June 29, 2010

Shopping with a Conscious: Bantu.

I have long grown tired of increasingly grandiose attempts to get consumers to consume more under the thinly veiled guise of saving the world. But this Vanity Fair headline really seemed to take the cake, "Buy a Swimsuit, Save Africa". Its a simple claim really, but yet, so loaded. A swimsuit that can save a whole continent, please let us not oversimplify rather complex development challenges that professionals have been trying to tackle for decades. But as I read on, my skepticism gave way to tentative support. Perhaps a swimsuit purchase will not save an entire continent, but here is what shopping with a consciousness may do.

Despite the often reported horrors of the continent, the founders of this swimsuit line, Bantu, seek to promote an often overlooked side of the African continent - Africa's amazing beaches and vibrant beach culture from Dakar to Cape Town to Zanzibar to Casablanca. Amidst stories that reach the American shores of the despondent and helpless peoples of African nations, this family business with African roots attempts to promote the sunnier side of this so called "dark" continent.

Yodit Eklund is the mastermind and visionary behind this new swimsuit line. Together with her brother, Yohannes Mekbebe, she is launching this swimwear line inspired by their childhood roots in Kenya, Egypt, and Bangladesh with strong influences from the low-key surfing vibe of the African coast.

So how exactly does this swimsuit purchase "save Africa"? Well, beyond, the bold efforts to rebrand Africa from "forever backward" to "full of vitality and life," their prints are sourced from sub-Saharan artists, and then cut and sewn in factories from Ethiopia to Cameroon, bringing industrial and economic development to some of the world’s most needy communities.

Bantu recognizes that we as consumers have the ability to make a difference, one purchase at a time, even in the seemingly far flung reaches of Africa. What Bantu does not provide is charity nor does it produce one off goods that consumers neither need nor want with a mere fraction of the proceeds supporting one cause or another. Rather their model is one of empowerment. Bantu does not create communities dependent upon aid, but gives them the opportunity to work and provide highly desired consumer goods (at least that is the goal of course).

Perhaps, not so ironically, you can find her collection at high end retailers across the U.S. including Barneys, Fred Segal, and Steven Alan boutiques (allegedly at Anthropologie as well, although I could not find online proof of that).



Vanity Fair, June 2010.




June 24, 2010

Malaria Strikes.

Tropical paradise took its revenge on both Andrei and me over the past week. And it wasn't pretty.

Andrei fell victim first. After two feverish nights in bed (and mind you, not from newlywed extracurricular activities), he causally passed by the medical center on the way to work to get tested for malaria. When the results were returned with an astronomically high count of parasites in his blood cells he was casually informed he would not be making it into work that day, would be held for 24 hour observation (or beyond as the case proved to be), and an IV was swiftly inserted into the most convenient vein his body had to offer. I found him in one of the two admittance beds drowning in a sea of thick wool blankets. And there he remained for the next three days, sometimes more visible than others depending on his respective level of sweats. Somewhat on the mend or at least able-bodied enough to entertain visitors, we all shuddered when a dear friend stopped by to remind us that not everyone recovers from this disease. Right, thanks.

According to his parasite count, his case was much more severe than mine, according to whining and complaining, my case was definitely the more severe of the two. And just when I thought the puking and the nausea would never subside, that the pounding in my head would never stop, that my eyes would never uncross, that I would never be able to see without tunnel vision again, that I would never be able to arrest the seemingly unbreakable cycle of sweats and shivering and teeth chattering, I eased into a night filled with actual rest and awoke with a clear head, normal body temperature, and no dizzyness. Thank you pharmaceutical industries and tropical medicine doctors.

Thousands of dollars later in top of the line medical treatment, we have realized that good health is priceless. Well, almost.


Photo Credit:


June 16, 2010

Tinga Tinga, everywhere!

Tanzania is home to Tinga Tinga art.  Inspired by nature, this art form is fun, colorful, and playful.
 Artist: A. Hasani
 Artist: Ally
Artist: Amadi
Artist: Ibra
Artist: L. Nangida
Artist: M. Chiwaya
Artist: Mbwana Sudi
Artist: Shabani
Artist: Sufiani
Personally, I think that some of these paintings would look adorable in a child's bedroom.

This school of art was started by a single man in 1968, named Edward Saidi Tingatinga (1936 - 1972). Unfortunately, he met a rather young and untimely death as a result of being hit by a police bullet. Amidst growing popularity with ex-pats living here and tourists on safari, the family of Tingatinga decided to start the Tinga Tinga Arts Co-operative Society in 1990. Today, the Co-operative boasts over 100 active artists and can proudly proclaim itself as one of the largest illustration, design, and arts studios in the world. But the actual number of Tinga Tinga painters is estimated to be on the order of up to 1000, located mostly in Tanzania, but also found throughout other parts of the world. 

