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What Happened

From 2013 to 2014, I was busy.   I visited 14 different countries in the year after I graduated college, and I didn’t spend more than one month in any city or more than three months in any country.  I got rabies shots after being bitten by my own dog in Uganda, I was awoken by hippos tearing grass just outside my tent while sleeping next to the Nile, lived in a cinderblock room with no running water, learned to ride a motorcycle, worked on a goat farm in France, and saw an altar made of skulls in Rwanda.   I had just launched out of four years of school, and I was hungry to see and try and DO as much as I could.  2013 was also the year that I began writing this blog.   I’ve looked back on those entries over the last few days (some of my favorites are What Noah Thought and New Year’s Resolution), and I’m reminded of how curious and independent I felt over that year.   That year I worked with purpose and dedication.  Despite all of my diffuse and crackling energy, I concentrated on a project I really cared about: the Village Enterprise Randomized Control Trial in Uganda.

Village Enterprise (VE) is an American NGO that runs what’s called a Graduation Program: participants in their programs receive a cash grant to start a microenterprise, but also receive agricultural and bookkeeping training, formation into collective savings groups, and regular meetings with a coach over the course of a year.    In 2013 VE’s program monitoring data indicated that this approach created substantial and sustainable improvements in the financial stability of program participants.   Other NGOs, however, favored the alternative strategy of giving larger lump sum cash transfers and counting on participants’ intrinsic self-interest to use the money however suited them best.   They had data and field observations saying this method was pretty good too.   One program seems expensive and logistically complex to run but fully supports participants, the other seems simple, direct, and less paternalistic.   Plausibly either one could be effective: how do we know which is better?

We create a Randomized Control Trial, that’s how.   In an RCT you get a big group of participants and randomly sort them into different subgroups.   One group gets Treatment A, another gets Treatment B, a control group gets Nothing, and after surveying these participants closely over a few years at the end you can see how their incomes, food security, and asset holdings have fluctuated.   Remember that all participants start on the same level and ostensibly the only difference between them is receiving Treatment A, B, or Nothing.   Do this with a large enough group of people, and at the end you can say definitively: “In this case, doing Treatment A is more effective than Treatment B.”

A key objective of the VE RCT was to test these two approaches simultaneously; Graduation Program vs. unconditional cash transfers.  There is, of course, a gray area between these two extremes, and this is what I was brought in to explore.   I was hired to work on behalf of a pair of behavioral psychologists to develop a behavioral intervention: a “light touch” program that paired cash transfers with two brief coaching workshops to see how the results compared to a fully hands on or hands-off approach.   I lived full time in Uganda for five months piloting this intervention and finalizing the program in the regions of Hoima and Soroti.    Over the course of multiple trips to the village by motorcycle to see the program in action, 12-hour journeys by minibus from one site to another, and constant tweaks and iterations, the final program design fell into place.

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Can you find Hoima and Soroti?

Our focus was on goal setting and plan making.   A facilitator met briefly one-on-one with a cash transfer recipient to elucidate that person’s goal and the steps that they would take to attain it.  The goal might be buying a bicycle, paying school fees for a year in advance, or buying a metal roof for their house.   The cash recipient then participated in a two-and-a-half-hour workshop that reiterated plan-making exercises, encouraged participants to study good examples in their communities and to build flexible and adaptive plans, and prepared them to resist temptations and social pressure to spend their cash transfer.   Participants were reconvened six months later to receive the rest of their cash transfer and to discuss their progress so far, but that was it.   No one would follow up with them to make sure they stuck to their plan, no one would punish them if they wasted the money, and they were not formed into groups to encourage savings.

After working on this RCT and the Behavioral Intervention for a year, a few days ago I received my performance review.    The results of the study have been published by Richard Sedlmayr with the Oxford Centre for the Study of African Economies.   Some of the paper is incomprehensible to me.  Consider:

“𝑦𝑖𝑗𝐹 = 𝛼𝑗 + 𝛽𝑇𝑖𝑗 + 𝛾𝑦𝑖𝑗𝐵 + 𝛿𝑋𝑖𝑗𝐵 + 𝜀𝑖𝑗

Here, 𝑦𝑖𝑗𝐹 is the per-capita outcome in household 𝑖 in village cluster 𝑗 at the time of follow-up 𝐹; 𝑇 is the randomized assignment, coded to 1 for intent-to-treat and to 0 for the counterfactual; 𝑦𝑖𝑗𝐵 is the baseline observation of the outcome; and 𝑋𝑖𝑗𝐵 is a set of socioeconomic baseline covariates. The coefficient for the intent-to-treat estimate is 𝛽.”

I include this excerpt to demonstrate just how objective, clinical, and quantitative an RCT is.   Most NGOs share success stories with glossy announcements on their website about how your ten dollars can help Fatouma vaccinate her daughter, but RCT analysis is all about the numbers.   And here’s what happened: the Behavioral Intervention worked.   All of these affirmations and plan-making exercises—tell the group a story about a time that you overcame an obstacle, draw the steps that you will take towards your goal in sequence on this piece of cloth, tell us a mantra you can repeat to help you focus on your goal—actually paid off.

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Intervention participants display artwork they created to help them maintain focus on their goal.

The paper observes:

“Table 8 suggests that the behavioral intervention altered the investment patterns of cash transfer recipients, leading to increased livestock investments. Income from farming increases as well, and we see some indications that income from paid employment falls. Table 32 suggests that children started working fewer hours, though no effects on schooling outcomes are discernible. We see indications of gains in subjective well-being and diverse other psychological outcomes, with a strong signal on respondents’ sense of pride (Table 14).” [Page 18]

I am so incredibly proud of the behavioral intervention, this research project, and these results.   This is an innovative solution to poverty alleviation that appears to be successful, and achieves impressive gains for relatively low costs.   Put another way, doing this is better than doing nothing.    The project was a tremendous growth experience for me, and had a significant influence on my career choices over the last three years.  I got better at working independently and as part of a team, gained experience working in rural areas in challenging conditions, and had the privilege of working with some of the sharpest, most dedicated and good-humored colleagues I’ve ever known.  I would be better off for having worked on this project in any case, but I feel great satisfaction with the final results.

