Interview: J McDonald

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For N13, we interviewed some of our contributors. Hear from J McDonald on howling baboons, housing in Ghana, and the intersection of travel and engineering.

What was the hardest day you have ever had on a trip?

There was a stretch of road when I was bicycling through Burkina Faso, on the way to a wildlife preserve called La Rancha Nazinga, that was pretty frightening.  There was a camp there I was trying to get to by nightfall, which in terms of mileage seemed easily doable.  Not on the map, however, was the fact that the “road” was loose dust and sand six inches deep.  I had to walk the bike through most of it, and as the sun was setting a blood red ball, with no end in sight, I heard an ominous chorus of howls.  I had been warned that elephants like to charge at cyclists, but nobody had warned me about the baboons…

How do you take notes on the road?

I think it depends – if I am staying in one place for a while I prefer to soak it in without writing every day.  But if I’m in constant motion, constant notes.

What are you reading right now?

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman.  And an overly scientific tome about sensory deprivation experiments.

What do you do when you are not travelling?

I’m a visual artist and architectural designer/fabricator.  I take a lot of inspiration from places I have been, and I use my stationary time to process and create from the barrage of images and experiences I am confronted with when travelling.

How do traveling and engineering overlap for you?

I’m always fascinated by the built environments in different places – how they reflect the history, people and culture, landscape and climate of a place. I learn a lot about architecture from the culture, and a lot about the culture through the architecture.  For example, how Soviet bloc architecture has changed the way that people in traditionally nomadic areas of Central Asia live, or in Western Togo how tribal wars and Baobab trees gave birth to one of the most unique architectures I’ve ever seen.  We tend not to think about the way that architecture can fundamentally alter lifestyle and culture, but when we see the impact of globalization in the developing world it becomes difficult to ignore.  The question of how places can move toward certain positive aspects of modernity while maintaining their cultural identity has been central to my travel and my work.  The question of how a built environment effects psychology and culture is one that I am always exploring, through both my travel and my art.  

What was the happiest moment you had in Africa?

There are so many. After I finished building a new, zero material cost house with and for my friend Opoku in Abetenim, Ghana.  We sat outside, barefoot and covered in mud with Salaam and Abbas, our fantastic teenage helpers, peeling oranges with our machetes in the sun.  The next day, the whole village gathered and the Chief presented me with a beautiful Kente cloth, dubbing me ‘the sub-chief of environment and development’ for the village.  He told me that when the rooster crows  they will think of me, and that when I hear the rooster crow, I should think of them.
A few months ago, I got an email from my friend Frank who is a school teacher in the village saying that the first class of kids had graduated from the Junior High school I had helped build there.  It’s amazing to have these moments continue to come even long after I’d left Abetenim.

Where would you go right now if you could?

Dogon Country in Mali.  I spent 3 months in Mali but due to instability of the region at the time, I didn’t go. That place still speaks to me.
Read J McDonald’s story and see his maps in N13 today!
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