Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Secret...This Aint No Vacation

Okay, I admit it, I have something that I really need to get off my chest.
Alright, here it goes: I'm going to be taking a little trip.
Fine it's more than just a trip, I'll be changing lifestyles.
No longer will I taste the chill of the icy Wisconsin air, it' time to sweat.
It's time to get my hands dirty, you know, experience life on the ground, the way I like it.

I've done enough theoretical rambling in the past, now I need to see first hand how the world really works. That is why I'm embarking on a mental and physical excursion known by many as the Peace Corps.

I depart in just about one week for a country called The Gambia, located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa. The Gambia is a small thin strip of land (as far as countries go) that penetrates into mainland West Africa. Running the length of the country is a river of the same name. It's safe to say that when you're within the borders of The Gambia you're never too far from the river, and thus life.

There are a number of ethnic groups living in The Gambia, the largest of which are the Mandinka, Wolof and Fula tribes each with their own distinctive tongue. Though the colonial language is English (in a region surrounded by French speaking countries), most people - especially those living in rural areas - primarily speak the tribal languages, which vary depending on the district. I wont know which language I'll learn until I get there.

The Gambia is generally a stable country of nearly 1.7 million people. Most are united by their faith in Islam, which accounts for roughly 90% of the population. I've heard of very little animosity between Muslims and the other faiths, which includes Christianity and indigenous beliefs. Word on the street is that it's pretty common to be woken up by the daily call to prayer and I've been advised to bring ear plugs. Personally, in the past I've found calls to prayer quite melodic and far from irritating, but it may have something to do with the proximity I am from the mosque. We'll see.

For my position I have been assigned the role of health and community development volunteer. First, I will undergo ten weeks of intensive language, cross-cultural and skills training, then I will settle down at a permanent site for the following two years. Once I become adequately integrated into my new community I will assess the health needs of the surrounding area. I may partner with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) or assume the project of a previous volunteer. This often entails educating community members about hygiene, sanitation, nutrition the prevention of maladies like HIV/AIDS and malaria. I hope to employ teaching techniques that are familiar to me as well as other methods that are more traditional to the region like the use of folk drama. I could also end up working in a health clinic, organizing information technology (IT) trainings for youth or promoting strategies for local entrepreneurial success and income generation. My tasks may include any combination of those activities and others I've probably neglected to mention.

What it comes down to is that I will have to wait and see what the situation is when I get there. I don't pretend to know it all already and I can only hope that the facts and figures I've provided above are somewhere close to accurate. This will be a stimulating yet chaotic experience for me, but I believe I'll abide.

My eyes will be wide open.

(I will follow this post by addressing a few questions I've been confronted with since applying to serve a Peace Corps volunteer over a year ago. If you have any questions that you would like me to answer please comment on this post or send an email to

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Goodbye to the Golden Garifuna

On January 19th, 2008 renowned Belizean musician Andy Palacio suddenly passed away at the age of 47. Andy Palacio, who was certainly on the rise in the international music scene when he died, proudly represented the African-descended Garifuna communities that are found predominantly in Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Born in a small fishing village called Barranco in Belize that until recently was only accessible by boat, Andy Palacio rose from his humble roots to become one of the most recognized musicians in all of Latin America. Beyond his extraordinary singing and songwriting, Andy dedicated his life to promoting the rich cultural traditions of the his people, the Garifuna. An all around well respected man, he was appointed to the position of Belizean Cultural Ambassador in 2004.

Andy's most recent CD "Watina", which he recorded with a group of his peers known as the Garifuna Collective, was very warmly received and is a powerful testament to the enduring vibrancy of the Garifuna culture in Latin America. In 2007 Andy was honored with the prestigious Womex Award for his cultural and musical contributions to world music. In his acceptance speech he spoke proudly of his heritage saying,

"I accept this award on behalf of my fellow artists from all over the world with the hope that it will serve to reinforce those sentiments that fuel cultures of resistance and pride in one’s own.

The true heroes behind my music are really those first Garifuna fighters who, in the 18th Century, on the island of Yurumei (St. Vincent) stood up against slavery, colonization and cultural domination, choosing to keep their identity and remain the Garifuna Nation. Many, including Paramount Chief Joseph Chattoyer, paid the ultimate price.

Then came those who survived that genocide and were forcibly relocated to the Caribbean coast of Central America. This award honours those mothers and fathers who have passed on this legacy (including our language, music, dance, folklore and spirituality) to their children, that we today may add to the richness and diversity that makes our world a better place for all."

It is truly an inspirational speech.

In 2007 Andy was designated an "Artist for Peace" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This past November he traveled back to his home village of Barranco to present his award and was paraded through town by a giant crowd of drummers and dancers. Following his death this month it was announced that Andy was awarded the BBC Radio 3 Award for Best Music of the Year from the Americas. This was a an unprecedented announcement because although a jury picks the winners in late December, the awards are not usually presented until mid April. The early award recognition was very honorable.

Andy Palacio was definitely on my radar when he passed away this week. I have really been impressed with the rich musical compositions on the album Watina and I'm sure I would have purchased it eventually regardless of his death. Unfortunately I missed out on seeing him and the Collective live this past summer in Chicago because Seun Kuti was playing the same night in Madison. Because I live in Madison I went to see Seun, but it seems I made the wrong choice. I will remain a fan and hopefully I can find solace in his earlier material.

Andy had accomplished much in his 47 years, but his potential to continue producing incredible music was truly great. Let's hope future generations of Garifunas can carry on his musical and cultural legacy.

Take a listen of Andy Palacio's music on his Myspace page and enjoy the following short film about Andy and Garifuna music.

Andy Palacio 1960-2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Innovate or Die"...then what?

Sometimes I feel like we're all doomed and sometimes I uncover evidence to refute that sentiment.

The Innovate or Die contest sponsored by Specialized Bikes and Google challenged avid cyclists to come up with new ways to use bikes that would benefit the world. In total there were a whopping 102 teams that submitted their "pedal powered inventions" for critique. Entries were scrutinized on their creativity, environmental impact and design. In the end, only one creation was crowned the grand prize winner, but everyone truly comes out on top when the purpose of the event is to fashion designs that are environmentally friendly.

I now submit for your approval the grand prize winner of the Innovate or Die Contest: The Aquaduct.

(The videos of other finalists can be seen on the Innovate or Die contest websiet as well.)

The genius of this contraption is the ability to filter water while riding and, by switching a level, water can be filtered with the bike in a stationary position as well. Using firewood and other fuels to purify water, as is commonly done in much of the developing world, leads to serious patterns of environmental degradation. When trees are used as fuel then the nearby soil is more prone to erosion and soil quality is lowered, decreasing the agricultural yields that make up a significant portion of the livelihoods of people in those places. By lowering the demand for fuel to purify water, efforts to sustains existing forests will be more successful and pure water can be used for cooking and consumption much quicker and easier.

Ideas like this are fun and interesting, but rarely are they produced on a large scale that would actually have some impact. The goal of the contest should not be to see what kinds of designs we can come up with, but to see how much those designs can accomplish in real world settings. Then we'd really be cruising.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

So Fresh and So Cool

Sometimes, an invention comes around that is so simple I can't believe nobody thought of it earlier. Sometimes that invention is also quite valuable. The most recent example of human ingenuity to blow me away is the pot-in-pot cooling system also known as the "desert fridge." The "desert fridge" is an innovation conceived of by a Nigerian man named Mohammed Bah Abba to keep agricultural produce and other items cool, thereby increasing the length of their freshness and shelf life.

The genius of the invention is its simple design that can be easily constructed with materials found pretty much everywhere in the world. In regions like Africa and elsewhere in the world that do not have reliable electricity, preserving crops for later consumption or sale is fairly difficult and spoilage is not uncommon. The pot-in-pot system developed by Abba in the late 1990's effectively prevents rapid spoilage.

As it's name suggests, the pot-in-pot cooling system consists of a large ceramic pot within which another pot of slightly smaller size is placed. Between the two pots is a layer of sand that is kept wet with the periodic addition of water. The pots are then covered with a wet cloth. As the water evaporates throughout the day it cools the pots and any produce items inside are kept fresh as a result, a miracle in climates that are notoriously hot and dry. It has been reported that eggplants stay fresh for roughly 27 days, instead of the typical three, African spinach is good for 12 days as opposed to just one and tomatoes and peppers last for around 21 days. Truly a remarkable system.

