Monthly Archives: August 2016

Fever Dreams

I wouldn’t describe myself as a risk-averse person, but I am terrified of getting malaria.   I hate spending time in hospitals and even the thought of intravenous treatment makes me uneasy, so I take many precautions to avoid the possibility of getting infected.   I have a lot of friends who have gotten an inopportune mosquito bite, and they tell me stories of fevers that soar well above 100 degrees, spasms that cause muscle cramps, delirium and jaw chattering cold that causes people to roll under five layers of blankets in tropical heat.   It hurts to feel breezes on exposed skin.   I wear bug spray and long sleeves at night, I lay waste to my room with insecticide an hour before I sleep, and since I first started coming to Africa five years ago I have always and consistently taken prophylaxis.

Over the years I’ve taken a huge variety of anti-malarial drugs.  The pharmaceutical options for preventing malaria sound like planets from a sci fi cosmos…there’s Lariam, Atovaquone, Malarone or even Doxycycline for those who are bold of heart and thin of wallet.  These pills all need to be taken with strict frequency, and have the same side effects in varying degrees.  They all cause sun sensitivity, loss of appetite, night sweats, and crazy dreams.  To take anti-malarial drugs entails signing up to live in one world by day and another strange and unpredictable world by night.

Lately I’ve settled on Malarone as my drug of choice, because it’s cheap through my insurance plan and it’s effective at very short notice.  I get prescriptions from my primary care physician, Dr. Kremlin, a Russian doctor who I see for roughly fifteen minutes every year and a half but who knows my travel habits well enough to give me prescriptions over the phone.  The pills are flat, round and orange and must be taken daily.   I take them every morning after breakfast and they taste like nothing, but after a week or so I begin to feel the effects.

At first I begin to sleep fitfully.  It takes me a long time to fall asleep at night, and then I drift between unconsciousness and awareness, occasionally rolling over to check the time and seeing my watch advance from 12:41 to 2:19 to 5:06 and finally my alarm trumpets me awake at 6:30.  After a week of anti-malarial treatment I begin to have absolutely bizarre dreams.  The dreams are so vivid that it’s hard to disentangle them from reality; they’re hallucinatory and shamanistic but also feel completely plausible at the moment that I have them.  It’s not unusual for me to experience some indescribable scenario and then find myself on my back in bed somewhere in West Africa trying to parse out what’s true and what’s illusion.  The dreams are bonkers.

The other night I was riding a horse down a very wide boulevard that was bordered by low and handsome buildings and flanked with trees on both sides.  I had a lance and I was jousting with massive piñatas that came galloping at me over the horizon, but my aim was true and they crumpled and exploded before my lance.  Fleet shadowy people wove and whispered through the alleyways between the buildings either side of me, but I only saw them in my peripherals because I was focused on the next parti-colored target loping up to meet me.  Another night (or maybe the same night?) I had a terrifying dream that I was kidnapped by some separatist group who hid me out in the desert.  I must record a video that will be sent to my family and the rest of the USA to ask for ransom, and they made me speak French so they knew what I was saying.   I remember saying my date of birth and passport number in a calm, clear voice so that I could be identified, and when I slid into wakefulness a bit later I pulled out my passport and checked.  The number I had said in the dream was correct, although when I’m awake I don’t know my passport number.

Another night I was Lionel Messi and I was astonished by how easy soccer was.  I slapped passes and assists out to my teammates as easily as a pinball paddle slaps away ball bearings, and notched fine goals myself.  In one dream I was going to be flying out to Burkina Faso in the afternoon, and even though it was that morning I had procrastinated and not packed anything.  I don’t know why I delayed so much but eventually the stress was just intolerable and I knew I had to get my things in order NOW before my flight.  I came to consciousness in a shipping container in a village in western Burkina Faso, both feet out of bed and on the ground, ready to start throwing my clothes into a duffel bag.  Another time I was furious because my friend PM and I were herding goats in the mountains and whenever we got most of the group together one would shoot off, and then when I got him the rest of the flock had scattered.  I was in a bad mood for most of the morning, frustrated that the goats wouldn’t behave until I shook it off around lunchtime.

