Thursday, January 21, 2010

Water and Sanitation and Extraterrestrial Amphibians and Penises on the Dogon Plateaus

Mali is home to one of the few most isolated and anthropologically fascinating cultures in the world: the Dogon tribe. Originally the Dogons were a paganist tribe which hailed from southern Mali where they worshipped the stars and extraterrestrial beings. That is not a misprint; the culture of the Dogon is predicated on the belief that they were visited by amphibious humanoids called Nommos hailing from a planet orbiting the Po Tolo - which in Dogon is the name of the smallest known seed. Dogon tradition espouses that Po Tolo is white in color, and that it is the heaviest star because it is made out of sagala - an uncomprehensibly heavy metal. This has also taught that the miniscule star rotates on its axis, that it has an elliptical orbit with a companion star as the focus, and that the period of Po Tolo's orbit is 50 years.

This star which does in fact exist is known to Westerners as Sirius B, an ultra-dense white dwarf orbiting Sirius A so small and so distant that it is invisible to the naked eye - technology to photograph this star did not exist until 1970. The period of Sirius B's orbit is now known to durate for exactly 50.04 +/- 0.09 Earth years. Centuries before Copernicus and Galileo, the Dogon also knew of the heliocentric solar system in that the planets revolve around the Sun, the rings of Saturn and the four major moons of Jupiter. All of this was taught by a culture which otherwise has very little history of mathematics or astronomy, no telescopic technology, and has for the past thousand years chosen to live in isolation from their neighboring tribes.

Dogon belief holds that there is a third star in the Dog Star system known as Emma Yar, and that this star is circled by a single planet from which the Nommos hail. To date, even Western astronomers equipped with the Hubble Telescope and the most sensitive photographic technology ever known to man have yet to discover a third member of the Sirius star system.

According to legend the Dogon were once the brothers of the Bambara tribe. But in the 12th century intertribal relations soured when the Bambaras and Fulanis adopted Islam en masse, because the Qur'an explicitly teaches that the enslavement of other Muslims within the Dar al-Salaam is haram, but that it is perfectly acceptable to enslave the pagans and idolaters of the Dar al-Harb. And so in the 12th century the Bambaras and the horseback-riding Fulani tribe began to raid Dogon villages for slaves. Over the next few hundred years the Dogons fled their ancestral homeland, completely relocating their society to the central plateaus by around 1490. As hostile as the terrain was, upon high vantage points accessible only by solitary mountain passes Dogon warriors with spears and slings could easily defend their villages from Bambara and Fulani raids.

The central plateaus were not such welcoming terrains either, for they were already occupied by the Tellem people. Very little is known about this ancient culture except for the dwellings they left behind in the caves and crevices of the cliffs. Judging by the dimensions of these stone and mud dwellings, the Tellem must have been a very diminutive people akin to Pygmies. Apparently the Tellem also lived in the plateaus because they sought sanctuary from hostile tribes – archaeologists have excavated so few of these huts because they are extremely difficult to reach even with 21st century rock-climbing equipment. Archaeologists believe that a millennia ago the climate of this region was so much more humid and lush that the Tellem might have been able to climb up sturdy vines to their dwellings - Dogon legend maintains that their predecessors had wings and sticky feet like geckos which allowed them to scale the cliffs.

The flightless Dogons have been unable to inhabit the cliff dwellings of the Tellem, but in the roughly eight centuries that they have been living on the flat tops of the plateaus they have built their own villages, most of them a good day’s hike from any road and accessible only by the dexterous foot, and nothing too heavy to be carried by humans can make it in or out. The style of the Dogon huts is fairly approximate to what they were building a millennia ago back when they coexisted with Bambaras and Fulanis in what is now southern Mali, but due to the hardships of this rugged terrain there are a few main differences. In my own Minianka village, logs and mud constitute 95 percent of all construction materials, but high up on top of the plateaus there are no riverbeds where one can find ample supplies of mud, there are very few trees large enough to make sturdy skeletons. In Dogon Country all structures of any sort were made primarily out of rocks fit together with no mortar. Centuries ago there were more than enough rocks large enough to build a decent hovel, but now that the population has greatly expanded they have to import dynamite to blast apart boulders into usable sizes.

Islam is gradually making headway especially with young Dogon men who have lived in the cities, but up on the plateau, most Dogons continue their traditional animist practices as though monotheism never happened. Here an elderly holy man manages a rock garden which he uses to predict the future.

He is drawing designs in the beds of sand accompanied by the arrangement of sticks, pebbles and cowry shells – which according to Dogon belief are posing questions to the all-knowing fox. In the middle of the night, the fox is expected to come and alter the designs and arrangements ever so slightly, and only the holy man pictured here can decipher the fox’s answers.

