Friday, March 13, 2009

Human Sanitation with Feline Inspiration

So I woke up one morning and let my kitten out to pee and set up my solar panel to bask in the rising Sun. Usually I start my days walking down the street greeting everyone in my village and try to get them excited about treating their wells and drinking water. But today I just felt like venting to my kitten.

“James Brown, what’s the point of it all? The people of Sanadougou tell the Peace Corps that they want me to help them with water sanitation, I spend all day teaching people about water-borne disease prevention and they don’t do a damn thing I tell them! Every day I tell people they should drink pump water instead of well water and how they should filter their drinking water with cloth and treat it with bleach and yet they continue to drink worm-infested well water because they say that it tastes better than pump water!!! And I know that they’re not doing anything differently because at night I can smell all the gaseous sulfur from the aggregate diarrhea of everyone in this village! Why do I do this?!?! Why am I here?!?! Why?!?! Why?!?! Why?!?!

James Brown replied, “Get a grip on yo self Madu! You gotta understand! The Bambara people have been living like this for thousands of years! Almost nuthin changes! You been here six months, and you frustrated cuz you ain’t changed nuthin yet? Take a chill pill!!! You gotta learn patience!!!

“You got a point there James. But I don’t understand how people who tell me every day how sick they are and how poor they are can be so resistant to change. It’s just absurd.”

“Put yourself in their position! You’re a Bambara peanut farmer, dig? And some white dude from the suburbs waltzes into your village and tells you you’re doing everything wrong! This honky tells you that diseases come from tiny animals that you’ve never seen! Then he starts tellin’ you that wizards ain’t real! You’d think that punk be talkin' Jive! You'd say ‘screw you, honky!’ You wouldn’t do a damn thing different!”

“But what am I supposed to do? Stop trying to teach people about giardia and amoebas?”

Al – my solar panel – chimed in. “No, Zachary, I would advise that you continue on your current course of action despite its lack of easily measurable achievement. For example, the other day Moustapha told you that he treated his well with liquid bleach like you told him to. I would consider that a success unto itself.”

“C’mon, Al, Moustapha is just one person! There are like 4,427 other people in this village! At this rate they’ll all be treating their drinking water in the year 6224!”

“I would not be so pessimistic, Zachary. When I presided over the first Senate hearings on global warming in 1988 I was received with such skepticism that I was practically laughed out of the committee chamber, for at the time this phenomenon was understood almost exclusively within the academic community. In my 1993 environmental treatise Earth in the Balance I explained the climatological science in relative layman’s terms, and my message reached a substantially larger audience. But it was not until 2006 when I produced and narrated the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth that public opinion was so roused in favor of a national campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and only now in the year 2009 does it look like public opinion has shifted to such a degree that the cap-and-trade program which I have advocated has a chance of passing both houses of Congress.”

“Al, you lost me. What does global warming have to do with diarrhea?”

“Actually, the two phenomena are not mutually exclusive, for methane actually constitutes one of the most significant biogenic greenhouse gases – and the amount of methane released by the human digestive system actually spikes due to cases of giardiasis and amoebic dysentery. If we could provide potable water supplies to the population of roughly 2 billion persons currently lacking, then that could make a consequential reduction in the annual tonnage of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, the point of my analogy between my campaign for sensible climate policy and your campaign for improved water sanitation practices is that you should look into trying new forms of media to broadcast your message to a wider audience. For example, I used cinema and the Internet...”

“No, Al, this has nothing to do with the Internet. The people in my village ooh and ah when I show them how the velcro on my sandals works. Three people in the Mayor’s Office know how to type birth certificates on a typewriter. Just forget about the Internet! If I am going to teach people anything about water sanitation and for them to actually do it themselves it has to be simple enough for a toothless, illiterate peanut farmer to understand. It has to be so simple and so obvious that they can see it for themselves with their own eyes. If it entails concepts that I learned in 9th grade Biology class then it is too complicated.”

“’Scuse me, fellas! I gotta take a pee!”

“You’re excused, James.”

James Brown proceeded to dig a little hole in the sand with his front paws, urinated, and then moved forward and with his back paws pawed sand back on top of his pee hole.

“James, what did you just do?”

“Nuthin! I just got to pee! And when I got to pee I got to dig a hole!”

“I know you dug a hole, but why?”

“I don’t know! I… I… I just got to pee! Every time I got to pee I got to dig a hole! That’s just the way it is!”

Al lectured, “The common house cat covers up its own liquid and solid waste because of its instincts as a carnivorous animal. The scent of feline urine is particularly strong due to its high concentration of urea relative to water and is used among the wild cat population to mark one’s territory; however, potential prey have over millions of generations learned to avoid areas marked by the scent of cat urine. Over time, cats began to realize this as wekk and hence they have likewise developed the instinctive behavior to bury their waste so as to hide the scent.”

“THAT’S IT!!! We need to build a network of rudimentary septic tanks!!! James Brown, you’re the most ingenious talking cat ever!!!”

“Damn straight! They don’t call me the Kitty Cat of Soul for Nuthin!”

So I emulated the ingenious water sanitation infrastructure designed by my kitten and began to build a soak pit. I went out in the back of my nyegen where the wastewater flows out into the garden and plotted out a hole. A soak pit should have a minimum of 1.7 m2 of volume for each person who uses it on an average day, and since I am the only person who lives in the mud mansion of Xanadu that meant that I had to dig a hole roughly 1.2 meters long, 1.2 meters wide, and 1 meter deep. Easy, right?

