Sunday, September 27, 2009

Death and Grasses

The day I cleared my farm -sweeping grass and sticks into piles which I then set ablaze- became the day I never wanted to see. It doesn't matter where I was when I heard the wailing, it doesn't matter where any of us were, we all came running. As I ran across fields of freshly plowed earth I hoped it was a house fire, a case of damage goods, an opportunity to quell an inferno with the community, then join hands together to rebuild. A fire wouldn't be so bad I thought, please let it be I fire, but I feared worse, I was running towards a well. Soon, I, and everyone, arrived chests heaving at the perilous well. There was no fire to be seen and those already on the scene were peering down the abysmal cement-lined cavern, some of them frantically trying to prepare a pulley. Someone has fallen.

Before long, the whole village materialized, women at a distance wailing and men surrounding the well, watching helplessly. The average heartbeat of the village must have been the highest in the world. An intrepid young man offered to descend to retrieve the one who had fallen. I wanted to believe someone could survive the drop, could salvage some kind of life, yet from below we heard nothing. The young man finally went down with an improvised rope harness, his mission to secure another rope to the incomprehensible form at the bottom.. A team of men slowly lowered him in to the depths of the well. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be inside, the overwhelming heat and the obscured reflection of the clear blue sky on the water below. Before long his voice echoed information skyward and the team was pulling him up. He placed his feet on solid ground and hastily stripped off the ropes. He sighed deeply and walked away from the well, having seen enough.

Our optimism was diminished now, little doubt lingered about the fate of the fallen one. The ropes were pulled once more and the fallen one began to rise. It was then that I realized I didn't know who fell, whether man, woman, or child. I hoped it wasn't someone from my host family of someone I knew well. I hoped it wasn't a person at all, but a beast instead, for there was nobody I could think of whose passing wouldn't bring suffering. The pulling of the rope, the shrill screech of the pulley seemed to go on for far too long, a testament to the depth of our water table. When the fallen one was too emerge however, we collectively felt it, and instinctively began to move towards the well. A donkey cart was secured as transport and a cloth was provided as cover.

Here we go, I thought.

The sun shone hot and bright on the illuminated body as the rope was removed and the cloth quickly draped over its face. Through the crowd I took a glance at what we all simultaneously wanted and did not want to see. A small crumpled frame, tattered jeans, a little boy. There was relief in seeing, our imaginations could now rest and we could begin to fully accept the outcome. The masses of people began to walk slowly down the road to the boy's compound, everyone looking forward and towards the ground. It wasn't far to the compound and we all entered solemnly. ***(See the note at the bottom.) Every sitting place was taken and those of us behind were forced to stand. In the compound the wailing of the women refused to abate. The arrival of the boy's body ignited a whole new round of emotional cries. The cries swirled through the air like the rapid winds of a cyclone. A few women collapsed on the ground and were taken inside.

Leaning against a compound wall I glanced from face to face. People seemed unabashed in expressing their sadness, even a few men had the distinct trail of tears shining over their dark skin. Every time I met the eyes of someone crying I too came close to tears. They never came, though sweat dripped down my forehead past my eyes and I imagined the droplets as tears. I kept my composure breathing through clenched teeth and with rumbling tremors in my stomach. Respected men went into the room where the boy was taken, I presume to inspect the body. I was glad I hadn't gotten a better look at the boy when they raised him from the well, a fall like that must be pretty brutal.

I then noticed a chicken with its throat cut lying lifeless in the middle of the compound. I pondered its significance and I wondered why nobody else seemed to be paying any attention. When the group of men charged with inspecting appeared again, it seemed like the right time to depart. I ambled home, all the while finding it difficult to summon my voice, even for greeting. As I walked, I thought of my farm and how most of the grass raked and burned was dry and old, yet some of it was green and fresh. In the end though, it all came to ash and was returned to the soil.

*** Author's note - At this point I was called as the only skilled photographer in the village with a camera to take pictures of the body for the police. I reluctantly agreed and walked back to the boy's compound. I found the police officer at the compound entrance and suggested that he borrow my camera to get the needed shots. He replied simply, "You're the professional." Inside the compound many people had remained and were praying together. I kept a straight face as I walked past them, camera hanging off my shoulder, pausing to remove my shoes as I crossed over a prayer mat. I could tell all eyes were on me. I summoned all my poise, took the required shots and left. One from the front. One from the back. One from the side. I was curious and a little nervous to see him. Though I'd finally heard the boy's name by now, I hadn't recognized him upon the photographic unveiling. He had a gash, long and deep, across his swollen face. His unfamiliar features made it easier to take his pictures without flashbacks of his life running though my head. I'm sure however, I'll eventually figure out where I know him and then he can do his running.

Quotes to consider.

I recently finished reading an enlightening book about a young woman living in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo during the 1960's and 1970's called Hustling is Not Stealing. The book is a near direct transcription of stories told by the girl to an American sociologist. The American, John Chernoff, prefaces the unique and entertaining stories with by explaining rather accurately how Westerners perceive Africans and also places the life and lifestyle of the girl into context. The stories themselves are worth a browse for being told in a West African English very similar to Gambian English and because the protagonist, Hawa, is a rather talented raconteur. However, the quotes I want to present for consideration are from Mr. Chernoff's introduction. They convey a profound insight rare of commentary relating to Africa and are worth a solid pondering.

"Sometimes knowledge is not what one knows or can say; rather it is what one cannot say and can no longer think." -page 8

"For many people, wealth and power energize a persuasive legitimacy, but wealth and power do not energize what they do not reach." -page 22

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Defense of Poor Grades

I was commenting on the less than amazing quality of education and low standards as is so easy to do, when I came to a realization. I had been criticizing students who aim for a passing grade in a system where 40/100 and above is a pass. My original comment was to say that most of the time in the American grading system, a 60/100 is a pass, but why would one want to be satisfied with a mere pass anyway? Why not shoot for an "A" or a "B"? As I made the statement I noticed I was sitting near an ethnic Fula girl who had not completed school. She had either never attended or had performed poorly and dropped out early. But I knew the girl and I understood she was a hard worker and that she was generally interested in learning. That was one of the main reasons she was involved in a youth training/loan program. To expand her knowledge and increase her opportunity in achieving financial independence.

All of a sudden it hit me as I pictured this girl in school. She wouldn't have failed to achieve high scores because of lack of will power, on the contrary, she very much appreciates the value of education. If she had received poor results, it would have been because of a lack of encouragement and assistance. Coming from a background with illiterate parents in a largely illiterate village the older generation and some of her young peers may not be fully aware of the benefits of school and thus are unwilling or unable to support the current generation of students.

In that social situation achieving a 40/100 could be considered a moderate success and such a student should be highly praised considering the conditions they're up against. Ideally however, people should start waking up and realizing the benefits that formal education can bring. The reality is that not every parent can help students with their school work, yet every parent should have the prescience and motivation to help their children find assistance, even if they have to seek it outside of their compound or home village. Later on I hope the parents will be able to advise their own kids. Lets hope were moving closer to that vision.

Formal education and literacy are essential to development. Period.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Developed Rural Africa

Time has passed with little word from me on this website lately, but that's what happens when you try to maintain a blog from rural West Africa. It's hard enough to make a local call from village to village in the rainy season if you're not on top of a water tower, let alone post content to the internet. However, just because my fingers have been absent from a keyboard for quite awhile doesn't mean my pen (or should I say Black Warrior pencil if you know me well) has been packed away. I'm now in the greater Banjul area for a couple of days and so I decided to share some thoughts I'd saved up. I've become obsessed with finding practical ways to improve the lives of the community members that have welcomed me in. The contributions I make are small in the grand scheme of things (the crude measurements of economic development/growth), though I like to think if embraced, the changes I've catalyzed together with my Gambian counterparts have been steps in the right direction. There are so many issues that cross my mind, I'm bombarded by them every day. I don't always have the time or energy to flesh out every worthy subject, but I have been able to scribble a few into the pages of my notebook. The following series of posts are entries from my current notebook,a black, lined Moleskine, the third volume since my arrival. These topics are very far from exhausting the material that makes for solid analysis and debate surrounding development in rural Gambia, yet I offer them as a sample of the concepts, visions, questions, ideas and critiques that run through my head.

A Developed Rural Africa
Written on the highway from Gambia to Dakar, Senegal March, 2009

What does African Development ideally look like outside of the urban centers?
The vast majority of rural Africans are engaged in farming. Thus a more developed rural Africa entails improvements in the agriculture sector. Under favorable conditions I imagine a highly productive agricultural sector that efficiently and effectively uses the land and resources available to produce the largest gains.

African communities have always been able to successfully utilize the various plants in their respective environments. It's now time to use these biological resources with more control to achieve higher levels of production while ensuring that environmental resources are sustainable. Ideally, gains from agriculture would produce surplus agricultural wealth that could be used to invest in other trades or create new industries. A significant surplus would allow farmers to readily send their children to schools as well as to improve household health and nutrition. High yields and profits would come from the harmonious use of modern machinery and technical knowledge tailored to the particular environment individuals and communities find themselves in and an understanding of what is demanded by the market at what prices. Solid infrastructure would relay market and production information as well as physically facilitating the voyage of crops to market.

Qualified and skilled workers are essential if agricultural gains are to be made. This means offering high quality educational services and the constructive use of those services by families. You can't get rich by sitting around. The wealthier societies on this planet have high levels of formal education. It's not a coincidence. All children must go to school. People like to say that education is a human right. Well, then to not send your child to school and to not support them financially and with motivation if you have the means is to deny the human rights of your child. Families friends and neighbors must support each other in area of education as they always have in other ways. Communities themselves must act as coherent units to demand quality services from the teachers and the systems as a whole. Education salaries should be competitive with other jobs so as to attract solid talent. Countries that are relatively poor in natural resources have to invest heavily in their human resources to develop social capital. A literate society will attract investors and create jobs in the knowledge sector. Much of this requires a values shift, a reevaluation of priorities that may reorganize the way people spend their time and limit overindulgence in luxury items.

Development requires a certain consciousness of the challenges that lie ahead and a willingness to sacrifice to achieve one's goals. Overall, standards must be raised. Ignorance is becoming a poor excuse for inaction with the proliferation of mobile and information technology. People must join others in claiming math and science as their own, a valuable creation of the human race for the advancement of technology that eases our labor. Science and math are not menacing tools designed by one particular group to enslave the world, they are ever-advancing tools for all.

Development in not manifested in illegal migration that finances a mammoth house for one's mother and father. It's about using exiting knowledge and resources to create sustainable livelihoods. The African environment is not homogeneous and certainly it is not the same as that found in Europe or America. Africans should take a step back and find examples of groups and individuals operating successfully in a similar climate to their own, then seek to replicate those successes. Those positive role models hold the key as to how to manage one's resources in an innovative and more prosperous manner.

Ultimately the product of a "developed" rural Africa will not look the same as developed areas elsewhere in the world and it shouldn't because Africans have their own diverse cultures. The image of America as the ideal Africa is just a mirage and unrealistic for social and environmental reasons. The true ideals of development lie in the opportunity to rise from the bottom to the top with hard work, determination and a little luck. Development is not just something that sounds like a nice idea to people as they hope someone will deal with their problems and help them to realize their desires. Development is a conscious action, a change in lifestyle, a search in which all avenues are tested in the journey to the higher standards of living that people want. What people want is defined by themselves, but in the globalized world of today, those wants are often influenced by those other people we happen to share our planet with. Its not only the reality that we're getting more and more connected, but it's also simply good to know and understand each other, as shared experiences strengthen cooperation and build peace.

A developed rural Africa is a peaceful place in which the people are healthy and live with comfort and pride.