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The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

Related blogs

Private screenings

Village movies in Malawi

Watching videos without smartphones

Families, land and videos in northern Uganda

Mix and match

Videos that speak to Andean farmers

Videos for added inspiration

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: “African governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.”

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any “charity”.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It’s not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or “charities”.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they’d been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but “charities” are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 “Nigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,” pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Guéi (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

Trash to treasure December 29th, 2019 by

Food waste could be made into useful compost, instead of mixing it with plastic and other inorganic trash, as Ana recently explained on a panel discussion on Radio Cepra in Cochabamba. She was invited by a local NGO, Alerta Verde (Green Alert), along with two agronomists who encourage schools and families to make compost, and a student who is writing his thesis on urban families who compost. The first two panelists responded to the concerns of city dwellers: how to make compost while avoiding flies, rodents and bad smells. Old ideas from gardening manuals were recycled, such as adding a layer of barnyard manure to the compost, an impractical idea for city people who don’t have livestock.

The moderator, Arnold Brouwer, asked Ana to talk about her 20 years of experience making urban compost.  We are one of the few households that has been composting regularly in Cochabamba. There was a certain urgency to the question. During the recent unrest surrounding the Bolivian elections of 20 October 2019 (and the president’s exile), the people who live near Cochabamba’s municipal landfill blocked the entrance to the dump. It’s a long story, but the landfill’s neighbors are tired of the large, stinky dump and they took advantage of the turmoil to voice their anger. Their blockade was simply the latest in many protests.

Not for the first time, trash piled up in the streets. On 23 November, a convoy of 12 garbage trucks, with police and military escort, broke through the roadblock, but on the way out, local people attacked them and took eight soldiers hostage, besides smashing windshields and pelting the cars with stones. A settlement was negotiated the next day, but there have been constant demands since then for the city to take its waste elsewhere. Many people in the city have been left thinking that there must be a better way to manage our waste, and to make less of it.

The panelists on the radio talk show all agreed that the urban garbage is about 70% organic, including paper, garden trimmings and food waste that rots, becoming a smelly sludge that draws flies to the landfill. If the organic refuse could be composted, there would be less nuisance, and less garbage to collect and dispose of.

Arnold asked Ana how she makes compost. She explained to the radio-listeners how we dig a pit and fill it with organic waste from our kitchen. We also add old paper and some garden waste. When the pit is full, we usually cover it lightly with soil and leave it for up to year. Turning the waste definitely speeds up decomposition, and makes compost faster. But shoveling compost a lot of extra work. At our house we are not in a rush. We can wait a year for our compost to mature.

“So, this is relaxed composting,” Arnold quipped.

Ana agreed, but went on to paint a bigger picture. The city has a debt to the countryside. We bring in valuable organic matter, as food, and we let much of it rot, untreated and unrecycled, but mixed with inorganic trash, mainly plastic. While rubbish can be composted at home, it could be tackled by the local government.

Ana reminded the listeners that the recently abandoned train tracks from Cochabamba to Aiquile (a provincial town) are still usable. The municipal government could use the tracks to haul organic refuse out of the city and compost it on large, adjacent tracts of degraded land. The compost could be covered with some soil, and when ready, trees could be planted in the reclaimed land. This would still deprive the farms of organic matter, but it would make productive use of the organic fertilizer.

It was a creative solution, well suited to the conditions of semi-arid Cochabamba. Every town and city will have its own locally appropriate ways of recycling refuse. But we must stop wasting food. Whether it’s an orange peel or an aged salad, kitchen and garden refuse are a valuable resource that should be recycled as organic fertilizer.

Increasingly in developed and developing countries alike, composting organic waste is becoming a viable business. Some municipal governments in Europe make compost from green waste (such as lawn cuttings), and burn food waste to generate electricity. With a little will and imagination, tropical municipalities could find their own, locally-appropriate ways to recycle the trash.

Related videos

Compost from rice straw

Composting to beat striga

Remembering an American king December 22nd, 2019 by

My mom was born in Moab, Utah, an area of outstanding natural beauty, famed for its mountains and red sandstone canyons. Long before Moab became one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Mom took me to visit another attraction, one that is much less well known. She drove me just north of the town to see the “King of the World”, a large stone relief sculpture, carved into a sandstone boulder. I vividly remember the sculpture. The boulder sat at the base of the cliff, down a dirt road, not too far from the highway. Mom explained that the sculpture was a self-portrait of the sculptor, and his horse.

I’ve recently learned more about sculptor. His name was Aharron Andeew and he came to Moab in the 1930s, during the height of the Depression, a gloomy era in American history when jobs were scarce and rural poverty widespread. After his arrival, Andeew spent 15 months doing odd jobs while gardening and tending his small herd of goats. Andeew camped north of town on the ranch of a kind family, the Parriotts. This is where he carved his sculpture. It is so well done that he must have had formal training, but no one knows where. Andeew spoke with a foreign accent and my brother Scott remembers the old-timers calling him “the mad Russian.”

The stone carving bears the following inscription:

1935

M.C.F. Hhaesus

America

Aharron Andeew

King America

King World

I have no idea what M.C.F Hhaesus means, but the self-portrait shows a man with a curved beak of a nose, wearing a Cossack’s fur hat, with a map of the world carved into it. His coat has two buttons, one carved in the shape of North and South America, while the other one represents the Old World.

Andeew had some odd behaviors. On Sundays he used to march up and down the road near his camp, carrying a rifle, with a sword in a scabbard. He was dressed in a great coat, bearing brass medals he had made himself. Andeew never threatened anyone, but in 1936 the townspeople firmly suggested that he leave town. When he got to Provo, Utah, he introduced himself as the King of the World, and he landed in a psychiatric hospital, where this gentle eccentric later died.

Few recall the people who ran Andeew out of town, but his presence is still felt through his unique piece of art. Art is often seen as a sublime form of communication, better than mere talk at revealing feelings and emotions. But art can also make a message last longer than simple verbal communication. Ancient peoples who lived off the land often left us art that depicts themselves and their animals, from cave paintings in Lascaux, to realistic stone carvings of cattle in Egypt and India, and the pre-Colombian big-horn sheep carved into boulders all around Moab itself.  Today, a stone sculpture in Moab reminds us that an immigrant sculptor, gardener and goat herder named Aharron Andeew was here 85 years ago, and that he had a grand imagination.

Visit the King

The King sculpture is no longer on the old Parriott Ranch. In 2009, the new land owner, Jennifer Speers, decided that she did not want the stone, but that it should be preserved. Speers donated the 30-ton rock to Grand County (the county that includes Moab). The sculpture was moved to the lawn of the Seniors Center, near the Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah.

Further reading

Barker, Vicki 2010 Relocating Rock Art, A Moving Experience https://www.moabhappenings.com/Archives/historic1003RelocationRockArt_AMovingExperience.htm

Dudek, Robert 1986 The King of the World. http://www.riverguides.org/SDG/SDG1-4.pdf

Stiles, Jim 2015 Albert Christensen & Aharron Andeew: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits? https://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/2015/04/01/albert-christensen-aharron-andeew-eccentric-sculptors-kindred-spirits-by-jim-stiles/

Related blog

Dick’s Ice box

Eating an old friend December 15th, 2019 by

Last year in Bangladesh, in the village of Begati Chikerbath, I visited Shamsur Naheris, an energetic extensionist in a bright orange sari. She had organized an exchange visit so that local women can tell their stories about making money and changing their lives by the simple means of raising chickens.

A year and a half earlier, the village had hosted an FFS (farmer field school) on poultry, where the women learned to vaccinate their chickens and ducks with eye drops and to keep the hens in small coops. When the hen has a clutch of eggs, she sits on them in a nest, called a hazol, which the villagers make themselves, a technique they learned in the FFS. The hazol is a kind of earthen bowl with two small cups on one side for feed and water. Because the hazol is big and heavy, the hens are less likely to upset and spill their food. The hen sits on straw in the hazol and broods her eggs with water and food handy. The hazol and the hen are placed inside a small chicken coop.

More chicks live to maturity with this system, and when they are six weeks old, they can be let loose to find their own food, which lowers costs and saves space in the chicken coop. Then the hen can start another brood. This way she gets five or six broods in a year, over a useful life of some five years, until she ends up in the family cooking pot.

“How can you stand to eat your old friend?” one visitor asked, concerned that the women might have become too attached to the hens to eat them.

“It’s easy, we just soften the meat first with green papaya,” one of the chicken farmers explains.

While there may be little sentimentality attached to the birds, the women are all keen to raise them. Every house has a small chicken coop in the back yard and all of the little structures are filled with healthy birds.

In a meeting with visitors from other villages, five local women told how raising chickens has improved not just their income, but also their self-esteem. The audience was clearly moved. The visitors were farmers and their husbands, 25 couples from six local community-based, water management groups. Having the husbands attend was a touch of inspiration. It would ensure that the men would be convinced and would support their wives as they started small-scale commercial poultry.

Even a simple technical innovation, such as a chicken coop and an improved nest, may require some training and clever community organizing.

Acknowledgements

The extensionists mentioned in this paper were Community development facilitators (CDF) for the Blue Gold Project, which is financed by the government of the Netherlands to improve water management in Bangladesh.

A related video

Watch this video on Taking care of local chickens

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