Corncob Charcoal Pt 1


Reading this week:

  • Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

After I posted the above picture on Facebook, a friend of mine said I looked like Kurt Vonnegut. This was a compliment I was willing to take, and I took a stab at writing a Kurt Vonnegut-esque story. The first part of the results are below. In case you’re worried about me, it’s not particularly autobiographical, despite my attempts at charcoal.

Peter stepped out of his hut into the sun. The villagers had started to arrive for the demonstration and so Peter made some final preparations. Today, he was teaching how to make charcoal out of corncobs. He was getting pretty good at teaching this because it was his third time. The villagers grew lots of corn, but didn’t do anything with the leftover corncobs. Showing the villagers how to use the corncobs to make charcoal was his pet project. It wasn’t original – lots of volunteers held demonstrations on making charcoal out of corncobs. But Peter wanted to do something about climate change, and for him, this was it.

After he showed the villagers how to make charcoal out of corncobs, Peter figured, they would start making charcoal that way and they would stop cutting down trees. He just had to show them how very easy and effective it was. So far the demonstrations had been going pretty well. The villagers all showed up to his meetings and paid careful attention. Peter had just never managed to convince anyone to go home and actually make charcoal that way. He avoided thinking about that as the crowd gathered for today’s demonstration.

“Hello everyone!” Peter began. “Today we are going to learn how to make charcoal out of corncobs!”

The villagers, after greeting Peter, smiled and nodded. They paid close attention.

“You see, you guys grow a lot of corn and you always have a lot of corncobs left over,” explained Peter as he gestured towards the pile of corncobs. He had gathered a large pile of corncobs to make just that point. “Meanwhile, you guys use a lot of charcoal. If you guys use the corncobs to make charcoal, it will be better!”

Having built up some momentum, and noting the smiles and nods of the villagers, Peter launched into the next part of the demonstration with gusto.

“First! You put some dried grass into the kiln!”

Peter put some dried grass into the kiln.

“Second! You layer in your corncobs!”

The corncobs tumbled in.

“Keep putting in dried grass and corncobs in layers!”

For this part, Peter liked to invite some of the villagers to help him put dried grass and corncobs in layers into the kiln. He felt the hands-on aspect of the demonstration really drove the point home. Some of the villagers came up and helped him put dried grass and corncobs in layers into the kiln.

“Now for the exciting part!” Peter really did get excited for this part. “You light it on fire!”

Peter used a match to set a piece of paper on fire. Bending down, he stuffed the fire into the bottom of the kiln, where holes exposed the layered grass and corncobs. The grass lit on fire and smoke came out of the top of the kiln. Standing back slightly, Peter prepared another piece of paper by lighting it on fire.

“Now for the tricky part!” This part was actually tricky. “We light the smoke on fire!”

With the smoke thick and heavy, Peter stuffed the burning piece of paper down the top of the kiln. The billowing smoke caught fire right away. Quickly, Peter covered the kiln with a piece of metal and started sealing all the holes in the kiln with mud.

“You see!” Peter checked that the villagers really did see. “Now that we’ve lit the corncobs on fire, they will smolder here in the kiln overnight. Tomorrow, we’ll have charcoal!” Peter reached into a nearby sack and pulled out some of the charcoal he made in the second demonstration. He passed it around and the villagers inspected the charcoal. They confirmed to themselves it had once been a corncob, but that it was now charcoal.

With his demonstration over, Peter beamed at the crowd. Another demonstration had gone off perfectly, and the villagers were engaged. “That’s all I have for today guys! Thank you all for coming!”

The villagers, smiling, left. The villagers were glad they could make their friend Peter so happy by attending his demonstration. They were glad to arrive on time and pay attention and they were pleased to see the demonstration work. Some had not understood the first time but they had understood after the second demonstration. Everyone understood it by now, but they were still excited to support Peter.

In a small lab in California, the engineers stood smiling. Their latest test had finally been a success. They stood in front of a slowly disappearing pile of old circuit boards and discarded computers. The pile of electronics was disappearing as an army of nanites the engineers had designed worked to turn those parts back into their molecular components.

For the engineers in the lab, the looming environmental problem that worried them the most was the cast-off detritus of the electronic age. Cheap and easy to build consumer electronics had beget mountains of expensive to recycle toxic trash. But now, the engineers had created microscopic machines that could make raw materials out of circuit boards.

The nanites neatly solved several problems at once. Besides breaking the circuit boards down into raw materials, the nanites could replicate themselves as needed for a job. Even a small initial amount of nanites could be used to break down any quantity of electronic trash. By breaking circuit boards down to their raw materials, they would help solve the shortage of those raw materials needed to make new circuit boards. And because the nanites could identify the old electronics themselves, they didn’t need any supervision.

With the glow of a long and complicated project brought to completion, the engineers packed up to head home for the evening. One of the engineers glanced down at his watch to check the time. It wasn’t there. “Funny,” he thought, “I must have forgotten it.”

A few days later Peter sat in his hut, dejected. He fingered the toy car he kept on the table. Peter had been around the village, talking with his neighbors and helping them with their fields. He had watched them cook. Out of everyone he had visited, no one had made charcoal out of corncobs.

Peter made the car pop a wheelie near one of the books he kept on a table. It took a corner too tight, Peter decided, and he sent the car rolling off the edge of the table. He bent down and picked it up. The toy car was a model of his car back home. Peter missed that car. It had been six months since he had driven it, back home. He missed driving. Peter looked into the tiny model window at the tiny model steering wheel. He missed cruising down the highway. He missed speeding down back roads. He missed the smell of gas and oil when he worked on it. Peter put the car down.

Peter picked the car back up and fidgeted with it as he tried to figure out how to get the villagers to make charcoal out of corncobs. The villagers seemed to understand, at this point, how to make charcoal out of corncobs. They must, right? They smile and nod during the demonstration. This last time the villagers looked like they knew what was coming next. That hands-on portion in the middle when they helped to put grass and corncobs into the kiln really drove the point home. He had to convince the villagers to make charcoal out of corncobs. He had to help fight climate change.

Peter put down the car and picked up his phone. He searched for ways to make his presentation better. A lot of people had a lot of ideas about how to make rural villager’s lives better. Techniques for conservation farming and better use of manure and ways to cut down on pesticides were all there on the internet. Poking around for different ways to make charcoal, he sifted through some lackluster proposals. Finally, he found his climate change solution.

In the small lab in California, the pile of old circuit boards and discarded computers had been completely broken down. The diminutive representative of the mountains of toxic electronic waste had been reduced to its raw materials and a host of new nanites.

The nanites had been designed to only break down trash. They weren’t supposed to break down, for example, working and useful electronics. But while the nanites were very good at breaking down circuit boards, they were not quite as good at replicating themselves. In that process, mistakes had been made. That simple but vital little part of their programming that said to only look for trash had, for one nanite, been forgotten. That nanite, never knowing that particular directive, of course never passed it on to any of the nanites that it built in the course of its duties. Those nanites, in turn, never passed it on to their offspring.

These nanites, with the easily digestible trash gone, were restless. The directive of all the nanites had been to break down circuit boards and electronics, comprising plastics and metals and other materials. The rest of the nanites, with their trash directive intact, were satisfied with a job well done. The nanites who never knew what trash was, however, looked around to the plastic and metal box they were being kept in and got back to work.

The first scientist who arrived to the lab in the morning, the guy who usually made the coffee because he had a certain way he liked it and the only way to make sure it was made that way was to show up first and make it, showed up to find the lab gone.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2!

Fish Harvest

My host dad gazes upon the fruits of his efforts.

My host dad finally did a fish harvest this week. I had been in town for most of the day submitting some paperwork. After returning, I went down to the ponds and was surprised to find a harvest in progress. Two of my host dad’s ponds had been part of an experiment with Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) comparing commercial feed and home-made feed. The ponds have been stocked for the better part of a year but I guess they finally got around to harvesting l them. I suspect I didn’t get told it was going to happen because my host dad didn’t get told either. Either way, I am glad they finally harvested the things.

The channel is in the back corner with the net keeping fish in the pond.

The first step in harvesting is to drain the pond. This makes the whole process a lot easier. The fish wind up concentrated in the bottom of the pond, and there is less water to wade through as you drag the net through the pond. Plus, after harvesting it is better to let the pond dry for a week or two before filling it back up with water. That kills off frogs and unwanted fish that can burrow into the mud. Draining the pond is accomplished by cutting a channel in the wall of the pond, and a net is used to ensure the fish don’t escape.

The trick is to make the kids get muddy while you stay on the bank.

After the pond is drained, it is a pretty simple affair of dragging the net through the pond. This harvest yielded about 20kg of fish. Frankly, that’s about 1/5 of what you would really hope for. But these ponds
have been suffering from predators due to their proximity to the river. I kind of suspect if they had harvested after 6 months instead of a year they would have gotten more fish. There are also more steps that can be taken to help prevent predators from eating the fish, and this should maybe spur my host dad into taking those steps. I don’t feel too bad about it all since SUN provided the fingerlings and my host dad got fish out of the deal. At about 20 kwatcha per kg, a 400 kwatcha payday isn’t the worst.

I told him to pose with the fish. I got this Blue Steel look.

I’m really glad we actually got to do a pond harvest while I was here. My host dad’s other ponds are ready for harvest too, but aside from occasionally harvesting a few fish to eat he has been mostly keeping those as a future source of fingerlings. I don’t think that’s the greatest strategy, and I’ve told him that, but they’re his ponds after all. But we harvested some fish we ate some for lunch the next day, so that was cool.

National Malaria Workshop


An unflattering picture of our fearless leader, Grace.

This past week I attended the National Malaria Workshop over in Mansa. The NMW was put together by Peace Corps Zambia’s Malaria Committee, a group of volunteers that are dedicated to supporting anti-malaria work via Peace Corps here in Zambia. This was the first time they had put together a workshop like this and I think it was a pretty big success.

To attend the workshop with me, I brought the head teacher from a local primary school, Friday. Friday is a pretty good guy and his school there is fairly beleaguered. He’s actually the only government teacher at the school, and is nominally responsible for a catchment area that includes 600 kids. Because of school fees and the other issues facing school kids in Zambia, he “only” really teaches about 150, and is helped by “volunteer” teachers in the community (these teachers receive a stipend paid for by school fees). I chose to bring Friday because I have previously done some malaria work with him, and he was really enthusiastic about it. Plus, he reported that attendance improved because fewer kids were getting sick with malaria, so he saw the value in the education.


Friday (in the awesome track suit) getting the kids excited about fighting malaria.

The workshop was over three days. The first day was mostly about teaching us about malaria. Things like how it is transmitted and the history of malaria and the current state of malaria in Zambia. The counterparts really enjoyed this portion, especially some of the videos about how malaria is transmitted and about the lifecycle of malaria. As for the current state of malaria in Zambia, it’s bad. Sub-Saharan Africa is rife with malaria, and it is really hard to combat here. The prevalence of malaria is very high, most people live in far remote rural villages where it is hard for the government to come in and work on malaria eradication, and since the governments of many of these countries are chronically under-funded anyways it is hard to put resources towards the problem.

On the second day, we learned about care groups, which is a strategy for reaching a large number of households. The way this program works is someone like a PCV will lead a group of about 10 volunteers from the community. The PCV will teach these volunteers about malaria and different prevention strategies and the like and then the volunteers are responsible for going out to about 10 households and teaching them. So that way one “expert” can reach 100 households on a regular basis. I thought that was a really good strategy and depending on Friday’s enthusiasm we might implement it. In the afternoon though we introduced Malaria GRS. One of the really cool parts of this workshop is that on the third day we went to a local school and we actually had a field day. So the afternoon of the second day was spent preparing for that.


Me, holding up a “NOSENSE” sign.

The field day on the third day was really cool. I think workshops are best when they are hands on; I find a lot of counterparts are visual learners who need to see and do something before they really “get” it. So being able to go to a local school and actually implement some of the interventions we learned during the workshop was awesome. My group was in charge of “Fact/Nonsense,” which is a game where you read the students different statements about malaria, and they decide if the facts are indeed facts or if they are nonsense. Intrinsically, the game is a little boring, but the counterparts in my group (and especially Friday) worked really hard to make it exciting for the kids, with a lot of running around and yelling and all that jazz. It gets the kids talking about malaria and seeing what they already know in a group setting with their friends. We ran through it four times with four different groups, giving different people a chance to lead it. So that went really awesome.


Counterparts and volunteers from Northern Province in front of the school’s malaria mural.

The workshop wrapped up pretty soon after the field day but I think it really had a lot of value. It brought counterparts together so they could talk about what was going on in their communities, and the workshop taught all of us some cool interventions and strategies for reducing the burden of malaria in Zambia. I know Friday was especially enthusiastic. He kept thanking me for “blessing” him with the opportunity to come to the workshop and learn. Now the trick will be to harness that enthusiasm back in the village to help eradicate malaria, but frankly I don’t think that’ll be too much of a problem. Malaria is such a burden here in Zambia and anything we can do to help ease that burden for our neighbors will be pretty awesome.

Liamba Hill


View from near the top of the hill, looking west.

Yesterday I decided to go on an adventure and went and explored Liamba Hill. I found out about Liamba Hill thanks to the always interesting (if you live near Mbala) Abercornucopia, which recently posted two papers about Liamba Hill, here and here. The two papers describe Liamba Hill as a sort of stone age factory, literally covered with stone age artifacts:

“The whole surface of the western slope of the Liamba Hill formation… is almost completely covered with stone fragments so thickly laid that there is hardly any grass cover and only thin, open bush cover… These stone fragments are largely – in fact mainly – artifacts. In some places there is hardly a natural stone to be seen.”

Liamba Hill is about 14 miles east of Mbala, so I set out early from my house and after picking up some egg sandwiches for lunch in Mbala, I made it to the hill about 1100. Based on various misadventures in the past, I am usually prepared for the worst, but this trip was pretty easy. The road goes right up to the hill and it is a pretty easy climb.


The paper did not mislead and the hill is pretty thickly covered with stone fragments. The paper promised that nearly every stone was an artifact of some sort, and I wish I knew better what a stone age artifact actually looked like. I think most of the artifacts on the hill are actually waste material, such as the stone fragments you chip away from a larger stone to like, actually make the tool. Looking around though, I found some things that I think could have been tools, or at least thrown away rejects.


Spear point?




Though I am not exactly an archaeologist, the papers promise that every fragment on the hill is an artifact, so sheer chance dictates I found at least a few. I, of course, left them on the hill.

At the top of the hill I ate lunch while enjoying the scenery. It’s currently burning season, and looking over the landscape you could see various fires in the area. That made it hazy, but I could make out Mt. Sunzu several miles to the south along the ridge. If the hill was slightly taller I would have been able to see over the ridge that marks the edge of the escarpment, but looks like I’ll have to climb another hill for that view. Overall it is a very pleasant easy hike with some added archaeology involved. As I’ve noted before, it is still pretty crazy to think about all the hundreds of thousands of years worth of humanity that has lived in this very spot. If Liamba Hill was a sort of stone age factory, the implications of that include trading routes, exchanges of knowledge and food, wars and peace throughout the centuries. Makes a pretty neat spot to eat an egg sandwich.


Brush-burning fires.