Monday, January 29, 2007

GeekCorps Mali

It was my last afternoon in Mali, as I started psychic re-entry process into my normal existence, that I remembered that in real life, hey, I'm a geek. So I dropped by the offices of GeekCorps Mali, which as it turned out was just around the corner from where I was staying at Rebecca and Fode's house in the Quartier Hippodrome. And project director Matt Berg took time to show me around their labs and talk to me about their work.

GeekCorps Mali (GCM) is a USAID-funded project whose mission is to provide appropriate technology, technology transfer, and technical assistance in Mali. Matt showed me some of their innovations in the "appropriate technology" arena and they knocked my socks off. Like Bottlenet - a Wifi antenna built out of low-cost, locally available components and assembled in one of Mali's ubiquitous 1.5 liter mineral water bottles.

When we visited some villages in the Malian countryside I was surprised that children always asked us for our empy water bottles, till I saw them in use at local wells, where girls were refilling them from the pump. In the village of Amani in Dogon Country some Fulani women sold us a few liters of fresh cow's milk in a couple of these water bottles. (wow - was that good - and really helped to settle my stomache, which was somewhat agitated after days of pouring hot Malian pepper sauce on everything I ate.) Then I saw them being used with their bottoms cut off as funnels and as spigots on wells. But using them as a wave guide takes it to an entirely new level.

Another problem we witnessed first hand in Timbuktu is the near impossibility of keeping the Sahelian dust and sand out of computers. Geekcorps has addressed this by designing the Desert PC, a completely sealed system unit employing a low-power CPU and a heat-sink system that in effect uses a built in "radiator" rather than a fan to cool the device. Largely based on Geekcorps award-winning desgin, Via Technologies, whose components Geekcorps used in their prototype, is now selling the PC1 for use in desert conditions.

Matt also stressed that on all their projects GCM uses Malian volunteers - so that the tech skills employed will be transfered to folks living in the country. The big success story in this area is a young man named Moussa Keita, who has gone on from his volunteer work with GCM to found his own web development company, Zirasun.

retro-actively cross-posted from my Non-Profit Technology Blog.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

By the lake of the sacred crocodiles...

In the village of Amani in the heart of Dogon Country we had one of the most wonderful interludes of our up-country trip. It started out as one of what Doria termed the "Mr Roger's moments" -- events set up by the tour company to appear we were just taking part in local village life, but were in fact entirely pre-planned for our benefit... as in" oh look, here comes the cheif's Griot to pay him a visit". In this case a group of Fulani women came by selling milk as we sat in a local guest-house waiting for our lunch. But despite the fact that we found no language in common, it turned into a real moment of contact, and we all had a lot of fun.

This beautiful young woman arrived at the gig late, and was just a little shy about joining in.

After lunch we took a lot of pictures - the party kept getting bigger. Kneeling in the center with the donkey-headed walking stick is Ousman, our local guide while we were in Dogon Country. He was a really great guy -- and very funny. Really liked the dramatic pose. After lunch, we walked over to the pond to see the crocodiles..

I know the late Steve Irwin would have been walzting with this guy - but I kept a little distance. None of the locals seemed to worry about them at all as they lumbered in and out of the water and basked in the sun. My friend Gilles had warned me to watch out for the crocs in Mali - so I bought him a little bronze croc-art pipe from a vendor set up by the pond.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Jammin' in Bamako

On our last evening in Bamako, Fode surprised us by engaging this duo, on Kora and drum, to come play and sing for us at the house. What a great surprise. They were totally laid back, and not the least bit put out when Doria began to play along with them on this tiny one-string banjo uke-sort of thing whose name we've forgotten. Easier to just pick up than the 21-string kora! (notice Doria's henna'd hands!)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Djenne rooftops

I love this picture... it captures what I learned to love about West African architecture... click to see the full-size image. I snapped it from the rooftop of the Djenne Campment.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Old Segou

Segou is a bustling city on the banks of the Niger River. Old Segou, a few kilometers away, is a struggling village on the site occupied by the city when it was the capital of the Bambara kingdom founded by Biton Mamary Coulibaly in the mid 18th century.

The current chief of the village of Old Segou is a direct descendant of this illustrious line. We had a chance to met Chief Coulibaly when we visited the village, and hear about the efforts at economic development the village council is undertaking.
You can't guess from this very kingly photo, but during the entire meeting, the chief's two year old daughter traipsed back and forth among us in sneakers that lit up and squeaked with every step.