Dogon Country has all of its own special development problems. To begin, water access is prohibitively difficult; and obviously there are no bodies of water on top of these barren rock faces, there is very little precipitation, and the Dogons have built their villages upon cliffs which purposefully arduous to reach. The only way for Dogons to eat, drink, wash and bathe is to send their women down to streams in the valleys many kilometers away from the village, and every time a woman draws water she then has to climb many kilometers back up those very steep paths with a heavy bucket of water on her head. In some villages, we’re talking about an entire morning's trek just to draw a single bucket of water. Of course the water in these streams is most likely contaminated with feces and giardia cysts, so right from the bat the Dogons are suffering from more water-borne illnesses than other Malian tribes. Since the sparse water supplies are most immediately needed for drinking and cooking, the Dogons almost as a rule have insufficient water for hygiene purposes, and as a result they suffer from more prevalent trachoma, dysentery, etc. relative to comparable Malian societies. Water is so scarce for human needs alone, thus raising livestock and growing garden crops is exponentially more onerous. And since women have to spend so many additional hours merely drawing water, they have less time than even overworked Minianka women to engage in lucrative economic activity or gain an education.

Over the past half century missionaries and NGOs have been disproportionately active in the most isolated and underdeveloped cranny of Mali trying to help the Dogons achieve the basic necessities of infrastructure. For example, a French group paid the men of one village to carry cement to the base of the plateau so that they could build a catchment basin underneath a spot where rainwater drips down from the cliffs. Their cistern has done a decent job of catching water, but somehow it also caught frog eggs and fish spawn – yes, somehow fish spontaneously generated in an artificial inland pool uphill from any other body of water. So that particular village has more water now, but it’s so polluted with concentrated frog and fish feces that it is even less potable than that from the stream many kilometers away. The women of that village still have to go to the stream to draw water three times a day.

When it comes to my line of work, there’s only so much that can be realistically done. The water table is so far low under impermeable rock - the lowest point of some villages is multiple hundreds of meters above - that hand-dug wells are not a possibility. Even in the valleys below the cliffs, the only way that one could possibly reach the water table is by drilling a well with mechanized drilling tools which are themselves extremely heavy and difficult to transport by hand up and down mountains to the isolated valleys where they could be of any use to Dogon villages. In so many words, the equipment needed to simply drill a well is so expensive that the Dogon could never finance a well project on their own. But even if an NGO parachutes in and drills a well in the valley to provide a particular village with a source of potable water, the women of that village still have to make their arduous hike down to the valleys and back up to use any drilled wells or hand-pumps.

Even worse than the water access problem, there is an unavoidable waste management problem inherent in living on top of a plateau. Even the mud brick “traditional nyegens” built in my own village are not practical technologies in Dogon Country – they’re living on top of solid rock, and short of a ready supply of dynamite it is impossible to dig a latrine pit by hand. Technically, one could theoretically blast a latrine pit with dynamite, but dynamite is already so expensive that the impoverished Dogons would never use it for anything other than to provide rocks for their own houses.

When Peace Corps Volunteers come into these villages to live for two years, PC Bamako has to first come in and ensure that our own housing needs are adequate - and Peace Corps regulations entail that doing as the Dogon villagers do and pooping out by the pooping rocks is quite inadequate. That means that if a Volunteer is going to live in a Dogon village, PC Bamako usually has to come in beforehand and build these revolutionary new “toilet” things just so that we can live there ourselves. It is next to impossible to dig a latrine pit down into the solid rock plateaus, so they have to take rocks and cement and “dig” up. Instead of digging a latrine pit, they build up a large one-story basin which serves as an above-ground latrine pit, and so our raised nyegens in Dogon Country are on the 2nd floor.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Underdevelopment is a Universal Shame

As long as I’ve been alive to remember, not a whole lot has ever happened in my hometown of Vista, New York. Back when I was ten years old there was a big to-do when an Associated supermarket sprang up in our sole strip mall, but they shut their doors just a few years after it opened because our town’s demand for groceries was too small to keep a full-size supermarket in business. There was an Italian restaurant along a little pond behind the strip mall which couldn’t lure enough customers as it couldn’t be seen from the road, so it closed and a new manager set up a new Italian restaurant – which quickly went out of business, and that was replaced by a third Italian restaurant – which also went out of business. For a couple of years Vista boasted a carpet store – which just as soon as it opened up went out of business, and of all things a used sporting goods store – which lasted maybe six months before it too went bankrupt. The only real economic development that I can think of over my 22 years of knowing Vista is when the shopping center sprouted a shop for beers by the caseload and keg and a merchant of wines and hard liquors – to my understanding these businesses are thriving.

Vista is such a peripheral enclave of Westchester County in that we are too small to justify our own infrastructure – we have no train station, no library, not even a post office of our own, and still we are too far from the larger suburbs of Mt. Kisco, Bedford Hills or Katonah to make use of theirs. Until the Katonah-Lewisboro School District was carved out in the 1950s, Vista residents went to school in Connecticut. You see, Vista is so far from the larger suburbs of New York that for many practical purposes Vista residents had to leech off of the state next door. By the time cell phones became widely used in the late 1990s and 2000s, Verizon and Nextel built cell towers in all of the New York suburbs and all of the Connecticut suburbs, but Vista was so far between both that it couldn’t get reception from either. Vista is so distant and relatively isolated that if its residents wanted to be able to use cell phones anywhere within the 533 neighborhood code, the hamlet would have to built a cell tower of its own.