This brief and rudimentary description can’t do justice to a project of such broad theoretical scope and quantitative complexity.  I highly encourage you to click on the link below and at least read the abstract.   Time will tell, but I think we haven’t seen the last of this kind of research.

http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/workingpapers/pdfs/csae-wps-2017-15.pdf

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Paul

“I would rather be ashes than dust!  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time.”       -Jack London

Last year I helped my uncle to create an online dating profile.  Two successive and aggressive brain tumors had sapped his cognitive ability but left his optimism untouched, and he was fond of reminding me that he had always had a girlfriend or wife since he was sixteen years old.  He was ready to get back in the game, so one night when the house was quiet I poured us both a beer and we got to work.

The first section of the profile prompted us to fill in “my self-summary,” and I asked Paul how we should describe his life thus far.   He spoke while I typed.   He had been living independently since he was fifteen years old, and by the age of sixteen he had a girlfriend, an apartment, and an annual subscription to the New York Times.   He had summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro, and had survived a 600 foot fall down Mt. Washington in an avalanche.  He had traveled to over 40 countries, and arranged multi-million dollar deals as an independent real estate developer.   He had run the Boston marathon in less than three hours twice.  He had accumulated over two million frequent flyer miles in his lifetime.  In the 1970s he’d owned a pair of boa constrictors, a waterbed, and a robust set of sideburns.  He had been the junior chess champion of Rhode Island.  We went on to other sections.  “Current interests?”   Volunteering at the Massachusetts General Hospital.   “Favorite foods?”  Beer, nachos, burritos.   “You should message me if?”   You’re patient and enjoy getting to know others.

Paul was extremely popular.  It’s not hard to see why.   Every day he received half a dozen messages from local ladies curious to learn more about this cosmopolitan, globe-trotting hospital volunteer.   Many were eager to speak to him over the phone or meet him in person, and I don’t know if this was due to the dazzling achievements presented in his profile or his naturally curious, cheerful and extroverted personality.

I got to know my uncle very well during the two years that he lived with us.  I was amazed by how little his spirit and his personality changed, even after being dealt one of the worst hands he could have received.  In 2014 over dinner a doctor friend of Paul’s noticed that he was oddly forgetful and half of his face seemed frozen, and she told him to get a CAT scan that night.  The gray blur of the scan revealed a tumor the size of a tennis ball lodged intrusively between the pecan-like hemispheres of Paul’s brain.   He was operated on, came to, and his brain rebooted.   For a brief time he became left handed, he went through a phase where the only word he could say was “Yes!,” and he took a long time to recall simple words.  As time went on Paul’s cognitive capacity slowly returned, but he was often frustrated by his inability to recall words or names, his short-term memory loss, and unpredictable seizures that set back his recovery.

I hope that if I ever encounter a situation as drastically challenging and life altering as that which Paul encountered, that I could face it with the same optimism and good cheer.   He joined a tumor support group, continued seeing the friends he had known for 40 years, and hung out at Mass General Hospital so frequently that all of the nurses knew him by name.   So much of who Paul was and what he accomplished in his lifetime is deeply admirable.   He made close friends and maintained friendships for years, he loved the outdoors and climbed and camped frequently, and he was exceptionally generous with everything he had.   He had a relentless sense of self improvement, and many of the books I inherited from him are guides to optimizing your life.  He had books on stock market investment tips, a comprehensive guide to the use and maintenance of four-wheel-drive vehicles, and a gentleman’s guide to Las Vegas, with the salient points of different bars and casinos carefully highlighted.

Paul became increasingly reflective after his first tumor diagnosis.  He was unequivocally clear that he had no regrets or unfinished business in his life: without the fatalistic sense of working through a bucket list, he had accomplished everything he dreamed of doing by the age of 55.   He lived a life of zest and verve, and idleness never agreed with him.

Paul died on July 2nd, 2017, at home with his family.  I think that these days not many people die in homes as opposed to hospitals.  Not that many people travel the world but live their whole lives within 100 miles of where they were born.   After he died we held a memorial celebration at the house.  The party was catered by a burrito joint that Paul walked to with his friend Dave every Thursday afternoon.  There was a huge galvanized bucket filled with Harpoon IPAs and Dale’s Pale Ale, and I made a playlist of James Brown, Dr. John, Bob Marley, Beres Hammond and all of Paul’s favorites.   It was a gorgeous afternoon, and everyone came: his dentist, his buddies who were knocked down the mountain in the avalanche with him, his friends from tumor support group, his cousin, his lawyer.   Everyone had a story to tell; some meaningful way that Paul had stuck in their lives and brightened their day.

I’m so grateful to have known Paul, a genuinely kind and generous guy who made the best of whatever circumstances he encountered.  He had a lot of qualities that I hope to emulate in my own life.   It was a joy to know him, I’ll remember him dearly, and I’m not the only one.

Of Cows and Vines

One of my indelible childhood memories is seeing a life-size replica of a cow made of butter at the Big E State Fair.  Presumably a lot of other things happened in my formative years, but I distinctly remember seeing this cow in a climate-controlled glass case under a white wall tent.  She had Holstein splotches carved into her flanks and stumpy horns curving out from her head.   At the age of 6 years and the height of 3 and a half feet tall I remember pushing through the forest of thighs and hips that defined my horizons to look at this yellowish, perfectly-proportioned tribute to the fineness of the New England dairy industry.   I had seen a lot of cows that day and was not about to have my socks knocked off by another, but my Grandma Oz leaned over and told me it was made of butter and thus, unknowingly, locked that fleeting moment of 1997 into my memory.