What makes the "Desert Fridge" especially effective is that not only does it create an income for people who produce the pots essential to its construction, its inventer Mohammed Bah Abba tours regions in Nigeria and elsewhere educating people about how and why to use his creation. The manner in which he goes about his teachings is quite impressive as well. Knowing that rural agricultural populations often lack the opportunity to acquire quality educations for various reasons, Abba demonstrates the power of the fridge with communication tools everyone can understand, namely through a theater production he authored or by showing a videotaped presentation of the production with a portable generator-powered projector.

For his inspirational efforts, Mohammed Bah Abba received the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2000 and the Shell Award for Sustainable Development in 2001 in addition to other international praise. Let this be a lesson to those who view Africa and Africans as a land and people incapable of progress and ingenuity. Also let this demonstrate to everyone the power of simply designing with what we have around us.

Monday, January 14, 2008

For the Record - We're Watching

Many of us have heard about or seen the chaos that has unfolded following the elections in Kenya on December 27th, 2007. Media outlets that rarely cover African affairs have shined their lights on the East African state as it has been experiencing ethnic turmoil in the wake of the hotly contested and reportedly, highly flawed presidential elections between incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and opposition candidate Raila Odinga. Though Raila Odinga was the frontrunner in the polls leading up to the election and took an early lead in the ballot counts, Kenya's electoral commission pronounced that Kibaki had won a second term in office, a decision that sparked violent riots and protests across the country, among other atrocities. The dust has mostly settled at this point and communities are beginning to rebuild, but nearly 600 people died in all the commotion and an acceptable agreement between Kibaki and the opposition has not been reached. While the Kibaki administration attempts to claim its legitimacy to the international community, the Kenyan people struggle to recover from the violence that tore through their cities, towns and villages.

To let the people know that they are not being ignored a website called was created for Kenyans to record on a map (courtesy of Google Maps) what kinds of events have occurred in their communities. Incidents of rioting, death, property loss, looting, rape, and peace efforts can be recorded and viewed on the map with information detailing the date, time and a description of the event. In addition, some of the best coverage of the hullabaloo in Kenya did not come from international news networks like CNN, it came from Global Voices Online, a collection of blogs from around the world that showcases the different perspectives of those that are actually experiencing the events on the ground. You can find Global Voices' extensive election coverage here along with a video clip:

While the Kenyan election has not been an example of an effective democratic process, Kenya, under Mwai Kibaki can come together with Raila Odinga's opposition group to find a path to an effective reconciliation and allow peace to be associated with Kenya once again. Though nobody enjoys seeing violent riots like those that occurred recently in Kenya, they did prove that the citizen advocacy movement (ie. blogging, texting, youtube) is there to give a voice to the voiceless and make sure that nothing and nobody is swept through the cracks.

Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/NYT

Thursday, January 3, 2008

We've all been browsing the internet, checking out whatever kinky websites we enjoy and suddenly happened upon a beautiful image. This scenario happens all the time for me, whether I'm reading an article about the current riots in Kenya in the World section of the New York Times or viewing photographs that have been uploaded to photo-community websites like JPG magazine or flickr. In the past we have had to make mental notes of the visual stimulations that have proved to be so extraordinary or we've bookmarked the website hoping that the image would still be there the next time. Having a keen eye for photography I am constantly pursing images on the internet that blow me away, though there has never been a satisfying way to catalogue them.

For those fans of sites like, which allows people to bookmark and organize websites so that they can access them any time on any computer, a new site has popped up on the radar that does the same for online images and photographs alike. The new phenom is called and it lets you save photos from other websites online in a single place. They can be easily organized with "tags" that describe their content and you can travel to the site of their origin with the click of a button. No more lists of endless bookmarks to be saved on our individual computers. We've all been saved, it's all online.

Come visit me, my name is nyani.
Photos by La Caitlin, Frank Elias and Hailey A (each is a favorite of mine on