As Assistant Coordinator of AVN Senegal I am in charge of research and development on training and technical issues and co-manage deployment in the field while assisting with strategy and networking.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Oven: V2

The Baking Continues

My latest weekend project has been building a clay oven at my new house. It's been an ongoing process for the last month, with help from many friends. I've compiled the photos and condensed them into a singe post here.

Similar to the one I made out at my garden back in Fatick, but this one sports a number of impressive upgrades.

 Foundation of Large Rocks plus an insulating layer of wine bottles to block heat from dissipating downwards from oven.

 Specialized Oven Bricks to hold heat and roast pizza crusts to a golden  hue. Purchased direct from the manufacturer.

 Sand mold covered in paper to form interior space of oven (sand is later excavated and paper burns off)

 Initial Thermal Layer (~4inch) of clay and sand mix to hold heat and radiate it back

 Insulating Layer--another 4 inches of clay and sand plus loads of straw to keep heat from escaping outwards

Door cut out, sand removed. Note specially designed Work Shelf on the right for maximized efficiency

Final product with fresh cow manure+sand+clay+wood ash coating. And creepy clay face to ward away bad spirits that may try to meddle with my food while baking.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Out of the Peace Corps

Completion of Service

I'm now officially an "RPCV"--Returned Peace Corps Volunteer--despite the fact that I have not actually "returned" anywhere. In fact I'm staying in my host country for the next two years--and continuing to write this blog.

Many Peace Corps volunteers struggle with readjustment when they return. Physically, emotionally, and financially, going back to the US after two years in another country can be stressful. So I was in no hurry to move back, and instead I scored a job here--putting off the inevitable culture-shock for another two years. My new job really has a number of attractive qualities, beyond simply allowing me to avoid the inconvenience of re-assimilating into America.

The New Job

Working for the Association la Voute Nubienne (AVN) has thrown me into a leadership position in a top-tier development NGO that offers opportunities and challenges in equal measure. I've had to learn on the fly and in the field what one should probably spend months or even years studying. But at least I have a foundation to rely on; a solid education, a strong base of technical know-how, and a firm understanding of local language and culture.

My colleagues and me--the AVN Senegal team. Fanny Dupuis (French; Coordninator AVN Senegal), Ndiame Fall and Khady Ly (Senegalese; Extension Agents) and me (American; Assistant coordinator). 

AVN is the lead NGO in sub-saharan Africa targeting the increasingly serious problem of housing. The reality is this: desertification, deforestation, an exploding population, and the perceived "backwardness" of mud huts render traditional wood-and-thatch roofed homes increasingly less tenable. People turn to cement, re-bar, and sheet-metal as a quick fix. These buildings have become the new standard in many regions. Yet the materials are costly--for the homebuilder and for the environment. Furthermore the product is poorly adapted to the dry, hot, windy Sahel region. The blistering heat bakes thin cement walls and metal roofs, roasting the hapless inhabitants. Raging winds rip the flimsy tin roofs completely off, and the relentless rain leaks through the ubiquitous gaps left by wind, rust, and time. 

A better solution exists. Hailing from 1300 bc in Northern Egypt the Nubian Arch technique provides an elegant solution to the problem of building stable roofs entirely out of earth bricks. Due to the perfect arched shape of the vaulted ceiling the immense weight of bricks above only strengthens the structure, and can even support a second story. The co-founders of AVN, two masons from France and Burkina Faso, have revived the Nubian Arch technique with a simplified, codified system that is easy to teach and quick to apply.

A picture of the inside of a Nubian Arch home near where I live. Here only the crude structural work is done, the finishing stages are not yet completed

Here is a finished Nubian Arch house--and also the office where I work.* The second story is my room.

My work spans a wide range of duties, from designing and testing new types of adobe bricks to networking with potential international partners. Most of my time and energy is spent planning and carrying out field-work. This means trips out into the country to publicize Nubian Arch architecture, finding clients who want a new home and recruiting masons wanting to learn a new trade. The objective is to build--from the ground up--a market for Nubian Arch homes with both demand (residents) and supply (masons). Ideally the program is done in 15-20 years when the market is self-sustaining. Nubian Arch homes will be a well-known alternative to mud and thatch huts or cement and tin-roof buildings and a steady supply of local Nubian Arch masons will be present to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for these comfortable, durable, beautiful homes.

Our team with a group of Senegalese masons studying Nubian Arch construction

Showing photos and discussing Nubian Arch homes with locals during a mission to a village 100k north of our HQ

A colleague and me fielding questions after our presentation in Toubacouta, near where I was a Peace Corps volunteer**
The team at work at our HQ in Thies. 

While I'm kept quite busy with a mix of office and field work during the week I enjoy the luxury of weekends at my new job. I've come up with several projects to keep me engaged and found a puppy (from near my village) and a kitten (from a forgotten cistern hole behind my house) to liven up my home.

My dog Safa and cat Nina. Despite stereotypes of their respective species they get along well, Safa going easy most of the time. I foresee a shift in the power dynamic, however, when Nina puts on some muscle and still applies her teeth and claws to Safa's face with the same uninhibited ferocity she wields now.

I miss my expansive garden next to the stream back in village so started some cucumber, watermelon, beets, turnips, and herbs here. After successive attempts to dissuade Safa from digging in the garden beds I resorted to erecting a rock wall which finally proved effective. Otherwise she is an asset to the operation, having developed a taste for grasshoppers along with a sadistic desire to dismember them before dining.


*In the lower left of this photo you can see Safa as a tiny puppy, only 5-6 weeks old when I brought her here

**We often get at least one skeptic in the audience who needs thorough convincing that these building are real and sturdy and made without re-bar, concrete, or a support scaffolding. Hence our expressive hand gestures clearly demonstrating the phenomenon of arches spreading vertical force onto load-bearing walls.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Where the warthogs roam

Wrapping up the Nubian Arch house before the rains

 The main vault is done. Now all that's left is to continue building the side walls up and brick in the intervening space between walls and roof until it has a level surface on top. Then it will need to be weather-proofed with mixtures of clay, sand, and cow dung.

 The cement footing around the base is the first time I've used any cement on the house: 4 bags. It will help guarantee that rainwater doesn't get anywhere near my foundation.

The last day of work as we finished up the main vault. Inside is incredibly comfortable, cool and breezy despite the heat. I've set my hammock up inside to take advantage of the space and spend my down time there with a good book.

Adventures in the South of Senegal

 Waterfall at Ingle. Some say the most beautiful in all of Senegal.

 Later in the rainy season the entire cliff transforms into a sheet of falling water, I was there a bit early

 Hiking up to the plateau above the waterfall I found a hidden jungle full of giant trees, fruits, and angry baboons

 Views from the top of the waterfall

 This precipice offered excellent views but was also the place where I narrowly avoided a horrific death. As I crossed the plain above the waterfall hoping to reach the other side and descend back down I was cut off by a troupe of 30-40 baboons which came loping across the rock-strewn grass barking viciously. They then advanced on me quickly, climbing up trees and jumping up and down barking to try and scare me off. Evidently I was in the off-limits zone of baboon territory. I retreated back the way I came, to the edge where I had taken this photo--thinking that if all else fails and I am buried in a mass of ripping limbs and tearing fangs I could roll off the edge and take my chances with the rocky water below.

It did not come to this. After giving up ground I decided to fight back. I found two sturdy bamboo sticks and began marching back towards baboon territory, beating the sticks to make noise and drive them away. It worked, and my path to the other side was clear but for their copious droppings.

 After the waterfalls I biked to the SE of Senegal to find the highest point in the country--"The Spires"--the ridge of ridge in the distance of this photo

 During my travels I happened upon several troops of baboons but none so scary as the ones that threatened me at the waterfall. At one point while biking the road I startled a group of warthogs, which instead of bolting for cover decided to run with me down the road. For a solid 50m I "rode with the hogs" down the road, sharing a sense of solidarity with the curved-tusked beasts before they veered off into the bush.

I camped out up on the rocks for a day and a night. Monkeys, marmots, and chimpanzees kept me company. Luckily I found plenty of wild figs and other fruits to diversify my diet of sardines and cookies.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Earth, Fire, and Mangos

Dramatic developments in the bush

Desert Castle

Lately I've been pulling 14 hour days in a furious attempt to finish my new brick home before the rains come. This type of building is based on ancient adobe arch construction used in Africa thousands of years ago. Lately its been making a bit a of a resurgence in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal (check out this amazing website: Called "La Voute Nubienne" or "Nubian Arch" construction, these houses are a spectacular way to use available resources to create a building truly tailored to its environment.

Digging the foundation with the expert guidance of my brother Michael who flew all the way to Senegal to play in the sand with me. We also biked, ran, climbed, camped and cooked. Those things were almost as fun as the digging.

Filling the foundation with a combination of sand, clay, and rocks. The trenches were 75cm wide and 60cm deep.

Baby goat wrangling. A riveting game of skill to wile away the single five minute break I grant my employees. No unions here. Michael and I were joined here my Matthew, uniting all three brothers in a small Senegalese village where we dug holes, made bricks, and caused small goats to bleat madly in sheer panic when seized by white men in funny clothes.

The final layer of the foundation! Unfortunately the foundation took so long to dig and fill that both my brothers had come and gone before it was complete. We did have loads of fun outside the work-site though. And built many of the bricks that were to soon comprise the walls and vaults.

Bricking. The small bricks I'm making in the foreground are for the arches. The large ones stacked in the background are for the walls.

One of my friends helping me crank out more bricks. I've calculated that my house requires 2,500 large bricks and 5,000 small bricks. As of writing this I am about two-thirds of the way there. I have been building bricks for three months.

Building this new type of home in my village is meant to be a “technology transfer” project—essentially introducing a new idea, skill or process to a benefit a community. This is the crux of the Peace Corps approach and drives the work that other volunteers and I do in forestry and agriculture. I became obsessed with these Nubienne Arch buildings, however, and decided to build my own in my village, teaching any interested individuals as I go and hopefully ending up with a spectacle that will draw people from the whole region to come see and eventually emulate.

Two layers of bricks laid. Each layer covering all four walls is about 110 bricks. That's a giant mango tree in the background. One of the most rewarding activities is to hurl sticks into the upper reaches to knock free ripe mangos and feast on their juicy sweet goodness after a hard morning of work.

Six layers. The triangles are air-vents I built into the lower walls to provide circulation.

Stretching a string line. Building is slow work since I'm new to being a mason and err on the side of caution to make sure my building is sound

Sure helps when I get workers. This is my grandfather Aji who owns the land I'm building on (and therefore will inherit the house when I leave). The two guys mortaring bricks are Ass and Hussainu, his nephews. Grandpa Aji is pretty excited about the house. So is the rest of my family. Shoot, everyone in my village likes it. It's an imposing building and gets quite a lot of attention. People love to speculate about it with mixes of fascination, curiosity, dubiousness, and support.

Nubienne Arch homes are not so divorced from agroforestry after all. They are built entirely with local. sustainable materials (clay, sand, rocks) and therefore have much less environmental impact than current homebuilding strategies (which include lumber and/or cement). Add to this list durability, (can stand over 100 years) safety, (impervious to fire), thermoregulation (thick adobe walls keep the interior cool during the day and warm during chill nights), and thrift (does not require cement or metal roofing, which are often huge financial burdens on cash-poor families trying to build homes). It’s also insanely cool to live in what feels like a mini castle. 

10 layers of bricks (170cm) and the first arch is up

Second and third arches. And my little niece who came to check out the fortress and got stranded, having hung out with me until the sun rose high and she was unable to walk barefoot over the fiery sand back home. I gave her a ride back in the wheelbarrow

Current photo, still have a lot of arches to build...

Inside shot, the cable guide marks the center of the radius of the ceiling, therefore the window arches much fit that contour on the inside to match the arc of the ceiling.

Most amazing natural lounge chair I've seen. It was going to be turned into charcoal but I realized its potential. When I asked my friend if I could have this particular cut of his tree he said sure, why. I explained animatedly to him it was the perfect chair. He smiled and nodded. Sensing he did not share my conviction I urged him to try it out. He hesitantly clambered onto the back of it with his feet on the seat. When I began laughing at him and told him that's not the proper way to sit in a bucket seat he proceeded to turn around and contort his legs over the back while sliding his shoulders onto the seat. I was hysterical at this point but calmed down enough to model the above pictured pose.


I declared war against the insects invading the mud hut I built at my garden. The termites had completely infested the wood in my roof, and more recently hornets had built a plethora of nests in the rafters. Moths also flocked inside, attracted by the cool shady space. Retaliation was swift and brutal. I filled the inside from floor to ceiling with brush and lit it on fire. The resulting conflagration immolated the interior of my hut and drove me a full twenty feet from the entrance. All life was expunged. 

The inner fury

I kept the trees out back well-wetted to make sure I didn't burn down the farm. The hut fired surprisingly well, like a giant version of my clay oven, giving rise to the name of the baking branch of my multi-faceted company here in Senegal: Burning House Bakery

Blaze striking a statuesque pose next to the oven. Probably hoping for handouts

The three brothers at work in the Burning House Bakery, the menu that day was pizzas and brownies

Traditional red-sauce and not-so-traditional pesto--I ground the fresh basil in my mouth. Unconventionally delicious. (trademark slogan of Burning House Bakery. All rights reserved)

Moist and velvety Betty Crocker brownies

Golden treasures

Mango season is a magical time, making the heat dust and agony of the hot season all worthwhile. Hunting your own mangos is incredibly rewarding--capturing the elusive perfectly ripened mangos sheltered away at the tops of the trees, out of range of the gaggles of rock throwing children and pole-wielding women. It is a challenge that makes the reward all the sweeter.

This was my finest catch, two mangos with one stone