How to Build A Mud House

February 25, 2008

Extraordinary engineering goes into a mud hut, as I learned from “Doctor” when he showed me his new home as it was under construction in the village of Siankaba on the Zambezi River. Many of the details he explained found their way into my novel, Heart of Diamonds.

Doctor's New HouseIn Siankaba, just as where I live in New York, no project begins without a building permit issued by the appropriate authorities. Before Doctor could build his new home, he had to get permission from the village headman since all land belongs to the village. Doctor’s old house, by the way, won’t be sold. It will belong to the next person who needs a home as adjudged by the headman.

Once the site is approved, it is cleared and leveled, then holes where the walls will be are dug about a foot deep and two feet apart. They will hold upright studs of straight mopane logs about four inches thick and perhaps eight feet long. They’re held in the foundation holes with tamped earth, not cement.

Headers of similar size longs are lashed to the top of the studs. Thin sticks and reeds are woven through the studs, with holes left for doors and windows. Along with the headers, they provide stiffness to the framework. They also serve as lath to hold the mud which comes next.

The mud is more than just dirt and water. It’s mixed with soil from the gigantic termite mounds that dot the countryside—earth that has passed through the insect’s digestive tract. It contains a hardening agent that enables the mounds to withstand rains and attacks by predators for a hundred years or more. The walls of a well-built hut will be as hard and durable as concrete once they dry in the hot equatorial sun.

Mopane joists are lashed to the wall frame and a roof is laid on top. It may be tin, which lasts 20+ years, or thatch, which is good for seven but costs considerably less. Depending on the financial health of the builder, doors and windows may be nothing more than cloth or canvas draped over the openings or prefab manufactured items with glass and locks.

–Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds


Street Entrepreneur vs Ugly American

February 24, 2008

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s column on Barack Obama’s Kenyan connection caught my eye and reminded me of some things that happened during a research trip to Africa for Heart of Diamonds.

Read my comment here. It was posted at 5:54 AM on 2/24/08.

One day, I watched an American Wall Street type haggle over the price of a carved mask with a vendor in a market in Lusaka. He finally persuaded the Zambian to cut his price to the ridiculous level he wanted–50,000 Zwacha (about $13.50 US)–and agreed to buy the mask. Then, clever fellow that he was, the American titan of finance offered a flat $13 US in payment, which the Zambian vendor graciously accepted.

As the Master of the Universe walked away, I heard him chortle to his wife, “I beat the bastard on the exchange rate, too.” I must admit, it didn’t make me very proud to be an American right at that moment.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Foreign Aid or Ailment?

February 23, 2008

Foreign aid is the first thing most people think of when they see the condition of many African economies. It’s falling out of favor in many circles, however. The reasons vary, of course, but the biggest single factor is that much of it just doesn’t work very well. A strong case is made by William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden; Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and so Little Good, (Penguin Press, 2006).

Economic aid is often a sinkhole designed as often to advance the economic interests of the donor country as it is to help the recipient. Short story: I once ran a company who was subcontractor to another US firm that was building a communications network in the Cote d’Ivoire. Most of the work in our portion of the contract could have been done by local laborers (we were refurbishing radio towers—cleaning and painting, mostly) at less than a tenth of the cost we charged. The reason? The U.S. aid contract specified nearly 100% of the contract value go to American firms. We weren’t gouging, by the way, but it’s darned expensive to send American workers and all their equipment across the Atlantic.

Then there is humanitarian aid. I cut some slack here, because long-term corrosive problems like malaria and HIV/AIDS aren’t going to go away because the free market says so. There are also crises where hundreds of thousands of innocent people are forced to flee their farms and jobs by genocidal violence or natural disasters like drought and flood. Public-sector efforts like the Bush-backed malaria net program and private undertakings like many of those from the Gates Foundation are well-thought out. Plus, it’s hard to argue with results.

Again, though, there is a huge amount of waste built into many humanitarian aid programs. I talked to several farmers in Zambia while researching Heart of Diamonds, and they pointed out that the jobs they provide are the only sources of cash income for the people in the region. When food aid must—by law—come from U.S. stockpiles, it costs the U.S. taxpayer more and undermines the local economies at the same time. A bad bargain.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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No Power To The People In South Africa

February 22, 2008

As the lights flicker in South Africa, the fragile economies of sub-Saharan Africa are seriously endangered. South Africa is the continent’s wealthiest state, both in GDP per capita and total GDP, so serious repercussions are felt by many countries when the giant falters.

And falter it is, as rolling blackouts and brownouts cut into every facet of life—and the economic development—of the country. Failure to plan for and construct adequate electric power generating capacity has caused leading gold, diamond and platinum mines to stop production, not only sending world gold and platinum prices to record highs but adding thousands of workers to the already-high (25%) unemployment rate.

I wrote many pages of notes by lantern light and headlamp while doing on-site research in Africa for Heart of Diamonds. Power in many nations in the region is generated and delivered through chewing-gum-and-paper-clip networks, with South Africa’s heretofore adequate capacity filling in the gaps. The failure of the S.A. system to keep up with rising demand has further crippled an tottering system that the World Bank estimates has already clipped 2% off the region’s growth rate.

The S.A. government monopoly Eskom, was warned in a 1998 report that it would run short of power in 2007, but bureaucratic intransigence and financial problems stalled upgrades. Even by the most optimistic estimates, it will take at least seven years for new capacity to come on line and begin to make a dent in the situation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Glimmers of Hope for Africa

February 21, 2008

Among all the crises plaguing Central Africa, there seem to be glimmers of progress in several ugly situations. The grief is far from over, and simmering pots are ready to boil over in other places, but there are positive signs in some of the most recent trouble spots. Having visited many of these places while researching Heart of Diamonds, I’m cautiously optimistic.

In Uganda, the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) agreed to set up a special division of the country’s high court to try war crimes committed during the 21-year-old conflict. There are still huge hurdles to be jumped, but at least there is some movement toward a permanent ceasefire.

Kenya lurches tentatively toward peace, although it may be generations before the damage to inter-tribal relations can be erased. President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga may announce a joint-governance agreement as early as tomorrow.

Zimbabwe may actually hold an election that matters next month. Simba Makoni, a senior member of President Robert Mugabe’s own ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has announced he will run against the 83-year-old despot. The opposition party couldn’t unite behind a viable candidate, and Mugabe may still well coast to victory, but the presence of an opponent from his own party is a welcome sign.

Darfur remains a shameful open sore, of course, and unrest festers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, and many other places, but there may be glimmers of hope for some.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tribal Violence

February 18, 2008

Ascribing violence in Kenya (or anywhere else in Africa) solely to “tribal rivalries” is little more than a simplistic dismissal of complex reality. It’s also denigrating to individuals whose lives consist of much more than looking for ways to enhance their tribe’s fortunes. Finding a job, educating their children, putting food on the table are important to most of the people I’ve met in my travels to Africa. When their individual economic and social interests are suppressed by another group—be they a tribe, a religious group, or a political party—they complain.

When institutions, governmental or otherwise, fail to respond to those demands for various reasons, individual complaints are channeled into group protests. The most convenient group in many places happens to be the tribe. Tribal membership itself isn’t the cause of violence, it’s simply a facilitating device exploited by power-hungry leaders.

–Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds


A Fine Nose With Overtones of Toe Jam

February 15, 2008

I forgot a basic tenet of travel during a walk through a village near Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest last year. But at least I lived to tell the tale.

Selling Banana WineWe were visiting a local beverage maker—what we would call a moonshiner in Missouri where I grew up. She said the process begins by making banana juice in a big hollowed-out tree trunk laid on its side like a canoe. The juice maker takes off his shoes and walks on the bananas like someone stomping grapes for wine.

The juice can be drunk as is, but most of it is poured into leaf-lined pits and allowed to ferment for a few days. The resulting banana wine is quite popular. The really good stuff, though, is the banana gin, which is made by distilling the wine in wood-fired stills made from 55-gallon drums and copper tubing. Some technology just can’t be improved.

After the short lecture, our hostess grandly offered samples of all three beverages. I’m a teetotaler, so I stuck with the banana juice, which was quite flavorful. A couple of my friends tried the stronger concoction and pronounced it delicious.

Quite honestly, it wasn’t until I was telling the tale later that I realized how we had broken the first rule of travel: drink only bottled beverages! I guess the banana-stomper responsible for my glass must have had very clean feet.

–Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds