In the shadow of Ngorongoro

For three days I’ve been living under the lip of the famous Ngorongoro Crater.  From the Oldeani Coffee Farm, we look up across a deep valley to the edge of the Crater. The Crater is in a heavily guarded wildlife preserve.  Many of the 150 people who live on the farm have never been to the Crater.  It’s reserved for those who can spend 500 US Dollars per vehicle and $100 per person.  Mainly well-heeled foreigners can afford to visit.  Tanzanians and poor foreigners just look longingly at it from outside.DSCN8683

Two of those poor foreigners are German girls living here at the farm and working for a year at the kindergarten.  They just graduated from college and are taking a year in Africa to volunteer.  About  halfway through their stint, speak fluent Swahili and dress like Tanzanians—long skirts which reach the floor and blouses which reach the collar bone.

They’ve explored every nook and cranny near the Guest House to find the best phone reception.  One is just outside the gate between the coffee trees.  It’s under a sign saying that these trees were planted in1927-28 by an Otto Koerner from Germany.  He was one of the many European farmers who discovered these “Northern Highlands” were great places to live and farm.

The temperatures here stays around 70.  It might rarely get down to 60 or up to 90, but that will soon pass and the temperature will be perfect again. We’ve had thunderstorms nearly every afternoon.  The locals say the “long rains” have started. These will really intensify in March and last till June enabling the farmers to get a good crop of corn and the coffee tries to set nice plump berries.

July, August and September are the coolest months here and dry.  That’s fine for coffee.  Plenty of sunny weather that’s not too hot means the farmers can spread the coffee beans outside on screens and let it slowly and naturally dry.

I’m here to help reinvigorate this coffee farm.  We want to market it directly rather than having it mixed with lower grade coffees. Don’t be surprised if you see Oldeani Mountain Coffee for sale soon.  You’ll want to buy some. Not only because the beans are treated perfectly but because of the community which treats them.

The farm is managed by three Brothers from a local Catholic order.  They don’t take any salary, but seem to be filled with peace and joy.  They have developed a variety of enterprises on the farm which provide nearly everything the farm workers need.  The farm has enough milk cows to provide milk for 150 people and enough sows to provide pigs for the farm’s families to raise for meat.  The farm provides a mill to grind corn flour to make the nsima (somewhat like fine grits) that everyone eats every day.

At the Guest House, all our food is raised on the farm, except for rice from the hotter lowlands.  For those of us who haven’t acquired the taste for nsima, there are plenty of potatoes.  For breakfast, the German girls especially like “American cake.”  It is dollops of doughnut batter slightly sweetened and slightly fried.  How it got its name or the recipe arrived here are lost in the history of Oldeani Farm.

Breakfast is preceded by the fascinating and ever-varying calls of African birds.  My favorite is the “Go Away” bird which says just that to anyone coming to an East African wildlife area.  The others say all sorts of things, but not in English.  One thing they all say in common: it’s time to get up and go get coffee.

Except it won’t be American coffee.  It will be very strong and always drunk with hot milk. East Africans (who grew the first coffee) can’t understand why anyone would pour cold milk into hot coffee.  They also like sugar in their coffee and can’t understand why we don’t.

If you ever want to see the wildlife of Africa, Ngorongoro Crater if the best place to do it.  And the best place to stay on your visit is the Oldeani Coffee Farm.  Soon you’ll be able to at least taste Oldeani coffee, even if you can’t come here.  That is, if I get back to work and help this community achieve its dreams.

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As humble as rosemary

A few steps from my back door is a huge rosemary plant. It releases scents you can get nowhere else. Smelling rosemary seems to cause people to be mentally sharper.  I can sure use that. My rosemary bush makes no demands, though I do water it in a drought.  It seems perfectly fine with just supplying me with oxygen and delightful scents. That’s pretty humble.  Just produce benefits for anyone passing by and don’t demand anything or expect anything.

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I don’t think I will ever be as humble as my rosemary plant, but I’m working on it. Being humble is not what the vast majority of us want.  Most of the world says: praise yourself, promote yourself, make yourself the center of attention, make everyone appreciate how smart and capable you are. Glorify yourself, the world seems to say.

I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work for me. I need to be humble.  Every time I try to put myself first, something puts me back in my place and says, be humble.

That’s difficult for most of us humans.  We want to be first.  We want to be the center of attention.  We begin life as crying babies who are the center of attention for our parents.  Babies cry and smile and do everything they can to insure they stay the center of attention.  At some point, some of us realize the futility of all that.

We realize that peace and joy and love don’t come from putting ourselves first.  Those fruits come from putting first a goal larger than ourselves.

Instead we strive and strive to make ourselves great. Most of the world defines greatness as accumulation.  Accumulating money or houses or cars or adulation. All over the planet are people working themselves to death to accumulate all they can.

I’m pretty good at growing rosemary and strawberries and other crops.  I’ve had a lot of abundant harvests. An old story tells us of the rich man who had such abundant harvests.  He produced so much that he had no place to store it all.  So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his surplus. Once those were built, he promised himself that he would take life easy, eat, drink and be merry.

But then he was told: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

All over the planet people are living in this delusion.  We are so focused on producing more and more that we are generating millions of tons of carbon dioxide.  Many say those gases are warming up the planet.  The irony is that humble plants love carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide for plants is like oxygen for us. It’s not a waste product, it’s the elixir of life. Higher-than-normal CO2 concentrations dramatically enhance the productivity of plants.

By producing more CO2, mankind may be making the planet just a better place for plants.  We may be turning the entire planet into a paradise for plants. We may not like a warmer planet with lots of carbon dioxide in the air.  But plants will.

So all our striving to accumulate, all our striving to put ourselves first, seems to be producing a planet which is best suited for plants.  The lack of humility of man is creating an Eden for humble plants.

We could cease our striving for accumulation.  We could quit producing the noxious gases we are pumping into the atmosphere. We could focus more on humility and joy and peace.

Peace, joy and depression

A white Christmas was fun, but we were glad to travel South when all the forecasters were predicting freezing rain and -12 wind chill. We woke out of our holiday reverie and got a move on. Too bad we don’t have forecasters to tell us when our society is in trouble so we’ll wake up and get to work.

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Societies used to have such people.  One of the most famous was Jeremiah.  He predicted the destruction of his nation.  “You were given a bountiful country and ate of its fruit and its goodness. Then you defiled the land and made it an abomination.” Sounds like any country you know?

Most of us would rather stay in the holiday reverie.  Our lives are fine.  Let’s enjoy life and not listen to the Jeremiahs.  Or maybe there is a way to have joy and peace and still work to resurrect our bountiful country.

Working in countries with seemingly intractable problems, it’s easy to get discouraged and give up. People often ask me how I keep motivated working in countries where nothing seems to change. The key is to not tie your peace and joy to outcomes.  You can invest a lot of time and effort and not see much effect.  If your focus is solely on the effects, then it is sensible to become depressed and quit.

Change your focus to the activity and the people. Share your joy and peace with the people you are working with. As I help people improve their farms and create new enterprises, I try to do everything with peace and joy.  Then, if government, or weather, or big companies thwart their efforts, they aren’t as likely to give up.  They not only have skills, but a little peace and joy to help them continue their battle to improve the world.

Sure it makes no logical sense to have peace and joy when the world seems to be conspiring against you. But it is exactly that inner peace and joy which enables you to continue your efforts and become victorious.

Laugh and relax.  You know what makes the world better.  And you’ll just stick with it no matter what the world throws up against you.

A baby’s cry

Everyone loves babies. At least all resilient species do. Every once in awhile a subspecies is generated which doesn’t like babies much and doesn’t have many, and dies out. The city loving double income no kids crowd typifies that in humans today.  People who don’t like babies typically aren’t too religious either.  The rest of us love the idea of celebrating a baby being born at Christmas.

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The baby we celebrate at Christmas sure caused a big disturbance.  Way bigger than the Trump disturbance.  I don’t think there is much chance of whole nations becoming devoted to Trump.  And impeachment is not as bad as crucifixion. Too bad all the emotion generated by Trump can’t be channeled into something a little more like that Christmas baby.

In the language of ecological resilience, the baby we celebrate at Christmas was an emergent phenomenon.  Out of the traditional eye-for-eye, us versus them mentality arose a new focus. Since that baby, 2000 years ago, we know that we can be transformed to show the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

Native peoples, integrated with their local ecologies, didn’t show such qualities to their neighbors.  American Indian tribes usually thought of themselves as the only real humans, all others could be treated like animals or worse. That kept the population in line.

Today we don’t treat other tribes as nonhuman.  But the liberal tribe and the Trump tribe are headed in that direction.  Not a lot of love and joy and peace and kindness on either side.  I doubt the Christmas baby would have much to do with either side.  He might just retreat to the wilderness and pray.  Maybe we should too.

Poverty of the spirit

It’s easy to blame the poor in the third world for the destruction of their ecosystems.  And its true that the poor are chopping down forests and overgrazing the land.  But some of the poorest people on earth have done a wonderful job of caring for the earth. And some of the wealthiest got their wealth by destroying entire ecosystems.

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The destruction of the earth by those greedy for wealth is easy to see. One egregious example I ran across recently was an entire river valley  turned to rubble when a Chinese company wanted Mozambique’s gold. The Chinese are finding willing governments all over Africa who can be bribed to permit the rapacious destruction of their countries. Just as Western countries once did.

Most of us know little about Africa.  Did you know that, when Christ was born, southern Africa was populated by a peaceful brown skinned people who eschewed agriculture?

Before the dark Bantu peoples migrated from their homeland near the Niger River, a lighter people lived all across Southern Africa.  If you define poverty as lack of income, then these people (called San, Khoi or Bushmen) were the poorest because they had no money.

They made a life without iron or agriculture.  These came only when the Bantus migrated in.  Then began the long destruction of African wildlife.  When the Bantus acquired the white man’s tools, the destruction really took off.  Today, the Chinese love of money is finalizing the destruction of Nature in Africa.

I’ll be taking my eighteenth  trip to Africa next month, hoping to see some of the last vestiges of wild Africa on the Serengeti.  But I also seek out the last vestiges of the original African inhabitants, the San. As Bantu populations grow with unchecked needs, the San are relegated to remote deserts which no one has figured out how to exploit.

There they live in peace with very little.  Aggressiveness and greed came to Southern Africa with agriculture.

 

Technology destroyed the verdant natural systems of the San. Iron workers from the Niger valley enabled invaders to cut down trees and plow soil and the Bantu began the destruction of all the lands of southern Africa.

Technology does not go away easily. So we have to counter fire with fire and technology is the only way to control technology.

To do so, we must understand the qualities of resilient systems.  Everyone loves children. The poor people of Africa want more children.  The rich people of the US and Europe see those children starving and ship them food. Can we let them starve? Pictures of starving children and the greed of Western farmers unite in helping Africans have more and more children.  And natural ecosystems recede all across the continent.

We need the wilderness. It rejuvenates us.  It puts us in touch with the basic processes of all life.  Processes which are hidden from most of us by our cultures.

Our cultures which glorify greed and income. Amassing more and more is all we think of. The San and many other cultures have alternative values. These peoples accumulate a little and then stop to enjoy it.  Accumulation is just one part of resilience. Having children, part of what ecologists call redundancy, is also a quality of resilience. Technology, or innovation, is also key to resilience.  But all these must be tempered if a culture or race or species is to survive.

Innovation must be conservative. It must maintain tried and true traditions. Redundacy must be held in check by diversity. Diversity must be complementary, not rampant. Accumulation of infrastructure and reserves must be tempered by cycling these reserves to support complementary diversity.

The San and many other cultures, have incorporated those dualities in everything they do, just as do all resilient natural systems.

We can learn from those resilient natural systems or we can perish.

 

 

Hooray for the shortest day!

Just like our ancestors, we’ve been watching the sun get weaker and lower in the sky. Today, just like our ancestors, we hope to see the sun rise a little farther north and the days start to get a little longer.  It’s been almost in the 60s so we aren’t looking forward to a stronger, hotter sun.  But our ancestors lived in a colder, more northern climate had lots of reason to celebrate this time of year.

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The Blue Hole, our favorite swimming hold at Meadowcreek, is still cold since our narrow valley doesn’t get much sun in winter. It doesn’t even get over the tops of the trees at 3 pm.  Then it slides behind Angora Mountain at 4.  It’s still light till 5:30 or so, so work continues in our greenhouses.

But now we have hit the winter solstice and days are geting longer!

The solstice is an astronomic event on December 21, but it takes a few days to really notice the days get longer.  About December 25 is when it really sinks in.  Great coincidence that that is Christmas.

I guess it makes sense to celebrate the stolstice if you are a real Naturfreunde, but I think Christmas will do.  After all, most of the traditions of Christmas were taken from pagan celebrations of the solstice.

It’s undeniable that the date of Christmas was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.

Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which is derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival.The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.
We love to have fires this time of year. The wood is often wet from the rains this time of year, but we get the fire roaring, grilled steaks and warm everyone up. Guess these fires will have to be the Juul fires to celebrate the Solstice. 
The pagans knew the value of charcoal/biochar and Christians continued the tradition but in a watered down version.  In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.
In Ancient Rome the Winter Solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days.

Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE. The festival was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end.

I don’t think we’ll reinstitute that tradition at Meadowcreek.  The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.  Not exactly what we want at Meadowcreek.

In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody.

In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quechua in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.

Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.

The idea of Santa Claus may have come from the story of the first shamans who were said to climb high into the upper worlds and return with gifts of wisdom and prophecies.

No matter where the traditions came from, we will have fun celebrating Christ’s birthday, seeing long lost relatives, and burning some logs in the fire place.

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Santa lovers might read about Tony Van Renterghem’s research in When Santa Was a Shaman.  You might also like Phyllis Siefker’s Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years

Helping people: health and well-being versus income

Hearing stories of homeless families will break your heart. At our house, its happened so many times that we get bombarded by letters this time of year.  Every charity in the country seems to have our address and is intent on filling up our mailbox. Even though the best research says most charities do not help move people out of poverty.  They just make poverty more comfortable.

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The problem is how we look at poverty.  Emotion and politics have defined poverty in useless ways. Poverty is defined by most people as lack of income.  You are above or below the poverty line depending on how much income you have.  From this perspective, the goal must be to get more income into the hands of poor people. This has generated a huge federal and state bureaucracy which lobbies to keep their jobs.  More income may help in the short term, but supplying people with income does not get at the root causes of poverty.

Maybe some day those who run charities will actually read a little of the research on the causes of poverty.  Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for pointing out that personal well being is not determined by income.  Lots of sick and unhappy people have plenty of money.  Instead Sen proposed that well being is determined by the capabilities a person or family or community has.  Instead of defining poverty as the lack of something, Sen says we need to look at the capabilities which enable people to have happy, healthy, productive lives.  At best, income is one of many results of having these capabilities.

Sen anticipated more recent resilience work. Many of the qualities of resilient systems are the same as the capabilities of Sen.  Resilient systems accumulate reserves and infrastructure. People escaping from poverty accumulate savings and property.  Resilient systems maintain themselves.  Non-impoverished people maintain their houses and families.   Resilient systems are networked but independent. People with rising income have  strong networks, but maintain their independence.

Resilient systems are self-organized.  People rising from poverty organize themselves for productive activities.  They don’t wait for government or charities to intervene.  Resilient systems have a capacity for transformation.  People with rising incomes adapt to changing conditions and even totally transform their careers when needed.

Resilience research offers much needed insight into poverty.  We cannot continue to define poverty by what is not.  We must understand the attitudes and personal qualities which help people have healthy, happy lives.  All the while realizing that increased income is at best only one result of people having these qualities.

Most of those who run charities are very intent on raising money and giving things to the poor.  It makes us feel good because we think we are helping people.  Nothing wrong with that.

However, if we can help people to become resilient, they will be less likely to suffer when troubles arise.  They’ll be able to adapt and, if necessary, transform their lives.  They’ll know how to cope themselves.  And the charities won’t be needed any more.

And we’ll have less mail to go through at Christmas time.