Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Dogon Region of Mali

Dogon Villages are easily identified by their distinctive square graineries. Most house compounds will have at least two, this one being a "men's grainery", with three doors, used for storing the millet meal that is their staple.

The Dogon are famous for their lavishly carved doors, mostly on their graineries, but occassionally on the houses as well. The faces on either side of the door are representations of the town Spiritual Leader and the Spiritual Leader's wife.

The Dogon region runs along a magnificent escarpment, and much of the earlier villages were built along the face of the cave. It is only recently, with more security, that the people have left the old houses and moved onto new villages on the floor. The last people left the cliff houses about fourty years ago. The structures are entirely mud-brick, and some of them border on being nearly a thousand years old.

This is typical architecture for the town Spiritual Leader's house. The rergular pockmarks provide small ledges on which small icons and dolls are placed.

The cliff villages were built in an intricate three dimensional layers, with the streets and paths frequently running directly above houses or below the graineries. Suspending the graineries in the air has the strong benefit of preventing rats and rodents from being able to burrow into the food supplies.

The towns at the top of the cliff have slightly different architecture, with most structures made of stone instead of mud. On the left is one of the town's meeting places. The super thick roof of thatch keeps it quite cool, even in 105 degree weather. They are built low, with an interior height of around three feet. It is where all the men will gather to lounge, but also to settle disputes. The roof is kept purposely low, my guide claimed, to keep people from arguing. If you get angry, you hit your head.

A view from the top of the cliff. We hiked up there and spend a night in a village at the top, sleeping on the roof of the houses. Most villages are actually a cluster of several smaller settlements, grouped closely together. Most are divided into seperate Animist, Islamic and Catholic communities. This is the height of dry season, with the rains expected to come in the weeks following my visit. The entirty of this view is actually farmland, although the soil currently has the consistency of dust. You can see in a few palaces in this photo that it has actually been plowed, but otherwise there are no telltale signs that it is able to support life. Come back in December, and the area is solid green.

The house of the Spiritual Leader in another town:

The town hunter.

And his house:


Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Mopti, Mali

I just got back to Monrovia from my trip to Mali. After flying into Bamako, I took a 12 hour, overnight bus ride to Mopti. Mopti is primarily a salt trading port located at the joining of the Niger and Bani Rivers. The salt is brought down from the Sahara in caravans to Timbuktu, and then loaded on small boats for transportation to Mopti, where is is exchanged for grain to be brought back up.

The construction in the entire region of East Mali is entirely mud brick, with the walls recovered with a fresh layer of mud every year after the rainy season. The mosque in Mopti is a classic (although relatively new at 80 years old), of the architecture of the region.

The boats are made in Mopti. Local blacksmiths will melt down scrap metal, usually from old cars, for the nails and other running gear for the boats.

The wooden hulls are fitted together by hand by local artisans.

Some photos from a trip up and down the Niger and Bani rivers.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


UN Corrpution and Human Rights

A recent report highlights a major problem of the UN in Liberia--the exploitation of local women by people in positions of power. The problem is something that I, and many others I'?ve talked to here, have seen first hand

The problem encompasses not just locally hired civilian workers, but many members of the military contingents to the UN. The UN provides upper-middle class Western pay standards to workers and soldiers that frequently come from countries with much lower standards of living. The result is that the supervisors and Commanders will overlook quiet indiscretions in fear that an investigation will reflect on themselves? something that few are willing to risk.

The recent report by Save the Children- UK, concentrates on the exploitation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees in the many camps in the area. The perpetrators in these cases tend to be Liberians hired by WFP and other UN agencies to administer their programs in the country. This is a story that I have heard many times in the two IDP camps in my Area of Responsibility. The report also highlights the practice by other authority figures throughout the country, most disturbingly, local teachers who engage in various forms of bribery in lieu of tuition (which is frequently on the order of $20US per semester), or in exchange for passing grades.

The problem isn?'t just the local hires, though, but to foreign UN workers and soldiers. It is a practice that I had noticed by at least one former member of my team, and is apparently widespread among the peacekeepers and military observers. Most will rationalize having a girlfriend by asserting that no cash is changing hands, but will pay with large amounts of food for the families of the girls, vehicle rides, or implicit promises of visas.

For many UN workers, both Liberian and foreign, the jobs are extremely well paying, and a one year mission as a military observer can provide for a full retirement for a soldier when he returns home. The result is an extreme risk-avoidance, which shows up not only in normal duties, but also in the discipline of fellow workers. Priority is given to avoiding controversy, and not to accomplishing the mission.

In one recent incident, a military observer on another team reported the inappropriate sexual relationships of two fellow team members, and simultaneously requested a transfer to another team, to avoid retribution. This member's chain of command ensured that the investigation was squelched before it even began, and even denied the transfer request, putting him at risk, at the mercy of his teammates. The commander and team leader didn't want the situation to reflect poorly on them.

In a recent article, Claudia Rosen points out the ?fundamental problem "[is] that senior U.N. officials enjoy the privileges of sovereign immunity, but because the U.N. is not a sovereign state, they are spared the accountability that tends to come." But this problem extends not just to U.N. diplomats, but even to low level UN employees working in failed states. There is no functioning local law enforcement system, and few perpetrators are held accountable by their home governments once they've been repatriated.

The only system of punishment that the UN has is repatriation or being fired, and the loss of salary that comes with it. There is no viable system available to hold people responsible for their actions in failed states like Liberia. The result is that the actions of the UN is damaging thousands of young girls, and reinforcing the system of corruption that got Liberia to this state in the first place.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Local Art

A photo of the border with Guinea, Liberia is on the far side of the creek, and a Liberian customs agent we took with us in the foreground, in Guinea.

A few kids currently living in the Maimu IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp.

A young mother with her child in the town of Beletanla.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Gbaomu Gold Mine

Last week I found yet another gold mine, buried deep in the bush, except this time it was much larger than normal. It was a nice, hard hour plus walk through the bush, and down a rarely used path until we came upon a picturesque creek winding through the forest.

We scrambled along the creed for a ways, over quite rugged rocks and miniature waterfalls until we came to a narrow diversion canal directing water to the side. Following that for a hundred meters, and we stumbled across the first of seven claims. There were a good thirty workers there, and they claimed to produce about 18 grams a day, working entirely by hand.

The miners reported that the mine was over "10 shovels" deep, so considering a standard shovel is about four feet long, that's pretty deep. The workers had dug down about ten feet to the bedrock, and were digging the rock with nothing but hand tools.

The workers are powered by palm wine, provided by the local brewer. Trust me, its sweet, but otherwise tastes like standard moonshine. Our guide, expecting to get some small, small, endulged in a good sized glass of palm wine himself. He was just about stone drunk on the way back, and couldn't stay on the path. We teased him about being drunk, which he denies, and confiscated his kitchen knife, returning it to the town chief when we made it back to Gbaomu.

It is hard to pick out on the photo, but check out the dozen or so gold flakes on the top half of this rock.

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