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.

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

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