Wednesday, November 11, 2015

New Home

Due to recent and expected travel to countries other than Guinea, I have decided to move my blog to a new site.  Please refer to for further adventures....

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Detour: 3 weeks in Haiti

Ebola continues to simmer in West Africa, with no signs of decreasing.  Two months ago, I was alerted to an opportunity to volunteer in Haiti with the Farmer-to-Farmer program of USAID.   I felt it was an great opportunity to continue the international development work I found so enjoyable, even if it wasn’t in Guinea.

December 15, 2014

I have been in Haiti for over two weeks.   It is a diverse country with bright agricultural prospects.  Sugarcane, coffee, rice, mangoes and bananas are just few of the crops grown here.  Goats, sheep, cows, rabbits, chickens and pigs are also raised, usually by small-scale Haitian farmers.  Like in Guinea, West Africa, where I recently spent 5 months as a Peace Corps volunteer, most livestock in Haiti are free range.   This includes the goats.  You would think in the lush tropical landscape that is Haiti, the goats here would be fat and happy.  On the contrary, many of them are thin and severely under conditioned.  In addition, some are dying, quite suddenly, with little or no warning. 

My reason for being here is to find out why and to implement practices designed to minimize the frequency at which it happens in the future.  I emphasize, “minimize” for a reason.  Disease, and most certainly death, is never eliminated.  The best we can do is to minimize its occurrence and limit its damage when it does occur.   If you are someone who adheres to the theory of perfection, you need to have your head examined.  Life is not a game of perfect.  Not even close.  And it never can be, nor will it ever be.

Goats are everywhere in Haiti.  Goats are a vital source for protein, and as such, they fetch a good price at the market.  They are also relatively hardy and can survive, and even thrive, in conditions that would be too stressful for other animals.  Their size in Haiti, however, does not indicate this, as most are smaller than what you would expect for a meat goat.  This is probably due to not only their disease burden and nutritional status, but also their genetics.  Improving the genetics of the goats in Haiti is a project for tomorrow.  Today I am concerned about the disease burden that is holding back the everyday Haitian from profiting more from their goats.   

A typical "leash pastured" goat in a small village

With the help of Benito Jasmine whose Haitian organization Makouti Agro Enterprise is working with the Farmer-to-Farmer program of USAID, we set about visiting numerous communities and doing basic physicals on their goats.   We have visited small Haitian villages where a household will have a few goats for meat production or a second source of income.  We have also visited more organized goat ranches, where the goal clearly is to generate substantial income from raising goats.  Though the health of the goats of each location varied, sometimes considerably, the most glaring clinical symptoms we kept finding was under-conditioning and anemia.  At times it was moderate, at other times it was severe.  In general, the better the management practices, the healthier the goats seemed to be.

A young goat with severe anemia.

“How are some of these goats even alive, “ I asked myself.

The most likely cause of such severe anemia is internal parasites.  Of all the parasites that can infect the goat, Haemonchus contortus, or the barber pole worm is the most likely cause due to its propensity to cause severe anemia absent any other signs.  For the inquisitively curious, this worm got its common name because its digestive tract spirals the length of its body.  When the worm has ingested the blood of the animal in which it resides, its body resembles the spiral you would see on a barbershop pole. 

A barber pole worm that can infect goats

In addition to the anemia that was so prevalent in the goats we examined, the hooves of many goats were in bad shape as well.  Specifically, their hooves were moderately to severely overgrown.  In cases where the goats are housed in concrete structures, hooves are naturally worn away.  However, when goats spend most of their life on pastures, especially pastures that are wet due to frequent rains, their hooves become exceptionally long.  This unfortunately creates an ideal environment for bacterial and fungal growth, as mud, manure and germs become trapped beneath the overgrown hoof.  This infection can lead to lameness, and if left untreated, the entire hoof can be lost.

Though I was fairly certain about my diagnosis, and felt confident administering anthelmintic drugs (effective against parasitic worms) to eliminate the parasite burden within these goats, a solution that was sustainable might not be so easy. 

