Thursday, 6 September 2012

Jayne in Bolivia

Last May my wife, Jayne, volunteered to go to teach English in Bolivia. I originally wrote this primer on the country so she could send to her friends. She survived, save for a multitude of bedbug bites. I have had a number of friends ask for a copy, so I will now post it here.

Jayne’s Trip to Bolivia
Jayne is almost ready to head off for a month’s teaching in Rurrenbaque, Bolivia. Since Bolivia is not really on most peoples’ radar screen, I thought I would provide some insight into her impending trip. One more thing, Jayne says nobody is allowed to send this to her mother until she gets back as she thinks Jayne is going with friends to a nice upscale resort in a quaint touristy urban centre and not alone in a remote jungle village.

Bolivia, or officially, the Plurinational (I didn’t even know this was a word as it sounds more like something found in the restrooms of the UN) State of Bolivia is a landlocked country in central South America. It is bordered by seemingly every country in South America. Well, at least it’s bordered by Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay and Argentina to the south, Chile to the southwest, and Peru to the west.

How I imagine one of the UN's urinals to look. In my UN building there would be one of these for each world leader!! I know that I would be the first in line to use the one modelled after Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister. This one obviously is an older model.

She Was Not Ammused

It needs to be said: Bolivia is just one of those places you never really think about. When Jayne says that she is off to Bolivia some people did not even know the country existed and others guessed that it was in Africa or Asia or Central America. Last week I read an article in the New York Times and now I think I understand why this lack of Bolivia’s existence is so.

The story goes that in 1867, the British ambassador to Bolivia got on the wrong side of the country’s dictator, Mariano Melgarejo. It seems the good ambassador refused a glass of a fermented maize drink called chichi. This was to be a toast to the dictator’s favorite mistress. Opting for Victorian British deportment and diplomatic compromise the staid ambassador chose instead a glass of cocoa. Pissing off a dictator is never really a good idea under even the best of circumstances, but when one does that and slights his best mistress at the same time extreme measures may just come into play.

 Incensed and seeking retribution, Melgarejo forced the ambassador to drink the entire bowl of chocolate. He next tied the ambassador onto the back of a donkey, facing backwards, and then paraded him three times around La Paz’s main square. He then sent him packing to London. I’m thinking at this point that this may just be the origin of the phrase “ass backwards”, but this is entirely my own speculation.

Back in London the humiliated ambassador related his story to Queen Victoria and she was not amused. Not at all! Her Majesty ordered the Royal Navy to bombard the Bolivian capital, La Paz.  Her military advisors produced a map of South America and delicately pointed out that La Paz lay far inland, well beyond the reach of even the most powerful British guns. Unfazed, Victoria simply marked the offending country with an X and proclaimed “Bolivia does not exist”.

Thus ignored in Commonwealth circles and due to circumstances both inside and outside of Bolivia, the country has become somewhat of the doormat to South America. Since that time, poor little Bolivia has lost about half its territory. The root causes of Bolivia’s, at least partial, erasure from the map has been its curse of valuable resources: rubber, oil, and guano. Everyone wanted a piece of the resources and Bolivia gets stomped. Guano, incidentally, is the excrement of birds or bats and while this doesn’t appear too desirable a resource today guano was the most important source of nitrates for gunpowder and other explosives up until just before World War I.

Bolivia Must Have Really Big Cereal Boxes

The present Bolivian population is estimated at 10 million. The main language spoken is Spanish, although 36 other indigenous languages also have official language status. I have no idea how they could ever fit all those languages onto a box of Corn Flakes. It’s sometimes hard for me to read the English ingredients and instructions on labels with just two official languages. Either they must use really tiny print or use really big boxes.

