Friday, July 4, 2014

Research, Education, and Outreach: Ghana, June 2014 (June 9th - June 14th)

June 9th, 2014

The project I am working on is called ReBUild which stands for Research and Education in Buruli Ulcer, Inundations, and Land Disturbance. It is a multidisciplinary collaboration between Penn State and the University of Mining and Technology in Tarkwa, Ghana. The project is trying to tackle the very perplexing issue of a relatively under-researched disease called Buruli Ulcer.

Buruli ulcer is like something out of a horror film. First described in 1867 but named for its first recorded outbreak in a small region of Uganda in the 1960’s, it has since become somewhat of a localized epidemic, especially in West Africa. The disease itself is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium ulceranus which is related to the infectious agents that also cause tuberculosis and leprosy. The bacterium (MU for short) infects an individual through a still-unknown process; once infected the individual begins to show preliminary symptoms before the ulcer forms. The bacteria then begins to slowly eat away at the skin and sub-cutaneous fat of the body, opening up potentially huge swaths of flesh to the environment. These ulcers can spread laterally across great sections of the body and they can also begin to cause secondary infections of the muscle tissue and bone.

Buruli ulcer, like TB and leprosy, is completely treatable with antibiotics if caught early. Unfortunately, as a lack of understanding, education and resources are what typify this disease, it often goes untreated, especially among children. All too often, rampant BU infections surge out of control and end in massive deformities, muscular atrophy, debilitating loss of limbs, and even death.

The terrible nature of the disease is only compounded by the fact that it really should not even exist in the first place. The little that is known about the nature of BU is that the bacterium that causes it is waterborne. As a result, outbreaks and endemic communities seem to emerge in concert with land-use change and especially certain kinds of land-disturbance that increase exposure of stagnant water bodies. By default, “land-use” is greatly dictated by economic disparities, both on a global scale and within local communities. Such problems have only been accelerated in the past few decades by the additional impacts of climate change in West Africa resulting in more intense and more unpredictable rainfall events.

So what exists today is an under-treated, under-researched disease with potentially debilitating impacts on thousands of lives that is driven primarily by forces beyond the control of those who suffer from it.

The aim of the 5-year long ReBUild project is to identify a more clear mode of transmission, adding to the knowledge and prevention of this disease, while at the same time directly supporting local communities in regards to education, professional development, health care, and outreach. My role in all of this is that of the research assistant, a position that entails data management, analysis, communication, and working with a team on raw data collection from the field. So far, this has proven as exhausting and challenging as it is fulfilling and enjoyable. I have had the amazing opportunity to work with local people, to hear their stories, to work alongside them in a number of ways, and to absorb this beautiful country along the way.



June 10th, 2014

Diaso is the end of the world. It seems fairly self-evident even to the casual observer but when Petra, our project leader who has worked with development in over 80 countries over the course of 25 years, looks me straight in the eye and tells me so, I believe her. It’s not that Diaso is so far removed or somehow so remote—the best way to describe it would be like the drop-off at the continental shelf where the ocean goes from a few hundred to several thousand meters deep within the course of a few kilometers distance. Few people who don't belong in Diaso ever go to Diaso, and very little other than illegal gold comes out of it. Accra might as well just be another planet instead of the capital of the same country.

The more seasoned member of our research team tell me that the road has been improved dramatically since they first started visiting 5 years ago. The hotel we stay in, generously named “The Peace Hotel”—the only lodging in town—is a dive, although this as well, I am informed, has gotten better in the past few years. There are a precious few places to buy food in town, although beer proves somewhat easier to find.

Diaso is a haphazard collection of dilapidated buildings whose disorganization creates a labyrinth of side-streets and narrow alleys. Each day they are alternatively filled by children and chickens and women collecting water and goats and stray dogs. When it rains, water snakes through these causeways and carries the garbage and loose soil downhill towards the river. Some of the oldest houses stand out not because of their prominence, but because of their relative elevation. Once constructed at ground-level, the earth around them has worn away in the intermittent years leaving behind tiny wooden houses precariously balanced on top of meter high pedestals of compacted earth. The effect is curious and somewhat charming and it lends strange dynamic to an otherwise sleepy town that has risen from the surrounding forests with seemingly little intention.



June 12th, 2014

Today on our way back we stopped at a small clinic in the town of Nkotumso that specializes in treating BU patients. It was a small, unassuming facility, certainly not anywhere near the standards we are used to in the states. There were lots of people, women and men, but also lots of young children. Some had small spots and open sores indicative of the relatively early stage of a Buruli Ulcer infection; others had much more extensive infections, covering entire forearms, hands, lower legs, or thighs,  requiring constant dressing and re-dressing. But despite the alarming appearance of these massive ulcers, they are mostly painless to the patients: the MU bacteria that causes the Buruli Ulcer secretes a necotizing agent that also completely numbs the area. So the dejected looks on the faces of the victims comes more from grim prospects and social stigma than from actual physical pain.

In the communities, we had seen a number of people with BU scars, the hideous results of having large-scale untreated infections; those that manage to survive the ulcer are left with widespread scaring and debilitated or amputated limbs. But seeing young children with active infections was affecting on a whole different level. This is a disease that should not even exist. And yet, it continues to spread as land degradation and climate change drive the conditions that make BU an epidemic in certain communities in West Africa.

Today was a very sobering day.



June 14th, 2014

The tidal waters along the coast are brown and dull against the sky, constantly fed by the alluvial streams that rush towards the ocean as the result of heavy tropical rains. Further out, beyond the breakers, where the fishermen gather in their slender wooden boats with their home-spun nets, the water is pale and gray. It blends with the horizon with the help of a persistent haze that hangs along the beaches and over the waves in the early morning. The moon has not yet set and it sits directly opposite the sun in the sky. They glare at each other over the small outcrop that is Accra until eventually the moon is overtaken by rolling clouds.

On the beach, a man and his dog lead their small herd of goats past heaps of litter and shipping detritus. The animals look for food among the garbage and, as goats always do, they seem to find a few things worth picking at. It is an unimpressive coastline, at least in the most populated areas. This is not a place for many tourists—those beaches are farther away and well-guarded from the dirt and rubble of the poor urban population—but it is not altogether un-beautiful.

Wherever people live, they leave a trace. One of the main traces of poverty, more often than not, tends to be trash. In the developed world we have the luxury having our own waste removed from our sight and from our mind, but we are no less wasteful. There is something more honest—albeit unintentional—about living in the midst of the traces you leave behind. I do not envy the poor, but I care for them and feel very deeply for them; I do not idealize or glorify their condition, but by seeing poverty for what it is and understanding that even the poorest among us has so much to contribute to the world, I think we can begin to level the playing field--at least in a philosophical or cultural sense. The economic, geo-political realm of things takes a different kind of action entirely.

Still, I feel as if this is where I belong. At the crossroads. Creating spaces in which the voiceless have a voice and communicating the reality of the world to those who are otherwise unaware. This brief experience in Ghana has been amazing, but like my years spent in South America and the other time I have spent abroad, this is only the beginning. It’s been so good to sink my toes into African soil once again.

Until next time.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Research, Education, and Outreach: Ghana, June 2014 (June 1st - June 8th)

*These are some edited journal entries from my recent trip to Ghana with a research team from Penn State and the University of Mining and Technology (Ghana). I am working on a more comprehensive and in-depth article for the HuffingtonPost on the Buruli Ulcer disease and illegal mining in Ghana, but in the meantime, these should serve as some nice preliminary reactions to my experience.


June 1st, 2014

            The Sahara is the biggest anything I have ever seen. To fly over it takes hours; but to live in it, I can't even imagine. Right as the desert begins to peter out into precarious trees and cursive streams, our plane enters a wall of dark clouds that reaches miles into the stratosphere. These are the rains of the equatorial African jungles. We are not in the desert anymore.

            The Accra airport has a very limited capacity. And yet, despite the lines and the mass of people, the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial and relatively relaxed (all considering).There are no terminals, just staircases that are wheeled up to the sides of the planes. When they thrust the sardine-can doors open the heaviness of the humid air hits me in the chest like a brick. I have a strange affinity for counties in which sweat is an intimate aspect of everyday life.
            A driver named Abdul takes us from the airport in a rickety car that groans with each gear and at each stop light. On the streets, skinny boys with missing arms and soccer jerseys wash car windows for the locals and turn beggars at the site of foreigners. It’s not a particularly clean city and between the roads, the climate, and the people—even this late at night—it feels a lot like Paraguay. I have never been here before, but it reminds me of a home I once knew so well. Goddammit, it’s good to be back in a country with some character.
            They may be continents apart, but Accra smells the same as Asuncion: in the cities its petrol and diesel fumes, burning trash and rubber all marinated in a deep tropical humidity. Cars, people, livestock, motorcycles, street animals, bikes, trucks, rickshaws and vendors all compete for space along liberally interpreted roads with a relentless chorus of honking and languages and radio stations. This sort of chaos once intimidated me, but now I find it comforting, soothing, even inviting.


June 2nd, 2014

            It is a bird-less morning. That was the first thing I noticed. Maybe it is because we are still in the city, but it was almost 20 minutes before I heard the first bird call and even then it was fleeting and solitary. Boys dot the small rocky bluffs that look out over the ocean and fishermen battle the breakers as they head out for the day. The beach at this part of the renowned “Gold Coast” is nothing to write home about. Ghana's nickname can be misleading: the Gold does not refer to the sand or the beauty, but instead the fact that gold has been funneled from these lands for centuries, first by the British, later by the multinationals, and more recently, by the illegal small-scale 'galamsey' miners in the interior.
            At one point, Ghana was the world's largest producer of raw cacao beans, a title that has waxed and waned over the years as the government and the global markets pushed through cycles of change—rising and falling, expanding and collapsing. All considering and despite its problems, Ghana today has a strong and stable democratic government. Especially when you take into account the state of its neighbors here in West Africa, Ghana is a leader in the region but nonetheless, a large portion of the populace is desperately poor. And while the notion of colonialism disgusts me, I have to thank the Brits for at least one thing: English is widely spoken to a greater or lesser degree.