First, I reminded myself that I was in a third world country.  The everyday Haitian does not have access to the knowledge and medicines that we do in the United States.  Furthermore, third world countries are notorious for the amount of corruption and bribery that takes place on a daily basis.  Thus, my position as an authority figure and an outsider, my skin color being an obvious clue, could put me at a disadvantage.  These people are used to receiving recommendations that are often filled with obvious conflicts of interest.  Why should these people listen to me?  Just because I am white?  When authority figures have disappointed you in the past, it difficult for you to trust them now, when you really might need their advice.  (Look no further than the Ebola epidemic that is ravaging West Africa.  Part of the challenge with fighting Ebola is getting the local populations to trust in their government and medical authorities.) 

My second challenge was establishing sound goat husbandry practices that would reduce the frequency in which the parasite load climbs to such an extreme level in the goat population in the future.   Otherwise, these goats will be right back in the same position a year or two from now.

A goat with severe mange, caused by mites

So I needed to establish credibility and trust.  Thankfully, Benito’s organization Makouti Agro Enterprise has already laid much of the groundwork for trust within the community, so most Haitians are already open to suggestions.  However, to reinforce certain principles of sound goat management, I wanted visual aids.  If I felt that parasites were the cause of their goats’ sub-optimal health, I wanted to show the Haitians what a parasite, or at least a parasite egg looked like.  Thus, my plan was to do fecal analysis on a goat with a suspected heavy parasite burden.  Most Haitians have never seen anything, let alone a parasite egg, under a microscope.  Using improvised materials, I was able to isolate parasite eggs and prepare microscope slides that contained the eggs.

I teach one of Makouti's staff what to look for on the slide

In addition to teaching fecal analysis techniques, I’ve also spent some time teaching Haitians, including agriculture students from a local university, the importance of proper hoof trimming.  Not only will this reduce the frequency of lameness and other foot problems, but the owners will form a much better connection to their animals.  This I hope will lead to improved awareness of factors that can affect the goat’s health and well-being.

Demonstrating how to properly trim goat hooves.

In order to stimulate long term and permanent change, a community must buy in to the need for change as well as embrace the proposed changes themselves.   The farmers with sick goats are definitely motivated to take action to prevent more goats from dying.  Administering anthelmintic drugs will certainly improve their herd’s immediate health, but this is only the first step in other changes that need to be made.  With the immediate success we expect from our de-worming campaign, we hope this will motivate the farmers to make changes in their overall management practices that are contributing to the parasite problems.

A couple of improvements come to mind.  First, the goats generally do not have access to clean drinking water.  They most commonly drink from puddles on the ground.   As you might guess, this is not the healthiest option for an animal.  The parasites that these goats are burdened with are shedding hundreds of eggs into their environment each day.  These parasite eggs continue their development and remain on the ground until they are eaten by an animal on a piece of plant material, ingested by an animal while it is drinking, or washed away to some place inaccessible to any animal.  Unfortunately, these eggs can remain viable for a very long time, especially in a warm and humid environment.  So convincing the communities to provide clean drinking water for their animals will significantly reduce the exposure to contaminated soil and water.

Healthy goat housing and grazing paddocks

Second, goats prefer tree leaves to grass for their nutrition.  Yet most goats in Haiti are forced to eat grass, as deforestation has greatly reduced the number of trees in Haiti.   Not only is grass less nutritious for goats, but it also can harbor the parasites we are trying to avoid.  

Healthy goat grazing leaves, away from potentially contaminated soil

My time has also been spent researching what trees and plants can provide not only good nutrition for goats, but also can provide protection against parasites.  Likely front-runners include: sericea lespedeza, haematoxylon campachianum, wormwood, cassava, tobacco, and Guinea grass.  The interesting characteristic of these plants is that they all contain high amounts of tannin.  This tannin, for reasons yet unknown, repels and inhibits the proliferation of internal ruminant parasites.  Of course, trees that are high in nutritional value, even if they lack any specific anti-parasitic activity, will also be considered.  Moringa olifera comes to mind and is increasingly popular in Haiti.  Once we identify good candidates, determined in part by successfully procuring seeds or plant starts, we can begin their propagation in Makouti’s nursery.  This spring, these young plants will be transplanted to their permanent locations close to the farmers Benito is working with.

Change is often accomplished in incremental steps.  I hope is that through the efforts of the Farmer to Farmer program, the Haitian goat farmer will have a more prosperous 2015 than it did this year.  With a little bit more knowledge and investments in improved animal husbandry practices, this goal will be realized. 

Disclaimer: This program is funded with the generous support of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US government.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Requirements for Economic Development

I am currently living in Esmont, Virginia at Caromont Farm, helping a friend and former employer make cheese (and milk goats once in a while.)  I started my trip earlier this month visiting my sister in Herndon, Virginia, and am now taking advantage of my short time here back in the states.  (That means eating lots of ice cream and bacon!) Until the Peace Corps gives the all clear for Guinean volunteers to return to their sites, I will remain here  enjoying good food, the peacefulness of the Virginia countryside, friendship and of course, making good cheese.

Cheese curds draining at Caromont dairy.

My delay in returning back to Guinea wasn’t a surprise, as I am sure many of you hear about the continuing spread of Ebola in Africa on news stations all over the country.  I am hopeful that I will be able to return to Guinea in October, though with new people continuing to be infected on a daily basis, I am not sure how that will happen.  Of the three primary countries with active Ebola cases (not counting Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and now Senegal), Guinea is in the best shape due to its focus on maintaining contact tracing and quarantine of all cases (yet this seems insufficient at completely halting new infections.) 

A link to Ebola news from the Who website:

In addition to indulging in culinary delights not found in Guinea, I spent most of August visiting friends in Illinois as well as preparing for my return to Guinea.  So now that am fully prepared to return to Guinea with much needed (or desired) items found and standing ready to somehow be organized into my luggage, I have the time to reflect, contemplate, and organize my thoughts on development and how best to help “my” tiny little village.   My thoughts and conclusions are mine alone (and do not reflect those of the Untied States government or the Peace Corps) and continue to evolve as I gain more knowledge and perspectives from others in this field.

Development is a never-ending process that always involves lots of change.  People often don’t like change and for this reason development can be a struggle and take a very long time.  To keep myself focused on this big picture, I often remind myself of the twists and turns the United States has taken in its development.  It wasn’t that long ago that our society was an agrarian one dependent on animal labor and simple machines.   Our development into the one that we enjoy today took decades to achieve.  However, there are certain requirements that must happen for a sustained improvement in a society’s standard of living to occur.  Without them, an individual, a village, a region and a country will remain poor and disadvantaged compared to the rest of the world.   In determining what these requirements are, I asked myself, “What things, if removed from our modern society (take any first word country of your choice), would immediately set us back a century or more as measured by a country’s gross domestic product (GDP).“

I have narrowed these requirements into three main segments.  In addition, there are several supporting factors that though are not required for forward development, do affect the speed and pace of the development process.  I will also mention them and how they impact progress.

1. Mechanization of agriculture and manufacturing. 

The earth is a tremendous resource and when properly cared for through sustainable practices, it can produce an abundance of harvestable products.  Various biological and farming techniques have proven effective in increasing net crop yields without adversely impacting soil health.  Examples include Korean natural farming, intercropping, companion planting, and integrated pest management. However, there is only so much that one individual can do with simple tools.  In order to augment and accelerate the amount gained from an area of land, one must use machines that can exponentialize a farmer’s efficiency.  Of course, the use of machines can be detrimental to natural resources so one must guard against improper or harmful practices.

The benefits gained through mechanization also apply to manufacturing processes.  A community is able to augment its profits from the manufacture of a product with the aid of machines, whether used indirectly or directly in the manufacture of the product.  Like in agriculture, the use of machines can have detrimental affects, and without safeguards in place, the benefits achieved can be offset by the costs associated with damages to both human and environmental health.


a. NGO’s (Non-governmental (aid) organizations) and volunteer organizations, including the United States Peace Corps.   These organizations can assist in growing agricultural and industrial productivity by teaching improved methods to communities at the grass roots level. 

b. Private companies who have experienced leaders in management positions.  These leaders, with their knowledge of best practices in farming and manufacturing, can transfer this knowledge simply by their use of these practices in their normal course of business.  An often overlooked benefit of being an employee is an accumulation of experiences and practices of what works and what doesn’t work.  This knowledge can then be utilized for building success for the individual in other endeavors.

c. Government.  The government can encourage foreign investment in their country to stimulate growth.  Though it may lose revenue in the form of wages and profits for the foreign company, it gains a greater amount in terms of training and education, especially for the native population that works for the foreign company.  This knowledge transfer can be greatly accelerated by government policies that require a certain percentage of local hires.

2. Access to international markets. 

A country that has no access to international markets is unable to enjoy the benefits of modernization.  Access to international markets not only allows a country to import goods and services that are not produced within its borders, but also allows a country to export goods and services that are highly valued overseas.  Without this exchange, a country is relegated to relying solely on its own resources to grow, and in this day and age, is insufficient to keep pace with the rapid development that other countries enjoy.


a. NGOs.  Nongovernmental organizations have the knowledge and expertize to navigate trade laws and barriers that the common natives are ignorant of.  This includes teaching a local population the requirements that must be met in terms of product or service quality in order to enter these international markets.  In addition, NGO’s are also in a better position compared to the natives to identify and construct trade agreements between businesses.

b. Government.  The government through the laws it erects and the efficiency at which it respects the laws affects how easily domestic companies can access markets overseas.  In addition, the products and services that are imported and exported also are influenced by governmental policies and the respect its agency gives to upholding these laws.  For example, corruption is a major factor in many underdeveloped countries that erodes the efficiency in which goods and services are transported.

3. Education and skills building

In general, businesses always make a profit on the goods and services that they sell, and if a region does not have the knowledge or skills to create these products and services themselves, they are limited to purchasing them from another source.  Thus, the profit from the sale of these goods and services are reserved for the foreign company who does have the expertise.

Education of a labor force enables it to claim for itself what others will claim if they lack the motivation or desire to learn.  Education not only involves formal schooling, but also technical training and even work experience that gives an individual the knowledge to compete in the world labor market.   It must be stressed that formal education is valuable to the extent that it gives an individual a springboard for a continual path of life skills learning.  Thus, a formal education that overly relies on rote memorization for measuring success will inadequately prepare its students for the challenges that exist in business today.  Technical training and life skills training is equally essential at preparing an individual for navigating global opportunities.


a. Government.  The government must promote and support quality and well rounded education. This begins with equal access for all and the training of skilled teachers. It can also facilitate improvement in its educational system by embracing alternative teaching methods that have proven successful in the private sector.

b. Privately funded teaching institutions. These organizations can equip educators with valuable techniques to broaden the educational experience.   Not only can they teach specific skills, but they can place more emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills and creativity than can public school systems.

c. NGOs and volunteer organizations, including the United States Peace Corps.  These organizations can introduce more effective teaching methods and encourage a community to think differently about their problems and solutions.  Like privately funded institutions, they have more freedom and flexibility to introduce different teaching approaches in order to enhance the results achieved by the student body.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Unplanned Absences

It was just one week ago that I was living my simple life in Guinea. I was at the weekly market near Koundara, and was overjoyed that the butcher had lamb to sell.  I had been trying for months to buy lamb, but people in my area rarely eat lamb.  They prefer either goat or cow. The sheep are typically exported to Senegal or sold elsewhere.  So after buying a kilogram of lamb chops and loin (the best parts) for $30,000 Guinean Francs (just over $4 in US currency), I walked over to the “market square” to find some onions and 2 french baguettes.  Often, I also say hello to the Sous-Prefect when I am in town or discuss the progress of my projects with one of my professional counterparts.  Because I still had to finish my planting (and I had raw meat in my backpack), I did not plan on staying long this week.  After a quick bite of rice and leaf sauce, I walked 7 kilometers back to my village.  (My bike was broken, and I was awaiting a new one to be sent from Conakry.)  

