Long-term travel is a life-changing experience. It is exciting to meet new people, experience new cultures and completely broaden your horizons. Most of us travel for our own personal satisfaction and growth, however there are many people, living and traveling abroad, dedicating their lives to make the world a better place. Such selfless devotion truly is amazing. Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg are two of those people striving to make a difference in the world. They took some time out of their African endeavors to answer some questions here.
Please tell us a little about your backgrounds.
B: Danielle currently serves as Co-Project Director of State of World 2011 for the Worldwatch Institute , a Washington, DC-based environmental research organization. Her background is in sustainable agriculture; impacts of meat, egg, and dairy production on the environment, primarily climate change; animal welfare, and farmers; greenhouse gas emissions and the food system; biofuels; urban agriculture; and food safety. She also worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and volunteers at farmers’ markets, the Earth Sangha (an urban reforestation organization), and 1Well (an NGO focused on sustainable development projects all over the world).
D: Bernard’s background is as an expert on political campaigning and communications. His expertise in organizing state and national campaigns for the AFL-CIO has resulted in the election of major pro-worker candidates and laws in California, Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania. He has developed communication programs for labor organizing all over the U.S. and has worked extensively with media reporting on workers’ issues. He is currently traveling across Africa with me, meeting with labor unions and workers across Africa, and blogging everyday from Africa on our personal site called BorderJumpers.
Are you both full-time journalists?
D: Last year the Worldwatch Institute received a two-year grant to evaluate environmentally sustainable solutions to alleviating hunger and poverty, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The grant is enabling us to expand our research and writing on food and hunger issues, do more on-the-ground research, and develop a comparative analysis of different agricultural innovations and technologies to help policy-makers, farmers, NGOs, agribusiness, and development agencies make more informed decisions regarding food production and food security goals.
The major outcome of this project will be State of the World 2011, our flagship publication, focused on hunger. Over the next two years, we will also publish research on this topic in Worldwatch’s other print and digital publications. I am traveling throughout sub-Saharan Africa to highlight stories of hope and success in environmentally sustainable food production.
Where are you now?
D: Africa is the epicenter of hunger and poverty, so it seemed logical to focus our research for the project here. We are currently in Dakar, Senegal, headed across Western Africa all summer to Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, and Cameroon. Countries we’ve traveled so far include: Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Since we left in October 2009 we’ve visited approximately 130 projects in those countries.
Please tell us about your work in Africa?
B: We are tired with all the misconceptions about Africa. All we hear in the media is about conflict, HIV/AIDS, famine and disease. You almost never hear anything positive, and as a result people think the situation is hopeless. That’s why everywhere we go we are looking at African-led innovations and sharing those stories, in hopes of reaching the funding and policy making community so they can get scaled up or replicated, but also to challenge misconceptions that things in Africa are “beyond repair.” After sixteen countries, we’ve really seen firsthand how much incredible work is happening on the ground here and I’ve never felt so much hope.
D: The project is a two year grant to evaluate environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. We hope to build a roadmap for the funding and donor communities of projects that either need to be scaled up or replicated across the continent. Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into funding agricultural projects every year in Sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is that so much of that money is misused, or misplaced and never reaches the hands of the farmers, workers, and people who need it the most.
We want to paint a new picture of Africa, one far different from the infomercials and images we’ve become accustom to. We are meeting with Africans on the ground, who are using their vast knowledge, and developing innovative ways of reducing hunger and improving food security in their communities. We want them to be the face of our project, putting their stories front and center, sharing their hopes and dreams to audiences they’ve never reached before.
From what you have seen, are African countries progressing and improving the quality of life of their citizens?
B: There is a lot of news that is not being reported on from the continent — we are seeing dozens of examples of stories of hope and success in agriculture from NGOs, policymakers, farmers groups, workers, unions, etc, that are helping to further not only food security in Africa but general quality of live. For example, in Uganda, a young team of volunteers is working with kids, parents, and teachers to reignite an interest and appreciation for indigenous food. In Rwanda, Heifer international is working with very poor farmers to improve their qualities of life through smallscale livestock projects. In Ghana, NGOs are working to improve access to processing facilities for palm oil so that farm workers can earn more money.
What have been your least and most favorite countries so far?
B: There is no least favorite because every country is different with positive and negative aspects which you could also say about the United States. We didn’t like aspects of Nairobi, but we loved traveling deep into rural parts of Kenya like Samburu. Johannesburg at times was stressful for us, but we’d definitely be up for living in Pretoria, Durban or Cape Town. Within countries there is so much diversity that it all is a valuable learning expierience for us.
Is Africa safe to travel?
D: I would say that Africa is like anywhere else, you have to be careful, obviously political conflict is more an issue than in the United States but we either have been very lucky or everything you’ve heard about Africa being dangerous is wrong. With that said, big cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg are not safe to be by yourself at night, you need to take a taxi, etc.
B: We’ve also been lucky and blessed. We watch each other’s backs as we travel together. People warned us about places that have had recent political upsets like Zimbabwe and Madagascar but we are really glad we went to those places because they turned out to be some of our favorite countries. We are avoiding Libya and the Sudan, just because we feel uneasy about our safety.
What African countries do you recommend for other travelers?
B: It depends on why you are traveling to Africa, we like to go off the beaten track a little bit. If your looking for a vacation, go to Mauritius. If your looking for something off the track, head to Zimbabwe and Madagascar. If you want to see a lot of wildlife, then head to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. If you are looking for great live music, then check out Ghana and Senegal. Africa has every adventure you could ever dream of.
Have you encountered any major problems or dangerous situations?
D: No (knock on wood), we’ve been very lucky.
What are your travel expenses?
B: On average we spend we spend $50 a day which includes a budget hotel or hostel, local meals, travel by taxi, and entertainment. VISA fees vary greatly and can be very expensive for Americans – but it ranges from free (Senegal, Botswana, South Africa, Rwanda) to over $100USD (Nigeria, Mozambique, Cote D’Ivoire). It all depends on what you want to do, plan several hundred a day if you plan to hike Kilimanjaro in Arusha, Tanzania; Lemur trek in Madagascar; whitewater raft at the source of the Nile in Kampala, Uganda; or Gorilla trek in Rwanda.
Africa can be very expensive depending on what you want to do and it is worth splurging for safety – private taxis at night, long haul-buses instead of shared taxis for international travel, making sure you are staying in a good location, etc. We also benefit by the fact that projects we visit go out of their way to make us feel at home, from airport pickups, to driving us between projects, to feeding us in their homes, it really helps cut down costs.
Traveling in Africa is totally not what you expect. People are often afraid to take a risk here, so they plan very packaged vacations for things like the World Cup or a safari. We couldn’t imagine a more friendly, or welcoming place to travel.
Are you able to get good Internet access and other modern conveniences?
D: We are really surprised how connected Africa is in terms of hi-speed wifi (these are mostly in cities). Also Skype allows us to keep in touch with the United States for free, SIM cards in each country make local calls incredibly cheap, and email is accessible nearly everywhere. In terms of what we miss — it is mainly different foods — like fresh salads, bagels with cream cheese, vegetables like broccoli, cranberry juice, a good latte, etc… Stuff that we totally took for granted in the United States but are hard to find here.
Do you see yourselves ever permanently relocating to Africa?
B: Yes, definitely a possibility. We love the people, energy, the diverse cultures. Our choice would be Senegal so far (with that said we have 25 more countries to see). In reality we’ve talked about how we could live in Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Madagascar, and Senegal. Since that list will only grow, it’s hard to imagine ever leaving.
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