Bolivia Has Lots of Weeds and Creatures and Things
Bolivia's has an amazing biodiversity due in part to variable altitudes, ranging from 90 to 6,542 meters above sea level. Bolivia has 32 ecological regions, 199 ecosystems, over 200,000 species of plants, 1,200 species of fern, 1,500 species of liverworts and moss, and at least 800 species of fungus. Bolivia is considered the place of origin for such species as peppers and chilli peppers (I think this fact alone should automatically elevate the stature of Bolivia around the world), the peanut, the bean, the yuca or cassava, and several species of palm. Bolivia also naturally produces over 4,000 kinds of potato. In a just world Ireland would have a national Bolivia day holiday.
Furthermore, Bolivia has more than 2,900 animal species, including 398 mammals, over 1,400 birds (70% of all birds known in the world), 204 amphibians, 277 reptiles, and 635 fish (all freshwater, of course). In addition, there are more than 3,000 types of butterfly.
Bolivia Cuisine is Probably Salty and Batteries Are Probably Cheap
Southwest Bolivia is home to the world's largest salt flat, about 10,000 square kilometres at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above mean sea level. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust floating on a brine base, which leaves it almost absolutely flat. It varies less than one meter in height over the entire area.  
It is estimated that Bolivia has 5.4 million cubic tonnes of lithium which represents 50% to 70% of world reserves. This light metal is used to make high-capacity batteries used in iPads and iPhones and electric cars and such. The government so far has resisted destroying this unique natural landscape and has not allowed large scale mining of the lithium to meet the increasing world demand for us to make a couple more unnecessary cell phone calls and send a few more trivial text messages each day.
Exciting Sports

Bolivia has a highly developed sporting program. One of the most popular sporting events is wrestling. Bolivian wrestling is not like the phony North American choreographed event.  Bolivian wrestlers are highly skilled professional athletes. Words cannot describe the beauty, grace, and finely honed skills of these world class athletes. You just have to watch:

High in La Paz

 Jayne will be landing at the La Paz Airport, the highest in the world at an elevation of roughly 13,325 feet. To put this in perspective, Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, is 12,972 feet. Not surprisingly, La Paz is also the highest capital city in the world. To counteract the effects of altitude sickness due to the thin air, all the hotels serve coca tea. Coca should not be confused with cocoa which is the dried and fermented seed which serves as the basis of chocolate. Coca is best known throughout the world for its alkaloids from which cocaine is derived. Undoubtedly the tea will be a bit tepid as water boils at 88 °C in La Paz but then again, after a coca tea or two who is going to care?

A Scenic Drive Down a Historic Highway

After an overnight stay in La Paz, Jayne will head to Rurrenabaque, a small town of about 14,000 north of La Paz. Locals commonly refer to the town by its shortened nickname, "Rurre".

The town is reached by bus from La Paz, an 18 hour ride down the North Yungas Road (410 km) or by a one hour flight.
The North Yungas Road (more commonly known as the Road of Death or Death Road or Death Highway) is legendary for its extreme danger and spectacular scenery. It is internationally recognized as "world's most dangerous road". Two to three hundred travellers are killed on this highway yearly and the roadside is marked by thousands of crosses showing the location of fatalities. Because of the extreme drop-offs of up to 2,000 feet, its single-lane width (much of the road no wider than 10 ft) and lack of any guard rails, the road is extremely dangerous. The usual natural hazards of rain, fog, landslides, flash floods, etc., just add to the excitement.

 The local road rules specify that the downhill driver never has the right of way and must move to the outer edge of the road. This forces faster vehicles to stop so that passing can be negotiated safely (in theory, of course). Also, vehicles drive on the left, as opposed to the right, as on any other road in Bolivia. This gives a left hand drive vehicle's driver a better view over his outside wheel, making passing safer (in theory, of course). Jayne decided that she would fly.
The road itself was built in the 1930s during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners.

Bolivia and Paraguay Go Postal

The Chaco War (1932–1935) was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay over control of the northern part of the Gran Chaco, a flat, hot, waterless plain, which was incorrectly thought to be rich in oil. The war between the two poorest countries in South America was the bloodiest military conflict fought in the continent during the 20th century.

The dispute started when Paraguay issued a set of three stamps in 1924. They had a map of Paraguay as the design and the almost the entire word of Paraguay was spread over the Chaco region. This was followed by a 1927 Paraguayan issue of a map showing the entire north of the country as being Chaco Paraguayo.

Of course, this type of postal confrontation could not be tolerated lying down and Bolivia responded decisively in 1928 with a stamp showing a map of Bolivia with an area clearly named Chaco Boliviano. To further bring their point across, three more stamps with the same map were issued in 1930.
A philatelist’s arms race was now in order and Paraguay responded with a bigger and badder set of five stamps issued in 1932. The map on these stamps is again labelled Chaco Paraguayo and no further stress the point each stamp carried the phrase "Ha sido, es y sera", or in English "Has been, is, and will be".
Not to be outdone, Bolivia issued two even larger sets of stamps in 1935. The first set, consisting of 14 stamps, each with an identical design, shows a map of Bolivia on which is marked Chaco Boliviano. The second set was for airmail postage, and again the main design feature of these stamps is a map of Bolivia, and the only regional name to appear is the Chaco Boliviano.
Postage stamp diplomacy was obviously failing so the two countries resorted to the time-tried traditional measures of open warfare and after 100,000 deaths, Paraguay wiped its feet on the doormat that is Bolivia and took control of three quarters of the disputed territory.

Rurrenabaque and San Miguel

Rurrenabaque is a small town, not much bigger than Olds, Alberta (where we live). About 8,000 people live in the town proper and another 6,000 in the surrounding communities. Rurrenabaque lies on the east bank of the Beni River, a tributary of the Amazon. Rurrenabaque is the starting point for many popular tours to the jungle.
Rurrenabaque and the Beni River

The village of San Miguel
The jungle is of course, the Amazon Rainforest. Jayne will be living in the jungle village of San Miguel del Bala. The village of about 40 is assessable only by an hour boat ride upriver by motorized dugouts. The community runs the San Miguel del Bala Eco-Lodge and she will be teaching the local guides English. She will also be teaching alone. She does not have electricity or phone service. As she will be sleeping alone in a hut in the jungle quite a ways from the kitchen area and a few miles away from the village itself the villagers will escort her back to her room as “the jungle is not safe at night”.

Interesting Local Inhabitants

Jayne loves animals and nature and in the jungle village she will have the opportunity to see and experience some of the flora and fauna of the world’s largest rainforest. I will introduce to you a few of them.

Interesting Friendly Insects That Want To Meet You

The woman that is teaching at the village right now has been introduced to a few hundred of the local insects. As such she has offered Jayne the advice not to stay in hut number 1 as there is an infestation of bedbugs. My guess is that Jayne will heed these words of wisdom and not meet these fascinating creatures, but not to worry there are many other interesting local insects around. (Note: It seems that bedbugs can't count as the huts other than number 1 were also partying spots for these little guys.)

Phoneutria, commonly known as the Brazilian wandering spider or banana spider appears in the Guinness World Records 2012 as the world's most venomous spider. Phoneutria, by the way, is Greek for "Murderess".  These beautiful spiders can grow to 4 or 5 inches in length. They are called wandering spiders because they wander the jungle floor at night, rather than going to the bother of making a web. During the day they hide inside banana plants (hence their other name) or hide in dark and moist places in or near human dwellings. Things like shoes and clothing or packsacks are said to be especially appealing.

The local species of this spider is widely considered the most venomous. Its venom contains a potent neurotoxin that causes loss of muscle control and breathing, resulting in paralysis and eventual asphyxiation. In addition, the venom causes intense pain and inflammation. That sounds to me as bad enough but the venom of the spider can cause priapism (really big erections) in humans. Erections resulting from the bite are said to be uncomfortable and can last for many hours and lead to impotence if one survives. I think this may be why all the teachers going to Bolivia are women.

Interesting and Adventurous Fish

While there are piranhas and other fish with big teeth in the river it is some of the smaller ones that are most interesting. Vandellia cirrhosa, the Candiru, is a species of parasitic pencil catfish native to the Amazon Basin. This species can grow to a length of about 7 inches and is infamous for entering the urethra of humans who are urinating under water, probably mistaking the urine stream for expelled water exiting the gills of fish. Notice they are almost transparent and very hard to see.

Their normal hosts are other fish to which they attach themselves to the aortal arteries from within the gill chamber and ingest the blood of the host. Barbs on the spine keep them in place. One would hope that it is the small candiru that try to swim up the urethras and not the larger 7 inch varieties. Now if one was first bitten by the wandering spider and then went to the river perhaps one of the larger candiru … Sorry, it’s just too nasty to further contemplate.

Happy Looking Reptiles 

The black caiman is one of the largest reptiles in the world. It is the largest predator in the Amazon basin and the largest member of the alligator family. Adult black caimans are 10–14 feet in length, with some old ones larger than 16 feet. Unconfirmed sources report that the black caiman can grow to 20 feet or more. Their teeth are designed to grab but not rip, so they generally try to swallow their food whole after drowning their pitiless prey.

The Green Anaconda is a large, non-venomous snake and one of the largest snakes in the world reaching up to 22 feet long and over 200 pounds in weight. Reports of anacondas 35–40 feet or even longer exist.
Primarily nocturnal, anacondas tend to spend most of their life in or around water. Because of their large size, they are rather slow and sluggish when traveling on land, but in water they are as graceful as synchronized swimmers. They tend to float atop the surface of the water with the snout barely poking out above the surface. When prey passes by, or stops to drink, (or puts their hand outside the boat?), a hungry anaconda will snatch it with its jaws (without eating or swallowing it) and coil around it with its body. The snake will then constrict until it has successfully suffocated the prey. Prey can be anything they can manage to overpower, including fish, birds, people sized mammals, or other reptiles such as caiman.

Cute Interesting Mammals

While there are pink river dolphins in the river and they are kind of cute, the cutest animal is undoubtedly the jaguar. Panthera onca is one big cat, the third-largest after the tiger and the lion. Dense rainforest is its preferred habitat. It also really likes water and enjoys swimming.

The jaguar is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the top of the food chain. This graceful cat will walk absolutely silent and slowly down forest paths. It will listen and stalk unsuspecting prey before suddenly and violently rushing and ambushing their pitiful prey.

The jaguar usually attacks from a target's blind spot and this cat's ambushing abilities are considered, by both indigenous people and field researchers, to have no equal in the animal kingdom.  The prey is probably dead before it is even aware there is a jaguar in the neighbourhood.

The jaguar has an exceptionally powerful bite, twice the power of a lion. This allows it to employ an unusual killing method; it bites directly through the skull of the prey between the ears to deliver a fatal puncture to the brain. It has been reported that "an individual jaguar can drag a 360 kg (800 lb) bull 8 m (25 ft) in its jaws and pulverize the heaviest bones".

Interesting and Colourful Amphibians

 Poison dart frogs (formerly called poison arrow frogs) are not venomous, but poisonous; venomous animals use their toxins to kill their prey. I for one was happy to learn that. The frog's skin is densely coated in alkaloid poison, which prevents nerves from transmitting impulses, leaving the muscles in an inactive state of contraction. Chickens and dogs have died from contact with a paper towel on which a frog had walked.
The Golden Poison Dart Frog is estimated to contain about one milligram of this poison, enough to kill about 10,000 mice or between 10 and 20 humans, or two African bull elephants, whichever comes along first.
To make a poison dart you carefully expose the frog to the heat of a fire, and the frog exudes small amounts of poisonous fluid. The tips of arrows and darts are soaked in the fluid, and keep their deadly effect for over two years.
Since Jayne will have access neither to phone nor internet for the next month we will have to wait until June to hear of her adventures in Bolivia. In the meantime, I hope this primer on the country is of interest. Doug

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Some updates

Over the few weeks, traffic has increased dramatically on my blog due to a link to the site that Chris Schwarz embedded in his Popular Woodworking Magazine blog.
I have received many kind words from around the world and a few offers to send tools and books to the school. It also made me realize. Ok, it made me feel guilty that I have not added to the blog in the last year. So perhaps it is time for some updates.
1.              Update on Burundi
To highlight the unsettled nature of Burundi and a few weeks after Tim and I visited, a massacre occurred seven kilometres(just over four miles) from our hotel. Here is part of a BBC news report.
September 2011Burundi bar attack leaves many dead in Gatumba
 At least 36 people have been killed after unidentified gunmen opened fire at a crowded bar near the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, officials say. A local hospital is reportedly unable to cope with the wounded, while dead bodies have been left in a car park.

"I heard someone some distance away shout: 'Kill them all,' and they opened fire," one survivor told the BBC. Burundi's last rebel group officially laid down its arms in 2009 but sporadic attacks have continued. The BBC's Prime Ndikumagenge in Bujumbura says it is the most deadly attack since last year's disputed poll.
The government has blamed recent attacks on bandits but our correspondent says some fear a new rebel group has emerged. There are some reports that the attackers crossed into Gatumba from just across the border in Democratic Republic of Congo.

November 2011
Sadly, Ivica’s friend and fellow Croat, Lukrecija Mamic was been killed during a raid on Kiremba monastery in Burundi. Lukrecija, a nun, ran a 150-bed hospital ward which she had founded and she also managed a centre for AIDS patients and those suffering from malnutrition.  She was murdered by thieves who also beat up her colleague, a nun from Italy and forced the monastery's driver to take the thieves to safety. He was later found dead.
She will be missed as up to 1,600 children and pregnant women depended upon her programs.

2.      Update on Uganda
One of our friends, a humanitarian worker, was in the Mbarara hospital during the recent Ebola outbreak in Uganda with a patient a few rooms away was diagnosed with Ebola. Her hospitalization was for a relatively minor aliment, she had a full recovery, and no one else was infected.
According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus, which first appeared in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has a fatality rate of up to 90%.
Ebola t is believed was introduced into the human population through handling or close contact with the blood, or other bodily fluids from infected animals. Ebola then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission, resulting from contact usually with the blood of infected people and especially so with health-care workers treating Ebola patients.
Ebola is a virulent viral illness characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.
People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus.
Link to World Health Organization:
Today I just read about a hapless thief who stole a cell phone from a patient at Kagadi Hospital a couple hours north of Mbarara, Uganda. Unfortunately the phone’s owner had the Ebola virus, which in return infected the thief.

The thief was caught by police detectives when he began using the phone. However, before he could be apprehended, he developed symptoms similar to those of Ebola and sought medication at the hospital. There he apparently confessed and handed the phone over to police. Hopefully the police took adequate precautions!

Sounds to me like a contender for this year’s Darwin Awards.

3.      Update from Rwanda
Jean Paul got married about two months ago. I had thought this matter was settled before I left last year but his first endeavour at finding a bride fell through. He found an even lovelier bride though. My son is currently working on raising funds to bring Jean Paul and Joseph, a tailoring instructor back to Canada for further studies.
The new school
Work on Kivumu’s first secondary school is progressing well. By the end of September it was hoped that the first phase of 11 classrooms (800 square metres or 9000 square feet) should be complete. But, inevitably, delays have set this back a month or so. Nonetheless, great progress has been made and especially so when you consider everything was done by hand and done by the students of the trade school.
Digging the foundations
Technical and Vocational Training and Education in Rwanda has gone through some dramatic curriculum changes in an attempt towards standardization and raising the profile of the trades. I am now getting pleas to come over and help but I have my work here and won’t be free until July and August next year.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Ameza Ya Babaji Yimbyeyi: The Big Boss Workbench

Jean Paul in Canada

Jean Paul, or Paulo to his friends, is a remarkable individual. On first introduction you will immediately notice two things: he has the most charming smile and secondly, he has only one ear – a result of a highway bicycle crash that killed his best friend, almost ended his life and sent him into a month long coma and a year in hospital. Not noticeable are his other exceptional qualities such as honesty, resilience, humour, and determination. Even the trauma of the 1994 genocide and his family’s two year exile in a Congo refugee camp, that effectively  halved the six years of education  available to him, failed to wear down his resolve.

Visiting Drumheller, Alberta

In 1998 he was granted entry into a carpentry program established by Vjeko Curic, a Franciscan missionary from Croatia. Later that year Vjeko was assassinated, most probably as a consequence of his role in saving thousands of lives during the genocide. A few years back a movie, starring John Hurt, was released that is based upon Vjeko’s life.

Next year, near the end of his two year carpentry program Jean Paul was in the accident that placed him in a coma and almost took his life. After recovery from the coma, and with the help of his mother, he had to learn to read all over again. A year later the scar tissue became badly infected and the missionary, Ivica Peric who had taken over leadership of the school, drove Jean Paul across the border into Uganda for treatment. Father Ivica was a fellow Croat and long time friend of Vjeko.

After months of treatment in Kampala, Jean Paul finally came home and was employed as a helper at the school. A few years later due to his hard work, honesty and resolve Jean Paul was offered a position as an instructor.

While working at the school two years ago we became acquainted with Jean Paul. He was unquestioningly faithful to the school and we were immediately charmed by his intellect, character and integrity. When we returned to Canada my son Tim convinced his friends at high school to raise money to enable Jean Paul to come to Canada for four months of study at Olds College. Through their Interact Club (a Rotary affiliated service club for youth) and with the support of students, staff, and community, an art auction and banquet was held to raise the funds.

A visit to Jean Paul's house. A video by my son Tim.

Olds College Campus

Although I am a teacher at the same high school that my son attends I teach out of the Olds College carpentry labs. Our school is unique in that it is located on a college campus and many facilities are shared and the carpentry lab is a natural fit for me as I hold a journeyman’s level trade certificate in carpenter and a B.Ed in Vocational Education.

The carpentry lab is located on the other side of the campus and I often joke to my superiors that I have a shop teacher’s dream job. They ask: “Is it because you have the largest shop in the country?”

“Or is it because you have access to millions of dollars worth of tools and equipment?”

Jean Paul with carpentry instructor Chris
“Neither”, I reply “It’s because at any given time I’m a half mile away from administration!”

The other part of my job during the last four years has been to establish and pilot dual credit programs whereby high school students may take college courses and receive both secondary and post secondary credit. In implementing such programs, the level of support and accommodation I have always received from both institutions has been remarkable and the level of support we received for Jean Paul was no exception. Setting up a specialized training program was near child’s play. Jean Paul took a combination of apprenticeship level courses, high school courses, and individual tutoring. He studied teaching methodology and honed his carpentry and woodworking skills.

At the end of his four months of studies Jean Paul returned home. On the same day as I finished teaching, my son Tim and I accompanied Jean Paul for two months of volunteer work at his school. We would return the day before school started in the fall. My wife, Jayne, was unable to come with us this time as she had to work but she had gone to Rwanda last Christmas to teach English and will return again this November for a month.

Workbench at comercial furniture shop, Gitarama, Rwanda
One of the many projects Jean Paul and I took on this summer was the “Big Boss Workbench” – Ameza ya Babaji Yimbyeyi in Kinyarwanda. In many parts of Africa workbenches are almost unrecognizable as such; sometimes they are as simple as a couple logs nailed together and usually no more than a four legs haphazardly attached to a few old planks. The benches at CFJ are of no exception. In fact around here I cannot recall seeing any workbenches made much better.

For the last two years I have been trying to convince the carpentry instructors at the school to start building better benches. Two years ago we had the first carpentry instructor from Rwanda to come to Olds College in Canada for further studies. While he discovered that flat workbenches were much easier to work on, he had either no desire to change or no idea as to how to implement the change. Jean Paul, the Rwandan instructor we brought over this year, was similarly impressed with the benches at Olds College but was even more impressed with the two Roubo-style benches that I had made for my home workshop. He also had the desire, drive, and self-confidence to initiate change.
Typical school workbench

For the school benches we selected what is locally called cypress (pronounced here, “Sip – rus”) as it was by far the cheapest wood available. It is also very durable and hard – in fact, too hard to drive in a nail without pre-drilling. The wood grain is quite decorative; it is very wavy and has a strong contrast between the heart and sap woods. This leads to some difficulty when hand planing but the end result is a very impressive finished wood.

One thing everyone had to learn was how to hone a blade.
Plane irons were never honed and always resharpened to
the primary angle. This resulted in short blade life and
well worn stones. Banana stones, I called them.
In Rwanda the very concept of furniture is of recent introduction by European colonialists. Under the guidance of Belgium master carpenters the Rwandans were renowned in East and Central Africa for their craftsmanship. During the 1994 genocide a generation of craftsman and teachers disappeared. Their voices silenced, the collective knowledge gained from untold years of hard won trade experience was lost forever.

Trade training literally had to start from the beginning. Vocational teachers generally had at best the six years of state education plus from a couple months to two years of training in the trade. Some trade schools had no more than three or four tools in total and their graduates may never have had actually used any tools during their “studies”. Instruction was often in French, a language neither the instructors nor students spoke. Words would be written on a blackboard, the students would dutifully copy the words and memorize the answers – all without really understanding what was written. Most of the instructors I have met in Rwanda try hard but their lack of training is a hindrance. A high ranking Rwandan official confided to me that such is the state of the trades in Rwanda today that he had to hire workers from the Congo just to paint the trim on his house; he couldn’t find Rwandans capable. If I had the time and resources, I would establish a training facility for vocational instructors.

Nothing is wasted. Even the shavings are
collected and sold. One bag of sawdust
sells for the equivelent of a days wages.
As a result of a generation's worth of lost knowledge and the subsequent poor training, sturdily built furniture is rare in Rwanda. Straight and square furniture is rarer and when a workbench is constructed with more attention to detail and finished to much higher standards than is any other item of furniture in the village, it is sure to attract attention. And so it was that the students decided that the workbench was suitable for use as a table or desk by a very big and powerful boss, hence “the big boss workbench”.

The construction of the workbench, and its accessories, were perfect examples of project based learning. Many new tools and techniques were introduced to the staff and students. New tools such as jointer planes, tongue and groove planes, winding sticks, block planes, and card scrapers were introduced, demonstrated, and tried out by anyone brave enough to fight through the crowds. Techniques such as honing a blade instead of completely re-sharpening each time, saw sharpening,  truing the top by planing diagonally or cross-grain rather than always parallel with the grain, and drawbore joints were taught.

Dancilla varnishing the
second bench.
The No. 48 Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane was a special hit. Jean Paul had seen and used mine at home and immediately saw the potential for such a tool. Without power, the joint was very tedious to make with a hand saw and chisel. Plywoods, apart from a cheap 1/8” Chinese import, are all but unavailable. Panels were made by butt joining and gluing with a locally available thick PVC glue of uncertain origins and quality. If the glue joints managed to hold, the differences in humidity between dry and wet seasons split the wood. Tongue and groove joints would greatly improve the durability and appearance of their work.

At the end of April I took Jean Paul to the Lie Nielsen Toolworks event at SAIT in Calgary. He was like a kid in a candy shop. Lie Nielsen’s team was accommodating; demonstrating the use of the tools and letting Jean Paul try all he wanted.

In Rwanda a carpenter or a teacher makes only about $40.00 a month but I am sure that if Jean Paul had the means he would have carted back the entire stock of tools in the room. In Kigali, even very cheaply made Chinese #4 planes go for three months wages; a Stanley #4 goes for about the same price as Lie Nielsen’s. However Jean Paul asked of nothing for himself, he only queried as to the possibility of getting the tongue and groove plane for the school. That, he decided,would be the single most valuable item in Lie Nielsen’s inventory. I ordered one to take over and also a Bronze edge plane that I would stingily keep for myself.

It was as if magic was preformed when Jean Paul and I demonstrated the plane to the students and staff at his school. Jaws literally dropped, and I suspect that some thought it was just a trick. At least an hour was occupied as we had to show and reshow everyone all the details of its use. The plane was taken apart and piece by piece it was examined. Over the next two months it seemed that every board that wasn’t nailed down suddenly had tongues or grooves cut into them!
A close scrutiny of the Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane

As a carpenter schooled in North America I am quite naturally dependent upon power tools. I have always enjoyed using hand tools and my proficiency with such was probably greater than the average carpenter. Thirty years ago I used to sharpen all my own hand saws and circular saw blades. Carbide toothed blades and electric reciprocating saws left those skills somewhat on the sidelines. Cordless drills forced me to hang up my Stanley Yankee screwdriver. Biscuits replaced mortises, and routers and hinge templates replaced chisels. Although I left the trade as a means of full time employment, I have always kept busy renovating my house or helping friends.

About five years ago, through a friend, I got introduced to the school. She was a tailoring instructor and had developed that program for CFJ in Rwanda. She said they could use a bit of help with their carpentry program. As is often the case, one thing leads to another and I found myself in Rwanda.

Jean Paul with Chris Schwarz designed saw bench

After working in a setting without any electricity I came to realize that I would have to brush up on a few techniques. This is how I came across the works of hand tool guru Christopher Schwarz and his books, articles and videos. I quickly appreciated his skills, knowledge and ever-so-slightly offbeat sense of humour. Unrepentantly I expropriated his plans for workbenches, saw benches, layout squares and adapted them for use in Africa. I wrote him an email to thank him. He offered to put out a call to his readers for surplus tools. Once I work out the logistics of collecting and shipping the tools economically I will take him up on his kind offer.

Similarly, a chance email and photo sent to Lie Nielsen in reply to a confirmation of a shipped item resulted in contact by the marketing department and the possibility of a story about CFJ. I was a bit shocked by the interest from Lie Nielsen Toolworks and Christopher Schwarz, both of whom I hold in extremely high regard. I am more used to people nodding politely and half listening when I talk about Rwanda.

The most used tool in the school.
The English layout square.
Using Christopher’s Roubo-style workbenches as a base we adapted the plans to allow for local conditions and limitations. We decided on a leg vise on one side of the bench as I had picked up an old garage sale shoulder vise screw for a dollar. It lasted about two weeks before the casting cracked on front guide nut. We were not able to locate any vise screws in Rwanda. Luckily my tailoring instructor friend is heading over in a couple weeks and she lives very close to Lee Valley’s Calgary store where I could pick up a Veritas shoulder vise screw. I told my wife that the other bag I carried out of the store was just the instruction sheets for the vise! Experience dictated that she didn’t believe me.

In Rwanda, tools, vises included, generally cost two or three times what they cost in North America and they are usually of very poor quality. A cheap little 6 inch Chinese bench vise (not even quick release) was selling for over two months wages. I know China can produce high quality goods when it wants – take the iPhone and iPods for example – but the stuff they send to Africa is of extremely poor quality. I have had nuts from plumbing fixtures break as I hand tighten them.

Cam lever vise
Closing the vise
Opening the vise

Making dowel for the
drawbore pins.
Using spruce for the model I made in Canada it worked like a charm but with the resinous and oily cypress the wedge would just slip. A piece of sandpaper nailed on the wedge solved that problem. I don’t know how it will stand up to long term use but in the month of operation while I was there it became the vise of choice. Everyone much preferred it to the standard screw leg vise as they thought it easier and faster. A days wages worth of wood for a local carpenter now can accomplish as much as a few month’s wages worth of a commercial vise. To overcome the lack of affordable and decent quality vises, I designed a prototype cam operated leg vise that can be made entirely out of wood and made with the limited tools at hand. It was based upon I drawing I saw somewhere in an old book of a child’s craft bench.

No matter how many times I
see this, I still wince!

We also made three bench hold-downs. After a day’s search we had managed to find in the capital, Kigali, a supply of 15 mm round stock. With scraps of 2.5 mm by 15 mm flat iron welded together we managed to fabricate easy to make and functional hold-downs for the benches.

The hold-downs and the vises should expatiate a few operations. At least it should certainly be better than the usual way of chiselling out a dovetail joint which is to straddle the wood and chisel between your legs. I can only surmise that over the years Darwinian sexual selection plays a role in the acquisition of accurate of hand eye coordination.


Here is a short video, made by my son, highlighting the workbench. You can see the cam vise in action.

We also made a couple of sawing benches to compliment the big boss bench and to make the work more efficient. Add to that a couple of bench hooks, shooting boards, whetstone boxes and the school is now well on the way to having a functional woodworking shop.

Sometimes the Big Boss Bench was the only bench in the whole school that was being used.


Making lumber