Just about every week, we have a spry older guy from the forest who comes and sells us palm wine. Usually, we can’t drink the five liters he sells us – not because of the alcohol content, which I figure sits somewhere between Odoul’s and Michelob Ultra. But we share it with people, and it’s so cheap at 300 francs (0.33 USD) a liter.
So we arranged to visit him and see how it was made. The actual process requires a lot of physical labor, but I spent about two hours watching the exciting part. It’s sort of like harvesting maple syrup, only you have to cut the whole tree down.
I took loads of pictures, which I thought might do a better job (with captions) of explaining the process.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say in this second part of my reaction to Paul Theroux’s recent article in Barron’s about aid in Africa, a sort of resolution that ties together my thoughts on development. But the truth is, I wrestle with ambivalence on the subject, and struggling to come up with a firm conclusions (or even multiple conclusions) leads me to the same answer I often give when I’m asked what life is like in Africa: It’s complicated.
On the one hand, I’m so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to see a few African countries from the ground floor, so to speak, living in small towns and villages and seeing beyond what I’d see if I were just visiting for a short time. Short of up and moving to another country with little or no outside support – following in the footsteps of Livingstone and Stanley and Mungo – working for (or having a spouse who works for) an aid organization provides one of the few opportunities to at least catch a glimpse into the daily lives of fellow human beings. And yet, that seems like a selfish reason to be involved in this sort of work, especially if you’re not sure that you’re helping more than you’re hurting.
I see the value of small aid projects – ones that build the small savings and lending groups, for example, that Anne-Claire and her colleagues are involved in. On the individual level, it’s not hard to find the results, like the man who stood up at a recent meeting and talked about how the group taught him the value of putting money aside for a rainy day – not a trivial realization when floods or droughts or volcanoes or rebel groups or even your own government’s army can take away everything you have in an instant. But these types of projects aren’t likely to change poverty on a broader scale. What’s more, they don’t generate the kinds of numbers necessary to build a data-driven case for investment – not that data-based development is a bad thing, but more on that in a later post.
I guess the only real conclusion I’ve come to is that communication across culture barriers is rarely a bad thing, and the presence of aid/development organizations facilitates that crosstalk in many ways. The challenge now is to leverage what comes out of those conversations to make for better aid projects. It’s only when the people involved – the “beneficiaries” in aid-speak – are intimately involved in coming up with solutions to poverty.
Switching gears a little bit but extending that idea, I came across a new book called Aid on the Edge of Chaos. The thesis is that the best answers might come from not spending so much time designing projects for an intended outcome. Instead, the author argues for giving people a tool and standing back while they figure out the best way to use it. One example given (I haven’t read the book yet) is the installation of community computer terminals connected to the Internet in Indian slums. After dropping these hard-to-come-by objects into certain areas, the project designers were surprised to see children using the Web to teach themselves English. I’m anxious to read the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you already have.
Paul Theroux managed to crystallize the hypocrital “aid mess” in Africa for Barron’s last month in a way I certainly can’t. In an elegant thrashing in turns of celebrity do-gooders, meddling politicians, and even Peace Corps Volunteers – a tribe of which he’s one of the most celebrated and controversial members.
His whole essay might come off as a polemic, delicately disguised in snap-smart prose by one of contemporary literature’s deftest hands – if he weren’t also right. The continent – what I’ve seen of it anyway – is a smear of development projects. A few work; most don’t. The ruins of concrete grain banks, broken pumps, and empty health centers don’t take much effort to find.
So why do it? Why bother? Anne-Claire and I have this discussion a lot, really trying to give some thought to what might happen if we all just left Africa to sort out her own problems. In my simplistic view, things might get better – imagine building countries in which the best and brightest worked in hospitals, government, industry, the next Google, instead of in the aid sector – but only after they got worse.
If we just pulled the supports out from under aid and development, hard-gotten gains – the near-eradication of diseases like Guinea worm and polio, and significant drops in infant mortality, for example – would be erased in a matter of years. So effectively, removing all aid would be unconscionable, condemning a generation or more to the worst poverty the world has ever seen.
What’s more, it’s impossible. We live in such an interconnected world, we can’t expect Africans to just accept the West leaving them alone, no matter how much of ‘that’s-our-lot’ fatalism tinges every aspect of life here. Nearly a billion talented, scrappy, eager, resourceful Africans want the healthy children and education and wealth, as well as automobiles and televisions, that they see the rest of the world enjoying.
If there’s one commonality among people in general – one that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – it’s that we humans are never satisfied with where we are. That sort of ambition – innovation, if you will – is what drives progress and invention, and it’s reassuring to think that there has yet to be a problem here on earth that we as a species couldn’t sort out. Not yet at least…
The darker side of that ambition is the urge to accumulate material things, whether it’s a new shirt, a pair of shoes, that car that’s just outside your price range, or a big house with a pool. We all struggle to live within our means – in Africa, the U.S. or anywhere else. In many ways the poverty in Africa can be boiled down to a credit crisis – that is, not having the funds to pay for something right now because you already spent it – which we certainly know a bit about in the West.
I’ll have more in Part 2 of my thoughts on Paul Theroux’s piece in the next couple weeks.
This quote from a source in Robert Draper’s National Geographic piece on Kinshasa would be an apt description of most any sprawling African capital. Often the first thing a visitor notices is the helter-skelter of the roads where, as a driver, anything you can get away with seems to fly. Thousands of the city’s 10 million inhabitants live day-to-day – polishing shoes, selling hand-me-down pants, or begging for handouts – and it would seem that most of the 500,000 coming in every year will do the same. Even verbal communication blends a dizzying melange of local and colonially imposed languages.
But as Draper points out, a rhythm, an order exists to the people living here. It’s not one we Westerners can easily understand. Just as Eastern music written with a 5-beat meter can clang discordant in our Western ears so accustomed to 2 or 4 beats per measure, the swirl and chaos (two words Draper uses to great effect) on Kinshasa’s streets are disorienting. But just because we can’t hear the melody doesn’t mean it’s not there.
We had dinner last night with a couple of fellow Peace Corps Niger alums based in Kinshasa with the State Department. They’ve spent two years here and pointed us toward this article, saying what a marvelous encapsulation of Kinshasa it is. After arriving less than a week ago, I can’t help but agree.
Just to sum up for those of you who don’t know, Anne-Claire (my wife) just began a year-long fellowship with an aid organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She’ll be learning the ins and outs of working for an aid/relief organization, and I’m lucky enough to tag along in the hopes of finding a few things to write about. We are going to be based in Lodja, in central DRC, but we’re in Kinshasa for the next three weeks.
Unfortunately, safety is a concern here in the capital, so with few exceptions, we can’t really go beyond the concession walls of our apartment or the CRS office outside of a car. It’s a little frustrating, brought on by the variety of schemes, ranging from petty street crime to impersonating cops (as well as cops themselves looking to bolster nonexistent government paychecks), that folks use to extract a little cash from visitors. But we’re looking forward to Lodja. Though it’s still a large town of about 100,000 people, it’s much safer and calmer and we’ll be free to move around.
We also should have at least sporadic Internet access, which means I’m hoping to post to this blog once or twice a week. I have a few ideas for posts, but if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me directly. I hope to adhere to the spirit of this blog, which I started a little more than two years ago when Anne-Claire and I were traveling around Europe and West Africa. In a nutshell, my bird’s-eye philosophy on traveling in Africa is that, more so than any place I’ve ever visited, the best experiences come from the people you meet. It’s not a new idea at all and certainly bears application in other places. But it’s here, where existence and survival are stripped to their essence that it’s most apparent, at least to me.
So take a look around at our past trips chronicled here, and stay tuned for what’s to come over the next year here in the DRC. If I’ve gotten something wrong and I haven’t been clear, let me have it in the comments or an email. I’d love nothing more than for this site to become a discussion of development and travel, in Africa and elsewhere.
If you do have a chance to read Draper’s article, let me know your thoughts. It’s a fun ride through a fascinating city.
Watching the sunset on the beach, we could have easily been on a tropical island somewhere. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the heavy moist air from the day’s teasing rainstorms settled over the beach, leaving us glistening with sweat in the last light of day.
But this wasn’t just anywhere. This was Senegal. Cows shared the sand with us, and down from where we’d just walked, smoke bellowed from the skyscraping palm trees, as women dried the day’s catch that had just come in on the massive wooden boats.
We’d arrived in Ziguinchor to visit Haroon, one of Anne-Claire’s former classmates. Our second day, he took us to stay at a work colleague’s house on the coast, up near the border with Gambia. Cheikh, the colleague, runs an NGO called Water and Sanitation for West Africa. Over his decades-long career, he’s worked with the World Health Organization, the UN, and now USAID, currently focused on improving sanitation in villages through strategies like hand washing and building latrines – in short, combining behavior change with infrastructure improvements.
Here on the outskirts of Kafountine, Cheikh’s built an oasis of calm with bungalows for visiting friends, solar-powered electricity, and a pack of friendly dogs named after world leaders, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin among them. (Nicholas Sarkozy died recently after being bitten by a cobra.) Cheikh has planted trees on the land with his small personal staff, and both nights we stayed there, we enjoyed walks down to the beach to watch the sunset. The second evening, we watched as a flotilla of massive fishing boats and their crews of 25-30 men each hauled the day’s harvest through the surf.
We ate well, enjoying dishes of fish with fried potatoes, rice and fish sauce, and chicken served with fried bananas. Always accompanying the meal were Cheikh’s stories, detailing his adventures in development. We spent a long time Saturday evening discussing the failures of massive, one-size-fits-all projects and the need to tailor solutions to the cultures they’re designed to work within.
It’s heartening to see a well-educated African, who’s lived and worked all over the world, focus his talents on improving things for other Africans and to see that he doesn’t just accept poverty for his continent. One of my biggest takeaways from Peace Corps is that as outsiders, we’ll never affect real positive change leading the charge in development. We just don’t have the knowledge of the culture, the vested interest and connections to local communities that takes a lifetime to acquire. Outsider-led projects, in my opinion, do little but muck up the situation even further. Best case, we should be supporting folks like Cheikh and taking direction from them as to how we can best help those around us.