Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Highlight of My Weekend: A Four Year Old’s Birthday Party

June 30, 2013

It’s quite remarkable how much a day can go from good to bad and vice versa, so quickly.  Fortunately for me, it was the latter.  I woke up at 6 AM after hardly getting a wink of sleep, as I was to leave with my homestay sister Lina for church at 7 AM.  Groggy, I struggled to get out of bed, though amazingly, I was greeted by a two egg omelet filled with tomatoes, onions, and lettuce – my homestay mom is a gem.  We went to church (Roman Catholic) down the street and saying it was painful was an understatement.  I felt like a petulant child…I could even relate to the crying, whaling babies, except that I had no mother to carry me outside (I wish).  Helen originally told me that church usually lasts around an hour and a half, which seemed reasonable.  This mass clocked in at a whopping 3 hours.  All in Swahili.  You would think that because I grew up going to Catholic school that it wouldn’t matter what language mass is in, but alas – false.  Apparently a baptism occurred during mass, which I couldn’t even tell.  The priest gave a sermon that was more than an hour long and every time I thought the ceremony was coming to a close, something else happened.  I learned over to Lina and whispered, “what are they doing now?”  “Oh it’s just second offering.” …Excuse me?  As the whole church lines again to give more money.  This is post-Eucharist, mind you, so I swore I saw the end in sight.  And don’t get me wrong.  The whole event wasn’t intolerable; in fact, the music was incredible.  We clapped and they sang joyously in Swahili, almost gospel choir-esque, and the women dressed in brightly colored skirts and matching head wraps were beautiful.  But the duration and language barrier really got me down.  You can only sit for so long and day dreams can only pass so much time.  I later learned that this is a new priest at church and his first mass; typical.  Let’s just say that I don’t think I will be going to church again any time soon!

Following mass, we stopped at the tailor’s and my konga skirt was ready with the matching bag.  I thought it turned out exquisitely and the tailoring job was only 10,000 tsh ($6 USD).  Shocking.  And the day already began to look up.

However, who would have expected though that the highlight of my weekend would have been a four-year-old’s birthday party?  Not me.  Paddy, one of my contacts at an Arusha-based NGO, invited me to his son’s birthday party.  To be honest, I originally thought he was a middle-aged Tanzanian woman via email; turns out Paddy is short for Patrick and he is a British ex-pat (whoops!).  I think my opinion of ex-pat arties has changed since I last wrote, as this one was so utterly enjoyable.  I ate beef kabobs with onions and peppers.  This was high quality juicy steak, not the fatty and bone-filled cuts I’ve been used to over the last two weeks).  They served pasta salad, fruit salad, chicken wings, and CAKE!!!  Yes…CAKE!  They don’t serve dessert in my homestay, so the cake (three pieces later, ha) made my life.  I even had a Fanta and a beer…for free!  Wahooo; it was blissful and the company was even better.  Despite the throngs of energetic children running around, crying, hitting each other etc., (the bounce house was broken for the first hour of the party), I enjoyed mingling.  I ignored that I was again sort of an awkward age – there were of course four and five year olds and then people in their 30s and 40s, but I gladly made the best of it.  It was an intimate party with no more than 10 or so adults, about half ex-pats and half Tanzanians, so a much more balanced crowd.  I met an Australian woman who is married to a Maasai man and through her NGO, they’ve been training Maasai women on permaculture practices – SO COOL!  Although the Maasai are traditionally pastoralists who move with their cattle, the herds have suffered due to climate change and recent severe drought.  In addition, there was a man from Ethiopia, another Australian, a few more Tanzanians, and a couple: a Taiwanese woman and a Belgian man.  And I couldn’t believe it, but she used to live in Easthampton.  I was shocked.  Apparently she participated in a high school exchange program in New Mexico before making her way to the East Coast for undergrad at BU.  After getting a job in sales and marketing, she slowly found herself moving west from Cambridge, to Newton, to Shrewsbury and eventually to Easthampton.  I almost peed myself with excitement and disbelief.  We bonded over knowing similar landmarks (Smith College, Tasty Top etc.) and to think that we met in Arusha, Tanzania…the world is a small place!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Training, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation in Gender and AIDs

June 29, 2013

I spent the morning with the most marginalized and stigmatized members of society: the disabled, women, and HIV/AIDs positive individuals.  It is Saturday and Helen’s weekly TRMEGA meeting for which they are currently working on microloans.  The people in her group can borrow small amounts of money from the community bank for six months to a year and are encouraged to build their own incoming generating capacity through activities such as tailoring, growing and selling vegetables, trading foodstuffs at the market, repairing shoes, and raising chickens and livestock for eggs and milk respectively.

Helen introduced me to the group (in Swahili of course) and I replied, “asante sana, nafurahi kukufahamu” (thank you very much, I’m pleased to meet you).  It was a small group today: three women, two disabled men, and three children who were representing their parents (out of about 35 people).  The men came in wheelchairs, except I didn’t recognize them as such right away.  Unlike wheelchairs in the U.S., these cumbersome contraptions resembled adult-size “Big Wheel” tricycles, made with bicycle wheels and operated by hand pedals attached to a chain on the front.  They must make getting around the rough roads easier, as they seem a bit more rugged, yet their large-size and awkward nature cannot be ignored.  I guess mobility comes at the expense of convenience.  I cannot imagine being disabled here.  It is difficult enough for even an able-bodied person to walk around on these dirt death traps they call roads (I swear a trip on a rock or divot every ten feet).  To be bound to a rolling machine must be horrible, yet these men remained in good spirits and one is even expecting a child with his wife soon.  After poking around the office a bit, I noticed that the motto of TRMEGA is “Saving the Vulnerable and Marginalized.”  I good-heartedly told Helen that I think it should be “empowering” instead of saving, because she’s doing just that.  My homestay mom is an inspiration, really a role model with an enormous heart and will to help others.

More of the homestay garden

Gifts and handicrafts for sale

This painting sums up the work of TRMEGA pretty well

Friday, June 28, 2013

Women Development for Science and Technology Association

June 28, 2013

Today I went to WODSTA (Women Development for Science and Technology Association), an NGO in Njiro Hill, which is a growing middle class section of Arusha.  “Equitable social development that recognizes empowering the poor, particularly women, to utilize environment resources as a necessary foundation for sustainable development.”  WODSTA was started in 1990 and works in women’s economic empowerment, environmental conservation, appropriate technology, sustainable development, food security, alternative energy, and civic/land rights.  In the last ten years, they have also focused on food processing and marketing through added value products (e.g. preserving surplus harvest).  They started training in fruits and vegetables with a project focused on mangos for which women began processing organically-grown mangos and turning them into jam and mango “pickle” (a spicy relish with chili and spices).  Since I love love love mangos, I ended up buying a jar of the pickle and chutney.  While at WODSTA, I also learned about their alternative energy project, which involved making industrial-sized stoves out of bricks. 