On the walk home, I planned the rest of my day.  Trim, cut and liberally season my lamb with rosemary, garlic and salt.  While it marinated (yes, at room temperature), finish planting my sweet corn (generously donated by Andy and Mimi Edwards of Champaign, IL) and kidney beans.  Then, return to my hut and braise my marinated lamb for two hours while I work on expanding the bed where I intended to transplant my bananas.   Bananas do not like sand, and grow best in rich dark soil.  My idea was to plant them next to my counterpart’s bamboo stand, which grew nicely in a gigantic hole he and his father dug for them.  Once I had expanded the hole to accommodate 7 banana plants, I would fill it in with clay, rich soil, compost, plant litter, and cow manure.

I am making room for my bananas to the left of this bamboo.

* Gigantic holes in the ground are typically used by my village for waste disposal.  Inorganic and organic wastes are tossed in the hole where they slowly decompose and enrich the soil.  Of course there are things that don’t decompose very rapidly (like plastic), but in my opinion, burning these things does more damage to the environment and the communities’ health than burying it does.  So until development reaches a stage where weekly municipal garbage removal is feasible, I wholeheartedly support this option.

In short, I was fully engaged in living my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny village in the middle of the African bush. I was content and happy.  (And exhausted!)  My crops were almost in, as well as were my counterpart’s.  We were both pushing the limits in what we thought we could achieve this season.  My counterpart had even taken out a loan in order to plant an extra field of peanuts (and reap and extra 10 sacks at harvest time).  I had countless small experiments and new ideas in various stages of implementation, with hopes that a few might show promise in improving the agricultural productivity in the region.  

And then, the text messages started to come.  The first message I received when I was planting my corn.  I didn’t quite understand it, as it was half written in short hand.  But I had work to do, and I couldn’t stop just to read (with dirty hands) non-urgent texts from the country director.  So I ignored the texts… one after another… nine in all.  I forgot them, and focused my attention on planting my corn and beans, and trying not to salivate as I thought about the delicious meat that sat marinating in my hut.

As the sun was setting, I returned to my hut to build my fire and start braising my lamb.  Just as I got the fire started, my counterpart comes over and I invite him to sit down.  We chat.  He asks me how my day was. I say great.  I ask him.  He says he also had a good day.  I ask him about his plans for tomorrow.  Plant the popcorn and cannellini beans I gave him.  I remind him to let me know when he’s ready to move in the morning so that I can help.  He replies of course.  

“Uh-oh,” I say (in English). “ I forgot to check what all those text messages are about,” I say (in French).   

As I re-read the first message that was sent by our country director, and then continue with the following eight messages, I stare in disbelief at my phone.  I can’t believe what I am reading!  Apparently, two (unnamed) Peace Corps volunteers came into contact with an African who recently died of Ebola.  In addition, two American aid workers (non-Peace Corps related) have contracted the disease and are in serious condition.  As a precaution, Peace Corps has decided to temporarily remove all volunteers from Ebola affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone).  As tears started welling up in my eyes, I stood up and started pacing around, repeating “No” and “This can’t be happening... not now... “ and getting angry at the two Peace Corps volunteers who disobeyed orders and “Touched a sick person!”  “What part of Do not touch! do you not understand? “ I demanded to no one in particular.  I know we all want to help, and showing compassion for another person’s suffering is an outstanding virtue, but there are some things that we are just not trained to do.

Still in a bit of shock, I finally turn to my counterpart and explain to him why I was so upset.  Did he know the current Ebola situation?  Did he know what the Peace Corp’s recommendation was for reducing the risk for contracting Ebola, for its volunteers and Guinean citizens? – which incidentally was reviewed by the CDC and given the two thumbs up.  Did he know that I deeply cared about his family and village and was very committed to teaching him new skills and techniques to improve his future?  Did he know that there are some things that are beyond my control and sometimes people make decisions for me?  Does he believe me when I tell him that I promise that I will return to finish what I started?  

I tell him that this isn’t fair.  I tell him that I don’t want to leave, especially not now.  I tell him that this is only a temporary absence.  I tell him that I do not know when I will be back.  I tell him that I will miss  Guinea.   I tell him that I will miss him and his family.  And I also I tell him I am sorry…  many, many times.

