August 03, 2003
Long weekend in Grand Popo, watching the waves flop onto the beach while catching up on our record-keeping.
Alas, the undertow here is too rough for swimming, and it's been suprisingly cold (ie 78-80 degrees) and windy since we arrived. Still, after three weeks in dry and dusty Mali, we're quite happy to spend a few days shivering on the sea shore. The obligatory holiday snap:
Nightlife here consists of watching the bats swoop around the pillars of the veranda at the Auberge. As we seem to have gotten the room without cable TV, internet access or a free minibar, we're forced to entertain ourselves with board games.
Inspired by Dave Irvine-Halliday and his colleagues at Light Up the World, we bought LED headlamps before leaving the US. They've come in handy when recording field notes at night. (We're saving the batteries on the LUTW lamps Dave sent with us for our village and NGO demos).
Collector of Treasures
Bessie Head's A Collector of Treasures is a rare and wonderful book, a masterpiece of humanism. Although this collection of short stories is set in rural Botswana, the author paints a picture that rings equally true for life in West Africa.
And so the woman Dikeledi began phase three of a life that had always been ashen in its loneliness and unhappiness. And yet she had always found gold amidst the ash, deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others. She smiled tenderly at Kebonye because she knew already that she had found another such love. She was the collector of such treasures. [Bessie Head, A Collector of Treasures]
August 04, 2003
On the Road in West Africa
Taking to the paved roads between cities, the few private cars you'll see are carrying either big-business types, government muckety-mucks or foreign NGO personnel. The average person--that is, the minority group who actually leaves the village--travels around by the various forms of public transportation.
These include, in descending order of ticket cost: the bus (like our beloved Somatra line), the gbaka or sotrama (a 22-person minivan with either vinyl seats or after-market wooden benches)
the bashé (a Peugeot minitruck with a partially-covered back and wooden or metal benches),
the sept-place (a Peugeot station wagon fitted with extra seats in the trunk, that carries between seven and ten),
the taxi-brousse (a Peugeot sedan that seats five and up), the zemidjan (a motorcycle or moped taxi that carries as many as three passengers)
and various forms of wagons and carts (horse, donkey, and oxcarts are all common means of transportation between market towns in rural Mali).
Renewable Energy in Mali
Ibrahim Togola and Tom Burrell from the Mali Folkecenter gave us some useful statistics on energy use in Mali, and the hurdles facing renewable energy projects. For a country whose arable land is seriously threatened by desertification, it was amazing to discover that wood and charcoal sales in Mali represent an annual business of approximately 10 billion CFA (US$14 million).
Although some of the wood and charcoal is imported from neighboring Senegal, Guineau and Côte d'Ivoire, the vast majority is produced locally. On the road south to Bougouni, we passed at least a dozen Peugeot minitrucks groaning under loads of firewood stacked nearly twenty feet high. Even as we headed north to Mopti, deep in the Sahel where trees and even bushes are scarce, most villages we passed through would have at least few cords of wood stacked for sale near the community speed-bump.
In the various quartiers (neighborhoods) of Bamako, it was easy to find wood and charcoal for sale, usually stored in big heaps along side roads.
Out in the villages, we'd see women returning for foraging expeditions with enormous tree-limbs balanced on their heads. In Dogon country, Siby and other rural regions, we were struck by how tidy the orchards and stands of trees seemed to be. No stumps sticking up, no dead branches poking out of tree trunks or laying on the ground. Everything was collected for firewood.
This use of wood has serious consequences for renewable energy projects. First, firewood (or "foraged biomass", to use a more technical term) is considered to be a free resource--you don't have to pay anything to go out and chop it down or otherwise collect it and haul it back to town. Accordingly, people selling firewood in the villages will accept almost any price for the excess wood they sell by the roadside.
Cheap firewood makes competition difficult for renewable sources like solar energy, wind and biofuels like jatropha oil and biomethane. The problem is that firewood prices don't account for externalities, ie those consequences of consuming nonrenewables that don't immediately appear in the bottom line. In this case, externalities include problems like deforestation, soil erosion and desertification.
Mali, of course, isn't alone in failing to include externalities in the total cost of their nonrenewable energy sources. Renewables like solar and wind power have only recently started to make economic sense (in terms of dollars per kilowatt-hour) in markets like the United States.
It's also important to point out that, for reasons of economic constraints, West Africa as a whole is far ahead of many industrialized markets in terms of other renewable indicators. For example, from the air at night almost all of the lights of Bamako have an unexpected blue tint. These are, in fact, thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs--and they stand out because there are so few sodium streetlamps. So far on this trip, we've yet to see a single incandescent bulb. Tube fluorescents are the most common, and 8, 13 and 18 watts are the most common sizes. Although the output spectrum isn't quite the same, an 18-watt fluorescent bulb is roughly the equivalent of a 100-watt incandescent bulb.
