Monday, February 28, 2011

garden grow

I sure hope it does.

Behold, my super duper greywater management solution. The long straight pipe waters some plantains, whilst the pipe with the bend in it waters what will be a vegetable bed.

I was quite appalled to find, when I arrived here, that my shower and my sink both drained out into the yard. Hello sir, we're in a desert. And it's the hot dry season right now.

On top of that, the sink and bath drained out of two different pipes. However, I've finally managed to reroute the water for good use. The kitchen drains to a much trickier location, so for the moment I'm just washing all my plates into a bucket in order to use the water, until I find a better solution.


Constructing this system was a lot more trouble than I initially envisioned. The connections leaked. The end of the sink-drain was a sharp right angle and it was really hard to get a good fit/seal with the transfer pipe.

To make things ten times worse, PVC is notoriously hard to "reduce" (neck down to a smaller diameter) so I opted to build the entire system out of one-and-quarter inch size pipe (which is what the house pipes are) rather than a much easier quarter inch, for example.

The biggest problem it created was for the vegetable watering setup. Since the final delivery pipe is so large, it will never flood completely-- which would make it conveniently drip from every hole at the same rate

I had to carefully cut, and re-cut, and prop it at a good slope, and bend the pipe by hand into a straight-but-slightly-curved shape, and carefully adjust the alignment of the holes to get an even drip along the whole length.

After many hours of work (including moving rocks, composting, digging, and hitting and repairing a water supply line to my bathroom --I have no idea what it was doing in the middle of the yard), My system is finally complete. I still have to move some more rocks and dirt to fill up the area around the long pipe to reduce the tripping hazard.

Still, I'm quite proud of the work thus far. The second-biggest plantain is really happy (the biggest one is dead). It sprouts a new leaf every week.

I've sown beet seeds! I really hope they sprout soon. No chickens yet.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not

Most people who found out I was heading to Ghana asked me if I was going there for humanitarian or even missionary work. This was especially true with Singaporeans. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's certainly a little disappointing, and demonstrates a very narrow world view. Of course, it's not the faults of the people who hold them.

Singaporeans grow up quite sheltered, and most of them probably still think Africa is a land of starving children and that the only thing to do there is to preach the word of God or hand out sacks of rice and build houses.

This is quite the contrary to what I'm actually doing here!


I've had to explain my job to a lot of people, and it comes out different every time. It's actually a bit difficult and tricky to explain. Here's one attempt, for your benefit. But first, allow me to apologise. I'm trying really hard for most of my posts to be more pictures than words. This one is a big offender, but I had to write it, as much for posterity as for a convenient link to send to people if they ask what I do and I don't want to come up with an explanation.

I promise it will never happen again.


I work at IDE in Ghana

IDE's tag line is "creating income opportunities for the rural poor". I think that's a pretty good description, but the devil (details) is still under the hood. How exactly does it do this?

IDE does a special kind of business and industry development, focused on products and services that will give people who use them better options and opportunities to increase their income. To this end, it acts as some mixture of a coach and consultant to all the parties involved along the way: manufacturers, dealers, service providers, and farmers.

A key difference between IDE and other "do-good" institutions is the principle that the work of local businesses and industry will achieve poverty reduction. IDE doesn't actually do anything to stop poverty, but it helps train people and build systems to be good at it.

Furthermore, IDE operates in the "real world". While IDE is itself a donor-funded non-profit, everything they help build or create in a country is self-supporting, so as to persist long after IDE leaves the picture and to flourish and grow beyond that. Another key difference is simply that IDE ever leaves the picture at all: the businesses it works with are cultivated to become independent and self sufficient, in start contrast to the work of most "development" agencies.

I think they have the right idea. It's hardly romantic (like education or health or peace programs tend to be), especially not in the details, but I think it's an equally worthwhile cause with very achievable goals.*


So, this description is all still very theoretical, and what do I do, anyway?

Here's what IDE has done so far in Ghana (there are many more examples of what IDE does in a book called Out of Poverty, by its founder Paul Polak):

IDE found that there are a lot of (poor, small land area) farmers in Ghana who grow vegetables irrigated by hand. They carry water in buckets from rivers, or lift it from wells. By IDE's assessment, if they had more efficient means to use or obtain water, they could grow much more vegetables (the demand is huge in Ghana) and make a lot more money, especially during the dry season where water is scarce and vegetables are expensive.

IDE tested some foot-powered pumps for lifting water out of wells and found farmers' responses favourable. They worked with manufacturers who were willing to produce them and connect them to dealers who were willing to sell them, as well as a credit organisation who was willing to help farmers finance them.


I work on a few things. One of them is a system for monitoring the impact or result of this new product on the lives of the people who use them. Another related thing is a set of protocols for testing and getting data on new products for Ghana, such as drip irrigation kits that are on their way here right now. The last thing is improvements to different parts of the system where pumps get made and make their way to a farmers' fields where they are installed. It's quite a mixed bag of things.

So this is my curious and somewhat bizarre first job. So far, it's going well. In the coming weeks, you'll see (I plan to put up) loads of pictures of and very few words about all the goings on over here in Ghana.

*An aside: I think that every initiative that will get anywhere in saving the world** is rooted in business. Profitable ventures are the only things that reliably grow and multiply. A ton of successful health and social ventures in "developing" countries rely on innovative business models to deliver much needed products and services to the people who have the poorest access to them. This is a shining example.

**Not that I'm trying to save the world or think it's something to strive for at all***. "Save the world" is such a vague idea anyway!

***That said, I do have some principles. I'd much rather help poor people get richer than rich people get richer, for example, and I'd rather repair the environment rather than damage it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

small joys

-eating a mango so ripe it was like drinking mango juice

-washing my face afterwards

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hunky dory

It's hot here. Easily 40 degrees at noon, usually even higher. For those of you who use uncivilised units, that's 104 degrees.

I'm getting used to life in Bolga, slowly feeling out all the different bits of living.


This means taking trips out to Navrongo and Paga where IDE's work happens, taking everything in, trying to understand it all and fit into the spheres of work I've been assigned to (in a blog, coming soon!).

It was great to finally see the countryside and put faces to the farmers that IDE's work in Ghana (so far) revolves around. Every time I go to "the field", I get a headache. I wonder if it's the heat, or sun, or dehydration. I try to drink as much water as I can, but I can get never my pee to turn clear no matter how hard I try....

the road to Burkina

a desert oasis, complete with ornamental Baobab

a wild crocodile!

this old man is an amazing farmer (and a total sweetheart)

just check out his farm!


My humble abode is really coming together. This weekend, I went wild and bought a complete kitchen including a fifteen kilo LPG bottle, which definitely weighed more than fifteen kilos full as I carried it home on the back of a motorbike.

Next week: cupboards, beds and furniture.

My nutrition is probably twice as good now that I can cook for myself and no longer need to eat out. I can finally eat all the beans I want to, and loads of tomatoes and cabbages and vegetables that aren't cooked by boiling them in oil for an hour. I almost took photos of myself cooking but couldn't bring myself to (sorry).

Next time. Pinkie promise.


Another thing I'm getting terribly excited about is revising the water systems in my house. Right now, the kitchen sink, shower and bathroom sink all empty to different drains and patches of dirt around the house, which is a pretty sad and inefficient system for a desert.

By my reckoning, I could build a vegetable bed for every water outlet of the house with just a little bit of water routing PVC magic. I hear that most plants appreciate the extra nitrogen, potassium, and other goodies in mildly soapy water.


I'm also getting familiar with the neighbourhood, walking to corner stores and vegetable stands for groceries. I met by pure chance a gentleman on the street who'd just started a NGO doing water and sanitation infrastructure and education around the area. He was a neat guy. We sat and had soft drinks (since he's muslim) and talked about our lives and our work.

People here are amazingly friendly and good natured. The other day, a child stopped me on the street to tell me I'd dropped a few cedis (dollars), and nobody I meet here or who talks to me tries to sell me anything or gets in my face like people do in Accra and Kumasi.

Life here is nice.

Really nice. I tried to capture it in this blog but can't do it justice.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How indiscreet!

Well hello there, gentle reader.

I don't really have anything terribly exciting to report, except that I've moved to Bolgatanga in the Upper East region of Ghana.

