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Archive for the ‘places’ Category

To listen to my half-hour radio piece about Bensonwood, click here or listen at the player below:

The background…

I spent the first eight years of my life in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, a small town now numbering around 6,700 people. When I prepared to move near Walpole, New Hampshire about a year ago to start at Florentine Films, I used my birth town as a model to imagine what Walpole might be like. This turned out to be unhelpful, as Walpole is practically star-studded even with 3,000 fewer folks: where Walpole has Ken Burns, Fountain Inn has Peg Leg Bates.

Though it sounds odd to American ears, Walpole is probably best described as a village, considering the ‘central settlement’ only has about 600 people. Yet in this village you can dine at the posh flagship cafe of LA Burdick, whose high quality chocolates are produced nearby and shipped hither and yon. If you sit long enough, you’re sure to see some of the Florentine Family grabbing a coffee or a bite to eat, seeing as the edit house is a five-minute walk away.  And you might meet there, as I did, Gary Smith, record producer most famously for the Pixies.

I’m terrible at the thing businesspeople call networking, so the first time I met Gary I really had no idea who he was or what he did, even though the night ended with him, another guy, and me sitting on his porch swapping stories for a couple of hours. I didn’t see him for a several months until we met again at a birthday gathering for one of the Florentines. During the chitchat, he mentioned he was trying to find content for the small community radio station he ran across the river in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The opportunity was perfect for me–except that I was moving to Atlanta in about a month. D’oh, I thought.

I met with Gary a few days later to discuss what I might produce for WOOL FM, and he suggested a series of ten-minute vignettes on local companies. Not the podunk ones*, mind you, but regionally or nationally-known ones of the Florentine Films and LA Burdick flavor. He gave me a list, and I was again amazed at the caliber and variety of companies in and around Walpole. The idea was to cover one company per week in the three or four few weeks I had left.

*Though as a Florentine assistant editor notes, Walpole does somehow summon the economic might to support two dentists.

The one I eventually decided to start the series with was Bensonwood, whose facility I had driven past dozens of times without really noticing it. Bensonwood designs and builds homes and commercial buildings all around the country using a pretty ingenious method, and Tedd Benson, the founder, was chiefly responsible for the national revival in timber-frame construction starting about thirty years ago. I interviewed Tedd, took a tour of the facility, and interviewed a few other people over the course of two days.

As I began putting the piece(s) together, it became clear that I wasn’t going to meet Gary’s output goal. The pace of my creative process is slow to begin with, and nearly glacial when haunted by the specter of possibly ruinous technical challenges**. Instead of doing three or four ten-minute pieces on different companies, I would tell one half-hour version of the Bensonwood story. In the end I finished it several weeks after moving to Atlanta.

** BLOG EXCLUSIVE: I recorded all my voice-overs in my car, as it was the most convenient and acoustically-suitable environment I had.

My goal was to achieve professional-level quality despite my limited resources, and it wasn’t until the final few hours of work I put into the piece that I felt I was getting anywhere close. I’m proud of the final product, even if it still sounds a bit amateurish to my ears. Gary and the folks at Bensonwood enjoyed it at any rate, and I hope you do too.

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House to House

The editing house of Florentine Films is located in a small town without a lot of housing options, so I live instead 18 miles southeastish in a more respectably-sized place called Keene, where I let a room in a house owned by a middle-aged couple. Instead of a house tour, I put together a video of my autumnal commute from home to work.

As you watch, you may find yourself asking these questions:

  • For reasons of video quality and safety, shouldn’t Jeff have mounted the camera instead of holding it? (Maybe!)
  • Why does Jeff’s camcorder overexpose everything? (It’s cheap!)
  • Are Ken Burns’ films, which have audiences in the tens of millions, really edited in an unmarked house on the corner of a residential street in a sleepy village? (Yes!)
  • If Jeff is working in an editing house, how come he fails so miserably when cutting a home video? (Irony!)

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A House, not a Hut

I’ve been meaning to do this for months, but am just now getting around to it. Beneath see a slapdash video tour of the house in which I’ve lived for most of my near year-long Kigali stay.

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I came upon this article while doing the Morning Links on my other blog (where it is cross-posted):

Thorp, the founding principal of Gateway High in San Francisco – one of the most highly touted public schools in the state – has accepted that same position at Gashora Girls Academy in landlocked Rwanda. This means he will leave behind his attorney wife, Donna Williamson; his three adult children; his 3-year-old sheepdog, Jake; and his top-floor flat with a roof deck in order to live in a shared house and spend a minimum of three years swatting at mosquitoes.

“Rwanda is not without its challenges,” he says while stroking Jake in a living room that is sunny and easy and will probably seem sunnier and easier with each passing day until his departure. “There is the risk that at some point during this stint I will get malaria.”

I let out a wee guffaw at that last sentence. Yes, there is “the risk” of getting malaria–it’s even higher than the States(!)–but that doesn’t get you far. This region sees more lightening than anywhere else in the world; why not mention that shocking elevated risk instead? Truth is, your chances of getting malaria in Rwanda are small even if you don’t take medication (like most other expats I know and me), and if you are popping pills (as I’m sure Principal Thorp will), then it’s just silly to mention.

But I’m missing the storm for the clouds, aren’t I? The crux of his comment is not about the risk of malaria, it’s about the general hardship he will have to suffer for his cause. One fights the urge to weep looking over what he will be giving up:

  • Attorney wife Donna Williamson
  • Three adult children
  • Jake, the 3-year-old sheepdog
  • Top-floor flat with a roof deck
  • Sunny and easy living room that will seem sunnier and easier with each passing day
  • Sympathetic journalists

Ok, so leaving your family isn’t trivial, but would this be the chosen framing if his departure were for Belgium? As much as I hate to betray my own winsome exoticism, the expatriate life in Rwanda is not often equivalent to a perpetual safari. If you’re in Kigali, as Principal Thorp will be for at least part of his stay, you’ll be in a house, not a hut, and if you cook over a fire it will be because most ranges here are fueled with gas.

Gérard Prunier, an Africa scholar, has described Rwanda as being the “darling of foreigners” because the “blacks were polite and everything was clean.” In the same book, he later described it as “virtuous, Christian, respectable, and boring.” If Rwanda presents challenges for the expat, it more likely has to do with these than malaria or lightening strikes alike.

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Sitting in a dank room lit only by a single candle a few nights ago, an acquaintance of mine explained a thought of his about Africa. As we sipped our homemade banana beer (which I believe was responsible for an unpleasant trip to the toilet a few hours later), he talked of how both literal and metaphorical darkness is such a salient element of the Africa experience.

In a continent of little electricity and black skin, literal darkness subsumes detail and nuance. Faces become floating eyes and teeth, potholes and washouts in dirt roads become shadowy rivulets of an unknown depth. Metaphorical darkness manifests itself in the disconnectedness caused by lack of trade, routes, education. Candles of knowledge are rare; rarely are they lit; rarer still can they be used to light other candles.

Images make the point best. Bill Easterly just posted three good ones on his blog (click on the images for larger sizes and/or the source):

The first is of seafaring routes from a World Bank report:

The second is a map of IP addresses and thus internet connectivity:

The third is of airline routes:

The last two are ones I’ve found in the past. Here’s country size based on GDP:

And a more famous one again showing Africa’s disappearance:

Some economists are now using light data as a proxy for economic growth.

Darkness can be illuminating.

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Caveat Venditor

A common complaint of expats here is that Rwanda, in contrast to other African countries, has no cheap, delicious street food.  The reason is because the government forbids street vendors. Here’s a New Times article from today on the subject

Following the directives from Kigali City Council (KCC) to get rid of all street vendors operating within the city, penalties for those who will be caught in the act have been made public, The New Times has established.

In an interview, Bruno Rangira, the KCC Director of Media and Communication, said that those caught in the act will on top of seizing their merchandise, be fined Rwf 10,000 [~$20].

Goods seized from the vendors are given to different orphanages in the city.

Why the beat down on the beleaguered burghers?

“These are the people who cause commotion and poor hygiene in the city,” he said.

He added that some of the vendors indulge in pick pocketing, snatching ladies’ bags and stealing phones around town.

Of course, the “Three C’s” of good governance: Commotion Prevention, Cleanliness, and Crime Stoppage. Of these, the only one that has any smell of legitimacy amongst all the African odors is the last.  But does the fact that some vendors engage in petty crime necessitate a ban of their hitherto legal profession?

Here’s a story of firefighter who stole over $150; here’s another one of a police detective who pilfered $8,000 worth of confiscated drug money. Guess we better get rid of the police and fire departments.

One suspects the “Three C’s” are ex post rationalizations for a policy based primarily on the personal preferences of people in power (isn’t alliteration fun–er, alluring!).

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Via Matt Yglesias via Brad DeLong, we find the following chart from one of the UC professor’s lectures:

housing

I did some quick googling, and found the following current statistics for Rwanda (these are based on total population, not households, and many of them are from newspapers, so beware).

Rwanda Development

Many people separated from us geographically are poor, and we profess to care about them and even pity them. Many people separated from us in time are poor, but we don’t care about them much, despite the fact that our actions can have far more impact on them. This is not the point I’d thought I’d make when I began this post.

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