Friday, January 25, 2008

Drinking Corn and Other Wonders of Cape Verdean Cooking: An Interview with Joana Guincho*

“Things made of corn, they are all good foods,” Rekina explained, hushing her three grandchildren in the living room overlooking the valley of Ribeira Cuba. “Cuscus, cachupa are good,” she said, referring to the steamed corn bread and corn stew popular here. Camoka--the toasted corn flour enjoyed with milk as a breakfast beverage--and Sheren--ground corn served like rice top the startlingly varied list of corn-based favourites, which, combined with beans, rice and fish, constitute the local diet. But behind this seeming diversity is one unpleasant reality: the mortar and pestle. For cachupa, “if you are good at grinding, you can grind it in ten minutes,” she says. “If you are not, you will take a long time….Me, I can’t do it. With my arm, I will start and then fall down on the floor” she says laughing.
In her sixty-eight years in Serra Malagueta, Rekina has cooked for children at the local elementary school, as well as her own nine kids who now live in Assomada, Praia, France, and Portugal. Rekina, whose real name in Joana Guincho, currently fixes lunch for the Protected Areas project staff three days a week.
She first started cooking when she was about twelve. “Sometimes it would burn, sometimes it would turn out good, sometimes it would be a little off,” she says, “but it always worked out.” When it didn’t, her mother would show her again. “Did she hit you?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she responds, smiling. Some of Rekina’s specialities—like squeezing a bit of lemon on her cachupa, may have come from her mother.
But the diet has changed a lot in Serra Malagueta over the last few decades. “We didn’t have noodles, flour for bread, oil. Crackers came from far away…Even rice came in small quantities. Poor people could only eat rice during festas.” Today, these imported foods are essential supplements to the insufficient corn and bean harvest: Cape Verde produces only about 20% of its food, even though 80% of its population are employed in agriculture.
In the past, when rain was more abundant, local farms were able to grow a wider variety of crops and maintain more animals. “Almost everyone had animals,” she says, “cows, chickens, goats…We didn’t need oil, we had animal fat,” she mentioned, in addition to eggs and milk. At the same time, “we had lots more sweet potatoes, and manioc. We even made cuscus out of manioc. Now it costs 360 escudos per kilo.” This greater abundance and variety of produce flavored the Feijoadas (meat-bean stew) and cachupas of the past.
These local dishes are what she prepares for the Serra Malagueta staff three times a week. Not long ago she couldn’t have imagined serving local dishes to foreigners; “Ze [the local coordinator] and Iacopo [an international volunteer] visited me one day and asked me to make them lunch. I begged their pardon, because I didn’t have anything. But he said to just prepare cachupa, feijão, congo [beans]…Now I think its good when foreigners like you come. You get accustomed to our food. And now I don’t think it’s strange to prepare a cachupa, a beans, sweet potato for you.”
It is in this spirit that she has contributed her recipes to this book, a careful compilation of Serra Malagueta’s favourite dishes. Enjoy them while you are here and after you have left.
*Written for Serra Malagueta Cookbook

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Good Will and Nothing Else? Comments on Too Many Innocents Abroad

I cornered a current volunteer named Amanda* at PC Guinea’s welcome party. Decked out in one of those sundresses that combine African fabrics with American immodesty, she regaled us newbies with fabulous tales of diarrhea, gens d’armes encounters and parties.
“Do you feel like you have an impact?” I asked.
She looked at the floor like she didn’t want to lie, then raised her beer a little and smiled.
“You’ll have a really great time.”
* * *
Robert Strauss, Cameroon’s former Country Director, eloquently criticized the Peace Corps in a New York Times Op/ed on Jan 9th:

“…Too often these young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century….In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school.”

As an “Agroforestry Volunteer” who barely even puttered before arriving in country, I felt uneasy about this very issue. How could I give agricultural advice to a community of lifetime farmers? Perhaps they had not yet discovered the virtues of watering? If not, could anything other than arrogance or apathy drive an organization, ostensibly committed to development, to send me there to suggest such a thing? When, one month in, I uprooted twenty healthy teak seedlings--that would look like weeds to any liberal arts major--my uneasiness and Strauss’s point were confirmed.
Yet his point is overstated. The notion that youth and inexperience preclude effectiveness is based on a lamentably untrue assumption: that the world is far more developed than it was in 1961. “Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates.” Unfortunately, in Guinea, where literacy is estimated at 30%, a college degree is a powerful development tool: critical thinking skills and the scientific method alone make you an asset. Plus, we can compensate somewhat for our lack of expertise through our information access—the fact that we can pay for and use Internet. Google knows what a Teak seedling looks like, even if I don’t.
Another argument is simple practicality. Old professionals would trump young Googlers for skills, making for a more effective Peace Corps. But how many well-paid adults want to take bucket showers and pooh in a hole for two years? At least in the countries that need us most, perhaps only rookies will consent to the conditions.
If we must rely mostly on tenderfoots for our development staff, skills must be enhanced in other ways:

1) More Selective Admissions: As Strauss notes, hard skills, not just good will and interest, should be, but aren’t, requirements for acceptance. “The name of the game has been getting volunteers into the field, qualified or not….What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates — as the top professional schools do…”

2) More Rigorous Training:the 9-12 week training at the beginning of service should teach highly specific, technical, skills tailored to the country’s stated needs. Methodology should be hands-on and there should be tests and consequences for bad performance, like a real school or job. Currently, vague tech sessions get lost amid a barrage of culture, language, health and security info.

Peace Corps effectiveness requires other organization changes, as well:
3) Performance-related incentives and disincentives—“Men are not angels,” Madison writes in Federalist # 51. Neither are volunteers. In keeping with our beloved capitalist doctrine, we must use rewards and consequences to encourage good work. Currently, lackluster volunteers and overachievers get the same pay, privileges, and (lack of) chances for advancement. Media recognition, invitations to relevant conferences, or some sort of promotion could serve to motivate capable volunteer and pressure slackers.

4) Partnerships with big NGO’s: Peace Corps volunteers are never going to have technical expertise or funding comparable to big NGO’s. We do, however, offer the best grasp of local language and culture, because one of Peace Corps’ unique doctrines is that we live, not just with, but at, the level of those we serve. That makes us ideal local point men for busy, large-scale development projects. Such partnerships would also give tangible jobs to the many bright, motivated volunteers who achieve little for lack of job structure.

5) Impact Evaluation: “The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth,” Strauss notes. Quantifying impact in development is hard, but any organization serious about achieving its goals must try. “Perhaps…the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries.”

* * *
If Strauss were right, and an objective assessment revealed that volunteers generate goodwill and/or broaden their own horizons while achieving no impact, Peace Corps would still be accomplishing two thirds of its goals:

1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
2) Helping promote a better understanding by Americans of other peoples.
3) Helping promote a better understanding by other peoples of Americans.

In other words, Peace Corps plainly acknowledges something that Strauss forgets: that saving the poor is only part of the mission. Besides ineffective development workers, we are a cheap diplomatic corps (transmitting happy US thoughts to the poor Muslim countries that might hate us) and a Democratic campaign rally (exposing the human side of poor would-be immigrants to young Americans). That’s not bad for 300 million dollars—half the cost of the Army’s recruiting office. As Senator Christopher Dod, a former Volunteer writes:

Every American of good will we send abroad is another chance to make America known to a world that often fears and suspects us. And every American who returns from that service is a gift: a citizen who strengthens us with firsthand knowledge of the world.

With taxpayer dollar ever more tightly stretched, these intangible goals may still seem trivial. But watching Amanda sob as she kissed her sobbing host mom goodbye, I personally felt how broad and amorphous the notion of “impact” can be.

*I changed her name to remain popular
See Strauss's Article

Monday, January 14, 2008

Save Trees, Save Money, and Lose the Waist-line: Maria’s Sawdust Stove

It is the third day of Assomada’s famous “festa da Santa Catarina,” and there is a large goat strung up in Maria’s courtyard. American rap music blasts from her empty restaurant. A duck, its young, and a small pig amble by Maria’s girls, who are hacking up the meat. “Goat’s meat and ground corn….Its going to be a good party,” she says, watching as Nin, her daughter-in-law breaks its right leg with a small axe.
But more customers for the holiday doesn’t mean a steady source of income. “Business is slow, and I don’t have any money,” says the 46-year-old mother of two. High cooking fuel costs and few alternatives make her situation even more difficult.
Wood, the first option, is a scarce commodity in Cape Verde’s arid, over-harvests savannahs. Inhaling wood fumes from the inefficient traditional three stone stoves can cause serious health problems, in addition to environmental damage. Wood cooks slowly. However, it is cheap or free and is supposed to produce yummy food.
Gas, the more usual choice in urban areas like Assomada, burns clean and cooks quickly. But prices are prohibitively high for some families: around 1,700 escudos per 12 kg tank, or a roughly 20 dollar purchase more than once a month. Food cooked on gas stoves is not supposed to be as yummy, either.
Maria has an innovative solution. “I have a stove that my friend taught me how to use…that saves me a lot of gas” Her stove, which requires three large sticks, one six dollar metal canister, and sawdust from the carpenter next door, allows her to cook virtually for free. She fills the metal canister with sawdust, packing it down compactly with one stick and a little water. The other two sticks are positions in a L shape through the center to create a temporary chimney. She lights it with a match and some paper, and can cook a large elaborate goat dish and heat bathwaterfor the family for a net fuel cost of zero.
The price isn’t the only benefit. “It cooks quicker than a gas stove…It doesn’t produce smoke…and the food is tastier than with gas.” Nin, after doing most of the butchering, cooking, and serving customers, is certainly ready to sample it. She places a large pot of water on the still-steady flames. “This is to heat water so I can take a bath…now lets go clear their plates so we can eat.”


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Maio: Ohio with an "M"?

“So, I got in!” I said the day my transfer came through for Cape Verde. “I can’t believe I am going to ditch you guys for an island paradise.”
The only Guinea Volunteer who had been to Cape Verde glanced at me with palpable gravitas.
“You know, Alex….”
“There is…
“…one ugly island.”
“Yeah. Maio.”
Maio. Maio is Portuguese for May, named as such because it was spotted on May 1st,1460. May day: poles and ribbons and virgins. Julie Andrews singing about “the lusty month,” and all the hot love scenes with Lancelot that that might conjure up. These are not things that bring to mind ugly islands. Clearly this was just another volunteer with preemptive jealousy of my nascent caramel tan. That’s ok. She would have lots of character building experiences in her hut that would teach her to love her pasty complexion.
But perhaps she wasn’t so unspeakably jealous: Maio’s interior, when I visited, looked more like an overgrown parking lot, in places, than an ocean idyll. Possibly an extension of the African mainland, the island’s flat, rocky 268 square kilometer expanse is covered in sparse shrubs, reforested acacia, some coconut palms and pebbles of varying shades of brown and black. One virtually bald mountain, Monte Penoso (437m), shoots unimpressively out of the deforested savannah, flanked by sections of well built stone walls. The walls seem to indicate a not so distant past in which something—animals—was kept from eating something—crops. But today flora and fauna is decidedly puny: the moon may rival Maio for biodiversity.

And yet Maio’s coast is arguably the loveliest Cape Verde has to offer. Pastel blue and green waves roll up on spotless white and black sand beaches. The least developed of the country’s beach islands (over Sal and Boa Vista), virtually no trash or tourists mar the beauty, and sand abounds because it has not been sold off for construction. Plodding around the delightful ocean-side patch of sand dunes fulfills all your Laurence of Arabia fantasies. Learning how the historic salt flats are mined is engaging, and may explain why Maio’s cachupa (the national dish) is tastier here. Throw in the charming, reasonably equipped port town, Vila do Maio, and its friendly residents and you have the makings of a charming beachside getaway.
But the aridness of the interior reflects the daunting water problems that call into question whether Maio can support its own population, much less a tourist one. In the days of greater rainfall and lesser human pressures, underground sources sufficed. Now wells are drying up and yielding salty water. Two desalinization plants distill up to 4000 liters of seawater into potable water every day, supplying Vila do Maio and outlying communities. Another one under construction will supply Figueira, the Island’s only vegetable farm, now that Mount Penoso’s deep sources are drying up too. That’s well and good for the easterly areas, but what about everyone else?
Calheta, 11 kilometers west of Vila do Maio, is everyone else, a quiet town, off the guidebooks. Its wells are virtually dry. It used to rely on water piped in from Mount Penoso, but competition from Figueira for its dwindling supply precludes this as a long-term solution. Its only option currently is the veritable sloppy seconds: now that Vila do Maio is completely served with desalinated water, Calhetans get Vila do Maio’s well water.
“Calheta needs clean water. People get sick to their stomachs when they drink this water,” Ricardinha, a Calheta school teacher says. “You would think that being so close to Praia would give us an advantage in these types of issues,” she adds, referring to the 23 kilometer, two hour boat ride to Praia. “But the government forgets about us.”
Water problems damage the economy, as well. Maio, historically a supplementary grazing land for wealthy Santiago landowners, is famous for its meat, milk, and cheese. No rain means less fodder, hungrier cows and goats, and the deterioration of this important local industry. “What do you do if you don’t have enough plants to feed your animals,” I asked one local. “You kill them,” he said simply.
The animals that do remain mostly eat the stunted corn and bean plants. While Maio was never a breadbasket, these staples used to offset food imports, back when the rains were better. Now these crops, still planted but rarely growing to maturity, go almost exclusively for fodder, while pricey food imports from Praia supply nearly 100% of local demand. Other industries that don’t depend on rainfall---fishing and salt production—are sustainable, but only support a few. Maio’s youth emigrate to Praia, Holland, Portugal, to send back the critical remittances that meet the high cost of living on this island. Keeping them here may require turning this island into the tourist destination that does conjure up may poles and virgins.
* * *
But can Maio really draw tourists, despite its arid interior?
At a British-owned café in Vila do Maio, “stir fry” is scrawled in English on the menu a few lines down from the local “churrasco” (and the mysterious entry “crack” which we just can’t figure out). An Italian resident, mustering impressive Creole, greets the waiter who has just served us the English breakfast. Locals and foreigners walk by at a pace that evokes permanent vacation, while cars speed in from the port. They loop back enough times to demystify the false sense of hurry. A group of Cape Verdean men lean against the beachside wall, watching the cars loop. A few meters up several Italian men do the same.
This could work. This quiet spirit of unending vacation could agree with many foreigners, whose investment would boost the economy and help finance badly needed infrastructure improvements. And perhaps “May” is, after all, the perfect metaphor for this pleasant atmosphere, virgins and may poles or not.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Fish for Christmas in Rincao

“Why are fishing towns here always dirtier?” I asked a Cape Verdean Peace Corps staffer. “Are they poorer?”
“Fishermen don’t care about the appearance of their homes like farmers do,” he said. “It’s always been like this.”
Rincão, Mike’s fishing town, embodies the stereotype: Waves crash against the black basalt rocks littered with human feces. There is no sand on the wide beach that holds several wood fishing boats because people have sold it. Climbing the trash-strewn hill up from the ocean, you see rows of unfinished cement houses, shaped like boxcars, which blend into the matching grey rock beneath them. Rusted bent wires jut out of the roofs where people plan on building a second story. Construction is unlikely and maybe unnecessary; the roofs are perfect for drying corn, washing and hanging out laundry, and chatting with the neighbors.
Mike’s balcony sits a bit higher than the neighbors’ roofs. From its railing, you can sea the ocean, absurdly lovely above the grey unfinished homes. Beyond the ocean, is the mammoth silhouette of a black cone—the volcanic island of Fogo, even more incongruously magnificent.
Mike is not here. He is looking for fish for dinner. It’s harder than usual because its Christmas and everyone in Rincão is eating meat tonight. He walks by once with a child strapped across his chest. He walks back a little later with the same child strapped across the other shoulder and two more in tow.
A girl with a massive Tupperware of pasteis on her head stops in front of him. “Mike, what are you going to give me for Christmas?”
“Want one of these?” he says, throwing the child towards her. She laughs. The kid screams with delight.
Mike doesn’t have his notebook with him. Usually he does when he goes out. It’s for writing new words he hears to improve his Creole, but he doesn’t write much now, because his language is excellent. “This is all I do,” he says. “I really do nothing.”
He is not exaggerating. Each day, after swimming and/or soccer and/or a jog, he sits in different parts of town and talks to people. One day he is down by the local bar where the half drunk men tease him about getting a local girlfriend. Most days he is in the eating fresquinhas with a group of kids or talking to the vendor-women about the price of transport to Assomada. Unlike most volunteers he rarely goes to parties with other Americans, or even takes private time at home to read or write.
“I haven’t read in so long.” Mike says, as I leaf through his books. “Maybe I should, I must be getting so stupid.” He looks off thoughtfully for a moment. “It’s funny, you know, ‘cause I used to study so much.” He was a physics major at the University of Wisconsin, and later worked at the University of Texas, Austin. In both places he published original research.
Studying doesn’t further his current goal: “I just want to know how people think; understand the limitations and the benefits of thinking like them.”
To know how people think you need to integrate: Is integration really possible? “Do they ever really forget you are white, American, different?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they totally forget I am different,” He says adamantly. “Its just the money. If I weren’t richer than them, they would totally forget.”
At the beginning especially, the money issue was hard, he says. People would demand gifts and money and get angry when he refused. Kids would steal stuff. Even now, food items sometimes go missing when he has people over for dinner.
Mike doesn’t see it as malicious, or personal, though. “Its really just that here richer people are expected to give stuff out. Its part of the culture.” Now when he goes out, he brings only change, and keeps a coin in each pocket, so it won’t clang.
Although he’s loath to talk about it, Mike does take advantage of his integration to do development work. He taught a daily English class despite poor attendance, he is working on a business skills training, and he compiled a concise Creole manual for new volunteers. When an American NGO funded an elaborate irrigation project, installing a huge water tank fed by a distant spring, Mike tried to mobilize people to take advantage of it: they needed to buy tubing on credit to install drip irrigation systems to hook up to the water tank. With this free water, they could sustain year-round vegetable gardens that--in a community that subsists on fish and imported rice-- could fetch a good price locally and improve nutrition. So far, few people have jumped at the opportunity.
Experiences like these confirm Mike’s view on development; to succeed, projects require a substantial contribution on the part of the beneficiaries. Just that morning, a car-full of Christmas presents came down from the local government for Rincão’s kids. Mike was visibly disappointed. “They get so many presents, so many handouts, that it’s really hard to convince people to work.”
“So you think it undermines your projects here?” I asked.
He nodded. “I don’t even think they should even have electricity,” he said, explaining that the community has recently been electrified through a completely subsidized generator-run system. “They would kill me if they knew I said that, but its true. Handouts make sustainable development a lot harder.”
Mike doesn’t have any illusions about the marketability of the knowledge he has gained in Rincão. “It is probably the most useless skill ever,” he says, smiling.
If he is right, it’s the large NGO’s and communities like Rincão that stand to lose. Successful development projects do require the things that most NGO’s have in spades: big money, skilled technicians, structure, deadlines, and incentives for employee excellence. But they also depend on what the Peace Corps may have in spades: People like Mike: integrated enough to know what locals think, and yet able to communicate effectively with project heads.
Sure, a local with this skill set would be the ideal community liaison. But with their unique knowledge derived from their unique community intimacy, plus decent educational backgrounds, Volunteers should not be overlooked as potentially vital point men in projects like the irrigation system.
A little while later, Mike comes back with two bright orange, frighteningly-fanged Galopa. I have told him I don’t know how to prepare fish. “Here, come cut this one,” he says, pulling two buckets and two knives into the light outside his host family’s house. “I mean you don’t have to. But if I were you, I would want to learn.”