It doesn't feel incredibly strange or new, although I think that perhaps it should.


I rode in a (crowded) car with my (heroic) boss, our (fearless) driver, and a (motley) crew of metal shop owners and an engineer, making over 800 kilometres of rough, potholed, checkpointed roads in two days. We drew straws to figure out the order of who got to sit in the back seat.

We watched the scenery change from this

(which isn't even as green as it gets) to this

(which isn't even as brown as it gets)

Up here, I've settled into a delightful little compound which contains a delightful little office in front where I work and delightful little house in the back where I stay. The walls are a simply delightful shade of pink, matching the red, dusty earth.

Sam (pictured) heads up the program here in the north, and he's awesome. We get along great, and see eye to eye on how we should work, and what we can do to improve systems and solve problems.

We also share a profound interest in turning our yard into a vegetable garden, routing greywater to feed our banana trees, and other gimmickry. Furnishing an empty house is something I'm completely unfamiliar with, and every bed and broom and bucket I put in it feels like a small victory.


So although this is all quite lovely, it doesn't seem substantial enough to me to build a blog out of. I don't feel very agent in this whole process...yet, but rather that life is stringing me along for a ride.

Rest assured, you'll read about all the juiciest news right here when the Real Work starts, when I start keeping chickens, when I get my hands on a bicycle and run crazy around this desert.


Here's an interesting fact to chew on: where I am looks and feels like a desert, but actually gets more rain than Iowa (one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world).

The Upper East gets no rain for most of the year, and then gets over a metre of it in just three months, around june to august.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

sama sama di mana mana

I've finally made it to Accra (after some delays),

and I'm strangely comfortable again. This has happened too frequently over the past two weeks. I left comfort in Oecusse to settle into Dili and feel at home for a day, before a brief stay with similar feelings in Bali, an excellent week in Singapore, a few days in Abu Dhabi and now, Accra.

Accra is big, and my neighbourhood is new to me, but I feel at home already: walking around the dusty streets and buying vegetables from the nice women who own a produce stand down the road.

However, I'm not going to be around here for much longer. I'm discussing my work arrangements with my (super amazing) boss and it looks like I will be sent to the hot, dry and windy Upper East region, where most of the action is right now. It sounds really really exciting. Much more exciting than I make it sound and much more than IDE lets on here.


This evening, as I wandered around the dusty neighbourhood, I watched huge flocks of bats fly across the sky. I think there could have easily been a few million bats. Looking up, there were thousands of bats in the sky at one go, and they never stopped coming.

I was completely speechless. Then I reached for my camera, and found that like an idiot, I'd left it in my room. I'll have my camera on me next time, and future posts will be full of Ghanaian wonder.


I need a compass. I'm really surprised I haven't bought one yet. I always navigate using the cardinal directions, and I usually get my bearings from the sun.

It's easiest in the morning and evenings (by finding east and west) but gets really confusing around noon, especially here at the equator. It's hard to tell north and south when the sun is directly overhead, even more so since at noon, shadows don't always point north or south because of the Earth's seasonal tilts.

Therefore, I need a compass. I don't know why I don't own one yet.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Terminal man

Okay, I've officially been in this airport for twenty four hours. I think that's long enough to say I've lived here.

Flight cancellations (riots in Cairo), new tickets, last minute surprises and calls to Ghana to get proof of employment, I've done it all.

Eating, reading, sleeping, exercise, music, movies, I could live in here...if I really had to. Of course, it's better than farting around outside in Dubai.


When I woke up this morning, I couldn't find my little clarinet in its little briefcase. When I finally went to the airport police's lost and found office, they told me someone probably took it thinking it had money in it.

Good day to you, sir.

Just like gazpacho

The Singapore education system is weird. Silly, even. All through primary school (which the colonies call elementary school) we had these big exams twice a year. The English ones always ended in an essay. Some questions asked us to discuss a topic or idea, others gave us a title or a sentence to start.

I hated these page long exercises in making up bullshit to satisfy teachers.

When I was in secondary one (which the colonies call the seventh grade) I had a friend named Geoffrey. Geoffrey was (and still is, I think) a very uncommon person. He (we) played a bunch of video games, and he introduced me to an Ender's Game-like (similarly high quality) series of science fiction books and other neat stuff. He is also extremely christian. I wonder how he is now.

