Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Brookings

The weekend was fast approaching and I had one more day of work on the Monday to finalise everything before I caught the overnighter back to London from Dallas.  Gray kindly invited me to join him for the Saturday and he would show me some of the countryside.  He lived not in Sioux Falls but in the town of Brookings, about a 50 mile drive up the I29 to the north.  I drove steadily up the Interstate; I always do despite the roads being huge and empty, the troopers have little else to do but find an excuse to book a foreigner for speeding.  I29 ran along  ground which was higher than that to the west, and I began to realise the humpy bumpy terrain around EROS was part of a fat ridge, barely 100m above the rest of the plain, but enough to make a difference in an area of little relief. Only the Sioux River cut through it.

I took the Brookings exit and drove along a main road into town; it was the usual anonymous mix of gas stations, eateries and motels.  Then they dissolved away and I was in a pleasant urban landscape.  Gray met me at his favourite coffee shop and, since I had skipped breakfast that morning,  we had a muffin and cappuccino.  Gray was a calm, thoughtful guy, and he looked totally at ease here; this was his usual habitat.  He said he preferred the small town feel of Brookings to Sioux Falls, but it was no hick town.  Brookings was the seat of the State University of South Dakota so had a sizeable student body, as well as the staff, and had attracted in a wide range of people, including several of Gray’s colleagues from USGS.  It also had a number of art galleries and museums; more than you would expect for a town of barely 20,000 permanent residents.  We visited one, the Agricultural Heritage Museum.  When I had been a schoolkid in Liverpool we had spent a couple of terms learning about American history which included a big part about the enclosure of the Great Plains and the life of the homesteader.  The grainy old black and white photos gave a rather bleak picture of life out here, and there was no denying it was tough, but this museum had brought it to life with full colour exhibits.  Everything was here from the life of a South Dakotan from the 1850s to the Second World War.   As well as scrupulously restored farm equipment, from mammoth traction engines and tractors to ploughs and harvesters, there were all the domestic items; mangles, cleaning brushes, preserving jars, beds, chairs, and most revealing, photographs, letters and mementoes of the people who had lived through this period.  As well as the glass cabinets and mounted exhibits, rooms had been set up as an example of how all these pieces came together in the draughty old log cabins that people lived in out on the plain.  Apart from the fact the artefacts were in pristine polished conditioned, you could imagine the family had just stepped out for a moment for a walk.

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As if the family were still there

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Days and Nights of Freetown – The Tragedy of York

We diverted one more time to take a look at one of the larger Krio villages called York.  It was the same grid iron pattern that several of the villages had around here but in the centre were a couple of artefacts.  The first was a memorial with an urn atop.  The inscription on one face said “The York Centenary Stone was carved by the York Village Community People in the year 1919 to mark the first 100 years of free slaves settlement created in the village by White/Europeans in 1918-1919.”

At the main crossroads was a more eclectic monument.  On a substantial concrete base were four more concrete blocks and hanging from a metal cage on top was a bell, sheltered from the elements by a rusty old corrugated iron pitch roof.

A father and child were sitting next to a plaque but we smiled at him and he moved aside to let us see this text.  It said “The Town Bell/Fire Bell – This bell was donated by the CMS Missionary to the York Community People Because (sic) of a fire disaster which destroy the entire community in those days and even any people in this community do occupy themselves on either fishing or farming and the fire disaster took place when the people were out of the village in search of their living without anything to alarm the incident this bell hang by one Mr George Pratt regardless of its weight to served as a symbol of notification for fire drawling and sudden death of any prominent person in the village.”

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York Stone

At the heart of that rambling, naive, difficult to follow plaque was a heart rending story of a tragedy that so many places must have experienced.  In most of Africa today, people leave their loved ones behind to go and tend in the fields or fish up on the sea, and when there are no other communication methods, if some disaster takes place there was no way of knowing till you returned.  I wondered how many times the bell had had to be sounded as an alarm since.

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The Fire Bell

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – How did Haiti get to where it is?

“If all the aid money that were available for the Caribbean were given to Haiti, it still would not make a difference.”  I remember this statement from a DFID advisor in Barbados over drinks one night back when I was still working for NRI.  As a frequent island hopper, indeed then an island resident, I got a reputation as an easy life consultant – searching for the tourist destinations and modicums of poverty rather than tackling the really big development issues.  I felt it was completely untrue, and would point out the pockets of extreme poverty in some of the island nations I visited, and the fact that because of economies of scale and the need to set targets, they were ignored by aid agencies every time.

The Caribbean Islands were indeed much richer as a whole against most other regions of the world.  I once did a study which looked at all the human development and economic indicators and indices and I was shocked to see the huge per capita GDP of the Cayman Islands, for example, and most of the islands had respectable and in many cases fast growing economic situations, and their social indices were also good – the levels of literacy for example were amongst the best in the world.

And yet Haiti stuck out like  a sore thumb.  Consistently low human development index values, social indicators and in terms of economy; it was hard to see if it had one.

Why was Haiti so different from all the other Caribbean nations.  It’s modern history started out the same way as much of the region, with first Columbus then other Spanish explorers, followed by Dutch and French settlers.  It was exploited by commercial companies, like other islands, it has an agricultural system made profitable by a system of slavery, like other islands, and was the basis of European empire building conflicts, just like other islands.  Then, stimulated by the French revolution in the land of the colonial masters, the Haitian slaves rebelled and were quashed.  With the Napoleonic wars, the French army were often distracted in many theatres, and eventually the strong willed Haitians took control of the western part of Hispaniola.

So in theory the oldest free black republic in the Western Hemisphere should have built on its early fire but as with many revolutionary pacts, unity comes from having a common enemy.  Once removed, there were factions and strong minded individuals who ripped the new nation apart before it got a chance to build a firm foundation.  Coups and assassinations were frequent, and in the early 20th Century the USA, worried about instability in its backyard (Haiti is only a few hundred kilometres south east of Miami) took is on as a protectorate.  While infrastructure improved, the Haitians grievances grew with maltreatment and continued impoverishment.

After the USA released its grip, a succession of national presidents helped to fuel growing corruption, injustice and political chaos. From this emerged Papa Doc Duvalier; once ensconced his dictatorship  grew, growing corruption, growing intimidation of anything resembling opposition, horrendous stories of rape, voodoo acts, and pocketing of aid.  His son – Baby Doc Duvalier continued the tyranny, albeit somewhat more muted.  Although Baby Doc Duvalier was forced into exile, the subsequent years have been just as chaotic, with more coups and a culture of corruption and violence which has become engrained in the psyche of the country and its people over several generations.

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Landing into the crazy town

Capturing the Diversity – 2/3 the power of the island

As we walked back, I was staring right into the eastern array of the World Service transmitters.  Five huge Faraday cages supported a network of wires from which the BBC World Service pumped out its content over the Short Wave.  Peter Gillies, the manager of the power station, had given Edsel and myself a tour of the facilities earlier on our first trip in return for us talking to him about mapping all the amenities on the island.  This oil fired station at the time created most of the electricity on the whole island, save for a few smaller generators at the airfield and US Base, and the small wind farm near Travellers Hill.  Of all the electricity generated by the power station, up to 70 % went into powering the BBC transmitters.  I was gobsmacked by the sheer quantity of power throbbing through those wires.  The position of Ascension slap, bang in the centre of the ocean meant it could beam radio to both western Africa and South America.  Originally it would use tapes of programmes shipped down from London, nowadays the live World Service feed is directly downloaded through a satellite dish near the power station and broadcast out through the transmitters.  A big chunk of the power stations other use was to produce desalinated water for most of the island.  Peter showed us the drawings of the electricity poles and the water pipes, and in the centre of Georgetown and Two Boats we got maps of where the streetlights were and the sewage pipes leading to the small treatment plant next to Long Beach.

He also dug out some very old maps of Ascension Island.  I loved these as it showed how different elements of the island had changed.  One map, barely 100 years past, showed that the roads went different routes to get across the island – and I wondered why they had been abandoned.  I also saw the pipeline that came down from the water catchments.  Ash and I had walked past these catchments on our route around the Bishop’s Path.  Large concrete surfaces had been pasted onto the south east facing  mountain side to catch the prevailing  rain and cloud mist that were often covering this area.  The water was channelled down to small hole at the bottom, and from this a pipe connected under the ridge, through a series of holding tanks where the flow could be controlled a lot better; and then dropped past Two Boats to Georgetown and the main storage tank opposite the church.