Wednesday, February 11, 2015

West African Toponym Explorer

Check out this Shiny App that I made.

Heres why I a made it:

After living in a rural village in Mali for over a year, I'm still not sure what ethnic group they are, or what language they speak.  I studied Bambara in the capital, and since I can speak with them, they must speak Bambara, right? Well, they tell me that they speak Jula.  At least, most of them do.  Others tell me that they speak Malinke, or Tabushi (although it all seems to be the same language).  They also tell me that Jula is spoken throughout West Africa - from Sierra Leone to Abidjan to Burkina Faso, and this seems implausible to me.  I've done a lot of looking around to see what academia and the internet have to say about West Africa's languages - how diverse they are, and where they should be found.  The results are pretty unsatisfying.  Anything very descriptive and at region scales is decades old. Most modern stuff focuses on individual case studies and rarely has a spatial component.  What seems to be the best maps come from christian missionary groups like the SIL (who produces the Ethnologue) or the Joshua Project, and are still pretty unsatisfying be academic standards.  In short, the information I can find about ethno-linguistic groups in West Africa, by searching the internet and academic sources, is unclear, missing, or contradictory.

For example, it's known that the Bambara people are based in Mali, and kind of crosses those borders, so the best map I could find of where Bambara is spoken is this one, which is pretty unsatisfying. Is Bambara really spoken that widely? Did whoever made that map really travel to all of those countries? Where is it a minority language and where is it a majority language?  Other maps of West Africa, like perhaps this one, seem to have more realistic borders (ie, not too smooth), but are still unsatisfying.  Where is the boundary between Malinke and Bambara? How porous is that border? Any why does this map differ so much from the other one? I don't think sources would disagree so widely about the boundaries between where French and German are spoken in Europe, yet ethnolinguistic maps in West Africa are all over the place! So it seems to me that there is still work to be done.

Recently, I discovered an awesome dataset called Geonames, which has coordinates for thousands of place names (toponyms), including over 150,000 villages in West Africa, and I think this could help give better resolution on the distribution of ethnolinguistic groups.  I am still playing with the data and sorting it out, but it is certainly obvious that different key words can reveal much about the distribution of different ethnic groups.  For example, 'Bougou' is a common suffix in Bamanan village names, and searching for 'Bougou' gives a pretty clear indication of the spread of Bamanan culture, especially where the boundaries are more porous.  I'm trying to think of ways to aggregate this dataset systematically to map boundaries between toponyms and thus ethno-linguistic groups.

Some clear drawbacks with this are that it doesn't show more recent language patterns, such as the emergence of Jula as a trade language.  Another issue, which I've tried to normalize for, is that the English and the French (the two biggest colonizers in West Africa), often spelled local pronunciations for things differently, so what would be Nyakwaju in English could be Gnacouadiou in French.  Nevertheless, just playing around with different queries in the dataset shows that many groups of letters have distinct spatial distributions that must correspond to ethnic groups.

Anyway, I also wanted to make a Shiny App, so here is what I've been working with so far. If you know anything about West African languages or ethnic groups, check it out!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

So, as I mentioned, I wanted to work on a map emphasizing the borders between countries, not just the countries themselves.  Here's one showing difference in GDP per capita along each border.  The highest is Qatar - Saudi Arabia, because Qatar is insanely rich.  Some other extreme borders included the US - Mexico border, the South Korea - North Korea border, the Kuwait - Iraq border, and the Israel - West Bank border.

Monday, January 12, 2015

I thought about making this map when I was driving back up to school in NC from FL, and the gas prices jumped once I crossed the NC border.  I've also been thinking lately about making maps where the interesting information is in the borders of the features, not in the features themselves.  I might make another map later of GDP or HDI difference at every border between two countries.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Forest and Land Cover Survey Fieldwork


The second component of my fieldwork consisted of two parts.  One was forest surveys, to measure the health and diversity of local forests, and the other was land cover surveys, to see how accurate the my land cover classification using satellite imagery was.  To do these surveys, I hired local guides and taught them how to use forest survey equipment like DBH tapes and laser rangefinders for measuring tree heights.

Here is Drissa measuring the boundaries of a plot. Drissa is an expert hunter and knows the area around Kissa like the back of his hand.

This is Omar, using the laser rangefinder to measure the height of a nearby tree.

This is Amadou, measuring the DBH (Diameter at Breast Height) of an Isoberlinia tree. Amadou is an excellent student and is almost conversational in English. He had to quit school when his father passed away and his family was no longer able to pay his tuition fees. He is also the only person in Kissa who could consistently beat me at the Connect-4 set that I gave to the village.

The Landscape - A Forest-Savanna Mosaic

Despite having a relatively uniform rainfall distribution latitudinally, Mali's ecosystems are extremely heterogeneous. This is because there is no "climax community" that would eventually dominate in the absence of disturbance. Rather, regimes of grass and forest compete at a landscape scale, based on disturbances like fire, draught, and human activity. 

In the Eastern US, for example, forests will dominate when given enough time.  If you clear a plot of land, first grasses will grow, then shrubs, and eventually trees.  If you do not disturb the area and come back in a hundred years, trees will still be there, because they are the climax community for that ecosystem.  Most ecosystems of the world have a climax community, but at the boundary between arid grasslands and tropical rainforests, there is no climax community, and both grasses and trees can potentially dominate. Thus, if you clear a plot of land in southern Mali, halfway between the grasses of the Sahel and rainforests of tropical west africa, in two hundred years, you are just as likely to find grasses as you are forest.

 Here are some of the grasslands I'm talking about.  At the end of the rainy season, the grass can be over your head!

 And here I am standing next to a Kapok tree in a heavily forested area near Kissa.

In the two pictures above, there was nothing specific about those particular plots of land that "determined" whether the plant community there would be trees or grasses.  In a hundred years, the land in the first picture could look like the second picture, or vice versa.

Human Impacts on the Landscape

The boundary between forested areas and grasslands shifts based on disturbance. Things like fire, severe draught and flooding can cause a once forested area to become grassland, or can make trees sprout where grasses used to dominate.  However, human actions are probably the largest drivers of land cover change in Mali.  Areas that were once farmed turn to forest, as the tilled soil allows trees roots to grow quickly and they gain an advantage over shallow-rooted grasses. At the same time, people frequently burn grasslands at the end of the dry season, which gives grasses an advantage, as they are more fire-adapted than trees.  In fact, people have been impacting the landscape in southern Mali for so long, it is difficult to find examples what a "purely" natural disturbance regime would have looked like, although the african megafauna that are no longer found in Mali likely used to play a large role.

 Here is a fire set to a grassland. We were just walking down the trail when my friend paused and said "lets burn this". The fire will stop when it gets to the forest boundary, although it may penetrate the forest a little, extending the grassland's range.

 And here is a grassland that has already been burned. Malians burn grasslands because they are much easier to traverse this way and it is easier to spot game.

 This area, on the other hand, used to be farmland about twenty years ago.  Now, saplings are taking over, shading out the grasses.

This area is an old homestead, where people lived maybe fifty years ago. The fields that people farmed in the immediate vicinity of their houses encouraged forests and the fruit trees that they planted in their household shaded out grasses and fires, leading to this magnificently dense forest.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Buru, a Malian Trumpet

During Seliba this year, my friend Omar told me that they would be bringing out their "Burus", large wind instruments. I had never seen or heard of one of these before, so I was really surprised that they even existed.  Everyone knows how drums and percussion are fundamental to African and Malian music, and after spending a year in Mali I was also familiar with stringed instruments like the Kora and the Donsongoni.

Here is Dowda showing how a Buru is played.

It is buzzed like a brass instrument, and it only can play one note.  This is probably why Kissa has a whole rack of Burus - so that each one can hit a different note.  They are made out of wood, with leather tied around them.  Here are some shots of the Burus:



When they finally pulled out the Burus, drummers showed up and a couple of people grabbed one and started playing. But, it ended up being quite chaotic, although a rhythm started to form. Here's a 20 seconds of some Buru honking:


Later they told me that only really old people know how play the Buru or dance to it, but now they are too old to do it. In other words, the traditions around Buru playing are being lost, and when the young people try to play these days, they can only toot uncoordinately. It used to be used for a variety of things, but most notably for funerals.  This makes sense, given its somber yet wailing tone.  Someone showed me some grainy cellphone footage of elders from a nearby larger village called Goroko playing the Buru, but it seems like the people of Kissa are losing much of their cultural heritage surrounding the Buru.

The Buru and the Senoufo

After people grew tired of the Burus and unceremoniously stopped playing, they went to give them back to the old man who guards them (although they belong to the entire village).  I asked the old man if I could look at all of the Burus more closely, and I noticed that two of them had distinct carvings.  One of them had two little figures, so worn that I couldnt really make them out.

Another had a very ornate carving, which I recognized as a hornbill, sacred to the Senufo people.  I had just recently seen several Senufo hornbills in this exact style in a museum in Sikasso, the Senufo homeland.

 Here are some larger Senufo hornbills from museums that are clearly in the same style as the one on the Buru: upright, short wings, and with the beak down the middle.

                 Source: Wikimedia Commons

 Here are some more shots of the hornbill carving:

This is fascinating, because the people of Kissa haven't been Senufo for quite a long time.  They tell me that they used to be in the distant past, but have given up the Senufo culture and language to become Jula.  In fact, no one could tell me what the figure on top of the Buru was, or what it represented, although this would be obvious to a true Senufo.  This conversion may have happened in the late 19th century when the Wassoulou Empire of Samori Turé was taking ground from the Senufo Kénédougou Kingdom of Tieba and Babemba Traoré, and Kissa was right on the boundary. People still remember how Samori Turé took over the area. He was laying siege to the local stronghold of Goroko, but could not get past their massive walls. Finally, he bribed the traitorous gatekeeper, and took the city.  This brought the whole area of Yorobougoula under Samori's control.  Within his empire, he strictly enforced the Muslim religion and the Maninka language.  It is said that in the empire's historically Fula homeland of Wassoulou, anyone caught speaking Fula would have their tongues cut out. So, the people of Kissa likely lost their Senufo language and culture in during his conquests in the 1870's - meaning that the burus are older than that!

Guns in Mali

Modern Guns

The village of Kissa has a strong tradition of hunting, and many households own some sort of firearm.  They distinguish between two types of gun. One is a modern gun, like a western rifle or shotgun, which they load with pre-made cartiges. These guns and their cartridges are available in the markets, and are probably made in China, just like everything else in Mali.  Here is a picture of a hunter with a modern gun:

 "African Guns"

The other kind of gun they have are old fashioned flintlock rifles. They make the bullets and gunpowder themselves, and have to load the rifle from the end of the gun. They call these "african guns" because they are not available in the markets - pretty much the only way to get one is to inherit it.  They insist that there are blacksmiths who make these guns by hand, but no one could name a blacksmith who made them, or even another village where you might find such a blacksmith.  I think these guns are really old and they were not made in Africa.  I think they come from pre-colonial contact with Europeans during the slave trade, which means they could be hundreds of years old. On a recent trip to Mali, I took some pictures of two of these "African Guns", and I'm hoping someone out there on the internet can tell me more about them, where they come from, and how old they might be.

Gun #1

This gun seems to have some sort of serial number, which means I was definitely not made by a Malian blacksmith. Maybe this number could yield some info about this particular guns history?


Gun #2


I'm gonna post this around Reddit and maybe some history and firearms forums to see if anyone can tell me any more about them. I would love to know how old these guns are, and how so many of them might have wound up in Kissa, probably 500km from the coast.  Anyone who knows about this stuff, please share!

Edit: So I made a write up on imgur so I could show the pics on Reddit's gun community r/guns.  Here is the write up, and here is Reddit's generous response.

It was agreed that the first, modern gun, was a Russian weapon called a Baikal Single Shot.  There was some debate about the other guns, called "African guns" by Malians.  Everyone pointed out that they were percussion cap guns, and not flintlock guns. Percussion cap guns were invented in the 1820s, so the guns (or at least those parts of the guns) couldn't be older than than. However, one user pointed out convincingly that the rest of the guns share many features with flintlock rifes, and it is possible that they were modified later when percussion cap technology became available in Africa.  Many users said that they were likely originally trade guns, at least before lots of modifications and repairs. Since the beginning of European contact in the 1500s until well into the 20th century, Europeans have traded weapons with Africans for slaves, goods, and political support/submission. While many users said they were Trade Guns, others insisted that they were made in the bush, citing similar homemade guns from other parts of the world. This is exactly what Malians themselves told me, although I was certainly skeptical. I didn't know if Malians blacksmiths had the technical know-how to make them, and everyone I talked to was fuzzy on the details about where and how they were made.  Nevertheless, it's possible that Malians used to be better at making guns, because today many advanced crafts like creating textiles, cookware, and soap are being lost. This is because of the flood of cheap crap from china that undercuts even African craftsmen.  In the case of the guns, many users insisted they must have been entirely made or at least heavily modified in the bush, because the entire barrel of Old Gun #1 is actually from a car steering shaft.  Similar guns must be in use throughout West Africa, because someone found a picture of Nigerian farmers using very similar weapons to fight off well-equipped militants from Boko Haram.

The redditors also agreed that my friend Sumaila can really rock his pink Crocs, and that I must be honest about being a PCV because I am wearing Chacos.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Back in Mali!

Hello all! I am back in Mali to do research for my Master's thesis. It has been so wonderful to be back here in Mali with all of its craziness and joyfulness. Part of my work was in my old Peace Corps village of Kissa, and it was kind of a dream to be back, chatting with all my old friends, and hiking through all the old forests and fields I used to explore.  I have been resolute about taking lots of pictures this time, as I did not take nearly enough during my Peace Corps stay. So here are some of the more interesting and illustrative pictures.

 This is Toh, pretty much the national dish. You take a handfull of the goop, made from millet or corn flour and kind of textured like polenta, and then you dip it into one of the bowls of sauce. The sauce is made from combinations of okra, peanutbutter, tomatoes and hot peppers. With a good sauce, Toh can be delicious, and I thoroughly missed it while I was away.

This is how Malians do tea: with two shot-sized glasses, two little tea pots, and a lot of sugar! The tea is boiled down into a thick, syrupy shot, and one round of tea can provide about 3 to 6 people with a sip. Usually there are 2 or 3 rounds, taking place over the course of a conversation-filled hour. There is lots of pouring the tea back and forth, to thoroughly mix it in and to cool it off.

 Here is a hunter playing a hunters-guitar (donsongoni). There was a big celebration in Kolondieba for Malian independence day, and lots of hunters came in traditional garb with guns and musical instruments. I was invited to sit up with the Mayor, and the hunter was going around and singing to each person so that they would give him some money. He came straight to me, figuring the American would have the most money. I snapped some pictures and gave him some change. You put it directly in the guitar, actually, and the hunter rattles it around and makes it a part of the instrument.

 Here's an interesting picture: a satellite dish, surrounded by Mango trees, mud huts and thatch roofs. I was out for a walk and I came across this bugu-da, a household out in the middle of nowhere. Often people will choose to live out here because of the virgin soil and empty space, which helps to grow more productive crops and raise more cattle. I've noticed that these people tend to be more wealthy, as you can see that this particular farmer, Lassina Kone, was able to buy a satellite dish and a color TV! Lassina was very friendly and curious about America, and offered me some yams to take with me.

This is one of my favorite pictures of one of my best friends, Adama. He is both very curious and very informed about the world, and loves when I get National Geographic magazines sent from home. Here, he is using an inflatable globe that I brought to explain to some people how it is the earth that moves, and not the sun. This is actually a pretty controversial subject in my village, but luckily Adama and his new globe should help settle the debate.

My Research...

I got a grant from the West African Research Association to look at malnutrition in Mali, and how it is correlated with other factors like cotton production and environmental degradation. I used a map that I published before on this blog to apply for the grant, and I think it explains a lot of the context of my research. I will be doing work in three different villages, and for each village I will be doing household surveys, as well as forest and land cover surveys.  The idea is to see if healthy forests and certain livelihood strategies (like growing cotton) have any significant relationship with patterns of malnutrition. Here are some picture from the research.

Collecting a list of all of the household heads' names from the village secretary, Lassina (black hat). I randomly picked from the list to determine which households to interview. Also pictured are my good friend Oumar, who worked with my during my Peace Corps service, as well as my host Amadou, in the blue shirt. Lassina and Oumar were both incredibly helpful when I showed up and explained what I had to do.

Here are some shots of me conducting interviews. They were taken by Oumar, who really enjoys using the camera!

 This is me measuring Mid-Upper Arm Circumference, a good indicator of a child's overall health. For all the children in each study household, I have to measure their arms. Often they are terrified, having never seen a white person before. To make the experience less traumatic I give them candy.  Also, notice in this picture, someone in the background wearing a shirt that says something in English. There is a 0% chance she knows what that shirt says.

Finally, I give the kids candy. Actually, these are those vitamin-fortified candies you can get in America. If the kids have really skinny arms, I give their moms a couple, and tell her to feed the child one a day.

So that's my research so far! I can't wait to start the forest surveys.