Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Home Projects

Community development requires the practitioner and facilitator to restrain from doing for others what they can do for themselves.  This is necessary in order to give people the opportunity to participate, to engage in solving their own problems, to take responsibility in changing and moving ahead.  This can be quite challenging at times for a person that loves to work with their hands and serve others.  It can be tempting for any foreigner to think, "I can do this work myself much quicker than I can train you to do it, so step back local and watch how it's done!"  The foreigner that thinks this needs to be challenged to consider: who is this project for?  How do they benefit more: by passively watching you do this, or by participating and discovering how to do it themselves?

My belief in the principles of sound development trumps my desire to practically make wells and toilets and gardens for people myself, but this still leaves me with the desire to work with my hands and make something!  So, what do I do?  In Lal, I found that having some projects to do around the house was like medicine for my mind (which would get overwhelmed with the challenges of development work there).  More than ever before, I loved using tools, raw materials, and my bare hands to make something!  What follows are some pictures and descriptions of some favorite projects I have done in our houses in the nearly 3 years we have been here. (click on the pictures to zoom in)

 This was solar power project #1.  In Lal there was no powergrid so the options were using a generator or solar, or kerosene lamps!  We experienced enough darkness in our first 6 months in the capital city that we were eager to set up some lights in Lal, so we went with solar.  Two 70 watt solar panels was enough to keep our batteries (3x90aH) charged and supply constant light and power.  For lights we used 12VDC flourescents and high-tech LEDs that grandpa sent.  For power outlets we got a cheap Chinese inverter (bottom of picture), and hooked it up so that rooms could be turned on or off with the circuit breakers.  This was a great system, it did everything we needed it to do in Lal.

This was solar project #2.  We got to M-ville and learned that city power is quite reliable, until it's not.  The biggest woe of the city power was low voltage.  Regular voltage here is supposed to be 220, but we were often receiving 150, 120, or even as low as 80 volts!  That's enough to damage a fridge, so we bought an electric transformer (big silver box with 2 gauges) that would boost the power up to a full 220V.  This is an impressive device, and locally made!  We could go days, even a week or more without losing power, and then all of the sudden city power would go for a day or more.  In those times it was nice to have solar.  To switch the entire house over from city to solar we have a master switch (on left).  But then the challenge was that our new 800w inverter (gray and black box right of transformer) was not big enough to power the fridge, washer, or water heater.  So I ran separate powerlines to them, and put them on circuit breakers.  Then I started thinking up other possibilities, and in the end I was able to run lights and plugs on solar, run appliances one by one as needed with city power as it comes, and if all else fails, power things one by one with a generator, or charge the batteries with the generator if there was no sun.  All of the above possibilities were needed and used at times, and this system also worked great, with one exception.  The exception was that in June when we were gone, someone at the electric company switched some wires wrong and sent over 300V through our neighborhood, burning up lights and appliances all around.  Our transformer blew up, and a computer cord was ruined, and the fridge we were borrowing no longer works well.

 This is solar project #3, which we are currently using.  When we came back in July we moved into this bigger house, which was already set up with a panel of fuses, and two main switches, which allowed switching between city power, solar, and a generator main.  To mitigate the chance that our transformer could be blown up again, I added a third switch that allows me to direct most of the house's power through the transformer, or shut the transformer off and still run city power without it.  I also brought 12VDC lights back into use in this house, because it's easier to just run those in the evening than to have the 220V city lights flicker on and off.  One of my most exciting/relieving accomplishments was getting little t's nightlight and fan on 12VDC, so that he is no longer woken up by powercuts.

Once electricity is set up, it's on to the next utility: water.  Compared to Lal, we are spoiled here.  In Lal we had to draw all of our water out of a well with a hand pump, and haul it into the house in buckets.  Actually once we got the system down it was no sweat.  Now we are in a town where many houses have at least some running water.  We have an electric pump in our well (25 meters deep), and once a day we hook a hose from it to a pipe on our house that runs up the wall to fill a tank (maybe 200 gallons?).  There's no need for a water pump in the house, with the tank on the roof.  All our water pipes are outside the walls, because there has been too many problems with leaky steel pipes inside of mud walls.  These PVC pipes are quite easy to work with once you get the hang of the welder used to put them together.  Here's our low-tech and low-buck shower.  It works great!

Once utilities are done, it's time to work on storage.  Buying finished cabinets here is very expensive, I prefer to buy logs, and have them sawn to the sizes I want.  This is shelf unit I built in our last house, and when we moved I took it apart and put it back together again in the new house.

When utilities and storage are done, and life is not too crazy, then I can start to work on projects that are more for fun.  In Lal my favorite project was making this headboard and lamp.  We used one of T's headscarves for the fabric on the headboard.  It was really nice to have this headboard in Lal where the freezing winter temps make the mud walls chilly.  

Before we had little t, we practiced being responsible for a dependent with Inky the dog.  She was a great dog, but she desperately needed a house because she didn't have any other animals to cuddle with on the -40 degree nights (and she wasn't going to come in and cuddle with us!).  I found a beaten up cabinet that was not repairable, and took it apart to fashion Inky's house.  We even lined it with old blankets- spoiled dog!

And lastly, this is my favorite project to date here in M-ville.  Because I was busy with many other things when we first moved, I ordered a simple table from my carpenter friends.  They made just that, a simple wooden frame table with one low shelf.  We brought it in the house, and little t climbed all over it!  So, back outside it went, and I closed it up into a cabinet hutch.  I especially enjoyed the challenge of making a sliding drawer without any special hardware- I'd never done that before.  The hinges were also tricky, but they finally came together and I varnished it so the Crayon boy doesn't do too much damage to it, and now it's done!

What should I do next?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Micro-hydro electricity

I mentioned in our August letter that I recently visited several hydroelectric power projects.  These projects are not part of our community development project, but a renewable energy project also run by our organization.  Engineers in our organization have put more than a decade into refining the technology that is now spreading around the country.  They used to run a production workshop in the capital city, doing R&D on various turbines, and then training local steelsmiths to produce them.  When they settled on a standard technology, it started to spread to private workshops, and then the project no longer needed to run a production workshop.  Now the effort of the project is installing micro-hydro plants in remote underserved villages. 

The first thing to be said about hydroelectricity in this country is that foreigners did not bring this idea here.  For many many years the local people here have been harnessing the power of moving water.  The first way they used the force of moving water was to grind their wheat into flour.   

This is a locally made flour mill.  A chute of water drives a horizontal paddle-wheel of sorts, turning the vertical shaft that this grinding wheel sits on.  It looks like a slow process, but the energy is free, and that's worth a lot!

I have not yet found a source that could tell me when the first hydro-electric experiments were done by locals.  Today's locally made hydro-power plants look like this.  The same sort of horizontal paddle-wheel is driving the big pulley from below, and the big pulley drives the electric generator.

Some of these locally-made powerplants have 6-7 meters of head (distance of water fall before it reaches the paddle-wheel), and that's enough to make quite a water spray!  This system might generate around 5 kilo-watts.  A more efficient turbine could double the output from this much head.

Here's another view of the foaming water rushing out of this locally made micro-hydro plant.  From the spot I was standing to take this picture there was a misty cool breeze that felt amazing in the 105 degree heat!

Here's another village that has constructed their grain mill and local micro-hydro side-by-side.  They only  run one at a time: grain mill in the day, and electricity at night.  With a more efficient turbine they would be able to run both at the same time.

This was one of the first locally made micro-hydro plants I saw in the Lal area in 2008.  this huge handmade pulley  was very rickety, and a lot of efficiency was lost on the lack of proper bearings.

The paddle-wheel being driven by water was also quite rickety.  The fall here had an estimated potential of producing 5 KW, but this design was gathering less than 1 KW.  While it's great for communities to use all local materials and knowledge, but it's also a huge disappointment for them that their work doesn't produce the results it should.

Here's the turbine that our org's renewable energy project developed.  Water enters from a 16 or 20 inch fallpipe.  The wheel pictured on top controls the water flowing in.  By fully enclosing the pipe and the turbine, no energy is lost, it's all driven through the hamster-wheel-like turbine.  This is a 10 KW plant, enough to light 300+ houses.

Along with the turbine, a power distribution box is enclosed in the powerhouse.  The project also supplies main lines that go out to all the clusters of houses, and smaller distribution boxes.  Each family can tap into the closest distribution box.

This is the water reservoir that feeds the 20-inch fallpipe.  It doubles as a great swimming hole.  (Don't worry, there's a steel grate to private boys from being sucked into the pipe!)

That's your brief picture tour of hydro-electric power at the village scale here.  A turbine and plant install like the last one pictured is not cheap (around $10,000), but it would cost much more to run grid powerlines to remote villages here.  In addition, these projects are not freebies, the villages that receive these micro-hyrdo plants must labor hard, without pay, as their form of participation for the project.  The villagers dig the foundations for the plant, build the water reservoir and powerhouse, lay the fall pipe, set up all the poles for the powerlines, and pull the lines.  During this process many villagers are learning how this technology works and how to put it together, and these laborers are then spreading the word of how well this technology works.  This helps to increase demand for the improved turbines to smaller markets, which will help this whole project replicate and be sustained by local engineers.  Well, that's the long range picture anyway!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The land

Some readers have asked us to show some pictures of the land around us here.  Sorry it has taken so long to reply, we do not get outside of the city very often, and when we do we have to be careful to not be seen taking pictures.  Last week when I went out to visit several micro-hydroelectric power projects I was able to snap some shots for you.  

Our town, elevation 2850 ft, sits on a river flowing north from the high central mountains.  Uniform, moderate hills cover the landscape in every direction.  To the south, the hills grow into more jagged mountains, and to the north they dry out and flatten into what we call the dasht, meaning, uninhabitable desert wasteland.  To travel east or west you have to cross the hills into different river valleys, valleys which differ in their water supply and soil quality.  Generally it seems that the dryer, poorer places become vulnerable to insurgent infiltration.  It's sad to me that we cannot reach these vulnerable people right now because of this.  The area that is deemed "safe enough" to work in has shrunk dramatically in the past year and a half.  There are mixed opinions about whether this area will continue to shrink until we are completely restricted from the rural districts, or if security will improve and the safe spaces will grow.  For now we're cautiously going with the positive notion that gradual improvement may come, and it's worth sticking around a while to wait for that.  

The microhydro projects I went to visit are about a 75 minute drive on dirt roads.  Here are a few pictures from that valley:

Here's the riverbed in this valley.  This is typically a wide, flowing river, too deep to cross by vehicle here.  This is evidence of the drought that this region is going through.

There is still green in this valley, however, and it's beautiful to see.  On a good year this valley has enough water for orchards, vineyard, nurseries, and some irrigated fields.  This year they have to pick what to give water and what to let die.

Looks a bit like Lal doesn't it?  I've seen pictures of this places during a rainy spring, and the entire hillsides were covered in green.  We never saw that in Lal!

Alright farmers, can you help me identify what kind of bean this is?

Corn tassles are sure to make an Iowan happy.  The way they grow corn here is quite different.  Their companion cropping methods (planting corn late, amidst leafy plants) protect the tender young roots from being scorched by the intense sun, but then the mature plants look very weak.  Any suggestions farmers?

Thanks for taking a little look around with me!

Friday, August 26, 2011

In memory of a friend lost

It was about a year ago that a group of our teammates was murdered on their return from a remote health outreach.  They had hiked over 100 miles, over high mountain passes, to reach people that had no other health services.  On their return they were ambushed, and none were spared.  One year ago we grieved this bitter loss.

For the memorial service one year later, some family members of the deceased came to this country, to bring closure to their loss, and to meet some of us that remain here in the same line of service as their lost family member.  I wish I would have had the chance to go and meet the mother of my close friend that was killed, but I could not make the flight.  Some months after the team was killed, I was in contact with the mother of my friend, and I shared some photos with them of an adventure that her son and I had in Lal, in summer 2009.  This is the way I like to remember my friend: living life, taking on challenges and adventures, and loving people that the rest of the world counts hard to love.  So one year after his death, I want to go back 2 years, and remember and celebrate the life he lived, and for that I'll share some pictures that I took of him, and that he took of the people that were drawn to him.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The original Tiger

 Economic development is not something I often write about, because I’m more interested in the social aspects of community development.  However there is a degree to which change relies on the means to create access: access to education, to health care, to training, to markets, etc.  Lots of people here are seeking various forms of access, but they don’t have much capital to seek it with.  This is a context in which the producer of the cheapest products that create access will have a wildly successful business.  My case in point: Chinese motorcycles. 

Pictured below is my shiny red motorcycle, a Tiger Asli 150, made in China.  Brand new this baby sold for $780 (I bought mine used for less).  With it’s 150cc powerplant, 21 and 18 inch wheels, cargo racks, and remote starter this hot ride is near the top of the line around here.  Guys that settle for a 125cc motor, 17-inch wheels, and no-frills electronics can grab a new motorcycle for $500.  It’s been a long long time since a new motorcycle sold for that low of a price in America.  

Now, let’s get something straight- these are not performance motorcycles.  I’m a motorcycle enthusiast and I’ve ridden some terrific bikes, and to be honest some days I want to cry about how poor quality my Tiger Asli is.  The front wheel wanders all around because the forks has so much lateral flex, the rear shocks bounce wildly with no dampening, the gear shifting is upside-down from Japanese standard, and the motor signs off (8000 RPM in 5th gear) at a whopping 48 MPH (the gearing has to be this low so that it has enough grunt to climb the mountain roads in 1st gear).  I take it out on a trail now and then, but it is essentially a grocery-getter (which is extremely useful).  None of my moaning and groaning matters to the average motorcycle rider here.  Most of them have never ridden anything but a donkey, and believe me, these motorcycles are a step up from the embarrassment of riding a braying, farting donkey.  The typical rider does not need to go anywhere fast, or even comfortably, he just needs to get there.    

More often than not, these bikes get their riders where they need to go, and so the market for them has gone wild.  In a matter of a few years, all of the horse and donkey drawn carts have disappeared because they’ve been replaced by Chinese-made trikes.  The streets are otherwise a constant buzz with men of all ages on their Chinese motorcycles, zipping around running errands like they were never able to do on their beast of burden.  The motorcycle market has expanded the economy because suddenly, the circle of access around each market, training center, etc, has increased, because everyone with a motorcycle can travel so much faster and easier than before. 

The only downside to the soaring sales of motorcycles is that it has flooded the streets with drivers that clearly have not had any training in driving safely.  I’ve driven motorcycles in 6 Asian countries where traffic is very different, but here it’s scary because there is no law enforcement for traffic, and no one follows (or knows) any standard driving rules.  There have been a number of fatal motorcycle accidents just in the time we’ve been here.  So, like any development, there needs to be coordination from other agencies that say- we need to help the public stay safe as the transportation and economy develops!  Maybe I should start a motorcycle safety course?  Ha ha.

One last note that I found humorous.  The brand of my bike is Tiger Asli, which translates to “The original Tiger”.  So much of the Chinese products we see here are obvious copies of products made elsewher.  I got to looking for the bike that mine might have copied, and here it is:

This is a Triumph Tiger 800XC, made in the UK.  Both bikes have big gas tanks, big wheels for all-terrain riding, and luggage mounts.  The main difference?  Well the Triumph Tiger puts out close to 100 HP, and my Tiger... on a good day, perhaps 8 HP?  So I guess I should say that the Triumph Tiger is the  (real) original Tiger, but who cares?  The people that will buy one?  That won’t be many, the thing costs over $14,000!  I appreciate a nice motorcycle (can’t afford them but I appreciate them), but I am glad that some companies see the market potential in underdeveloped countries that are searching for transportation that will give them a chance to improve their lives.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stories from our projects

Today I'm going to share 3 stories that our local staff have gathered from the communities in the past couple months.  I have had a very minimal, indirect involvement with these projects, so it was neat for me to read them and know that without foreigner input, the local staff are taking this programme forward.  I have left them just the way they wrote them, translated by our administrator.  Hope you enjoy.

Sakina’s clean latrine

“After I went to the hygiene course given by the CDP ladies team I am trying to make a lot of improvements in our hygiene, cleanliness of the household and our latrine.  We are now able to keep our home a lot cleaner and use the latrine properly.  After going to the latrine, we are washing our hands with soap and water, and we have made a cover for the latrine hole to prevent germs.  And I have stopped the children going to the toilet outside in the yard.  We have put fly screen up in our windows because we have learned about the way flies pass on diseases.

Our 4 children were always suffering with diarrhoea, and we were spending money all the time on visits to the doctor, medicines.  But now, by the grace of God, none of us has trouble with diarrhoea, and we are saving the money we used to spend at the doctor’s.  We are very happy that I went to the course, and learned all this.”

Gulabza’s Biosand filter

“My daughter Zeba is 17 years old, studying 10th grade at the Girls’ High School in the village.  There never used to be any clean water available in our village, there weren’t even any wells.  Our family, like everyone else in the village, used to use water straight from the reservoir.  The two wells that were dug in the village were salty and bitter, so no one would drink from them.  My daughter suffered from stomach ache and kidney problems since she was small.  She couldn’t do her lessons properly because of the illness.  All the doctors in the city said she had kidney and bladder stones, and needed operations.  My husband died several years ago, and the money which I worked for was going on doctors and medicines.

When the ladies from CDP started a hygiene course I was part of it, and I learned a lot of good things on the course.  The most valuable thing was using a filter to get clean water.  My family is now benefiting from clean filtered water, because they have learned to use and look after the filter properly too.  Since she started drinking filtered water, my daughter’s kidney problems have improved day by day.  It is about 4 months since she needed to go to a doctor or take medicine.  I am so thankful that God sent you to do this work, it has made such a difference to her health, and I pray that you will keep doing this for a long time.”

Deadly reservoir changed forever 

“A young man Subghatullah, 18 years old in a nearby village used to operate a hand cart ‘karachi’ with his father for their living.  One day he went to the reservoir by the mosque to fetch a few jerry cans of water.  After a few hours his mother realised he had not come home yet, so she went out to look for him.   When she got to the reservoir all she could see were the jerry cans on the bank – there was no sign of her son.  She told everyone in the village that her son had gone out to get water and disappeared.  My first thought was that he’d fallen in the water – so I called a group of young men together and told them to jump in the reservoir and look for Subghatullah.  That is what they did, and they found his body in the water.  That is not the first time this has happened – I’ve been alive for 85 years and I’ve seen it happen quite a few times.  A few days later we had a general meeting of the village council to work out what we could do about this – but they couldn’t really think of any good ideas.  

Luckily for us, a guy called Usta Mohammad Hashem who had worked in a neighbouring country for several years came up with an idea.  Look, he said, this reservoir is a little bit higher up than the rest of the village – how about we ask some agency to help us put a pipe in to bring the water out at street level.  And then we should put a fence around the reservoir to stop people getting water from it and falling in.  And if we stop stepping in and out of the reservoir the water stay cleaner too.   Everyone though this was a great idea, and we got some money together between ourselves.  Then we went to ask the NGO to help us, as they had started doing other clean water projects around our neighbourhood.  They agreed to give us the things we were short of - cement, pipes and the fence.  We started the work as soon as we could, and now it is finished – the water coming from the taps is much cleaner than any other reservoir water around here.  As one of the senior whitebeards of the community, I would like to thank the NGO on behalf of all of us, men, women and children, for working with us to finish this project, with the help of God.”


Friday, August 12, 2011

Fasting, fervency, and fundamentalism (Part 2 of 2)

 I ended part 1 mentioning that I have recently been confronted by some radical characters here.  It was a somewhat disturbing experience, and one that I am still processing.  One output of my thoughts is a critical bit about how people of various religions (not just the dominant one here) come to hate one another.  The point is not which religion is more prone to create haters, but more simply a challenge for you to consider: am I willing to love rather than hate my enemy?

Although I believe there are many essential fundamentals to my faith that cannot be compromised, I will not associate myself as a fundamentalist of any faith, because I have seen the intolerance that boils out of the fundamentalist mind.  Too many fundamentalists have taken their rigorous study of theology to such an airtight conclusion that if you’re not with them to the jot and tittle, then you’re WRONG.  Once a fundamentalist has labeled someone as WRONG (or whatever label they find appropriate to assign), they will build their case of what they will and will not tolerate from them, with the wrath of god (or God) as their foundation.  Levels of intolerance vary.  Some intolerance is done so that those in the right are not polluted or damaged by the WRONG.  Unfortunately this can become a slippery slope, because those measures of control might not be in the hands of the right, not in the way they wish.  Then the fundamentalist has a choice: to tolerate, or to be more extreme in their intolerance.  Tolerance does not suit a fundamentalist mind well, so more extreme intolerance often wins.  Fast forward to the end of this slippery slope and you end up with an intolerance to let the WRONG live.  Examples?  Various Islamic terrorist organizations will probably be your first suggestions, and I agree.  What about this Christian fellow in Norway recently?  Although the professed religion was different, the same intolerance-to-the-point-of-killing drove him. 

Whether you like my examples or not, you probably want to know my alternate suggestion to fundamentalism.  I don’t have a packaged term for you (and please don’t assign a term like “liberal” to me), but I will say that our desire for others to believe what we believe needs to pause and be checked if they resist our suggestion.  Ask yourself: why do you intend for them to believe what you believe?  Is the benefit for them, or for you only?  If it is for them, and you earnestly wish blessing and hope and life for them, then why would you so quickly give up if they reject or resist you?  If there was value in their life when you thought they might convert, is that value completely lost if they do not?  In my opinion this puts too much trust in our words and ability to communicate them perfectly.  We’re too rushed to bother with letting the Word be incarnate among people that have never heard it.  We’re too fearful that tolerance will lead to us being conquered (even though the best periods of Christian history were when they were NOT in control).  We’re too tempted to boil the whole works of our faith down to some simple litmus test of questions that will determine if I love and protect you or hate and push you away.  The alternative I espouse is to tolerate life.  Recognize each life was created in God’s image, and has a potential to be transformed into His follower at any point (not just when we say they must).  This is not a lame or inept or inactive stance.  On the contrary, tolerance can and should be active.  Celebrate those that accept salvation, weep over those that are still resistant, be the active, intentional example of what you believe, and tolerate life.  Yes, this even includes those scary Mus.lims that all gather and do that intimidating prayer and prostrations thing.

And what will I do about being issued ultimadums by fundamentalists here?  At the moment it’s good food for conversations.  Themes of my rant above will make it back to them through contacts I already have. It’s an interesting thing to converse with people here about the fact that their development, international relations, the demise of their family structure and the state of constant war is largely a product of intolerant religious radicals. To the fundamentalist youth I pointed out the irony that he would prefer to destroy much needed help for his poor people, just because of his religious intolerance.  With one friend I am going to start a review of religious tenets that guide us in serving others, i.e. the needy.  He gets to start with tenets from his book, and when he runs out it will be my turn with my book.

So yes, the challenges I’m getting here will be answered, as long as we feel safe enough to remain here.  I’m quite certain, however, that the issue between the dominant religion here and the rest of the world will not be solved from this end only.  You, yes you back in the west have a role to play.  Think of it- we want them (people here, your enemies) to stop being fundamental and intolerant and hateful, meanwhile we, despite our belief in a God of grace and forgiveness, have a very hard time putting down our defenses and intolerance and disgust for them.  Yes it is difficult, but Christ is the model and the strength that we have.  If we do not use that model and strength, we’re missing our purpose.  And if we cannot grow more tolerant and loving with this strength, how do we expect our enemies to meet our demands, without that strength? 

We can’t be a people that lets the sin of our enemy blind us to our own.  We have to pull the plank out of our own eyes before we can address the speck in anothers’. 

Proverbs 16:7 NRS
When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fasting, fervency, and fundamentalism (Part 1 of 2)

Last week the Islamic month of fasting started.  Fasting during this 30-day period called Ramadan is one of the main pillars of their faith.  The fast is only during the daylight hours, but the rules are quite strict.  The fast begins in the wee hours of the morning when a religious leader can see the difference between a white thread and a black thread held in his hand.  Being summer, that time is 3:30 am here.  Then the fast is broken each evening before the evening call to prayer, which has been around 7:20 pm.  Between those hours a good Muslim is not permitted to eat or drink anything. 

We have observed Ramadan in a variety of places.  I experienced the party atmosphere of Ramadan in Cairo Egypt, where every night was dancing and feasting.  I also saw the long tables set in front of mosques in Turkey, where the faithful would gather for communal meals.  Those men would assemble with their overflowing plates on the table 20 minutes before the call to prayer would come, salivating as they counted down the minutes.  Together we had some great experience with Somalis during Ramadan in the US.  One year I kept the whole fast in order to grow closer in relationships with those friends, and so I have fond memories of that year.  Then there are harsher memories, like 2008 and 2009 when we were in Lal, witnessing the suffering that a malnourished population of poor farmers was experiencing as the fast came during wheat harvest.   So what is Ramadan?  Is it gluttony?  Is it legalism?  Is it community building?  Is it wicked?  I suggest that it cannot be described solely by any of these single-term definitions.  You have to go deeper to understand what is going on when people fast.

While I have never been able to say that I like fasting, I often remember that I like the effects of fasting.  Ones thoughts and attitudes and desires are deeply challenged and changed when you break your routine and experience hunger.  I like to fast when a big decision or heavy matter is in front of me, because it opens my eyes to new perspectives, and loosens my grip on my selfish will.  By denying the simple task of putting food in my mouth, it causes me to think more about what I so often automatically do to serve myself, and it makes me tune my senses more to God, who I say I always depend on (but do I?)

Although the observance of the fast and the subject of worship is different in different religions, I know that many Muslims also have soul-searching and spirit-changing experiences during the month.  We pray for them to have divine dreams or visions, because these are more common in this month than the rest of the year.  We take time to pray for direction to those that have had those dreams, that we can give some explanation to them or answer questions.  This is the side of Ramadan that we look forward to.

Unfortunately this year we have seen another spirit-changing effect of Ramadan, and this one is troubling.  Since we have been in this town it has been astounding how many times I have been proselytized on the sidewalks of the bazaar.  I don’t mind, I find these useful times to start conversations.  Then last week, as the month of fasting began, the religiously fervent upped their game and pushed some hard terms at me, and I have grown quite concerned about this.  One youth embodied and communicated to me the harshest rhetoric taught in madrassas here.  I have heard it all before, as just rhetoric, but hearing it face to face, with him talking about me, brought it home that religion takes some to the very extreme of intolerance.  

(to be continued...)