Tinga Tinga's roots and origins are likely linked to the African tradition of decorating hut walls. Below is a hut wall painting from 1906:
Today, the paintings usually depict a wide variety of stylized African animals in bold color palettes. The painting techniques consist of mostly enamel colors on canvas or ceiling board, although the signature Tinga Tinga style is sold on a wide variety of products, including T-shirts, pencils, plates, cups, and beyond.

Our favorite bar in Mikadi Beach is decked out in Tinga Tinga paintings.
Tire covers on SUVs are a great way to demonstrate your passion for this art form. Below are some pictures of our most recent acquisition:
But my favorite example to date is the Tinga Tinga motorcycle. It took approximately 10-15 painters five days to paint the motorcycle, starting on 12th December 2008.
 And here are the results:




Photo Credits (Process of Painting Motorcycle):


Painting Images:


Adventure Seeking with a Twist.

One of the main reasons I travel is because of the people I get to meet along the way. Some, of course, are more impressionable than others. But there are a select few I have met along the way that have left me so inspired that I have been moved to search for more consequential meaning in my own life. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet two such people. And I would like to take the opportunity, in turn, to introduce them to you.

Their names are Gwyn and Ryan. Gwyn is from the UK. Ryan is from South Africa. Gwyn is driving Ryan home. Although this is hardly an ordinary drive. For starters, their journey begins in London and ends in Capetown. Their journey began on 11th October 2009. We met them nearly 8 months later on the south coast of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at the bar of Mikadi Beach, a well known stop for overlanders in Africa. Gwyn was quite chatty and pumped with excitment for the pending U.S. v. England World Cup game, while Ryan, who appeared to be a bit shyer by nature, remained in the background reading the "Getting Started" Section of their Southern Africa Lonely Planet guide. We could not help but laugh at this fact, especially since 8 months into my year's long journey in Dar es Salaam, I still feel like I am "getting started." If only someone had penned a neat summary I could read to better equip me for this experience. 
Both Gwyn and Ryan share a sense of adventure. But their shared adventure is one with a unique twist. Namely, their overland route is being undertaken in a 1989 Toyota LandCruiser partially powered by solar technology. Gwyn’s keen interests in solar energy and development in Africa combined to create OverlandintheSun. The OverlandintheSun trip is an opportunity for Ryan to combine his journey home with a real world adventure that will aid in capitalizing on the potential of solar power and technology to bring benefits to some of the world's poorest communities. OverlandintheSun is raising money for SolarAid, a charity that fights global poverty and climate change by coordinating projects in rural Africa that bring solar power to schools, community centers, and health clinics. SolarAid augments their introduction of solar power technology by training beneficiaries to make and sell their own solar powered products and chargers.

The OverlandintheSun trip itself will be producing less CO2 than they would otherwise living in the UK. How you ask, can driving an energy inefficient car, over such a vast distance produce less CO2 than simply staying in the UK during that time?

Well, a trip of this kind takes a serious amount of preparation, and Gwyn diligently worked for over two years to make his dream a reality. But these two years of dedicated preparation work consisted not only of outfitting the vehicle to make it a place they could call home for the coming year, but also, reconfiguring the vehicle to make it partially fueled by solar energy. This has been achieved through the use of Solar Photovoltaics, a technology that has been around for 20 years, but is only now maturing and becoming economically viable. This technology will allow them to capitalize on the potential of the equitoral sun to fuel the vehicle's fans and water pump to keep them cool, the power steering to give them a helping hand, and the alternator to provide such amenities as lights, stereo, mobile satillite navigation system, as well as in-vehicle entertainment in the form of a solar powered kettle, solar powered mobile phones and personal computers and cameras, and the ultimate luxury - hot showers - via solar powered "heat" aka shower bags warmed in the sun.

While they recognize that by walking or biking they certainly would have consumed less fossil fuel burning energy (although perhaps more physical energy!), driving was in fact part of the mission. They were driven (no pun intended) to demonstrate to people in general and car manufacturers specifically the power of Solar Photovoltaics. While it is now widely accepted that using cars less, carpooling more, and driving more efficiently are all laudible goals, they realize that draconian policies restricting car usage is something no politician would dare to dream of and also changing the behavior of the "average Joe" is usually quite an impossible feat. Therefore, part of their mission is to take a bold stance in demonstrating the power of technology to help reduce the impact of climate change.

Many others with a similar sense of adventure have joined them along the way, as surely a trip of this magnitude would be impossible with two people alone, however we only had the pleasure of meeting Gwyn and Ryan.

Are you feeling inspired yet? Play your part in helping them arrive into Capetown and complete this dually inspirational journey.

Donate money for a good cause: Help OverlandintheSun reach their goal in raising money for Solar Aid.

Show your support on Facebook for OverlandintheSun:

June 14, 2010

Maps Make the World Go Round.

A good map of Dar es Salaam is practically impossible to find. We were generously gifted a good map upon our entry into the city, and it has proven an indispensable tool for us. Andrei guards that thing with his dear life.

Prior to the recent BP oil spill, we purchased a very dated map of Dar es Salaam produced by BP. This purchase was inspired not so much by function, but form. This map is pretty. Given my plans for this map, it seems it could very well outlive BP itself, especially amidst swirling headlines painting a very bleak picture for the future of the company ("BP plunges as top kill fails," "BP may not survive after Gulf of Mexico Spill," "European stocks retreat as BP slumps," "BP oil spill: death and devastation - and that's just the start").

The Library of Congress recently held a conference on the origins of portolan (PORT-oh-lawn) charts. The earliest known portolan chart, the Carta Pisana, appeared around 1275. This chart has no known predecessors, and represents the first modern scientific map, a sharp contrast with the "mappamundi" of this era, or rather, the colorful maps with unrecognizable geography and fantastic creatures and legends. The Library of Congress is home to a priceless portolan chart dating from 1559, which is a nautical map of the Mediterranean and Black Seas inked onto the skin of a single sheep. 

The Washington Post article announcing this map-related conference posed some thought-provoking questions about the mysterious origins of map-mapping, "Where and how did medieval mapmakers, apparently armed with no more than a compass, an hourglass and sets of sailing directions, develop stunningly accurate maps of southern Europe, the Black Sea and North African coastlines, as if they were looking down from a satellite, when no one had been higher than a treetop?"

The mystery remains today. No one today knows how original mapmakers calculated distance so accurately, or how all the information came to be compiled, or who was even the brains behind the operation. Interestingly, if you were to take the notebooks, descriptions, and coordinates used to make these original maps, you still could not recreate what they made with rather stunning accuracy.

Mathematics is a useful tool in unlocking some of these map-making mysteries, one relied on heavily by John Hessler, a mathematical "wizard" and the senior cartographic librarian at the Library of Congress. He takes portolan maps and measures them against modern maps of the same area, using 100 or so points of comparison on each map, and then applies complicated algorithms to calculate the differences between each point in the map. Quite notably, these calculations, which rely on both the Euclidean transformation method of calculating scales of error and the Helmert transformation method, take three to four months per map.

The usefulness of the portolan chart appears to have reached its peak prior the period of trans-Atlantic exploration, as the mapmakers did not know how to calculate the curvature of the earth of a flat surface, which proved inconsequential over shorter distances, but crippling over the distance of the Atlantic.

I came across an article online by Peter Barber, the Head of Map Collections at the British Library, where he ranked the top 10 maps that literally changed the world, or at least human conception of it. While this list is subject to the bias of its creator, I thought there were some fascinating maps on this list worthy of sharing.

Henricus Martellus World Map (circa 1490):
This map was apparently used by Christopher Columbus to persuade Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile to support his global exploration campaigns. At this time, this map reflected the presumed form of the world as well as the most accurate way of portraying a map on a flat surface.

Waldseemuller World Map (circa 1507):
This map reflects the first time America was named and envisaged as a separate continent on a map.

Descriptive Map of London Poverty (circa 1889):
In 1885, it was conjectured that a quarter of Londoners were living in extreme poverty. Dubious about this claim, businessman Charles Booth hired people to investigate. The resulting map depicted that in fact the figure of those living in extreme poverty was a startling 30 percent, as shown according to seven color categories from black for lowest class to gold for wealthy. It is interesting to note that the use of systematic analyses such as this reflected the very beginnings of formal studies around urban planning and public health, the two fields I have chosen to marry as a career.

London Tube Map (circa 1933):
Dismissed as too revolutionary in 1931, this map would eventually go on to be considered a cartographic icon. This map was the first to solve the problem of how to clearly represent a dense network of interweaving train lines.

Peters Projection World Map (circa 1974):
Something is inevitably lost in the process of portraying the spherical world onto a flat map surface.  The most familiar "Mercator" projection type reflects the right shapes of land forms around the world, but at the price of distorting their sizes in favor of the wealthy nations of the north. Seeking to fix this, the German Arno Peters developed a projection system that reflects national proportions more or less correctly, but with a stark emphasis on the developing nations of the south. This map is often criticized for being no more accurate than the "colonialist" projections it seeks to replace.


Photo Credits: