made by nature

Rainy season in Rwanda”

When the rain falls in Rwanda, all outdoor activities come to a halt. Even the road – usually crowded and always busy with many bicycle boys, taxi-motos, and street vendors of all sorts – gets a break. Once I was caught unexpectedly in the middle of the torrential rain, and I had to run into a nearby shop to find shelter quickly. There, I found many others like me. We stood close together, and we all looked outside quietly. And there is something profoundly ‘natural’ about rain (especially the torrential ones) that makes you stop, watch, listen and just be absorbed by the water falling from the sky. I get a similar feeling when I find myself sometimes staring at an open fire or traditional cookstoves (or a fireplace for those of us living in a cold winter climate like Canada). The way these natural elements draw our attention is an indication, I believe, that even in a world where we are always distracted and fueled by all-things-made by men (by men I mean anthropocentric and not gender), that we are natural elements ourselves. Over 70 percent of our body consists of water, for example.

Today, most of us live in cities. While we enjoy the convenience of urban living, unfortunately, however, our natural senses are degrading and desensitised. Constant noises, 24/7 businesses, and streams of instant messages and information – leave us with little room for quiet space in our mind and heart to feel the connection with the environment (and the people) where we live in (and share with). Of course, I am not trying to romanticise the idea of “back-to-the-nature” or good-old rural life. I just wish we had a better balance between urban and rural development. We will be better off, in the long run, if we can integrate both technological efficiency (and convenience) and natural principles so that our advancement and (human) development are not undermining the greater ecosystem where we live and take part. However, it will be challenging to realise and feel this need (for more balanced social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development) if we are narrowly pursuing human (economic) development alone.

Pictures –
In line with the balance (and contrast) theme of this blog, last night we had a blackout, and I decided to take advantage of the difference between dark streets and moonshine. The contrast was spectacular. (Excuse the photography terms for those who are not familiar!) I delayed the shutter speed, increased the lens exposure to maximum and raised the ISO sensitivity to over 1000 to 3000 to get these images. Amazingly, even though the night-scape was dark, the moonlight was strong enough to brighten all the building structures, trees, and stars in their full colours.

Nature is awesome!

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Accepting the “not yet”

27 January 2015 –  Week 2

Learning a new language is an exciting intellectual and emotional process.

Not being able to understand what others are saying and not able to express your thoughts and needs in the local tongue can make one feel vulnerable and incompetent. This frustration can quickly turn into dependency on others (the locals who speak English or French). It’s more comforting and less stressful to hang out with local friends who speak English or French, but soon I realised that I need to face the challenge head-strong and accept the fact that “right now” I am not proficient in the local language but in due time, I will.

Uncomfortable as it may, I am more often than not in the position of listening and observing the context, surroundings, and people’s body language and mood. Surprisingly, by being attentive to the situation, I get pretty close to guessing the content of the conversation.

With the help of my local language teacher, Kalisa Jean-Paul, I am learning to read, write and speak in Kinyarwanda. Kinyarwanda is unique in a sense that it is used exclusively by people of Rwanda and Burundi (they call it Kirundi but it is almost the same as Kinyarwanda). Many words are influenced and borrowed from French and to some extent Swahili. For example, “ifurcheti” means fork (as “fourchette” in French); “igare” is bus terminal (as “gare” in French), etc. But some “pure” Kinyarwandan words and expressions offer a real taste of traditional wit and humour. Here are some examples.

Imbangukiragutebuka (ambulance):
This Scrabble-winning word reads in two parts – imbangukira (the one who wakes up) and gutebuka (quickly).

Kibonumwe (shooting star):
The literal meaning is “the one who saw”. When a group of friends walks at night, and one of them sees a shooting star and shouts ‘a shooting star!’ Others may follow suit, but the tail of a shooting star vanishes as quickly as the witness can scream it out loud. So the Rwandans call it, the one who saw.

Urare aharyana (May the best sleep where the bed bugs bite) and the reply;
Ahataryana harare umwanzi (The place where the bed bugs are not attacking is where enemy sleeps):
It is not a curse, but a good night greeting. The underlying logic (or wisdom?) is to wish for a good night sleep and an early rising wake-up (living and not dead) for the next day. Personally, I am not sure about this greeting, as I have previously suffered from bed bugs in Rwanda. I prefer to sleep like a (dead) log than being awake on a bed full of biting nightmares!

 

Rural development in Rwanda can be a rough ride but...

Rural development in Rwanda can be a rough ride but…

can it excel and accelerate like this?

can it excel and accelerate like this?