But nothing I could say to myself, my counterpart, or the world would change the fact that I will be out of Guinea within days.  You could not have picked a worse time to send me home.  In the middle of the rainy season, no less???  Perhaps my discovery of lamb at the market today was a gift.  Perhaps I can also give my counterpart a gift as well.  I decide to quickly mix up a batch of cornbread that he loves so much and within an hour we are both smiling as we enjoy another perfect loaf of three rock cornbread.  

As you might guess, not many volunteers slept well that night.  Early the next morning, I was informed that the Basse Cote region (in which I was located) was the first to leave.  The volunteers in or near the Koundara prefecture would spend the night in Koundara, and then leave for Conakry very early the next morning.  That didn’t leave much time to pack, say goodbye, and give instructions on my various projects that I had started.  In fact, I was still giving instructions when my regional coordinator pulled up.  Grabbing my things and giving last minute instructions to my counterpart, I climb into the Peace Corps 4 Wheel drive and wave goodbye.  But it wasn’t actually goodbyes.  It was more like “good luck” and “see you soon.”  And hopefully I can return in time to help get the crops in. Si Alla jabi!

By the end of August, the squash in (the rear of) this photo will be producing more squash than one family can eat.

The next couple of days I would like to forget. I endured a most uncomfortable car ride in the back seat of an SUV going as fast it can over very bad Guinean dirt roads.  To prevent me from seeing my breakfast and lunch a second time, I kept my eyes closed most of the trip (I forgot to bring my ginger chews with me… which are very effective at preventing motion sickness).  Friday evening we were de-briefed on the reasons for our removal, the current statistics for the Ebola outbreak (including the Americans affected), the current media frenzy over Ebola (given now that an American life has been lost and more may follow), the logistics of our departure, and Peace Corps’ expectations for our quick return (even if the exact date is uncertain at this time).  Lastly, the very long flight home gave me a swollen right ankle that I am still recovering from.

As I reflect on the time I’ve spent in Guinea, I am thankful for the opportunity to serve my communities on both sides of the ocean, and anxious to return to “the land of way too hot and not enough rain.”  Yes, many things about Guinean culture frustrate me: the lack of quality construction, the inordinate focus on immediate needs and lack of long term planning, and the violence that is so commonly used to guide the behavior of young Guineans as well for animals.   Yet many things equally make me proud: the work ethic of many Guineans, the leadership and integrity displayed by many in face of endemic corruption, the compassion and forgiveness displayed when people make mistakes, the persistence Guineans display when faced with unexpected hardship, and the enthusiasm many Guineans show for learning new skills and knowledge. 

Carrying water on one's head (with no hands)!  Very Cool!!!

Guinea is just like the rest of the world.  It is not black and white, and there are not always easy answers.  People make do with what they have in the best way they know how.  When they know better, they do better.  Without development assistance, there is no way to know better.  Quitting or disappearing may do more to reinforce current bad or ineffective behavior/practices than does staying, enduring objectionable behaviors, and demonstrating better methods through your example.   I am also not naïve to think that everyone is always looking out for my best interest.  There are people who are awesome to be around, and there are people who cause pain and frustration.  But overall, the joys and gifts that I receive far outweigh what anyone can ever steal or take from me.  I am anxious to return to my village and continue sharing what I know to help to make Guinea an example for the rest of the world to follow.

To be continued… 

I promise.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Walking a Mile in Their Shoes

(Sorry about the delay, but my computer has had problems with the display screen.)

written around June 20, 2014

With the rainy season having started, albeit slowly, planting season has arrived.   As I observe and participate in helping the communities get their crops in the ground, it is evident that I have much to learn, as well as to teach.  But when you are in Africa, you do as Africans do.

Most farming in Africa is small scale, subsistence farming.  Guineans, even if they do not consider themselves a farmer, sow a crop of some kind each rainy season.  The major cash crops that are typically planted in my region include peanuts, corn, and millet.  Also planted, but on a smaller scale, include okra, hibiscus, eggplant, and piment.  Because there is no electricity in my region, and (gasoline powered) machines are expensive, everything is done by hand.  This includes shelling the corn, pounding the millet, and shelling all the peanuts that are grown.  Some individuals or communities have been able to upgrade to a machine that processes the grain/nuts mechanically, but again, that requires money that not many people have right now.