The Big E is the annual pinnacle of animal husbandry and agricultural achievement in the six New England states.  As a kid, a state fair is perhaps the most overwhelming sensual experience you can encounter.   The air is pungent with the scents of fried dough and candied apples, you can hear the pigs squealing in their pens and the bearings of the tilt-a-whirl out-squealing them in protest over years of inadequate maintenance, the caramel corn that you ate for breakfast stays stuck in your teeth all day, and you see the dazzling sights of bewildered sheep being competitively stripped of wool cocoons, psychedelic lights flashing from the midway games, and farmers in Carhartt work pants wearing more varieties of tartan flannel than all the clans of Scotland combined.   That fair centralized a lot of what I like best about my native region.

I’m thinking about my own fair experience because earlier I attended Libourne Fête Le Vin, a bi-annual celebration of the wine industry in Libourne, France.   To say that wine is common here is an understatement.  Ancient farmhouses are surrounded by perfect rows of vines that stretch up to their very walls, and the stained-glass windows in the churches show scenes of Jesus turning water into wine.   LFLV is a three-day bacchanal in the town center, where the square of the city hall is converted into the largest open-air bar for hundreds of kilometers.  Local wine regions sponsor tents to display the variety of their offerings, and around these central kiosks local food trucks, artisanal producers, and other shops prepare a celebration of regional industry.

I drove down the hill into town last night and was amazed by what I saw.   I have been coming to this region of France for close to 25 years now, but tonight I saw more people congregated here than I had ever seen before.  Every region offers selections from dozens of tiny local vineyards, and neighboring vineyards grow different grape varietals, harvest, ferment, and bottle at different times, sell to different markets, and differentiate themselves on thousands of minute levels.   Pierre uses fertilizer A, Jacques uses fertilizer B, and ultimately a critic with a good palate can tell the two apart every time.  You could taste 30 different vineyards every night and have a new hangover every morning, and after a week you would only be scratching the surface of the complexity of these wines.   This event was distinctly not for tourists.   All evening I didn’t hear a single person speaking a language other than French, and I saw many multigenerational local families attending.   Everyone was well dressed without pretension, and patrons held in-depth conversations with the vineyard owners about their precise wine preparation techniques.

It took me a while to realize that I was back in the Big E of my youth.   Instead of plaid the farmers wore rugby jerseys and exotically patterned shirts, and the fried dough stands were replaced by local producers selling fried paté and duck burgers.   Kids didn’t play skeeball and jump in inflatable castles here; instead they ran around their parents’ legs and were playfully scolded for guessing that a wine smelled of apricots when instead it smelled of peaches.   Instead of eating picnics off hay bales the families clustered around oak fermentation barrels, and the air was thick with the smell of fried escargot and the intoxicating aroma of spilled Côtes de Bordeaux.   Colored lights winked over the picnic tables and vineyard managers moaned about too much or too little rain in the weeks before last year’s harvest.

An event like this works best when a vineyard owner is deeply proud of the wine he produces on his tiny three hectare spread and wants to show how it compares to wine that is exported internationally.  The Big E thrives on the competitiveness and camaraderie that compels a beekeeper from Maine to drive for 5 hours in a truck loaded with hives to prove that his honey is superior to any honey produced in Rhode Island.   I was 3,500 miles and 19 years away from the Big E fair of my youth, but once again I found myself surrounded by the same kind of people who would stay up late sculpting a butter cow.  This patchwork of tiny farms laments the same heat waves and uneven rainfall, while priding themselves that the clay in their soil is of much higher agricultural quality than that of their neighbor next door.  Whether farmer, merchant, or consumer, everyone present cared deeply about wine production.

I stayed for a while, then left and drove home.   The route from the town to Château LVC, where I’m staying, is only six kilometers long but passes through dozens of different vineyards.   Two millennia ago the Roman settlers of this area subdued the Gallic tribes and planted vines on hills that reminded them of the soil they had left behind at home.   The productive life span of a vine is roughly eighty years, similar, perhaps, to that of a human being.  Now the distant progeny of these Gallo-Romans live in centuries-old limestone houses and cultivate vines that may be as many generations distant from their fermenting forebears as they are.   Their children play hide and seek around oak barrels and are taught the difference between acidity and bitterness, and maybe one of them will later have a clear memory of a massive oak barrel carved with vines sprouting grapes and leaves.  Maybe someday they’ll see a cow made of butter and think of wine.

Over the River and Through the Woods

I like Maine. The state is truly vast—it has counties that are larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined—yet its population is less than half of that of Brooklyn. When you leave behind the narrow strip of coast that’s choked with outlet malls and tourists saying “lobstah”, you find yourself on rural roads passing through groves of pine trees that stretch hundreds of miles to Canada. The speed limit is 75. Flummoxed moose loom out of the woods watching cars pass beneath their velvety muzzles. People ride snowmobiles and ATVs on public roads. Woodpiles are larger than the houses that they heat. As with all rural areas in a tough climate, the people are hardy, self-sufficient, and have very creative ideas on how to have a good time.

I drove up to Maine with DW to compete in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, an annual event that attracts over 400 boats. A Mainer calling the Kenduskeag a “stream” is like an Australian calling a crocodile “grumpy.” The Kenduskeag in April is a 100-foot-wide torrent of 33 degree meltwater slipping into the watershed somewhere in Quebec and then picking up inertia as it pummels its way through hundreds of miles of land before smashing into the Penobscot and the sea. The river swells so much that trees grow out of the water in the shallower areas by the banks, and even without paddling the canoe moves faster than a walking pace.

DW and I unloaded the boat at the starting area and sized up the competition. We were better off than the people who were racing in jeans and t-shirts with no spare gear or water bottles. Nevertheless, we were definitely on the low-tech end of the spectrum. Lots of people had buoyed their canoes with float bags and foam rails, lots of people wore wetsuits, and some people pored over heavily highlighted maps of the 16-mile-long course. We had none of that stuff—the plan was to aim the boat downstream—but we battened down our dry bags, strapped in an extra paddle, and got ready for our wave to launch.

