Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Alex Alper...is back in Africa

“I’d really like to get something to drink, if you could help me. Euros are fine,” says the nice, cleanly dressed young man who has been “disinterestedly” helping me put my stuff in a cab at Senghor Airport in Dakar, Senegal at 2 Am.

I shake my head.

“Then how bout some kisses.”

I shake my head, and offer my hand out the window.

He shakes it, closes the door and disappears.

“Ugh” says the driver, in visible disgust, starting up the ignition.

“What,” thought I, “an ally in the driver, someone appalled by the opportunistic young man, cooly requesting nookie when money was denied?

“He didn’t shut the door.”

I chuckle, open and close my door again, and regain a little realism.

But everything is right. People are friendly, slow-moving, relaxed. The night air is soft, just barely cool and smells of the sea. The driver never forgives me for getting a bit of a deal (8 bucks for 10 minutes is hardly a deal, but less than the 10 bucks that are the norm for white passengers after midnight) and even tries to charge me another two bucks for the receipt. At no point, do I feel in danger.

I peel off my black clothes, meant to make me fit in during a day’s layover in Madrid, and instantly forget the chagrin at having had no boots like the other girls. I throw on a sundress, with bear arms, uneven seams, ready for sweat, wispy tangled hair and the translucent sunscreen that brings the scent of American drugstores with you everywhere. I pay for my room, head up for my shower. Even the cold water is pleasant, startling and a little harsh like getting clean should be. I’m back in Africa.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Condor Crew:The Interviews

Meet the Condor Crew

6 minute film I made documenting a day in the life of Condor Crew Biologists at Pinnacles National Monument. Through tracking, health checks, food supplementation, etc, they work to create a condor flock that is wild, healthy, and self-sustainin. Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center sponsored it. Forgive me for the music. It was free.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Flat Tire

The frogs in the pond between Ikea and the outer loop of the Beltway are singing. The streetlights tower above us as the cars whiz by loudly, until there’s a pause in traffic. Then you can hear my footsteps and the frogs.

The shoulder is loaded with fascinating stuff--a belt, a credit card, a wrench, pieces of tire, stuff left on purpose or inadvertently by all those people who had some reason to be walking along the side of the beltway at night.

I am walking back to my car. It’s blinking, with a flat, somewhere up ahead, past an overhanging bridge where the shoulder narrows to a foot, and just beyond the spur for highway 95, whose two lanes I will again sprint across. This, unfortunately, is where the AARP will send a car repairman to meet me.

It’s 12:20 a.m. At 10:00 p.m., when I had heard the grating noise, I parked and walked back up the ramp and into the first business I saw, a Holiday Inn, for a phone. No pay phones, but a sense of public duty got the concierge to offer me his. I called my dad, and asked him to call AARP (the policy is in his name).

“Can they meet me at the Holiday Inn and we can go to my car together?”

“No. She says it’s against policy rules.”

“What? So I have to cross the beltway again? It’s dangerous.”

“I know. I asked twice, she says absolutely not. Just be careful.”

The cars are whizzing at my back as I make my way up the shoulder. It’s not as scary as on the way there, when I had gasped every time a car seemed to lock me in its headlights, head towards me murderously, and veer off course at the last minute. I chided myself for thinking these silly things. I also tried not to look back.

At the bridge, an eighteen-wheeler seems nearly to clip me and I scramble up onto the embankment. Maybe I’m not being silly. If so, why is AARP, an organization that purports to aid stranded car-owners, permitting me to be in this roadside peril?

My thoughts travel unavoidably to Africa. The time I biked through a village that had saved a water bottle I had left for trash months before. The reliable supply of unofficial mechanics who fixed my bike with pieces of rubber they found on the road. A world where you felt like, penniless and unknown, you could show up anywhere and find strangers to help you, and that they in turn would expect the same thing of you, showing up or your doorstep with a broken bike or a missing water bottle.

At the same time, I remember my revulsion at Blanche Dubois’ famous line from Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire: “I always rely on the kindnesses of strangers.” How awful to feel so assured of help from strangers that you excuse yourself from taking necessary precautions. I felt slighted the other day when it rained and I walked 50 yards from gym to parking lot beside a fellow student with an umbrella who didn’t share it. “How absurd to have the power to help and not use it,” I thought at the time. And now walking along the shoulder to my car, “how absurd to expect others to help you!” Had Africa made me needy? If I had been able to fix my own tire, wouldn’t I have been able to avoid this beltway promenade, not to mention ire towards AARP’s hypocritical policy?

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle. If fear of relying on others prevents you from taking risks, you are missing out on lots of safe adventures and the opportunity to discover the truly genuine kindness of most strangers. Alternately, if you are constantly making forays into the world without taking precautions, you are taking advantage of them, asking to be disappointed, and exposing yourself to needless danger.

I arrive at my car. The repairman is waiting, his blinking yellow lights trained on my car’s bumper. I open the trunk, he pulls out the donut, hands me the flashlight to illuminate his work, and begins.

A police car pulls up. “Was that you running up the road?” he asks. I nod. “You in trouble?” I look at my watch. It’s almost one a.m. I wanted to say, “I was at ten,” but I thank him for asking.

He parks and walks over, pointing a flashlight at the wheel I am already illuminating.

“This isn’t the kind of stretch where, you know, people get out and help you,” he says.

Friday, June 19, 2009

“Planning” a Trip to Guinea

(written April/2009)
I am sitting on my bed pouring over the Guinea Chapter in The Rough Guide to West Africa, like it matters. There are notes in the margins, highlights, even comments scrawled in my binder, as though the facts about prices, decent hotels, and good bike rides will make my trip better. I close the book. I’ve been to Guinea, why am I doing this? Nothing I could possibly do with a guidebook—place it under a wobbly table or memorize it--could affect my trip in any way.
In the Western world, what they tell you is true: bad things happen to good people who don’t plan. A thriving community of conniving, unscrupulous evildoers pounce on good people who don’t check their tire pressure, don’t book hotel reservations in advance, don’t buy luggage insurance or those handy, irredeemably tacky money-hiding fanny packs.
In Guinea, no one believes in this adage, not because they are backwards, but because it doesn’t hold true there. Plan and spend as you like in Guinea, unaccounted, bizarre things, often of a biblical character, occur that can subvert your plans, big time. Dust storms, floods, pre-Islamic ceremonies, sudden deaths, snakes, strikes, inflation, illnesses, any sort of element from a Magical realism novel, could smite you without warning, humbling you into phrases like “It is in God’s hands,” “Man proposes but God disposes,” and “if it happened, it must be for the best.”
Once on the way from my village to Kourrousa, the barge that usually carried us across the river ran out of gas and began slowly to float down the river, thudding against the banks of the Niger as the women screamed and grasped at branches. Twice that same night, muddy roads and a steady downpour caused me to fall under a motorcycle. A few months later, my neighbor was bitten by a snake while milking a cow and promptly died.
Bad things occur with no warning, but the opposite is true too. You can impulsively jump on a notion to travel across the country with no money, and no plans and magically, through the goodness of people you meet, and thanks to the absence of unscrupulous evildoers that pounce on hapless adventurers elsewhere, it works out. That same night on the Niger, I slept at a stranger’s house many miles short of where I had planned on ending up, and made one of the few Guinean friends with whom I am still in touch. A world without consequences, a world where saying “it’s in God’s hands” is not a cop-out so much as a statement of fact.
I exaggerate, of course. There is a time when the “It’s-in-God’- hands” mentality is a sorry excuse for inaction that perpetuates the awful things that do occur so regularly. Once, very early in my Peace Corps service, traveling by bush taxi to Conakry, our car puttered to a halt as we came upon a bus slanted into a ditch. Several dead bodies covered with cloths lay beside it. Flies buzzed and landed. The bus’s other passengers cried quietly, or sat and stared at the road, waiting for Conakry-bound cars with vacant spots. My car took one of them. It had been a collision, she explained. Among the dead was a woman who was traveling to Conakry to meet her fiancé, who was arriving from France after years abroad. “God didn’t will it,” she explained, and I grimaced.
Peter Hessler, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in China and writer of River Town: Two Years on the Yangzte River, posits that this is why volunteers go on to “achieve” little in life. Forced to adjust to regularized chaos, he says, they can no longer see action as tied to results, nor failure as the result of inaction. In this world, struggling to prove a correlation between input and output is too frustrating. So volunteers often give up, sit back, and (ironically) prove the rule, that man is mostly powerless to determine his destiny.
But hope exists and, wonderfully, it is irrational. The people who do manage to change things manage to forgo reason, the reason that tells them their efforts will likely fail. Instead they rely on their convictions, irrational gut-instincts that their efforts could change something. (And while these convictions ARE irrational, the only guaranteed way to fail is never to try). So we have heard of these people: the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates, the Isaac Newton, the Louis Pasteur, etc.
So when will someone demand or undertake to ensure better roads, better drivers, safety standards for cars and cargo carriage in Guinea? When will there appear journalists, op-ed writers, politicians and NGO’s that draw international attention to these awful accidents in a way that foments action, in a way that allows most Guineans to mock those who say “It’s in God’s hands” for blinding themselves to their own agency? If Peace Corps volunteers themselves, the supposed change-agents, can adopt these attitudes themselves, the magnitude of the challenge is clear. But hope, wonderfully, is irrational, and though I will soon give up on planning this trip, I hope that Guinea will one day become a place where all manners of planning are richly rewarded.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Obamanos! to Africa

