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Monday, October 11, 2010

Right Under Our Noses

I remember hearing a rumor many years ago that the rather eccentric Yoko Ono shared the litter box with her cat. I don't know if it's true, but apparently she claimed it was a better way to deal with human waste than flushing gallons of wasted water into a septic system and that the resulting melange could eventually be used as compost to grow vegetables. She claimed that if we weren't careful, water would become precious and perhaps even scarce. She was concerned about the environment way before it was a hot topic, which of course, at the time, placed her in the category of alarmist, tree-hugger, hippie and in the minds of many, just plain crazy. I myself didn't give the rumor much credence. I did however succumb to a vivid mental image of this petite, almond-eyed woman squatting over a litter pan while humming "she came in through the bathroom window", much to the dismay of the feline patiently waiting it's turn.

We have two cats here in Africa and no litter box, because, well, they go outside in the dirt. However, we do have what is known as a dry toilet system. This would be the moment, if you are feeling uncomfortable, to hit the back button on your computer and see what your other Facebook friends are up to. I won't be offended, I swear. However, if you are even slightly intrigued, you might learn something. American culture, in particular, has placed a big taboo on any reference to the fact that all living things eliminate what they eat and drink. While browsing the children's literature section in Barnes and Noble while pregnant with Jamie, I remember being shocked at seeing a book called, "Everybody Poops," not because of it's contents, but because someone finally had the courage to write about it. The need being served by this book-- to help children understand that the process is nothing to be ashamed of-- is indication enough that somewhere along the line, we dumped (no pun intended) our bodily functions into the "we don't talk about that . . . EVER" column and it has stayed there. Don't get me wrong, I'm not espousing bringing it up as a topic at cocktail parties or rotary club, I just want to share what I've learned about the entire cycle as it relates to energy.

Those of you who are familiar with our project in Senegal know that we live bill-free in a house constructed with earth, get our water from a well, our electricity from a wind-turbine and solar panels, and grow our own organic vegetables. We've recently added a chicken named Ratatouille and a turkey named Gusteau to the picture, but not for consumption purposes. The chicken gives us eggs and the turkey acts as a natural anti-pesticide, spending his days picking at termites and other predetors to our produce. He occasionally steals a lettuce leaf or two, but we forgive him this. Although they don't have much personality, I'm not ready to raise poultry that will end up on our table. I still prefer to purchase it from our local chicken farm. Much to my surprise, when I didn't know what to make for dinner the other day, Sunny very plainly said, "why don't we eat the chicken." She's five and understands perfectly where her food comes from, which could easily lead me down another path or up onto my soap box with another topic, but let's get back to dry toilets.

Joseph Jenkins wrote a book, first published in 1995, called "Humanure" in which he details the virtues of dry toilets (see link below). The title itself may be off-putting, but the concept is simple. You place a receptacle, ok, a bucket, under a standard toilet seat (he gives you the plan for building it) and when you've done you're business, you cover it with a layer of saw dust, straw or any other natural material. When the bucket is full, you place the contents in a compost retainer (also detailed in the book) and layer it with food waste, i.e. fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, plant trimmings, anything biodegradable. The only stipulation is that you don't use dyed toilet paper. After about a year, enough time to allow any toxins or harmful bacterium to dissipate, you have one of the richest composts imaginable with which to grow organic produce. I skimmed the book cursorily when Richard first suggested that we adopt this system (since we don't have running water, we didn't have much choice) and promptly threw it at him while launching a tirade about the numerous ways in which he has ruined my life as I knew it. When we moved into the house, I was told I had two options: I could walk outside in the brushland and hide behind a bush, if I could find one, or I could try the dry toilet system. To his credit, he built a handsome throne of concrete, spent a fortune on a lacquered wooden seat and promised to be the "emptier." To the unsuspecting eye, it looked like every other toilet, minus the handle and water tank. We used a mix of peanut shells and millet shucks as our choice of coverage. To my begrudging surprise, there was only one pungent odor eminating from our bathroom--it smelled like fresh ground peanuts. We've been using this system for almost a year and, like most routines in my life, it now seems natural. Richard laughs when he hears me touting the virtues of dry toilets. Once addicted to creature comforts, I am now, you might say, a convert. In general, our project has opened my eyes to an array of "green" choices, some I was already familiar with, others completely new to me. Read on.

We recently called in a specialist on renewable energy, Pierre-Jacques, a frenchman who has lived and worked in Senegal for the past 26 years. We needed help finding a way to power our cold production, having considered both solar and gas-powered refridgerators, and wanted a professional opinion on which was the most energy efficient and cost-effective. After he asked us a myriad of pertinent questions and toured our house, he said, "you've had the solution all along, right under your noses. You just haven't been harvesting it properly." He went on to explain that by placing our dry toilet waste in an air-tight cistern along with a small percentage of cow, pig or horse manure, we could produce enough methane to power a full-sized refridgerator/freezer and our gas oven! He said this so matter of factly and non-chalantly that I asked him to repeat himself. "Sure," he said. " It's called Biogas. I have all the plans because it's what we do at our house and I can tell you it works." By running gas tubing from the cistern to the two appliances, we can produce cold and heat by recycling our waste. He went on to explain that by "harvesting" the methane, we were also preventing it from dissipating into the environment, which is what happens when it's placed in an open-air composting unit. I immediately thought of all those problematic cows out there in the world shamelessly releasing their gas into the universe and wondered aloud if there wasn't a way to harvest it. Imagine the energy problems we could solve! Pierre-Jacques laughed, but explained that, in fact, China, India and Brazil are already doing it, on a large scale basis as well as individual (see attached link). The best part about his suggestion is that our composting efforts won't be lost because what remains in the tank after the methane is distilled can be emptied periodically into our compost, making use of all the elements of the system.

I was curious about the person to output ratio. In other words, would the four of us be able to produce enough methane to keep the appliances running constantly? Pierre-Jacques, who spouts out statistics and technical information with the finesse of a poet, told us that output is usually proportional to the needs of the family. However, because I like to cook and entertain for others, we'll add a small percentage of animal manure to augment our methane production. We'll be installing our new system in a week or two and I, for one, don't care how the fridge gets cold, I'm just looking forward to popping open an ice cold beer!

We were so impressed by Pierre-Jacques' savvy, knowledge and experience, that we've gone into partnership with him in a new business called "Oxygene Consult." Richard will provide ecological architecture and design services while Pierre-Jacques will consult on alternative energy solutions for individuals, businesses and non-profit organizations. I'll admit that our project is an extreme one. Not everyone is willing or able to implement what we've done, particularly a dry toilet system. But here in Senegal, we may be able to at least raise awareness and at best provide solutions to real energy problems, not to mention financial instability for a population that suffers from extreme electric bills, frequest power outages and the high cost of gas. And of course we hope that those who can afford the "tradtional" methods will want to go natural because of the environmental benefits. Who knows. For now, it's actually fun being a part of this crazy project of ours. After all, it really is a working lavoratory . . . I mean laboratory.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Measuring a Year

It's been a year since we came back to Senegal to live. A date on the calendar, August 12th, tells me practically that this time has passed, but I perceive it more in the details of our ordinary life: the length of Sunny's hair, the height of the banana trees in our yard, the changing light of a season returning with it's own frank announcements-- the rain, humidity thick on the skin, green, everywhere, green soothing over the fissures of a typically parched land. The scent of mangoes, hanging heavily from trees along the roads, tells me the rainy season has circled back around. Mangoes the size of a child's forearm, with the fluid aftertaste of coconut and pineapple. They are plentiful and cheap and find their way into almost all of our meals. I sense the passage of time in the ease with which I walk through the village where we live, if not quite looked on as "one of us," I am by now a familiar face, "one among us", not African, but no longer a stranger. Seynabou, Maty, M'Baye. There you are. We know each other. "Nengadef, How are you?" I frequent the fish market, which once terrified me, with its long, crowded, narrow allies, navigating through rain puddles, blood-soaked ice crates, discarded heads and scales, tangled fishing line with shards of lures. I am no longer shocked by the potent, briny smell, the din of loud bargaining over waves crashing into the port just beyond, shouting over tables, fish passed over heads, flapping sea water. Who has carp? "Madame Americaine," someone is tugging at my sleeve, "come, come, urchin, monkfish, carp, pas cher." Women crouched on low, rickety wooden stools, expertly gut and fillet my fish before I can count out the now familiar papery bills. I pick out the coins, recognizing them by color and weight. I thank the vendor in Wolof and move out from under the rusted tin roof into the hot sun, pushing past on comers and barefoot children selling plastic bags. It is my last stop before the bakery to get bread and my canvas bag is now heavy. This has become a familiar, natural routine. I don't think much about our surroundings, our daily lives, and this also tells me that a good deal of time has passed, that our lives have settled upon us. Then there are the subtle negatives of absorbing time. The talibes, the young boys who beg for alms and food to pay for their religious education--when did they stop tugging at my heart and become a common detail in my day? At what point did I begin to regard the many sellers who approach me with their wares as a nuisance? It takes a year.

Many people have taught me things this year and I have met some extraordinary individuals. Aminata is one of them. She is in her early fifties, tall and broad shouldered, with braids woven tightly to her head. She was raised in a small Peul village, in a one-room hut with a straw roof, no electricity and no running water. The Peul are nomads, and one of the poorest tribes in Senegal. The men are shepherds, raising and selling sheep and cattle and the women keep the village. Aminata's job as a young girl, in addition to tending the morning fire at the center of their hut and sweeping the dirt floor, was to fetch water at a well over two miles from her small village. She would walk with several other girls on the same path every day, an empty plastic bucket on her head on the way there and a heavy sloshing burden on the way back. They could not afford to waste any of the precious water, so the return trip took much longer, with careful steps and watchful eyes straining to detect obstacles, necks balancing the buckets, aided only by a small piece of cloth flattened on their heads to soften the load. As the years went by, Aminata began venturing further and further away from her village and beyond the well, until one day she reached the shore and spotted, there in the port, a sailboat. She visited the port almost daily from then on and watched how the boat's owner cared for the deck and wrapped the sails, how the boat rocked and bobbed with the tides, swayed and calmed with the changing winds. She already knew how the water in her bucket reacted to the movements of her body and she became fascinated by both the principle of buoyancy and the idea of conducting herself towards a new land. She decided she would one day set sail on such a boat. But she was carried away on the current of her own life and cultural restraints and was married off at a young age to a man she didn't love and had two children. Still, whenever she had the chance, she would steal away to the port to watch and dream. Not having been educated, she began to teach herself how to read, write and speak French in secret. These would come in handy, along with her other life skills, when one day, years later, she would no longer deny her calling. She took her children, who were now older, to her mother, left her husband and talked her way aboard a large sailboat as a volunteer crew member. She had observed and asked questions, watched and listened over the years and she sounded knowledgeable enough to qualify. She ended up, over the years, becoming an expert navigator and charter, who has sailed around the world twice and is a seasoned traveller. She met her second husband, a Frenchman and avid sailor in the port of New Caledonia and they divide their time between Senegal, Morocco and France. As she says, "I am, after all, a nomad at heart." After I admired her coffee one day, she took me to the outdoor market the next morning, where we purchased raw beans from the Cote D'Ivoire, showed me how to sift and resift them in order to extract small pebbles and other debris and demonstrated how to slow roast the beans myself. They double in size as they swell and darken in the pan and give off an odor when they are freshly ground that puts Starbucks to shame. She also taught me to make pizza crust, Moroccan flat bread with rosemary and sea salt or stuffed with garlic, parsley and cumin. I learned from her how to tie a simple sarong in ten different ways and how to roll off several authentic phrases in Wolof that would get me in or out of any situation, depending on my objective. But mostly, I learned from her story about the shear power of the human spirit and it's need to be free. And about persistence and not giving up. She wants me to teach her English when she returns from France, which will be for me a great pleasure indeed.

It has been a trying year for us, as it has been, to varying degrees, for most people I know. For our part, our efforts to overcome the "crisis" became less about economizing than learning how to do more things for ourselves, becoming more independent. We built a house with mud, erected a wind-turbine to produce our energy and brought our water from the ground well with a hand-pump. This all now seems natural to me as well, although it took some getting used to and the path to where we are now has not been without it's obstacles. When we returned from the states on August 12th of last year, we found our house in near ruin. The previous six months of hard labor, ingenuity and creativity on Richard's part had left us convinced that we needed to make a bigger commitment to Senegal, so we went back to the US to put our things in storage and rent our house in Savannah. We had received phone calls that the rain had done "some damage", but none of the people we had left in charge were honest enough to relay the extent or send us photos, which in hind-sight was probably a good thing--if we had known, we may have abandoned the project. Now we found ourselves back in Senegal with very little money and no house to live in. I cried and felt the ruin deeply, while Richard began drawings to fix the house and work with what was left. We destroyed the entirety of the first vaulted roof because we were unsure of its stability. Next Richard constructed a pitched roof with palm beams and a plaster of mud, straw and Lyme, which we then planned to cover with metal roofing. During this part of the reconstruction, we planted an organic garden, erected the wind-turbine and went back and forth to our shabby hotel where our gated window faced the beach . . . and the fishermen's tables where the day's catch lay in the sweltering heat to dry. When we finally moved into the earth house, we realized within the week that we had not been sold palmwood, but datewood, which is much less expensive . . . and prone to termites. Our second roof was infested and needed to be torn down--it was beyond treatment. We had lost money, time and labor and worst of all, had been cheated by the wood vendor who vaporized as quickly as his beams. Once again, I felt we had been cheated. I asked why us, why now, how to move forward ? I posed these questions to no one in particular as my faith had been challenged and it appeared that no one was listening anyway. Was this how other people, whose lives had been upturned, felt in the void? While I examined and analyzed our lives, turning to look at every angle of every decision, trying to pinpoint the precise moment when the universe sent us spinning into orbit (or did we do that ourselves?), searching for the axis on which we could set it all right, Richard was busy researching our third, and final roof option. Persistence. Determination. We decided that a flat, cement roof would provide the best protection, and although not in keeping with the ecological spirit of the house, would be solid and durable. In order to compensate for using cement, we would cultivate on top of the roof, which would both expand our garden capacity, create a micro-climate to cool the house and provide a roof terrace from which we could appreciate the view of the nearby lagoon and baobab trees. We spent months eating our own vegetables, my homemade pizza and watching our finances dwindle to a halt, while continuing construction on a shoestring, with only two helpers. Richard spent weeks working unfathomable hours in order to put a roof over our heads before the rain came. During this time, many people began to visit our project, both Senegalese and expats, and ask questions, which we hoped would lead to more work for Richard. In the meantime, our children blossomed and so did their knowledge of gardening, French, Wolof and human relations in general. We had succeeded in building a self-sustaining life, with no bills and limited expenses. But, knowing that the money would eventually run out and the rain would inevitably come, had left us feeling anxious despite our accomplishments. I decided to stop asking questions and breathe, work, allow a little faith back in.

In the second week of July, the night after the last roof was finished, the skies darkened and it rained. Richard and I didn't sleep that night, worrying about the earth walls and how they would stand up to the wind-driven storm, about whether the new roof was well-sealed. Morning sun showed us that our third and final roof was the right choice, as a full house inspection gave no signs of weakness. The following week, Richard was hired to build three more ecological houses. Contracts were signed and deposits were given. We were under consideration for a grant to produce three wind-turbines for remote villages without electricity, those like Aminata's. We went out to dinner, the four of us, and clinked juice cups to wine glasses as we listened overhead to the storm clouds releasing thunder and lighting and more rain. Since then, we have continued construction between rain falls while Richard has juggled his other projects, planted new crops and rejoiced in our current good fortune. We are among the few expats who chose to stay during the rainy season, which is considered the least desirable. For us, it has been a time of warm ocean waves and rare walks through high, green grasses, of cups of afternoon mint tea shared with Senegalese friends, of pelicans, flamingos and heron migrating to the lagoon, of lingering visits to artisan workshops, where the purchase of one beaded necklace threaded with a single shell can satisfy a little girl and the artist equally.

The morning of August 12th, Abdou, my favorite of the building team, came over to shake my hand as he always does. He is short and child-like, with bright eyes and broken front teeth which only exaggerate his smile. He is from Ginea-Bissau and has come to Senegal to work in order to send money back to his family. "Abdou," I said, "today is August 12th. It's a very important day." "Yes," he replied. "Today is the beginning of Ramadan, a time for fasting and contemplation." I felt embarrassed that I had forgotten this. "It is also one year today that we returned to find our house destroyed," I said. "Look at what you've accomplished. Look at what we've done together." He looked over my shoulder and studied the house, but all he said was "oh," as though he too had forgotten something important. He had not let go of my hand since he shook it. We were both aware of this, but it felt appropriate. After a few moments, he smiled at me, looked up at the sky and gestured towards a room half-finished. Then he dropped my hand to begin his day, this very important day.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Can We Please Go Back?

A few days ago, Richard asked me how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year. I snapped back that I didn’t want to have it at all, that I just wanted the day to pass by like any other day. My response was both indulgent and self-pitying, but he didn’t press the issue. He understood that I hadn’t said this out of any egotistical denial of aging, but rather an avoidance of the losses that this time of year represents. We buried my father after his long battle with cancer on this day over twelve years ago. In the days immediately following his death, I had been brought along on the strangely swift current of people coming and going, of the preparations that took place, the heating up of casseroles, of the details of his funeral, of the need to assure others that I was OK. And then there was the nature of our relationship to try to make sense of--it had been complicated, difficult at times. I had talked endlessly on the phone with my closest friends, hashing out once again the details of his illness and final few days. It wasn’t sudden, I reminded them. I was OK.

Until I no longer was. It wasn’t until the limousine pulled away from the grave site, until it was all “over”, until I looked back to see the coffin being mechanically lowered into the ground, that the loss of my father finally hit me. It occurred to me in that instant that he wouldn’t be able to breathe underground. There was no air. It would be dark. The weight of the earth. The depth. How would he breathe? We couldn’t just leave him there! Stop! He had no way to breathe. I don’t know if I said any of this aloud or not. I also don’t remember who (apart from Janet and my mother) or how many people were in the limousine with me. What I do remember is the feeling of suffocating and then being strangely ashamed that I had cried out, as though I had lost control of some intimate bodily function. We needed to go back. Can we please go back?

Because my father in the end was on heavy doses of morphine, he alternated between belligerence and extreme vulnerability (both uncharacteristic). He had been moved to the Gunnum Suites at the University of Richmond hospital, luxury quarters for terminally ill patients, which he mistook for a hotel (befittingly, given his career in the hotel industry) and had difficulty understanding why we were allowed to leave “the grounds” while he was confined to his hotel room. He complained often of the quality of the room service (with good reason) and balked at all visitors outside of the family, proclaiming the concierge highly incompetent. His management skills appeared intact, overriding all other derangements, real or imagined. On a visit to the hospital the week before he died, New Year’s Eve, he asked my mother and I if we would stay the night. He was afraid to be alone, he said, perhaps intuiting the approach of the end. Despite the circumstances, there had been champagne and hors d’oeuvres that we brought from home, candles and Glenn Miller. We rang in the New Year, the three of us, and it began to get late. My mother, who avoided driving at night, needed to be taken home. The nurse said they couldn’t accommodate both of us, but I could stay on the sofa if I liked. In the end, I went home with my mother. I often wonder what we would have done, my father and I, had I stayed. Would we have watched TV, talked about previously taboo subjects, like his impending death or our relationship? Would I have helped him into his pajamas, plumped his pillow, rubbed his feet, watched him sleep? I will never know. Can we please go back?

Today also marks the one year anniversary of the death of one of my closest friends, Leah. I learned of her passing on my birthday last year, two days after her death. My friend Hester had tried in vain to contact me several times in Senegal over those two days, having bravely taken on the task of informing many of Leah’s friends. I’ll never forget her words: “El, I’m sorry, but I’m not calling to wish you a happy birthday. Leah died.” In that moment, I lost all sense of the way the world was supposed to function, of the natural order of things. Friends didn’t die. Friends went along the parallel time line with you, sometimes moving ahead, sometimes lingering behind, but ultimately arriving at the same points in time when we could look back together and take stock of both our shared experiences and our separate worlds. This had always been my assumption and I had counted on it fiercely, had envisioned it clearly, had lived it several times: a New Year’s Eve in New York (I don’t remember the year), a Duke reunion, several weddings including my own, a girls’ weekend in Savannah, a walk for Breast Cancer (a shared success and one of the best and sadly last memories I have of Leah.) Leah, if she had the time and the financial means, was always up for taking a plane to wherever she needed to be for these gatherings. I realized after she died that I had made few such efforts in her direction. Although I think she would say I was a good friend to her, I had been very much on the receiving end of our friendship. For this reason and for the more selfish one of needing to see her one last time, I flew from Senegal to Michigan for her funeral. I thought of how my mother used to insist, in my adolescent days when friends came by the dozen, that I would be lucky to count my closest friends on one hand when I reached adulthood. She was right and I had just lost one of my rare and treasured five. Can we please go back?

My memories of Leah sometimes get jumbled up. I have no sense of direction and a continuum sense of time, which makes it impossible to give exact dates, only general periods to my memories. The details are crystal clear, but the time is vague. When I think of her, it reminds me of the six-week tour of Europe I took with my friend Janet before college--a new city or countryside, art museum or monument every few days. All those privileges--I remember them all, I just can’t tell you where they took place. I am saturated with years of memories of Leah, which leaves me with a strong sense of her, an essence really, that I carry with me. This essence of Leah can be distilled even further into a constant but gentle reminder to be more like her, to be kinder and more patient, to push myself, to push obstacles out of my way, to move forward, at my own pace, but certainly to move forward. Take our house here in Senegal, for instance. “Keur Leah”, as it was named long before it was begun, though it was nearly ruined, is going back up, one brick, one mud frame, one day at a time. It has reinvented itself. How closely it resembles Leah’s persistence, how apt it’s name. Still, when I first saw the devastation upon our return, it felt so final, like we had failed. What if we had stayed through the rainy season? What if we had taken more precautions, protected it’s walls, anticipated more accurately? Can we please go back?

My illogical thinking, in wanting to avoid my birthday, was this: if my birthday wasn’t approaching, then I wouldn’t have to think of my father. If I didn’t celebrate my birthday, then Leah didn’t die a year ago, Hester didn’t call to tell me, I didn’t fall to pieces and board a plane to say goodbye. I could just let the anniversary pass and the day after, well, it would be the day after. Can we please skip forward? Because today I can’t breathe. The answer is no. Neither can we go back. I feel this acutely as I think of Leah today. I feel her absence, mourn her loss, as I will every year, and not just on this day. But there is that essence of her again, calming me, getting me past and through the pain. Were she here with me, she would say something along the lines of, “remember but don’t dwell.” She would also say, about milestones and even ordinary days, “celebrate me, celebrate you.”