Black and White in colorful Africa

Wading in

Wading in

I like photos that tell a story. Taking some friends from MSF out to Lake Tengrela yesterday I had the chance to really play with the overcast diffuse morning light on my Canon EOS 1000D.

I learned photography on an old Fujifilm SLR and I can remember spending whole days — and I mean 12 solid hours on a couple occasions — without leaving the darkroom at Reed College. Everything I did, I did in on TMax100 or 400 or some special Rollei 25 film. I got used to black and white and its impact. I even went so far as to print some old color negatives from a disposable I carried around Peru and Chile onto black and white paper. (It took a lot of experimentation with contrast filters).

Casting a net

Casting a net

I guess what I’m saying is color photography has its place, but can rarely ever match the impact of black and white photography. I had forgotten that. Click on these images and tell me it isn’t so! When my SLR got nabbed from a hotel room in Nicaragua two years ago, I went back to point-and-shoots for a time. When my sleek little silver camera disappeared from the transit house a few months ago I decided I didn’t want to go another year without taking pictures and I was tired of shooting with a deck of cards that had no exposure control and a pinhole aperture. So I went back to SLR-shooting and what freedom it is!

Pulling it in

Pulling it in


Inspecting the net

What I had forgotten though is how wonderful it is to shoot in black and white. It forces you to think about your subject and what you’re trying to say. Take this fisherman for example. He waded out and cast his net the same as he does everyday. We were there to spot hippos and he could care less.

I think I’m going to leave the sensor on black and white for the next week even though I can switch to color on a shot-by-shot basis. I want to force myself to get back to identifying with the subject and thinking about the story I’m trying to tell with my photographs.


Moving on

Opportunities for entrepreneurship?

Warren Buffet was quoted on BBC yesterday as saying to CNBC that “[the US economy] has just fallen off a cliff.” There is plenty of pessimism about the state of global affairs, economic, environmental, and political. But I’ve been increasingly inclined to listen to more voices that speak about the opportunities right now. While trying to avoid being dismissive of the hardships that families all over the world are going through, I like the idea that we could emerge from this crisis with a better world than the one we started with.

For example, companies doing business under an old industrial model of high-energy, high-waste, high-environmental impact, such as the auto industry are having to scrap old business models and start from scratch in the face of imminent bankruptcy. But it’s simply not true that the fate of all auto companies is or will be the same as General Motors and Chrysler. BYD Auto in China began life as a battery manufacturer and is now about to start releasing all-electric cars to China’s growing middle class. Berkshire Hathaway (Buffet) just bought 10% of the company. Whether the Detroit Three emerge from bankruptcy with entirely new 21st century models of doing business or never live to see the light of day at the end of this crisis, there is the opportunity to develop new processes for doing things in a world fast approaching 7 billion people. I’ve talked to friends who tell me that all of this means we will enter a period of protectionism that could last for years and set development back especially in sub-Saharan Africa. This seems unlikely to me though. Tools can’t be uninvented. The Internet will not go away. The technology that’s come about in the last 30 years and especially the last 10 just makes it too easy and cheap to do business internationally for there to be some sort of reverse-globalization en masse.

I have friends who have been laid off in Portland. I feel for them. But I also know that there is opportunity for those with new ideas to implement them. The companies and investors in the long run that pull in their horns and stop research money and new products and new hires will ultimately fail, but the need for the products and services will not. Industries that were nearly impossible for newcomers to break into, like the car business in the US, will now have markets with low-hanging fruit, and a lot of demand once bad debt and confidence bottom out.

For my own part, I think there has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. I admire people like James in Ouaga who are working on projects that benefit Burkina, get money in the hands of villages in the Sahel, one of the hardest places on earth to survive. But this doesn’t mean charity or even necessarily pure altruism. There is money to be made in all corners of the world, not in a nineteenth century extractive capacity — though that unfortunately still exists — but in a generative capacity.

My focus here in Burkina has evolved from teaching computers to using computers in order to teach critical thinking; gaining the ability to ask and answer better questions about what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps the crisis will begin to lift as I complete my service in a year and a half, but if not, I’m not worried about finding work. I know that this period is merely closing old doors to success and opening new ones. That is the challenge of our time; not trying to keep those old avenues open and fight change, but getting as many people “on the bus” as possible.

Our school librarian has lent me a copy of Balzac’s Le Père Goriot. On Thursday I was sitting across the football pitch under a tree near the railroad track in the heat of the day when I began to read. It occurred to me how off or uncertain my French pronunciation sounds to me. I have had the basics down since Montreal but there are still some words that completely stump me; where to shorten a vowel or lengthen, how much air to give an aspiring “H”, etc. I thought about finding a Burkinabé friend to read with me, but then I realized I’m not going to find anyone in town, young or old, who wants to spend their afternoons reading Balzac with me. Besides, and with no offense to my host country friends whose French is native and fluent, the accent would be very African and I would rather learn to read with a more cosmopolitan accent. I can remember trying to communicate in Spanish with that Iberian lisp common only to Spain and it’s not an experience I want to repeat in French.

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there must be an audiobook of this somewhere. Librivox.org I found was started by a guy in a café in Montreal just a few blocks from where I used to wash dishes trying to get my start in French. It’s all public-domain recordings by volunteers. There’s over 2000 in English but around 80 in French as well including Père Goriot.

Here’s an article about it if you’re curious.

Anyway with downloadable MP3s I can even slow the playback down and pause if I’m trying to follow along in the text and mirror the native speaker’s pronunciation. Let me know if this helps any of you guys with MP3 players in village. It’s easy enough to load up your iPod at the transit house in Ouaga and download the Project Gutenberg text at the same time. And thank you all who came to Banfora this weekend to help celebrate my birthday. Cheers.

Return from Dakar

Finally a chance to sit down and write. After returning from holiday in Dakar and Bamako, I spent the week in Ouaga with the other volunteers from my training group.

On December 19th, Vincent, Robert and I met in Bobo Dioulasso to make the voyage to Dakar for Christmas and New Years. The plan was to arrive in Bamako in time to catch the once famous (now infamous) Bamako-Dakar “Express”. The first morning as we were to catch our bus leaving for Mali, Robert suffered a terrible flareup of low back pain the likes of which I never hope to taste. We left him some painkillers from our med kits and Vincent and I continued on to Bamako to scope out the train situation in advance.

After a day’s journey we arrived Bamako late at night crashing in hotel we didn’t want to stay at one hour longer than necessary. The proprietor actually evicted his cousin (or was it his brother) from one of the rooms he let us for the night. The next day we discovered the train would not be departing that morning and in fact might not even arrive for several more days. We set off to find the Peace Corps office in Bamako and did so quite easily asking random gendarmes along the way. Other Mali volunteers helped us check into the reduced “peace corps rate” hotel down the street from the Bureau and we spent the evenings with them while waiting for the train and for Robert to rejoin us. With some help from the SSC at the bureau we determined that the train had not even reached Dakar yet from it’s previous run, and thus wouldn’t be back in Bamako for at least five more days. This was a deal-killer for us to arrive in time to make it back to Ouaga for training by the 5th. After a few days Robert’s back had improved and when he arrived we all continued by bus to Dakar.

It was a grueling trip on Senegal’s terrible road that runs between Kaolack (central Senegal) and the Malian border in the east. This journey was split over two days (since there was only one driver), about 18 hours, and involved the death (presumably of natural causes) of one of the passengers seated in front of us. At a rest stop they just called in a ambulance and carried the guy off the bus on a stretcher. (Vincent saw this happen as Robert and I were inside eating). Then we pressed on. Such as travel goes in Africa, but still shocking.

We reached Dakar on Christmas morning and checked into the (possibly once grand) Hotel Intercontinental. Robert was hankering for comfortable lodging to relax and give his back time to heal up while Vincent and I were happy sleeping anywhere on the cheap. Finding the Peace Corps transit house in Dakar proved challenging but was worth the effort. The next several days were spent seeing a bit of this city with other PCVs as our guides and some Scuba diving off of Ile de Gorre. Robert decided to fly back and Vincent and I braved the road again, crashing with a couple of volunteers along the way, sharing experiences and ideas.

The week in Senegal showed me what an eclectic place it can be. Tremendous development in Dakar compared to Ouaga and yet even more desperate and apparent poverty. The most surprising image of the trip for me was in a bush taxi to Kaolack in which a local woman traveling with children proceeded to organize the contacts on her iPhone.

There is so much I still have to understand about West Africa to even begin to be effective here.

Okay, it took all night but it’s finally uploaded.

Here’s the stillframe Vincent and I pulled from the video in Koudougou.gemfall

It’s the last sixtieth of a second of Brian’s 12-meter “rapid descent” down a rock outside Sindou.

From my original Thanksgiving post below you  can see Brian and Paul gazing up at the two routes that were  to be named the Gemini Cracks on first ascent. They’ll have to remain unconquered for the time being. Much of the video is just audio because when he landed on me the camera went flying. It was a rough afternoon but all in all, extremely lucky.

Path of Iron, Chemin de Fer

My feet dangle from the train as we roar through central Burkina Faso. The air that rushes over them is hot but feels cooling. In the distance grass burns. The fires are set by farmers to clear the fields for planting I am told. By day they’ll catch your glance; passed at night they inspire awe. When we slow as we approach a village whistle-stop children run alongside, barefoot, covered in dust and mud, hollering, laughing, always smiling.


Some lean on bicycles taller than they are. They wave. I wave. For me the greeting is perpetual. Never old but never ending either. The rumble of the wheels on the track neither growing louder nor fainter.For them it is ephemeral: The noise, the waving passengers and then it’s gone and the quiet of the village returns.

Trains always make me much more pensive than I can ever be on long trips in buses or cars. We arrive in Siby and I jump when we’ve slowed enough and let the boxcars make their way to me. Julia’s bike is already being unloaded. And then there’s Julia. I see the station platform now and I recognize my surroundings. I was here only a day earlier before making my way to Koudougou to visit Vincent with Zach on Julia’s bike — mine was stolen last week — a minor upset that’s allowed for long morning walks to school and a chance to meet many neighbors I’ve only raced past before. I missed the post on Friday so I was traveling with 2000 francs in my pocket. Clay loaned me money, Julia, her bike. So many friends makes a small country seem even smaller.

I hand her the bike and she pulls from her sack a watercolor painting I made two days ago while we listened to Chopin on tinny speakers waiting for Zach to arrive from Boromo. This is Africa? Strangely the train passes through Siby but the highway does not. Seven more hours to Banfora. We hug. The train creaks and rolls forward. I pull myself aboard, lean out and wave. Peace Corps service is constant hellos and goodbyes.

Thanksgiving in Sindou

So this weekend a group of us decided to spend turkey day at the foot of some of the only “big rocks” in the country. In the extreme southwest (even more west than me) lies the Peaks of Sindou (Nick, if you’re reading this you must appreciate the lord-of-the-ringsesque names down here. I live in the Shire by the way).

Kait made the longest journey by far using Bryan Chambers and myself as waypoints. (Did we finally decide it was 750 kilometers?) Brian and Jenny had only to bike 15k from their villages.


Here are the rocks as seen from our camp on the first morning.


Here are friends at the barrage lake that Jonathan took us to (I actually jumped off this platform)


And here’s Brian and Paul eyeing one of those glorious “first ascent” possibilities.

I’ll leave it at that.

There is more as there always is with these things, but I would say one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in country was wandering down a dirtroad with Leah and Kaitlyn at night, switching off our torches and seeing a river of blinking lights, literally. Unmoving, occassionally flashing, bioluminescent insects that formed a ribbon of light on both sides of the bridge. Absolutely breathtaking. If I had Vincent’s SLR and a tripod I might have snapped a photo but alas my little point-n-shoot wouldn’t do it justice. I leave the rest to your imagination.


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