The Kenduskeag is a race that lulls you into a false sense of security. The first ten miles of it are on fairly flat water, and you can drift lazily, chat with other boats, and have a snack. Some people get a little too comfortable, and as we waited to launch I saw two different boats flip in the flat water within 10 yards of the starting area. DW and I paddled fairly hard through the opening stretch, because we were starting far back in the pack of boats and wanted to get well ahead.

The first rapids that we encountered were Six Mile Falls. There was significant congestion going down the left flank of the river, including some boats that were stuck under horizontal logs, so I steered us to the right edge of the river instead. It soon became clear why this route was less trafficked. We crested over an unseen ledge and for a moment our boat was poised on a fulcrum in the middle, teetering between the water pushing us forward and a two foot drop to the churning pool below. Going backwards or sideways wasn’t an option, so we bumped the boat forward, crashed nose-first into the pool, and capsized. DW and I managed to hang onto the gunwales and steer our boat too shore, where we dragged it out of the water and jumped around to force the shocking cold out of our bones. After baling the boat and righting it, we scouted ahead and picked the line we would take down the right edge of Six Mile Falls.

We nosed the boat back out and were shot out into the current faster than we could have imagined. I steered the bow towards the first corner we would have to make to hold our line, but wasn’t able to turn the boat afterwards to keep us pointed in the right direction. Instead the stern got caught in the slipstream and spun us, sending us down backwards. DW and I backpaddled to stabilize us, and then were able to brace and spin the boat forward again. The bow snagged a rock and spun us once more backwards! DW lost hold of his paddle in the confusion, then saw it floating alongside and snatched it up to paddle again. We straightened out at the bottom of the falls and finished the rapids facing forwards. After our first spill, we had barely shipped a gallon of water despite doing two complete revolutions down the rapids. Dozens of spectators on the bridge above cheered as we whooped and beat the water.

It turns out we peaked at Six Mile Falls. We were pushed over the next waterfall abeam and capsized again. DW and I tried to swim the canoe to shore, but we couldn’t make any progress against the ferocious current and we were being bashed against huge underwater rocks. I decided to let go of my paddle in hopes of hanging on to the boat, but was soon forced to let go of that too. Rescue volunteers on the shore threw tethered lifesaving buoys to haul us out of the whitewater, and we stumbled ashore to see absolute carnage. At least one out of every three boats that went by tipped, and rescuers could hardly retrieve and throw their buoys fast enough. DW and I watched as our boat, now turtled, evaded the flotsam and then slipped around the river bend.

We went overland. At times sticking to a path, at times crashing our way through the thick brush, we followed the river chasing our bobbing boat. We lost sight of it but trudged on, and finally found it a mile downstream where some saintly Samaritan had tied to a tree on our side of the river. All of our gear was still attached, and we launched again. We capsized one more time before the end of the race and had to chase the boat once more. No kindly strangers were around to push it over to us, so I jumped into the frigid river to swim it back to shore. We were shooting Class III rapids, but some of them got even bigger: there were two stretches where the river was Class IV or Class V and we had to haul out and portage the boat along the bank. Several canoers missed the portages and were sucked into the maelstrom, and we began to hear sirens and see ambulances moving along the overpasses. The flatwater section felt far away.

The race finished beautifully. After clearing all of the crazy water, you come up to the finish line in downtown Bangor. The river cut through a brick canyon made by old factories that went down to the water’s edge, and the water was so high that we had to bend over double in the boat to pass under the footbridges that spanned the river. Our final time was 4 hours, 51 minutes and 30 seconds for a 16.5 mile race, including the portions that we did overland as we chased our boat. I was so tired that I could barely walk. We managed to eat about three thousand calories each and I drank the best beer I’ve ever tasted in my life before falling into 11 hours of dreamless sleep.

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Before launching

SG DW Kenduskeag II

I guess we were going backwards at this point

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We don’t do optional portages

Road Trip

I’m wrapping up my stay in Burkina Faso and finding ways to say goodbye to the country that has welcomed me for the last year and a half.  I’ve eaten in my favorite restaurants in Ouaga, met friends to bid them farewell, and picked up souvenirs to share with friends back home.   It’s also time for me to say goodbye to The Scarlet Menace, the temperamental Chinese motorcycle that has carried me nearly 10,000 kilometers through the dust of Ouaga, the pavement of the hottest clubs, and goat tracks in the forest and the village.  I arrived in Burkina Faso for the first time on the night of June 4th, 2015, and I purchased the motorcycle in cash on the morning of June 6th.  I’ve carried up to three people on the back of this bike, crashed it twice, rebuilt it once, and learnt to repair its most common breakdowns with a Leatherman and a stick.  I rode this bike through the burning tires of the roadblocks to leave my neighborhood during the coup, ridden it through rivers on trips out to the village, and replaced a significant number of the original parts.  It has made my movements here possible, and it’s a big part of my life.

Entropy is the natural inclination of the universe, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of my motorcycle.  When I first bought it it had all kind of reflective trim on it, which I thought would be really useful for making me more visible at night.  I soon realized that none of this trim was screwed on: it was all fastened with an epoxy that seemed to dissolve at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour.  For the first two weeks that I owned it my motorcycle left a trail of parts across Ouaga: reflectors would spin off into the breeze behind me, turn signals fell off, wires unplugged themselves, and I learned a lot about fixing problems on the fly.  After a year and a half the bike is now thoroughly broken in, and although it will never re attain its straight-out-of-Guangzhou chrome glory days, it now functions smoothly.  It’s not a particularly powerful bike but I can cruise at 55 MPH with two people on it.   That’s pretty quick when you’re traveling on a highway built by engineers who control speed by hiding speedbumps in random places.

On Monday morning I rolled out of bed and decided that I wanted to go on a road trip.  This would a be a proper ride: I would bring only a backpack, I would plan nothing, I would aim my motorcycle toward the setting sun and see what I found.  I mentioned my plan to my friend Momo and he announced that he would join me.  He hopped on the back and we set out for Koudougou.  Koudougou is the third largest city in Burkina Faso, but its population is one-twentieth the size of Ouaga’s.  When you leave Ouaga in the space of ten minutes you leave behind the highway interchange, the neon lights of the roadside bars, and the swell of hundreds of motos sliding through traffic like fish through a coral reef.  You then come to a semi industrial zone, where steel warehouses and concrete factories share the landscape with undeveloped plots of land and stray goats and donkeys.  Finally you enter the surrounding villages.  These are significantly more developed than most rural areas, but very few houses have electricity, none have running water, and most of the construction is mud brick and thatch.  All this within 15 kilometers of the hustle and buzz of downtown Ouaga!   Driving out doesn’t feel like travel, it feels like a time warp.

Momo and I made good time to Koudougou, and it felt GOOD to whip past the stubbly cornfields and swoop over the low hills and see afternoon village life from the ground level.  We stopped at one point to drink locally brewed millet beer, and we stopped at another point to reinflate the rear tire after it inexplicably decoupled from the rim.  All vehicles need routine maintenance, but my motorcycle needs surprise routine maintenance.

We descended on Koudougou on the lookout for the nearest biker bar where we could park the steed and put some Allman Brothers on the jukebox, but we had to settle for a tour of the downtown.  We drove past a brand new covered brick market, and a central mosque with a massive spire made of mud plaster and unvarnished timber.  We stopped in the palace of Maurice Yameogo, the first president of Burkina Faso who was deposed in an uprising three years after independence.  His mansion stands unused and abandoned, but you can walk through it and see the salons and terraces where he hosted visiting heads of state.  We kept looking, and we found a bar overlooking the reservoir as the sun set.  Pigs rolled in the mud in unabashed bliss and huge bottles of beer cost a dollar and came out encased in ice as if they had been harvested from a glacier.  The kitchen had an actual menu of food you can choose from, as opposed to most bars where the proprietor comes out and informs you what you will be eating tonight.  We were tinted with dust and perfumed by motor oil, and we hit the nightlife.

Turns out there isn’t a ton to do in the third-largest city in Burkina Faso on a Monday night.  We found a cool reggae bar but the only patrons were older civil servants and Nigerian prostitutes.   We heard loud music elsewhere and rolled over to investigate, but it turned out to be funerary rites.  We finally stopped at a wine bar and came across a French expat, L, who had spent five years here working for an organization that promoted the use of traditional plants for medicinal purposes.  We chatted about the uses of aloe (surprisingly numerous), nightlife in Koudougou (great if you like gardening), and PSGs chances of advancing in the Champions League against Barcelona (good).  At the end of the night we cadged an invitation to sleep on her floor, which is good because Plan B was the open air.  If you want to get the real moto roadtrip experience, it seems like cheating to sleep in a hotel at the end of the day.

I awoke the next morning fully dressed down to my boots.  We got back on The Scarlet Menace and headed for Sabou, a nearby village with a swamp filled with sacred crocodiles.  We got there by dropping off the highway and winding our way through the villages.  As I drove I looked carefully for modernity, or things that were constructed recently.  If you took away the cellphones, motos, and water pumps, life in the village is very much the way that it’s been for the last 200 years.  From Sabou we hooked back east to Ouaga, wrestling the bike through clouds of orange dust and occasionally dropping onto the shoulder of the road when a trailer truck loomed up behind us.

We made it back to Ouaga before nightfall.  I was exhausted: a motorcycle takes physical effort to ride, especially if you’re traveling in the slipstream of trucks or wrenching the bike along sandy paths in the village.  The motor whined and ticked under us, and I could feel the heat radiating around the bike.   I dropped Momo off and resisted the urge to sleep another night with my clothes on.  I showered and then sat on the porch, listening to the tick-tick-tick as the The Scarlet Menace recovered from her brave efforts.

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Mechanic working on the rear tire

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The central mosque of Koudougou

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The covered market

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Maurice Yameogo’s entrance hall

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The first floor of the presidential palace

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Sunset over the reservoir

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Momo and The Scarlet Menace

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Riding in the village

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Materials for sacred amulets and traditional medicine.  In this photo we see elephant skin and vertebra, caiman skin, and the pelt of a leopard.

Partners

The mine was interested in sponsoring local people to attend technical training classes on welding, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.  If you send a cohort of 20 people out for training it’s a positive addition to the community: they learn a trade, get a certificate of completion at the end, and the mine can hire two or three of the top performers and train them as apprentices.  I was dispatched to meet with potential training partners and assess their capacity.

One of my colleagues had driven past a brand new polytechnic school on the outskirts of the nearest large town, and recommended that I start my search there.  I got the number of the school’s founder and called him.   I explained briefly that I worked for the mine, was exploring potential training partners, and wanted to visit the school and see their facilities and learn about their training courses.  He was effusive.  “Our workshop—gorgeous.   Absolutely state of the art, cutting edge equipment, all the newest gear.  Bilingual education in French and English.   Internationally educated teaching staff.  What programs are you interested in?”   I told him briefly, and at each one he told me that there was no finer school in Burkina Faso, possibly the whole world, to teach those subjects.  “Our curriculum is flexible!”   he said in closing.   “We can design our programs to meet any of your requirements.”   This last line should have tipped me off to what was coming, but I’m a bit slow and just assumed he was enthusiastic.

The town isn’t far from our site on the map, but the roads are terrible and it takes two hours to drive there.  I went with a colleague who had to do other errands, and he dropped me off at the school on the outskirts of town and we agreed to meet again in the late afternoon to return.   The building was simple but brand new, with a sparkling concrete wraparound porch and fresh paint.

I walked into the main office to find the secretary asleep literally facedown on her desk.  Her arms dangled by her side and her forehead was balanced on the teacher’s directory.  I coughed a few times but she didn’t stir.  I scraped an iron chair across the floor.   She raised her head and squinted at me.  I told her I wanted to speak with the founder, and she gestured to the door behind her and then replaced her head on the desk.

I opened the door to find a middle-aged man sitting in a dim room staring at me as if he had been waiting all week for my visit.  The desk didn’t have anything on it—not a pencil or a scrap of paper—but the walls of the room were lined with binders and papers in crenellated mounds up to two feet high.  I asked him if I had the pleasure of addressing the same gentleman I had spoken with on the phone two days yore, and he shook his head mournfully.  “The founder lives in Ouagadougou,” he told me.  “Our General Director has been traveling for the last two weeks, and our Principal recently accepted a position as an accountant on a poultry farm.   I am the Adjoint General Director.   You are most welcome.”   I was a little shaken by this news, but I sat down and launched into my list of questions.

I asked how many students were enrolled in the school currently, and he reached behind him, located a piece of paper that had been torn from a lined notebook and consulted it.  “156,” he said.  “I just walked past a few classrooms and there was hardly anyone in there.  And it’s a Friday.” I said.  He nodded slowly.  “Last Friday was a holiday, and not all of the students own calendars.  Perhaps some of them think it is last week.”  This didn’t make any sense to me, but I moved on.   I asked what equipment they had…welders, mig/tig/acetylene, circuit boards, solar panels, plumbing supplies, etc.   He rolled his chair to a different stack of paper on the floor and handed me a printed list.  “This is all of the equipment for our workshop.   The founder plans to place an order tomorrow.”   “But you don’t have any of this stuff now?”  I said, “I need to know what will be available to any students we send here.   What do you have?”   He blinked and then said slowly, “That’s a procurement list.  When the equipment arrives here and is installed, it will be available.   Everything on that list that is delivered here will be available.”   I asked about the bilingual education, and was told that one of the teachers had lived in Ghana for a bit and understood the lyrics to several Michael Jackson songs.

The office was making me claustrophobic and I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much.   I asked for a tour of the facilities.  He nodded ruefully as if he was a man who was born to suffer and give tours of facilities, and then pushed back his chair and directed me past the sleeping secretary.   We walked past the classrooms, all of which were brand new and barely used.  The blackboards had the kinds of equations you see in New Yorker cartoons; figures that fill whole panels and Greek symbols.  Some of the boards made references to Computer-Aided Design programs, another listed building code regulations in France.  Another board explained that triangles can be identified because they always have three sides.  Out the window I could see rice fields.

I asked to see the workshop where students did hands on training.  He led me around the corner of the building and pointed without irony at a large field where several cows ripped hunks of grass from the stony ground.   “The students will build the workshop themselves, thereby learning structural engineering, welding, foundation construction and plumbing and electrical connections,” he said.   “We are awaiting a partnership that will give us the funds to buy the equipment and materials to construct the workshop.  Then the teachers will come, because they will be impressed by the project and ready to work hard to ensure their future at the school.  Then the students will come, because the teachers will inspire them.   Other enterprises will want to partner with us when they see the quality of students we will produce.  This will be the greatest technical school in Burkina Faso, if not the world.”

I thought carefully about the verbs the school’s founder had used over the phone, and it occurred to me that he never said that any of these facilities existed yet.  I thanked the Adjoint General Director for his time and shook his hand.   He thanked me for visiting, then asked if the mine was hiring, and if so, how could he submit an application?

The Beautiful Game

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.  I am very disappointed with that attitude.  I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”  

                                                                                                            -Bill Shankly

On Wednesday night Burkina Faso faced Egypt in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations.  The winner of this tournament is crowned champion of all the national soccer teams on the continent, and since Africa usually makes the news for coups and humanitarian crises, this is a rare bright moment for international acclaim.  I had watched the Burkina Faso Stallions play live during the qualifying rounds for this tournament—I was present in the national stadium when we spanked the Comoros Islands 2-0—and I turned up a solid 15 minutes early to watch the game at the bar outside the camp gates.

By that time there were already dozens of motorcycles strewed around haphazardly.  This was the only place within 15 miles showing the game live, and 150 people were clustered around a TV the size of an iPad.  I looked around the crowd and noticed that there weren’t more than ten women present, and maybe half of those worked for the bar.  I also saw that not more than a quarter of those assembled were drinking beers or sodas that they had ordered there.  At a dollar a bottle a beer represents several hours working wage, and is an extravagance for all those who don’t work in the mining camp, as illegal gold diggers or as merchants in the town.  Nevertheless, no bartender could be heartless enough to chase away his fellow citizens when the national team are playing.

The game kicked off and it was clear throughout the first half that Burkina had the advantage.  Their passing was far sharper and more incisive than that of the Egyptians, and the stalwart defense soaked up pressure and then launched cunning breakaway attacks.  At halftime the mood was optimistic, but early in the second half the Egyptians nicked a cheeky breakaway goal.  There were no groans or complaints of foul or offside—just silence in the bar as people craned their necks to see what had happened.  Within ten minutes the Stallions surged forward and equalized.  I’ve never heard such deafening silence as when Egypt scored the opening goal, but when Burkina equalized the place erupted.  Beer bottles smashed to the ground, and as Aristide Bancé controlled a pass with his chest and smacked it into the net the crowd went wild.  People honked motorcycle horns and flashed their headlights, five different people shook my hand, and the bartender poured shots of rum for everyone, including some kids who didn’t look more than 14 years old.

I felt a sense of pure joy in the bar that night, but more than that, a sense of true connection.  Our link to the game was distant…the village where I work is 10 miles from the Côte d’Ivoire border and 15 miles from Mali, so we are about as far out in the country as you get while remaining on Burkinabé soil.  The TV we were watching was powered by a series of car batteries linked with twisted wires and charged during the day by a solar panel; the color commentary of the match came from a studio somewhere in France.  The action on screen lagged several minutes behind real life-whenever a team scored my phone vibrated 2 minutes before the play occurred on screen.  Nevertheless the fans around me were glued to every single pass, substitution, and throw-in of the match.  They cheered the loudest for players who had come from the Western region of Burkina Faso.  Everyone watching, young and old, screamed advice in Dioula and Senoufo at players who were playing a game two minutes in the future.

