Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Thousand Heartbreaks, A Thousand Smiles (Work in Progress)

Gambia is a land of a thousand heartbreaks. This can be best seen in the state of the country's healthcare. A grandmother who lost a big toe and part of another one to leprosy because of a misdiagnosis. She only found out after a friend whose own family member suffered from the disease identified the illness, pushing her to seek treatment, belatedly. It's been years since, but she walks with a slight limp and always will. It still doesn't deter the hardworking matron from watering and tending her garden beds, often while carrying a grandson on her back. At the village level, there's no such thing as malpractice.

Two toddlers (roughly ages four and five)with visible signs of kwashiorkor--when normally dark human hair turns red or blonde due to protein deficiency and malnutrition. Much of the diet here consists of carbohydrates like coos and rice and some protein from peanut sauce. But little value or effort is given to incorporate vitamin-rich vegetables or fruit into the daily diet. This results is stunted growth and impeded cognitive development.

A chronically malnourished 8-year old boy--bedridden from swollen joints and weak--whose parents believe he will get better over time rather than take him to the health clinic a few minute's walk away. If you put your hand around his arm, you can touch your thumb with your index finger. Despite being urged to take their son to get tested for sickle cell, the parents don't act. Yesterday, Omar's uncle and I planted three beds of moringa to supplement his health. Moringa leaves are packed with vitamins and nutrients, and we're hoping the dried and pounded leaves can give Omar much needed sustenance and energy.

A sixteen-year-old 8th grade girl whose violent epileptic seizures--up to three or four episodes a day--were interpreted as manifestations of evil spirits. Her mother had her taken to a marabout or local witch doctor for traditional medicine after a community health nurse advised her to do so. Since her first seizure happened while at school almost a year ago, many believe that it is a result of her going to school and catching the affliction there. Afraid of her having an attack in class, her guardians have kept her from attending regularly for months. However, after getting a second medical opinion, she is now taking daily medication to control (it cannot be cured) the epilepsy and will return to school for the next term starting in a week or two. Without the medication she can risk neurological injury. Many girls in the area have similar episodes, and education campaigns are needed inform communities that epilepsy can be caused not by black magic, but by pressure placed on the head of an infant by the narrow birth canals of young mothers during the birthing process. Another reason to wait a few years before having children.

A girl whose had ringworm and fungus on her body for more than a month who cannot get treatment because the health center has run out of medicine. Luckily, I packed some clotrimazole in my first aid kit.

I've been filling the role of acting nurse, treating the more common skin infections in the village. "Chuputo" are small, contagious boils that form on the head and other parts of the body that burst. They appear mostly on children who do not shower properly or not enough, mostly the small boys. Examples include not using adequate soap or enough water, or not drying off completely before putting their clothes back on. Repeatedly wearing the same dirty clothes for consecutive days doesn't help. In the next few weeks, I'm going to try to make antibacterial soap out of neem leaves and oil so we won't have to buy medicated soap.

Some of the other projects I've been pursuing include making a prototype rocket stove, a bearing press to make briquettes from field waste (to reduce reliance on trees for fuelwood), and growing trees. We just planted some Surinam Cherry and sweetsop, and will start leucena seedlings soon for a woodlot. Most importantly, I'm happy to see that Jaye, my counterpart during my Peace Corps service, has continued to care for his tree nursery. His mangoes, tamarinds, and pigeon peas are doing well. He has quite a bit of oranges going as well. Many of the gmelina stumps and moringas we planted last year died because of the poor rains and termites, but all in all, his tree nursery is coming along, and we look to outplant some tamarinds soon. We got some barb wire and plant to make woodlot fencing and a women's garden soon.

But growing things hasn't been an easy task with a handpump. Water is the village's biggest problem. The handpump breaks once in a while and trees and crops have withered away while waiting for a well technician to arrive. Even when in working order, manually pumping to draw water from 30 meters deep or lower is a difficult, tiring job for man, woman, and child (but 99% of the time left to the latter two). It'd be ideal to have a solar pump at every village, but many would do with working handpumps. Many Mark II pumps were installed by various NGOs in the past 20 years, but most have fallen into disrepair or are badly in need of servicing. Cylinder seals and handle bearings have worn away. Chains need greasing. The money for maintenance and technical expertise to properly repair wells are lacking. With the help of Water Charity I picked up parts to fix three pumps in Niamina West and Niamina Dankunku today.

Till next time.


1. Tree nursery we started--mangoes, mahogany, tamarind, orange, cashew, gmelina

2. Sohna and Maimai in front of sisal (for live fences) and oranges. Sohna has red and blonde tints on her hair, a sign of kwashiorkor, or protein deficiency malnutrition.

3. Rocket stove prototype

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gambia Round 2

Between March 6 and June 7, I'll be back in The Gambia following up with the agroforestry and handpump repair projects I initiated as a Peace Corps Volunteer last year in Niamina Dankunku District, Central River Region, The Gambia. I also plan to start some new ones, including building mud and rocket stoves, bio-sand filters (if I can find the PVC parts locally), and evaporative coolers.

I'll be staying with my friend Jaye Jallow in Brikama Lefaya, a small ethnically Fula village outside Dankunku, in Central River Region-South, The Gambia. You can see his village by clicking on the Google map image here: If you zoom in, you can see his compound (closest village bottom right from the "Brikama" label). His row house is on the left. Across the road, you can actually see the tree nursery that we're working on and inside the concrete ring to the right of the tree nursery is the handpump that we fixed. Southeast of that is Fula Kunda (labeled Bamba Jallow), where we fixed two handpumps.

In terms of agroforestry, we'll be outplanting mango, tamarind, African mahogany, and rosewood seedlings from the nursery that we planted last year. We'll start more cashews for intercropping and plant an improved variety of Leucaena and other multipurpose trees. We'll fence in new areas for additional tree nurseries, tree lots, and possibly a new women's garden, and continue to improve soil fertility with mass composting. Agroforestry trainings in surrounding villages are a possibility as well. Trees for the Future helped out by sending me the following varieties of leucaena and acacia seeds:

- 1000 Leucaena leuccocephala
- 500 Leucaena collinsii
- ~640 Acacia mangium
- 300 Acacia angustissima

Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), sent the following seeds to try out:

- Edible Acacia (Acacia elachantha)
- Surinam Cherry (Eugenia uniflora)
- "Red Lady" Papaya variety (Carica papaya)
- "Known-You No. 1" Papaya variety (Carica papaya)
- Cassod Tree (Senna siamea)
- Atemoya (Annona squamosa X A. cherimoia), aka Sugar-Pineapple or sweetsop--I had a bunch of these when I was living in Thailand
- Indian jujube (Zizyphus mauritiana)
- Cattley Guava - Red (Psidium cattleianum)
- Starfruit (Averrhoa carambola)
- Strawberry Tree (Muntingia calabura)
- Moringa (Moringa oleifera), we planted thousands of these last year

I also have a few packets of seeds from James Cameron's Avatar Home Tree Initiative I picked up in DC during Earth Day in 2010. I think they're sycamore, but we'll see.
We'll put special focus and care on the trees quickest to get established and bear fruit--Annona (3 years), Strawberry Tree (1.5 years), Surinam Cherry (2 years), Starfruit (4-5 years), and Papayas or "paw paws" (first year)--which are actually herbs. Guava takes a long time to germinate, and jujube is difficult to propagate because of its hard casing that needs to be broken. Last year, I put a lot of dents in my bungalow's concrete floor cracking them.
Our goals are to 1.) boost food security by introducing new varieties of fast-growing edible fruits with an abundant variety of vitamins, 2.) lessen dependence on cutting down wild trees for fuel or lumber, and 3.) protect the land from desertification and soil loss through erosion control and soil fertility measures.
In terms of water, we'll be fixing a Mark II handpump for the Regional Health Center in Dankunku, proper, and Sara Sambel, a small Fula village, located between Choya and Pinai. Water Charity will be funding this initial project, details here: These handpumps have been installed in the 90's, but with little or no maintenance. We'll put on new handle bearings and axles, new chains, and new seals for the cylinder mechanism that draws up the water. We'll fix Choya's, too (on the main South Bank road), if we get another Water Charity grant approved. In Touba Murit (labeled Touba Mbakeh), north of Dankunku, we'll see if their handpump can be repaired. If not, we'll look into making slow-sand filters. Further north is Si Kunda. They have only opened wells that are most likely contaminated. Slow-sand filters can help there, too.

We'll also be testing new mud brick rocket stoves and mud stoves that use less firewood and produce less smoke (Deforestation due to fuelwood demand is huge). One design will be based off THIS ONE (add mud coat) by Aprovecho. We'll also test making biochar and biochar briquettes from agricultural waste to limit dependence on fuelwood.

Other possible projects include:
- making neem cream, a mosquito repellent that can help reduce cases of malaria, and
neem soap (antibacterial)
- mproving drainage around kitchen and washing areas
- making evaporative cooling prototypes for extending the shelf life of food

Now to answer your burning question of HOW CAN I HELP?

Many people get turned off by the idea of opening their wallets to helping people they don't know who live thousands of miles away. Especially if they think that their money is being used as a handout. A big part of how I work focuses on building local capacity and giving people a hand up. Training and a small injection of high-quality tools and supplies goes a long way.

- A good pair of $5 secateurs can help a local Gambian de-husk mango seeds for better seedling germination.
- $10 can buy vegetable seeds for a women's dry season garden.
- $20 can buy a shovel and a pick-axe, instrumental in helping to double-dig nursery beds.
- $35 can buy 200 large polypots to trench mango or tamarind seedlings.
- $50 can buy rolls of barbwire to fence out livestock from destroying fuel and fooder seedling lots.
- $100 can go towards buying pitchforks and wheelbarrow to collect and process dung for compost

In terms of water and sanitation, it's difficult for locals to take control of their water supply and pay for repairs when parts aren't readily available or technical knowledge is lacking. Indeed, in the developing world, many of the Mark II handpumps installed by UNICEF and other organizations need maintenance or are in disrepair. The Rural Water Supply Network estimates that 50% of all handpumps are abandoned due to malfunction. Communities whose handpumps have fallen into disrepair and who have no other safe water sources must revert back to open wells and bodies of water that are most likely contaminated.
In Dankunku District, many handpumps were installed in the 1990s, with virtually no upkeep since they were commissioned. Handle axles, bearings, chains, and cylinder seals have either broken down or are dangerously close.
On this trip, I aim to fix handpumps in as many villages as I can. Already, Water Charity and the Elmo Foundation have supplied funds for me to buy parts to maintain two handpumps--one at Dankunku's Regional Health Center, and another for Sara Sambel, a small Fula village about 7 miles from Dankunku proper. In case you missed it, information on this project can be seen HERE. Other villages in need of handpump repair include Choya, Touba Murit, and Madina Wallom, among others.

I have past experience fixing these pumps before. With the generosity of Water Charity and Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Peace Corps Volunteer Etienne Claude-Marcoux and I helped retool three handpumps in Brikama Lefaya and Fula Kunda Villages, helping to improve clean water access for 550 women, children, and men (and livestock). You can read about that past project HERE.

- $20 can help buy PVC pipes for household bio-sand filters for communities with no handpumps or safe drinking water sources, like Si-Kunda, about 5 miles from Dankunku.
- $50 can buy molds and concrete to build sand filter towers.
- $200 can outfit an old handpump with new cylinder seals, a new axle, axle bearings, chain, and housing bolts

If you'd like to help out on this trip or subsequent ones, email me at Tharsis133[at]Gmail[dot]com or Jeremy_Mak[at]alumni[dot]brown[dot]edu.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Update of my time in The Gambia (draft)

So, yes, I've been slacking off with keeping this blog updated--my apologies. A lot has happened in the last year. In January 2011, I went off to The Gambia as a US Peace Corps Agroforestry Volunteer and was based in Dankunku, Central River Region-South. I have wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer ever since freshman year of high-school, 13 years ago, and was lucky to have been given this opportunity to help communities improve their lives.

Much of my time was spent with my counterpart Jaye Jallow, a ethnic Fula coos farmer and cowhand. He approached one day during my first few weeks at my permanent site and said, "Give me your ideas. I want to take care of my land." We started on a new tree lot that day.

I honestly thought that Peace Corps would be a cake walk. Far from it. It was probably the most challenging work environment that I've ever been in. I went in with the mindset that I was going to be a development superstar and that everyone would be excited and eager to work with me. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry after holding a village meeting and hearing that no one knew why I was there. Dreaming big, but having realistic goals is extremely important.

Soon after I arrived and began planting trees, locals understood that I was there to help them with agroforestry production. But many villagers expected that I would give them physical tree seedlings or vegetable seeds instead of showing them new improved agroforestry and gardening techniques. I got a lot of demands for seedlings, as well. "Give someone a fish, he or she eats for a day. Teach someone how to fish..." you get the idea.

But I was adamant about not acting like a tree bank, as doing so would not contributing to building local capacity in planting and maintain trees after I left. I wanted to promote the development principle that you get what you put in and looked for the most motivated counterparts. Jaye, Abdul Jallow, and a handful of others were seriously interested in gaining new skills for themselves, and I was happy working with them to plant trees to improve food security and protect the land.

Working with Jaye and other motivated locals was extremely rewarding. A typical day would involve being in the fields for a good chunk of the time, double digging beds to plant mangoes, collecting tree seeds in the wild, planting beans and short-term crops, watering plants, making tree guards, etc.

In August, my service was unfortunately interrupted due to security concerns (a threat outside my control made it unsafe for me to continue service), but I did manage to accomplish the following things before I left:

• Setting up 12 household cashew and mango tree nurseries, five moringa live fences, and one model multipurpose tree nursery and wood lot in four villages; introduced intercropping and soil fertility improvement methods; trained locals on proper tree nursery management techniques for enhanced food security and income generation



• Demarcating beds for the first dry-season garden in Dankunku Village proper, which now provides an additional source of nutrition and income for 30 local women and their families



• Securing a Water Charity grant to repair three Mark II hand-pumps in Fula Kunda and Brikama Lefaya Villages, improving access to clean water for 550 women, children, and men



• Equipping households with donated solar flashlights to better enable women and girls to cook and read at night. There is no electricity provision in rural Gambia, with only a handful of homes being able to afford solar lighting


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Monday, July 19, 2010

dead aid

i just finished reading dead aid, by dambisa moyo, an economist from zambia. dead aid makes a startling and surprising fact: aid does not and has not helped african countries. quite on the contrary, it has pushed dozens of african countries deeper into poverty.

aid hurts. it breeds dependency. this is because, unlike the marshall plan, which is hailed as greatly helping to reconstruct war-torn europe after wwii, aid to africa is pervasive. there is no timeline cut off. there is very little oversight. unlike the marshall plan, it comprises a much more significant portion of gdp and encompasses not just infrastructure, but includes agriculture, the civil service, healthcare, education, etc.

aid entrenches corrupt dictatorships, impedes the development of a middle class (tax base), and removes the incentives for countries to seek development alternatives. as aid is given from western governments to african countries directly and is seen as a permanent, dependable revenue fix, it is seen as a guarantee, a safety net by some--not all--of africa's rulers. and when it comes down to it, most of government-to-government aid doesn't even reach the people it's meant to help--something like 15% does.

moyo stresses that to achieve economic growth like south africa and botswana, and to mean themselves off aid, african countries need to begin funding themselves, mainly through: 1.) foreign direct investment, 2.) trade, 3.) capital bond markets, 4.) savings, 5,) microfinance, and 6.) remittances. moreover, the discourse on african development should refocus to include the perspectives of africans, and not primarily on western donor interests.

most importantly, this must be done, as donor fatique and uncertainty of future aid commitments further imperils africa's development. while i see the merit in donating to transparent private aid organizations, and will continue to do so, there is much insight to be gleaned from reading dead aid. i'm no economist, but a must read for all those involved in aid work.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the life you can save

there are few books i've read that have truly left a deep and profound impression on me. one such book is the life you can save by peter singer.

on the way to work, if you saw a child drowning in a pond, would you jump in to save him or her--even at the risk of ruining your new shoes and being late to work? if you knew that a child's life was in danger, would you do what you could to save her or him, even if it meant sacrificing personal time, money, or resources? i think it's safe to say that most people would say "yes" without hesitation.

then why do most people do nothing knowing full well that children in extreme poverty at home or abroad are at potential risk from dying of malaria, malnutrition, drinking contaminated water, and a plethora of easily preventable diseases?

what if the child was drowning in a pond in africa?

peter singer makes the convincing case that we all have a moral obligation to help people out of poverty and that if we have the money to buy things that we don't really need (i.e. that bottle of water, that cup of coffee, or my personal favorite--that extra skateboard), then we have disposable income that can be used to effective safe lives and drastically improve the quality of life for poor people in the developing world.

he rightfully criticizes official aid as woefully inadequate and targeted often times due to political concerns rather than actual need (only a small fraction of foreign aid actually makes it to poor countries).

singer advocates that as a baseline, we should each set aside 5% of our income for aid agencies to alleviate poverty and save lives. he writes of people who have dedicated their lives to others and some philanthropists who have given 50% or more of their income to help the poor. he points to give well as a source for finding particularly effective organizations to which you can donate, among them partners in health and population services international.

for those interested in aid, development, and making this world a better place, i highly recommend the book. you can take the pledge to give at

singer questions how we spend money in general--a huge waste of resources is spent needless on trivial, ultimately pointless expenses while people are literally dying every day.
almost 10 million children die a year from easily preventable deaths. that's 27,000 deaths a day.
this happens while money is wasted on vacation homes, expensive cars, etc. he argues that using money to help others less fortunate is a much more urgent categorical imperative than to frivolously spend it on ourselves.

He writes:

...philanthropy fro the arts or for cultural activities is, in a wolrd like this one, morally dubious. in 2004 new york's metropolitan museum of art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small madonna and child painted by the medieval italian master duccio. in buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see. but if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country, that means there are 900,000 people who can't see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. at $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given $100,000 women another chance at a decent life. at $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives--a football stadium of people. how can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? if the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save a duccio from the flames, rather than a child? and that's just one child. i a world in which more-pressing needs had already been met, philanthropy for the arts would be a noble act. sadly, we don't live in such a world.

singer's seven point plan to eliminate world poverty includes the following steps:

1. visit and pledge to meet the giving standard based on your income.

2. check out some of the links on the website, or do your own research, and decide to which organization or organizations you can give.

3. take your income from your last tax return, and work out how much the standard requires you to give. decide how you want to give it--in regularly monthly installments, quarterly, or just once a year, whatever suits you best. then do it!

4. tell others what you have done. spread the word in any way you can: talk, text, e-mail, blog, use whatever online connections you have. try to avoid being self-righteous or preachy, because you're probably no saint, either, but let people know that they, too, can be part of the solution.

5. if you are employed by a corporation or institution, ask it to consider giving its employees a nudge in the right direction by setting up a scheme that will, unless they choose to opt out, donate 1 percent of their pretax earnings to a charity helping the world's poorest people.

6. contact your national political representatives and tell them you want your country's foreign aid to be directed only to the world's poorest people.

7. now you've made a difference to some people living in extreme poverty. (even if you can't see them or know whom you have helped.) plus, you've demonstrated that human beings can be moved by moral argument. feel good about being part of the solution.

singer asked one of his friends what had driven him to spend his life working for others. he replied.
i guess basically one wants to feel that one's life has amounted to more than just consuming products and generating garbage. i think that one likes to look back and say that one's done the best one can to make this a better place for others. you can look at it from this point of view: what greater motivation can there be than doing whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Haiti, Typhoid Outbreaks Reported, Diarrhea Threat Looms

Full online version with photos and captions HERE.
In Haiti, Typhoid Outbreaks Reported, Diarrhea Threat Looms
International Action E-Newsletter
July 13, 2010

Last week, I returned from conducting a 6-month post-quake assessment of our clean water program in Haiti. What I saw was truly heart-wrenching. Vast stretches of displaced persons camps and countless makeshift shelters on the street. People collecting filthy grey-water from trash-strewn drainage ditches. Open sewers.

Typhoid has recently broken out in many areas of Port-au-Prince, and the UN Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Cluster Coordinator has warned of the likelihood of the biggest diarrhea outbreak the world has seen in the past 20 years.

This will not happen on our watch. In the past 2 weeks, we have installed 2 chlorinators in Thiotte, Sudest Department, providing clean water for 20 public water stations serving up to 19,000 people. We also put in 2 more chlorinators for LOCC Mission, an orphanage in the Croix des Bouquets area of Port-au-Prince.

At the last UN "Beyond Water Trucking" meeting, our Haiti Director Dalebrun Esther spoke, and consensus passed that for long-term sustainability, clean water provision must shift from focusing on camps to a neighborhood strategy and that the public water system must be rebuilt.

With your support, we have been the only group focused on disinfecting water at public water stations and providing clean water to neighborhoods from the very beginning, both before and after the quake.

Furthermore, French NGO GRET and the Haitian water agency DINEPA have recommended International Action's chlorinators as the model technology for providing clean water to all of Haiti. We are pursuing partnerships with UNICEF, UNDP, and DINEPA and continue to offer chlorinators and chlorine tablets free of charge to the UN WASH and UN Education Cluster groups, Clinton Global Initiative partners, and any organization in need of them.

Moreover, we've been conducting household chlorine residual testing to ensure that water retrieved from our chlorinators is not contaminated between the points of distribution and consumption. All drinking water containers tested so far have registered with ample levels of chlorine residual. Also, with the help of Water Missions International, we have begun comprehensive microbial testing of treated water from surviving water tanks.

International Action staff distributing deworming pills to children
Our deworming pill distributions, like this one in Tom Gato, Léogâne, focus on children.

What we're doing works—All samples submitted so far for microbial testing (our Duvivier and Mont Jolly #1 and #2 sites) have tested free of bacteria, confirming that our water is high-quality and safe for drinking.

In addition to installing new chlorinators, we're continuing to distribute albendazole tablets and relief supplies. We will distribute another 25,000 deworming pills through Project Concern International's four clinics in Croix Deprez, Nazon, Fort National, and Asile Comunnale beginning this week. We've also passed out deworming tablets, UNICEF hygiene kits and water containers, and mosquito nets to communities in the Léogâne area.

For locations without a water source or where we cannot immediately install a chlorinator, we've distributed PuR water purification satchets kindly donated by P&G's Children's Safe Drinking Water Initiative. Each satchet can clean up to 10 liters of water. We distributed these to orphanages, clinics, schools, and churches in Léogâne and the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince. An additional 75,000 satchets were given to Pure Water for the World for communities in locations where potable water trucking has stopped.

Dalebrun just met with leaders and teachers from 40 schools in Cité Soleil to assess where we can install more water tanks and chlorinators. We're continuing to look for new sites to install chlorinators. If you know of any neighborhood, school, orphanage, church, hospital, or organization in need of chlorinators, chlorine tablets, storage tanks, or deworming pills, please let us know. Help us spread the word.

The need is profound. The time to act is now. Join us in this campaign, and help us quench Haiti's thirst.

Many thanks,


Jeremy Mak
Program Coordinator, International Action
808 "L" St. SE
Washington, D.C. 20003
T: (202) 488-0735
F: (202) 488-0736