I didn't vote for Obama to make it easier to tell people in Africa that I am American, but it sure has helped. Here are some indications of his mass appeal from my whirlwind trip through Mali, Guinea, and Senegal this May.

Ziguinchor, Senegal (Basse Casamance) 05/09

Ziguinchor, Senegal (Basse Cassamance) 05/09

Oussouye, Senegal (Basse Cassamance) 05/09

Faranah, Guinea 05/09

Bamako, Mali 05/09

Dakar, Senegal, 05/09

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Life After Peace Corps? Grad School Essays

These are excerpts from essays I wrote to apply to Columbia Schools of Journalism and International Affairs, where I will be attending this fall.

Why Journalism:

Three plumes of smoke rise above downtown Kankan, Guinea, from burning truck tires lit by protesters. I am standing on the Peace Corps’ sagging plastic water tank, watching. Abou, our guard, in sandals and a silk shirt, leans against the mango tree, smoking.
Shots are fired nearby. I slide off the water tank, and crouch behind the tree. A military vehicle charges up the deserted street, turns, and heads downtown.
* * *
Peace Corps volunteers are by mandate apolitical. But after two decades of corruption and growing poverty under Lansana Conte, Guineans had organized in opposition and we were exhilarated, even if it meant a premature end to our service.
Two strikes earlier that year had led to clashes only in the capital. In my village, where agriculture was the crux of every conversation and news arrived at the weekly market, violent protest seemed implausible. Then, in December, Conte released two cronies jailed for state embezzlement, and sector-wide strikes erupted in cities throughout the country.
The six volunteers who had gathered in Kankan listened to the radio and neighborhood hearsay to try and piece together what was happening.
I had joined the Peace Corps with ambivalence. Internships at a radio station in Napa County, an environmental newspaper in Ecuador, and a political media website in San Francisco convinced me I wanted to be a reporter. Curiosity and a predilection for interviews as a complement to textual research drew me to journalism. I also love writing: ordering facts analytically and hooking readers creatively proved eternally intriguing and challenging.
What troubled me was my desire to advocate. “Can I dedicate myself to informing alone when enormous social, environmental, and health problems affect the world’s poor?” Introducing soil improvement techniques and providing nutritional training to villagers fulfilled this desire to contribute. The frustration of watching passively as Guineans protested decades of unaccountable government confirmed it. While I loved journalism, could I spend an entire career in compulsory neutrality, when part of what drew me to news was my desire to influence it?
Coverage of the strikes transformed the question. The French BBC reported, “Protests in Dalaba, Pita, Kankan and Labe, resulting in one death.” The English BBC mentioned no death, and protests in Kindia and Zerekore, but not Kankan. Radio France Internationelle (RFI) offered still more conflicting accounts. One prized visit to Kankan’s only internet cafe revealed that googling “Guinea” summoned more pages on Guinea pigs than the country.
Strike coverage was so faulty or nonexistent that to reveal the facts accurately to the rich world was itself an act of advocacy, an essential precursor to socioeconomic change. A career in journalism could both advance humanitarianism and fulfill my passion for reporting.

Why International Relations:

“How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.”
-Karl Kraus, Austrian Journalist and Press Critic

Cape Verde’s economy appears to be weathering the global credit crisis and record oil prices well. Based largely on remittances (34% of GDP in 2007), foreign aid, and a growing tourism sector, it is less vulnerable to global credit trends. As recently as September, Cape Verdean GNI per capita was a robust $2,430 US, more than twice the average for sub-Saharan countries. At a glance, economic indicators are positive.
However, a closer look at the community level reveals a different picture. The cost of bread--and other foods that require energy to produce--has increased significantly. Power outages, due to oil shortages at the national electric company, envelope the capital in darkness periodically. Water, much of which comes from oil-guzzling desalinization plants, is cut frequently. “If it’s not water, it’s electricity. If it’s not electricity, it’s water,” one resident complains.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am uniquely positioned to know and document the impact of domestic and international forces on Cape Verdean lives. With a good grasp of local language and a mandate to integrate, I have enjoyed privileged access to the problems behind the World Bank figures, which I have documented through my blog, radio programs, short films, and published articles.
When reporters break domestic and international news, they too must include these stories for the macro-trends to have significance. How can one communicate the meaning of a higher gas price, without a bus driver’s worries, or the significance of scarce credit, without a small businessman’s struggles? For readers, macro-trends are meaningless without case studies. Peace Corps service has rendered this journalistic responsibility intuitive, which will serve me well as I pursue a career in international reporting.
Nevertheless, equally fundamental to good reporting is an understanding of the international political and economic framework that causes, contextualizes, and is ultimately affected by these daily struggles. What underlying factors provoked the high oil prices internationally that led to bus strikes locally? One bus driver’s struggle is poignant, but meaningless, if not couched in the broader issues that represent, cause, and are shaped by it.
I seek admission to garner a sound framework that extends around the world and into recent history; one that encapsulates markets and governments, as well as people, cultures and languages; one that will allow me to become a balanced, responsible, international reporter, with an emphasis on environmental, energy and social issues in Africa.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rewiring Pedro Badejo

It’s Saturday and there are no students in the courtyard of Pedro Badejo’s Vocational Education School. The sun is shining on a series of Greek arches---the final exams of the school’s stone masonry students--giving the school courtyard the odd feel of an ancient mosque. Andrew is standing beside a table saw talking to the wood shop professor.
The wood shop teacher flips the switch and the two excitedly watch as the saw begins to spin: Pedro Badejo’s technical school hasn’t had electricity in about a month, which hasn’t exactly made it easy for Andrew to begin teaching electrical wiring to his students. A strong wind blows through the courtyard and the saw slows, stops, and begins turning in the opposite direction. The two chuckle. No more power.
Andrew is a first year Peace Corps Volunteer, a recent electrical engineering graduate of Drexel University, and the son of Columbian immigrants, who wouldn’t have made it to the United States if it hadn’t been for the Peace Corps, Andrew says. “Like all other volunteers, I guess, [I joined because] I wanted to help out…I really saw the impact first hand of another generation of Peace Corps volunteers.”
His mother and father, Aura Maria Rosa Vernaza and Jorge Enrique Vernaza, immigrated to the United States in 1976, eventually settling in Mount Laurel, New Jersey to raise their two sons. His father learned English from an ESL volunteer at the Universidad de Valle in Bogotá where he studied engineering. His excellent English skills aided him in his embassy interview and subsequent transition to America. His mother, from the rural suburb of Tenza, watched as an irrigation volunteer helped her family greatly improve their farm’s efficiency. “We still go back there for vacation and eat the tomatoes. They’re really good,” says Andrew. “The reason the farm is still in the my family is probably because of that Peace Corps Volunteer…My family really understands the impact Peace Corps has had on their lives.”
Andrew joined the Peace Corps to give back, a decision he is still committed to, though his job isn’t always easy. “I’m not a teacher, I engineer things,” he says. As he glowingly describes “cool circuits” like burglar alarms, it’s easy to imagine he is happiest when working on his own experiments.
Teaching, he explains, “is so frustrating sometimes. Once we were doing this problem with the equation V=IR. Its like the most important equation of electricity.” He writes it, voltage equals resistance times current. “I gave the students simple numbers for resistance and voltage, but they couldn’t come up with the current. They hadn’t learned that you could divide both sides of the equation by the same number. A lot of them didn’t go to high school and don’t have basic math skills.”
Nevertheless, there are definite eureka moments.
A student once confessed to Andrew after class that she still didn’t understand an equation. “I just couldn’t explain it again, so I asked this other student if he could.” The student answered that he thought so.
“And then he just totally nailed it,” Andrew recalls. “He derived the entire equation perfectly, and the girl got it, and I hadn’t said a thing. I was like, ‘oh my god, I think I have just built capacity.’”
We leave the school and head down the road to the stadium where his students have a soccer match. Half-clad children run across the cobbled road, which narrows to a few feet in places where most of the stones are missing. Unpainted rectangular cement homes line the hilly, winding street that descends towards the expansive ocean, which eats up most of the horizon. A few women wash clothes in cement basins. Most people sit on stools and stone walls along the side of the street that still has a sliver of shade.
While Cape Verde is one of the most prosperous countries in West Africa, Pedro Badejo is among the poorest towns on the island of Santiago, with frequent power outages, high unemployment, and poor infrastructure. “It doesn’t make sense that the only school specializing in electricity is in this poor town with bad power.”
But Andrew is working on that. In the evenings he repairs broken street lamps with some of his motivated students. He is writing a proposal to install a wind turbine at the school that would generate power to offset the malfunctioning generator, and allow him to teach his students about renewable energies, an increasingly important field for a country with no petroleum resources and growing electricity demand.
For other challenges, Andrew turns to his parents. “I was complaining to my mom about not having running water. And she was like ‘you should do what we used to do—soak a towel in water and shower with that.”
Many of Andrew’s anecdotes about Columbia are funny or touching. But when he explains that drug-related violence claimed the lives of his father’s two brothers, you are reminded of the real suffering that Columbia’s infamous problems mean for its people.
And yet, knowing what his parents escaped from--and seeing how far they got—gives Andrew a clear sense of what he can achieve in Cape Verde. “The Peace Corps gives hope. If we weren’t here, they wouldn’t know their abilities. When I leave here they will say, ‘Oh I can do that.’”
When other volunteers second-guess the Peace Corps’ potential for making a difference, Andrew unthinkingly replies, “Volunteers have an impact. You probably won’t ever get to see it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one. Twenty years from now, someone may do something because of something you said and you will have no idea.”
We reach the stadium, a cement, walled-basketball court on the edge of town. Andrew’s students, the red shirted “biscuits”, file by and greet Andrew before the game starts.
“See that one, number eight?” He points to a player. “That’s the one I was telling you about, who explained the equation. He is super motivated. Sometimes he asks if we can go fix another lamppost and I am like, ‘how about tomorrow, ok?’”
Andrew leans forward as one of his student shoots on goal, and then continues.
“Maybe he won’t get to America. But he will get a good job, give a good life to his kids, and maybe they will be able to go.”