Monday, July 18, 2011

Dear family and friends,

I hope this finds you well. I am looking forward to seeing you soon and I hope to catch up with all of you personally. I am planning on being in making my way through Orange County and Los Angeles on my way to San Francisco. Please contact me if you have some time in your busy lives wherein I can stop by. I am still hoping to bicycle tour a bit before going back to work in San Francisco, but I decided I need to get my life in order first.

Tomorrow will be my last day in Tete. From there I will travel to Beira, Johannesburg, New York, and Pennsylvania where I shall spend a week before returning to California. The work here isn’t complete, but my part will be. I am honored to have been given the opportunity to play a small part in it. I hope that at least some part of my contribution will be useful to some. It seems unlikely that we will meet our plan of ten dams this year, but I believe that our objective of increasing water and food security in the province will still be met.

I am on the verge of uprooting my life again. Moments of change always make me introspective. Knowing that life will never and could never be the same, I often look back for a few seconds, hoping to fix the images in a chemical bath of the mind. These moments are always bittersweet, as are all the important moments of our lives.

What I see when I look back are the faces and names of people whom I used to only refer to as the world’s poor. I can also see my colleagues who have challenged me to learn more about my work and my own personal beliefs. I can see my friends who, by virtue of living here, have overcome impossible challenges and seem to have each lived a thousand lives. I now know a man who pulled the hair off the tail of a surprised bull elephant and friends who at gunpoint have been given 24 hours to leave their homes forever. The other things I’ve learned this year are small in comparison.

As my final thought, I want to share something that Walt Whitman once wrote. I came across the poem earlier in the year and it has stuck with me ever since. It isn’t powerful to me because it describes what I do; it describes only what I hope to do. I can think of no better way to sign off from these letters for the last time.

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body

Thank you again.

Your brother,
Stephen Esaki

Friday, July 1, 2011

As I've been preparing to end my term here and leave Mozambique, I've become more interested in figuring out how to measure the effectiveness of our project. Part of this interest is because we need to do this as part of the work, but also I'm just curious to know the answer to the question did I even help at all?

Measuring success sounds easy, but I've spent a lot of brain power on it for a long time now and I've realized that it ain't. You would think you could just ask people if their lives have improved because of the project, but how do you measure how much better or in what ways is it better? Or even for how many people is life better?

If you built a dam in a community and people began using the water stored in it to wash their dishes, to wash their clothes, to irrigate gardens, to give to their livestock to drink, and to drink themselves, then how do you measure that? I mean, where do you even begin looking for the kind of data you need to estimate this impact at all? And what if it doesn't rain at all during the year you go out to take measurements?

This stuff makes you sympathize with No Child Left Behind, because that stuff is probably way harder than our work.

One of the impacts of our project is to reduce hunger in the area. Ending hunger is a great goal, but it turns out to be a surprisingly difficult thing to quantify. I've looked around to see how other organizations mark their progress towards ending hunger. I've written about the United Nations before and their MDGs, and fortunately they have an MDG that clearly states to reduce by half the proportion of the population suffering from hunger. So you would think we could just copy what they do, right? Nope. They measure hunger in two ways, both of which are crazy difficult. The first way is to look at the Body Mass Index of children under five. So that means going to some representative sample of children, measuring their height and weight and comparing that to some standard value. The second way is to look at the food imported and produced within the country, the population, and the inequality within that country and from that calculate an amount of calories available to the population. Neither of which we are planning to do anytime soon.

The only lessons we can take away from the UN is that we will need to use survey questionnaires and that they will be a lot of work. These surveys actually do what I said we couldn't quite do earlier - ask people how their lives are better (my bad). The difference is that we need to ask simple things like "how many vegetable plants are you growing - let's count them" or "how many minutes do you walk to get to your water source" and repeat those questions for everyone in the project.

Simplifying the questions is the hard part. There's this term used in economics called externalities. An externality is the cost or benefit of an act to someone that wasn't initially taken into account when the act was done. An example of a negative externality is the pollution you emit into the air when you drive your car to the market. The increased pollution you just added to the air is a cost that someone else has to pay (asthma) for your combustion.

Positive externalities to our project include the clothes washing, dish washing, and bathing that occur there. People clearly benefit from the dams in those ways, but since they are tangential to the main point of our project, namely water and food security. Therefore we don't ask things like "where do you wash your dishes" or "how much clothes do you wash at the dam?" Ignoring positive externalities helps us cut to the heart of what is important, and also prevents us from overstating the value of the project to our donors.

Then we need to figure out whom to ask these questions and how many households we need to visit to create a good idea of the aggregated benefits of the dam. It's impractical to ask everyone in a 1,500-member community all these questions, so we ask those questions to a part of the community (like a poll). However, we don't yet know how big that part needs to be or how many people we need to ask to get a pretty good idea of the whole. So I've been brushing up on the ole' statistics to figure this sample size out.

Lots of work and only two weeks left!

Your brother,

Monday, June 27, 2011

I didn't take any pictures at home, since nothing has changed on Kaua'i (also my camera is too big and heavy for just a two-week trip). My brother is married now. So congrats bro!

Weddings are a great way to see family all at once! It was very good to see everyone all together. And it wasn't awkward because it wasn't about me. My first boss once told me that weddings are always fun, especially when they aren't your own. I always knew he was a smart man.

Thanks to my friends who met up with me in San Francisco. Sorry it was a bit rushed. We'll hang again sooner than you think!

Your brother,

Monday, June 13, 2011

My brother's wedding is this week. I'm flying to Hawaii this afternoon to be there. I am also breaking a few MCC rules to do it, so I hope no one is seriously ticked about this.

Additionally, don't forget I'll be in San Francisco on June 22nd, trying to make my way back to Moz. I have twelve hours there and I'd like to hang out with you.

Your brother,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One of the great mysteries of living in Mozambique for me this year was why people love to listen to country music and in particular Don Williams. It is always a surreal combination for me to be driving through Sub-Saharan Africa with Don Williams blasting in the car speakers. I just figured that there is no accounting for taste and planned to forget about it completely, until I heard a show on NPR.

One of my guilty pleasures is downloading NPR shows like Car Talk and This American Life and listening to them on my computer. One of the shows I download is Radiolab, which is a show about science. A few years ago Radiolab interviewed Professor Aaron A. Fox from Columbia University who actually explained this.

According to Professor Fox, country music got its big start in the US back in the 1920s, which was the period in America where suddenly more people lived in cities than in the rural country. And if you listen to country music at all, you'll know many of the songs are about this longing for a simpler time and a life that is no longer available now that we all live in cities. Country music is migration music at its heart. It is the music of the lonely, the regretful, and the reticent.

The rest of the world went through a similar population switch, but much more recently - in about 2008. Suddenly in 2008 and for the first time ever, the majority of the world's population found themselves living in cities, including people from countries like Mozambique. In fact, Don Williams has gone to neighboring Zimbabwe and filled a soccer stadium with 40,000 people - twice. This phenomenon isn't limited to Southern Africa either, Aborigines in Western Australia, Russians, Chinese, Thai, Norwegians, and Native Americans all love country music. For some reason, singing about missing the Tennessee mountains translates to missing the simple life that we left behind in all these places.

The language gap seems to defy this explanation because how can Mozambican Don Williams fans connect the migration story when it's told in English? Professor Fox claims that this feeling is built into the music. The steel guitar is sometimes called the crying guitar, because it sounds like a human crying. And the signature vocal technique of country is this yodel sound, called the cry break. Even though the words don't convey, the feeling does.

In this globalizing world this idea is sort of a universal story that applies to us all. We are all on this path to modernization and it's difficult because we have to leave something behind to do so. And we experience this loss in Hawaii, in LA, or in Tete pretty much same way.

Neat, huh?

Your brother,

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Trip to Gorongosa

Gorongosa National Park is beautiful. On our trip there this weekend we saw some elephants, lots of plains animals and some sweet birds I've never seen before. I'm a big fan of conservation in Mozambique.

Your brother,

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My First Design

Here's a picture of the first dam I designed. It is located in the community of Nhamunhu and it's almost complete! Too bad I won't be around to see it fill with water and sand, but I'm pretty happy about it. We've got a lot more to do before I head home at the end of July, so wish us luck!

Your brother,