They are trying to move away from the three stone, open fire model, which although traditional, it is wasteful in firewood and inefficient in heating.  As I may have previously mentioned, energy is a gendered issue because women are typically responsible for gathering firewood and fuel, and now with increased competition over scarce land from wildlife conservation, climate change, etc., women have been forced to buy firewood.  WODSTA’s goal is to reduce the workload for women with an emphasis on locally available material.  They are proponents of solar water heaters, solar dryers, and the improved stove technologies.  They’ve been working on the stoves for almost one year now and hope to install them in community centers such as schools and health clinics, rather than individual homes.  In addition, the secretary general explained how WODSTA is taking a stand on women’s land rights by working with pastoralist communities in the realm of land-use conflict resolution (e.g. with national parks, foreign investors, government officials).  They have a pilot project operating in seven nearby villages to educate women on land rights, inheritance laws, and other challenges related to property.  I hope that I can join them on a field visit sometime this month, as the issue of land grabbing is of deep interest to me. 

I took a processing tour during which I saw the receiving, storing, and processing rooms/facilities (including grinders, washing and drying schemes, and packaging material) for the mango project.  I also learned that WODSTA doubles as the partner organization with which Helen operates Slow Food - A Thousand Gardens initiatives.  It was interesting to visit this organization because it allowed me to compare my previous experience with AVRDC.  I hadn’t realized how much the two would differ, as AVRDC is an international organization that is extremely well-funded in comparison to WODSTA, which is a locally-based grassroots organization.  They suffer from financial constraints such as printing colored brochures, which obviously limits their capacity to make change.

Feeling the Edges: Stoves and Juice

June 28, 2013

The Watson Foundation encourages fellows to feel the edges of their projects, to leave plenty of room for fluidity and exploring beyond any self-created confines.  Today, I was able to watch several women build stoves as part of a collaborative effort between TRMEGA (my homestay mom’s NGO – Training, Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation on Gender and AIDs) and the wildlife conservation organization her husband works for.  These stoves, apparently conceived of by Danish colleagues, reduce firewood use, minimize smoke at eye level, are smaller to conserve space, and are well-insulated for efficiency.  Women were smashing bricks into powder, mixing the dusty substance with water and cementer, and pouring the mixture into molds.  The stoves take about 24 hours to dry and set and are made up of three pieces: a small circular base (maybe 12 inches across), a connecting piece, and a tall chimney. 

It is amazing that something so seemingly simple and “easy” to create can have potentially far reaching effects.  Reduced firewood usage alleviates pressure on wildlife by decreasing deforestation; smaller stoves take up less space in homes that may only be one room; and the chimney reduces the amount of harmful fumes the women would otherwise inhale.  Moreover, because the stoves are well-insulated and more efficient, women can spend less time in the kitchen.  Less time cooking and gathering fuel ideally means more time pursuing income generating activities.  Right now, 16 women are working on the project, with the goal of completing the last four today (they construct four a day).  Each woman will be able to bring one home at no charge and then they will continue to construct them to earn a small profit.  They cost about 16,000 tsh ($10 USD) and the women will only make a profit of about 4,000 tsh ($2.50 USD) after all is said and done.  Although this isn’t much, I guess it’s at least something.  Although stoves are not directly related to food production in an agricultural sense, they are so directly linked to food systems and social and environmental issues, that I thought I would share this interesting experience.

Today I also watched and helped make homemade juice with Regina, the woman who helps cook and clean around the house.  We used sour sop fruit from a graviola tree in the backyard and passion fruit.  Regina peeled the sour sop, tore and put chunks into a bowl, and then we mashed it with a potato masher.  Apparently sour sop is a “miracle” fruit whose leaves, bark, fruits etc. can be used to fight cancer naturally and effectively.  Helen showed me an article (though not scientific) about how it targets only malignant cells and can treat breast cancer, prostate, and colon among many types.  One study showed it to be up to 10,000 x more effective than conventional cancer treatments and much less damaging than chemotherapy.  It can be grown in tropical climates (e.g. the Amazon rainforest, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia).  So why haven’t we heard of this miracle drug?  According to the article, research on sour sop has been occurring since the 1970s but when pharmaceutical companies discovered that they couldn’t synthesize an artificial replicate from the natural form, it was clear that they couldn’t patent it and thus make a profit.  This may have resulted in the discarding and cover-up of legitimate, publishable, scientific research.  Seems like a crime against humanity if you ask me, however, I still question the credibility of this article, which was more like an editorial than anything.  However, if accurate, it is a testament to how much some corporations and power hungry individuals value profits over people and the environment.  So back to the juice: I swear it is ambrosia, an elixir of the Gods.  It is naturally quite sweet and after scooping out the passion fruit flesh, we mixed the fruit with water, strained it, and added a touch of sugar (which in my opinion was unnecessary).  I wish we had these fruits at home so I could replicate it for my family.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Day in the Village

June 27, 2013

Today was another tiring day.  I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why I am so tired here all the time.  I think my body hasn’t quite gotten used to rising so early in the morning.  After a breakfast of white bread (the combination of PB&J reminds me of home), a bowl of papaya (or “paw paw”) and orange slices, and a cup of rooibus and vanilla tea, I waited for Rogath to pick me up so that we could go to the village.  On our way, we took a side trip to an NGO called CEDESOTA (Community Economic Development and Social Transformation).  To be honest, it sounded like just another nondescript organization possibly irrelevant to my project, however, after hearing about their projects, I was so glad we stopped.  Rogath explained that it is the “little brother,” so to speak, of his NGO CESuDe-T (Tanzanians sure are fond of their acronyms).  He introduced me to the managing director, a jovial and humble man named Jackson, who informed me that they are currently working with pastoralists on issues related to agriculture, climate change, and land rights.  My jaw may have dropped as this is very much interrelated to what I want to study.  To make matters more exciting, CEDESOTA works locally with Maasai and other tribes and will be holding a training sometime in July.  I really hope I’ll be around to attend, however, my “calendar” for July seems to be filling up faster than I would have thought possible.  I hope to visit Mwanza (on Lake Victoria), Tanga (a coastal region to the East), and either a safari or a hike up Mt. Meru (Tanzania’s second largest mountain after Kilimanjaro).  I just want to see and do everything, and I am working hard to treat the Watson as a lesson in saying “yes.”  There were too many times at Hamilton that I said “no.”  No because I had too much work or some other weak excuse.  I want to say yes.  I want to open my heart to people and jump in fully with two feet.

Today ended up being interesting after our serendipitous side visit with Jackson.  We arrived at the village (after an extremely nauseating half hour drive into the mountains) and Rogath encouraged me to mingle with the women by the pile of bricks, because they “surely remembered me.”  At first, it seemed to be going quite well.  I maintained about as much small talk as my extremely limited Swahili permitted, and we laughed over the fact that we couldn’t really understand each other.  Then something odd happened.  I asked if I could help (“Nisaidie namna gani?”), which the first word of this phrase is extremely difficult for me to pronounce…so many syllables and vowels.  I must have butchered it horribly.  I knew that I couldn’t possibly carry a concrete brick on my head like the other women (who I conjecture have been doing it since they could walk), but I thought maybe I could help some other way.  Then I thought they asked me if I wanted to take some tea (“chai”).  They pointed to a bucket on the ground, which I hoped I could carry to assist them.  It was filled with mugs and a thermos, so naturally, I thought they were offering me a morning cuppa.  Again, wrong.  One woman started asking me for money and then things got kind of uncomfortable – “200 shillings,” one farmer exclaimed.  I was confused, but should have expected that nothing is free in such an impoverished community.  I awkwardly bumbled through my money belt (which was of course, under my shirt, so I probably flashed them my stomach) and dug out some change.  “That is not enough for everyone,” another woman expressed in broken English.  Were they asking me to give them all money?  I was sort of annoyed and perplexed, explaining that I couldn’t possibly give money to everyone.  After recounting the story to Rogath, he swooped in with his wonderful bilingual-ness and apparently it was all a big misunderstanding…

Today’s mission was to see the intake of the irrigation system.  We walked the length of the canal/trench (~2.2 km) up to the “mouth.”  Of course, he stopped periodically to speak to people, but I didn’t mind.  The walk was beautiful.  This village is incredibly peaceful and the surrounding environment is breath-taking.  He allowed me to freely take photographs and also encouraged me to record video footage during our walk, which he occasionally narrated. 


On our return trek, he permitted me to interview a female farmer, while his generously translated.  It was fascinating but also depressing (like many things I have encountered in Africa thus far).  I learned that she is a single mother because her husband died, and as a woman farmer, she feels a much heavier burden compared to her male counterparts.  She has the responsibility of taking care of the family, tending to the livestock, growing the vegetables, and generating any income possible. 

Although I still haven’t managed to figure out how to pronounce the name of the village, after interrogating Rogath, I learned heaps of information about it: they began this irrigation project last October, and farmers cultivate individually on small plots of land for both home consumption and some sales at the market.  Land is very scarce though and as a result, they have to use zero-grazing with their cattle: the cows cannot range free but a rope is tied around their snouts, hitching them to a fencepost with a pile of grass and palm leaves are presented to them (it looks kind of depressing, really).

Unsurprisingly, water rights are also a factor in the dam and irrigation scheme, which provides for about 3,000 individuals (this village and surrounding villages).   

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wrapping up with AVRDC: A recap of the last week

June 26, 2013

I spent three more days at AVRDC: one with the post-harvest team, another with the breeder, and the last with the manager of the gene bank.  On Monday, I spent the day with the post-harvest specialist at AVRDC.  He explained that they are currently working on a collaborative project with Dr. Lisa Kitinoja, from UC Davis, which promotes postharvest technologies for small holder farmers.  Apparently, many postharvest coursework and academic disciplines have been shut down because of budget cuts, so she has developed an online training course for regional trainers and extension departments.  The goal is to train small holder farmers who don’t have access to new information and for regional trainers to become qualified and then train small holder farmers locally.  He informed me that upwards of 90% of farmers are likely small-scale and have issues sourcing equipment.  However, a few larger-scale commercial farms in plantation settings (e.g. flower exporters) do exist, which are high end operations and have a high level of investment and technology available to them. 

I also got a chance to meet with two of the research assistant in the post-harvest department.  We talked about food safety and its relationship to vegetables, including physical, chemical, and biological hazards.  Apparently, as of recently, the FAO & WHO are considering nutrition as an aspect of food safety...interesting!  Moreover, chemical technologies have been used to increase food safety and maintain nutrition (chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, electrolyzed water, sand filtration etc.).  We talked about the organic movement and he said that generally, exporting operations are the ones who may uphold organic practices to increase sales, through product differentiation.  In contrast, small holder farmers have been using agrochemicals for some time now and aren’t as incentivized to farm organically.  However, more often than not, there isn’t the sufficient money to purchase pesticides, which are relatively expensive, though widely available in many places, especially around Arusha.  And because farmers want to increase their yield in order to generate more income, organic may not be a priority in the same way it is valued in the U.S.  I was also informed that relatively few Tanzanians are aware of food safety and nutrition, so there is little consumer demand for organic, chemical-free food.  Eager to help out and contribute to anything at all, I was able to provide feedback/comments on 5 studies/trials that the post-harvest research team is currently devising – these studies were: 1) evaluating packing crates for tomato transportation 2) evaluating the use of icepacks to reduce the deterioration of leafy vegetables during transport 3) testing ZECC efficiency 4) Cool bot efficacy and 5) solar dryer efficiency. 

I spent the following day with AVRDC’s vegetable breeder, whose son will be enrolling in Stanford undergrad for engineering in the fall.  Naturally, we were able to bond over this, as my boyfriend Jack will be starting his master’s in Environmental Engineering at Stanford this fall as well.  I was able to testify as to how brilliantly gorgeous the campus is and how his son is going to love California.  As I may have said in an earlier post, AVRDC heavily values indigenous African vegetables, which include: spider plant, African eggplant, vegetable cowpea, Ethiopian mustard, amaranth, African nightshade, okra, and bitter gourd.  Whereas exotic vegetables include: tomatoes, peppers, and onions.  The breeder explained how breeding involves genetic enhancement and varietal development, and the vegetable value chain is as follows:

Germplasm conservation --> germplasm development  --> germplasm utilization  --> seed  --> vegetable production (including tech. support)  --> postharvest handling  --> markets  --> consumption and nutrition

Among many things I’ve learned at AVRDC, it’s that the vegetable industry can be complex, more complex than I had originally conceived.  Moreover, he delineated between the two types of plant breeding processes: conventional (in which the breeder develops the germplasm, selects, evaluates, and releases it with farmers coming after the release stage, during the demonstration) and Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) (a process of development, screening, evaluation, and release in which you invite the farmers to make the decision).  They will decide based on plant maturation within a given time period, productivity, composition, resistance to pests and diseases, quality (taste, color, size etc.).  Furthermore, there are two types of PPB: centralized, which is conducted onsite at the research facility, and decentralized, where selection occurs in the target environment with the ongoing involvement of the target users.  DPPB seems ideal as farmers can participate in land preparation, weeding, etc., and it is generally believed to be more accurate with higher rates of successful adaptation.  However, DPPB can become expensive because of frequent travel to the site and compensation for the land usage, which may not be sustainable over the long term.  He explained some of AVRDC’s achievements in breeding and compared the two types of varieties (open pollinated and hybrid).  He explicated the various linkages in the value chain and how AVRDC values connections among actors, as this is the only way to ensure that technology is disseminated and adopted by users, justifying initial investment.  These partners include: national agricultural research and extension systems, private seed companies, public seed enterprises, processing industries, regional and international research and development institutions, NGO development organizations, farmers and community groups, donor/aid organizations, advanced research institutions, and students.

The breeder also raised the question of: “With the number of mouth to feed increasing and the number of people working in agriculture decreasing, how are we going to feed the world?”  EXACTLY MY POINT!!!  He hit the nail on the head, as this gets at the heart of my Watson.  He believes we need investments in agriculture and more importantly, we need to figure out how we are going to increase production.  In his eyes, the options are: #1 - increase the area or #2 – increase productivity per unit of existing area.  The former is not easy/near impossible because of competition over land between farming, population growth, urbanization, desertification, etc. with arable land shrinking.  #2, however, may be achievable with improved genetic material and varieties and improved agricultural practices (such as the use of fertilizers, pesticides, better soil and water management).  Although biased, he claimed that breeders are important because we need better varieties to increase production and because increased inputs are not enough.  He also made the interesting observation that the trend of moving people from the field to conferences/workshops is a negative trend, since every project nowadays gives more values to meetings, workshops, publishing than developing improved technologies.  He claims that the government needs to emphasize and incentivize young people to go into farming, breeding etc. and that social scientists and the use of media are also important in convincing people about the importance of investing in agriculture.  Lastly, he noted how biotechnology labs and molecular marking will be very important in the future of conventional plant breeding, and although biotechnology may not always be widely accepted, it is necessary to convince the population that it is okay.  However, thus far, science has been unable to justify and prove the safety of various biotechnologies (i.e. GMOs).  Hmm…some food for thought.    

I spent Wednesday with a genetic resources scientist, who manages the gene/seed bank.  The gene bank on site is for short-term storage (15 degrees C temperature, 30-40% relative humidity) and currently has about 2,360 accessions or varieties (most are traditional African vegetables).  To maintain the conditions, it uses two ACs and 3 dehumidifiers.  After harvesting the seeds, they are brought to the dryer room to prepare them for storage.  I saw the various equipment that is used to measure seed moisture content and took a tour of the facilities, including the seed preparation room, drying room, and the seed storage room.

Gene/seed bank storage

Gene bank cooling

Varieties are decorative

Seeds drying

Seed dryer

I was also able to meet with a research assistant who does work on social economics.  She explained how poverty, economic stagnation, malnutrition, hunger, disease and education are all social issues related to community development and very much associated factors.  AVRDC believes that training can help improve nutrition and vegetable knowledge and that education helps people understand their impoverished situation, what the causes are, and how to overcome it; AVRDC can help facilitate development (and trickle-down effect).  We also talked about the differing roles of men and women.  Culturally, women have been in charge of vegetable production because it has been historically subsistence/home consumption-related (not income generating) – women head households and are in charge of survival and caring for the family.  In contrast, men are responsible for cash crop production (e.g. coffee) and income generation.  This has led to much of the focus in agriculture being geared toward empowering women.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Fun Day = Market Day!

June 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Dad!  I wish I could have been there to celebrate with you, but rest assured, I’ll be there for the next one J I love and miss you so much!

Today I accompanied Helen to the market at Usa River.  I feel like markets in any country are their own entity of excitement and attending, even if only to look around, is an event in and of itself.  I was overwhelmed with new sights, sounds, and smells; colors of every shade were remarkably vibrant.  The market was spread about several side streets and alley ways and if someone had flown an aircraft overhead, it would have looked something like a “T.”  Vendors were selling everything from second hand shoes to produce, including kongas (colorful and ornate pieces of fabric that can be tailored into skirts and shirts), clothes, bags, shampoo and meat.  There were booths with heaps of dried sardines and loads of shoes…so many shoes everywhere!  Helen bought a week’s worth of produce (whatever she can’t grow at home in the garden) and I bought myself a konga, which we proceeded to drop off with the tailor down the street.  She is going to make it into a skirt and using the leftover fabric, she will craft a hand bag – I’m so excited!

Guest Appearance: Jay Gatsby Comes to Usa River?

June 23, 2013

Last night around 6 PM a tall Dutch man who goes by “Baba Edith” (translates to father and his first born is his daughter Edith) from the Watoto Foundation for Street Children came to pick up Helen, Kosmos, and me to bring us to a fundraising event.  It was a benefit dinner ($30 USD or 50,000 TZ shillings) with the proceeds going to support wildlife conservation.  This was actually a relatively pricey entrance fee, given that you can get an hour of Internet for $1 USD and a daladala ride for $0.25.  And I was surprised that we didn’t even get fed dinner but rather a series of mediocre appetizers (or “bites” as they are called in Tanzania): small blocks of cheese, crusty bread with tomatoes (essentially a low quality bruschetta), pita and hummus, and meatballs (on the dry side, served with sweet chili sauce) to name a few.  The whole event was a strange contradiction that both comforted and disturbed me.  It was held at a private home down the street from my homestay in Usa River, off a nearby dirt road (side note: almost all of the roads in Tanzania are dirt and EXTREMELY bumpy, very few are paved with tarmac, and thus 4WD land cruisers are ideal for getting around.  And even in these unruly beasts, you must have a strong stomach to resist the urge to throw up because everything is so bumpy). 

Initially, we thought the building must be a hotel because the façade was so extravagant.  I felt momentarily transported to the European countryside or to one of Jay Gatsby’s parties on 1920s Long Island, as it resembled a grand estate.  It turns out that the ‘house’ belongs to a British expat who was in absence last night because he was at Wimbledon (casual).  There must have been 40-50 people in attendance, all wazungu (white/foreigners) and expatriates, while Helen and Kosmos were the only Black Africans, except for the few that were staffing the event.  I asked Helen about it and apparently many were Dutch (there are about 250 Dutch families living in and around Arusha).  She suspected that many more were from South Africa or Zimbabwe and noted how they were now in Tanzania because they were forced to leave as the government attempted to restore ownership and power to Black Africans with the goal of ending white oppression.  Helen also said that many people are now starving in Zimbabwe and the like because the wazungu owned massive plantation farms, very high in productivity, and when they were banished, the Black Africans did not have the technology, funds, or means by which to sustain the massive operations, leading to widespread hunger.  Her narrative was both interesting and depressing.

I met a few people at dinner (which was really more like a cocktail party): a Dutch couple who has been running a tourist lodge for six years, and a woman named Valerie from North Carolina who has been living in Arusha for 16 years.  The latter conversation came about in the most amusing of ways, as she came up to me and inquired about how I was “starting a family soon.”  Hmm…not to my knowledge.  Naturally, I replied confused and she said she must have the wrong Asian.  I was the only Asian in the room, who also happened to be with the only Black couple – we must have been a funny sight.  It was overwhelmingly nice to hear the familiar southern drawl and to be comforted by her kind words, though when she discovered I was traveling alone, all she could respond with was “pole, pole” (I’m sorry).  Apparently she cried the first two weeks straight she was in Africa.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep it together alright so far, knock on wood.

There was a band playing during most of the night, mostly oldies covers.  They were four older gentlemen (Irish and British, I think) who traveled down from Nairobi for the event.  I recognized many of the songs/artists (e.g. Van Morrison, Bryan Adams, Marc Cohn, Elvis etc.).  I was elated to be able to sing along, that everyone around me spoke English, the water in the toilet and sink were running flawlessly, and that it felt the most like home since I’ve been here.  But while comforted by the familiarity, I was also troubled as the entire event felt very un-Tanzanian.  One of the Dutch expats put it quite well: it is like a society within a society, since the expat community stays very much to themselves and largely refrains from engaging with the local community, outside NGO activity.  It seemed strange, but I suppose understandable that no Black Tanzanians were at the event.  Was it to expensive? (Probably).  Were they not invited or made aware?  (Most likely), yet wildlife conservation affects their land-based livelihoods hugely.  It felt wrong to be in this mansion-like house with people who fly back to Europe 4-5x a year (hello, CO2 emissions) when there are people living in abject poverty less than a half mile away.  The event felt hypocritical and only accentuated the social injustice; yet I couldn’t help but relish the safety and security (although perhaps false) that I felt there.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Agricultural Technology: Modern, Appropriate, or Appropriately Modern?

June 21, 2013

Fast-forward to yesterday and today, which I spent with AVRDC – World Vegetable Center.  I take a daladala down the barabara (street) several kilometers.  All of my traveling has been down the Arusha-Moshi road/highway, which is the main road that connects many East African cities including Dar es Salam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya), Kampala (Uganda), and Kigali (Rwanda).  Near Usa River, the barabara is lined with dukas (small shops), usually cell phone vendors, as well as an assortment of mini-marts, petrol stations, cafes, hardware stores, and stationary shops. 

At AVRDC, I met with a man named Victor Afari-Sefa, Ph.D. (scientist and socio-economist) for the Regional Center for Africa.  Victor explained that this past October, AVRDC (Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center) celebrated 40 years.  Their headquarters are located in Taiwan and they currently operate in six countries, mainly Asia, with the goal of promoting vegetable research and development.  They have four global research and development teams that operate across regions in the developing world.  The teams include Germplasm, which focuses on genetic material and gene banks (natural collections of seeds that are characterized and made available to seed companies). 

According to Victor, AVRDC has the world’s largest genebank for vegetables with 56,000 assetions/varieties and over 200 types of vegetables, and 2,360 assetions in the Arusha genebank alone (mainly indigenous/traditional vegetables, such as African eggplant, instead of “globally important” vegetables – e.g. tomato, cabbage).  The second team is “Breeding,” for which they take material from the germplasm and improve upon the genetic makeup (which Victor claims is cross breeding and not genetic modification as in GMO, though I am still not quite sure of the difference…).  In breeding, they have three objectives: biotic resistance (avoid pests, viruses, bacteria, fungi), abiotic resistance (to better tolerate heat, drought, flood, salt), and high nutrient content (e.g. beta kerotene tomatoes).  After breeding, good seeds must pass through each national system in order for the varieties to be released for sale to farmersOnce AVRDC releases the seeds, they depend on the private sector to sell and commercialize them. 

The next team and step on the value chain is “Production,” which includes the time from when the seed is planted to when it is harvested.  According to Victor, AVRDC emphasizes good agricultural practices (i.e. those that increase productivity and protect against disease), which may include the use of starter solutions, grafting, integrated pest management, early planting/harvesting, biological control agents (e.g. pheromone traps for pests), and chemical treatments; with the toughest challenges being pest and disease control, as well as water availability/distribution.  The fourth and final team is “consumption,” which includes post-harvest handling and management; marketing; nutrition; monitoring and evaluating (e.g. research activities and impact assessment); policy issues; and training.

In addition to the Arusha office, AVRDC operates in Bangkok, Thailand, Hyderabad, India, Mali, Cameroon, Dubai, Uzbekistan, Solomon and Fiji Islands and Indonesia.  As a non-profit that essentially provides public goods, it is donor funded and to some degree, donor driven.  The major contributors include the United States Agency for International Development (USAID...shocker), the Bureau for Food Security in Washington D.C., Obama’s Feed the Future Program, and German, Australian and Swiss Development Corporations.  According to Victor, AVRDC always targets the small-holder farmer as the main recipient of their research.

I took a tour of the farm, fields, and demonstrations plots with Omary, the Farm Manager.  He noted that the crops are often enhanced for size and disease resistance.  Varieties in the demonstration plot garden include: Amaranth, Spiderplant, Cowpea, Lagos Spinach, Sunhemp, Jute Mallow, Okra, Rosella, Soybean, African Eggplant, Bitter gourd, Russian Comfrey, sweet potato, hot pepper, sweet pepper, pumpkin, and lemon grass to name a few.  During my private tour, I asked Omary some questions including those related to GMOs, meat consumption, irrigation techniques, and the use of organic versus synthetic fertilizers.  Apparently, Tanzanian law prohibits the use of GM seeds but the government could change their mind at any point, especially with neighboring Kenya and nearby South Africa promoting and shipping GM Maize.  According to Omary, GMOs are good because human population is increasing and productivity is low.  He explained furrow irrigation, which uses a canal and is the most basic and least expensive form of irrigation (especially when compared to drip irrigation).  This is the type of irrigation system that CESuD-T is building. 

I saw the dryer room for the slow drying of seeds for improved storage and also took a post-harvest facilities tour with Radegunda, Agriculture Economist at AVRDC.  With this step, the objective is to train farmers on post-harvest handling methods in order to reduce crop loss, which in Tanzania, can be 30-80%.  AVRDC insists that farmers shade their products immediately after it is harvested to help retain moisture, and there are different methods of shading and also drying methods for preservation (indirect and direct solar dryers, which can extend shelf life up to six months).  She showed me the different cooling methods including the cold room and the zero energy cooling container, which uses bricks on the outside, lined them with wet sand, which lowers the temperature through evaporative cooling.  Farmers are also being trained on how to make jams and marmalades as a form of food preservation and income generation.  The aspects of packaging, transport, and marketing are also critical.

The next day, I attended a “Demand Creation Activity” called Farmers’ Field Day, which was a platform that brings together farmers, seed companies, researchers, and other key stakeholders.  The theme was “Traditional African Vegetables for Nutrition Diversity, Income Generation and Food Security.”  It was an interesting day, with scheduling being futile (which I should expect in most of the world).  I searched for the opening ceremony for an hour, and no one seemed to know where it was or when it was to occur (why make a schedule if you are going to be 1.5-2 hours behind?).  In my frenetic quest, one of the security guards on the compound befriended me: “Konechiwa” (Japanese greeting).  His name is James and he “wants to be my best friend” and teach me Swahili.  I also met someone named Gideon who graduated last year from Sokoine Agricultural University in Morogoro and now works for the East African Seed Company in Arusha (which I now hope to visit). 

The day was a great opportunity for photos, but at first, I could hardly understand a thing because the tour was in Swahili.  Eventually, however, there was an English translator present.  Much of the day was focused on promoting dietary diversity, food security, and income diversification for risk aversion; and moreover, to emphasize that indigenous vegetables are often climate resilient crops that can be planted to avoid weather-related failure.  Other examples of technologies that I was exposed to, especially at the post-harvest level, included: harvesting aids (e.g. bags to more carefully harvest in the field), fruit pickers (e.g. baskets to catch fruit from the trees as to not damage them on the way down), pruning shears, crates for transport (wooden versus plastic), and metal/wire ring for sizing produce (can DIY).  Something that the Post-Harvest specialist, Ngoni, mentioned to me, was the idea of “appropriate technology” and how more often than not, the newest and most advanced technologies are not made available or accessible to farmers, so what we might conventionally conceive of as “technology” is actually irrelevant.  I thought this was an excellent point to consider as I continue to pursue my project, again, that technology falls on a broad spectrum and I will probably see more “appropriate technology” (i.e. “basic”) than cutting edge developments. 

During the final discussion/Q+A, individuals asked about: preparing soybeans, marketing products, applying chemical treatments, and alternatives and organic fertilizers.  In closing, the speaker noted that vegetable production should be regarded as an income generating activity.  Each person was fed a huge lunch (photo can be found on FB) and sent away with a “Healthy Diet Gardening Kit,” which has a few seed samples and pamphlets in Swahili, which I gave to my homestay mother.  Overall, it was a really long and exhausting day.  It was interesting to be on site with local farmers, but the language barrier made it difficult, as I was only able to communicate with a few individuals.  I think that overall, my experience the prior day was more beneficial: I learned so much in the course of three hours that I thought my head was going to explode.  It was exciting, especially because of how relevant it felt to my Watson project (“Modern Technology and Traditional Agriculture”).  Fortunately, I have plans to go to AVRDC Monday-Thursday next week to work in depth with each of the four teams.

Following my time at AVRDC and the grueling daladala ride home, I was greeted by a few small children (neighbors) playing near the compound.  They must have been 4-6 years old and were absolutely adorable.  On a photo-taking spree and practicing my Swahili, I asked if I could photograph them.  They were eager to pose for the camera.  Though I couldn’t help but be simultaneously saddened by their impoverished and dirty state and also moved by their genuine smiles; they were both filthy and innocent.  I only hope they can finish primary school, secondary school, and maybe even make it to university.   

From the USA to Usa River

Friday June 21, 2013

Shikamoo.  Habari za asubuhi.  Jina lako nani?  Jina langu ni Lauren.  Natoka Marekani; nasoma kilimo.  Chakula kizuri.  Ulale salama.  Kwaheri.  Asante sana kwa wema waka.

Here are a few of the Swahili words and phrases I’ve picked up in the last few days.  They translate to: “Respectful greetings (given to anyone older).  Good morning.  What is your name?  My name is Lauren.  I am from America; I am studying agriculture.  The food is delicious.  Goodnight.  Goodbye.  Thank you very much for your hospitality.”  Wow.  I can’t believe that I’ve already been in Tanzania for almost a week.  This relatively short amount of time has felt like both the blink of an eye and an eternity, probably because so much has happened in the span of five days. 

Rewind to last Monday.  I befriended a couple in Ataturk International Airport in Turkey, who generously helped me get to Kilimanjaro.  They were preparing to go on a safari and have done a ton of traveling themselves, ranging from India to Peru (both destinations I’m hoping to get to!).  Even though they’re less than ten years older than me, they took me in, almost like a child, letting me tag along as the airport was enormous and overwhelming.  Plus our flight from New York had been delayed almost an hour, so I was even more concerned about making it to Tanzania.  We grabbed coffee and they bestowed upon me travel advice, making the few hour layover more than tolerable…even enjoyable!  However, during our coffee break, a nervously shaking man, who claimed to be from Ohio but had a strong Canadian accent, started ranting about how Istanbul was in a state of chaos.  Apparently the riots had left the park and began to spread about the city.  He said he and his friends could feel the tear gas from blocks away as police attempted to break up the crowds.  This made me less than calm and I was eager to get out of Turkey before my parents saw the news.  Unfortunately, civil unrest seems to have followed me to Tanzania, where the nearby city of Arusha experienced a bombing last Saturday.  Four people were killed and upwards of 70 wounded due to election-related violence.  I assumed that I would dodge any trace of it, since the election isn’t until 2015, but apparently local politics and opposition parties are alive and (un)well.  Fortunately, I haven’t yet even gone into town and I am a good 20 km outside Arusha, living in a small suburb (? – this seems like the wrong word…) called Usa River (pronounced Oo-Suh), so not to worry, loved ones!

When I finally arrived in Kilimanjaro (which is a tiny airport by the way!), it was close to 3:30 in the morning and I was nervous about my homestay family picking me up.  I had attempted to conjure up back-up plans in the event that I found myself stranded, but I knew my Iphone was close to dying.  I also somehow managed to be the last person off the flight and in line for my Visa.  My nervousness quickly subsided, however, when I found my luggage and saw Helen and her husband with a sign for me “Laurean How” (classic spelling).  Helen and her husband were accompanied by their taxi driver and I was gracious that I was with three local people, as traveling around at night is not advisable.

After a short (about ½ hour) drive, we arrived at their home in Usa River.  I had no idea what to expect, naturally, but was relieved when I was invited inside (Karibu – welcome).  They have a beautiful home by East African standards, which is referred to as a compound.  It is protected by metal gates/fencing on all sides and is composed of a few small buildings.  I am residing in their son’s old room, which are small quarters set apart from the main house.  I have a double bed protected by a mosquito net and my own bathroom, which has running water about half the time.  There is also electricity here, which also goes out on occasion.  It just so happened that my first shower here was a bucket shower and I’ve learned to refill the toilet when the running water stops.  The weather is much cooler than I expected, especially for being in such close proximity to the equator.  Apparently it’s slightly cooler than normal and we are also closer to the mountains.  It probably drops down to 50s in the evening and 60s during the day.  The sun doesn’t shine very frequently, and the nearby mountains are frequently shrouded in clouds and fog.

Aside from these few annoyances, which are minor (I didn’t even know if I was going to be in a house with water or electricity), Helen’s is an incredible place to stay.  To give you some background on her and her family, Helen is a sixty-something year-old woman who spent many years working with the Catholic Church.  She retired around 2009 due to exhaustion and went on to found her own NGO (not exhausting at all, right?) called TRMEGA, which stands for “Training, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation on Gender and AIDS.”  She helps marginalized groups such as women, the disabled, widows, HIV/AIDs positive people etc. through programming, education, and empowerment.  On the side, Helen is a coordinator for the Slow Food Thousand Gardens Project in Northern Tanzania.  And want to know something funny?  This is not the first time Helen and I met; I actually made her acquaintance last October in Italy for the 2012 International Slow Food Congress Terra Madre in Torino.  She was at the Tanzanian booth and gave me her contact card when I informed them that I might be traveling to TZ next year.  What a small world!  Helen’s husband Kosmos works for the an Environmental Conservation Group in Arusha and makes frequent trips to nearby National Parks and wildlife areas to help educate people about the importance of conservation.  They have a 25 year old daughter, Lina, who is home for the summer before she goes off to the nearby town of Moshi to get her Master’s in Marketing and Entrepreneurship.  Their son, Dick, is 22 and is going to school in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania on the East Coast (which is how I scored his room for the next 8 weeks!).  The Nguya family is extremely hospitable and generous.  They have a gardener on site, who takes care of the beautiful and extensive plots on their compound, and a housekeeper, Regina, who does some of the cooking and cleaning.  We eat dinner every night between 8:30 and 9, which is a bit late by my standards; I sleep around 9 or 10, and I get up between 6 and 8 most days.  My body is doing its best to adjust to the changes in circadian rhythm.

The food is, for the most part, tasty but heavy.  It typically consists of some sort of staple such as white rice or Ugali (pronounced Oo-gah-lee), a hard porridge usually made of maize (corn) resembling mashed potatoes.  Beans in a sauce are often served with the starch and almost always, avocado is served with dinner.  These aren’t the tiny Hass avocadoes that the U.S. imports from New Zealand, oh no, they are oversized beefy avocadoes grown in the backyard.  Sometimes there will be a meat dish (usually fatty beef) and occasionally fruit juice.  For breakfast, it alternates between bread and peanut butter (which I was elated about, as I was told it would be nearly impossible for me to find peanut butter abroad), mixed fruit salad (bananas, oranges, watermelon, mangos etc.), and when I’m lucky, a fried egg on a piece of bread.  Always tea aka chai, multiple times a day with raw milk and raw sugar.  I prefer the “rooibus and vanilla” blend, though the plain black tea is a good alternative.  Lunch is usually some sort of mixture of breakfast and dinner foodstuffs, unless I am going out into the field, in which case, it is bottled water and a white bread roll or fried banana chips.  So much white bread…

And with all the good that has happened so far, there are unsurprisingly aspects of my TZ experience that irk me: the fact that cell phones are always out at the dinner table with frequent calling and texting; the jogoo (rooster) wakes me up every morning at 5:30 AM on the dot, without fail; people stare at me and often shout “Konichiwa,” as if I am from Japan; daladalas (overcrowded, speeding mini buses that deserve an entire post in and of themselves) are terrifying but it’s how locals get around (though at least I am not riding a bodaboda anytime soon, which are little motorcycles with helmetless men who drive at hair-raising speeds); we live next door to a Pentecostal church, which from 5-6 AM every morning has men singing and worshipping (sometimes they worship until midnight too and this week is apparently holy week); meals are heavy and infrequent, so I am really hungry by the time the next meal comes and feel inclined to gorge; it’s rare that the electricity and running water work at the same time; 95% of the conversations that occur around me are in Swahili, so I might as well be deaf (I miss what’s going on, the jokes, the news, dinner-time banter, daladala directions etc.); and constantly covering myself with insect repellent and attempting to avoid contracting malaria.  Whew, now that I’ve got that all out of my system, I’ve been learning so much here.  Everything is a new experience.  From leaving the safety of Helen’s compound to go to the duka (small store) down the street to riding a daladala on my own for the first time.

On my second day here, Helen generously sat down with me at the kitchen table and helped map out a rough plan for my time in Tanzania.  I initially was worried about being in Arusha because it is notoriously touristy and I feared that this would taint the “authenticity” of my experience.  I can say pretty safely that I was wrong.  I haven’t seen more than five wazungu (plural for mzungu or white people or foreigners as they are fondly referred to by Tanzanians) in my first week here.  Because I am living outside Arusha-town, I am very much embedded in the local culture.  Moreover, I had identified many organizations in the area that I want to visit, so I don’t see any reason to rush out of here. 

I have plans to visit AVRDC – World Vegetable Center, Women Development for Science and Technology Association (WODSTA), Farm Radio International, and Centre for Agricultural Mechanisation and Rural Technology (CARMATEC).  Farm Radio helps disperse information to farmers through radio programming and broadcasting and the others are fairly self-explanatory.  In addition, Helen has contacted her friend at CESuDe-T (Community Empowerment for Sustainable Development – Tanzania), who is working with the agricultural system of a nearby village.  CESuDe-T “trains on proper land use, environmental protection, improve agronomy, and animal husbandry for developing profitable market chains.”  They are also relatively new (the founder, Rogat used to work with Helen in the church and when he retired, he also founded an NGO…casual business) and looking for volunteers, specifically those interested in agriculture (Rogat noted that there is an abundance of volunteers interested in working with orphans or on HIV/AIDs issues, but that agriculture is lacking).  On my second day in Tanzania, I went with Rogat to the village; it was a day of many firsts.  Children called me “mzungu” and I ate Tanzanian “street food” at a café (and enjoyed it, even though I was at first alarmed by being served an entire tilapia fish with the head, eyes, scales, and bones).  We also engaged in deep dialogue on the ride to the village.  He asked me how I felt about Obama, the principles of Slow Food, if I believed in God, my adoption, and what I thought about global climate change (hardly light stuff).  He was genuinely interested in hearing my opinions and the genuineness of the conversation was refreshing.

Once we arrived at the village, he began introducing me to the people who lived there.  The women were dressed in colorful cloth, many carrying concrete bricks on their heads.  They were contributing to the construction of an irrigation scheme in the village.  The project is funded by donors from Japan and the Tanzanian government, so you can imagine the strange twist this brought to the day, as Rogat confirmed that many of the villagers thought I was the daughter of the Japanese donor.  However, I neither speak Japanese nor Swahili, so that made the day interesting.  In addition, I am trying to figure out how to best blend in and not stick out like a sore thumb (more difficult than you might imagine).  I think I must ditch the Eddie Bauer over the shoulder bag and avoid the heinously ‘backpacker’ combination of Tevas, Northface hiking pants, and quick-dry EMS t-shirt.  Though even if I was dressed less touristy, I don’t think I would nr used to the stares I get from Tanzanians everywhere I go, be it the daladala en route to Arusha-town or small rural village. 

Anyways, back to the irrigation project: they are digging a trench, lining the bottom with poured cement and the sides with concrete bricks in order to bring the water down from the mountains.  This was my first reality check that ‘technology’ is really a gamut.  I also got a chance to meet the village chairman and practice my Swahili.  I think my favorite part about the day, however, was the breathtaking views, especially the verdant mountains that loomed adjacent to the village, dissected by terrace farming and the cultivation of coffee and bananas.  

Africa is like another world in all honesty.  Photos and recounts of friends and previous travelers cannot capture the essence of what it is like.  I hate to admit that I am comforted when I spot a fellow tourist or white person, regardless of who they are or what they’re doing.  At first, it was nerve-racking to leave Helen’s compound, where right outside the gates, children are running around in the mud and trash lines the dirt road.  Passersby sport vacant stares and there seems to be a ubiquitous sense of idleness and desperation.  I obviously have no authority in passing these judgments, but they are merely observations.  However, it is clear that as is the case with all humans, the Tanzanians I have seen and interacted with just want to survive and thrive.  When looking at Helen’s family photo album, I swear I could have been looking at my own family – a moment of profound connectedness and comfort. 

Speaking of comforts, those associated with home feel like a trillion miles away.  I must maintain, however, that all of this is good for me: the culture shock, the stepping out of my comfort zone, the personal challenges; I know I am going to grow in ways I hadn’t known were possible.  And this year away will always make reuniting with my family, friends, and Jack the most special occurrence in the entire world.  Until then, I am fortuate to be living with Helen and her family.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What lights your heart on fire? What would you do if you could travel abroad for an entire year?

June 15, 2013: JFK International Airport

It’s hard to believe that the day has finally come.  I am leaving to begin my Watson Fellowship today and am currently waiting at JFK to board my flight to Istanbul, Turkey, where I will have a brief layover before flying to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania. It’s a strange mix of emotions – a combination of excitement, anticipation, fear, and homesickness.  These last couple of weeks at home were a whirlwind, as I frantically tried to garner all of the things I would need for my trip and simultaneously attempted to see all my family and friends.  So my summer thus far has consisted of way too many trips to the bank, running errands with my sister, and even several big trips to Boston and New York City to sort out passport and visa issues.  However, I finally think I am ready to go.  Packing was a bit stressful to say the least, as fitting a year’s worth of belongings into one suitcase isn’t the easiest.  With the help of my mom, sister, and boyfriend, however, I successfully jammed everything in.  They were great at helping me purge and consolidate, and as a result, my suitcase weighed only 45 lbs. at the airport.  This was a miracle, especially because my suitcase for a semester in Australia last year weighed almost 60 lbs.  - I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a thing or two about packing since then!

So what many of you may be asking: what is the Watson?  Instead of getting a job or going to graduate school, how could I possibly be taking the next twelve months of my life to travel abroad?  Good question!  According to their website, "The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offers college graduates of 'unusual promise' a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel -- in international settings new to them -- to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community." Since 1968, the Watson Foundation has been providing travel grants to recent graduates, a philanthropic endeavor conceived by the family of Watson, who founded the software giant IBM.  Each year, four seniors from roughly forty small liberal arts colleges across the country interview at the national level and compete to receive the fellowship (after a grueling preliminary interview process at school).  The Watson is largely based on the principle of independence.  We are responsible for creating a project, digging deep into our imaginations and synthesizing our wildest dreams and passions with logistical feasibility in the context of global travel.  We choose the countries, plan where we are going to live, how we are going to eat, and are responsible for making some contacts in each place ahead of time.  You can read more about this year's fellows here:    

The Watson Fellowship is something I have been considering for a long time.  As a freshman at Hamilton, I attended one of the informational sessions that explained unique post-grad opportunities such as the Fulbright and Watson.  At first, I considered the Fulbright, but then realized that I neither wanted to teach English for a year, nor did I want to pursue a formal, academic research project.  The Watson, however, was neither of these pursuits, but rather an opportunity to seek out and learn more about issues we are deeply passionate about without having the obligations of publishing a report or conducting formal research.  Rather burnt out from undergrad, I knew then that this was something I was interested in applying to and can’t believe it’s a reality.  I started working on my application a year ago (June of 2012) when I returned home from my semester abroad in Australia.  I was bitten by the travel bug and knew there was so much in the world I wanted to see and do.  If I didn’t at least try to go for the Watson, I felt as though I’d regret it forever, because honestly, what better time to travel than fresh out of college?  However, I also cannot disregard the critical and enormous environmental impact of global travel with CO2 emissions from flying (especially because we’ve only just hit 400 PPM of atmospheric carbon, where 350 is the preferred, “safe” level).  I then refer to an article written by Bill McKibben on purposeful travel and how we may be able to justify our global pursuits if it is for more than vacation but instead to garner important, relevant information to then bring home to better our communities and the world.

Keeping the notion of purposeful travel in mind, my project underwent a lot of changes during the planning and application process.  My earliest ideas included wanting to explore the Transition Town movement or Ecovillages around the world.  I then I yearned to examine food sovereignty and the role of women in the movement.  I had grand ideas to integrate organic agriculture, climate change, fair trade, gender equality, and food security.  The Fellowships Coordinator at Hamilton politely raised the point that I had about five separate Watsons within my one project and I needed to find some kind of common thread holding everything together.  Fast-forward to present day and the title of my final project is “The Future of Food: Modern Technology and Traditional Agriculture Systems.”  I have tentative plans to travel to Tanzania, India, Bolivia, and Iceland, where I will explore these issues.  In the context of population growth, widespread food insecurity, global climate change etc., I will investigate how we are going to feed the planet.  I am curious as to whether small farmers will maintain a place in the global food system or if industrial agriculture will win out.  I want to observe how the tension between tradition and innovation is playing out at the grassroots level (if at all).  For the purposes of my project, “technology” is a loose term that can include genetically modified organisms (GMOs and biotechnology), radio technology for disseminating information to farmers, highly mechanized agriculture systems, irrigation schemes, and drying and preservation techniques to name a few.  I don’t anticipate that I will find any clear cut answers to these complex questions, but rather, expect that more questions will be generated as I move forward in time and space. 
Although I am wildly excited for the coming year, I don’t think it’s going to be anything like the vacation it seems to be; in fact, far from it.  And I am certainly going to miss my family and friends next year.  During the Watson interview back in January, the interviewer asked me if I had ever dealt with profound loneliness and if so, how did I cope with it.  I don’t remember what I said, but I can honestly say that I haven’t.  This coming year is going to test my emotions and wits in every single way.  The foundation asks, “Where’s the stretch in the project?”  I reply: everywhere.  New cultures, languages, food, currency geography, and climate.  By linking up with local families, doing homestays, and using farming, cooking, and food as universal languages, however, I hope to combat some of the loneliness and fear that will undoubtedly find their way into my life.  And although I’d be the first to admit that I’m scared, above all, I am grateful: for my parents, sister, boyfriend, friends, my Hamilton College experience, and now the Watson Fellowship.  Without Hamilton, none of this would have been possible, which may sound trite, but my Alma Mater has given me so much – I can’t wait to give back and support future students.

I want to end this post with a question: if you had twelve months, $28,000, and the ability to travel anywhere in pursuit of anything, what would you do?  Where would you go?  What are your wildest dreams and deepest passions?  What makes you tick and lights your heart on fire?  I encourage everyone to think about these questions.  I think the Watson application process in and of itself is extremely valuable, as it forces applicants to look inwards with a critical eye and to envision something entirely of their own creation.

Thanks for reading and feel free to email me at anytime this year: – I welcome correspondence from home, even if it’s just to say hi.  I can’t guarantee how timely my response will be, but I can promise that I will eventually reply :) This invitation to connect especially goes out to prospective fellows/current applicants/future Watsons - I had a lot of guidance and assistance from past fellows and am eager to return the favor!

p.s. Apologies for the lack of photos - the Internet here is very intermittent.  There are some on my Facebook page if you're interested!