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Biogas: Past and Future

July 9, 2013

My final biogas adventure in Uganda was a fun one. After visiting the chimpanzees in Kibale I met up with my biogas mentor Vianney at a nearby school where he was working with West Points cadets to build a new fixed dome digester for biogas production. Aside from Vianney and the West Point volunteers, I was there to meet up with an Engineers Without Borders group from Cincinnati, Ohio who were interested in building a system at a different school in western Uganda. My affiliation with them was a little complicated and interesting.

Back in November a friend of my roommate came to visit from the US. His mother was also visiting and was a friend of Sister Rita who has lived in Uganda since 2002 working with the Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Julie Primary School and Notre Dame Academy Senior Secondary School in Buseesa. Sister Rita had dinner at our house one evening and was very excited to learn that I was working with biogas. The Sisters of Notre Dame were already working with the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) group at that point and had discussed installing a biogas system at their school to promote more sustainable cooking. Sister Rita put me in touch with the EWB group to see if I could offer any on-the-ground advice. One day they asked me if I knew anything about the biogas contractor called Green Heat. I nearly laughed out loud because the founder of Green Heat happens to be Vianney, so I replied that yes I knew Green Heat pretty well and could happily recommend them.

With Vianney at the Kasiisi construction site

With Vianney at the Kasiisi construction site

EWB asked me to join them and Vianney for a site visit at one of Vianney’s completed digesters and to the schools in Buseesa to assess the suitability of a biogas system. Their visit turned out to be just days before I left Uganda, so I was just able to squeeze it in. Our first stop was Kasiisi Primary School where Vianney had previously installed one system that was fueled by a mixture of human waste from student latrines and cow manure. The produced gas was used for cooking at the school’s guest house that hosted volunteers and visitors. The EWB visit also coincided with the West Point visit so Vianney and the cadets were already at Kasiisi to build a second digester, this one at a farm where it will one day provide gas to cook for farm employees and a campsite.

Examining the digester under construction with EWB group and Sister Rita

Examining the digester under construction with EWB group, Sister Rita, Kasiisi’s Peace Corps Volunteer Keith, and Vianney

Good motto to follow

Good motto to follow

From Kasiisi, we travelled three hours on mostly dusty dirt roads to Buseesa. We spent one afternoon touring the schools, evaluating the kitchen’s cooking needs, and assessing the amount of waste available from livestock, students, and plant waste. Possible sites for a digester and design options were discussed, and then we travelled back to Kampala the next day. Check out Vianney’s blog for more information about both projects at Kasiisi and Buseesa.

Firewood stockpiled at Buseesa. They hope to replace 50% of their firewood with biogas.

Firewood stockpiled at Buseesa. They hope to replace 50% of their firewood with biogas.

Hard work cooking for a few hundred students. These guys were mingling posho (mixture of maize flour and water) for over an hour.

Hard work cooking for a few hundred students. These guys were mingling posho (mixture of maize flour and water) for over an hour.

So now I am back in the USA, thousands of miles from Uganda, but my involvement with biogas will continue. Some of you reading this post know that I was supposed to head to Colorado this fall to start a PhD program in chemical and biological engineering. At the end of May I finally made the decision that I did not want to follow through with that plan. One of the main things I loved about my research in Uganda was working directly with people and applying my research in real life. I knew that my PhD program would bring me back into the world of basic research and give me little time outside of the lab and that I would ultimately be discontent.

Through a connection that I made when applying to grad schools last year, I have secured a position as a “biogas technician” at Cornell University for six months, starting on September 16. During my time there I will be running plastic digesters and examining pathogen reduction to gather preliminary data for a potential project in the Bwindi region of Uganda. Meanwhile, I will reapply to master’s programs in the fall that better suit my interests. When the position ends in March I will hopefully have a couple options available to continue working with biogas in Uganda or to start a master’s program in the fall. Excited to see what the future looks like for me!

Stunning

July 4, 2013

Some days I am stunned by the amazing things that I have been fortunate enough to see and do. The past few weeks have held more than their share of those. Starting back when my dad and Lindsay were visiting, we traveled to western Uganda to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park. While there, we saw elephants (including some very small babies), a lion, Uganda cob (antelope), hippos, crocodiles, and a Crested Crane. For me, the crane was one of my favorite things. DSC_1414
That may sound strange, but I had seen the other animals at Murchison already, and the Crested Crane is both the national bird of Uganda and absolutely stunning. Something about the contrasting black, white, and red on his face combined with the crowning plume of feathers makes him seem every bit as regal as his name implies. I had started to worry that I wouldn’t see one in person before leaving Uganda so was thrilled to actually find one. We saw several more later while driving around western Uganda but none as close and personal as the one in Queen Elizabeth.

On our way out of Queen Elizabeth we drove through the Ishasha region of the park, which is home to tree climbing lions. Initially I couldn’t see what was so cool about lions in trees. They are cats after all; it shouldn’t be so surprising. I realized though that the coolest thing about lions in trees is that they are not lions in grass. I.e. you can see them infinitely better. Unfortunately, I only know this through secondhand sources as we were not able to find any ourselves.

From Ishasha we moved on to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which turns out is actually quite penetrable. The area surrounding Bwindi is beautiful with large tea plantations, smaller tea fields, and picturesque terraced farming.  The main attraction to Bwindi, however, are the mountain gorillas living there. With about 320 gorillas living within the forest, Bwindi is thought to host about half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. We left early in the morning with a group of seven people to meet one of the habituated families living in Bwindi. Trackers left ahead of us. They started at the site where the gorillas were found the previous day and tracked them from there so that we would have a direct walk to find them. Sometimes the walk can take six hours or more, but we were very lucky with an easy 30 minute stroll through the forest. After finding the first gorilla, we were given exactly one hour to visit them. For some reason, I had pictured in my head that we would find a clearing in the forest with a family of gorillas sitting around playing. Of course, that expectation was completely unrealistic. Most of them were hidden under trees relaxing in the shade of many leaves. Our guides helped us to see them though by chopping down some of the branches around them and clearing a path for us to get closer to them. I felt more than a little uneasy about this blatant assault on their privacy and natural lives, but I kept reminding myself that tourism was probably the only thing keeping them alive. Bwindi is full of rich natural resources, especially abundant lumber for firewood. The money provided from tourism promotes the conservation efforts to keep the gorillas’ habitat intact. Overall, it was an amazing experience to see these large and expressive animals.

Mountain Gorilla

Mountain Gorillas

After my dad went back to the US I took a little time off from traveling before heading west again for my last week in Uganda. This time, I traveled for my final biogas adventure, but was lucky to also find myself very near Kibale Forest, where many of Uganda’s chimpanzees live. Two of my friends and I left Kampala on a Sunday and arrived at Lake Nkuruba outside of Fort Portal in the afternoon. Lake Nkuruba is just one of many crater lakes in the area but is unique for all of the nearby wildlife. After spending the afternoon reading and napping by the lake, we walked up to the lodge where we were staying to find two huge families of monkeys—one of brown vervet monkeys and one of black and white colobus. The colobus monkeys were my favorite. Many were running on the ground and jumping around, and both groups had several babies. All of them were extremely habituated to people and would serenely stare at me from their trees as I walked closer and closer. I can think of few times in my life that I have been as mesmerized watching animals interact with each other and play. We were staying at Nkuruba for its proximity to the chimpanzees at Kibale, but I honestly would have been content if I had only seen the monkey residents of Nkuruba.

Baby vervet monkey sticking out his tongue

Baby vervet monkey sticking out his tongue

One of many black and white colobus monkeys

One of many black and white colobus monkeys

Nevertheless, we left early the next morning to see the chimpanzees. Like the gorillas, tourists are only supposed to have an hour with the chimps, but I think our guide let us stay for more like two or two and a half hours. The experience was a little different than the gorillas, mostly in that it was much more active. The chimps were continuously moving around, climbing up into trees, and swinging off to find other friends—with us in quick pursuit. At times our guide was a little impatient. We would stop to watch one chimp high in a tree, and he would urge us on to find a group closer to the ground. Usually he knew best though and helped us to see countless chimps throughout the morning. My favorite part was watching their faces which are even more expressive and humanlike than the gorillas.

This little guy was my favorite. He kept poking his head out of his nest to say hello before his mother pulled him back inside.

This little guy was my favorite. He kept poking his head out of his nest to say hello before his mother pulled him back inside.

Chimpanzee

 

This post has gotten rather long, and I am writing it very belatedly from my house in Concord, North Carolina. I want to go ahead and get it posted, so check back soon for an update on my final biogas adventure and my plans now that I am back in the US of A.

Uganda and energy conservation

June 19, 2013

OK, to say that Uganda is leading the way in energy conservation might be a slight exaggeration, but this one idea is awesome.

I recently moved into a new house that has been fitted with UMEME’s (Uganda’s electric company) new prepaid meters. The system is genius.

UMEME's new Yaka prepaid electricity meter

UMEME’s new Yaka prepaid electricity meter

I have a plastic card similar to a credit card with my account number. I take the card to a nearby petrol station and hand it to the cashier with the money that I want to put on it. (Electricity costs about $0.15 per kWh, similar to the US.) Then he prints me a voucher with a code on it. When I return home I type the code into the meter that hangs on my kitchen wall, and the meter automatically updates with my current balance of energy. The meter also continuously updates as I use electricity throughout the day so I can watch my credit running out when I turn on the water heater for a shower, after I sleep with my fan on all night, or when I accidentally leave the kitchen light on for a couple hours after I leave the room. If I run out of credit without topping up, then my electricity is cut off, not that this has actually happened. Not only does this eliminate the surprise of a high electric bill at the end of the month, but it allows me to monitor exactly how much electricity I use during the day and has made me much more conscious about conserving it. Whether for financial or environmental motivations, I like to think that it has had the same effect on other households as well.

A tour guide and a tourist

June 12, 2013

It has officially been way too long since I have updated the blog, but all for good reason. First, I was moving into my fourth house in eight months. The story, or stories, as to why I have moved so much are not particularly interesting so I will spare you those details. The interesting thing about this house was that it was my first unfurnished house, and I was moving in by myself. i.e. I was a little crazy for a couple weeks. In addition to buying furniture for myself, I also had to prepare for my dad and Lindsay’s visit so I had to buy two beds, two sets of sheets, two bedspreads, extra bath towels, etc. etc.

Part of me wishes that I had furnished my own place months ago, but a larger part thinks that I needed seven or eight months in Kampala to tackle such a task. I was lucky that a friend of a friend was heading back to the US around the time that I was moving so I was able to get a couch, coffee table, and most kitchen supplies fairly easily. Then came the really fun part. I bargained for beds from a roadside furniture shop where they both make and sell their furniture, then bought mattresses from a separate shop and arranged transportation for them. For one mattress, transportation meant the back of a boda. For the bedding and pillows I ventured into Owino market, a giant labyrinth in town where you can find anything from a used pair of jeans to an electric fan or even a wedding dress. After turning down stacks of sheets because they were either completely the wrong size, had massive stains, or were covered in Disney princesses I finally found two sets for my beds. Then I had to start all over with the bedspreads. “No, I don’t want baby pink satin. No, that one looks 600 years old.  Well, metallic gold is interesting.” Finally I ended up with two fairly normal comforters. After grabbing a couple towels, pillows, and pillowcases I left Owino just as dusk was setting in. Owino is NOT somewhere you want to be after dark. Side note: I have said “I” through this whole narrative, but I would be dishonest not to mention that one of my Ugandan friends helped me out…a lot. Even with his help I wanted to pull most of my hair out trying to find things in Owino, so I’m not sure what would have happened without him.

The two major benefits that emerged from all the chaos were that I ended up with a cozy little house where Dad, Lindsay, and I could all stay together and that I finally learned to at least somewhat navigate through town (“town” being the INSANE area of Kampala home to the taxi park, Owino, an unbelievable number of shops, and government buildings…that I usually avoid at all costs).  I even learned where to reliably find a matatu (public taxi) back to my house. This may not sound like a huge feat, but see below for a picture of the taxi park.

Dad and Lindsay arrived only three days after I moved in. Lindsay stayed for ten days and Dad for two and a half weeks. For most of Lindsay’s visit we were traveling in western Uganda, which deserves a blog post of its own. We also spent about four days with Lindsay in Kampala, and Dad and I got an extra five days in the city after Lindsay left. Showing them around Kampala was an interesting experience for me. It forced me to navigate around town myself, negotiate for bodas for three people, figure out the taxi system (or at least convince Dad and Lindsay that I had it figured out), translate Ugandan and American accents, and keep everyone safely out of the ten foot manholes commonly found on sidewalks.

I also had the opportunity to be a tourist myself. Until now I have mostly avoided appearing like a newly-arrived mzungu, but with Lindsay and Dad in town I embraced it. We took a boda boda tour around Kampala one day, and I unashamedly snapped photos of daily Kampala life as we drove around town. On another morning Dad and I even hired two bodas specifically to drive us to certain areas of town for photos.  Some of my favorite shots depicting Kampala life are shown below, mostly shot from the back of a moving boda or from the window of a car.

Lindsay ahead on a boda during our boda tour of Kampala

Lindsay ahead on a boda during our tour of Kampala

My new neighbor

My new neighbor

Boda stage on the Northern Bypass

Boda stage on the Northern Bypass

Bicycle stage nearby

Bicycle stage nearby. These bikes all have little seats on the back for passengers.

I love reading the mudguards on bodas and trucks.

I love reading the mudguards on bodas and trucks.

Napping boda man

Napping boda man

Boda transporting plastic jugs. They are also used for matoke, mattresses, jerrycans, milk delivery, and all sorts of other things.

Boda transporting plastic jugs. They are also used for matoke, mattresses, jerrycans, milk delivery, and all sorts of other things.

View of town with Owino market in the background

View of town with Owino market in the background

And the infamous taxi park

And the infamous taxi park

Back in time

May 7, 2013

After three busy days in Addis, 13 Fulbrighters flew north to the town of Lalibela to view the town’s famous  rock-hewn churches and to see Ethiopia outside of the capital city. Lalibela is home to 11 monolithic churches, cut out of rock between the 12th and 13th centuries. They were commissioned by King Lalibela to create a “New Jerusalem” and place of pilgrimage. To this day, they are still used by members of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion as houses of worship and see thousands of pilgrims each year.

I was not too surprised by the jaw-dropping mountain views around the town or by the magnificence of the churches themselves. However, I was not expecting to see the faithful praying in the churches or to experience the genuine feeling of sanctity all around the churches. This is the part that blew me away and will remain in my memories of the trip. The best way to describe Lalibela is that it is like traveling back in time. I know people say that about travel experiences much too often, but I promise it is accurate in this case. Lalibela’s residents walked around the town draped in traditional white cloth, some carrying prayer beads and others herding donkeys burdened with sacks of food in front of them. The interiors of the churches were full of elderly residents praying and resting in the cool sanctuary while groups of priests gathered in the churches and in the courtyards to study psalms and chants.

Below are some pictures from our visit, which I think speak to the experience far better than I could ever describe.

Men studying and resting outside of a church while waiting for Mass to start

Men studying and resting outside of a church while waiting for Mass to start

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Yemrehanna Kristos church built in a cave outside of Lalibela around the 11th century

Yemrehanna Kristos church built in a cave outside of Lalibela around the 11th century

Church of St. George

Church of St. George

Woman praying above the Church of St. George

Woman praying above the Church of St. George

Priests and future priests studying psalms and chants

Priests and future priests studying psalms and chants

On Friday we woke up early to hear the morning chanting at the churches. After finishing our tour of the churches, Brian and I hiked up to a large plateau to meet the other Fulbright group at Hudad Lodge. What our guide promised to be an easy two-hour walk, turned out to be a fairly strenuous three-hour hike. Lalibela itself rests at an elevation of 8,600 feet, which did nothing to help me catch my breath.

Hike up to Hudad, after deciding I was not too proud to let our guide carry my backpack. Photo credit to Brian Klosterboer.

Hike up to Hudad, after deciding I was not too proud to let our guide carry my backpack. Photo credit to Brian Klosterboer.

The view from the top was luckily well worth the effort. After a brief nap, we spent the rest of the evening wrapped in warm blankets around a bonfire, swapping stories with the other Fulbrighters. They were an amazing group of people to spend an evening with, and the cold air at about 10,800 feet gave me a nice little taste of winter.

View from Hudad Lodge. Photo credit again to Brian Klosterboer I believe.

View from Hudad Lodge. Photo credit again to Brian Klosterboer I believe.

The next morning we woke up in time to catch the sun rise and hike back down to Lalibela for our flight to Addis. We spent one more night in Addis, and I returned to Kampala on Sunday afternoon exhausted but happy.

Sunrise at Hudad on Saturday morning

Sunrise at Hudad on Saturday morning

Fulbrighters in Ethiopia

May 3, 2013

 Inspiring. Motivating. Exhausting. Awesome. Challenging. Beautiful. 

No list of adjectives could adequately describe my recent trip to Ethiopia. Last week, the Fulbright program generously flew Fulbright research students and English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) from all over sub-Saharan Africa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the first SSA Fulbright Enrichment Seminar. Put over 70 of some of the most interesting and motivated people I have ever met into one room for three days, and you are bound to find some challenging and engaging discussions. The seminar itself was focused on leadership training. While these discussions and activities were certainly valuable, the most rewarding aspect of the seminar was interacting with the other Fulbrighters during meals, evening wanderings around Addis, and coffee breaks—lots and lots of coffee breaks. I learned what a pangolin is (look it up if you don’t know), how to filter water through a clay pot, improved strategies for rainwater harvesting, some of the actual and perceived challenges people face adapting to climate change, and so much more. I felt like a broken record by the end of the three days having asked so many people where they were working and what they were doing, but everyone had an interesting answer that kept me asking the next person. Most interesting was learning about everyone’s unique living situation and lifestyle in his/her host country. Sometimes I feel a little like I am cheating living in Kampala with its large shopping centers, access to many American groceries, variety of restaurants, and comfy houses. I loved talking to other Fulbrighters who were living in small villages, with host families, and generally just different conditions than mine.

One of many coffee breaks- photo courtesy of the Fulbright Program

One of many coffee breaks- photo courtesy of the Fulbright Program

Every night after the conference finished groups of Fulbrighters went out to find live music, dancing, and suitable places for more talking. One of the Ethiopia Fulbrighters was an excellent social coordinator and pointed us to several live music venues. Ethiopia has a fun Ethio-jazz scene from the 1970s, and several of us commiserated about the lack of live music in our host countries. One night we also saw traditional music and dancing. Ethiopian dancing is almost opposite from Buganda (central Uganda) dancing. Buganda dancing is all about moving the hips, whereas Ethiopian dancing is all about the shoulders. Some of the dancers could move their shoulders impossibly fast, reminiscent of a hovering hummingbird. I think I spent most of that night just staring with my mouth open.

After three days of waking up at 6 AM and staying out past midnight, everyone was fairly exhausted. Somehow a group of 13 of us still managed to leave the hotel at 4:30 the next morning to catch a flight up to Lalibela, a town in northern Ethiopia known for its rock-hewn churches. Unfortunately, I am about to leave CREEC for the day so will have to write about Lalibela another time. It certainly deserves its own post anyway.

Luganda 101

April 5, 2013

Although a little late in the game, I recently decided to start taking Luganda lessons. Luganda is the language spoken by the Baganda people of the central region of Uganda. Most expats consider it a useless language to learn, which is not entirely unreasonably since few Luganda speakers can be found outside a two to three hour radius of Kampala, and nearly everyone in the city speaks English. My coworkers assured me that I would pick up enough basic Luganda to function and greet people, but unsurprisingly I have found it very difficult to just “pick up”. I will never take for granted the shared Latin roots between English and Spanish again. I decided to start formal Luganda lessons for a couple reasons:

  1. I wanted to communicate better with the people in the villages where I do field work. English is much less common in rural areas, and I hated communicating solely through a translator.
  2. I felt like a jerk for living in a country for over five months and not making any real attempt to learn their language.
  3. I was tired of my Ugandan friends slipping into conversations that I had no hope of understanding. I think they often do this by accident. A couple of times when we are in a group and they switch to Luganda I’ve asked, “Are you telling secrets now?”

“What?”

“Are you telling secrets that you don’t want me to hear?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re speaking in Luganda. I can’t understand you.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry! I didn’t realize. I thought we were still talking in English.”

Other times I am pretty sure that people are talking about me, and I would love to be

able to listen in.

Luganda is not at all natural for me to speak. It is technically a tonal language, which means two words that have the exact same sounds can mean different things based on intonation, emphasis of syllables, and elongation of a particular sound. These characteristics can usually be inferred by the spelling of the word. A double consonant means you “hit a sound” as my tutor says, or you emphasize that syllable. A double vowel means you elongate the sound and draw it out. Usually I have a pretty easy time with those rules. My tutor says that I read Luganda really well, which I think is because I have already been here listening to it for six months.  So far I have also not found many words that are so similar that the tonality is crucial. The glaring exception however is “amazzi” versus “amazi”. “Amazzi” means water, while “amazi” means feces. I thought I had the double consonants down pat, but this one really tripped me up. After repeating the words countless times, my tutor finally added that the intonation goes down on the “i” for “amazzi” and up for “amazi”. Somehow this is difficult for me because when I emphasize the “zz”, I automatically make the intonation go up. These are things I have never considered with English or learning Spanish, and I think it will be some time before I confidently ask anyone for a bottle of water in Luganda.

Words are a little easier to sound out in Luganda than they are in English because there are fewer variations. Most letters only make one sound, and there are not as many special combinations like “oo”, “sh”, “ight”, “th”, “ph”, etc that we have in English. The exceptions are “ki”, which makes a “chee” sound and “kya”, which makes a “chya” sound. Consonants are also almost always followed directly by a vowel, which also makes the words easier to sound out.

One other Luganda idiosyncrasy to share: “Ndi mufumbo,” versus “Ndi mufumbi”. The first means, “I am married.” The latter means, “I am a cook”. Coincidence? Probably not. My tutor says that the similarity is actually a result of the cultural idea of a wife’s responsibility to cook.

Mpola, mpola (slowly, slowly) I am learning, but I am sure I am going to say some ridiculous things in the process.