Flash Frames on the Rails

On a train, a sleek steel behemoth on rails, you witness the sprawl of California through a different lens –  if you take the time to look. On Amtrak ‘s San Joaquin route 714 on a January day,  I watched the flash frames of urban squalor,  coastal majesty, and then the aggressively agricultural heart of the state…

Rusted, gutted cars like metallic warts in a homeless encampment under a concrete overpass.

A freight train on a parallel track zip by hauling dozens of shiny silver tankers.  Sometimes matte black or dirty white, they seem like torpedoes ready to detonate.

To the East, sensuously verdant hills bathed in mist.  Everything green again with the Rains.

To the West, the northern San Francisco bay in all its flashing glory.

A marsh hemming an estuary where scaups and saddleback ducks, and hundreds of other seabirds skitter and dunk for lunch.

A pile of junked cars. Someplace like that is probably where my late Beetle ended up, cursed with a blown-out engine.

A neighborhood park with clever  play structures just a stone’s throw from family homes. They are up close to the train’s rumble and bleat every day.

Garish graffiti shouting out from walls and bridges:  “I have nothing better to do with my talent and this paint.”

A motor home park,. Do the residents  love the auditory muscle of  trains so close?

Another slum with shanties abutted to ruined cars, garbage heaped and strewn. Who can cope with this pissy chaos and retain sanity?

Big rigs cozied up to all the little maws of a vast distribution center.  

Road detritus. My foraging habit triggered but denied.

A solar farm covering acres with pale blue panels. Glad to see progressive energy solutions!

Spikey Mediterranean cypress. The  habit of planting them like fences annoys me.

Tri-County bus yard.  Why are so many parked here at mid-day?

Amtrak photo

Central Valley agribusiness opens up.  Straight rows of trees, ribboned with green, as far as the eye can see.  Huge irrigation pipeline feeding mature orchards, new orchards.  Probably some kind of nut.

A palm tree orchard! I would live in such an oasis!

Stockton’s backside.  Modest homes. Graffiti on too many surfaces. Strip malls intrude.

Full throated rain horn  – probably the loudest sound produced on land outside of a war zone.

Abandoned ranches.  Wondering when they skin cattle hides in the slaughtering process.

McMansions tucked beside pastures feeding horses, goats, and sheep.  Agro junk courtesy of the ‘toss it out back’ school of rural living.

Velvet green fallow fields awaiting the plow.

Bee hive boxes scattered across a grassy field.  Work to do soon.

Transmission lines suspended on robot-like steel towers.

Fresno station is delightfully old-school Spanish-inspired station at Fresno.

Though it was a four-hour journey from Oakland to Fresno,  heading North, then East and South, I found the rhythm of the ride soothing.  Got to see things normally  invisible from the highway. But not many fellow riders. Americans made the mistake long ago of favoring overpriced cars and manic freeways to the simple elegance of interconnecting trains.  Makes me miss Europe.

Innate Beauty

“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.  We are responsible for ourselves and our deeds or misdeeds in our time and in our own space and will be judged accordingly by succeeding generations.” Isabel Wilkerson Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

Ultimately we are all bozos on the same bus, chained and enveloped by values and beliefs we inherited at birth.  We had no say in the early goings of our life, but we were deeply imprinted with messages that pierced our sense of self. 

Ms Wilkerson writes that In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of.  I was astounded by her adept and moving interweave of stories, most of which wrenched my soul.  Her insights offer incentive to engage in vibrantly re-crafting of how we see and relate to our fellow humans.

The experience of being ‘woke’ both terrifies and liberates. It requires becoming, daily, a devoted seeker of understanding. Rather than calling people out, we learn how to welcome them into our presence in this world. Inevitably that leads beyond acceptance to a kind of love.

Understanding our unique purpose, a place at which we feel no threat, disposes us to empathy, a catalyst for ‘woke.’  The courage to take that path we means we manifest the innate beauty of living together on an astonishing planet.

Biting the Hands That Feed a Nation

The bristling dominance of American corporations may sometimes obscure the fact that they plunder at least as effectively as governments in ‘less-developed’ countries (LDCs). In LDCs, bribery, tribalism, and family ties conspire to exclude small businesses from important supply lines. The economic crippling of family breadwinners – mostly women – becomes invisible from the meeting rooms of five-star hotels and government offices.

This dynamic shifted into high gear at the start of the COVID pandemic. Africa needed PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). My particular interest is Kenya where I know some back stories of the country’s COVID response.

The Plan

In April 2019, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations  (KNFJKA), and The Micro and Small Enterprise Authority (MSEA) formed a coalition. In Kenya’s COVID response, MSEA was tasked with forwarding Ministry of Health orders (for PPEs) to the MSEs and paying vendors when the masks were delivered. (The acronyms are dizzying.)

In a speech on 24 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K6UfZVFvcE  (forward approx. 8 minutes to the relevant section) Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta promised  1.5 billion shilling (about US$14 million) to enable the Jua Kali (informal workers) to take ‘center stage’ in the production of facemasks for the domestic and export markets. 

Informal workers contribute about 83% of economic activity in Kenya. Anything that supports growth in this sector has a huge impact on the country’s recovery.

Money Arrives

Since March 2020, money has poured into Kenya for COVID response through 99 initiatives whose ‘known worth’ is about $15 million. This came from the usual suspects in the ‘rescue industry’: International Monetary Fund, World Bank, African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank, USAID, and the Gates Foundation, to name the biggest donors.

Billionaire Jack Ma delivered a boatload of masks, test kits, and protective suits. Other organizations and businesses made smaller pledges or donated goods. The majority of these funds have been funneled through the Kenya Ministry of Health. The primary expenditure area is “COVID Response.”

The Train Wreck Begins

Now we come to the Kenyan tradition of corruption (not that ours or any other country has clean hands). Speaking on August 10, 2020, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said he and President Kenyatta are determined to eliminate cartels in the Procurement Department inside the Ministry of Health. 

Meanwhile, 42 MSE manufacturers throughout Kenya have, or can acquire, the capacity to meet the government’s goal of getting 24 million masks on the faces of Kenyans. Thirty-four of the small businesses (80%) are managed by women.

Vague ‘orders’ for face masks were sent to some businesses in May 2020. The specifications stated both surgical and reusable masks. Every potential vendor was required to get examination and approval of their production samples from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). These cost were not insubstantial. As of August 10, 2020, vendors still had not received requests for delivery, much less payment for finished masks. An actionable tender appears not to have existed or been mysteriously withdrawn.

Kenya Medical Supply Authority (KEMSA) Chief Executive Officer Jonah Manjari said on 2 March 2020 that the government had banned local manufacturers and distributors from exporting N95 and 3-ply surgical masks “to ensure the country has enough stock as part of its emergency plan.”

According to some manufacturers and distributors, the price in Kenya for a 50-pack box of face masks had shot up from about 200 shillings ($1.88 or 3 cents each ) before the coronavirus outbreak to nearly 1000 shillings (about $9.60 or 19 cents each).

Masks in waiting

In December 2020, KEMSA issued new specifications for masks, sized to fit young children. Contractors were directed to source materials from selected businesses. Sewing and other machines had to be acquired. About 30,000 adult-sized masks produced by one small business still sit in a store room. Despite many inquiries, no buyers have yet been found.

For any small enterprise, holding a lot of inventory seriously limits cash flow. Workers cannot be paid for any further work. That translates into families going hungry. Some lose their homes. (Kenya has not legislated eviction protection, even in the slums.)

Finally, in January 2021, a tender came through the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) for young children’s masks, in red, with a government logo imprinted, packaged individually then in lots of 500 per carton, and delivered to the Ministry for distribution. The price paid – about 31 cents per mask  – did not allow small businesses to break even.

Well Wishers

Enter the COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAFA).  From their  FAQ: “A PPE initiative of over 30 organizations dedicated to protecting Community Health Workers on the frontlines of Africa’s COVID-19 response in 24 African countries [including Kenya]. Key objectives: Find an urgent unmet need…protect community health services delivery.”

This is a bad-case-scenario for Kenya’s MSEs and Jua Kali. CAFA would be sending imported Western or Chinese-made masks, thus further depressing demand and prices in Kenya. This ‘intervention’ undercut Kenya’s economic engines – the small businesses; they will have a hard time surviving more foreign ‘help.’

Predicting when the COVID chaos will be sorted is difficult if not pointless. However, the next couple of months offer a major “opportunity window” to grow Kenya’s PPE manufacturing capacity.

The livelihoods of thousands of women depend on a trifecta of unlikely triumphs: a successful probe of government corruption, the rooting out of illegal PPE distribution cartels, and limits on the sledgehammer assistance of “well-wishers.”  

Without such systemic changes, small businesses will scramble to survive; the closing of many will have dire consequences, particularly for moms and kids. The virus and hunger prowl the poorest communities. Residents won’t be vaccinated until July 2022.

Kenyans claim to be sick and tired of their self-serving government.

Some of the ‘rescuers’ claim to understand how damaging their support of the status quo can be.

Where does the fight for better opportunities for Kenyans begin? And who walks point?

Sustain-Ability

The notion of sustainability, bandied about as the ultimate goal of international development programs, troubles me.

In its simplest definition, sustainability is the ability to exist constantly.  Few things in our world – from marriages to businesses to social projects – actually enjoy sustainability in that sense.  Some endeavors are just one-off or ‘band aids’ to avoid deeper engagement.

Sustainability is a concept widely used by western development organizations to mean ‘balanced’ efforts to meet basic human needs – but usually in a hurry. Large NGOs with government contracts enjoy ready access to capital. No so much for the small organizations doing equally worthy work.

Sustainability is always in flux, changing over time and place. It’s not a goal but a process.

The greater the level of poverty, the more challenging it is to improve the lives of those who experience it. The ‘unbanked,’ the un- or undereducated, the sick and traumatized face a struggle of indeterminate length to achieve an acceptable quality of living.  Being a woman,  and especially a women of color, means you have to navigate out of a deep trough of exclusion and internalized devaluation.

If we are to inculcate sustainability in initiatives that assist the poorest communities, then we have to reallocate resources to women. The two resources that matter most: knowledge and capital.

Where women are systemically excluded from education, we offer rigorous instruction. Where women know only subsistence economic activities, we share the knowledge, tools, and mentoring that growing a profitable business requires. Where women need to meet operating costs, we open accessible channels to capital, knowing their children’s welfare motivates their long-term vision.

Success as they define it takes as long as it takes; some achieve breakthroughs, others fail and must try again. Both outcomes have to inform the patience and quality of assistance.

It’s the group we must elevate, enabling them to build both social capital and access to capital – without draconian conditions.

We have an effective way to assist this mighty transition:  the Women’s Center. With this foundation, we can let go of that nagging sense of impermanence when we witness their resilience.

The Gold in the Hills

Spent a couple of days cruising around Placer, Amador and Calaveras counties, the Sierra foothills area known as “Gold Country” in California.

Placerville hosts a serious homeless encampment; first time I’ve seen a camp that bags its trash and sets it out for collection. Judging by the size of the trash-bag mound, it’s been a long time since anybody came to collect. 

All the big retailers seem to be doing brisk business. The historic downtown areas and just-outside-of-town strip malls show/hide empty storefronts.

We passed a closed-up store with a sign ”Carole’s Chocolate Lounge.”  The images conjured may propel the only entrepreneurial aspiration I need going forward.

Lotta Trump signage here. I wonder if the CA Republicans paid for all the flashy banners along the road. Not many people wear masks.

I had not watched any TV since the last real (2019) baseball season. The commercials seem obsessed with making home, clothes, cars and pets smell good.

My unwillingness to be interrupted constantly while viewing a show made for short night of TV.  So pleased to see a pregnant weather lady!

We hiked around to a few prospecting sites on the Silver Fork of the American River, the Mokelumne River, Woods Creek, and the Stanislaus River. All refreshingly cold and clear. Just a fleck of gold for the effort.

Route 49 – a two-lane blacktop connecting the towns of Placerville and Sonora – is as smooth as a dance floor.  However, the tiny towns strewn along it evidently have barely enough people to bother with a main street or even an official building in decent repair. A few have gone ‘agri-burb’ with Tractor Supply Depots and auto parts stores and Subway, McD’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Starbucks – all with drive through service.

The Railtown 1897 State Historical Park was a sweet find on a day when virtually no one else showed up.  Dozens of vintage rail cars and locomotives, most made ‘back East’ and shipped to California. It’s the oldest continually operating rail roundhouse in the States. Thousands of iron parts stacked about – relics of a time when transport was huge and heavy.

Resting tonight near Jackass Hill, where a depressed Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain took refuge with some unusual friends during his sojourn of escape in Calaveras County.    

Memorable places:

Pope’s Beach on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Copses of pine trees grow across the beach almost to the water’s edge.  Sandy bottom as far as I could see.

Route 50 into S. Lake Tahoe – the muscular rock faces take my breath away.

Knight’s Ferry, empty like a set from a post-apocalypse film;

The ice cream store Yummie Ha Ha in Angel’s Camp;

Route 108 between Sonora and Oakdale – rolling hills of black oaks pleasingly socially distanced amid tawny dry-grass meadows, a landscape that makes me feel unreasonable smitten. As if the land itself could be my lover.

The weeds and grasses have gone frowzy, effortlessly scattering their seeds in the breeze. A place not anything like Oakland, tawdry with trash and graffiti.

Aimless on the road, drifting through the day – what could be more golden?