23 January 2010

There is no spoon.

Jodie Wu and her team at Global Cycle Solutions are doing some pretty neat things in Arusha.  Jodie is a D-Lab alum who spearheaded the development of a mobile bicycle cornsheller for Tanzania, building from the work of Maya Pedal  in Guatemala. 

A couple of summers ago as a student volunteer in Tanzania, Jodie built a pedal-powered cornsheller, then made back the money spent on building materials in a week by renting out to people who biked it to farms to shell corn.  If you know D-lab, you've probably heard this story a thousand times, my apologies, skip the next paragraph.  If you don't know D-lab, you may be asking "What's corn shelling?"

Millions of people across the world eat maize as their primary staple food.  Usually, this maize is dried out in the sun, and then all the kernels are removed from the cob by hand. ("Shelling" is the process of removing corn from the cob.) It's a time-consuming, tough process.   Another common method is to put the corn in sacks on the ground and beat them with sticks until all the corn comes off.  Not very efficient. 

Turns out there's an antiquated and neat farm tool that uses rotational motion to shell maize pretty quickly.  It's super neat, I wish I had a video to show you.  At any rate, GCS is making it easy to power these shellers to normal bikes. It looks something like this:

Based on how popular the first one was, Jodie decided to move to Tanzania and start a business after she graduated from MIT. 

Another super awesome product GCS is developing is a cell phone charger, which Arusha resident inventor Bernard Kiwia designed completely from bike and radio parts.  (Well, in some models, he also uses part of a clothes hanger.)  It's a wicked elegant design, and it's meant to passively charge a cellphone while the rider is biking around.  Villagers are REALLY excited about this one.  (Mobile phones are a HUGE deal in emerging economies.)

Bernard shows off the charger he designed.

New Year's in Tanzania was fun.  Jodie made a New Year's resolution to learn to drive the GCS pickup truck, A very stubborn, finicky manual truck with no power steering.  In the words of Woon, "That truck handles like a corpse."  And Arusha roads/traffic aren't exactly the friendliest of places to learn.

So we all jumped in the truck, Jodie took the wheel, and Woon coached her driving all the way to Shaibu's house for his New Year's party.  Jodie had completed her first resolution within a few hours of the New Year.    Jodie is basically a rock star. 

Whereas the Christmas party at Jodie's place had been full of kids, cooking women, Maasai grandmothers, and a few local police, the New Year's day party at Shaibu's place was basically just young Tanzanian males feasting on goat, beer, and dancing the day away to loud music.  I figure Tanzania's got to be the most awesome place for being a bachelor. 

Shaibu's hardcore Tanzanian bachelor stove.  Food, soda, matchbox, side of goat.

Dancing the day away.

Shaibu really knows how to throw a party.  And you know what? He's a rockstar, too.  He knew that Woon and I don't eat meat, and he made a veggie dish just for us.  I was so impressed.  What a bro.

 Shaibu grilling goat.

Shaibu's also a manager at Tumaini Cycles.  That kid is going places, he's amazing.

We also attended the Mama Afrika circus in Arusha, it was outstanding.  Acrobats, contortionists, a polished female magician, it was all pretty nifty. The highlight was the last act: three young jugglers who did this mind-bending hip hop hat juggling routine.  I'm sure they broke several fundamental laws of physics. 

New Year's resolutions:  1) Be able take two steps in a handstand without falling down.  2) More awkward.

Resolution #1 is fairly self-explanatory.
Resolution #2 I've been thinking a lot about.

I ask a lot of people different types of questions.  One of my favorite is: "Would you rather know many languages or how to play many instruments?"

Originally, my own answer was many languages.  It just seemed so useful, I could travel more places, be eligible for more jobs, understand more people.  But then I thought about it some more, and realized that even in English-speaking places, I'm a pretty awkward person.  Knowing more languages would just enable me to be multi-culturally awkward in different dialects.  When I framed the options that way, it suddenly became much more appealing to know many instruments.

Several hundred turns of thought later, I believe that being comfortable with awkward is loads more useful than being multi-lingual.  In a way, being "awkwardable"  can be substituted for language fluency.  

And the more I travel, the more I realize that it's often not about language fluency, it's about being comfortable in awkward situations.  If I'm comfortable in awkward situations, then it doesn't matter if I need to make funny hand gestures to communicate what kind of food I want.  It doesn't matter if I don't immediately understand what's going on, as long as I can go with the flow. 

Yes, learning other languages is still very useful.  But actually, being awkwardable is a prerequisite to achieving language fluency.  It's fairly straightforward to learn a language in a classroom or from language tapes, but fluency doesn't come unless the learner practices a lot with native speakers.  This involves making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes over and over again.  The more open a person is to awkward situations, the easier it will be for her to practice, and thus the faster she'll learn a language.  (This is why it's easier for kids to pick up languages - the have a social pass to make mistakes, while making the same mistakes is much more embarrassing for adults.)

Easier said than done.  But at any rate, I think it's worth working on...

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