No. In the midst of dry season – six months since the last rainfall – the dirt is as hard as a rock. Before digging anything I had to take a pickax and smash the ground apart. But even a pickax alone did not do the trick – after smashing the ground for an hour, I would have maybe a couple centimeters of debris to excavate. It was a little easier if I dumped a bucket of water on it at night and came to smash the moistened dirt in the morning, but the water would only moisten about 5 cm below the surface each time. Eventually I was able to sit in my pit and use the ax head to chisel the walls flat. Never was I able to produce enough debris to fill a single shovel – I could only dig this pit with a small garden spade.

The most fascinating aspect of me digging a hole was… that it was so goddamn fascinating. Rumor quickly spread around the village; “Did you hear that Madu is digging a hole?” “Praise be unto Allah! This is the first time since he’s gotten off his fat bobaraba since he got here!” And unless you have been the only white guy living in an African village you’d never believe it, but pretty soon there was a crowd of people gathering around to watch me. Only to a people who enjoy watching shitty Brazilian soap operas dubbed into another Western language they don’t understand could this actually be entertaining. “Holy Goat Meat! Madu is digging a hole! I’ve never seen anything like it!” This actually made my work go significantly slower because every 15 minutes I had to stop and explain what I was doing “Well you see, I’m digging a hole…”

What was actually kind of encouraging is another phenomenon kind of like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence – if you start a project out in public, other people want to finish it for you. Ten year old kids would point out that in comparison to their fathers’ thick, calloused hands hardened after decades of hard labor in the fields, my hands have the soft and delicate skin of an American who has worked in offices clicking buttons all of his life. “You can’t dig a hole!” “You should sit and rest!” and they would try to take the pickax from my hands and do it for me. After having my manhood called into question by ten year olds, I had to lock my gate so they could only watch from outside.

After two weeks of picking and chiseling downward I eventually I dug my 1.7 m2.

And me digging this hole seems to have done its job. Pretty soon everyone knew that I had a hole in back of my nyegen. Word eventually got around to the dugutigi, so he and his crew of old men came to inspect my hole. They thought that it was so awesome that they wanted one in back of every last nyegen in the village, and I was summoned to the gwa of the elders.

(dum dum DUUUUUUM!!!! To be continued!!!!!!)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Beware the Tubab-in-a-Taxi Two Step

The Westerner in Africa should be extremely vigilant about crime because 1) it is a fact of life here; and 2) if you are a Caucasian, Asian or Latino you stick out like a sore thumb. The hoards of jobless lumpenproletariat who come to the cities in order to find money are often quite bitter that the gravy train isn't as easy as plentiful as they hoped it might be, and if they see a foreigner walking down the street it is fair for the money-seeker to assume that that Tubab has in their pockets more cash and fancy electronics than they have ever seen.

An Important note: African-Americans are not exempt from this assumption. When actually on the African continent, they key word in the identity of an African-American is "American". If a man with black skin is wearing fifty-dollar sunglasses, hundred dollar sneakers then he is a "Tubab". If he can read and write and speak English then they are a Tubab. If a woman is wearing pants then she is definitely a Tubab. If Malcolm X were walking down the dirt roads of a Bamako slum, he would be considered a Tubab. And the pockets of Tubabs are bulging with cash.

Hamd'allah, I am now in my ninth month of living in Mali and have somehow managed to avoid serious theft. There was one time that the change for my bus fare was being passed back to me as is custom and the fellow in front of me decided to pocket my 500 franc piece and wouldn't cough it up until I pressed my nails into the soft spot of his wrist until it finally went limp. But other than that I have somehow enjoyed a streak of good luck which one hopes will continue.

The most important thing to do in order to avoid theft is to simply not afford would-be pickpockets or muggers an opportunity. If you for any reason find yourself in Africa, keep in mind that what you might consider to be a necessary fashion accessory can wait for another day. There's no point in wearing a watch because nothing is ever on time anyway. Don't ever bring your camera out at night if you ever count on seeing it the next morning - let someone else record your smiling visage at the dance club for facebook posterity. If you go out wearing fancy earrings, necklaces or bracelets of any value you are just asking to get mugged.

Something unique to Africa is that one should never enter a taxi alone and sit in the shotgun seat. New York taxis post a passenger's bill of rights which say that you are entitled to a seatbelt, a radio and incense-free atmosphere and a direct ride to your stated destination by yourself. In Mali... seatbelts?... he he... most taxis have shattered windshields and emanate smoke like they are about to explode. And the most important thing to know is that it in a culture where time is defined by the sun's position in the sky and punctuality does not exist it is perfectly customary for cabbies to pick up additional passengers en route.

If I were a down-on-my-luck Malian roaming the streets of Bamako with my buddies in search of nonexistent jobs and I could really use a cigarette - and there's a taxi idling at that intersection with a white guy in the shotgun seat! - there's a way that I could pay for that cigarette and maybe even an iPhone and a motorcycle. It's called the "Tubab in a Taxi Two-Step" and it's really simple; I and my buddies flag down that cab, sit in the back seat, and when the time is right we whip out our switchblades and put them gently along the Tubab's and for good measure the cabbie's neck and demand their wallet, their phone, and their purse/backpack. Due to the configuration of the taxi and the fact that taxis are as a rule private in America and Europe no alleged Tubab would ever see it coming, and they would be 100 percent helpless.

Apparently any cabbie worth his fare should know about this trick and should never stop to pick up more passengers with a Tubab in the front seat (I learned about it from a friendly cabbie who did just that and taught me this invaluable lesson about why I should not sit shotgun). But there are also less-than-scrupulous takisitigis out there who will precisely because they know where their buddies hang out and later that night they will get a cut of the bounty.

So in a conclusion, leave your valuables and credit card and wallet in the hotel - they are useless anywhere beyond your hotel, bring only small bills and change, try to avoid the unlit streets when alone at night, if you are alone take a cab, and when you do take a cab always always always sit in the back seat.