During the chief's tenure the village has installed a solar electrical generating station that is finally bringing some electricity into Old Segou, and with it the chance to use televisions, computers, and other media that can tie the villagers to the rest of the country. Unfortunately I was not able to learn much more about the details of this project.

Uppermost on Chief Coulibaly's mind today is mortality during childbirth - both the mother's and the infant's. The village is only 15 kilometers from a hospital, but for people without access to cars, in an area where roads may wash out during the rainy season, these 15 kilometers can spell the difference between life and death. So the chief is currently seeking funds to enable the village to establish a childbirth center.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Homebrew, Bobo Style

In Segou we visited a Bobo family who run a small brewery in their home, making millet beer in small quantities that they sell from a shed in their compound. While Mali is predominantly Muslim, and thus not alcohol-friendly, there are a number of peoples within the country who have maintained their traditional religions. Our guide Oumar referred to the Bobo people as "hard-core animists". Whatever that means, they certainly were into their beer, and I got quite a few pictures of their backyard brewing venture

Here the millet kernels are soaked in warm water in the sun until they sprout. This, as any self-respecting homebrewer knows, is the first step of the process known as malting. Grains are malted by encouraging them to germinate, or sprout, and then drying them out again before the process goes to far. This increases the sugar known as maltose in the grain.

The millet is then dried out in the sun, to arrest the germination process at the just the right point. I tried hard to get the picture of this grain a moment earlier, when the family pooch was snoozing in the middle of the sprouted millet, but he got up before I could get my camera ready.!

The next step is to pulverize the malted grain, and mix it with water. European brewers call this mixture a "wort". The wort is then cooked to remove bacterial impurities. These guys, operating in completey non-sterile conditions, cook their wort for a full twenty-four hours to kill off any microbes in the mixtures.
This is the stove where the wort is boiled for a full day. When the boiling is over, the wort is cooled, and yeast is added.

The mixture is allowed to ferment uncovered for another twenty-four hours. Since the fermentation is open, no real carbonation develops but a it does get a nice frothy head. I was surprised to taste it and find that in just 24 hours it had lost a good deal of its suger content and tasted like beer. The guys in the hut were drinking it down by the calabash-full.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Kids of Sikoro

Our nephew Fode is working with a grassroots health organization in Sikoroni, one of the poorest sections of Bamako. He and his colleague Niang took us on a stroll through the neighborhood one afternoon. We were amazed at the high spirits we saw in the community, despite the obstacles these folks struggle to overcome each day.

At one point on the walk I started to snap a photo of Fode and his daughter, Julia Fanta. More and more kids rushed in to join the photo, until finally we had this "class photo" shoot! That's Julia Fanta on Fode's shoulders down near the left, and Doria's sister Julie in the sunhat on the right.

Click an image to enlarge.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Marrakesh Alleyway

Doria took this great shot of the late morning sun slanting through a gateway.

Blue and Green

The blue color of the Majorelle gardens is all the more striking after you've been walking around Marrakesh for a few days, for the city is in general a city of cinnamons, rusts, and ochres.

This is our god-daughter Nila.

She's just joined the Michael Chekov Theater Company in New York City.

Click to enlarge.

Study in Blue

Here's a shot of our good friends Rebecca, Stu, and Nila who shared our Morocco trip with us, against the intensely blue museum in the Majorelle Gardens. We're so glad they came along and helped us say goodbye to Bill. I know there were others who would have liked to be there as well.
Click the pic to enlarge.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Farewell to Bill

Those who know us well remember that we had a sad duty to carry out on this trip. In those morbid talks folks our age find themselves having late at night, our friend Bill had often expressed the wish that when he died his ashes would be scattered in the Majorelle Gardens in Marakesh. Bill loved Morocco, and in fact had been talking about coming along with us on the Moroccan leg of this journey. Then, his sudden and bewildering death in a traffic accident.

We did not have any idea what the garden was like, and were shocked to find it a highly organized botanical garden, with the plants labeled in French, Latin, and Arabic, and guards along every path. So we had to forgo any ceremony, and give the poor guy a toss into the bushes when we discovered we were alone. A visitor sometime before us had carved this graffiti into a cactus when he, too, had found a moment alone. "This is the last time I will see Marakesh".

Been there and back

I had somehow imagined I'd be posting on a close to daily basis on this trip, but that's been entrely impossible. Now that we've been to that prototypically remote place, Timbuctu, and returned to Bamako, I can settle into writing about some of the most interesting moments of our adventure.