Look, I’m not losing my mind or anything like that.  These medications have little effect on me by day, and I know from experience that after I’ve been off them for 72 hours my sleep schedule goes back to normal.  I’ve taken anti-malarial drugs over 5 years in 8 different African countries, and by now I can anticipate the effects and keep it together when I wake up at 3 AM and need to determine if I’ve been kidnapped or if I’m in bed.  The distinction is harder to make than you might think.

I had the weirdest dream of all.  Much of it adhered to reality.  I was in Guatemala, a trip I’ve made twice before in real life, and I was going to visit my friend JW.  JW worked in a tiny village in the Mayan highlands, and the only way to get there was to take a boat across a huge lake that was rimmed with the crenellated peaks of volcanoes that showed smudges of lava at the peaks when the night fell.  This is true: in full control of my faculties I have made this trip across the lake and in the dream it was much like how I remembered it.  In this particular dream I wasn’t able to distinguish between food and language.  I had eaten a lot before I left the US and by the time I got to Guatemala I was full of Spanish, which was tasty and easily digested and reminded me of other dishes I’ve eaten in the past.  I shared some of the Spanish I’d brought with me with the people at the airport, and at the counter where I changed money, and with the bus driver who carried me up a winding road into the highlands.  By the time I got to the shore of the lake I felt lean but not malnourished.   I negotiated passage across the lake with the boatmen, and because I was unaccustomed to digesting Spanish and because I hadn’t brought as much with me as I had hoped, by the time we had settled on a price of 20 quetzals for the passage my stomach was rumbling and my vocabulary was exhausted.

I got onto the boat and took a seat at the stern, where I was sheltered by the tarps that protected passengers from the spray off the prow and from the everpresent mist over the lake.  I had snacked in the offing and was replenished with Spanish, but it was not on the menu on that boat.  I found myself the only gringo facing 5 rows of people wearing colorful cloth and eating a meal of Tz’utujil, the Mayan dialect, which they shared with each other in low voices.  Their food looked good but I couldn’t understand it at all, although it sounded flavorful and communicative to my tired ears.  Everyone else helped themselves to that common meal, and I didn’t mind that I wasn’t invited.  I understood, and I wasn’t too hungry because I could burn fat that I had accumulated during years of speaking English in a colder land that seemed very far away.  The boat took half an hour to chug across the lake, and I got off and walked up the cobblestones to the coffeeshop where JW was waiting for me and we shared familiar food in joyous tones.

And then I woke up.


The Sam Cam


Samples showing the progression of the RC drill meter by meter


Damage to the bridge after a wicked rainstrom


Laundry day


The village




The Sindou Peaks

How Mining Works, Volume I

OK, so.   Let’s say that geologists have carefully examined subterranean imaging of a particular area, considering how plate tectonics squish and shear mineral deposits underground, and are confident that certain coordinates on a map are likely to contain gold deposits deep underground.  The next step is to begin sampling that area methodically to determine exactly where the gold can be found and the quality of the potential ore.

On my particular site drilling crews use a rig called a Reverse Circulation(RC) drill to stab into the earth’s mantle to find out what’s underneath.  An RC rig consists of a tungsten-steel bit driven by a pneumatic reciprocating piston to bore into the earth.  An RC exploration setup looks a bit like a semi-truck with a suspension bridge perched on the back, and it’s coupled by high pressure hose to another truck that carries an air compressor and booster to power the machine.   The drill bit is attached to six-meter long hollow rods that are added as the bit penetrates deeper into the earth, and pressurized air is fired down the exterior walls of the rods before shooting the rock chips and soil clods of drill cuttings back up the center of the tube to the surface.  The pressurized air can be mixed with water or foam to ensure that even fine particles are captured and lifted.  On the surface these subterranean cuttings are gathered in a hopper.  Technicians fill a transparent plastic sample bag with all of the cuttings from the hopper that the drill recirculates to the surface, and a new bag is filled for every meter that the rig descends.   As the bit penetrates deeper into the earth the sample bags are arranged next to the borehole in orderly rows; it’s possible to walk 10 paces at ground level and see progressive layers of soil and bedrock churned out from hundreds of meters below the surface of the ground you’re walking on.  As the rig penetrates deeper into the earth the walls of the borehole are reinforced by a plastic sheath to prevent collapse.  These boreholes are no more than ten inches wide, but they are the first definite indicator that millions of dollars’ worth of gold may be lying placidly beneath the surface.

