Dumsor, Dumsor

This post has 1223 words. It is about a 6 minute, 6 second read.

“Dumsor” is literally “off-on” and refers to the “scheduled” load shedding that has been instituted to help Ghana “temporarily” manage a perfect storm of issues related to energy generation and distribution. The roots of the crisis go deep, and layer after layer of technical, social, political, geopolitical turmoil have created a situation that will take years to fully resolve.

The web of interrelated issues includes dropping oil prices, volatile foreign exchange, poor management and maintenance of the grid infrastructure, aging equipment, the rupturing of the West African gas pipeline near Takoradi, low water levels in the two main hydroelectric reservoirs, rapidly increasing year-on-year demand, and energy theft. The government owes money to the distribution company, Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), which owes money to the generating authority, Volta River Authority (VRA), which owes money to the Ghana Natural Gas Company which runs the Atuabo Gas Processing Plant, and owes money to the West African Pipeline Co, which ships the natural gas from Nigeria. The ECG has kept electricity prices low for the past several decades for social and political reasons, but still has not been able to collect about $1.6billion from the government. Meanwhile, installed generating capacity has struggled to keep up with rapidly growing demand.

One would think this crisis would be a golden opportunity to usher in a new era of renewable energy sources, distributed micro-generation, and the de-bureaucratizing and depoliticizing of the electricity system, but this does not appear to be the case. Most Ghanaians who can afford to, have bought gas or diesel generators to supplement the variable grid power. This is mainly thought of as a last ditch, temporary measure to cope with the situation for a few more months until the crisis subsides. As with people everywhere, Ghanaian’s appetite for making the long-term, capital intensive decision to install a solar power system is fairly low. It is not that people do not understand the advantages of doing so, but when you are scrapping together just enough cash to eat and pay the rest of the bills, it is much easier just to buy a few litres of petrol at a time and try to get by.

Even on a large scale, the general direction Ghana has taken is to double-down on natural gas, light crude and other non-renewable sources. These are proven, low-risk technologies that are relatively cheap and dependable. There are bright spots and small initiatives to convert portions of the supply to renewable sources, but so far there is no evidence of a concerted effort to make a long-term change. The international community has not done much to promote or support a shift in energy policy as a whole and seems to be content with the status quo. Turkey is sending over two 225MW Karpowerships, (offshore power barges), to supplement generation which should be complete in the next month or so. Meanwhile, USAID is promoting its Gas Action Plan and Gas Master Plan to encourage more domestic production of natural gas, as well as pushing for the privatization of the ECG.

http://www.myjoyonline.com/business/2015/June-8th/karpowership-to-share-ground-breaking-ghana-project-at-african-energy-forum.php

http://www.myjoyonline.com/business/2015/June-8th/karpowership-to-share-ground-breaking-ghana-project-at-african-energy-forum.php

 

The Dumsor Report, released on August 6, is a great, data-backed analysis of the current electricity crisis, breaking down Dum and Sor for different neighbourhoods across Accra. It is clear from the data that this issue goes so much deeper than just scarcity or the logistical hurdles of electricity distribution. It touches on inequality, the allocation of a scarce basic resource, the abuses of public institutions for personal gain, and the way people relate to and think about energy. As they say in the report, “Do you have lights?” has replaced “Hello” in the Ghanaian vernacular and electricity is discussed with the same aura and wonder as the weather.

https://www.facebook.com/dumsorreport

https://www.facebook.com/dumsorreport

 

These issues permeate and bear upon the entire psyche of the country, undermining not only direct economic activity but also social and cultural norms and practices. The draining psychological effect of living under the Democlesian sword of unpredictable blackouts is hard for an outsider to comprehend. The exuberant shouts of joy in the streets when the lights turn on, the groans and expletives when it unexpectedly turns back off, the insipid, creeping fear and guilt of knowing that you’ve-had-lights-for-so-long-now-that-something-surely-must-be-wrong-and-that-your-good-fortune-can-only-mean-you-will-be-rewarded-with-an-extended-outage, take their toll in surprising ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her New York Times piece about the situation in Nigeria, “I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered. What greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn?” Ghanaian MC, Sarkodie, says in his song Dumsor, “I think we deserve a break down and we want to understand what’s happening. What are you guys doing?” Dumsor has also spawned Youtube videos, a new Wikipedia article, a special dumsor flash light app for Android, dances, vigils, and endless political bickering between the country’s two main political parties.

This issue represents an example of something that I’ve seen repeated over and over again: a complex development issue that defies a simple story. You cannot just say “ECG is corrupt and the New Democratic Party (NDC), currently in power, is the cause”. You cannot just say “the World Bank and the IMF, forced Ghana to privatize its electricity generation in the 90s, and this is the cause”. You cannot just say, “Ghana should invest in renewables”, or “Ghana needs a Gas Action Plan”. No one explanation will suffice and no one solution will make everything go away.

Living in Ghana for the past two years, I’ve been relatively privileged with my access to electricity. Where I lived in Tamale, I was near the water pumping station, so there was near constant power. Where I am living in Accra, the compound has a generator for a few hours per night. I am also able to sit in coffee shops, plug-in my laptop at restaurants, and roam freely around the city in search of the elusive Sor. What has been most eye-opening is just how much electricity I need to survive. Basically about 5hrs of light at night,  a few hours throughout the day to charge my phone and laptop, and occasionally enough to run a small fan and I’m satisfied.

It is hard to know how dumsor will evolve and what the next few months will bring, but people are definitely working hard to solve these issues, citizens are active and engaged in debate about what to do and most are relatively good-humoured and optimistic that Ghana can overcome this set back and get back on track. It’s the weekend, so I should have power for at least 24hrs, life’s good!

https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2015/06/imf-and-usa-set-to-ruin-ghana/

http://graphic.com.gh/news/general-news/47628-vra-owes-wapco-82m.html

https://www.usaid.gov/powerafrica/partners/african-governments/ghana

http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Dumsor-explained-357482

http://pulse.com.gh/business/power-crisis-gas-supply-to-delay-as-dumsor-deepens-id3999358.html

http://howafrica.com/dumsor-crisis-in-ghana-should-africa-intensify-efforts-on-renewable-energy-technologies/

http://newsghana.com.gh/end-of-dumsor-draws-nearer-as-ghana-government-reduces-600mw-deficit-to-240mw/

http://vibeghana.com/2015/05/19/dumsor-causes-huge-loss-to-businesses-research-reveals/

http://graphic.com.gh/news/general-news/47628-vra-owes-wapco-82m.html

 

 

Blogs and Burkina

This post has 209 words. It is about a 1 minute, 2 second read.

A little quiet on the blog front lately as I’ve been giving 110% on my work projects since returning to Ghana in February. You can follow exactly what is we are doing by checking out this special project blog: https://openbdsa.wordpress.com/ which details every step we are taking to re-envision Business Development Services to small agroprocessing firms in Ghana. It’s been an interesting journey so far and there should be plenty more to come.

Personally, I will be moving down to Accra for the next few months to undertake some new pilot projects there. If all goes to plan, we should have a new direction and business model by the middle of the summer. Hoping to get back on the blog horse here with more irreverent travel writing, general ranting, and other topics such the Colonial Pact in Francophone West Africa, Dumsor-Dumsor in Ghana, Volutourism and the amazing hidden world of international food economics. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are a few snaps of a Easter trip up to the Burkina Faso Capital of Ouagadougou, which can be basically summarized in one word, strawberries!

Response code is 403

Bots-Zim-Zam

This post has 1334 words. It is about a 6 minute, 40 second read.

Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.

This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.

Here are some observations:

Wildlife Viewing

This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.

First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).

Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.

Conspicuous Experiential Consumption

Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.

Unequal Distribution of Benefits

As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.

Australians

My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.

Indicators of Progress

A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.

I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.

Response code is 403

Bogum Chugu – Fire/Safety

This post has 467 words. It is about a 2 minute, 20 second read.

A parade within a fireworks show within an all night dance party within a diffuse riot within an 800 year old festival commemorating the landing of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat.

The Bogum Chugu is one of two major festivals in Northern Ghana every year (the other, Damba, is in two months). I missed it last year, but this year, without a small amount of trepidation, I decided to check it out with my friend (and barber) Dan. I won’t try to do it justice by describing it in detail, but you can read about the very interesting history here and here. Despite the many, manymany health and safety violations, crowds and confusion, this was an amazingly joyous and positive event from my perspective. I tried to stay on the periphery as much as possible, and went home before things got too intense, but it was still way outside my risk comfort zone.

This difference in perspective around risk and safety is one of the most pronounced I’ve experienced here in Ghana and I am still trying to come to grips with what it means. In the West, we generally take the view that things should be as safe as possible and have constructed an elaborate edifice of laws, rules, and regulation all driven by severe litigiousness and heightened risk aversion. Most of the time this works in our favour, but often safety and risk mitigation are applied for their own sake without asking what is actually needed. I found this a lot in engineering where compounding safety factors and code compliance led to ludicrous waste and inefficiency. The aggregate of all this “safety” did not even produce the most safe conditions in some cases!

In Ghana, while the legislation has been developed and a lot of the same systems and regulations exist, at least in theory, the application and enforcement is still catching up. Most people do not wear moto helmets, buckle seat belts, or wear safety equipment, but what is considered “normal” and acceptable is still fairly consistent and congruent across the society. While having people die every year at festival, should never be acceptable anywhere, I hope Ghana can find a better way of managing safety and risk than we have in the West. We all experience cognitive dissonance in regards to safety and partake in hugely risky behaviour (whether driving without a moto helmet or eating a steady diet of fast food), but it’s worth reflecting on where this behaviour comes from every so often.

It was not easy to get good photos in the darkness and confusion, but here are few that are hopefully illustrative:

Response code is 403

Lessons Learned w/ Taimako Ent.

This post has 2171 words. It is about a 10 minute, 51 second read.

Tamaiko (2 of 5).jpg

Taimako Enterprises Ltd, first detailed here, is the family own and operated agri business that I was first matched with when I arrived in Tamale circa Oct 2013. I worked on and off with them on a variety of projects over the 10 months of my first year. While progress was made and many good things definitely happened, the unintended and unplanned for consequences of the engagement actually yielded the most interesting results. In fact, looking back on the project and knowing what was actually valuable to Taimako is very informative and indicative of the whole small business consulting concept.

As a quick summary, the work at Taimako, at least ostensibly, centered around three main objectives:

  • Production Planning and Organization
  • Financial Management
  • Organizational Structure

These objectives were co-developed between Taimako and BDSA after having worked together for several months to gain an appreciation of the issues facing the company.  In the end, our approach was to try to offer a range of solutions and work with Taimako to pick and choose which elements to experiment with and adopt.

So what actually ended up happening at Taimako? What were immediate outcomes? When will we know about the actual, long-term impacts of the work? And, what is the counterfactual, i.e. what would have happened had we never began the engagement? At this stage we have some answers for the first two questions and can conjecture about the final two.

Key Successes

New Forestry Nursery

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Across Taimako’s multiple business units, the focus of the work shifted multiple times. First it was centered on the food processing scheme, but as the market realities of this business became clearer, it was decided to refocus efforts on the core business of tree seedling production. To this end, Taimako was able to procure additional nursery land near the centre of town, (their existing nurseries are located in surrounding rural areas).

This new plot is located in the Tamale Forestry Reserve, a sort of unintentional city greenspace that once served as a reservoir, and now mainly harbours the local Rastafarian population, wayward youth of all stripes, and various squatter farmers. Taimako worked through both the local government and the traditional authorities (chieftaincy) to secure a 2 acre parcel of land near the roadside. In the course of only few months, they were able to clear the land of many years of accumulated garbage; erect several structures, including a guinea fowl hatchery, shade cloth area, and a basic mosque. In short,covert an underutilized area into a beautiful nursery with thousands of tree seedlings, exotic plants and samples of local pottery .

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While the rows were not in straight lines and no one could tell exactly how many trees were in each one, as I would have liked, the nursery seemed to happily straddle both order and chaos. We were able to implement simple recordkeeping, inventory and accounting systems to track sales and expenses across the business and made progress towards organizing their production methods. In the end, this new nursery has been a remarkable success for Taimako. It has helped them find new markets for their products; it has reinvigorated and refocused the management on their core business of tree seedlings; and it has helped them become more independent of the highly variable government contracts that were once their mainstay.

Community Tree Sales

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This new pilot initiative was developed by Taimako after encountering many frustrations working with the government sponsored afforestation project known as SADA. There have been many tree planting initiatives in Northern Ghana over the past several decades. Most have been large-scale, government or NGO-driven projects designed to combat desertification, improve the livelihoods of rural people, and/or to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. While these large, top-down projects have had some success and were able to quickly achieve scale, there have been many issues with sustainability and local ownership after the projects have ended.

This community tree sales idea was borne out of Taimako’s interest in local communities and their long history as traditional herbalists and tree growers. This past year they piloted a “Base of Pyramid” social business model whereby individual families and groups combine resources to make slightly subsidized bulk purchases of tree seedlings and plants for their compounds and surrounding lands. At scale, this will provide a significant and growing market for Taimako’s products and provides a reliable source of tree seedlings and information for communities to champion their own livelihoods. At the same time, it avoids the major pitfalls of traditional, plantation style tree planting schemes, by focusing on small-scale, direct ownership of the trees by individual families.

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This project is expected to achieve a number of very important results. There are the direct quality of life and economic impacts for the individual families purchasing the trees, as well as the indirect social and environmental impacts on the community. The benefits or “returns” on the initial investment on these seedlings could be realized after only a few years of growth and include up to 20 years of production of cash and food crops (mangos, cashews, shea), animal fodder, fuel-wood, building materials and traditional medicines,  as well as a source of shade and wind/rain/soil protection. Each tree that is planted also has the potential to remove 1 ton of Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere over its lifetime.

BDSA was able to help Taimako with some basic business planning and modeling for this initiative, and to develop some marketing/information materials to share around the community. We also did a fairly extensive survey of grants and potential NGO partners to bring on to scale this project, but so far we are still looking.

Other Minor Successes

Recordkeeping & Evidence-back Decision Making

A significant transformation for Taimako has been in how they perceive the value of detailed recordkeeping and data-informed decision-making. This has been demonstrated in their adoption of recordkeeping books at the nursery and the use of financial modeling to predict the scope of the pilot version of their community tree seedling sales business. A large reason behind this transformation has been in closing the loop between collecting data, manipulating it in order to reach a conclusion and acting on that new information. Having seen this process come full circle, Taimako has realized the value and the potential to benefit their business.

Transparent Business

A primary objective of Taimako’s for this project was to raise its level from a large, but relatively opaque family business, into a more open, transparent and professional enterprise that could be easily be partnered with. Through a mix of financial policy development, labour practices, and written documentation, Taimako is now in a much better position to communicate and present its business to investors, granting foundations, financial institutions and other partners.  Using the goal of securing impact investment or grants as unifying force behind this work, helped focus efforts on a tangible outcome and drive the development in a cohesive way, even if partnering is still some time into the future.

Challenges & Failures

 

Processing Plant and Mango Plantation

While progress was made in other areas, these two business units were put on the back burner for the time being. The processing plant is awaiting an injection of capital, but more to the point it needs a passionate champion to take ownership and help drive it forward. This might come in the form of new employee or through partnership with other producers. Either way, the need and potential for local food processing and preservation is just too high to let this initiative sit idle for long. As for the mango plantation, with the advent of the rainy season, the need for regular watering, vigilance against brush fires and other direct interventions has dropped off. The farm is still a few years away from producing a viable crop, but Taimako already has ambitious plans for how to get the most out of this investment.

Over Emphasis on Securing Financial Investment

A main assumption made at the beginning of the project was that Taimako would be seeking outside investment in the near term and some of that money would be used to offset BDSA’s fees. It became clear later in the project that this was not the preferred tactic of Taimako and that they would prefer to self-finance for the time being. BDSA failed to adequately respond to this change and held fast to the belief that the company would be interested in pursuing debt or equity financing, without giving enough attention to Taimako’s actual financing requirements. This also stems from the current mania for financial products in the world of development, which assume a lack of capital is the primary stumbling block for companies.

Overemphasis on Production Efficiency and Technical Inputs

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Too much emphasis was put on production efficiency and backend process improvements in the form of planning tools and cost saving measures. By focusing too much on these technical inputs, BDSA missed the larger and more crucial opportunities to help the company clarify their direction and provide less tangible support like coaching and guidance on leadership and family business matters.

Lack of Co-Ownership of Problem Identification

The information asymmetry and power dynamic between the outside “expert consultant” and the passive/receptive client (inherent in these relationships), created a situation where it was very difficult to obtain direction and co-ownership with Taimako. The latter would often rely on BDSA to be both the problem identifier and the solution provider which made it difficult to achieve the necessary commitment and motivation to follow through with changes.

Isomorphic Mimicry

There was a lot of focus put on deliverables such as policies and best practices which were not necessarily valuable in and of them self, but hopefully representative of a deeper change in the organization. Unfortunately, in many cases this lead to the opposite effect of “isomorphic mimicry” where BDSA was helping Taimako look like a better organization without actually changing it to become one.

Limits to the Embedded Approach

The long-term, embedded consultant approach put too much pressure on Taimako to always be making use of BDSA, and put pressure on BDSA to find things to do to keep busy. The embedded approach is more appropriate for a project-based engagement than it is for general business system development. A more flexible relationship where BDSA could have charged a daily rate would have allowed the same amount of work to be completed, but would have made more efficient use of both parties’ time.

Final Thoughts

The 10.5 month relationship with Taimako was both very rewarding and very challenging, with many unforeseen events taking place in the timespan. A strong foundation has been formed for Taimako’s business and many of the right components are now in place to allow them to achieve their long-term goals. The next steps are in the very capable hands of their management, and there will no doubt be many more successes and challenges to face the company in the future.

On personal level, I cannot imagine having a better client and work environment than I experienced with Taimako. The entire family was unfailing open, welcoming and warm and I always felt we interacted in a very direct and honest way which greatly enhanced the relationship. Getting to know the family and being hugely inspired by their vision for both their business and their community at large has, without a doubt, been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. I can only hope that my contributions reciprocated a small part of this value and that the eventual impact of the work will prove positive and lasting. Thank you to the Taimako family, the staff, and their partners for a fantastic year!

Response code is 403

Chopping Guinea Fowl: Step By Step from Cooing to Chewing

This post has 2398 words. It is about a 11 minute, 59 second read.

The old blog hasn’t been seeing much action as of late. As a way of getting back on track and hopefully sharing something indicative of what’s been happening, here’s a step by step guide to preparing my all-time favorite Ghanaian dish, guinea fowl with okra stew and banku.

Late Friday night, I went down to the Tamale bus station to pick up my friend Nis. She hails from the Upper East Region and has a line on guinea fowls from Navrongo, which is apparently the place to find these chubby, speckled relatives of pheasants. She had been threatening to bring some over, but it was still a bit of shock when she dropped a live bird in my hands and said, “Here, cook this.” A live animal staring you in the face is a powerful incentive for meal planning, so, as one does, we dangled the thing off the handlebars of my moto and headed home to cook up some ideas.

The next morning, we engaged the services of Nis’s friend, Queen, who went to school for cooking and worked in several hotels before trading the heat of the kitchen for the A/C of the insurance office. She still wants to get back into cooking and eventually open her own restaurant, so was she down for showing me the ropes. We went into town and entered the Tamale central market—a place I’ve been struggling to comprehend let alone to describe for some time. After a lot of greetings, himming and hawing, hard bargaining and various subtle jedi-mind-tricks I could not perceive to get the market ladies to lower their prices, we came away with the following:

  • 1kg of pre-sliced okra
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Garden Eggs (Eggplant)
  • Salted Fish
  • Shrimp bouillon
  • Cassava “Dough” (not fermented)
  • Corn “Dough” (fermented)
  • ½ litre of Palm oil

We got back to the house to check up on the critter, who, while cooing gently, could not help but betray an air of trepidation and doleful pessimism regarding its present situation. Earnest meal preparation kicked off around 2:00pm by boiling the okra and the garden eggs together to get that gooey, snot-like goop which makes okra stew so unique.

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The next step was to dress the fowl. Now, like most people, I don’t go out of my way to kill my own food, but I still think it is a valuable experience everyone should try at least once. Strangling the life out of some other animal for a few brief moments of enjoyment while you are eating it and enough sustenance to keep you alive for a few days is a visceral, unsettling, and humbling act. Growing up on a sheep farm, I’ve been exposed to this side of meat production from an early age and have had the benefit of some experience slaughtering chickens. I’ll spare the details, but after some time we eventually ended up with a half decent looking dressed fowl.

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 We then sliced and diced half the onions, tomatoes, peppers, and the garlic and stewed the pieces of fowl to infuse some flavour. After about 10-15 minutes of stewing, we proceeded to deep fry the pieces in a shit ton of palm oil. I was slightly dismayed by this step as it seemed to negate any health benefits of the lean guinea fowl meat, but Queen assured me it was healthy and would taste better this way. In the future, I might bypass this step simply due to the time involved.

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 After the fry up, we combined the remaining stew stock with the rest of the onions, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. We then added in some salted fish and shrimp bouillon cubes which are, for some reason, ubiquitous in Ghanaian cooking, as well as the okra and garden egg mixture from earlier. Lastly, we added the fried fowl pieces back in and let the whole pot simmer away on the back burner while we prepared the banku.

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Banku is my favourite of the Ghanaian starch ball trifecta which also includes fufu and tuo zaafi (“Tee-Zed”). This lumpy mix of fermented corn flour and cassava dough has a mildly sour flavour similar to sourdough bread. To prepare it, we mixed the corn and cassava doughs together roughly 2 to 1 with plenty of water and got it simmering on the stovetop. As the mixture began to heat up, it became thicker and thicker, and stickier and sticker eventually resembling some sort of industrial strength building material. Keeping it from burning on the bottom of the pan and stirring it vigorously to prevent clumping was no small feat. After what seemed like a half hour of stirring, Queen finally said it looked done. She then proceeded to form fist-sized balls of the mix by rolling it around in a small bowl with a little water. The more modern method is to spoon the finished banku into small plastic bags, which can be more easily refrigerated and reheated.

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At this stage, nearly 4hrs later, we were finally finished. Interest in photography and documentation had dropped off markedly by this point, so I don’t have any photos, but we did finally did get our “chop” on. The end result, while not mind blowing, was still deeply satisfying having the virtue of being hand-built from the raw materials with much toil and caloric expenditure. Would I make this again? Maybe, if I enough people to feed. Will I appreciate eating it a lot more the next time I order it a restaurant? Definitely!

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Special shout outs to Nis for providing the fowl and the incentive to get cooking and to Queen for being a great teacher. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to do this again with some other of my top fav dishes, stay tuned.

Runin’ Tings

This post has 1070 words. It is about a 5 minute, 21 second read.

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Imagine if I told you there is a miracle cure-all out there that makes you healthier, lengthens your life, protects you from disease, improves your willpower, brings you good mental health and concentration, and also makes you look and feel better. You’d probably be asking “what’s the catch?” Well, the catch is that this miracle cure is called exercise and if you want all the benefits you have to force yourself to do it for a few weeks before it becomes a habit and a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

I know how annoying it can be to hear all this gushing praise for exercise. There once was a time when I saw people running at the crack of dawn and thought them crazy, delusional, or otherwise chemically imbalanced. (The last one may not be far from the truth as the brain is awash in a potent speedball of stress-crushing, euphoria-inducing hormones and proteins during exercise). I have been reading up on the many benefits of habits and exercise and it seems the two go hand in hand to form the single best thing you can do for yourself after eating right. While this is apparently “common knowledge” it’s surprising how many people choose to ignore it completely.

I started jogging regularly in the early mornings about two and a half ago years ago and despite some rather significant gaps, I’ve mostly been able to stick with it. I was very concerned that moving to Ghana would send my running habit off the rails for good, but happily (and it’s really no surprise, people jog here as everywhere), I’ve been able to stick with it.

(As an important side note, in Ghana the term “running” has stronger connotations of diarrhea than it does in Canada, so for the first few weeks when I told people “I was running in the morning”, they looked at me a little funny. I’ve since amended this faux pas and say that I’ve been out “training” instead.)

Like everything else, the first few times going on my 6km grandpa jog around the tamale sports stadium near my house was a challenge. I was super concerned about standing out, looking silly, somehow annoying people with my “foreigner ways”, and simply not being able to keep up in the heat. Thankfully, these have all proven to be neurotic non-issues and I’ve been able to establish myself a “regular”. The hazards one faces on the roads, even early in the morning when the traffic is light, still take some getting used to: treacherous open storm gutters, giant mounds of rocks, feral sheep, herds of cattle, garbage fires, and Harmattan dust clouds are just a few of the adventures that keep things interesting.

For the most part, I like to run solo. This gives me the ability to leave as early as I want (typically hitting the road around 5:45am when there’s just enough light out to see), and to set my own pace, tracking progress with my endomondo app. I had been meeting up with two high school students, Gannu and Yazid, who live nearby and doing most of the route with them on Sundays, but (being high school students) their reliability isn’t the greatest. I’ve also trained with another guy, Aziz, a few times, which is great because he is a much stronger runner than I am. He claims to have a certificate that documents him as the fastest 1000m runner in West Africa for his age group. I haven’t seen the certificate, but I can believe it after listening to him describe his punishing 50km+ per week training schedule. He’s probably the most passionate runner I’ve met anywhere; unfortunately, he’s finding that running doesn’t pay the bills unless you’ve got a sponsorship and can get to Europe to work the marathon circuits.

Other than these regulars, there’s a familiar cast of characters out and about on the street at this time of morning: street sweepers, footballers doing wind sprints, older guys power walking, and many regular folks already going about their days. In much the same way as in Canada, I’ve notice that a sense of community starts to form out of these early morning encounters. You may only get as far as a nod of the head or a quick “good morning/dasiba”, but after some time a sense of solidarity and shared purpose starts to emerge. Whether you are young or old, fast or slow, man or woman, foreign or local, in shape or out of it, if you’re out there squarely facing the day and getting your move on, then you’re on the same team.

Running is the great universal equalizer and a common thread which people from all over the world can connect to. It’s woven into our DNA, it’s what we were designed for, and it is just one part of the vast commonality we share as humans that often gets lost in our ceaseless need to differentiate and pick out the differences between people. Last year about this time I was hard at work training for my first half marathon and helping organize the Vancouver edition of the Run to End Poverty/Run to Enable Possibilities fundraiser for EWB. The team in Vancity is at it again this year, so if you are at all inspired to take part or make a donation, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did: https://r2ep.ewb.ca/vancouver. The event takes place on June 22nd and there are running meetups every week leading up to the race: http://www.meetup.com/EWBVancouver/.

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References:

http://www.designedtomove.org/

http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-exercising-makes-us-happier

http://zenhabits.net/excuses/

http://blog.bufferapp.com/what-the-research-on-habit-formation-reveals-about-willpower-and-overall-well-being

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/how-exercise-can-jog-the-memory/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://blog.bufferapp.com/10-scientifically-proven-ways-to-make-yourself-happier

http://99u.com/articles/7040/fix-bad-habits-insights-from-a-7-year-obsession

http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

http://timkastelle.org/blog/2013/12/dont-set-goals-make-new-habits-instead/

http://joel.is/post/24064139389/the-exercise-habit

 

What am I Doing Here Part 4: Monitoring and Evaluation

This post has 2145 words. It is about a 10 minute, 43 second read.

No matter what you do or where you work, if you are spending someone else’s money, eventually, they are going to ask you what the hell you are doing with it, how effective you have been, and what you have been able to accomplish. This need for accountability and documentation is, however, only one part of the much larger picture usually referred to by the conjunctive phrase: monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Having not worked in the social sciences or studied development in school, my eyes have been opened to this fascinating and convoluted world of M&E, [sometimes also called Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (PMEL)], over the past year.

Though the idea of planning your work, making sure it is on track, evaluating the relative success or failure and trying to learn from the experience has been around forever, the M&E requirements of development projects have been turned into an art form. There are elaborate methodologies, old school tricks of the trade, hot new frameworks and cutting edge research papers being published on the topic monthly. Careers are being made and lost trying to prove what works and what does not, NGOs are pouring more of their budgets into checking all the latest and greatest boxes, and every few years there’s a renewed push by the major multilateral agencies and governments to “get M&E right this time”.

Despite all this, there still seems to be an air of general dissatisfaction with our collective ability to find out what works, make sure it happens, and to reproduce it somewhere else. There is also the frustrating realization that we may never be able to measure all the complex and nuanced subtleties that are inherent of change in human systems. Moreover, it may be that these unmeasurable changes are the most powerful and important, yet remain outside of our reach of understanding and reproducibility. As an always on point Albert Einstein noted, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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There is also a growing feeling, within the development world, that we need to stop looking at issues like diseases and poverty as linear effects stemming from directly linked causes. The so-called “systems approach”, which is the antithesis of this, has been gaining steam over the past decade. In this approach, the sum is greater than the individual parts, the relationships are just as important as the players, and everything is at once linked and constantly evolving. While this is a far more accurate representation of the complex, emergent, human systems found in development, it throws a bit of a wrench into the whole M&E thing. How do you know where you are going when you can’t see where you have been? How do you measure the change you intended to create, when everything is changing all the time? How do you learn from one instance of a system when those exact conditions are likely never to exist again? These issues are crucial across the board in development and social change projects. Within the impact investing world, where BDSA works and I find myself, M&E is where the rubber meets the road and is at the crux of proving the central concept that businesses can be drivers of positive social change.

Monitoring: The systematic & continuous assessment of the progress of a piece of work over time, which checks that things are ‘going to plan’ and enables adjustments to be made in a logical way.

Evaluation: The periodic assessment of the relevance, performance, efficiency, and impact of a piece of work with regards to its stated objectives.

The history of M&E begins several decades back, when the rigour of scientific studies and evidence based results began filtering over to the social sciences and government. Within a few more decades, these ideas had made their way into the development context and had been sufficiently evolved to the point where it became almost impossible to do a project without applying a logical framework (logfram) or Results Based Management (RBM) tool. In the former, the project planner (usually on-high, in an air conditioned office far, far away), lays out the overall intended outcome of the desired change. He or she then works backward to determine the measurable outputs or metrics that would indicate the outcome has been achieved, the activities needed to produce these outputs and finally the inputs needed for each activity. At the end of the project the impact of the work is determined by subtracting the counterfactual (i.e. what would have happened if no intervention had been made) from the outcome.

M&E Impact Chain

This approach works great in the sciences where experiments can be carefully controlled, economies of scale allow for statistically valid results, and where causes can be closely linked with effects. In the real world of development, these conditions are rarely met, and the logfram approach leaves you with a decent planning tool, but a horribly rigid and impractical measurement and change management tool.

Formula from the World Bank's guide on M&E

Sample formula from the World Bank’s guide on M&E

 

So, development project implementers find themselves in a bit of a bind: on one hand, they need rigour and accountability, and on the other they need flexibility and constant adaptation to a rapidly evolving reality. They need to be able to prove their interventions were effective, substantiate the attribution of the results to their donors (i.e. determine the counterfactual), and be relatively confident that these results are reproducible and sustainable (i.e. the project continues on, as designed). This drives an excessive focus on donor accountability; an obsession with control, causation, and attribution; and an overall rigidness and inflexibility that is more of a hindrance than a help. To say nothing of the fact that the beneficiaries/victims of these projects (i.e. the poor) are often cut out completely from the planning, evaluating and learning process and are left scratching their heads when the NGO declares the completion of yet another successful project.

In order to counter some of the obvious short comings of the traditional Results Based Management (RBM) approach, various tools, frameworks and approaches have been introduced over the years. Most of these attempt to capture the qualitative aspects of projects through questionnaires, interviews, stories and through participatory, beneficiary-driven planning and evaluation. They also attempt to design for, or at least acknowledge, the complex, emergent nature of the systems of which they are a part and to weigh the needs of the beneficiaries above those of the donors. And while there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach that is going to work everywhere, a mix of these different tools and approaches is helping to breakdown the orthodoxy of the purely quantitative result.

Here are a few key trends in M&E that have been getting attention lately and some sources on where to find more information. For a great overview of all these recent trends and others, see this paper.

Developmental Evaluation – This approach is basically an attempt to reduce the feedback cycle between learning, doing and correcting to almost zero. By collecting data in real time and making decisions based on a constant feedback cycle, the theory is that the project can adapt and evolve in conjunction with the system, thereby avoiding the need for major course corrections down the line.

Shared Measurement – In this case, common metrics are used across organizations on “scalable platforms” in order to facilitate the sharing and discussion of results and learnings on a much greater scale. It also helps organizations share responsibility for their data collection and learning.

Big Data – As the name suggests, this approach is based on the assumption that if some data is good, lots and lots of it must be better. Using short feedback cycles, real-time digital data from a variety of sources (such as website traffic, twitter, blogs, phone records, etc.), and data visualizations and infographics, it is hoped macro-trends and insights will emerge.

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – The PDIA approach is based on four key principles: First, focusing on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting pre- conceived and packaged best practice solutions). Second, it seeks to create an authorizing environment for decision-making that encourages positive deviance and experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experiential learning. Fourth, it actively engages broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate, relevant and supportable.

QUalitative Impact Protocol – Qualitative information is often hard to communicate between stakeholders, even though it provides rich and relevant learning. The QUIP approach is an attempt to get qualitative data taken seriously by collecting it in a systematic and structured way.

Most Significant Change – MSC is a story based approach to help identify the causes of a significant/critical change (positive or negative) relating to key objectives, rather than looking for trends related to a certain phenomenon. This makes it easier to track stories of changes related to less easily quantifiable issues such as “capacity building” or “gender equality”.

Here is a brief look at a few more:

M&E Summary

Even with all of these tools and techniques being simultaneously developed, piloted and perfected. There is still much to be done in changing the development system itself. Here are a few recommendations for the future:

  • First and foremost, there needs to be much greater trust between donors and implementers and a lot more freedom given to experiment, adapt and learn. By far the biggest hurdle standing in the way of creative solutions to poverty reduction is that donors don’t trust implementers with their money, and implementers don’t trust donors with their program designs.
  • Donors , implementers, beneficiaries and other stakeholders need to come together to create spaces for innovation, seed the soil for new ideas, and embrace the failure of some projects in the name of a better overall result.
  • Agreement on the big picture problem definition or mission is necessary between stakeholders. This shared understanding should then serve as the organising principle when adapting activities and plans to ensure that practitioners are beholden to the ultimate mission, rather than the activities themselves.
  • Direct attribution of an impact is neither possible nor desirable in a complex adaptive system. The need for implementers and NGOs to clearly attribute how their work created a specific change should never take precedence over achieving the highest quality and most impactful aggregate change in the overall system. If implementers were able to put as much effort into achieving absolute results, as they do into competing for and seeking credit, everyone would benefit.
  • Finally, we need to give up the obsession with finding a be-all and end-all, silver bullet solution to our M&E needs. There will never be one perfect technique, just lots of little imperfect ones and the goal should be to continuously inch them forward.

So what is this all about, and why should you care? Well, whether you are a rural farmer in Ghana, a student in the UK, or a hospital patient in Canada, your life is probably significantly affected by the type of M&E performed by the organization with whom you are interacting. It may be that your story is being left out, or that numbers are not accurately capturing the whole reality, or that the information and accounting needs of the donor/government are being put above the learning and adapting needs of the organization serving you. Or, it may be that people working in these organizations are not taking (or being given) enough time to adequately learn and reflect on their work due to outside pressures to reduce overhead and produce results. Whatever the case, if we can continue to push for a more holistic, systems-based, human centered monitoring and evaluation, we will at least have the chance to correct some of the major issues with the status quo and put ourselves on the path towards a better world.

References:

http://usaidlearninglab.org/lab-notes/taking-time-stop-and-think-shifting-aid-models-manage-systemic-change

http://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/cid/programs/building_state_capability/what-is-pdia

Andrews, Prichett, and Woolcock. “Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).” June 2012. Working Paper No 240. Center for International Development. Harvard University.

http://www.springfieldcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Evidence-Based-Policy-and-Systemic-Change1.pdf

http://www.seepnetwork.org/monitoring-and-measuring-change-in-market-systems—rethinking-the-current-paradigm-resources-937.php

http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/discussion-paper–innovations-in-monitoring—evaluating-results/

http://www.fsg.org/tabid/191/ArticleId/964/Default.aspx?srpush=true

http://tamarackcommunity.ca/downloads/vc/Developmental_Evaluation_Primer.pdf

http://blogs.worldbank.org/category/tags/big-data

http://www.intrac.org/data/files/resources/145/Using-Qualitative-Information-for-Impact-Assessment.pdf

http://www.mande.co.uk/docs/MSCGuide.pdf

 

 

Scenes from The Volta

This post has 935 words. It is about a 4 minute, 40 second read.

9:30pm Tuesday, April 22, 2014:

“You want to go to Volta over the Easter Weekend?”

“Ahhhermahhiiiii…”[glancing at map: that’s roughly two-thirds the length of country away. Visions of long hours on packed minibuses, crowds, confusion, “exposure”, risk, etc. all for a day and a half at a waterfall…], “…wha the hell, I’ll be there!”

4:30pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“You know, obroonii, that this is the party bus, ohhh!” [Way overexcited teenage driver’s mate on the knock-off-knock-off intercity coach bus between Tamale and Kumasi, as he’s dancing around the aisle to an extra loud, extra generic hip-life/auto-tuned-to-death dance number, supergluing the seat numbers back on while his colleague is crop dusting the seated passengers with two cans of air freshener.]

11:00pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“Hmm..energy levels seem to be dropping. I know just the thing to liven up this party-bus!” [Bus driver to himself, before queuing up the next three consecutive Nigerian movies] “Full volume? Oh yeah!”

10:30am Friday, April 25, 2014:

[At the Kejetia Tro Yard waiting for the bus (converted 80’s utility van) to fill up for the trip from Kumasi to Ho. Having just missed the last bus by mere minutes (one seat was left and there are two of us travelling together), we now pass from reality into the Kafka/Heller-esque, time-free parallel universe of the tro yard. When will the bus leave? It could be minutes, it could be hours, it doesn’t matter, it all comes down to a simple formula:

# of seats on the bus – (rate at which people decide to travel to Ho)*(amount of patience you have to wait)

It is a chess game of patience, social psychology, minute trends and arcane signals. There are rules, and patterns sometimes arise out of the chaos, but like antimatter they exist only to vanish as soon as they are discovered. It takes dedication and zen-like control in order to become good at picking the right bus to the right place at the right time to complete your journey.]

5:30pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Yeah, I’m not actually going all the way to Ho (even though you waited around for an hour or two to meet this specific criteria). The bridge is out and there are long queues at the one ferry crossing. Instead, I’ll “sell” you to another tro driver going that way and we’ll split the difference.” [Tro driver to us as we are unceremoniously dropped off in Kpong, still several hours from our destination.]

 8:00pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Oh shit, braa, our headlights are fading! Quick jiggle the cable to the battery that for some reason is under the seat.”

“Nah man, battery is dead. We’ve got no lights, chali. Maybe you should slow down a bit.”

“Slow down!!?”

“You guys are going to kill us all! Here is my flashlight.”

“Okay great! Front seat passenger: dangle out the window holding the flashlight. Yep that works! Crisis averted!”

[An interpretation of a conversation in Ewe between the tro driver, his mate and an old lady in the second row, during the last few kilometers into Ho.]

8:30pm, Friday, April 25, 2014

[Dropped off in the regional capital of Ho, no chance of covering the extra hour and a half to our final destination of Wli just outside of Hohoe to the North, my travel companion, Sean, and I weigh our options.]

“Let’s just flag a taxi and get him to take us to a guest house.”

[First taxi we see, picks us up, takes us more or less directly to the best, low priced motel in the city (suspiciously named “Work and Happiness”), doesn’t overcharge, and even offers to pick us up again in the morning! Where else in the world, (developed, developing, or otherwise) can you casually cruise into an unknown city with no contacts, no directions, no reservations and not much money, speak English to everyone, not get ripped off, not get taken for a taxi joy-ride, or be otherwise taken advantage of for being the silly tourists we are? The upturned cockroach in the motel hallway, legs curled upwards in agony/ecstasy, seems to indicate agreement.]

12:00pm, Sunday, April 27, 2o14

[Staring up into the crashing, tumbling upper Wli waterfalls after a 3hr hike in the jungle heat and humidity. Waves of mist discharge off the mid-point of the 50m high falls and drift off into the valley bellow. Roosting bats are hanging all along the cliff face above and are circling overhead. In the distance there is nothing but forest and mountains; at the waterfall pool, other than the group of 8 of us and our guide, there is just one other person around. Trotros, travel and all the minor irritations of living in this country seems incredibly trivial  and far, far away.]

1:30am, Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[Arrive back in Kumasi after a cumulative travel and wait time from Hohoe of 17hours, including 6hrs in the Ho tro yard which I came to know far too well. This is what it is, for better or worse. With time, the good moments will become  bad  memories (corrupted and half remembered), the really bad moments will become good stories, and the mediocre times will biodegrade and eventually vanish. All you are left with is some hazy impressions, a feeling or two, and a couple of interesting tales to tell–but that’s all anybody really needs or wants out of life when it comes down to it.]

Here are a few photos of the mountains:

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