For one of the big exams that year (either mid-year or year final), we had a particularly prickly list of questions. I'm going to tell you the story of the question Geoffrey chose and his answer, because it is pure, distilled genius.

It's brilliant because of its sheer ironic and comedic genius in the face of the stodgiest education system in the world, and brilliant because of the unlikely person who wrote it.

I remember it like it was only yesterday.

Keep in mind that the person who wrote this was twelve years old. Notice how he displays all the marks of an excellent author. The central conflict is simple, but despite the leanness of detail and characters, each is substantial and important. Geoffrey details and times his tale carefully, spiking it with irony and humour that is both innocent and self-aware. He demonstrates patience and instinct for writing and storytelling far beyond his age. You'll see.

I used some, but not many liberties in reproducing this text. I wonder if the original still exists.


PS: it's even more entertaining to have a friend read this to you

Question 1:

"Revenge is a dish best served cold"


Revenge is a dish best served cold, just like gazpacho.

Pierre was an excellent gazpacho chef. In fact, he was the world's best gazpacho chef, having won the World Gazpacho Federation's Best Gazpacho Chef title five years running. This year, he prepared to take the title for a sixth time. Pierre traveled all over France, selecting the freshest tomatoes, the crispiest onions and the most fragrant herbs to make the perfect gazpacho yet again.

However, Pierre was not the only chef with his eyes on the trophy. His nemesis Edouardo, with whom he had a long and bitter rivalry, also had designs to win Best Gazpacho Chef. Edouardo owned a restaurant just down the street from Pierre's, and it did not help their relationship that Pierre consistently had better business, and that Edouardo had come in second to Pierre in the Best Gazpacho Chef competition for five years running.

Under the lights at the stadium, hundreds of chefs were hard at work, slicing tomatoes and crushing garlic. The whirr of blenders filled the air. As the clock counted down, Pierre put the finishing touches on his world famous gazpacho, and put a couple of cold packets into the bright red soup. A family secret passed down through generations, the cold packets chilled the gazpacho to the perfect temperature.

Unfortunately for Pierre, his cold packets were not the last thing to go into his gazpacho. Not willing to leave the contest up to the judges, Edouardo had discovered Pierre's secret and slipped a pair of hot packets into his gazpacho while he was unaware.

To add insult to treachery, he stole two of Pierre's cold packets and put them into his own soup. With Pierre out of the way, and his own soup perfectly chilled, Edouardo won the contest by a fair margin. Pierre was the laughing stock of the World Gazpacho Federation for serving warm gazpacho.

Pierre was dejected, and vowed that he would take back the title that was rightfully his. He spent most of the next year in seclusion, honing his skills and perfecting his recipes. His wife and daughter were very supportive of him, in spite of his very public embarrassment believed that he had been sabotaged.

The next year, Pierre returned to the World Gazpacho Federation against all expectations, and was received with laughter and sneers. As contest was about to begin, Edouardo and Pierre glared at each other across the stadium, knives drawn.

Once again, the stadium was alive with chefs mincing onions and chopping peppers. The air was full with the sound of buzzing blenders. As time drew near, Pierre put the finishing touches on his gazpacho and dropped a pair of cold packets into the soup.

Edouardo planned to ruin Pierre and take the title for the second time, and once again whilst his attention was diverted, slipped two hot packets into Pierre's soup, and took two cold packets for his own.

Little did Edouardo know that they were not merely cold packets that he had stolen, but new extra-cold packets that Pierre had developed over the last year. The extra-cold packets were much too cold and quickly turned his gazpacho into ice. Pierre's gazpacho, with two hot and two extra-cold packets in it, came to the perfect temperature.

Pierre reclaimed his title to cheers and applause, and Edouardo was expelled from the World Gazpacho Federation for unsporting conduct. Pierre went on to expand his restaurant and write a number of highly acclaimed cookbooks, while Edouardo suffered a nervous breakdown and is now in a mental institution.


Okay, I took a few too many liberties with the last paragraph. The moral of the story is, don't f--- with the French.