Sand in the Sandwiches -The little cog at the end

 I skirted the edge of this work, as NRI had no major involvement in campaigns and research when I first arrived, but instead were given to advising on biogeographical matters.  But the work started to increase while I was there.  Two colleagues of mine; Andrea Turner and Phil Miles, who were very influential on me during my first couple of years at NRI, were brought in to analyse the 1985-1987 plague which had caught the locust world by surprise.  There had been no plagues for about thirty years and many in country control teams had been scaled back to nearly nothing.  Then this plague came up and there were few defences. It built up, raged for a year and receded again causing huge economic loss in several countries, wiping out many farmers livelihoods in the process.  It was seen that although it was carefully put together and cross referenced, the old archive was not particularly useful for quick analysis, and the rapid computerisation of the world could be of assistance.  Two GIS came out of it, one built by Edinburgh University for FAO called SWARMS.  I always used the analogy that this was taking Joyce’s brain and putting it into a computer.  Joyce had an incredible knowledge not only of the geography of locusts from west to east, north to south, but also an intimate knowledge of every person who worked on locusts, who the charlatans were and who did good science.  Although the system was carefully catalogued, the only people who really knew their way round the system were Joyce, Jane and Judith, and unless that got recorded, it was likely that knowledge would be lost forever.  NRI were closely consulted on the SWARMS project and spent hours, months and years documenting the information, sending the maps up to Edinburgh to be digitised, deciding what case studies to use in the examples, and advising on how the tools could be used to forecast locust movements and development.

 Again, I was only on the periphery of this work, my main involvement in locusts came in 1997 when the need for a more holistic approach to in-country support was needed in the biogeography realm.  The RAMSES programme (SWARMS and RAMSES were rather contorted acronyms that I need not explain) looked at building up the ecology of key areas, such as the Red Sea Coastal Plain of Africa, and to help the controllers manage their own resources.  Identification cards were drawn up for handy use out on patrols, maps were drawn of vegetation in the plain from satellite imagery.  And I helped a team of people pull together a computerised database and mapping system that allowed all the information, rainfall, surveys, control efforts and the like, to be overlaid on single maps.  The Locust Management and Analysis Tools, or LMATS as they became known, were set up in several countries over six years; Eritrea (ELMAT), Ethiopia (ETHLMAT), Yemen (YELMAT) and finally Mauritania (MAURILMAT).  Once the development of the Eritrean system had been completed, the transfer to the other systems were easy for me or Judith, as I just changed some of the maps and the names of places.  Mauritania was difficult as it meant we had to make all the menus and words in the interface in French.  It drove Jane and I particularly mad as the French have much more complicated ways of describing things (Rainfall totals became “Volume total de Précipitations” with all the accents to boot).

 For all the work on locusts I had been exposed to, it was only in Mauritania that I saw locusts for the first time, and the huge control efforts which were available.  Around the offices in Ould Babah’s headquarters were a dozen huge Mercedes trucks, stained with years of driving through the desert, and riding on their backs were the sprayers, like the agricultural sprayers you see over potato crops in Britain, they had all sorts of plastic containers and hoses coming in and out all over the place.  There were bits of equipment all over the place. I felt sorry that I was not going to the desert at all in this trip to see how they actually found locusts and dealt with them.  For in that action underlay the biggest quandary of the whole locust business – the desert was monstrously huge and locust were tiny, whole swarms of them could in theory be completely missed by field teams just because they never climbed the particular barchans.  As guardians of the locust sightings data, we had to constantly remind people that our maps did not show where locusts were; it showed only where people had seen locusts.  There may have been thousands of other populations out there, they were just never spotted or reported.

Teaching MAURILMAT to the students

Teaching MAURILMAT to the students

Liming – St Vincent and Bequia – New people and Experiences

My quick trip over to St Vincent that week was uneventful, but on return visits I discovered more.  On my second trip I was staying in central Kingstown, in the fabulous Cobblestone Inn.  Although not a typical tourist hotel , it had such character.  Set in a colonnade of old buildings along the front street, you meandered through a darkly lit alleyway to some steep stairs.  The hotel reception was open on one side at the top of these stairs.  The rooms were off in all directions; this place was an old sugar warehouse and their were no large windows in the room.  But there was no need for them.  The rooftop café gave a glimpse over the harbour front, and I could watch the ferries coming in and out, a container ship offloading its cargo with its own derricks, and the occasional cruise liner that visited.  The town itself was surrounded by wall-like hills, hundreds of houses clinging to every crevice, the little roads winding steeply up and over the edge.  Behind the town, a looming forest clad mountain blocked movement that way, only two roads left the town; the Windward and Leeward highways that ran up and down their respective coasts.

Cobblestone Inn arches

Cobblestone Inn arches

I was working in the main government building, a rather out-of-context pink building right on the waterfront.  Gleaming and air conditioned on the inside, but also very empty.  I taught twice in there and like so many Caribbean workshops I have participated, the best thing is the snacks.  West Indians love their stomachs, and every couple of hours, they like to fill them with lovely spicy sandwiches, patties, fruit, sweet fruit drinks, banana bread and fruit cake.  I would often keep my breakfast down to a minimum and wait for the mid morning snack.

The fruit juices are wonderful.  As well as the usual grapefruits, orange and pineapple, sorrel was often available, which had such a sweet and refreshing effect.  Mauby was also often served.  It is difficult for me to say that I universally like Mauby as almost every time I have tried it, it has been a different taste.  Made from the bark of the Mauby tree, it is mixed to varying degrees in sugar, which I think accounts for my various flavours.  It comes over very fresh and sweet at first sip, but has a strong bitter aftertaste that can often ruin the whole experience.

Kingstown - including the pink Ministry building

Kingstown – including the high rise (and now pink ) Ministry building

One of the workshops in St Vincent brought together people from SVG itself, British Virgin Islands and a wonderful man from Dominica, Andrew Magloire.  We all got on very well, and the sessions were a lot of fun.  Andrew was tall and gaunt, tightly curled grey hair and a small grey beard.  Guessing his age was difficult, but I narrowed it down to somewhere between 35 and 70.  He moved and talked with gravity, and his grey eyes pierced your consciousness every time he engaged in a conversation.  And yet he was a marvellously generous man, frugal in his habits, devoutly religious and incredibly accommodating.  He twigged what I was trying to teach very quickly and was instrumental in getting me to Dominica the following year to conduct a similar training exercise.  He put a lot of thought and effort into every deliberate move, never wasting a single breathe.

The other key person in the group was Margaret.  A Nigerian by birth, she had come over to the Caribbean as a United Nations Volunteer and had ended up in Tortola working for the British Virgin Islands’ Conservation and Fisheries Department.  Incredibly hard working and enthusiastic, she was the driving force behind the workshop and my most ardent supporter.  She also had the knack of acting like a mother to us all, chastising us when we were naughty, keeping us going when we were tired and looking after us at every turn.  She was fantastic.  She was also incredibly funny.  Although she loved her kids dearly in Tortola, she quite relished the chance to be away.  On one weekend, she decided to have her hair dressed.  I had some work to do in the hotel, so took my laptop up to the rooftop café and tapped away all morning, just opposite where Margaret’s room was.  A woman had come in to her room to wash and set her hair and I saw the whole laborious process.  First her own hair was washed, dried and combed.  Then starting from left ear to right, every piece of hair was taken and woven into a series of extensions, which were afterwards platted.  The entire process took nearly six hours, and Margaret kept on making bored, hot and tired faces at me every time I passed the open door.  The results were magnificent though, a massive body of neatly placed plat adorned her head.  I had to ask her how often she had to go through this to maintain extensions.  She told me it was every six weeks and yet most Caribbean women have these.

Margaret guiding

Margaret guiding

The Night They Bombed Uvira – In The Heart of Africa

I was staying at Kelly’s house; she had managed to find a palatial residence up at the top of the affluent suburbs, which more than suited her boyfriend, Jerod and her, and had a couple of spare en suite bedrooms for guests.  I had a shower and unpacked.  Even if I was only staying somewhere for a couple of days, I would try and unpack as much as possible to make sure where I was felt lived in.  Although I love the travel, transience is not a pleasurable state for me.  I took a book upstairs to this wonderful roof terrace, with a soda, and looked out over the amphitheatre in which Buj lay.  The national Sports Stadium was a couple of miles off to the west, and a bunch of guys were training – you could hear their chanting from the terrace.

 After some lunch, Kelly took me round the city for a few meetings.  Despite all the problems that Burundi had had, it still kept in place much of its infrastructure, and in terms of GIS and science, it was well ahead of many of the English speaking countries.  I visited MINATE, the Ministry of Agriculture, and an FAO project which was trying to improve the natural resource mapping capacity.  I met an interesting and pragmatic Frenchman there, who was working to train several staff.  They had achieved much in terms of digitising, and he was demonstrating how data could be used to the staff and their superiors, but the usual problem was that the raw material being digitised was either out of date or of poor quality, and the crucial step from data gathering to decision support systems had not yet been achieved.

 The next day there was a conference on the environment, and I was invited to attend.  The main reason was for Kelly to introduce me to some of the key players in the Lake Tanganyika Biodiversity Project, and to get to know what else was going on in Burundi in terms of environmental matters.  One project was to map the landuse and environment in the Nile Catchment.  Something which had never clicked with me was that Burundi is one of the countries vying for the title of “Source du Nil”, the mountains of the east provide a lot of water to Lake Victoria.  Of course, Tanzania makes the same claim, as does Uganda, where the exit of the lake is where the name White Nile is first used for the river.  And we won’t go into what Ethiopia thinks of all this.  But in Burundi, they make a huge fuss about being the most southerly Source du Nil; a hotel in Bujumbura is named such , despite Bujumbura being situated on Lake Tanganyika, some of which drains into the Congo River to the west.  But nearly half the country’s catchments face to the north and the Mediterranean.  Burundi truly is the heart of the continent.

 I didn’t realise how important the conference was at first; I thought it was the usual bunch of scientists getting together to talk ethereal.  I sat to the side of the room, about five seats from the stage.  We waited round for ages.  I couldn’t understand the French babble going on around me, so I sat as patiently as I could in the rather uncomfortable chairs.  All of a sudden, there was a flurry of activity, we were told to stand, and a tall Tutsi man in a suit came rushing in followed by ten very tall, muscular men in smart army fatigues carrying rifles.  The suited man strode up to the stage, shook hands with several people and proceeded to speak.  My French was terrible, and I never caught his name, but he turned out to be one of two Deputy Presidents.  The soldiers stood or sat around the room.  Their uniforms were new and pressed, although they were in field outfits, not ceremonial, and it was obvious that the threat of assassination was very high, and these guys were not just for show.  One sat next to me, he must have been about 6 foot 6 and he squeezed uncomfortably into the seat, his long legs sprawling out in front of him, his rifle across his knees.  Fortunately the barrel was pointing away from me.

 The speech was warmly applauded, whatever it had been about.  And then, as happens with political protocol so often, the man who has laid platitudes on the aims of the conference so heavily, who has said how important the environment is, and how he fully supports all the participants in their efforts, gets up and leaves twenty minutes into the two day event.  My thoughts here are always the same; if this is so important to you, why don’t you hang around and listen to somebody else’s opinions.  I was always impressed by those few senior staff who would get involved in meetings, and you really believed that they had sacrificed their busy schedules to commit to something they felt was important.  So off the Deputy President went, with his entourage in tow, and the rest of us were left to try to re-establish some semblance of normality.  I actually followed the conference quite well after that.  My French friend gave a good talk on GIS, although I knew most of it already, but his presentation slides were easy to understand. I was looking forward to a talk on the hydrology of the country, but the man who gave it had one transparency which was so crammed with typed and photocopied data and text that apart from the title (which I already knew from the conference timetable) I could discern nothing.  And my problem with my French was that if I lost concentration for one second, I would lose the thread of the talk completely.  I usually found it was one of two things; either there was a crucial word I misunderstood, and while I was trying to work out what it was, I would lose the essence of the next two sentences.  Otherwise, it was down to the nuances in the speech; I would understand all the big words, but because of that terrible French habit of liaison, the slurring of words together, I usually ended up missing a crucial small word, and the meaning of the sentence would be turned topsy-turvy  – so rather than me hearing “The environment is properly maintained”, he would actually say “The Environment is NOT being properly maintained”.  It is hard enough to keep going in a normal conference without having these problems as well.

 I did go to the second day of the conference, but I did not spend the whole time there; Kelly kept taking me around various offices for meetings.  I got a good grasp of the activities, and although I said I still had to visit Tanzania and Zambia, it seemed Burundi would be a good place to hold the some of the core functions of the GIS I was setting up.

South Africa – Meeting up with Dennis

In Britain, I am used to hills. That might seem like an odd statement, but you know where you are with British Hills, you climb them, you reach a peak, you can look down on the other side, and if you are on a mountain, you can see other mountains around.  That all makes logical sense. Similarly, when you are on a plain, you continue to travel along a plain, and you may see hills rising away in the distance, but they are going up.

 So it seems strange that you are driving along on a plain and you fall off.  And you do so in such a dramatic way that you begin to think you have gone from one world to another.  Nowhere is this more dramatic than in reaching the edge of the Veldt and going over.  It is marked by a small restaurant and a set of pine trees.  On one side you have open grass lands, gently undulating with these mesas.  On the other side, you are dropping steeply through pine forest with rocky mountains all around you.

 The road becomes a motorway just below the lip.  It descends almost in parallel with the electric railway, and it passes through moorland and pine forests that bears a healthy comparison with the Beattock Pass on the A74 in Scotland.  We passed through several places made famous by war or song; Estcourt, Newcastle, Ladysmith.  Eventually we came through some beautiful rolling countryside near Hawick.  We had been descending for almost four hours but the last thousand feet into Pietermaritzburg was about as dramatic as any.  Reaching Hilton the road dropped steeply and the huge swathe of the city lay below.  At the centre of town, I realised that I had entered a different world from Gauteng.  The joint capital of Kwazulu-Natal, the old capital of Natal province had a more mature feel than anywhere in Gauteng, seemed friendlier (although I had heard that downtown was just as dangerous as anywhere in Jo’burg), and of course, there was a certain Englishness about it.

 I enjoyed my few days in Pietermaritzburg, and managed to get around well.  First I had some had business I wanted to see to.  I had agreed to meet up with Dennis Rugege, a South African remote sensing specialist who I had met at NRI a year or so before.  He worked at the INR  – the Institute of Natural Resources, which despite the name was a very different set up to my institute.  There work was funded by charitable and donor sources, whereas NRI was still government owned.  They were much smaller and concentrated just on southern African problems.  But their line of work was similar.  They were trying to do the linking research between livelihoods, environment and development, and had a high profile especially in KwaZulu Natal.  Much of the work involved the St Lucia flatlands in the north east, trying to protect some remarkable ecosystems in the lagoons on the Mozambique border.  More work was in trying to design a watershed scheme for Lesotho up in the nearby mountains.

 Dennis himself was a strong character but also a charming man with a good sense of humour.  About the same age as me he had a young family he was struggling to support in the high inflation of the new rainbow state, but he held many strong principles not only on conserving the environment, but on ensuring that it was Africans who should take charge of their sustainable development.  Having been given the privilege to study in Europe and America, including at the famous ITC in the Netherlands, where many developing country scientists got their training, he wanted to ensure that the possibilities for others to get that training were there and for them to be open to get a job wherever in the world.  At the time I held the rather pious view that people who were given the opportunity to study abroad should not contribute to the brain drain and return to their country to stay on.  But I was ignoring the individual’s circumstances, and thinking that whereas I could travel the world finding the best job for me, that people from developing countries would be happy to miss the opportunity to explore the world for a competitive salary and standard of living, instead put up with poor wages and lack of esteem.

 I now go with Dennis, it was patronising to think otherwise.  Unfortunately, to have an open market in trained personnel would in the short term be more damaging to the country of origin, it is hoped that in the longer term they may attract back the scientists, as they will value them more.  Still pious high in the sky thinking, but hopefully less patronising to the individuals.

 I met so many talented individuals from overseas in the time I worked at NRI, and each one had a different viewpoint on life.  Many wanted to travel, others wanted to serve their country.  Others were trapped in the wrong job.  There was no easy answer to people’s career paths or the needs of the individual country; it was all a mess.  In some ways it was easy for me to understand it, once Dennis had explained it to me; my own career was by no means perfect, and I was never sure who I was exactly serving; the queen, the UK, the third world, or the institute, and often I felt I was doing myself no justice at all.

 In the area of GIS, Dennis was very forceful also, he contended that he should get the best software and hardware.  He was quite right for South Africa, as it seemed that he could cope with it, but I still felt much of the technology available to most developed countries was inappropriate in the mid 1990’s to the majority of African nations.  My other quibble was that there was an attitude, as there was in developed nations, that by just throwing expensive software and hardware at the problem, it was thought everything would be solved.  Much more was needed in terms of human capacity, both the technical to do the work, and the social environment to ensure that both the application of GIS was appropriate and its results were interpreted in the right way, conceptualisation of the problems, and in making best use of what you had.  In some cases the use of old software and computers is entirely appropriate; most of the projects I have worked with have succeeded with software which is several jumps behind current versions.

 We chatted about GIS for a while and he showed me the satellite receiver outside the office that was installed by NRI.  All the other sites in the world where you see these receivers they were completely unprotected, but here it was surrounded by an eight foot fence topped with razor wire and a huge padlock on a reinforced gate.  South Africa coming true again.

Kandy – After the Perahera

 That day, a holiday in Sri Lanka for full moon, or poya, I decided to get a closer look at the temple of the tooth.  There were still a whole load of tourists around, both national and international, so there was a bit of a queue as I approached, and security you might expect in an airport with x-ray machines and bag searches.  The threat of a Tamil attack on the heart of Buddhism was taken very readily.  For a small fee, I had to leave my shoes on a massive rack outside the temple, and I headed into the ornate building.  A labyrinth of dimly lit rooms, the Temple is a relatively modern feature, by Sri Lankan standards.  Kandy only became the capital of the Sinhalese late on in the dynasty of great kings, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were much more ancient.  It lasted much longer as well, the British only overtaking them in the early 19th Century.  The temple itself was built over a period of a hundred years from the mid 1600’s.  The tooth was reputed to have been stolen from the funeral pyre of Buddha and smuggled over to Sri Lanka in the 4th Century AD.

 I remember little of the temple, unfortunately, apart from the huge numbers of people and several dark and gloomy rooms.  Because of the previous day’s extravaganzas, the actual room where the casket resides was shut to visitors, but I suppose the sight of the Devala Peraheras more than made up for seeing it in a stuffy confinement.  I came out and walked around the assembly house, an open sided house supported by wooden pillars, and some other features.  On leaving the complex, I came across an elephant carrying its supper home, its trunk curled up round a stock of greenery; his mahout sitting astride him.  Some policemen were removing the barricades from the previous night.  The whole scene looked like the morning after a heavy party, which in a way …it was.  I walked up the hill to the west to look at the huge Buddha but there was so much praying going on around it that I could not get near.

 And so four wonderful days in Sri Lanka came to an end.  I had to start work the next day.  Roger picked me up from the hotel and we dropped down the hill and went round the eastern end of the lake, past a small park for children on the corner.  We drove back towards town but before we reached there we headed out of town up a steep road over the lip of a hill and descended the other side.  A little way down this hill we turned sharply and followed a winding road which gradually dropped us towards the MahaweliRiver.  Before reaching the bridge crossing we turned left and went along a rough track parallel to the great Mahaweli Ganga.  The river was quite low and made up of a series of rivulets divided by sandy islands and huge rocky outcrops.  Many people were bathing or washing clothes in the river, or just watering their cattle.  At the far end of this track we came across the Polgolla dam.  This was used to generate a little electricity, but mainly it was to feed a huge river diversion, a tunnel some forty miles long through the hills to the dry country in the north, where it went to irrigate several systems.  We drove across the dam, privileged because like all strategic targets in the country, the terrorist threat meant it had high security.  Roger’s Office and the headquarters of the Mahaweli Authority were at the far end.   I spent the week in a windowless room teaching the staff how to use the Geographical Information System (GIS) equipment they had.  What surprised me is that the systems manager there, Thilak, knew all this stuff and was as experienced as I was, if not more in some fields, but there was something about having a big consultant coming in from outside to try to stimulate the mind.  I was happy to oblige for all the experience I was getting outside.

 I couldn’t help but be impressed by the ENDEV project, as it was called.  It did not really stand for anything, but its legacy was to study the siltation problems in the hydroelectric dams around the hill country.  There are four dams and it was realised that after their construction that they were silting up rather heavily.  It was also rather obvious that practices in the hill country were causing this siltation but it was not known how fast it would go or how they might stop it.  The original project Roger was involved in was to map the upper catchment above all the reservoirs.  This he did with first his British team and then more local help. With the mapping it was obvious they needed a Geographical Information System to store and analyse the data, and he expanded and expanded to a state where they had some superb kit supervised by Thilak, a Sinhalese computer wizard.  They also had maps at 1:10 000 scale of the incised hill country, in terms of land use, slope, rainfall and drainage.  An area covering a third of Sri Lanka was mapped as the project was expanded to look into the irrigation systems to the north east.

 Their problem, as Roger and his local boss, Herath (a lovely man who had the appearance of a well groomed sage) put it, was that all this data had been gathered but nobody knew how to manipulate it .  I could do little in the two visits I had but I showed them how to use the software to answer some questions, and tried to set in place some ideas of how to better manage their data.  But it needed more.  On my second visit, I developed a database to monitor tea estates.  I had a database that could record all the inputs into the system, the labour, the fertiliser, and record the price on the other side, and you could then find out what the profit and loss could be on a field by field basis.  I demonstrated this in Colombo to one of the big tea plantations.  They were mildly interested, but it never got followed through.  The problem was not Roger’s, the tea estates or the Mahaweli Authority, more it was the nature of Aid work, which precluded short term consultants for more than touching at the surface of the problem than to have the time and exposure to really get to the root of problems and provide some long term solutions.  My biggest bugbear was that I had applied to the Overseas Development Administration for their Associate Professional Officer (APO) training scheme several years beforehand, and failed because I didn’t have any overseas experience (Duh – I thought that was what this was supposed to give me).  Roger had an APO who failed him miserably and gave him a lot of grief, and I always thought, if I had been that officer, I would have had the chance to do the kind of stuff they were now charging top dollar for while learning an incredible amount from Roger in the process.  There were few times when I regretted the course my career had taken, but when I saw Sri Lanka and what I might have done there, I was disappointed.  I still got an immense amount out of the experience from Roger and from learning about the country, and I hoped that I gave them something in return, but I fear it was not really what they needed.