Once the rig has reached its desired depth the rods are retrieved piece by piece and the drill bit is retracted.  The drilling rig and its auxiliary trucks move on to the next coordinates to begin boring the next hole: these trucks are extraordinarily valuable, and they work 24 hours per day, under blazing sun by day and under arc lights dimmed by clouds of moths at night.  The sample bags are left orderly arrayed next to each hole and marked with indelible ink to show the progress of the drill meter-by-meter.  The next day a crew of local hires will come to sift the samples into smaller bags, pack them into a Land Rover, and the samples will be transported to Ouagadougou for analysis in a mineral lab to determine the most prosperous spots for additional exploration.

It’s a strange and incomparable feeling to stand with your steel-toed boots sinking two inches into the loamy soil of a cotton field nestled between the rolling green mountains of Burkina Faso and watch a drill that is gnawing through the planetary crust hundreds of feet beneath your feet and spitting Mesozoic samples of bedrock up to the surface.   I can watch a machine roar and sputter as it pulls up chunks of the earth that have not seen daylight in 300 million years.   Layers of the planet that took eons to rise, disintegrate and compress are aligned in rows waiting for technical analysis to see if any elements of the periodic table that we like more than others are worth pursuing in this exact spot.   If something valuable is found this area will become a gold mine that will supply wedding rings to enamored couples for millennia into the future.  If nothing is found then next year the farmer will plow the fields, plant corn, and someday tell his grandchildren about a truck that came by once and made a lot of noise.

I’m new to this industry.  My technical understanding of mining technology is roughly equivalent to how well a man soaked in a rainstorm understands the water cycle.   Please take all mechanical descriptions with the caveat that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  I’m happy to be where I am and to be learning something new.  I’ll be paying attention to what’s around me; stay tuned for How Mining Works, Volume II.




I’m currently in the Paris airport waiting for a flight to Burkina Faso.  Air France cabin crews are partially on strike, which delays all boarding and limits amenities on the flights.  For a while I thought it was a rare coincidence that whenever I passed through France transportation personnel were protesting, but now realize that it’s unusual for everything to be functioning normally.  The Paris airport is run by dozens of union laborers working on crucial transportation jobs, so the work stoppages will continue until efficiency improves.

I’m going back to Africa to start a new job.  I’ve been hired as the Corporate Social Responsibility Program Associate on an exploration site that will be built into an active gold mine in the coming year.   I’ll help to maintain good relations with the community around the site and ensure that the project advances on schedule.  My future accommodation is a repurposed shipping container, and when I asked if there was anything in particular I should bring to the site I was told to invest in a pair of steel toed boots.  The site is 30 kilometers off of the nearest paved road, and an eight-hour drive from the capital city.  A year ago I was working on research projects for NGOs, and I had no inkling that I would transition into this work.  A year ago I had no idea that jobs like this even existed.

My motivation here is to try something new and learn something useful.  I’ve been working with non-profits since I first traveled to Uganda in 2011, and since then I’ve worked with major funders, program implementers and researchers to contribute to many different aspects of development work.  For some time now I’ve been interested in the overlap between development initiatives and the for-profit sector: how can businesses align their operations with social development objectives to make a profit AND make a difference?  The fact is that the mining sector is hugely influential on Burkina Faso’s economy.  From 2007 to 2011 gold accounted for 64.7% of Burkina’s total exports, and the figures have climbed since then.  There are internationally-managed mines in every region of the country, and small crews of informal miners scavenge the same sites for easily accessible gold veins.  In 2013 Burkina Faso had a per capita GDP of $684, meaning that at current prices an ounce of gold is equivalent to two years of earnings for the average Burkinabé.  This shiny metal is an immensely valuable resource in an intensely poor country, and there is potential for mining profits to drive economic improvement for a lot of people.

I’ll be here for the next few months learning and contributing as much as I can.  It’s nerve-wracking and exciting to be diving into a new industry, but so far all of my interactions with the people I’ll be working with have been positive.  I’m heading back to Africa and back to work.