August 05, 2003
Take the A Train
As we were feeling a bit carried away with the romance of rail travel (and as we missed the very cushy-looking Africalines bus this morning), we decided to take the train from Cotonou to Parakou. The first class tickets were cheap, about US$12 each. We soon learned that the train is best for those interested in studying the countryside in minute detail. The train made frequent stops in all manner of villages, and never seemed to get above 35 MPH. The roughly 300 mile trip took twelve hours.
One of the most noticable differences between Benin and Mali is the available forms of public transportation. There were at least five major bus lines operating between Bamako and Mopti, and several others serving different routes. The Bittar Trans gare in Mopti offered at least three busses a day to Bamako.
Here in Benin, we've only been able to find the one major bus line serving the main road between Cotonou and Parakou--and they offer one bus a day, at 7 AM sharp. Apparently this bus typically sells out well in advance of departure, and unlike the Price is Right rollcall of passengers on Malian busses, the system for getting onto the bus in Benin looked more like a rugby scrum, grannies and little kids and young men all hurling themselves at the door as soon as it opened.
Such frantic bus loadings may be a coastal West African thing, as it was at bus stations in Cote d'Ivoire that I first failed to develop the necessary social calluses that enables one to elbow a pregnant mother in the ribs in order to beat her in the door. I was forever missing busses in Soubré because of this handicap.
Although the train took forever, it did offer a unique view of the countryside.
At every village we passed, kids would come running down narrow paths between the mud-brick, thatch-roofed houses to wave and shout at the train.
At the rural train stations, porters would yank open the rusty door of the single baggage car and load and unload all manner of things. We saw, among other things, bicycles, bushels of cotton, bags of charcoal and cords of wood all being vigorously tossed back and forth.
August 06, 2003
After a twelve-hour train ride through the verdant hills of central Benin, we've reached Parakou. Although little remains of the dense forest that used to blanket West Africa, it's still seems mighty green here--especially after three weeks in Mali. Plants are shooting out of every crack in the ground. Along sections of the track, the train battered it's way through tall grass and overhanging tree branches, bits of plant flying in the through the open windows.
We leave for Kemon this morning; to spend at least three days visiting the village and projects run there by Gabriel Agbede and his colleagues at MVV.
A quick apology to everyone who's sent email over the last week. The internet connection here in Parakou sets a new standard for glacial connection speeds. Worse, although I can edit the website, my MIT webmail account is inaccessible. I'll hopefully be able to catch up my correspondence this weekend; when we're back from Kemon and have the time to find a better connection.
Morning at the Auberge
Spent the morning on the porch of the Auberge, waiting to connect with Gabriel in Kemon. Communications here are tricky. As Gabriel told the 2002 DtM class at MIT, Kemon has one telephone--a solar-powered radio-linked pay phone installed by the government a couple years ago, just before the last national election. The phone promptly expired about two months after the votes were cast, and no one's been out to fix it since. Fortunately, Elizabeth Eckel, a Peace Corps volunteer working on environmental education in Kemon, arrived in Parakou to collect us just after noon. The slow morning at the Auberge gave us a chance to catch up on documentation, for example cataloging our collection of DV video cassettes.
It was also an opportunity to organize the photo archive on the laptop.
We've gotten a lot of mileage out of our mountain of electronic gadgets. Once we get back to Cambridge, We'll post some of the fantastic video and audio files from the trip.
Multifunctional Platform in Benin
The UNDP has for some time been running a multifunctional platform project in Mali. This platform is built around a simple diesel engine that is connected by belts to various tools, such as a cereal mill, seed press and battery charger. Unfortunately, many of the platforms we saw in Mali were out of order and had the appearance of being neglected for some time. Here in Benin, we've found locally-made, motor-driven mills chugging away in just about every village. Kemon alone had at least four such mills. I found this large mill at the small marche in Parakou.
In this case, the mill was being used to grind dried corn into flour. This machine took about fifteen minute, and four passes, to completely grind a large bowl of corn.
According to the mill owner, the diesel motor was over 30 years old, and had been in constant operation.
Similar to the UNDP MFP installation, the motor was cooled using a pair of water tanks.
It was hard to get good pictures of the mill, due to the sudden appearance of a mob of extremely excited little kids who all wanted their picture taken. Digital cameras like the one I brought, with a little LCD display on the back, were a big hit with kids and often caused these kinds of mob scenes.
Mieux Vivre aux Village
Mieux Vivre au Village (MVV, translates as Better Living in the Village) works to improve the standard of living for rural communities in Benin. Gabriel Agbede, one of the officers of MVV, has put his technical veterinary and agricultural knowledge to good use to create, organize, and secure loans for animal husbandry cooperatives. Since 2000, MVV has launched honey production, women’s gardening, pig husbandry, and fishing projects. MVV also works with AIDS education, children's nutrition and exploring microbusiness opportunities like sunflower seed cultivation and processing.
The founders of MVV work closely with an elected local board of officers. The local officers receive business trainings and capacity-strengthening workshops and support. Gabriel and the rest of MVV’s founders spend much of their time lobbying, negotiating with government ministries, and searching for grants on behalf of their community.
Here's a picture of the MVV directors and friends, taking a break on the flanks of Ota, the huge hill overlooking Kemon. From left to right, that's Gabriel Agbede, an unidentified little girl, Arcadius Oyeniran Chabi, Peace Corps volunteer Elizabeth Eckel, Salomon Chabi, Elizabeth Bruce and Michel Ognin.
I met Gabriel Agbede through the Bridgebuilders Workshop at Harvard in February. I talked him into speaking at the first meeting of the Spring 2003 DtM course at the MIT Media Lab, and end-of-semester student feedback was that his heartfelt summary of Kemon's community needs was the best seminar of the course.
Meeting MVV was an opportunity for us to learn about the needs of a small, local NGO, and explore opportunities for a working relationship. For example, Gabriel has been working on sunflower cultivation, and he needs help building an oil press for the seeds. There is a precedent for this kind of technology (at ApproTEC and other places); figuring out how to adapt it to conditions in Benin will be an excellent DtM design challenge.
Lighting in Kemon
Kemon, like many rural villages in West Africa, is not connected to the electric grid. Night-time lighting is mostly provided by various classes of kerosene lamps, although about 50% of the population can afford to use battery-powered flashlights for getting around town after dark. One of our goals for the visit with MVV was to introduce them to Light Up the World's solid-state LED lamps. Here (from left to right), we have an electrician from a larger, nearby village, our friend Gabriel Agbede, and MVV's technical expert Salomon Chabi getting a first-hand look at the LUTW lamps.
The LUTW lamps were a big hit. We left two units in the village for testing by the community, and Salomon has one unit at his office in Cotonou for additional testing.
In terms of community lighting, kerosene lanterns are the most common source of night-time illumination. There are a few different categories of kerosene-burning lamps.
- "Lampion" (simple, locally-made wickless kerosene lamp with open, sooty flame) - 100-200 CFA (US$0.20-0.40)
- Wick lantern with glass mantle (everything from inexpensive Chinese brand to pricey French brands) - 6,000-20,000 CFA (US$12-40)
Although fuel prices fluctuate significantly depending on the political situation in neighboring Nigeria, kerosene in Benin currently costs around 300 CFA/liter ($us0.60). In the village, fuel is rarely bought in liter quantities. Families will instead buy small quantities of kerosene in soda bottles for 50-100 CFA. 50 CFA ($US0.10) is enough kerosene for roughly two night's illumination in a lampion or slightly longer in a lantern.
It is also possible to find mantle lanterns that burn camping gas. The camping gas cannisters cost about 700 CFA ($US1.40) in the village, and last about three hours.
Below, Arcadius Chabi from MVV demonstrates a camping gas lantern (L) and a Chinese-made kerosene wick lantern (R).
As Dave Irvine-Halliday at LUTW has pointed out, both open-flame kerosene lamps and wick lamps with glass mantles represent a fire hazard. Thousands of children in Benin are burned every year in lantern accidents.
August 07, 2003
Battery Charger for Village Flashlights
In Kemon, like many rural communities in developing countries, is not connected to the national power grid. Batteries represent the only source of electricity for most community members. People use disposable AA and C batteries to power their flashlights and radios. Compared to prices in the States, batteries are dirt cheap: 100 CFA (roughly US$0.20) for a AA battery, and 150 CFA (US$0.30) for a C battery. The quality isn't great. Two C batteries in a flashlight will last about two weeks, but this is partly a function of how amazingly dark it gets at night in the village. People can still make use of a pretty dim flashlight.
There are about 2,000 flashlights in operation in Kemon alone. As a result, battery disposal is a major environmental problem. This concrete-lined disposal pit, a project initiated by PCV Elizabeth Eckel and MVV, currently holds 8,000 discarded batteries collected by local schoolkids over one year. The pit has room for another 8,000--or another year's worth of discarded batteries.
Some batteries are taken apart for recycling--the contents used to make paint for school chalkboards. The rest follow the village garbage to one of the designated village dumps.
Even with the dump, you can still find little collections of garbage pretty much everywhere around the village--and these collections often include batteries. Battery chemicals leach into the soil and the ground water. Worse, little kids will pick up discarded batteries to play with, putting them in their mouths or pulling them apart to see what's inside.
