[Borderlands] Drops in a sea of sand

The US/Mexico border falls on deserts. For the past few months, I have been walking along it in the Sonoran. My footsteps along National Park trails, rough wilderness roads, and through dry washes and prickly desert scrub intersect paths taken by people crossing the border on foot from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other places, toward hope of safe havens, reunification with family, jobs, and other reasons. This part of the border is a Death Zone, one far from urban populations and their infrastructure: kind people, tap water, shelters, pro-bono lawyers, air conditioning, cell service, hospitals, road signs. This is a place where people cross because US policies and Border Patrol tactics have made crossing elsewhere too risky, so the mountainous desert seems safer, until it isn’t.

last an empty Mexican water jug

This is one of those projects that is as small and useless as it is huge and important; right place and time make all the difference: hauling gallon jugs of water and canned beans on human backs (how pitiable a means of transport is a human back! how weighty a gallon on water!) a mile or two at a time from parked 4×4 trucks to place in crossing points of migrant paths far from other sources of aid, near polluted water points, or in particularly dangerous areas because of heat and distance and ease-of-getting lost in the sharp turning hills and valleys of terrain cut by erosive downpours.

Thirst. The heat and stress makes you sweat, too much exertion and you puke precious liquid. Drinking water polluted by cows or wild animal shit makes yours runny diarrhea. Advice on the far side of the border often tells people it is a 3-day walk: but get injured, get lost, get scattered from your guide by a BP helicopter that “dusted” your group, get left behind because you move too slowly, get lied to about the length of your route–who can cross these mountains in 3 days? And who can carry enough weight for more than that? At some point you run out and trust your body to be strong but they just aren’t strong enough sometimes.

So people die here. So good samaritanos place meager offerings of agua pura where we hope they will be found and used, where we hope they will not be slashed and emptied by sadistic hunters, racist vigilante militiamen, murderous Border Patrol agents (humanitarian aid is not a crime). Often they are; we come upon knifed and stomped gallons and cans and have to debate: leave more in hopes someone in need will find it before vandals do, or leave the area as a lost cause?

Taking a break from brutal hikes laying down water, sometimes people write little messages on the bottles. Strength, courage, may God walk beside you. Where we leave this water, everyone still has a long long way to go before resting. What would you write on an ephemeral offering, a token drop of water in a vast desert that may or may not be on someone’s route when they need it, that may or may not be destroyed before it serves a purpose?

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[DIY Project] Cool compost bin from pallets

Obviously making anything is cool, but the post title refers to the type of compost you make in this bin: simple, basic, cold compost.

Compost can be a lot of things. It can be built to make fertilizer fast (hot compost), to inoculate your soil with beneficial microbes at the right pH (using science!), to make rich spot treatments in liquid (compost tea) or semi-solid worm casting (vermicompost) form, and to build new soil with raw materials (sheet mulch). The compost bin described here will eventually do all those things, only slowly; its primary purpose is waste management, a place to toss our household kitchen scraps so they don’t go to a landfill.

Cold compost. Start here. Cycle your waste and build soil where you are.

Here is the basic compost recipe, from Teaming with Microbes, a soil science textbook for non-scientists:

Besides the necessary soil microbes, composting requires heat, water, air, and organic materials with the right amount of carbon and nitrogen. … Mix these ingredients in the right proportions and you will end up with a rich, crumbly, dark, coffee-colored, sweet-smelling humus-soil that also happens to be full of life.

In a pallet cold-compost bin, we get heat through size (a pile that is 1 square meter / 3x3x3 feet is big enough to generate internal heat). Water is in our food scraps, French press dregs, and grey water catchment via a bucket for catching used dishwater from the sink. A tarp cover will reduce evaporation, keeping moisture in the pile under the hot sun. Air comes from the open slats in the pallets, the soil critters that will burrow up from the ground below the pile, perhaps an occasional turn with a pitchfork, or maybe letting our chicken peck at it. Kitchen scraps can be considered high nitrogen, and will need to be covered with a layer of carbon-rich material like dry leaves, straw, or wood shavings to get that soil magic ratio.

Here’s how I did it, making a lazy adaption of this how-to out of Making It, a highly recommended DIY project book:

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[DIY Project] Tippy Taps

So. You want to wash your hands after you leave the bathroom or before you handle food or serving dishes. You don’t want to cross-contaminate by turning on the faucet with dirty hands and shutting it off with clean ones. You don’t have plumbing. What do you do?

Construct tippy taps.


Here’s a 1-pager how-to from the CDC.
Here are how-to videos from India, Uganda, and the Netherlands.
Here’s an advocacy website in case you love this and wanna sing it to the world: tippytap.org.

And here’s what we did in our desert camp, with scrap wood, rebar and a pole from broken tents, and used 1-gallon jugs:

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2,015 book reviews (or close to it)

Every year I gather together the best books I read, to recommend and remember those that impacted my life or my paradigm somehow. Here are this year’s, with links to the review I wrote of each. Past years’ are below the cut, and all my book reviews (of every book I read) can be found on Goodreads.

From 2015 (out of 40)
* Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autessere
* The Color Purple by Alice Walker
* The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins
* Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
* The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place by Judith Adler Hellman
* The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
* The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
* Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
* The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron


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Transition, Borderlands

The present.

How do you leave CAR? How do you come home? I signed for six months and I left on a forced evacuation flight over a year and half later, though long ready to go I guess: death, hospitals, aching distance from my love, the joyful moments as my value-added adds less and less value, as trainings and experience take hold and emergencies in need of support make way for developments in need of solidarity, relinquishing of leads. I did not come home. I bounced around a few former homes for a while, and then we, my love and I, packed up everything and shipped and drove and flew in bits and pieces to somewhere totally new to me.

Here I am, Tucson, Arizona. I staked the claim to home, potting a rosemary in a tin coffee can I put on the windowsill. Hung up indigo from Mali. Yoga mat unrolled on the floor. Bike patched and oiled and ready to move. French press coffee and little boxes of herbal tea, bakery bread and a fridge full of kale, beets, shiitake mushrooms, pantry of brown rice and lentils and dry beans. Finding pool at quiet bars and coffee shops, running paths along arroyos, library card and blessed inter-library loan, a DIY scene of community bike shop, open workshop makerspace, three free seed banks celebrating food and water conservation and local ecologies (1, 2, 3), $4 yoga classes. A list of museums to visit for intense aesthetic experience (nourishment).

I haven’t unpacked my books yet. The windowsill is waiting for its altar to the scents and colors of resilient mental health: Tulsi, lavender, chamomile, sage, mint. Lobelia and passionflower on the backburner. There are still blankets from Mali to hang or drape. I bought wildflower seeds from the native plant center and they are sitting next to me waiting for a plot I can call my own. My mantra in CAR was “there will be time” and I will need it here, though writing projects with deadlines and a border crisis press in. There are classes to take! Languages to learn! CVs to update! Inter-library loan! The long list of crafting projects, the existence of which stilled the guilt in your stilled, numbed hands in CAR when concrete walls and exhaustion shrunk life to working hours and the hours lying flat on mattresses reading John Grisham. I wrote down everything I was too tired to do. Mustn’t I do them now in this flat wide city with it’s glorious mountains singing open landscape and freedom?


I was passing through Bangui at the end of September when fighting broke out again. A young Muslim man, Amin Mahamat, was lynched by Anti-Balaka at the end of Eid. His body was thrown provocatively in Bangui’s Muslim ghetto, PK5. Though the squeezed-in, ghettoized remains of 2014’s horrific ethnic cleansing of Muslim people in Western CAR, PK5 is still armed and there’s still money enough amongst a certain class of inhabitants for reprisal. So reprise the violence they did, youth marching to an open-air market and spraying it with AK47 gunfire. The rumors said that UN peacekeepers saw, knew, and did not stop it. Militias responded with attacks; government and French soldiers and international Peacekeepers battled; a few tens of thousands of people fled homes in key central neighborhoods; 600 prisoners including war criminals were released from the infamous Ngarangba prison. Deaths.

Meanwhile the People protested. They marched on the government and the UN, demanding protection, angry over the unending sexualized violence perpetrated by United Nations Peacekeepers on children and women in CAR. Anti-Balaka seized the moment (or perhaps created it?) to stage a coup d’etat against the transitional government that banned former President Bozize, leader to many-but-not-all ABs, from running for president again (Bozize was Prez of CAR when the Seleka militia ousted him in 2013; he himself had come to power during a coup in 2003. This Crisis Group report gives the best timeline up until 2007, and this is the best for understanding WTF is the current ‘CAR crisis’). Across the northwest of the country, simultaneous Anti-Balaka raids on armories threw everything into high alert; Seleka started moving too.

And then, it quieted down. A delightful rumor said the ABs stole guns to march on Bangui but forgot the ammunition. The tit-for-tat attacks petered out. The better-armed international forces regained control of public space. Displaced people returned home, people buried the dead, some displaced made new homes, stayed displaced. Violence in Bangui, central CAR, and across the country returned to the new normal of occasional death, sporadic spurts of gunfire, tense but living.

I was already gone by then.


Last week I camped in the far southern Arizona desert. It was below freezing at night. I stuck my mummy sleeping bag and silk sleeping bag liner inside a fat puffy car-camping sleeping bag, stuffed my head under a hat and hood, my fingers into mittens. Melted ice on a burner to make coffee in the morning.

At some point on a hike scrambling through a dry canyon wash, bare arms scratched from little thornpricks and back weighted with gallons of water and a pack of cans of beans, I emerged to an overlook. Ahead was the tumble of tiny sharp peaks and water-cut valleys of the US-Mexico border region around central-southern Arizona. The sun was already low in the sky and casting sharp straight rays on the mountains, lighting up with red beams the side topography of mountains, usually obscured by overhead light’s casted shadows. Things were hard: cold, heavy, stumbling. Things were gorgeous, big, open. Things meant something: the water and beans were to be left on migrant paths where people cross the desert from Mexico or points south, to Arizona and points north, at a place too dangerous for travel, lacking potable water, shelter, food. I came here to Arizona to be with love and friendship, and I was sunk in the depth of care that comes from long days and nights of working together in small groups.

I have been home for almost three whole months but it’s only in nature and care and hardship that things started to feel right. I can write. I tried to eat high class food and overheat my home and buy good clothes and drink with crowds, pay my way to opposition of what my life had been in CAR. I did need to get out of the concrete box. I had to gain weight and health. But I also needed to be in the thick of someplace with loving people who place themselves too in the thick of things, living simplicity and struggle for a bigger something. Staying in a former home, I whined to a housemate that no one ever had a follow up question to hearing I was in CAR, to hearing I spent almost two years working with farmers to restore agriculture amidst violence and after scorched earth conflict, to hearing I evacuated after 48 hours alone surrounded by grenades and gunfire, leaving without goodbye to coworkers and friends, staring down the Mpoko IDP camp at the edge of the Bangui runway as Centrafricains from the camp stared down the planes of aid workers leaving them: “It’s too far from my experience, I just don’t know what to say.” On the hike, finally, there was context enough for questions.

[Centrafrique] Roadtrippin’ Bossangoa to Bangui


Some photos from a recent road trip across the Central African Republic, from Bossangoa to Bangui. (I wrote about the same trip by air awhile back)

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[DIY Project] Soft cloth camera case with pockets


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[DIY Project] Cloth Passport holder

If you travel a lot and are kinda a mess, sometimes it’s hard to keep all the documents you need ready to go at all moments as you pass through multiple airport checkpoints: tickets, passport, visa card, yellow card, a pen for filling out customs entry forms, emergency phone numbers, etc.

I have a habit of stuffing everything into my back pocket and crunching it and then dumping it all out in a pile on the customs counter or leaving my passport out while I bend over & dig through my bag for a pen. Every official gets kinda pissed if you hand them an extra document that isn’t applicable to their particular task, but they get way more eye-rolly if you neglect to pass over some random thing they need. This must all go triple for places like Centrafrique where each time I enter the country the passport process changes a little bit. Honestly the more I travel the more I look like a newb, floundering with too much paperwork.

So! To my own rescue, I present a Cloth Passport Holder, based very loosely on leather passport holder recipes I rejected for being too complex and not vegan enough.

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[Centrafrique] Kouki, resilient

The thing about homes made of mud bricks is that when the thatch is gone–burned away– and the rains come, the homes melt back to earth.

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Book Review: Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autesserre

Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International InterventionPeaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autesserre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do not know how to rate this book! Is it 5 stars because of the seriousness with which the author takes praxis (“the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised”)? Or is it 3 stars because “thou dost protest too much”– so much overwhelmingly documented data to prove the smallest of points (individual behavior by staff at the implementation level will make or break a peace process, regardless of how well crafted)? Why not push, go further, take action, if you’ve got the data, then sweep your conclusions!

I almost never say this, because I hatehatehate poorly sourced work. But Autesserre meticulously researched, qualified, and triangulated every statement and thoroughly documented every method, error, and pathway to a conclusion. I shut the book almost shouting, “When you’ve got the goods, use them!” The final conclusions and recommendations were so limited that the entire project risks being forgotten in the annals of useless academic theoretical criticism: establish cultural orientations for new staff; use acceptance as the preferred security strategy; ensure foreign military peacekeepers have translators; recruit more people with local experience or anthropological technical skills. I docked a star for the wimpiness with which this much strong, conclusive, indisputable data was wielded.

Frustrations aside, Autesserre wrote a good book. An important book. A book that deconstructs elitism in aid work at the moment of daily life interactions. She dares to question the safety in bunkerization and #CompoundLife at the historical moment when kidnappings and targeted attacks on aid workers risk creating indivisible barriers to expat-national-local interaction. She questions the epistemological value of technical knowledge in place of local and anthropological knowledge, and makes a concrete case for the latter’s value, and how NGOs can restructure their institutions to gain and support it. She talks about how things like language and wealth inequality prevent social interaction between expats and communities in which they work, and internally divide NGO staff into classes. I’ve written about this a little: besides the class gap between high-paid international staff and the national staff and people we work with/for, there is also a tendency for the intl staff to be of a wealthier class background than most people in the country they come from. There’s not a lot of ‘solidarity not charity’ in NGOs because it’s an elitist field; few people link the poverty they see abroad with poverty and economic injustice at home.

Then Autesserre slams the lack of social interaction and professional networking as a barrier to the ostensible goals of peacebuilding, demonstrating how little “participation” local actors have in processes that are centered around and respond to the cultural needs of elite, rich, foreign, technical experts who operate in closed feedback loops with each other. Autesserre is clear: while there is value in independent actors and external expertise in a peace process, the mechanism must adapt to local context so that is is comfortable for and makes sense to–and is led by– the people for whom the process exists! She touches on the need to engage civil society instead of just government elites, as well as many other important points, and uses case studies to give concrete examples.

This was a hard book to read! I am an aid worker in a conflict zone based in a rural outpost doing the on-the-ground, moment-of-implementation, relational, interactive, kind-of-sometimes-dangerous business of daily life peace-building. Autesserre was callin me out, and some of what she said was hard to hear. Yes, I hate bunkerization and I push myself to walk, push against curfews and living in compounds. I go out and talk to farmers a lot. I have close professional relationships with a local NGO with whom I work alongside. But also, sometimes I am tired and want to surround myself with English. Also, sometimes I am scared of being kidnapped, or scared of being street harassed by fearless and mean 12 year olds. Sometimes I work 10 hours days without weekends for a few weeks, and all I want is Buffy time in my concrete box. I made a decision that’s part “too tired because my work is already in a 2nd language,” part “have learned the beginnings of too many languages to commit,” part “don’t want to show bias by speaking one local language over another,” and I haven’t learned any Sango or Mbaya or Pular.

There is a lot of power in the choices I make, in this position, because I am tired or because I am ignorant and that is what Autesserre examines.

And it is so, so necessary. Autesserre: pull no more punches, what you’ve got is gold. We need to run with this. OK. You’re getting that fifth star back.

See also reviews by:
Wronging Rights
African Arguments

For a different take on similar themes, check out:
Direct Action: An Ethnography by David Graeber, which uses similar ethnographic approaches to examine US radical activists (I love the idea of anthropologists turning their trained lens on their own communities, as Autesserre does as a former aid worker)
– Anything by Robert Chambers, particularly Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last, another exmaination of the aid worker’s flaws, on recentering aid and development work around the cultural norms of the most marginalized so it becomes accessible and controlled by those aid aims to help

View all my reviews