by Peeyush Sekhsaria

A small-scale village project in Africa combines environmental and human concerns.

WE HAD BEEN into the meeting for over half an hour. The representatives from the invited NGO had spoken, I had spoken, the village chief had spoken. But not a single woman, in this meeting about women’s needs, had uttered a word. Finally, I had to ask: “Is any woman going to talk?”
I was working as an architect in the Dogon village of Beignematou in the West African republic of Mali. I had come to this semi-arid region to help design and build the village school. I had come in 2002 to build the first phase; now, in 2005, I was back to finish the job. But I had realised during my earlier visit what problems this place suffered from: desertification, environmental degradation and malnutrition, amongst others. I was determined that the work I was doing would also improve the environment. But how?
This was where the women came in. One of the major problems in the region is deforestation, a large part of which is caused by a demand for wood for cooking-stoves. Women in Beignematou cooked on three triangularly placed stones, placed above a wood fire. It was both inefficient and environmentally destructive, and the deforestation was making the wood harder and harder to find. If more efficient stoves could be designed, they would both prevent deforestation and make life easier for the village’s women. But if it was to happen, it could not be imposed from outside – it needed to be a project of the women themselves.
Investigations took me to a nearby NGO called YA-G-TU, which had built prototypes of simple earthen stoves for just this purpose. It was a group set up and run by local women, who carried out demonstration and training programmes on these new stoves in far-flung villages like Beignematou. When the villagers heard about it they were keen to get involved.
A village meeting with YA-G-TU was organised. All the women, gaily dressed, and quite a few men of the village attended. This was the first time that the women of Beignematou had met with an outside NGO. It was natural that they were hesitant and had not spoken a word. DicorĂ©, one of the women of YA-G-TU knew this well. She expertly nursed the hesitant women into participating fully in the process. Soon, the project had everyone’s blessing. Six women from the village were trained in how to construct the new, energy-efficient earthenware stoves from abundant local waste materials, including donkey dung and millet chaff. Over the course of just two days, the women made new stoves for nineteen households. They were so successful that another batch followed, supplying every house in the village.
The successes of this small, local project were many. The new stoves operated for three times as long on the same amount of fuel as the old ones. They were made of renewable local materials by local people, who had been empowered and inspired by their involvement in the project – so much so that they proceeded to build themselves separate stoves for making millet beer, and are now planning to take this appropriate technology to nearby villages.
The Mali project was realised as part of a school project with the participation of CRATerre-France, Cultural Mission of Bandiagara and MISEREOR (Germany).

“The banks are greener on the Afghan side”

By Peeyush Sekhsaria

At Tashkent, the Uzbekistan capital we board an amazing Soviet era YAK 40 (Yakoliv) for Termez. The plane smells of Vodka and has a public bus feel to it. No need to be careful about overhead luggage falling on to your heads, the Yak 40 has its total luggage space (both hand and check in baggage) at the back. You enter in from the tail. The pilot enters from the back after all passengers have boarded, you stand up in respect and sit down only after he has taken to his cabin.

I am a little tensed up, but ease up when I see an Uzbek women sitting across the aisle smiling and dozing. The Yakoliv has taken its evening dose of Vodka for it has a rather drunken way of taking to the airstrip and I joke with Thierry (my professor whom I am accompanying on an Expert Mission for UNESCO) about the need for checking the tyre pressures.

It has been a tiring flight from Paris to Tashkent and I doze off to wake up as we land with a start at Termez. I am relieved to get out of the Yakoliv and breathe in the evening air. The waiting hall welcomes us with a Mumbai film starring Sunil Shetty, Sharmila Tagore and Akshay Kumar, all of who are speaking flawless, highly emotionally charged Uzbek.

Sanjar our right hand man at Termez speaks perfect Yankee English. He was part of student exchange programme in the USA during the era of Uzbek USA friendship (an immediate post Soviet Union period that did not last very long). He tells me that his wife, mother and sister are addicts of “Mahabharatha” & “Krishna”, highly popular soaps on Uzbek state television. Amitabh Bachan, Mithun Chakrabarty he pronounces in his Uzbek accent and the girls, they are in love with Shahrukh Khan!

My Indian passport attracts a lot of friendly attention at the airport. A lot of Indians in films and on television but never a real Indian!

At Termez we are being put up at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) centre. This centre owes its existence to the strategic location of Termez. It was from here that the Soviet Union launched its Afghan invasion.

The most remarkable thing about Termez is that it had nothing remarkable! Just an amusing Soviet era hang over. But looks alone are misleading for Termez in itself actually is a long and illustrious epic story. “A veritable chameleon city, a political and cultural chameleon, changing its role, religion, alliance and even location”. This extraordinary character of Termez is no accident. It owes its existence to an island in the mighty river, “Amu Darya”.

The Amu Darya (Oxus) has its source in the mighty Hindukush, traverses the high Pamir plateaus of Tadjikistan, flows to form the frontier between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, continues to flow to define the ancient frontiers between the Persian and the Turk worlds, feeds the Oasis of Khorzem and finally disappears into the rests of the Aral Sea after a 1437 km long journey.

To this river that is over a kilometre in width an island provided a privileged access point. This island alone played the defining role of the south north silk route that came up from Afghanistan through Bamiyan, Mazar e Sharif, crossing the mighty Amu Darya at Termez and then bifurcating to move on further north.

So depending on the epoch and with a little imagination and mixing up one can visualise at Termez, Buddhist monks discussing philosophy with Mughal conquerors, Greek guards seeing the arrival of Soviet tanks, traders from Bacteria with double humped Bacterian camels negotiating with AK 47 clad Afghan traders. The bridge across the mighty Oxus at Termez, is interestingly called, “The Bridge of Friendship” All along recent history this bridge became the border and the border re-became the bridge. And even though present day Termez may have only its nondescript character to offer, it was here in the recent histories of this land that the British and Soviet empires faced each other in dangerous strategic game plans and it was finally here that the Russians found the permanent frontier they had been searching for. Here on the northern banks of the Amu Darya the Soviet empire came to its logical end. And it was here on these famed northern banks that I was part of a team working on the restoration  of an ancient Buddhist monastery.

Beyond the Amu Darya, far into the horizon, in the haze of an approaching winter with the winds that raise the dust I can make out the outlines of Afghanistan. The Afghan banks of the Amu Darya look greener and the mountains rise into the sky, both defying the times. This silent haze is interrupted by the occasional rat a tat of machine gun fire, spats between the Uzbek army and their Afghan counterparts, awkward remains of a recent past. It was in 1979, just 27 years ago that the Soviet army launched its Afghan invasion from Termez. The now calm Termez airport would have been the bristling with Soviet military and transport aircraft. And it was even more recently post 9 11 that the allied forces launched their chase of the Taliban and Bin Laden from Termez. A task still far from accomplished. The German armed forces in Afghanistan still receive logistic support from the Termez airport, an airplane marked “Bundeslika Republic” that seems permanently stationed at the airport bears testimony to that.
Military transport aircrafts and helicopters are lined outside a huge aircraft shelter, as if waiting for the times to change, for this uncomfortable calm to turn to turmoil.

I was in Termez  on  an UNESCO Expert Mission on the Restoration works being carried out on the Buddhist Monastery of Fayaz Tepa. History has no respect for present day geo strategies and Fayaz Tepa, on the ancient silk route lies just out side the electrified barb wired no mans land  (international zone) on the Uzbek side. Remains of army radars on raised mounds just next to the ancient Buddhist site are no mere coincidence but a result forces that are as old as the island on the Amu Darya and forces that are still more than active in the present age. An ancient Buddhist monastery and high security military radars, aloof neighbours in a peaceful coexistence. These mounds also happen to be the best view point for the site. Not very far from Fayaz Tepa is another archealogical site well within today’s no mans land, an international team carries out excavations there. No photos of the Afghan border, of the antennas, of the barbed wired, of the no mans land.

We meet the Uzbek archaeologist that continues to excavate Fayaz Tepa and comes up with new finds. He has found pottery with the Pali script on it and asks me if I can read it, he is disappointed when I, an Indian tell him that I cannot. He has made some finds that seriously question the date to which this monastery is presently assigned, it could actually be dated to over two centuries earlier, making it a BC dated monastery. But archaeology is a highly meticulous science and it will be some time before he can even officially table such a probability.

Our other colleague, a French architect posted here full time speaks of Afghanistan and Mazar e Sharif. With his UN diplomat identity card and the Toyota four wheel drive that takes him less than two hours to get there, he talks of the impossible market that is Mazar e Sharif. Where everything is for sale; tanks, rocket launchers, you name it and somebody will find one for you. The UNESCO Tashkent office with whom we are doing this expert mission has a project there and soil samples from the greener banks of Afghanistan have been brought over for testing. Sun dried adobe bricks have to be fabricated and tested. I carry out a battery of simple but defining tests on Afghan soil at 2 kilometres from Afghanistan and at a few 100 meters from the barbed wire fence.

It is the last day at Termez and I arrive on site to find strong cold wind blowing across laden with dust. Conditions are so bad that work is stopped and recently restored walls covered with cloth that is tied down against the wind.
Noticing my grimacing face expression the local contractor yells across the wind, “Afghani, the wind is called Afghani” The Afghani is the furious cold wind, laden with dust that blows down the Afghan mountains, across the Amu Darya and sweeps up the plains on the Uzbek side of the Amu Darya to make life impossible.

I had just tested Afghan soil the earlier day and found just one of them good enough for the fabrication of adobes and today it is the cold wind full of Afghan air and fine dust that is testing me. 

We pack and return to the UNHCR centre. I have some free time thanks to the 'Afghani' and use it to talk to some of the staff hanging around at the UNHCR centre.
Termez, not surprisingly is the launching pad for convoys of the United Nations Food Programme that supplies food to the war affected Afghanistan. I have got friendly with the skeletal staff that operates from here. At the height of the conflicts this centre had seen busier days. One staff member of the Food Programme tells me that he has something to show me and fishes out what resembles an expensive biscuit packet. A closer look reveals glucose biscuits packed in a neat cream coloured pack, with a bright Indian flag printed on it and a prominent message saying, “Gift from the people of India”

So Termez saw Buddhist monks, Mughal conquerors, Russian soldiers, served as the frontier between and the bridge across, defined the silk route, was the launching pad of Afghan invasion by the Russians and then by the Western forces, as the logical end of the Soviet empire and believe it or not it also serves as the launching pad of the “Gift from the people of India” to our Afghan brothers.

How closer could I get to Afghanistan? I ask for a glucose biscuit packet to keep for posterity. 

For their education we work hard and manage somehow

Its 7.55am sunday morning, the autoride has been a breeze, a sort of Delhi trans Yamuna darshan. I pay the agreed 150, the autodriver carefully holds the notes in a folded hand, closes his eyes and says a short prayer. Has the day begun well for you today? Smiles, yes sir thanks to you. I smile, hope it goes like that all day. I am waiting for a birder pick up, there is time to kill, its cold, we are outside a metro station. Would you like some chai, no sir. Come on I am inviting you, two tea please. As we sip some real good chai - where are you from? Bengal, Dinajpur. West and East isn't it. Yes Sir - earlier it was Dinajpur now it two districts. I was born in Calcutta, but Ami Bangl Jaani Na (I don't know Bangla). Smiles, continues in Bangla - I have two boys, they hardly speak Bangla - we are able to go once every three years they have become delhiwallahs. Do they study, elder one is in college. When did you come to Delhi, 1982. 30 years! how old are you? 52 sir. What I would have thought early 40s, really. What are the boys planning? Do not know sir, we couldn't learn much, so we cannot tell them much, spending money for their education is our job, that we work hard and manage somehow. We've finished chai, he starts paying, Sir let me invite you. No no, its me, please don't take money from him. Whats your name - Ishwarchandra Rai. I am Peeyush. Where do you stay sir? G Block. Oh I always park next to that school. Oh really I am sure then we'll meet again. It is time to go, I thank Mr Rai and tell the chai lady, "You make really good chai" She seems a bit embarassed, looking away, "Sir, to make good chai is what I try" smiles, Thanks Mr Rai, I am sure we will meet again and chat a bit more

They were very good, though we did not understand a word

Metal Zone - Myanmar at the South Asian Bands Festival 02 - 04 Dec 2011!! Entry Free - Purana Qila
The lead vocalist's mike jams - no sound. The band apologises to the audience, it takes a minute to fix, the lead vocalist bows and apologises, "so sorry" and they start off with a lovely guitar piece. Playing as a band from 1997, they were for me the most special band for the evening. Okay I have a weakness for Myanmar, but as these guys were playing some great metal stuff, beatiful ballads I was just thinking how did they manage to stay together, play metal music in Burma, what does it mean to be in Delhi and playing as part of south asia bands festival, how did they survive, what do they think of the future. Amongst all those bands their responses would be the most interesting ones. I got chatting to 2 guys from Manipur parked next to me. Manipur shares a border with Myanmar isn't it. Yes, we can enter but have to return before sunfall. There must be border market? Yes all goods from Thailand, Singapore we get very cheap there, we would go often. Manipur is full of music - How did you find their music? Oh, they were very good, though we did not understand a word , we laugh. Three cheers for Metal Zone, and for the ICCR to get them here. Tommorow is another superb line up.

Architecture is fun - 1

Teaching and learning are serious business in Indelou!
Built out of rock quarried next to the site the classrooms architecture is inspired by local architecture
The school classrooms and their landscape

Classroom 1, School at Indelou, Mali, West Africa, 2005 - 6.
Photo courtesy: Daria Roncara

hap py 2011

photographer hap   py lost
to photographer * Orange aura
the "Shahenshah Akbar, lover of pink shoes flour"
all this duly documented by your faithful well wisher Peeyush Sekhsaria on the ancient lawns of
Circa 8th Century AD Ellora Caves

Happy  2011!!
most of all do not take this year seriously!!

small victories BIG JOYS!! part 1

This little story revolves around the screening of my film at Quai Branly Museum, Paris on 1st Dec 2010
"From the Mediatised to the Real - The Story of a Personal Journey" French - Dogon, 21 min - Peeyush Sekhsaria, IRD
Sitting in Bangalore I was wondering if I would get any news of the screening, so I was pleasantly surprised to read the following mail (its been translated into English)

I saw your message on my return from Quai Branly Museum. Bernard Surugue had asked me to present the film and to say all the good that we think of the man and his work. Your film was very well received. 
With warm regards
Emile Le Bris

Emile Le Bris is an internationally renowned Urban Geographer,  Director of Research at prestigious French Research Institution IRD, and Bernard Surugue, Ethnomusicologist, film maker heads the audio visual laboratory at IRD. They along with Chantal Blanc Pamard , Director of Research at prestigious EHESS provided me with the platform to make my film as part of my M. Phil in Geography. I was also lucky to have them as my guides for my M. Phil dissertation. 

The film isn't such a big deal, if one asks me, though to have it screened at Quai Branly Museum is a small victory for sure. But to have Emile Le Bris who was actually responsible for creating the possibility, to present it and write back with his dry suttle humour is a BIG JOY! 

Merci Emile, Bernard, Chantal et toute l'equipe de l'IRD Audio Visuel