I first became hooked on watching soccer in Hoima, Uganda.  I was living in an outbuilding made of cinderblocks with no running water just outside of the office where I worked, and soccer matches provided me with a sense of community and international connection.  I would visit the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal clash with each other in the Premier League, and I’d wonder if Wayne Rooney ever knew that kids in rural Ugandan villages saved their shillings to buy his jerseys, and screamed his name whenever he scored the winning goal.  I wondered if Arsene Wenger knew that old men in Hoima scoffed at his tactical setup, mocking him for relying on delicate attacking midfielders when his team was clearly lacking some backbone in defense.  I wondered if Luis Suarez knew that when Crystal Palace came back to draw 3-3 with Liverpool in 2014, grown men cried along with him.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that they didn’t know this.  Premier League teams are so globalized that the players and managers can’t imagine every village in every country on every continent in the world watching them.

That’s the joy of watching the Burkina Faso national team.  All of those players are boys who grew up in the villages, and played on stony soccer pitches like the one where I play after work.  When they score a goal they can see the people leaping for joy next to the straw-thatched huts in the village bars, and they can hear the whine of motorcycle horns in the starry night.  They really do play for the people, and the people can see that.

Burkina Faso lost to Egypt on penalties, 4-3.  After the match the bar cleared out instantly.  They played well, their resolve was strong, and they lost due to bad luck.  There’s always the World Cup in two years, and the African Championship two years after that, and then…

Jobs I Have Done

I looked over my resume and saw that, although all the information there is accurate, it does not adequately present the full scope of my employment history.  I am now a quarter-century old, and I realize that work has been the driver for many of my experiences and adventures over the last few years.  In the interest of context, here is a list of Jobs I Have Done that don’t necessarily appear on my resume.

2011-2012: Hustler.  My mate JW came back to college from Christmas break with a great idea: he, myself, and PM would start a franchise of a textbook buyback company to compete with the bookstore.  Textbooks are heinously expensive, and basically useless after the course is complete, so there’s a significant market to buy popular textbooks in good condition and resell them at a markdown as used books the next year.  We signed ourselves up to be buyers for the Haverford branch of BT Books, and a week before finals started Sal showed up on campus to train us on the business.  If you imagine a guy named Sal who runs a textbook purchasing business covering Eastern Pennsylvania out of the trunk of a beater Toyota Camry, you can visualize him pretty well.  He showed up on campus, gave us bar code scanners, canvas bags, and a wad of $5000 in small bills, and told us to get to work and hit our quotas.  Throughout finals week we were constantly on call: people would take their finals and then call us to come, scan their books to figure out the price, and then pay cash on the spot.  Cheerfulness and flexibility were the hallmarks of this company, and at one point I was called to hike off-campus to buy a stack of economics textbooks from a lacrosse player so that he could duck into a liquor store and convert Principles of Free Markets into Beer.

The job was exhausting but we got paid a lump sum.  We signed up again to do it, and the next year Sal was driving a white Cadillac Escalade with big rims.  Halfway through finals week the Haverford bookstore, which ran its own buyback program, got wind of the fact that we were competing with them for sales.  We were summoned to meet with the director of the bookstore, who was polite yet furious; a terrifying combination.  We called up BT Books to explain the situation, and the first thing they told us was that we should keep buying—if the school tried to intervene again, they would sue.  “Look, guys, you don’t understand,” we said, “this is a small school.  We have to live here.   I gotta buy my ramen noodles and pencils at this bookstore.”   We quit after that.  I calculated afterwards that I made roughly $3.50/hour doing this job.

2011: Medical Lab Technician.  After my sophomore year of college I received a grant to go to Uganda and do good works there.  I got an internship working for a non-profit that did HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, and medical treatment.  On my first day there I was told that I would be most useful working in the medical lab: performing AIDS tests, drawing blood samples from HIV-positive patients, and making microscope slides to scan patients for malaria and tuberculosis.  I pointed out that I was 19 years old and had no medical training at all, but I was assured this wasn’t a problem.  The head doctor rolled up his sleeve, I drew a vacuum flask of blood from the crook of his arm, and I was pronounced proficient.  Clinic days were on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I estimate that I drew blood from over 700 people that summer.  On Thursdays we packed into the back of a Land Rover to do clinical outreach, and I bounced along laterite roads deep into villages to do the same work on tables wobbling on the gnarly roots of the mango trees we sheltered under.  “Hey,” I thought to myself, “How cool is this?  This might be the life for me.”

2012: Microfinance Operations Manager.  In 2012 I applied for another grant, and was sent to Senegal to work for a microfinance operation that was establishing itself in Dakar.  My only coworker was a bodybuilder from North Carolina who lectured me on the importance of maintaining proper amino acid ratios during the dry season, but didn’t give me a whole lot of insight into evaluating, monitoring, and collecting loans.  Every morning I woke, ate a greasy fried egg with bitter coffee, and hailed a beater taxi to meet with the aspiring entrepreneurs of Pikine, Parcelles Assainies, Mermoz, Yoff and Grand Dakar.  During this job I was blessed by a witch doctor, mugged on the edge of a cliff at machete point, doubled the number of borrowers subscribed to the NGO, and learned how to take care of myself.

2014-2016:  Goatherd.  In 2014 I worked on a goat farm in France on the German border, and loved the experience so much that I returned there in 2016 with my friend PM.  The two of us were backpacking through Europe, and had recently been robbed by a Hungarian taxi driver, stayed in a hostel called the Jetpak Alternativ in Berlin, attended a party of 5000 people with inflatables and strobe lights in a natural hot spring, grown appropriately scruffy beards, and climbed across an avalanche zone to a chalet perched in a col of the Swiss Alps.  The goat farm seemed like a change of pace, and we told my friend the owner, GS, that we were willing to do whatever work needed doing.  We rose at 6h30 every morning and after feeding the goats, shoving them into the milking stocks, and changing their straw we did a different assignment every day.  We drove a Bobcat to shift 500 pound haybales, used sledgehammers to sink splintery fenceposts into the mountainsides, squeezed chunks of whey into molds to make cheese, and built a trapdoor in an attic.

One day GS told us that the electric fence had shorted somewhere in the lower meadow, and we were to herd the flock of 100 goats down there, stuff them in the pen, and then fix the fence.  It took us an hour to flog the uncooperative goats down the hill and shove them into the pasture.   Neither of us had ever worked with electric fences before, and a single trailing wire touching the ground or a wet branch could damage the system.  It began to rain sideways as we checked the fence perimeter for the problem, and each of us was convulsively shocked several times.  The goats figured out that the current was flickering and began to slither under the wires, stampeding up to the barn.  PM and I were flipping out: soaked, electrocuted, and trying to control a flock of rowdy goats.   Before my eyes I saw a bleating goat fall into the root cellar of a long-abandoned over grown cottage: it was like the apocalypse, panicked livestock being pulled to the center of the earth.  I had driven a utility truck down the meadow with our fencing equipment, and the wheels spun in the mud for ten minutes before I finally got the tires to catch and the truck to churn up the hill.  We wrangled the goats back up to the barn and told GS that we’d look at the fence the next day.  His house smelled of cookies; his wife had been baking.  “Come on guys,” he chided us, “Is it really so difficult?”  For this job I was paid in pork chops and sausage, and I enjoyed myself enormously.

2015-2016: Cross-Country Ski Instructor.  I’ve always loved cross-country skiing, and I took a winter job teaching skiing at a groomed course 15 miles outside of Boston.  During the days I waxed and repaired skis, boots and poles, and when called upon I went out to teach lessons.  My students varied enormously from day-to-day, from hour-to-hour even.   I taught a pair of 5 year old Swiss twins who only spoke French.  I taught rangy young racers honing their technique to qualify for the state team and beat our perpetual foes, Vermont.  I taught tourists from India who came in groups of twelve or more and wore jeans, two parkas at a time, and no gloves.   I taught a family from New York who skied down a shallow slope, took their skis off at the bottom, and then hiked up to repeat the cycle again, leaving deep dents in the carefully groomed parallel trails.  I taught a 60 year old woman who took three breaks for hot chocolate in a one hour lesson.  I taught a weekly series with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester who had grown up in Boston but never done a winter sport before.   I loved it.

I’ve learned the most from jobs where I’ve earned very little money and worked long hours.  A lot of these positions don’t appear on my resume.  I’ve been told to present a coherent career arc that demonstrates my aptitude for my desired post; a string of continuous achievement that leads directly to the exact job I seek today.  The experiences above were all vivid and meaningful to me, and instilled me with a sense of adaptability, curiosity, and hard work.  I’ll have more jobs in the future, but I’ll always carry these jobs with me.

A Line in the Sand

A team of auditors came out to the project site to visit some of our community investments in the field. We had installed shipping containers in project-impacted communities that they could use as social and educational spaces, then came with soda and paints and paintbrushes for community members to paint the containers and make them their own. I was asked to take the auditors on a tour of the containers, so we packed into the truck and were on our way.

There are no paved roads within 20 miles of the site, and what remains are only roads in the sense that people don’t actually plant crops on them very often. Sometimes the road takes odd doglegs if someone has decided to build a house on this flat, pre-hardened stretch of land, and several times I’ve seen pits sunk a meter deep into the path because someone’s metal detector beeped as he crossed the road. At different times of the year the same stretch of track can be a pit of gluey mud, a tunnel between walls of eerily whispering grass, or a sandbox that boils into dust at the slightest disturbance. When I left the site six weeks ago the terrain was lush and people were harvesting their crops, but now the land is prickly, dusty and dry. I knew where all the sites I wanted to visit were except for one, and I asked my colleague to refresh me on the directions. “Just drive past the mango grove on your right and turn left after the village counselor’s compound.” he said. “You can’t miss it.”

Well he was wrong, because I could miss it. We drove past farms that looked like all of the others in the area; scattered karité and cashew trees standing alone in fields coated with delicate black ash from where farmers had burned off groundcover. I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t recognize these trees and we were in the wrong place. I checked my satellite GPS and sure enough our little blue arrow had nudged over the border of Côte d’Ivoire. We had overshot the village by a kilometer and ended up in a foreign country. We did a quick K-turn and returned to Burkina Faso, and the rest of the trip passed without incident.

Even though none of the airlines will ever allow me into their executive lounges, the fact is that I fly a lot. Crossing the border in an airport or an international ground checkpoint is a big deal, and the situation is handled with appropriate gravitas. You fill out a waxy ink-resistant form with your place of birth and occupation, the border control agent frowns at you through the glass and checks your passport, yellow fever vaccination and visa, and finally with a satisfying CHUNK she stamps your documents and sends you on your way. Often there’s a line painted on the ground, and as you cross it you feel the air become thicker or thinner or lighter or warmer or heavier, somehow DIFFERENT, from the air of the country that you have just technically left.

This time I felt none of that. One moment I was traveling through the sooty cotton fields of one nation, and the next moment I was in another sovereign state. As we visited the sites on the checklist I reflected on the fact that the border I had just crossed had been drawn by some unknown Frenchman in the 1800s—both Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are former French colonies, so the line between them is recent and arbitrary. If his hand had quivered as he laid the ruler on the page to draw a line I may never have entered Côte d’Ivoire at all, or perhaps I would have driven 2 kilometers into foreign territory before realizing my mistake. The people native to this region hardly make a distinction between the two nations: they cross the border at will to attend markets or visit family on the other side. Six months ago I spent an 14 hour stretch in the Abidjan airport sleeping on a bench under fluorescent lights because I had an unexpected layover and no visa in my passport to pass through the sliding doors where good food and hotels awaited me. Same country, different border crossings, different result.

The solution is simple. Burkina Faso must build a beautiful, tremendous wall on its southern border. This will be unprecedented for Burkinabé engineering, because it will come in ahead of schedule and under budget. Send the bill to Mexico.

 

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This is how the container looked when I found it…

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…and this is what I found inside.

The View from Ground Level

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Selfie with my wheels

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Concert in Ouaga

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Burning brush on the road to the village

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Standing room only to watch Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations