Drawing a map of their community.

Reading this week:

  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This past week I helped out with Camp GLOW. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, and is a camp designed especially for girls. It is an amazing program and I am really glad I got to bring two girls to the camp.

The focus of Camp GLOW is on female empowerment and health. The camp serves to overcome two shortcomings faced by a lot of girls in these communities. First is the lack of opportunities for girls and the lack of empowerment for women. Women in a lot of cases are expected to fall into certain traditional roles, becoming wives and mothers at sometimes a very young age. The camp tries to teach girls that they can spend time focusing on themselves, finishing their education and deciding their own future before getting married and having kids if they so choose. The camp also teaches girls about health. Most girls (or people really) in Zambia don’t get a comprehensive health education, especially relating to topics like HIV and STIs. So the camp spends some time talking to girls about reproductive health, family planning methods, and ways to prevent HIV and STIs. A big focus there is teaching girls how to get what they want out of a relationship and negotiate things like condom use during sex. So overall it is a really great program.


A garden at the location we had Camp GLOW; I was excited about it because I was the only agriculture volunteer there and it was super nice. The lake is in the background.

We conducted the program at a fantastic location near Mpulungu on Lake Tanganyika. Another benefit of the camp is that the girls got to see the lake, and after sessions each day they would go swimming which they really enjoyed. Camp GLOW, like the other camps Peace Corps conducts, also gives the girls a chance to hang out with other kids from all over the province they normally wouldn’t meet, and for Camp GLOW gives the girls a chance to hang out with just other girls in an environment away from their parents or teachers.

The sessions were a mix of different things. For some of the sessions, we did activities from Grassroots Soccer. These activities use soccer-type games to teach a lesson. One of the games we played was “risk factors,” where cones represent different risk factors for getting HIV, like unprotected sex or mixing sex with alcohol. The girls dribble a ball around the cones and if they hit a cone, that is like doing one of those risk factors. At first, if the girls hit a cone they have to do a pushup, but as the activity progresses soon all the girls have to do pushups if one girl hits a cone. That drives home the effect that HIV has on the community.


Risk factors game.

We also did a variety of classroom sessions. The girls were very studious during all of these, and would copy notes from our flip charts after the sessions were over. They were all very excited to go home and teach their friends about the things they learned. There were also a variety of girls only sessions, where the male PCVs left to give the girls an all girl environment. From what I heard, these sessions were very interactive and gave the girls a chance to ask a lot of otherwise embarrassing questions they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to ask or would be too scared to ask.


Girls copying notes all studious-like.

The camp also included a few different purely fun activities. On two nights we had bonfires and on one night we roasted marshmallows. I got to build the fires so I was pretty excited about that. The girls enjoyed the s’mores though let me tell ya if campers ever compare notes Americans will quickly get a reputation for being obsessed with s’mores. Not the worse national trait. The girls also had a lot of time to play netball and swim like I said before.


I made a really hot fire which actually isn’t great for marshmallows but I had fun and that’s what counts, right?

Overall it was a really fantastic week and the girls had a lot of fun and I think got a lot out of it. The camp is also supposed to be a lead-in to a weekly GLOW Club in each community, so I’ll see about starting one. At the very least, two girls from my community got to learn some stuff and hopefully they’ll teach their friends what they learned to really spread it around. One story I really liked is that one of the women that helped lead the course was a GLOW girl herself 10 years ago which inspired her to be part of an organization that helps teach more girls about health and HIV. There’s sustainable development for you.

District Field Day

An onion field.

Reading this week:

  • Self-Published Kindling by Mik Everett
  • The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Ministry of Agriculture, as you might expect them to, hosts a lot of different sorts of events to promote agriculture and perform some extension work. Today I went to a Field Day hosted in a nearby village. The point of a Field Day is to let farmers see other farmer’s fields, see what is working and what isn’t, and spread around agricultural knowledge. This I am totally onboard with because there aren’t any better ways to improve these guys’ farming techniques than to show them another successful farmer in the flesh.

The village was about an hour walk away and my host dad and I rolled in around 0930 as everything was getting set up. There were a lot of people on motorcycles arriving, along with a variety of cars and Land Rovers in various states of repair, so the whole thing (to me) had a sort of Mad Max vibe but if Mad Max just wanted to throw a pretty okay dance party. Once we had a quorum we head out to the fields.

Farmer explaining the benefits of banana trees.

For the Field Day, they split this farmer’s place into different “stations.” At each station the farmer (and sometimes the sponsoring seed rep) talked about the type of crop they were growing and the sort of fertilization and weeding schedule they had used. They told us how long the crop we were seeing had been growing and what sort of profits they usually see from the crop. In my valley onion is a really popular and really profitable crop so a lot of farmers were interested in that. I was personally most impressed with a really nice banana orchard the farmer had set up by a furrow. Oh! I was also really impressed with the really nice concrete furrow with sweet little doors to direct the flow various places. That was really nice.

An intermission in the speeches brought out the dance team.

After the field presentations we went back to the soccer field where they had set up a tent and loudspeaker. At this point came the speeches. These were long. They were also in a mix of Mambwe and Bemba and spoken by native speakers for native speakers, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of them. One unfortunate habit of Zambian public gatherings is that people like to make sure every relevant party gets a chance to thank every other relevant party for their participation, which is totally nice and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t do it or stop doing it, but it does make things take a while. The seed reps were also doing, as far as I could tell, seed giveaways so that is pretty cool. All I’m trying to say is that we were there for three hours and I hadn’t had lunch.

Luckily, the lunch problem was solved when we (the organizers and myself; my host dad was one of the organizers) went to the host farmer’s house and had a very nice lunch. They even had nshima made from orange maize, which we made sure to devour in a edible vote of support.

Bridge over the mighty Mwambezi on the way to the fish ponds.

The final activity of the day was to travel over to a nearby farmer’s ponds to check them out. He apparently had been doing fish farming before and was looking to get back into it, so was looking for pond renovation advice. His ponds were very nice and I only suggested a few little things, like adding screens to the inlets and making one shallow pond a bit deeper. My host dad actually did most of the talking which I was pretty proud of, seeing as I was a part in making him such a knowledgeable fish farmer. That sort of things really gives you high hopes for sustainability.

Host dad looks over the ponds.

Land Use Cycle

What with all my adventures largely centered around walking off into the bush, and my obvious interest in agricultural systems, I’ve started to notice a lot about land use. I’m not exactly breaking new intellectual territory here, but one thing to realize about the area is that there really isn’t any “virgin” land. Agriculture has been going on in this region for at least a millenia or two, and pretty much everywhere that can be farmed has been farmed at some point.
In Religious and Ethical Values in the Proverbs of the Mambwe People, Fr. Andrzej Halemba describes the cultivation system:

“In the forested areas… to enrich the soil with the requisitie potassium and phosphorus, the Mambwe people have for generations used a method of shift cultivation called citemele. This requires the soil to be improved with the ashes from burnt branches and trees. This allows fields to be utilised for the period of three to five years, whereafter the people set off in search of new richly forested land.”

So there is a general pattern to land use around here. The most amazing thing to me is how easily you can see the evidence of prior land use all over the place, mostly in the form of ridges. As I must have described by this point, most of the forest in this area is a short sort of scrub forest. There are few or no large, towering trees. From my readings on the Stevenson Road, this appears to always have been the case (though in that article they blamed termites). I don’t know if it is just the type of tree, but it seems to me like it could be from the cycle of land use.
Since it is a cycle, I’ll just start with cultivated land. After land has been cleared, ridges are formed and crops planted. The same fields are used for a period of years, and from the two growing seasons I’ve seen it looks like similar crops are planted in the same fields for multiple years (ignoring intercropping). Here is a cassava field:

After a while the field is left fallow. The below picture is of a field very recently left fallow. Turns out it is way hard to photograph ridges in a way that makes them super obvious in pictures, but in the below picture the grass is more or less growing on the ridges. That gap in the middle of the grass is the area between the ridges. From almost any distance away it just looks like a grassy field, but if you walk over the land it is obvious there are ridges there.

After the field is left fallow for a few years, the forest takes back over. Again in the below picture are some ridges, starting in the lower right corner and center of the picture and extending off into the distance. This stretch of forest isn’t exactly old growth but it is pretty well developed, and still there are ridges. Really the whole point of this blog post is me expressing how amazed I am that ridges stick around for so long, even as a forest grows over them.

The forest isn’t just useless to the people; beside letting the area regain some nutrients, the villagers use the forest to gather wood for cooking and building. The forest also provides a location for bees and other polinators to live, and although bushmeat isn’t a very large part of the diet in my village that is also a bonus. When it comes time to start the cycle again, they’ll clear a patch of forest. The trees are chopped down and then used to make charcoal. They then sell the charcoal or keep it for their own fuel use.

In the middle background there is a mound of charcoal burning (or I guess really wood being turned into charcoal).

The LIFE program has at least some focus on reducing climate change and reducing deforestation. These are noble goals (and I do see a lot of news articles about deforestation in Zambia), but on a small scale at least I think this method of land use is probably pretty efficient. Even with charcoal making/burning, these guys have a way smaller carbon footprint than almost anybody in the West.
Besides ridges, there are a few other indications of land use. Sometimes you run across old foundations of houses or other buildings. I am always amazed when archeologists dig up an ancient city that a whole city could become buried, but seeing how quickly things can get overgrown and buried it isn’t too much of a surprise:

As a final example, the below picture is of a furrow (this whol article I kept typing “furrow” when I meant “ridge” but hey now I’m onto furrows). It’s an old furrow my host dad plans to refurbish, and he has cut away the grass to get to it. Seeing this sort of stuff in the modern-day world really helps to put into perspective how easy it is to miss the signs of “advanced” civilizations when you’re talking about indigenous cultures. If you’re thinking about cultures like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they might not have left large stone cities, but mastering irrigation and agriculture is pretty advanced (to be clear here, I’m not patronizing the villagers I live with, but trying to put the civilizations we only know about via archeology in context) and sometimes the only signs of it are going to be a very shallow ditch in the field. That’s something to think about.

Operational Risk Management Part II

In last week’s blog post I explained that I think most of the mishaps that happen in the Navy are fundamentally a breakdown of operational risk management. In turn, that breakdown stems from an inability to adequately assess risk. Military personnel are highly trained, and much of the structure of the military is there to help reduce risk. That means that people can do stupid stuff for a long time, getting by on skill alone until finally the situation becomes too big and people are injured or killed. Until that point, however, people will be unable to truly assess the risk they are facing.

Like I said last week, I had a lot of things go wrong on my watch, and many of them were my fault. I wound up in many critiques and wrote two incident reports. There were several times where I was the majority of the ship’s critiques. I only really started to get better when I started to actively think a lot about the risk/reward of any given evolution. Risk is a little abstract to think about, so what I started doing, unconsciously at first, was to think about explaining my actions at a hypothetical critique.

This is a technique I recommend. Before you start an evolution, imagine that something has gone wrong and you have to explain your actions to a very critical board of people. That way, if you are cutting a corner that potentially increases risk, you have to have worked out your exact reasoning for why you did that. This kept me from doing a lot of the little stupid stuff. If my reason for skipping the maintenance brief was “well I just didn’t think we needed that,” then I had to think about how that would sound out loud in front of Naval Reactors and Squadron personnel. I don’t think supervisors should live in fear of what could go wrong, but it works as a thought exercise in evaluating the risk/reward for your actions. Usually we assume that everything will go right, so any action we take is justified in the end. But if you start with the assumption that something will go wrong, then suddenly you have to work to explain what you did.

Once a year a submarine has to do an emergency blow. An emergency blow is when high pressure air is used to push all the water out of the main ballast tanks, causing the submarine to surface in an emergency. In 2001, the USS Greeneville was conducting an emergency blow as part of a VIP tour. They surfaced into the Ehime Maru, killing nine people. It can be a very, very dangerous evolution due to the fast nature of an emergency blow and reduced situational awareness. When our annual emergency blow came up, I was selected as OOD (I was to drive the ship). The original plan was to conduct the emergency blow during our normal watch time, which was during daylight hours.

Unfortunately, our assigned time to pull into port changed, meaning we could no longer do the emergency blow as scheduled. At the last minute, the command decided to change the plan. The emergency blow was rescheduled for the middle of the night. I flat out refused to perform the emergency blow and the evolution was cancelled. I had imagined what I would say to an admiralty board in case I got somebody killed in the performance of the blow. Changing the time would have meant we no longer had the benefit of the sun, reducing our ability to see contacts through the periscope. Having the daytime watchstanders perform the evolution at night meant they would no longer be alert.

Fundamentally, I didn’t believe anything would have gone wrong in the evolution; the watchstanders were very good, and there weren’t any contacts visible on the radar or in the moonlight. But still, something could have gone wrong, and I could not have justified these risks to anybody. We did not need to perform the emergency blow right then; we would have another shot at an upcoming underway. If we had performed the evolution during the day, with full visibility and alert watchstanders, and still something had gone wrong, I could have fully justified that we took every precaution possible to ensure the evolution would have gone smoothly. If we had gone along with the plan to perform it in the middle of the night, we would have been increasing risk when the evolution was not necessary to perform right then.

The second major change is that I would empower more junior watchstanders to make more calculations with risk. Unfortunately, and it is an unsolvable problem, there is a tension in a peacetime vs. wartime Navy (or military). In wartime, a large amount of risk is necessary; ships and sailors must go into battle. In peacetime, there are no battles to fight, so a lot less risk is acceptable. But the Navy must still train for wartime, where being shy about risk is no longer acceptable. This creates a tension in how much risk a CO should encourage.

Unfortunately, the way I saw every one of my captains try to solve this tension was by telling junior personnel to encourage risk. Each captain wanted me and my cohorts to recommend and push for higher risk activities. This would put us in the high-risk (and hopefully high reward) mindset. Meanwhile, the captain would be the final arbiter of risk and, if our plans were too risky, he would veto them. This method was employed by my captain that got fired as well as by the “fixer” captain sent in to replace him.

There are two major problems with this method. One, it depends on the captain to be perfect at assessing risk. The chain of command exists for much the same reason that the triple-check of the tagout system exists: it is highly unlikely that me, my department head, the executive officer, and the captain will all make the same mistake. But these captain’s methods, where they wanted to be the arbiter of risk, meant that they were the sole arbiter of risk. If they made a mistake, there was no one to back them up, and others (the ones in the dangerous situations) paid the price.

The other problem is that it means that more junior personnel never get practice assessing risk. If your marching orders are to disregard the risk of an evolution, depending on others (the captain) to evaluate risk, then you’ll never get good at it. This would be especially problematic when one of these officers, in turn, becomes captain. After a whole career of never assessing risk, these officers would be ill-equipped when it was finally their job to be the one to assess risk.

I do think it is necessary and important to be willing to take on risk where there is a commensurate reward. The fundamental tension of a peacetime vs. wartime Navy will never go away, but you can think like you are in wartime even if you then act like you are in peacetime. Whenever there is a potential evolution (and it fits to do this), I think that multiple courses of actions (COAs) should be presented. These should come with an honest and complete evaluation of the risk and the potential higher rewards that come with with COA. Both high and low-risk COAs should be evaluated on their merits, and then the COA chosen with the lowest risk that achieves the necessary objective.

The military is a fundamentally dangerous job. Risk will never go away. The military does a great job, and should continue to do a great job, at training personnel to excel in their skillsets and to put measures in place to reduce risk as much as possible. I think the military’s “can-do” attitude, necessary in wartime, hampers the ability to conduct honest and accurate risk assessments in peacetime, leading to unnecessary injury and death. To solve that, every person participating in an evolution needs to think through where risks are being taken on for what reward. More junior personnel, especially supervisory personnel such as officers, should be required to evaluate risk honestly instead of pushing for more risk in the name of training for wartime. A focus on operational risk management won’t solve every problem, but I can tell you it helped me.