Sunday, August 2, 2009

A sampling of the cultural sites of Thatta

The Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta (built by the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal early in 17th century)

The Makli Cemetery in Makli (possibly the largest in the world)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July news from Thatta, Sindh in southern Pakistan

Bernard went to Thatta District of Sindh region in southern Pakistan in early July for a few weeks to implement a project baseline survey for the US branch of the French NGO Action Against Hunger. The project is very interesting as it is about doing action-research to assist coastal communities address the unrelenting issue of increasing soil and drinking water salinity, a pressing issue worldwide due mainly to poor irrigation practices, reduced fresh water volumes in natural water courses and now more droughts and rising sea levels.

Islamabad is a new (1960) modern, green and spacious city, with women in public, right next to the very contrasting old British garrison town of Rawalpindi. There are green hills overlooking the city and it feels a great place for shopping after Dakar. I was able to get a pair of prescription glasses made in one day with good frames for about $25!

Thatta is the just the opposite: crowded, no women in public, and dirty with only basic shopping (cannot even buy a fly-swatter or a table!). It only rains 250mm here, like in the Sahel, but we have just started the rainy season with violent thunderstorms. There are a couple of interesting cultural sites locally which I have not yet been able to visit due to little time and a case of the Thatta trots. Safe drinking water has to be trucked in from Karachi in 20l bottles.

Environmentally friendly all-terrain vehicle.

What's left of the the mighty Indus River below the last dam.

Urban camel cart.

Monster trucks for fodder. Tricky on windy days!

First impressions of Sindh, South Pakistan. The good: rural men are very hospitable and friendly and one could spend the whole day drinking tea with them and at their expense, no matter how much protesting. They are genuinely touched that foreigners would go visit them. The Indus delta area is interesting with greenery in the desert, irrigated and rain-fed agriculture, livestock (incl. camels!), fishing, a bit of wildlife left (yet to be seen but to be investigated), waterways and boats (even sailing dhows - to be attempted for sure) and clean air (unlike the neighouring metropolis of Karachi). Half the people live in the creeks, only accessible by boat. Personal security is no problem here, the main dangers are the usual suspects: food, traffic, mozzies and perhaps tea-overdosing. There is a nice selection of fruits in the market (peaches, plums, mangoes, dates, apricots, grapes, apples).

A small example of soil salinisation and no easy solutions.

Precociously old but very hospitable fisherman, his boat and his son.

Sea fishing boats in Keti Bunder.

A rare glimpse of rural women during a training.

Life on the creeks of coastal Sindh.

The not-so-good: it is hot and humid (35-40C) but at least there is a good breeze and sometimes we have air conditioning; public life without women is a very sad state of affairs as it makes the men even more lazy, complacent and proud; our mustached cook is nearly lethal. The big trick will be to get some of those nice and fresh vegetables (cabbage, green beans) from the Thatta market into our stomachs without being poisoned by drenching in oil with heavy spices and chili.

First impressions of the assignment (3 weeks in): it is still early days for the project and even basic infrastructure and staffing is not resolved. We live (out of our suitcases), work, eat (badly) and sleep in the office (with internet, at least) and we have frequent and irregular power and water shortages. When it rains, the office floods and most things/services work intermittently with guaranteed break-down when you need it most. One cannot walk to a decent market (5km away in Thatta). One cannot get decent maps in Pakistan due to the general military situation, so we have to start with doing our own mapping so we feel less "blind". It takes 2.5 hours to reach the project area and it may be inaccessible when it rains but we are hoping to have a sub-office and proper living quarters in a couple of weeks, Insh Allah. So it will be a challenge to get the baseline survey done in the time allotted with the intermingling and chaotically compounding institutional, climatic, health, cultural and religious constraints (Ramadan starts on August 21st). But the senior staff are all great and can keep laughing even when it goes all wrong and the expats vent their frustrations (me first, I am the senior), which occurs occasionally.

The local brand of pink toilet paper is called "double horse", and somehow, only "double camel" might describe it better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spring 09 update - nothing much except for moving flats

Bernard hopelessly trying to keep up with the dress code. This was a farewell luncheon for two members of the advisory committee of a Senegalese NGO dedicated to the education of rural girls. Gina, Tiphaine and I are now also assisting 10000girls. On the left is Viola Vaughn, a very dedicated, dynamic and funny Director "I don't know how it's going to work but it just does" and Rose, also a new committee member.

After a 25 year gap, Bernard is re-learning to
windsurf, but it sure isn't as easy as it used to!

Sunset looking over the Atlantic where wave trains meet and water just spouts up.

View from our new flat overlooking the new monument to the "African Renaissance". The latest presidential folly, to be one inch taller than the statue of Liberty. So there!

Our new patio complete with hammac and Bernard's mini-office on the left.

Our airy, light and spacious living room. The mouse on the floor belongs to the kitties, but they have not learned to put away their toys - yet and forever.

Otherwise, it has been business as usual: Gina managing the Club Atlantique with its share of minor and major crises and Bernard looking for the next job, sending many applications and filling in with a bit of fun, wind and waves permitting.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A few professional photos of what we experience but cannot capture

For more beautiful photos of Senegal and other places, click here.

Casamance rice fields

Island of St Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, former capital of French West Africa and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Island of Gorée, just off Dakar

Island of La Madeleine, our favourite wildlife reserve, just off Dakar with birds and fish

Sahelian landscape in Northern Senegal

Trees in Casamance.

In Senegal, nearly everyone goes fishing...

Rice fields in Casamance.

Mangrove in the Sine Saloum delta

Casamance islands

Monday, May 11, 2009

Naive art paintings of Senegal

Tiphaine's first 2 cats (Moussa & Biscotte) immortalised in a "sous verre"

A beach scene in Casamance with pelicans

A Casamance village scene

A field of baobabs. And yes, parts of Senegal do look like that!

Casamance beach

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

News from April 2009

2009 has had an interesting start. Throughout January we had visitors from the UK, which was very nice, also giving us an excuse to do some fun things together. Unfortunately, Gina was pretty much locked into her new job with learning the ropes and supervising many activities, preparing for the Peace Corps regional softball tournament, etc.. We and about 100 others enjoyed seeing the Obama investiture on the big screen. During the past two months, Gina has been negotiating her job and its challenges, the future move to another apartment and the (tedious) application process for a 5-year residency permit for Senegal. She has agreed to serve on the monthly advisory board for a local organization called 10,000 Girls -

Bernard had a World Bank micro-finance translation but was able to work around the guests' schedule to enjoy a very nice 10-day trip to lush, green and friendly Casamance and the biggest Senegalese national park, Niokolo-Koba. While no match for the Serengeti or Kruger, we saw many birds, some rare such as a fishing owl, and many delightful ones such as kingfishers and bee-eaters and a few mammals such as warthogs (very common), a few kinds of antelopes (also common), crocodiles and hippos (from a distance only!), one leopard (in a large enclosure supposedly offered by Brigitte Bardot), many baboons and also a few interesting flowers.
European stork wintering (smartly) in warmer climes.

Giant grey heron

One of the many kingfishers we saw, some irridescent, some just black and white , but all very skillful fish catchers.

A hornbill

Typical Casamance beach village scene

Boat transport is a way of life in Casamance

Ziguinchor, capital of Casamance seen from the ferry.

The Gambia river with hippos and crocodiles...

Laid back but messy beach tourists....

To see “real” African animals in the wild such as elephants, lions, etc., we would have had to go much deeper into the park with an expensive 4X4 vehicle. But we traveled economy class in “bush taxis” - 15-25 year old Peugeot 505 estates with 3 rows of seats, and one even started smoking under the driver's feet! (a quickly disconnected wire under the dashboard fixed that – who needs brake lights in the bush?).
Tropical flower power

Basic park accomodation: a bed and a mosquito net, plus cheeky monkeys who come in your hut to steal your bananas!

Beautiful sunset through a baobab

Pirogues galore, even painted to the national Senegalese colors

Typical Casamance waterfront scene

Bernard just returned from 5 intense weeks upcountry in Liberia on an emergency mission for Catholic Relief Services (the NGO with whom he had two longer consultancies in 2008) to assist with a national response to a world news outbreak of “devastating” caterpillars.

Bong county, Liberia, has an equatorial climate, the remnants of a lush forest interspersed with rubber and palm plantations and many returnees from the 15 year civil war that finished in 2004. There is still a general uneasiness, basic services/low capacity and a heavy UN presence (Bangladeshi military and civil engineering). I worked with a pleasant team of 10 short-term recruited people to mainly investigate any report of new caterpillar outbreaks in a wide area, monitor any pesticide spraying performed by the Ministry of Agriculture (low capacity and equipment – more dangerous than the caterpillar!), provide support to the local government agricultural agency managing the response and provide community education to reduce fear and increase mitigation measures' effectiveness.

Overall it was intense but all went well, especially since the rains started unexpectedly early and stopped the outbreak in the most environmental way! However, we did get to see moths and “baby” caterpillars and 2 minor outbreaks of 2 other varieties of caterpillars (good thing that I raised silkworms when in primary school – very useful training – who could have guessed!). The team covered about 15,000km on the back of motorcycles and on foot and I occasionally went along – dusty and hot but pretty nice when when in a forest of rolling hills. The major lasting impact of the outbreak was the contamination of many communities' single source of drinking water and unfortunately that was the part of the national response that was completely bungled (and outside our responsibility).

Main street, Gbarnga. Dusty and with USAID signs

One of the 10 project scouts ready to find some caterpillars and with spare fuel

Pesticide spraying training in villages

Morning planning around a map

Typical village with large trees and graves

Large trees are never far away and occasionally good caterpillar fodder

Northern Liberian village view

The parts I enjoyed most: riding a dirt motorcycle in the bush/forest; splashing in possibly the only “tourist attraction” of inland Liberia: a nice waterfall in the forest; doing an emergency project that was not too emergency/dangerous with nice people; meeting a few interesting development tourists—oops, I mean international professionals, like me-- staying a short while for evaluations, trainings, project studies, etc.; taking cooling showers; beautiful lizards (but too quick and shy to photograph); a bit of email now and then when all the stars/satellites were in alignment; swinging in a hammock between 2 palm trees when it was too hot to stay in my room – uh, monk's cell.

A lovely and refreshing waterfall

Equatorial forest as seen from the road

Rubber plantation

The parts I enjoyed least: logistical challenges and lack of resources in Liberia; very hot and humid much of the time, with limited electricity; the usual apathy of government agencies and staff and a high level of corruption (similar to Cambodia); working 6-7 days/week and being away from home for a long time; no pastis. The things I found “interesting”: Liberia has so much US influence, such as hundreds of Christian sects; doughnuts for sale on street corners; US currency and electric plugs (but 220v thankfully); Liblish – a real patois of former US slave “english” - sometimes hard to understand and needing translation into French from some colleagues who had spent years in refugee camps in French speaking Guinea or Côte D'Ivoire; even more expensive than Dakar for much lower “quality” - probably exacerbated by the UN factor. But I would do it again, now that I know what to expect, and I would prepare and organise things differently. The local food was very samey (rice with sweet potato greens, greasy and pimented) but I fortunately stayed at the local Catholic Pastoral Centre which could also cater to Western palates with a bit of insistent coaching.

Bernard's sister, Tiphaine, our across-the-street neighbor with now 5 cats was also starting her career as a regional development consultant and spent a few weeks in very hot inland Bamako in Mali to design pilot micro-finance products for artists. Never a dull moment for all of us and it certainly beats 9-5 office jobs!
Now is going to be busy with moving, finding the next job for Bernard but also enjoying what Dakar has to offer: culture (music especially) and the ocean (sailing, snorkeling, scuba, kayaking, waterfront restaurants, beach and birds).

We wish you all a pleasant and happy spring (in the northern hemisphere and the opposite in the upside-down hemisphere).

Bernard, Gina and the ZZs