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Democracy matters in Guinea Bissau

polling station, Bissau

Witnessing the electoral process unfold in Guinea Bissau reminded me how important democracy is to those who need it most, and how unappreciated it is by those who have enjoyed it the longest. As if I needed a reminder, I turned out shortly past sunrise to one of several polling stations, where not only were the officials ready to go, but the people had turned out in droves and were waiting patiently and anxiously to vote.

I'd like to say I "protected" democracy, or "defended" it. In fact, I only observed it and somewhat amateurishly, at that. But I was impressed by how seriously everyone took their civic duties, and the vibration of urgency, anxiety, and importance, with which the Bissau Guineans carried out their responsibilities. I remember well another country whose 30% rate of participation bodes poorly for engaged, conscientious population that holds its government accountable.

Ever wonder what democracy looks like? Have a look at this picture. Wondering what it does not look like? Read my Dictator's Handbook.


Bissau on the Geba River

The wheels of our 20-seater aircraft clattered to a halt at the Oviedo airport, and we stepped out into the tropical heat. Guinea Bissau, and I was here because hell, when else would I have a chance? I reel at the absurdity of the situation, and yet Bissau was a wonderful surprise and I returned "home" a few days later charmed indeed.

Maybe it was the tropical greenery, a welcome cry from the sparse sterility of the Sahel: mangos and coconut palms towered above us and the entire city – a village of 400,000, really – was tufted with trees and plant-life. Stains on the concrete alluded to a humid life at riverside; deep concrete ditches along city streets evoked the torrents that would run through them when the rain clouds gathered and the sky blackened in the rainy season. I know those rains well from Nicaragua, and in fact the more I reflected on it, the more Guinea Bissau reminded me of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast: the greenery, the red soils, the lacustrine ambiance, the bright fabrics and dark skin. Continue reading "Bissau"

Cotonou in Six Seconds

I don't often publish things here that aren't my own, but I can't resist linking to this fantastic piece of stop-motion video, showing my old home — Cotonou, Benin — over the course of a day.

Cotonou in Motion (Africa) - Hyperlapse from Mayeul Akpovi on Vimeo.

A gorgeous bit of work by Mayeul Akpovi, whose last name shows he is probably Beninese himself. Awesome to see Africans taking pride in their home! And damned if it doesn't fill me with a strong nostalgia for the place I called home from 2006–2010. Who'd have thought?

2013, the Year of Usenet

Usenet license plate

2013 was the year of Usenet. For me, at least. And here's what I learned.

You might not even remember Usenet. What for my generation was a glimpse of the amazing power of the Internet isn't even known to the new generation of Web 2.0 youngsters: if this article is too long for you, this is the tl;dr conclusion: the Internet is generational, and the new generation isn't better, it's just different. Continue reading "2013, the Year of Usenet"

It's Movember!

It's Movember, folks, the month when we draw attention to prostate and testicular cancer. I'm joining a fundraiser campaign this year, and during the month of November will be raising funds to contribute to the scientific effort to find a remedy.

Interested in participating? Start growing that 'stache, gentlemen. Otherwise, check me out at my Movember Senegal Stache Team page and watch that '70s goodness grow! And kindly kick in a buck or two — our 21-person team is trying to raise a thousand bucks through the power of facial hair. Continue reading "It's Movember!"

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get here? No, really, what is the chain of unfortunate events that leads to a situation like this one?

Well, let's see what we've got: a tractor-trailer mired axle-deep in mud. No, that's not mud, it's human excrement. And it's spun its tires — which were too bald and deteriorated to be worth much anyway — until one of them flew to bits, and now that truck is going absolutely nowhere, and getting it out of that predicament is going to take a couple long hours of pretty nasty work.

How did we get here? Continue reading "How Did We Get Here?"

Market Day in Kolda

They say the marketplace is where the flavor of humanity rises to the surface. Walking through the vendors' stands in Kolda, heaped high with fruits and vegetables, it was easy to believe. Kolda, a commercial center in Senegal's central Casamance region, has long known the power of trade, and its merchants and artisans do business with Africans from throughout Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea Bissau.

Continue reading "Market Day in Kolda"

San Diego at Fifteen

Marillita, Kenia, Randy in San Diego

In April, 1998, after three intense months of training and cultural learning, I walked up the dusty path from the Condega-Yalí road to meet the Zavala family and begin two years of service teaching agronomy and soil conservation as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Zavalas would be my family for the next two years, offering me a corner of their home and all their love and support as I lived in their community.

Two years later it was time to leave the Peace Corps and do something else. But I never left the family. And fifteen years — almost to the day — after I first arrived, I returned with Ericka and the children to visit. And I experienced the same whirlwind of emotions as I did in 1998. Continue reading "San Diego at Fifteen"

El Remanso

Statuette, El Remanso

The hillsides were dry, but the little shade afforded by the almond and guanacaste trees threw into relief the concrete statues placed by the former owner: he'd reconstructed Nahuatl and Chorotega statues turned up in Ometepe and the Amerrisque mountains bearing tribute to Nicaragua's pre-Columbian history. But he'd done versions of the Buddha and a crucifix or two, as well, so the trail down to the water felt something like a parade-ground of historical dignitaries. Continue reading "El Remanso"


Diego with a Maracuja

When walking the cobbled streets of Jinotega, you can't help but feel you're at the edge of the world, with all kinds of unknowns in the hills to the north and east. In fact, hundreds of kilometers of wild, lush mountain country beckon to the east. East of the city the pavement stops, the roads turn rutted and bumpy, bus service is less frequent, and the accommodations dwindle ... But the immense department of Jinotega is comprised of hundreds of small communities and thousands of farmers who make their livelihood in the hills around them &emdash; including many who have barely ever traveled beyond this land in their lives. Continue reading "Jinotega"

A Bend in the River

Deckside, Rio San Juan

We were on the fantastic and historical San Juan River of Nicaragua, having some away time in Nicaragua's most overlooked corner. And when Diego saw his first river otter sunning himself on a log, and when Valentina caught her first fish, I realized actually we were doing alright. Morning started just after 5AM, when the first morning birds began to call and dawn broke, taking us from night to light in just a few minutes. The Howler Monkeys on the far shore grew silent for a while, and before long the early morning river traffic began to ply the smooth waters of windless morning. Continue reading "A Bend in the River"

The Rowers

Bravery is relative, as is adventure. In Indonesia, I climbed volcanic Mount Batur before dawn, and reached the summit feeling triumphant only to find a Balinese 10 year old had done the same, wearing flip-flops and carrying a case of soda on his head to sell to us. There's always a team braver than you and it's inspiring to meet those who coax you into discovery and adventure. In Senegal, that team was OAR Northwest.

Continue reading "The Rowers"