Shelling peanuts with the ladies groupement in my village.

When the rainy season officially began back in May, most farmers began clearing their fields of weeds, saplings, and last year’s post harvest waste (typically corn and millet stalks.)  Unfortunately, they do this by burning the debris piles.  Ordinarily, these weeds and plant materials can be plowed into the soil, to slowly decompose over the next year.  But, when you are using a single blade plow pulled by a donkey or two young bulls, clearing the land of last year’s debris makes the work a lot easier.  Burning does add potassium and phosphorous to the soil.  But this generally is only short lived, and plants may not be able to completely access this sudden flush of nutrients.  Burning is detrimental to soil health for a number of reasons.  First, you lose precious nitrogen and carbon that are necessary for plant growth.  Second, you kill beneficial microbes that live in the soil and aid in a crop’s growth.  Lastly, you lose precious plant matter that creates humus and improves the soil’s overall health.  With sand being a primary component of the soil, the fields definitely could use some enrichment.


As for tilling the earth, using animals is the only option when you can’t afford to buy and maintain a tractor.  (I have seen tractors being used in Koundara, but they are rare.)  Initially, the young bulls must be trained to pull a plow and walk in a straight line (follow someone walking in front of them.)  Young bulls are used because they are much easier to handle.  Training involves a lot of whipping, which can lead to open sores on the bull’s back.  It is definitely an inconvenient truth about plowing with animals.   The animals endure suffering in order to be trained to do our work.  There is not an easy answer to this “problem,” except to help to develop the region so that people can afford to use tractors.  One option that I have thought about is to use a double blade plow with mature bulls which are accustomed to pulling a plow.  Once I’ve established some success, perhaps my community will be receptive to this idea.

My counterpart and his brother training 2 young bulls to plow.

My counterpart planting corn.
Another disadvantage to using the animals is that they can only be worked for 2-3 hours each day, so it is not possible to spend a couple of full days sowing your fields and be done.  At the moment, most crops in the region have not been planted due to the lack of consistent rain.  Yes, it is already well into the rainy season, and the rain is still inconsistent.  Villages here are getting a bit anxious, and just last night, my community spent several hours doing rain dances in an effort to affect a complex meteorological event.  Perhaps the lack of rain will remind the community of the pressing need to plant more trees,… many, many more trees. 


Because when you take, you must always replace!



Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In Service Training

I recently returned from a trip to Mamou where my group (G25) of fellow volunteers spent over 2 weeks in training and planning projects for our service.  In addition, many volunteers stayed an extra 4 days to attend a Youth Entreprenurship Training Program (YETP).

The training provided us with a chance to reconnect with one another, as we are all spread out all over Guinea.  Each volunteer gave a presentation on their village and what potential projects they had in mind.  The sectors in my class  (Public Health, Agroforestry) also had trainings with our program manager and staff to learn about new techniques and participate in field trips.  (Topics included: small scale irrigation, permaculture, apiculture, and nurseries.)  Of course, we all continued language training while in Mamou, and I chose to work on my Pular skills.

Our counterparts came towards the end of training, and we re-established our expectations we had for one another, listened to community assessments from a few volunteers, as well as heard from various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who we might work with in our community.

Finally, the YETP program took place from May 17-May 21, and was attended by numerous PCVs and their counterparts from neighboring countries.  Entrepreneurship in Guinea is still a developing concept, as many people in Guinea choose to sell the same products (agricultural and basic necessities) as their neighbor at the local market.  Not that a roadside vegetable stand isn’t a business, but it is not a very sophisticated one.  If Guinea wants to grow in the future, its citizens need to learn how to innovate and to market their goods and services to someone other than the villager down the street.  Since I am so close to the Senegalese border, it is a focus of my efforts to improve the livelihood of people living in my region.  The training met my expectations and covered most basics of entrepreneurship and small business ownership.  However, most Guineans still lack basic math skills, so doing calculations with income and expenses was a bit challenging, and more complex calculations (like breakeven analysis) were not even covered.   As you can probably guess, many new business ideas fail in Guinea because of the lack of knowledge of running a business.  This YETP program aims to change that.

I am not sure when and if I will be returning to Mamou again.  In another year, our class has a mid service training, but I am not sure where that will be held.  Though the weather in Mamou was a nice respite from the hot weather I am used to at my site in northwestern Guinea, there are enough positives about my village and region to want to return.  I found this to be the case with the other volunteers, as everyone has embraced and taken ownership in their site.  I, as well as my other PCVS, also became quite fatigued of the rotation of meals we are served at the conference center.  Like I said before, creativity is not something that the Guineans do well yet. Guinea does have a variety of sauces that are part of their diet, but a tomato based sauce hasn’t seemed taken hold in Guinea. Yet Guinea is a very diverse country, and each region has its own charm, so it does offer some variety. Except for the commute back to and from my site, Mamou was a good spot to relax, reflect and get rejuvenated for the start of the rainy season, and the rest of the year.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Running Over Sheep with My Bicycle and Cannabalistic Chickens

Sometimes things happen in Guinea that are both frustrating and funny.

To start, I was coming home a few weeks ago from my Pular class in the neighboring village.  As I’ve mentioned before, livestock here in Guinea are free range, which means they don’t respect traffic laws very well.  Usually, when they see something bigger coming, the animal which is standing in the middle of the road or path moves.  It sometimes helps as well to give a shout (or a honk of your horn) in advance to alert the animal of your presence. 

On this particular day, there was a medium size sheep in my path, and I started shouting as I approached the animal.  Unfortunately, the animal just stood there.  As I realized the sheep wasn’t going to move, I had to make a quick decision, right, left, or straight ahead.  I chose left.  Unfortunately, the sheep also chose the same direction, and it was quickly prone with my front tire over its mid-section.  After a quick moment of, “What the heck just happened to me?”, the sheep got up and trotted off.  After verifying that the animal was okay, I got myself upright and started to move forward again. 

As I looked in the path ahead of me, what I saw this time wasn’t an animal, but a child.  She was staring right at me, and saw what had just happened.  I pointed to the sheep and tried to explain in my best French that the animal that I had just run over was okay.  As I pedaled off, the child quickly moved off to the side and didn’t respond when I said Bonjour.

Now on to the chickens.  My village, like all other villages in Guinea, allows their chickens to range free.  This includes the baby hatchlings.  However, in areas where the dry season is hot and long, the wild birds tend to supplement their diet with village chicklets.  So a hen may lay and hatch 10 chicks, but after 1 month or two, you would be lucky to be left with even one.  In the rainy season, the wild birds can easily find other things to eat, so the village chicklets are safe.  But between January to May, it is difficult to increase the size of your flock. 

One of my first suggestions to my counterpart when I was installed at site was to guard the hatchlings in a separate hut until they were 1-2 months old.  Once they had reached a certain size, they would be too big for the wild birds to steal, and thus continue to live and grow into adulthood.  After losing yet another clutch of chicklets in February, my counterpart decided to try my idea.  So in late march, 12 chicklets were born, and they stayed in a hut normally used for grain storage.  For the first 3 weeks, only 1 chicklet was lost.  Then, another hen had 5 chicklets, and they joined the hut with the others.   But then the rat (maybe) came back, as my counterpart found a headless chiklet one morning.  Over the next week, I think one other chicklet died as well.

But then one day after coming home from Pular class, I stepped on a chicklet while trying to get my bicycle in the grain hut where I usually kept it.  I left the dead chicklet aside while I dropped my things off at my hut.  After getting briefly sidetracked, I returned to the grain hut only to find a headless chicklet.  That certainly wasn’t a rat!  One of these hens had developed a taste for chickens.  A couple days later, 3 chicklets were killed by one of the hens.  Finally, the second hen (which originally had 5 chicklets) was left with only one chicklet, and was jettisoned from the hut.  (Yes, her remaining chicklet eventually got eaten by a bird.)  So we learned it doesn’t work to well to have two new mother hens share the same hut.

The other hen was also eventually jettisoned from the hut, which became guests sleeping quarters during Easter celebrations, (prematurely in my opinion.)  At last count, she had two chicklets remaining.  I will have another post dedicated to my project to solve this problem.