The lack of cell phone coverage in my bucolic hometown is quite a serious matter. All of the landline phones in my parents’ house are wireless, so when the power went out we had no functioning phone at all – though we would if our cell phones could find a signal. When an ice storm this past month turned our vital artery Rt. 123 into miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, none of the commuters trapped in their cars could communicate with the outside world to tell them to avoid the road. Once when I was 16 years old I was pulling out of a parking lot and another driver raced around a blind corner and crashed into my side and my car spun out in a 720 degree turn until it plowed into a snow bank – though we both had cell phones, neither I nor the other driver could call out for help and we had to wait for someone to physically drive to the Fire Department to call in a police officer from their two-way radio. Especially for emergency situations, public safety in Vista is endangered by the lack of reliable communication infrastructure which exists just about everywhere else in the populated territory of the United States.

For more than a decade there has been considerable demand, and multiple plans have been orchestrated to put up a cell tower on the property of a church along the only considerable road in town. For years each plan has floundered, because town meetings on the subject were dominated by a coalition of overprotective soccer moms who were terrified by the fear that the radio waves emitted from a cell tower might stimulate cancerous growths in the healthy tissues of their children. Of course, medical researchers have yet to conduct any study linking cell towers and cancer; if anything¸ contemporary understanding of oncology suggests no reason for such a link to exist. Even the American Cancer Association espouses that since cell phone radio waves are of such low energy levels, the wavelengths of radio waves are so long, and the magnitude of exposure to radio waves emitted by cell towers is so insignificant compared to microwaves, televisions, radio sets and cell phones themselves that “cell phone antennas and towers are unlikely to cause cancer.”

Though the mantle of science and reason hasn’t stopped the Sheila Broflovsky’s of Vista from holding up progress. Even though the medical fallacy is gaining less traction, the voices of reaction now put up claims that a cell tower conflicts with “the wooded landscape and the rural character of the town”; in so many words, we can’t have modern technology which is all but necessary to do business and simply function in the world nowadays because some people are under the delusion that their suburb of the New York metropolitan area is in fact a clearing of log cabins in the Adirondacks.

The Town Hall debate was often re-enacted at our dinner table between my father (a psychiatrist) and mother (a real estate agent):

“I am licensed medical professional, and I can tell you that a cell tower is not going to give anyone cancer unless they were to lay down with their head directly next to the transmitter for 20 years! If people in this town are seriously worried about the level of radio waves emitted from a cell phone tower, then they shouldn’t put a cell phone next to their head, they shouldn’t stand next to their microwave oven, they shouldn’t ever listen to the radio in their car!”

“That doesn’t matter! The people of this town don’t want it!”

“Yes they do! Everyone in Vista has a cell phone, but they have to drive 30 minutes to the next town over to be able to make a call!”

“Well maybe we want a cell tower, but Not in My Back Yard! It’s going to be ugly and drive down home values!”

“Isn’t your business booming in all of the other towns? Maybe people value being able to actually talk to one another?”

“Some people just don’t want it, and everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. It’s a free country, isn’t it?”

“You know, one of my patients suffers from panic attacks every time she sees an Asian man in a pickup truck - maybe society should accomodate her phobia with a town ordinance prohibiting Asian men from driving pickups?"

When I’m sitting in my little Minianka village in the Malian bush and my parents call my Nokia cell phone via Skype, I find it hard to believe that the villagers of Vista are still debating about this. I find it even harder to believe that educated Americans in the year 2010 can be so terrified of technology that they don’t quite understand, and that their unfound fears are strong enough of a political force to prevent such unarguably necessary development. And I find it absolutely humiliating that I live in a village of mud huts and millet stalks with no electricity, no running water, no trash collection and no dirt trail worthy of the word “road” – but I have 5 bars of cell coverage 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and my parents in Vista, New York can’t even receive my text messages because my hometown has been for so many years too pigheaded to put up a cell tower.

My Minianka tribesmen neighbors are afraid of lots of things - they believe in witches and wizards and black magic, they are scared of frogs, goblins and demons I which supposedly wander the fields at night. But unlike the villagers of Vista, they aren't scared of cell phone towers. The people here are proud of their cell phone tower which dominates the skyline of one-story huts - to them it symbolizes progress and modernity, it demonstrates that their otherwise backwater village matters enough to have a place on the map.

The chief of my village is an old illiterate, toothless man named Abdoulaye Sogoba. He doesn't have a phone himself, but he still understands the value the service has for the rest of his neighbors and their market. In conversation, Abdoulaye let me understand how important is the cell tower of Sanadougou.

"Nowadays, phones are necessary to do business! No one can do any serious business without one!"

"But what about back in the days before Sanadougou had a tower built? Aren't you sad about the traditional way of life that is now lost?"

"Nothing has been lost! This change is only good for us! The time of not being able to speak with other villages is a thing of the past, it is time to move on."

"What about all of those other little villages that don't have cell towers? What do you think about them?"

"I feel pity for any village without a cell tower. Without a cell tower, the people cannot experience any development."