Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Touch With the Elements

The Five Elements
The Eastern medicine paradigm formulates five elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal.  I first become aware of them and their effects on my life years ago when I began acupuncture therapy for chronic upper respiratory infections. The elements are our creative and controlling energies and ideally should all be in balance.  Out of balance, they are known as the causative factor and become apparent to a trained acupuncturist, who can then restore balance with the placement of needles along your body’s meridians.  After Western medicine offered me nothing but years’ worth of antibiotics, I turned to this Eastern alternative and it worked for me.  I liked the idea of communing with these elemental forces of nature, plus it gave me something to thing about while needles were being stuck in me.  It wasn’t until I came to African, however, that I understood the profound effect that these elements can have on one’s daily life, in a veritable way. Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal all play a crucial role in the the developing world.

Without fire, most people in Africa would not eat.  Most meals are cooked over open flames so fire is a bare necessity.  Fires are also used to burn crops after harvest, heat irons when doing laundry, and boil water for the afternoon Attaya (traditional sweetened tea).  Fire also burns, ever so brightly, in the sky.  The sun is prominent overhead for the majority of the year, exuding extreme heat which permeates everything and everyone.  When you are this close to the equator, seeking shade becomes a daily pastime for both people and animals. When folks back home ask me how it is here in Senegal, my first response is usually, “it’s hot!”  The sheets on my bed and the clothes in my wardrobe feel like they’ve just come out of the dryer.  Cinder block walls radiate the day’s heat inside, even throughout the cooler evening, making sleeping indoors uncomfortable.  The brightness of the sun against the light sand is blinding.


As you can imagine, water is a sacred commodity in Senegal.  Many people spend much of their day porting it from one place to another.  I’m lucky to have a faucet at my house, but most of my neighbors rely on wells.  Even with my faucet, water is not guaranteed.  Like, the electricity, water outages are frequent and unpredictable.  Growing up, my dad had a sailboat, so I’ve always had a great respect for the open waters, but after living here in the Sahel, I’ve learned to respect the mere presence of water, as well as its weight, its taste, and its health.  Aside from a drop or two that fell unexpectedly last week, we haven’t seen rain since the first week in October.  When it arrives next month, it will come with a force, dumping great amounts of water on the thirsty soil.  Children will strip naked to bathe in its showers, shrieking with laughter as they lather up.  But it won’t be all fun and games. The trash and manure that line the streets will become soaked in giant puddles creating public health enigmas.  Storm drains clogged with trash will back up and flood the streets blocking roads and creating traffic jams.  Clothes that were once too hot to wear will soak up the moisture in the air begin to mold.  Standing water will cultivate mosquito larvae and the air will be filled with biting and disease-carrying insects.  So, although it’s greatly desired most of the time, when it comes water often wreaks havoc.


The earth feels old and tired in Senegal.  The soil is sandy and lacking nutrients.  Where it’s not sandy, it’s rocky and hard.  Sand and dirt are tracked everywhere and swept continuously.  The earth is dry and expansive, its colors melding into the structures that sit atop it.  Those structures are made from its rocks and its grasses.  The earth here struggles to provide sustenance and farmers are in constant struggle to make it work for them.  Because the terrain is flat, the sky is big in this part of the world.  Trees are few and far between, so the wind flows freely and fiercely at times, picking up sand along the way which then finds its way into every nook and cranny.  The great majority of people’s living space is in the open with dirt floors and the sky overhead.  People here in Africa have known this earth a long time and can attest to the fact that it has not always been kind to them.


As I mentioned in my last post, gathering wood is a daily role for many women.  Wood is needed for fire, fire is needed for food, it’s all a big cycle. The trees that are left in this area of the world become prey to people in need of firewood and live tree limbs are hacked away without a care.  If they're not taking their limbs, they're scraping off their bark to make traditional remedies for common ailments.  Miles of land stretch on with only the baobab (a spiritually protected tree, which happens not to burn well) in sight.  Luckily, I live with host-father who’s spent his life learning and teaching others about the importance of reforestation and the benefits of an environment diversified with many plant species.  Some days, it feels like he is on a one-man mission trying to implement change and modify behavior.  For now, he’s got my help, and each year a new group of students to carry on his message.  The land is vast, however, and the message has far to travel.


Concrete and metal form the basis for most structures in Senegal and the sound of the two of these together is one that I will never forget.  It’s a loud harsh clang that is mimicked by the native language.  Metal on metal is also the sound of meals--spoons scraping against bowls and platters.  Metal absorbs heat and therefore augments that problem of daily discomfort.  Roofs radiate the heat inside, doors swell up mid-day and are hot to touch and hard to open, window shutters clang in the wind.  Scrap metal is used to enclose compounds or to make toys. Small children can often be seen rolling metal hoops down the road like scene from colonial Williamsburg.  Others spend time constructing their own toys, making figures and cars out of old wire or tin cans.  It's also common to see young children with razor blades in hand.  These thin, sharp, cutting edges replace scissors, which most family don't own, so no one thinks twice when they end up in the hands of a small child trying to cut a piece of cardboard into a doll.  I have to admit, this is hard to watch.

My Thoughts
Communing with the elements can mean leading a harsh existence, but it can also make you intimately aware of your environment.  I know that in 14 months, I'll be packing up my hot or moldy belongings and headed back to my life in "Amerik", where we have insulation, carpeting, air conditioning, and public sanitation systems to shield me from some of these discomforts.  We also have four glorious seasons which help generate growth and make my little spot on this earth a beautiful place to be.  I would hope that I will never take these basic elements for granted again, but in all likely hood, I will, because I can.  Hopefully, I'll always remember what my friend Marla recently told me, that "most of the world is like Senegal, or India, or Laos", where she just traveled. "We were born into a rich and civilized country.  We can cannot be sorry for what we have, we can only have an open heart and be more in tune about what other's need and, above all, be thankful for what we have."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Paper Briquette Project

Now that I’m fully engrossed in project work it seems that I have many balls in the air at all times.  I’ve always worked well under pressure or backed up to a deadline so, although I’m busy, this feels good to me and provides structure and purpose each day. It also helps keep my mind present here and not as worried about the things going on back home that are out of my control.

[Editor's Note:  Once I'd written this entire blog entry and was about to post it, I realized that I'd written about this project in my last posting.  Instead of just deleting it, I decided to post anyway, since I went into much more details here.  See?  I do have many balls in the air and can't even remember which ones I've written about already.  Hopefully, you'll learn something new, regardless.]

One of the projects I’m working on is a paper briquette press.  In December, I attended an All-Volunteer Meeting where a group of 2nd and 3rd year volunteers demonstrated some of the appropriate technology projects they’ve worked on at their sites.  A few of these caught my eye and I’m implementing them in Diourbel with Ibou and our eco-village members at Baol Environnement.  The first one we tackled was the paper briquette press.  This project was brought to Senegal by my friend Stephanie, who researched how to turn recyclable paper into burnable briquettes.  She found a press on-line, ordered it, and had it replicated here by a metal smith. By definition, appropriate technologies are "small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled."  The local user should have access to all of the materials needed and be able to replicate any working parts locally. This press fits the bill; however, because it requires the use of recyclable paper to actually make the briquettes, the project was not sustainable in the rural village setting where Stephanie lived.  The amount of paper used by her villagers was minimal.  The city of Diourbel, where I live, is the capital of the region of Diourbel and therefore has many schools, businesses, and government offices that use paper. Because it’s more of an urban setting, most people also use some sort of paper in their homes.

In order to truly appreciate this project and its multifaceted benefits, you have to understand the trash situation in Senegal.   Outside of Dakar and one coastal town along the Petit-Côte where Peace Corps Volunteers have been actively addressing this problem for years, there are few established trash collection systems throughout the country.  In Diourbel, you can hire a man with a donkey cart to come along and collect your trash and he’ll take it to a community trash pile in the middle of town--away from your compound and out of your sight, but still in the middle of a populated area next to someone else’s neighborhood.  Most people can’t afford this or can’t be bothered and create trash piles just outside their compounds which are shared with their neighbors.  If they’re throwing away anything putrid, like fish guts or animal parts, they’ll usually dig a shallow hole and over it with sand, but the feral cats are on to them and quickly unbury them.  When the pile gets large enough, someone will set it on fire and we’ll all breath burning plastic fumes throughout the night.  It’s not pleasant. These trash piles are more than just an eye sore, they’re a health hazard, too, covered in flies and accessible to small children.  Removing paper products from them barely scratches the surface, but it does help get people thinking about trash sorting and trash reduction.

Since we established a paper recycling bin in my compound, my trash-creating guilt has been diminished because when I buy “toubaby things” like toilet paper that has a cardboard roll in the middle, packaged foods, and tissue boxes, or when I receive letters and packages in the mail, I’m able to toss their paper-based wrappings in it. Between that and the compost pile we’ve made in my compound since my arrival, my “plastic” trash is fairly limited.
After paper has been collected, it’s torn into small pieces and soaked in a basin of water overnight.  The next day, the paper is worked by hand into a thick pulpy mixture.  Peanut shells (of which there are an abundance in here in the peanut basin) are then added and this mixture is put into the press.  One basin of pulp/peanut shells will yield about 8-10 briquettes.

The press itself is small (10”L x 3.5”W x 8.5”H) and consists of three parts, the base, the insert, and the press plate.  The base and the insert fit together to hold the pulp and then the press plate is placed on top.  Two arms attached at the top of the base are interlaced, crossing each other to rest on top of the bars on the press plate.  Pressure is applied to the arms, which presses the water from the paper pulp and creates a solid briquette.  The press comes apart to release the newly formed briquette for drying.  Even though the climate is hot and arid, the briquettes take a minimum of 15 days to completely dry on our rooftop.

The briquettes are used to replace wood, charcoal, or gas for cook stoves.  Each day, families cook a large lunch for everyone in their compound and this is traditionally done in a large pot over an open fire.  Charcoal and gas are an expensive option, so the majority of people use wood.  Using wood entails either buying it or sending women and girls out to gather it.  The first option eats into the household expenses and the second option often means that girls are taken out of school to take on this chore.  Using wood, also adds to the problem of deforestation, which is an odd term to use because where I live there are no forests, per se, just random trees that provide bits of shade and tremble in fear of machetes.  Although briquettes require a small amount of wood to get the fire going, an entire lunch can be prepared using mainly paper briquettes resulting in a great reduction in per meal costs. 

A project like this is only useful if you have the means of passing the technology along to those who need it.  We’ve taking a two-pronged approach to this.  The first was to introduce the press to a group of fifty 4th grade students who attended an Eco-Ecôle program with us over Spring Break.  We spent several days explaining the press, how it works, why it’s needed, and the impact on the trash situation and household savings to them.  The kids loved it.  They got to rip up paper, play with wet paper pulp, make something they can use, and practice explaining how it’s done.  Because we worked with ten students from five different schools, we challenged them to go back to their classrooms, establish a paper recycling station, and explain to their classmates what they had done.  Yesterday, we got a call from one of the school directors who said that the students from his school who’d attended our Eco-Ecôle program conducted a demonstration for the class and placed rice sacks in the room to collect paper.  This was the school that had sent us the most number of girls, so it’s not surprising that they led this effort, since the girls are the ones who benefit from this the most.  This means we have kids teaching kids the importance of trash sorting and recycling, kids teaching kids the how to reduce the cost of providing meals to their families, and kids teaching kids about new technologies that are within their reach.  How cool is that?

The second group of people that we’ll work with is women’s groups, which are a fundamental part of the socio-economic structure in Africa.  Our association, Baol Environnement, works with 48 women’s groups in the Diourbel region and provides them with training, organizational assistance, and new technologies.  These women can create micro-enterprises using the paper briquette press as a means of creating income for their groups by making and selling briquettes and/or presses to their communities.

So, that’s just one of the many projects with which I’m currently involved.  The others are equally interesting and I’ll be writing about these soon.

Please note that I've added some photo albums to the left side-bar.  These may be repeats for those of you who also follow me on Facebook.  I'll add both new albums and photos to these existing albums from time to time, so take a peek when you have time.