MVV has asked DtM to investigate methods for charging rechargable AA and C batteries that work without any connection to the grid. The resulting device can be powered by human effort, solar energy, whatever. Regardless of how it works, it has to be robust and/or cheap. For comparison, in Kemon an imported Chinese flashlight made out of stamped tin with a low-wattage incandescent bulb costs about a dollar. Use that price to scale against commercially available battery chargers in the US.
The directors of MVV organized a Guelede mask dance for our second night in Kemon. Ordinarily, this dance starts around midnight and can last until dawn, with everyone in the audience getting up to join the dance. At the beginning of the dance, the masks are called out of their palm-frond house by the dancers. Here is the petite mask, who comes out first.
The masks, each in their turn, sang to the community about the past and about current issues, both alone and as accompanied by the singers and tam-tam drummers. This is the grand mask, who came out second.
Both masks wore heavy iron bangles around their ankles, which made a tremendous clanking sound with every stamp of their feet. Both masks approached the crowd to bestow their blessings on various people with their fly-whisks. The directors of MVV, Elizabeth Eckel from the Peace Corps, and their guests from Design that Matters were all well-blessed by the masks.
The singers also had songs related to the community that they would call out when the masks retired to their palm frond house, and as they danced they would gracefully sweep their fans and horsehair fly-whisks just above the ground.
The mask dance was a big deal in the village. Dozens of people crammed their way into the compound of MVV director Enoch Fondohou's house.
August 08, 2003
Kinkajou in Kemon
This afternoon we had our tenth field test of the Kinkajou projector--this time with a village literacy class organized by the Evangelical Church. This class, held regularly throughout the year through two groups in the village, is open to all ages. The classes take place in the late afternoon, between the time when adults get back from the fields and before sunset. They concentrate on basic literacy, but also cover introductory math skills.
The exercises we saw involved the instructor, Paul Boni, writing a phrase on the blackboard for the more advanced students to read.
The teacher then asked students to come up to the board to underline different letters.
He then had them all practice writing a specific letter of the alphabet.
This particular class was held inside what used to be a grain store room. The other class, which takes place on the other side of town, takes place either outside or in a nearby elememtary school classroom.
After the teacher ran through the regular classroom exercises, we set up the Kinkajou projector for them to try out. It was around 5 PM when we started with the Kinkajou--even though we closed the sliding door of the grainery and covered the crack with the classroom chalkboard, there was still a lot of light coming into the room from the wall vents near the roof.
In terms of lighting, these were the worst conditions of any Kinkajou test. The cassette was also in Bambara, rather than the local Nagot language. Suprisingly, even from a distance of thirty feet, class members of all ages were still able to read all of the text and they claimed to have no trouble making out the images. From my own vantage point about 15 feet from the wall, I could also read the text, but the images were too faint and the lines to wide to really make out.
The words on the cassette didn't have any meaning for the students, but they were still able to sound them out. The only hitch with the cassette was that the letter 'c' doesn't exist in the Nagot alphabet.
As at the APAF girl's literacy class in Bamako, the students seemed to enjoy the novelty of the Kinkajou, and the feeling of being in a movie theater. The teacher picked up right away on the function of the Kinkajou, and appreciated not having to bend over to write and erase things from the blackboard.
In terms of utility, the results of the test were less clear. This being a basic literacy class, the students spent less time reading aloud than they did copying letters onto the class blackboard and onto their own smaller blackboards.
For reading exercises, the teacher made up short, simple sentences on the spot for the students to read from the class blackboard. It may be the case that at a later point in the curriculum the students spend more time reading aloud, in a fashion similar to the APAF and World Ed courses. MVV will help us to find out more about how Kinkajou might work in the village.
One last note about the literacy class. Those completing the curriculum received a certificate and ID card signed by the teacher and the local program director, stating that they have learned how to read the local language. For most students, this is the only diploma they'll ever receive.
Danse des Chasseurs
For our last night in the village, MVV organized a "Dance des Chasseurs", or hunter's dance. This involved fantastic music and singing, lots of dancing, and some amazing magic tricks and feats of strength.
In addition to carrying the fire on top of their heads, the chasseurs demonstrated their strength by having millet pounded in a mortar balanced on their stomach.
The made writing magically appear on a blank piece of paper, and pulled a string right through the middle of a little kid's hand without him suffering any ill effects. They also carried water in a cup full of holes (without any leaking out). Later in the evening, people in the crowd joined in the dancing and singing. The musicians kept up a ferocious rhythm for hours.
August 09, 2003
Back in Parakou
Spent a fantastic few days in Kémon, getting community feedback on the Kinkajou and the Light Up the World LED lamps, visiting projects organized by the local NGO Mieux Vivre aux Village, and getting an introduction to village life.
So we're back in the world's slowest internet café, waiting for email to load. Meanwhile, Liz and the café staff are watching some direct-to-African-DVD movie about a snake invasion in California featuring Harry Hamlin. More news when we get back to civilization.