June 4th, 2014

            The humidity is so thick that a meal sometimes seems redundant. Each lung full of the tropical air fills me up and soaks into my pores until there is no more space left between my cells. We are a ways from the city now in a town called Tarkwa at a small hotel called the Morning Star. This is a gold mining community as are so many other small hubs dotted throughout the interior. The town is crisscrossed by a myriad of rivers and dirt roads and cut right down the middle by a big piece of asphalt—the main “highway”—that pumps trucks and travelers and miners and merchandise through the surrounding villages like an artery.
            Tarkwa, like the rest of southern Ghana, sits in the middle of the equatorial jungle. The original forest was cut down long ago leaving tangled secondary growth in its place. Native saplings are interspersed with groves of coconut, coco palm, cacao, banana, and rubber trees—transplants from South America—and only occasionally lorded over by an old-growth giant lucky enough to have escaped the previous century's botanical holocaust. Most of the country has been deforested. Like so many other brilliant corners of our world, modern man has made a point of extracting resources first and only later asking important conservation questions. Then comes the inevitable scramble to protect what little natural beauty is left so that white tourists still have something to look at other than the wretched poverty of the surrounding population.
            Still, what is growing here, what it living here, buried in the endless green carpet and on the sides of red-dirt hills and in the markets and on the streets, are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. Beautiful faces—these people remind me of the polished Greek busts of antiquity if they had been carved instead out of brilliantly mahogany. The women carry their happy babies on their back inside colorful sashes wrapped around their torso (one of my favorite African practices). On their heads, an endless variety and quantity of other things—food, water, firewood, commercial items, goats, chickens, anything—are balanced with ease. No hands required. Both women and men seem calm, as if their load were nothing but a natural extension of their body.


June 6th, 2014

            The breeze through the coco trees sounds like rain. It looks the sky could open up at any time. There is a storm on the horizon, peeking over the hills. It has looked like this almost the entire time I've been here. The tropics have a mysterious feel. Covert—burying every artifact of human occupation under coils of vines, brush, moss and saplings—and intense, unforgiving, but also vibrant and full of abundance for those who know how to use the resources. Mostly, the jungle just feels indifferent. It has its own agenda and if it weren't for the constant and comprehensive human intrusion, it really wouldn't give a shit about who we are and what we want. We are just another species among the millions that inhabit every available inch.
           

June 7th, 2014

            I am sipping whiskey and sweating madly while listening to the Pentecostal ministry across the street blast religious fervor into the heavy night air. At the back of my tongue I can still feel the chili spice from the fried goat stew that I had for diner. I am a little drunk and my skin still prickles from a day spent working under a blazing equatorial sun.
            Several days ago we arrived in the town of Dunkwa, northeast of Tarkwa and the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Like Tarkwa—really like every town in the tropical south of Ghana—Dunkwa is a small gold mining city amidst the rolling hills and forest. The streets, even if paved, are muddy and riddled with a moonscape of potholes. Traffic laws seem to be limited to “don't hit another car” but short of that, almost anything goes. Honking is a practical way of communication and does not carry with it the force or frustration that it seems to entail stateside. This is nothing new; this is how the third world—weather Africa or Latin America, in my experience—seems to universally operate. It is glorious, muddy mess but it works.
            Dunkwa is a strange twilight zone caught between competing, dichotomous worlds. On the one hand are the local people, mostly of Ashanti tribal origins and speaking the indigenous language of Twi; they survive through either subsistence agriculture, commercial cocoa farming, illegal mining, or by working in the service sector for the multitudes of prospectors that have been drawn like flies to the abundant gold.
            Then there are the foreigners, the predominantly white representatives of the multinational conglomerates who stumble up from the coast and into the jungle in order to oversee the mining interests in the region. Lastly, there are the Chinese, thousands of them (much less since the Ghanaian president forcefully removed them from the country about a year ago). This transplant population consists mostly of single men who stole their way into this country from China under the guise of tourist visas in order to insert themselves illegally into the prolific scramble for Ghana's mineral wealth. It seems like a confusing mix of peoples and cultures, but the promise of gold buried just under these thin forest soils has always had such an effect on men.
            And despite the infusion of people, foreign capital and the promise of wealth and riches, Dunkwa remains an extremely poor place. Shanty living facilities start at the very center and extend outwards into the countryside. There is little infrastructure, intermittent electricity (on a good day), and undrinkable water. The surrounding communities are even more impoverished and they are only getting worse as the legal and illegal mining industry slowly consumes more of the land, depriving livelihoods and poisoning the environment.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

4 Months On

       When I walked into the grocery store today I was greeted by a huge display of mangoes.
        As I looked up at the mountain of Platonic, palm-sized fruit, I tried my best not to think about Paraguay. I rushed to gather a few into a bag but when I smelled their tangy sweetness and felt their soft skin for the first time since I left South America, it drew me right back and down into a flood of memories. And right there, in the middle of the produce section at the local Rockville Giant, I became hopelessly lost in a stifling Paraguayan afternoon, swimming in an ocean of my own sweat, punch drunk on summer fruit, and high on hand-rolled cigars. For a brief moment, I was once again sitting on the porch with my dog as we polished off diner, gnawing at bones and surveying the night as it slowly descended on the forest. I was sitting with an old man, sipping tea and talking about the weather. For hours. For days. For lifetimes.
        And in my mind there is no music. Just a few words and crickets and birds, a crackling fire, screaming cicadas, howling monkeys, and when it storms, the tremendous drums of heaven.

        I walked out of my house this morning with the sun in my face and for a second, before my eyes adjusted, I thought I was back in the jungle. I thought that somehow I had been dreaming this whole time and that today, finally, I had woken up at my home—a small little shack surrounded by pasture and swamp and forest that smells like sugar cane with the northern winds and rain with the southern. Instead, I opened my eyes to suburbia Americana and I knew that if I did not get out of this place soon it would kill me. Through its comfort, its unadulterated comfort, it would kill me by means of complacency and nothingness and sheep-like apathy.
        You see, I know my time in Paraguay was far from perfect. In fact sometimes it almost killed me, quite literally. Still, I wonder how much of life we surrender with the ease of modernity, of progress. We express ourselves in 140 characters, finding cheap pleasures in consumerism and commodities—bought and sold—and living vicariously through fictional characters on TV.
        This is my hell.
        While I don't want to idealized my time in Paraguay with its slew of hardships and challenges, it was a level of existence I had never previously experienced. It was liberating and empowering, in a very Walden-esque sort of way, because no matter what happened, good or bad, it all came down to a few basic things: me, the few people around me, the weather, the necessities of survival, the necessities of sanity, the natural world, and my own mission and convictions. All of these things were at least a little more comprehensible and visible without the chaos of this collective, social American conglomerate.
        My time in Paraguay was like time spent in love. A fever-like insanity, as much from the heat and the struggle as from actual disease, in which you loose track of both time and space. But it was also nurturing and fulfilling, showing me parts of myself and the world I had never previously known and graciously giving me time to mull them over. It was day and night, summer and winter, and everything in between. I froze, I sweat, I laughed, I wept and I did so all with an audience of trees and an endless sun.
        I have as much desire to return to Paraguay as I do to be in love again. That is, despite all my inclinations towards personal health and safety, I want it so desperately sometimes it hurts. But like love, wanderlust cannot be captured, it must surrender to you on its own accord and in its own time. And so, for the moment, I wait—hideously disfigured in a strange world that I no longer recognize, caricatured by the skin-deep facade, hollowed out by a disconnect from nature. 
        Either way, something is going to kill me, I know that. Its just that I want to die in the right way: with singing birds in my ears and love in my heart.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My First and Last Post After Peace Corps--For Ivan

        There is a boy who lived in Guido Almada. His name was Ivan Fariña and when I arrived in that place sometime in December of 2011, he was only 2 years old. At the time, he was just learning to speak and as he began juggling Guarani and Spanish, like most young Paraguayans do, he also began incorporating me into his daily life. I worked extensively with his family over my time in Paraguay and his home became one of my favorite and most frequented stops on my rounds through the community or for parties or during the holidays.
        Ivan was a troublemaker. He loved finding his boundaries, testing his limits and then stepping over the lines ever so slightly. He was an incredibly smart little kid although he never learned to pronounce my name properly. To him, I was always “Mano”, the name he would yell from his grandfather's lap every-time he saw me approaching. He knew how to endear himself to people, if at the same time also push their buttons. And he was a total ladies man.
        I cared deeply about this boy. I spent many afternoons watching over him while his parents were out in the fields and tending to the animals. I helped him eat and kept him in line during some meals when his mother was too busy to babysit. We played with his few little toy trucks in the dirt patch in front of his house. We kicked the soccer ball. He was a happy, bright, beautiful little boy. After two years and countless time together, I came to love him very much.
        Ivan was never a sick boy, at least no more so than any other poor Paraguayan children tend to be. Of the few times I remember him being ill, it hardly ever seemed to sap his energy and certainly never diminished his spirit.
        The week after I left Paraguay, Ivan became very sick. He was hospitalized for several weeks, then a month. It seemed like he was getting better although so much time certainly took its toll on his small 4-year-old frame. I imagine his body becoming worn and ragged by some disease that he just couldn't seem to shake, but his smile, his light, never dimming even for a minute. Then several nights ago I got the news: at 10 pm, Ivan passed away. A child, a little 4 year old boy, a beloved son and a grandson, my little buddy, fell victim to some illness, some terrible disease, to the poverty of his people. He was dead. That light had been irrevocably extinguished.

        The cemetery in Guido Almada is not large. The community itself is comparatively new and though many people have passed, the plots are modest, as much a product of economics as necessity. I have been there many times. I have prayed there many afternoons. It is a beautiful place, beautifully Paraguayan in its setting and the surrounding landscape. But it belies one subtle and yet heartbreaking reality: most of the graves are small. Child sized.
        Child mortality, something heartrendingly inconceivable to many in the developed world, is something much too common for children and families in the developing world. Out of all the families I lived and worked with during my time in Paraguay, all of them had either lost a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, or a cousin at some point in their lives. In the absence of decent medical care and without the financial means to access the paltry facilities that do exists, people face death—real, tragic, human death—as a matter of their daily lives. Women must give birth to stillborn babies. Parents must watch helplessly as their children wither away. Brothers and sisters must say goodbye to their closest companions before the age when they can understand what death is all about.
        I don't mean to paint a picture of some sort of hell or holocaust. Surely, it is not so bad and for the most part, despite their poverty and circumstance, these people live happy lives. But we should not forget: the chasm between the developed and developing world still exists today and we should do everything in our power, especially in this modern day in age, to close that distance. I don't care with what religion or political ideology you affiliate; I don't care how you label yourself or what you feel your moral obligation is to the world: the fact that daily thousands of children die of preventable diseases, malnutrition, and neglect is simply unacceptable. In our own way, we all bare some of the blame and some of the responsibility for this state of our world. Even you. Even me.


        I wrote the preceding few paragraphs some weeks ago. I didn't have the words (and still don't) for so much of what this transition home from the Peace Corps has been like. I have almost decided to give up on trying to communicate it entirely. If anything, that is what two years in the campo have done for me: made me really good at dealing with my own shit without relying on others. Still, I have forced myself to write this story down and share it with people—for Ivan's sake and for the sake of the thousands of other starving, sick, dying children there are in the world tonight.
        When I received the news of Ivan's passing, I felt as if my heart fell straight down and out of my body. My lungs stopped working. I broke down into a pile of sobbing, chaotic tears. I didn't know what to do, how to help, and I couldn't begin to imagine the emptiness that my friends, my community, my Peace Corps family must be feeling. For them, I have few words except for I love you, I will always remember, and I am sorry I had to leave when I did. I wish I could be there to share the heartbreak with you. I hope you know how much I care.
        So as I exorcise these last emotional demons from a body and mind that has been so thoroughly (and thankfully) ravaged by two years of life in a poor Paraguayan community, I hope that I can move on with a purpose. That I can take the lessons I have learned, the lives I have shared, and the love I have been given and make a difference in this world. And even though I daily feel as if I am now living and working in his memory, it is too late for Ivan, but not for the countless thousands of others out there.

I love you, little buddy. I miss you. I will remember you always.




-little hupo

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Last Post from Paraguay

Right before joining Peace Corps, I spent three months living in South Africa for a study abroad program. I remember waiting to leave at the Cape Town airport after weeks spent romping through the wild bush of the Eastern Cape: there had been so many adventures and so much excitement that I was as high on adrenaline as I was on the new-found girlfriend I was bringing home with me. It was an incredible experience and all I could feel was pure joy.

Right now, I am preparing to say goodbye to Paraguay—a country far less thrilling than the untamed wilds of South Africa, but whose absence I will feel so much greater. This is my last week as a Peace Corps volunteer. These are the last few days I will spend in this little slice of heaven and hell that I have made into a home. These are the last sips of tereré that I will share with a community of people that supported me and loved me and shared their lives with me for two years. These are the last nights I will sit on a porch with my little army of adopted Paraguayan campo dogs—Lobo, Tony, and Tyson—drinking cheap Argentinian wine and smoking hand-rolled black tobacco cigars that taste as sweet as the South American sun. It is in these quiet moments of reflection and appreciation that I can hear and feel my heart slowly breaking.

Leaving this place is going to kill me, but at least that's how I know that this was far more than just some fling, some adventure-seeking high-octane power-trip through a third world country where I got my kicks but missed everything else of value. No. For me at least, living in Paraguay has been a process of slowly getting this country, its culture and its people deeper and deeper under my skin. My life here has often been quiet and slow, sometimes maddening and almost impossible, and everything in between. But one way or another, of all the unlikely places in the world, Paraguay has become such an important part of my life and my development as a human being. It has seen me grow, it has challenged me at every corner to do so, and it has cradled me though some of the darkest and brightest times I have ever seen.

So much of what has gone on here during my Peace Corps service has been a private affair. Living alone in an isolated community means that, while my days were spent working with Paraguayans, most of my nights consisted of long hours alone in my home. In that sense, what has functioned as two years of service to this community, to Paraguay and to my own country has also functioned as a sort of personal, intellectual-spiritual retreat for myself. I am coming home soon but I am not the same person. I don't even know who I am sometimes, but then again, I have never known better. I have tried very hard to share as much of this experience with other people—friends from the states, fellow Peace Corps volunteers, even some close Paraguayan friends—but the reality is that so much of this is incommunicable and so deeply personal that sharing it is impossible.

Every travel and intercultural experience is valuable, no matter how long or how brief. All such opportunities serve the desperately important purpose of breaking down the cultural, social and racial barriers that hinder and harm our world so terribly. But few places or programs in the world offer what Peace Corps offers; there is no other experience in the world like a two year Peace Corps stint. None. I don't mean to come off as pretentious or self-important, and I am sorry if it reads that way. Allow me to make my case: Peace Corps is not tourism, it is not just a volunteer program and it is really not a traveling experience. It is a living experience where in order to even begin to accomplish any volunteer goals we must first integrate into communities and with people that have often never seen Americans before and rarely venture far from home.

“Traveling” and “tourism” are things that Peace Corps volunteers do as a break from this intense living experience; sure we go on trips to other places from time to time, but when we are in our communities, we are not traveling, we are home; we are not tourists, we are just another neighbor. In my community, for example, no foreign tourist could just wander in one day and set up a home and start living. Firstly, they would likely never even find the place and secondly, there are so many social and economic barriers to forcing oneself in the middle of such tight-nit, inter-related, and closed-off communities. The pretext of being a Peace Corps volunteers gives us the in and the experience we have as a result of that foot-in-the-door is like nothing else in the world.

I have mourned with families over dead loved ones. I have been there when babies were born and then watched them grow and eventually learn my name. I have harvested crops and shared in the seasonal bounty of these blood-red soils. I have hunted and foraged in these woods, grown my own food, killed my own meat, and, by necessity, become more in-tune with the weather and natural world than ever before in my life. I have sat at local political meetings and watched my friends speaking in defense of their future and the lives of their children. I felt me heart break with these people when some were thrown homeless onto the streets and I was unable to do anything. I felt the joy of sharing in successful development projects and great personal achievements with so many others. This place is the first community I have ever really felt a part of and I know that when I am here, whether today or in 20 years, I am home.

Have no fear friends and family, I am coming back to the states (at least for a bit), although I am sure you've all enjoyed the respite from my chaos in your own way. But it will be with a heavy, heavy heart; a heart so full of love for this country and its people, for all the incredible friends I have made through Peace Corps, and for two of the most personal and yet community-oriented years of my life. 

Re-adjustment will be hard, I know that, it doesn't worry me. What worries me the most at this point? What are the thoughts that have been keeping me up through these hot nights with just the sounds of the cicadas and night-jars for company? Whether Don Zaccarias will get better and have enough company. Whether someone will keep caring and loving my dogs. Whether there is a future for the youth of Guido Almada. Whether this next year and all its fickle weather will diminish the harvest. Whether Don Antonio's wife will ever recuperate and whether his daughter will be able to walk normally again. Whether the Brazilian soy producers will begin to displace these people as they push further west. Whether there will be enough land in the future or anybody left to work it. Whether the community water pump will make it through another brutal summer and who will pay to replace it if it doesn't. Whether Caesar will get a good education and have a decent life despite his disability. Whether the government comes through on their promise of milk cows and chickens for the community. Whether, when I come back, this place is as beautiful as it is now.

I do not mean to idealize it all too much. There are certainly things that I won't miss. But I love this place and these people despite all their flaws, in fact, I love them all the more because of these shortcomings. I know that I will never be Paraguayan and that I will never totally be a part of this community; at the end of the day everyday, I am an outsider. Still, I have come so far in my understanding and my genuine concern for these people that I think it kind of puts me in a different category altogether. I am not a member of this community even though I played a part in it for two years, but the community and all its members are a part of me. That's gotta count for something.

So it seems almost too fitting that this should be my last blog about my Peace Corps service as a volunteer. I will be writing and blogging extensively in the coming months, but as of next Monday, I will no longer be a PCV. This marks my 100th entry since I began this personal blog just before my trip to South Africa almost 3 years ago now. It also marks my final blog from the Paraguayan countryside and my final blog as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the next few months, I will be backpacking and traveling through Patagonia in Argentina and Chile then moving onto Peru and Ecuador. Thank you to all who have followed me thus far on my journey and supported and loved me the whole way. I love you more than you can possibly understand.

Maybe its not that I left my family in the states for 2 years or that I am leaving my family here in Paraguay. Maybe its just that my family has grown and expanded—across countries and continents and languages and socio-economic classes—and now there is just that much more love in the world. Que suerte.

Rohayhu.


from home, from Paraguay,

little hupo

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oh, How Little I Understand

        Its dark in the house even though its midday. Sunlight doesn't get far though the forest canopy and the only source of light is a little flickering candle propped upright in a divot on the dirt floor in the middle of the room. A few rays peek through the gaps in the wall boards or though the hole in the roof where the thatch-grass has fallen away and it is silent. The mother of the family sits in the corner, breathing slowly, strained. She is dying of a brain tumor, I have been told, and today is a bad day.
        “I have faith in God,” the father tells me. He works harder and is poorer than any person I have ever met in my life. He is a remarkable human being.
        This family can't afford meat and so for lunch we are having Yaku po'i (Rusty-Margrined Guan) that the oldest son called out of the treetops earlier that morning and shot dead. In the distance, unheard by me, a Tuca sa'yju (Toco Tucan) trumpets an alarm call. We go outside and the littlest one points out a gorgeous bird sitting in an enormous tree across a tobacco field. It has a wine-colored breast and a long, fat beak.
        “They are good luck,” she tells me, “If you can catch one.” This is a typical day with the Garcia family. Learning more than any textbook could ever teach me about the local birds—their calls, their meanings, where they like to roost at night. 
        Today, we are building a roof with the family. We have been working on a worm composing project aimed at increasing the production of their two gardens, one of which we started together. This composting unit needs a roof to protect it from the coming summer sun. With his wife so sick, Don Antonio, the father, worries about straying too far from the house to work in the fields. Instead, he sends his sons out to tend the crops while he cooks and cleans and keeps up the gardens and feeds the chickens and pigs and milks the cow and cares for his love. Improving the garden is a priority of his, not just for family nutrition, but because he is dedicated to being as personally productive as possible even when confined to the small sphere around the house
        The building of a roof from forest materials happens in stages. First, we searched out the right kind of trees for the horcón (main supports), with the correct height and forked branches at the right spot. We took two adolescent yvyra'rô trees and one kurupa'y and trimmed them down to size where they fell.
        “This wood is strong,” Don Antonio tells me (ha'taitere'i in Gurani), “No insects will eat it, it will not rot.” He is confident and I believe him.
        Next we search for our main viga (crossbeam); this as well needs to be strong, for it will be bearing the weight of all the smaller beams as well as many layers of thatch. We find a beautiful and sturdy ba'avy tree in a clearing but Don Antonio seems reluctant to take it. He explains that they have already felled many trees from this area and he doesn't want to take more, lest the encroaching amba'y, which grows like grass through these woods, take over and choke out other more useful plants and trees in the underbrush.
        In the end we cut it down anyway and trim it to size. It really is a beautiful little tree. The rest of the morning we spend searching out smaller beams, yvyra'pepe and onde'ymi saplings ideally, to lay perpendicular to the load-bearing ba'avy. Then the final piece in this sub-tropical collage, la señorita, tree-lings so called for their slender, pale form and the fact that they grow very straight from the forest floor. These are needed to provide the parallel supports onto which the thatch is lashed by forest vines called ysy'po. We gather several bundles of these, tied together with vines and head back home with our quarry.
        I tried to be as much a part of the construction process as possible, but in reality, I had no idea how everything went together and this family was already an efficient, experienced roof-building unit. In the end, I could do little more than just watch and marvel at the skill and speed with which a small hut materialized before my eyes. The thatch-grass called ka'pi'i was brought from along a path that runs from the house to the fields. They grow it there like another crop and as a perennial grass, even once it is harvested, it regrows in the next few months. They always have a supply on hand for repairs to the house if needed. The piglets as well enjoy hiding and romping through the dense clumps.
        The main supports and crossbeams are put up in only a few minutes and each piece seems to fit together like a puzzle. I get the strong feeling that there was far more to the process for selecting trees in the forest than I was aware of at the time. As the barefoot 13-year-old son Rafael scrambles up a tree and across these wooden tight-ropes like a monkey (ka'i in Guarani), the other brothers hand him small bundles of grass which he spreads out over the web of señorita and ba'avy supports. He weaves this whole organic mass together with vines like I have seen Parguayan señoras stitch together old blankets and shirts. It takes only a few hours and the whole structure is complete.
        Afterward, we sit for a few hours and sip tereré and bullshit about the local fútbol clubs and the weather. It is calm and relaxed and I can hardly tell that night is falling around me. The jujos (herbs added to the yerba for medicinal reasons) are soothing and subtle. Fresh from the forest, I watched the youngest daughter grind them in a pestle, a mix of flower petals, mint, leaves, stems and fat, juicy roots. It tastes like earth and spice and greens and they say it will make my head feel better. They seem confident and I believe them.
        As always with this family, the conversation, in its effortless blend of Spanish and Guarani, gradually drifts towards more serious matters—the world, the future, the sad prospect of politics for the Paraguayan campesino, the tranquility of life for those few farmers who can still make a decent living off the land and the forests. It is sobering but also inspiring to hear the thoughts and feelings of a family who is living such an enormous cultural, political, and economic battle on a day to day basis. They are not under siege, but they can see that their world, isolated though it may be, is changing in ways that will soon threaten their already precarious livelihoods.
        Among this group, this small family, the most educated person has never even finished high school and yet I, with my bullshit college degree and my pretentious vocabulary, feel like the ignorant child. I have struggled little in my life and compared to these people, never had to work particularly hard just to survive. I have a college education, sure, but drop me in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle and I wouldn't last a week. 
        The sun is still shining, but barely; night is coming and so is a storm. You can feel rain here hours before it comes. The whole jungle world around you seems to turn upside-down. Maybe its subconscious at this point, but even I can feel it in my bones when a storm is imminent. The insects hum, the birds call differently, the winds blow with a temper, not their usual calm, and the air smells like earth, sometimes the ocean, depending on the direction of the winds. A cool wind blows up from the east and I know it is time to head home.
        I say goodnight, thank you, jajajopata. It is dark by the time I get home. The lightning is still far away and flashes without sound like fireflies on the horizon.

        I have realized something profound in these past few months working with my Paraguayan counterparts: what these people know, their knowledge of the forest and what it offers, what it can take away, their knowledge of crops and moon cycles and the seasons, these things are not written anywhere, but they are the culmination of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom that long predates Western culture and the associated paradigms that come with it.
        These people are not entirely indigenous in ethnicity, but almost everyone in Paraguay, especially in the campo has some indigenous blood in their veins. Regardless, their culture is abundantly indigenous in origins, a fact that becomes more evident the farther you wander into the countryside The historical isolation of Paraguay as well as it self-sufficiency for hundreds of years even after Spanish conquest, has allowed the survival of an entirely different source of knowledge about the world: that of the precolonial native populations. This can be seen in many parts of the world where indigenous cultures still exist, where they haven't been annihilated entirely, but it is here in Paraguay that it has entered the backdoor of the otherwise intolerant halls of Western tradition and established itself in the few empty corners.
        As Peace Corps volunteers coming from the great America, we are all initially taken aback by culture shock. In Paraguay, just like any other country, there is an adjustment period. We all find the ubiquitous rules of Paraguayan life and diet tedious and funny; I would be lying to say that we didn't all mock these guidelines at times. As Paraguayan insist that, certain plants will cure this illness, or that certain foods shouldn't be eaten together lest you explode, or that one shouldn’t mix hot and cold foods in a short window, of time or that one can acquire a deep muscle pain from particularly strong winds (golpe de viento), all of us Westerners sit back and laugh in our heads while we nod and agree. This does not fit into our carefully constructed parameters of reality, of scientific causality, of things you can read about in books and online.
        But I have slowly realized over the past few months: these rules and knowledge aren't arbitrary or borne out of ignorance, they are part of the indigenous tradition, a tradition that kept native populations across the American continents alive and thriving for literally thousands of years before us Westerners arrived at their shores. It may seem silly for us sometimes from our science-based cultural perspective, but how could we ever hope to understand and appreciate the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that Paraguayan campesinos possess without first analyzing and critiquing our own cultural baggage. If we are unwilling to let go of any of that, we will never fully appreciate the depth what Paraguayans and Paraguayan culture has to offer.
        I know I am stuck with the weight of my own cultural heritage, I know that my home is my home and my country is my country. No matter how much I may disagree with it or reject it, I will always be a Caucasian male born and raised in the cradle of suburban America. Sometimes, I yearn desperately for a more genuine tradition to be my own, some tradition with deep roots, a great understanding and a living spirituality. I have always found my own cultural heritage to be immensely lacking in all of those things, sometimes to the point of depression.
        I am not saying that the Paraguayan indigenous cultural tradition is perfect or without its flaws; certainly there are lots of them, many of which no doubt come from its synthesis with Western culture and ideas, many of which are no doubt inherent and endemic. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is something infinitely beautiful and more satisfying in indigenous understanding and appreciation for the natural world, in their acceptance of their place in the greater scheme of life, than I find in my own culture. I do not want to idealize anything, that would be a mistake, but I think we ignore the value and wealth of indigenous tradition around the world to our own great detriment.
        But for now, I count myself lucky for having lived long enough to see and experience and another different cultural modality. I know I cannot change myself or my history, but maybe by stretching my own personal boundaries, by forcing myself to dissect those pieces of my culture with the tools of another, I can slowly reconstruct a better perspective of myself and this world. Maybe buried deep in that mess of materialism and Western orthodoxy and empty spirituality, some seeds of truth and honesty still survive. With the right tools, with patience, with understanding, perhaps I may one day coax them into bloom.


from Paraguay,


little hupo

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Anaerobic Biodigester: Simple Technologies that Make a Big Difference

When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. This was my third time in the competition and I enjoyed doing it each year not because I wanted the extra credit at school or because I particularly enjoyed the significant amount of extra work, but because it was always a great, school-endorsed excuse for me to make a mess in my parent's basement without their disapproval. My first ever project was the construction of a mechanical waterwheel which I fashioned by taking a hack-saw to my sister's bike (sorry Carmen). The second project had me making epoxy glue derivatives and testing their strength by hanging hundreds of pounds of dead weight on them until they crashed down onto the concrete floor (sorry Dad). There was also that famous epoxy mixture I created that ended up melting the cup and part of the table I had mixed it in (sorry again).

But that year, at age 13, I decided I wanted to try something different. I can't recall exactly what I was thinking at the time, but in retrospect it must have been something along the lines of “How can I fill the basement with animal manure and light things on fire without getting punished?” The answer was a biodigester, basically a fancy contraption that captured methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces which could then be burned for fuel. The project was a success thanks to my wonderful mother who went above and beyond the call of motherly duties by collecting the necessary stock (animal manure) from a local horse farm (sorry Mom). In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over four months. It was decommissioned at my family's unanimous request sometime after New Year's day.

Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay, still just as curious and troublesome, but now with a license from the US government to do so overseas. My position as an agricultural extension volunteer in a poor, isolated rural community had me working a lot with small-scale organic systems at the familial level. I had worked extensively with composting projects and bio-intensive gardening to help improve household production, nutrition and sustainability. All of this work was rewarding but I felt as if there was something more I could do, some next step that I might be able to take with my community members that might give them a better appreciation of the depth of potential contained within their small parcels of land.

One of the initiatives of the Peace Corps Paraguay agricultural sector is sustainable permaculture systems, which essentially means taking advantage of the energy available at all points of agricultural production. Included in this initiative was a great project called the anaerobic biodigester, an green technology used for generations by farmers in India and China, but nonetheless effective, simple and novel to my community. This small-scale biodigester was really just a mock-up version of almost the same project I had done when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parent's basement.


The design we used was developed in part by my boss, Fernando Gonzalez, who has been using a biodigester on his family's farm in Paraguay for over a decade. With his guidance and experience, I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While the biodigester can be built with local materials and is relatively inexpensive (about $125 a piece), such up-font costs are still quite out of reach to the people I live and work with. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community where we described the project and the theory and walked them through the simple steps to construct one at home. In the end, we successfully installed two separate biodigester systems with two different families in my community.

At first, the biodigester might seem a stinky and cumbersome way to produce bio-gas for fuel purposes but the impacts of such a simple concept for small-scale farmers can be enormous. In a country such as the US, with an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.) most of us wouldn't waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it, however, in parts of the world where manure is much more abundant and accessible than disposable income, the biodigester can make a great difference.

The biodigester serves to produce bio-gas, a methane/hydrocarbon/water-vapor mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use up valuable financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to twenty with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a by-product of proper management of animal wastes.

The first time we lit-up the bio-gas stove with my neighbor, he threw down his hat, put up his arms and started jumping up and down with joy. He looked at me and said, “Mario, this whole time, I didn't believe you when you said it would work. Now I believe you, you crazy American.” Within a month, in addition to the bio-gas, these families have also noted a substantial boost in household garden productivity thanks to the biodigester's fertilizer component.

I can already tell that this project did as much for this family's sense of pride and motivation as it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of, it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.

In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. We drive our own cars and plug into our iPhones and never give a second thought to the fact that we are living in a universe of energy and potential and yet, have only really figured out how to master one of those sources (and a finite, pollution-ridden source at that). Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, crop-failure—these things are not strangers to the developed nations and as the world spins onward into this next millennium, they will only become more familiar.


I am not saying that every family should go out right now and start building anaerobic composting systems in their backyards, but we need to start thinking more seriously about how we are going to provide for our energy needs and the needs of our natural world in the future. Yet, we shouldn't look at this as some sort of doomsday scenario, but instead an amazing opportunity. 

As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. Maybe the next step will be to bring it full circle, to bring it once again a little closer to home. One small step at a time. But at least this last step got me out of my parent's basement and into the open air.Thanks for the help you guys, sorry for all the stink over the years.