Home is where

22 January 2015 – It’s been a week since I arrived in Rwanda. Adjusting to local time, climate and living (change in language, currency, and the standards of living essentials like food, fire/electricity, water, and internet!) are not always easy, but I find the adjustment process much quicker and smoother this time. On my flight from Montreal to Kigali, I read some tips on how to beat the effects of jet-lag (Skylife January 2015).

1. Not eating before a flight and continuing afterwards can ease a certain area in the brain that organises sleeping, eating and hormone activities (A lighter meal, vegetarian option, for example, can also help).
2. Take Vitamin B before the flight.
3. Exercise for five minutes and meditating for 15 minutes can also help reduce the symptoms of jet-lag.

Once arrived at the destination, another technique that I find useful is to stand facing the sun in the morning (with the eyes closed of course). Direct sunlight helps to switch the body clock. Also, I exercise lightly but frequently to keep the body active and awake throughout the day. Most importantly, having a good night sleep takes care of the rest.
Thanks to the quick recovery, I was able to start private Kinyarwanda lessons at my good local friend Eric’s primary school (he is the headmaster at The Friends of the Children International School) in Rwamagana. I am reading, writing, listening and speaking like a ten-year-old and it brings me back memories of learning a new language when I first arrived in Canada. A circle of life? It’s the story of my life!

Some interesting differences between Montréal and Kigali – they are a world apart: geographically they differ by 47.4-degree latitude (Mtl 45.5 N and Kgl 1.9 S), and in Celcius, it feels 47-degree different (on the day of departure Mtl was -19 C and Kgl 28 C). They are both home to me now.

Il fait beau!

Il fait beau!

Elle fait chaud!

Elle fait chaud!

Artist: unknown Medium: cement floor, chalk.

Title: no title
Artist: unknown
Medium: cement floor, chalk.

 

do’s-and-don’ts for fieldwork – Pt. 1

Planning (pre-departure)
Do – We all need to do it. In fact, it is mandatory for any research work that goes through the ethical review process. A good part of the research design is about carefully walking through the most and least likely events and possibilities that may happen while in the field. However, regardless of how well you plan, outcomes are not guaranteed and fool-proof. You may be in good luck, and things fall in with the plan, or  things can fall apart in the least expected ways. (a crucial local research partner who was heading the district veterinary services went to Egypt for graduate studies, just two weeks before I started my fieldwork in 2011. I only found out a week before my arrival, c’est la vie eh?)
Don’t – The research outline serves best as a fieldwork map, but a roughly sketched one like on the back of a napkin kind. The essential landmarks should feature there (e.g. research questions and hypothesis) but don’t fret with the details for now. Having a foundation is necessary (you can make a standardised survey or interview questions), but it shouldn’t be the blueprint just yet. Terms and definitions in English or French will have to be translated into local language and approved by local people. For example, when I ask local farmers “how fertile is your land”, what are the various ways in which we perceive and understand by “(in)fertile soil”? It can be judged by colour, texture, smell, feeling (intuition), past yield history, hope, etc. Of course, it can be more (scientifically) precise, using pH and other chemical and mechanical analyses using soil sampling, but even with just subjective estimation, many characteristics vary and are subject to (individual) sensitivity.

Departure status: Delayed

Departure status: Delayed

Quick update – I am still in Montreal and waiting for the research permit result from the Ministry of Education of Rwanda. My local research partner organisation, the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research – Rwanda (IPAR-Rwanda), recently submitted our research fieldwork application to the ministry (and it may take up to three months) so now I need to exercise the virtue of patience. I should probably start practising Kinyarwanda (the local language) while waiting, but it’s not the same doing it on my own versus being there in person and studying it in full immersion. Maybe I can find a Rwandan community in Montreal?

The end: A new beginning

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog. Lots of happened since: started a PhD, living and working in a new place and meeting new people, and learning and training to become a researcher. I am about to begin my fieldwork in Rwanda once more. Like I have done before, through this blog, I plan to share with you “what it’s like to be and to work” in the field. (feel free to comment) Things rarely go smoothly in the field, and you have to “hustle” to get your research work done. I’ve been fortunate in my previous fieldwork but how will it be this time? Well, we’ll find out!

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23 September 2014, UK –

Today was my research outline seminar. It’s been already a full year since I started my PhD research at IDS (Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex). The research outline seminar (ROS) is where I get to share with other research fellows and colleagues why my proposed study is a worthwhile endeavour, what are the research questions and how I plan to answer these questions in the field. After an half-an-hour presentation, I was privileged to hear many constructive feedback and comments from research fellows and colleagues.

What’s next? I need to address the points raised during the ROS and have a more detailed blueprint of my research plan: selection of research questions, methods, and data instruments; relevance and feasibility of fieldwork sites and local stay arrangements; and research approval application and visa. Well, the fieldwork has already begun…c’est parti!

Cashew nut processing: from trees to treats

Project objective: Enhancing Sustainable Economic Development Through Value Added Processing & Market Access.”

 

One of the livelihood diversification strategies of the SAEV project is to introduce fruit and nut trees in the beneficiary villages. There is a strong dependence on wet season field crops, and the lack of edible fruit and nut trees in the community makes a strong case for both improving income generation opportunity and household food security.

Currently, the CLCOP nursery is selecting and preparing tree seedlings for distribution in August. One of them is cashew tree. The local climate is favourable for cashew production, and the processed nuts sell at a premium price both in rural and urban markets. Also, cashew nut processing work is often done by women – a significant income generating opportunity, particularly for women.

I found a women’s economic interest group (Groupement d’Intérêt Économique in French, GIE) called Bokk Diom who are successfully operating and marketing processed cashew nuts at Passy in Fatick region (about 40 minutes away by vehicle from Wack Ngouna). The GIE of Bokk Diom has been operating since 1987 and has over 35 active women members. Their organisation (and their product) has been recognised by both regional and national “Prix d’excellence” and their products are sold in Dakar and other various urban regions in Sénégal. To learn from their successful experience, I visited the GIE as well as the Federation of cashew planters and producers of Sénégal (also in Passy) and several cashew orchards. The principal objective of this visit was to learn through field observation and experience (by actively participating in the processing work) from a well-established women’s cooperative group as a mentoring partner for the SAEV women groups.

Working with women members at Bbok Diom was an eye-opening experience. The processing work is laborious and can be harsh to your body: firing oil-rich nut shells and cracking them by hand and exposure to smoke are all risks that one must assume in this work. Also, cashew shells contain high levels of anacardic acid and if spattered on the skin, though painless, it burns instantly (I learned the hard way). The workers wear gloves, but the cotton gloves don’t last long against hot oil and acid. Something should be done to protect them better. On average, each member works over eight hours to process ten to 15 kilogrammes of nuts a day. A remarkable concentration and patience.

Here is a visual journey of cashew nut transformation and processing.

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Pic. 1. Cashew orchard
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Pic.2. Sorting out raw cashew nuts for roasting
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Pic. 3. Traditional roasting method
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Pic. 4. First roast
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Pic. 5.  Cracking by hand
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Pic. 6. First layer of shell removed
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Pic. 7 & 8. Secondary roasting using traditional stove
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Pic. 9. Peeling the cashew peel
(Mère Fatou Bop on left and Seynabou Niang on right, president and vice-president of the GIE Bbok Diom, respectively)
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Pic.10. Ready for packaging (and tasting!)

Koutango mango

Koutango is about eight kilometres away from Wack Ngouna.

The village is nestled in the valley, and their well water is accessible throughout the year, which is a blessing if you have a vegetable garden or an orchard. It is also the home of “Professeur” Dia, my Senegalese godfather who gave me his family name. He is from Casamance, a southern province of Sénégal where it is well known for (besides independence-movement militias) its fruits and fair weather. He started a farm school (champ d’école in French) in Koutango nearly 40 years ago. Back then, nobody believed that fruits from Casamance could be grown in the area (Saloum region is known for its hot weather and arid landscape). So, he ignored this common belief and planted fruit trees: mango, passion fruit, lemon, tangerine, banana, pineapple, coconut, dakh, sapodilla and many others.

Today, his farm school is like a jungle – but of fruit trees. A real paradise he calls, “La Petite Casamance“. Whenever I visit this place, I can instantly feel relaxed and rejuvenated. Maybe it’s the beautiful music notes of birds, or it’s the shade of old forest garden. This year, the forest has a bumper mango production. There are so many that have fallen – even after filling everyone’s desire (including birds and ants) – that the forest smells like over-ripe mango. I am still amazed at different varieties of mangos that exist (the sweetest of all is peach mango – we don’t even bother to peel).

Regarding rural development and food security perspective, however, I realise how much of great food that we are wasting – over 60 percent may be lost at the orchard just because there is no refrigeration and adequate post-harvest storage facility. Moreover, there is lack of market channeling and transportation. Professeur Dia knows all this: his next project (if he can find the means) is to transform his surplus mangos into mango juice and jam. Meanwhile, he is trying to lessen the spoilage rate by working with village women. In fact, he offers work-for-mango scheme – anyone can come help with the orchard work, and they are entitled to all-you-can-pick mango. Of course, I gladly volunteered!Koutango is about eight kilometres away from Wack Ngouna.

 

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Pic. 1. Professeur Dia – a natural farmer
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Pic. 2. A mango tree bearing abundantly
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Pic.3. Over ripened mangos
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Pic.4. Current storage room
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Pic. 5. Eating peach mango from Koutango (photo credit: Professeur Dia)

Fieldwork update

To fully immerse into the local farming context, I tried farming, gardening and fieldwork.

I agree that doing-it-yourself is one of the most direct and long-lasting methods of learning. Like John Lennon says in Imagine: “It’s easier if you try”. So the importance and roles of farm visits and farm schools are recognised in our AEV project model. We are planning on organising a farmers’ visit to a nearby ‘champs d’école’ of orchard and vegetable garden in Koutango (more on this in the forthcoming blog).

The local project manager and a great friend, Abdou Koma Ba and I started a backyard vegetable garden. We cleared the backyard clean – used to be a household dump yard. With the guidance and teachings from Meissa (our project nursery specialist), we built over 12 beds (1.5 m wide and over 8 m long). The transformation was quite remarkable. From nothing, invisible life force began changing the face of our garden, but more importantly, it inspired us to believe in our efforts and vision of small-scale gardening in the rural community of Wack Ngouna.

 

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Photo 1. Jardin à Ground Zero

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Photo 2. Jardin – avant
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Photo 3. Jardin – maintenant
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Photo 4. Pépinière – avant
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Photo 4. Pépinière – aujourd’hui
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Photo 5. Et le pépinière apprenti
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Photo 6. (Green) thumb’s up
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Photo 7. Walking with the horse (millet seeding)

Fruitfully twenty years after

The rain is coming soon (in mid-June).

With the fast approaching rainy season, one of our project objectives is to provide the best available seeds to our village farmers. I visited the ISRA (Institut Sénégalais de recherche en agriculture) in Bambey to buy certified-quality seeds (millet, peanut, cowpeas and maize). French colonials first built this research station. What I like most about this place is that it has many old, tall trees providing beautiful habitat for birds and squirrels. It’s been my third visit so far, and I enjoy immensely (surrounded by trees and birds).

This time I had the chance to visit their citrus orchard. There, I found 20-year-old grapefruit trees, majestically spread over in dome shape, bearing many fruits! What a sight. Even more delightful, I savoured freshly picked grapefruit, and I could hardly taste their trademark bitter taste. It was all (well mostly) sweetness. Now I’m eager to buy a house with a large backyard or better, a farm estate to plant my new grapefruit trees that I purchased in March (in Montreal that is). Twenty years, I can taste the sweetness already!

 

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Pic. 1. Orchard at ISRA Bambey
 
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Pic. 2. Under the tree
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Pic. 3. Bearing fruitfully
 
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Pic. 4. Ripe for tasting!

Garab yi (Trees) Pt. 3

Part III – It’s quite amazing to find such a stark difference in tree population even within the same region in the Gambia.

Case in point – one of the project villages, Njau: the landscape is sparsely dotted with trees – bravely standing against the desert-like climate and environment. On the contrary, the riverside neighbours (less than 15 min away by car) are endowed with nearby water (and its favourable micro-climate) and can host a diverse variety of tree population.

Having a fruit and nut tree in your backyard is the wisest long-term investment for a family in this region. As part of our project work, we will introduce many fruit trees (25,000 trees over the course of four years) in the project villages (cashew, mango, orange, lime, papaya, etc.). However, the challenge is not about the number of trees – the number one problem is how to secure and ensure full protection against the long dry spell and grazing animals (goats, sheep, and cows). Mainly, because animals are roaming free during the dry season, it is almost impossible to keep them away from devouring our young trees. Fencing is the way, but it costs a lot. What to do? That’s my next task! To find a simple and affordable solution. I am still pondering though.

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Pic. 1. Njau village 1
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Pic. 2. Njau village 2
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Pic. 3. Njau village 3
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Pic. 4. Cashew fruit and nut shell

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Pic. 5. Mangrove trees

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Pic. 6. Mango attack!
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Pic. 8. Cedeem tree (local jujube-like berry)
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Pic. 8. Neem tree (grown everywhere in this region)
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Pic. 9. Perfectly trimmed tree line (max. height of grazing animals’ reach)