colleagues at the Public Works department.
Cotonou, By The Sea
Now it's Benin, the capital city Cotonou. What a difference a day makes! We've gone from the the heat and dust in Bamako to what at first appeared to be a mostly deserted city in Florida.
Instead of killing ourselves with a five-day, 1500-mile overland journey through Burkina Faso and northern Benin in the rainy season, Liz convinced me that it made infinitely more sense to fly here directly. We were able to find one-way tickets on STA Trans Africa Airlines for under $300 each--double what I'd planned to spend on bus fares but the difference was still less than a single day of hiring a car and driver in Bamako. Plus, flying was it's own adventure as we debated the contents of the the cellophane-wrapped in-flight meal served between Abidjan and Lome.
Another bonus was the chance to see Bamako, Abidjan, Lome and Cotonou from the air. This is Cotonou.
The airport really was deserted when we arrived. We walked straight through the passport check, and then waited in baggage claim with about four other passengers. It was sort of comical to watch them crank open the roll-up security door and rev up the baggage moving machine for a grand total of five suitcases, which included the Kinkajou Pelican case, my duffle bag and Liz's backpack (which we'd had coccooned in plastic at the Bamako airport).
The only hustler we encountered was a pleasant young woman in a white blouse and blue jeans with an airport ID, who offered to set us up with a taxi to our hotel. Sure, 4,000 CFA was a ripoff for a ten-minute ride, but it was a relief not to have to deal with the usual crowd of pushy maniacs.
Other observations. The taxi driver was adamant about refusing a tattered 1,000 CFA bill, hanging around the hotel lobby and complaining for about fifteen minutes until I relented and traded him for a newer bill. After three weeks of handling all manner of mangled currency in Mali, I'd forgotten how picky people can be about money here on the coast.
The air here is much cleaner, the strong sea breeze apparently pushing all of the smog and dust inland. The broad-leafed trees of the Sahel have been replaced by coconut trees and other palms. The hotel, solidly in the mid-range of Cotonou logements, is already nicer than anything we were able to find in Bamako. The bright blue pool in the central courtyard was frothing with screaming little kids all afternoon.
Taxis here are ridiculously expensive, largely because they're so outnumbered by the more popular alternative: the moped taxi. Piloted by yellow-shirted young daredevils, these mopeds swarm the streets of Cotonou like schools of fish. Stepping onto the curb at a street corner is sufficient invitation to attract a buzzing crowd of them, all politely jostling and revving their engines in clouds of blue smoke in order to get as close to you as possible.
Liz and I hopped onto the backs of matching mopeds for our 250 CFA trip downtown to dinner. Watching other passengers bounce along the sandy streets around us, we figured that they all chose to hunch passively on the back with their hands in their laps (a) so as not to distract the driver by clutching them in a panic and (b) so as to have both hands entirely free to protect their heads and other valuables in case of a wipeout.
We've got just over two weeks left to go in this field study. We'll spend the next couple days out at Grand Popo, compiling our the notes, photos and video we've collected to date. After that, we'll head up to Parakou in central Benin to meet Gabriel Agbede from MVV in Kemon. Gabriel has put together a fantastic, three-day itinerary for our trip to his village. We'll get to visit a number of MVV-lead community development projects, and we'll have to opportunity to experience different facets of village life. After Kemon, we'll head back to the coast to Porto Novo, to visit Fr. Godfrey Nzamujo and his colleagues at the Centre Songhai.
July 31, 2003
In Benin, at a very advanced internet cafe in the Cotonou Post Office. So advanced, in fact, that I can't connect my USB card reader thanks to the security and session timing software they've installed. No photos or long entries until we find an alternate cafe.
The students are all safely back in Europe or the US, we've made it to Benin, the weather is lovely on the coast and we have lots to do!
August 01, 2003
Today is Benin's Independence Day, marked last night by a mobylette tearing around Grand Popo's one paved road dragging a tin pot, and this morning by a full-blown, flag-waving zemidjan rally which ended in a confusion of mopeds crashing through the bushes at the war martyr's monument across from our Auberge. The green-shirted zemidjan drivers smartened up when the troops arrived with the town mayor, to lay a wreath at the monument and hoist the national flag.
August 02, 2003
This afternoon's adventure was a day trip to Ouidah, a former Portuguese slave port and now the capital of Voudun (voodoo) in Benin, where among other cultural landmarks we visited the Python Temple. In baby pictures, Liz wore a surpisingly similar expression when holding her little brother Dave for the first time.
Of course, it being the Python Temple, we both had to try wearing the pythons.
We hiked all the way out to the Sacred Forest, an important Voudun site, but it was closed for the day as the gardener was (apparently) occupied in chopping down all of the (presumably sacred) trees. The walk did give us the opportunity to tour the charming suburbs of Ouidah, and some of city's old colonial buildings.
After visiting the Ouidah Museum, set in a Portuguese fort from the 1600's, we set off via zemidjan down the sandy, four-kilometer Slave Road to the sea, which was lined with large, green statues of various divinities from the Voudun pantheon. At the shore, UNESCO and the government of Benin have built an immense arch marking the Point of No Return.
You could get a great view of the bas-relief columns of unlucky slaves chained together by their necks from one of the bars or gift shops crowding the site. There was a luxury hotel just down the road, next to what looked like a new condo development. As at Elmina in Ghana, I found the mix of history and the banal to be confusing and depressing.