Grass-Is-Greener-On-the-Other-Side Syndrome. Many, if not most, have had a case of it -- dreadful, pesky thing it is. And hard to get rid of too—some struggle with it for life.
My time riding the rails here in Ukraine has taken on a special purpose. While I’ve always enjoyed sharing a couple of hours of uninhibited conversation with captive strangers, my approach in these encounters in Ukraine has been somewhat more calculated.
While I personally think I do a decent job of looking and sounding like a local, it eventually comes out (whether through the natural questioning period or a grammatical blunder) that I am not exactly from this neck of the woods. I can’t help but feel a slight disappointment when I’m ‘found out’, as a foreigner. Don’t get me wrong—I am a proud Canadian, but there is something special about going unnoticed as one of the locals.
Whenever I mention I’m from Canada, there is a distinct shift in the energy of our train cabin. Sometimes I sense envy, or a feeling of ‘I should be on my best behaviour’, or ‘ this foreigner has it so cushy she has no idea what real life is like’. Still, many default to filling this foreign ear with reasons why they have problems in their life, government and country, and will always have those problems . They can’t find the money to bribe a university for a diploma, they can’t find good work, those that are in power lie and steal and kill, corruption is so much a part of everyday life that it won’t ever go away…
In the beginning, these rants were a hard blow. I used to think about each train character for days after our meeting; it was exhausting. As someone with a generally sunny outlook on life, I didn’t want to believe that things were bad, getting worse, and there was no way out… except for moving to Canada. (As many suggested… “won’t you invite grandpa/auntie (insert name here) back to Canada with you?”)
While I tolerated these bumpy rides at first, soon enough the optimist in me came alive and piped in. I would meet every complaint with something positive that I had noticed during my time here; with a question about how such problems can be solved; by sharing some of the challenges that we face in the West. I don’t blame these people for becoming blind to the good things that surround them, the general population really does face a lot of hardships, with much of it coming from the government that is supposed to be protecting them.
As a representative of “the other side”, and a seeker of green grass wherever I go, my remedy for these sufferers became my list of favourite things about Ukraine:
1. The quality of food – The amazing soil quality (Ukraine has 25% of the world’s black topsoil) makes the produce delicious, a noticeable difference from the West (except Ontario peaches, those can’t be beat!!)
2. The amazing nature and history– This one is usually administered in multiple treatments. Ukraine is definitely an underdog on the North American radar of cool tourist spots. I have found, and been introduced to, gem after gem. From the amazing mountains along the Black Sea coast, to the Greek ruins near Sevastopol, to the cliff-dwelling monk community, to the soul-shatteringly beautiful churches in Lviv, to the 2000 year old cemetery in the Tatar capital.
3. The talent and drive! Ukrainians are very driven and capable people. Like one of the farmers that the Project supports once joked in an interview “ Ukrainians like to work. You help us get a tractor, and soon we’ll be working your fields in Canada, and for a good price, too!” Besides the entrepreneurial, “survivor” spirit, many are talented, especially in sports and dance. Many world-class athletes and dancers (especially ballroom!) come from Ukraine, definitely a reason to love and feel proud of your country.
4. Relationships: One thing that my patients were especially responsive to was my highlighting of the quality of communication between people, especially strangers. People here are open with each other – they talk to each other like we would talk to our family in Canada. Not overly polite or careful, but direct, open, soulful. People here skip the small talk, and go straight to what matters. This is something people really reacted to actually, when they realized it was one of the few good things left over from the Soviet rule --- the brother and sisterhoods between the people.
5. Approach to health – everyone has a knowledge of which herbs, teas, oils help which ailment. There is a culture of folk wisdom that has survived and thrived, and chemical treatments are secondary options for many. Also, there are opportunities for those on their pensions to vacation annually at one of the many health resorts along the sea side as a preventative approach—brilliant!
6. The amount of celebrations! People here are constantly celebrating – “Day of the Rail Worker, Day of the agricultural worker, Youth day, Forgiveness Day”...the list goes on! It was amusing and endearing to me how often there were fireworks in my small industrial town of Melitopol (we’re talking once a week, sometimes more!) Below is a picture at the Melitopol's 228th birthday (which I'm gets changed at the whim of the latest mayor)
7. Opportunities- This is when I would do a shameless plug for the UHDP. People were really skeptical to hear about a project without an ulterior motive, but once I convinced them that there is no catch to the work we do—they were floored. Below is a picture from a recent field day about grape cultivation, which was put on by the Ukrainian Women Farmers Council.
I also helped clarify some of the over-glorified myths about Canada and the West – University education isn’t free, democracy isn’t perfect, and the business environment is still its own unruly ‘feeding time at the zoo.’
The result of the treatment is hard to track. I can only hope that the jolly musings of a half-foreigner will have a contagious quality of their own. And for those of you daydreaming of an escape – I would advise against it. The best thing, the only thing, is the present moment. So make it the greenest it can be!
On another note, I leave Ukraine in just two weeks. If you’re not yet exhausted by puns -- yes, the grass has been very green here, but I know that at home in Canada, and wherever my next adventure takes me, there will be green to discover too. Stay tuned for my next and final soul search (read: blog post), where purpose, pleasure, and personal discovery will take the stage together for the last time here in Ukraine.
Value Chain Development Intern, Market Linkages
MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field
Grass-Is-Greener-On-the-Other-Side Syndrome. Many, if not most, have had a case of it -- dreadful, pesky thing it is. And hard to get rid of too—some struggle with it for life.
What do you get when you mix a rural microfinance intern, a Canadian multimedia specialist and adventure travel/documentary videographer from Livingstone?
The answer – hopefully, some wonderful training videos.
Pictured left: Mike Q, Zoona CEO, Tony & I, on location
So, for the past two weeks I have been running around the Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces trying to collect video footage of agents transacting, agent and client testimonials, branding in action, and good and bad business practices. I have been interviewing, storyboarding, scouting locations, hiring actors, playing chauffeur, helping set up dollys, holding bounce cards, getting multiple waivers signed, and playing producer/director/screenwriter for a tiny production that will later become Zoona’s new agent training videos. Needless to say it has been quite an adventure. Here is a little run down of the process.
Prior to mapping out the video process, the MEDA and Zoona teams worked on looking at what types of content we could deliver via video, what the overall content for the agent training program should be and how receptive our prospective and current Zambian agents would be towards a video as the first touch point of joining Zoona. Since I thought it was key to get feedback from the current Zoona agents, I traveled around a bit of Zambia interviewing agents and tellers. The questions I asked them primarily focused on: (1) how they had received training in the past, (2) what they thought the key components of a training should be, (2) what they thought about video as a mode of delivery, (3) what types of technology would be useful in making their Zoona businesses more efficient and profitable, (4) which customer care issues they deal with most often, (5) what the drivers of growth in their business are, and (6) how they manage their account in a given day and set targets for growth.
Having sat through a week of the formal training program when I first arrived in Zambia, I had an idea of what the feedback might look like. Surprisingly, though, most of the agents and tellers I interviewed had not even gone through any kind of training and had instead been introduced to the platform by either an agent or a predecessor. It therefore became clear that video would be a great supplement to the hands on training that most Zoona agents/tellers were receiving in the field.
One of the other items that I learned during my research trip was that most agents or tellers were very clear on the type of technology that would help them process transactions faster. Now since tablets are all of the rage in the development world, one would naturally assume that these would also be very popular with agents. BUT because the internet/network on a tablet is slower than on a laptop, the agents and tellers had a preference for the latter. Agents and tellers were also quick to point out that the number pad attachment was also one of the key pieces of equipment that helped them transact faster because of the need for a customer to enter in a pin code for most transactions. Finally, I was also excited to get a chance to do some reconnaissance about the common customer care issues that agents and tellers deal with since I have used the feedback to script the customer care role plays for the agent training.
Pictured right: Agents in action in Ndola
Apart from training content, it was really rewarding to hear first hand how becoming part of Zoona has changed many of the lives of the agents/tellers. It was also a great opportunity to learn more about the Zoona business and see how many of Zoona's successful agents have developed regular customer bases and utilize word of mouth to gain new customers. Finally, as a side project, I took what I now know as B-roll, or footage of agents, tellers and customers transacting to include some variety in our video content.
Based on the feedback I received from interviewees, I was able to work with another MEDA colleague, to draft an outline of the training content, associated goals for each training module, and determine the areas where video would be a value add. Ultimately, there will be four training videos, including one focused on marketing and introducing the company and its products, one focused on customer service, troubleshooting and customer care, one focused on marketing, and one on managing your Zoona business and tellers. These will be supplemented by two screen cast modules that show users how to use the Zoona mobile platform to transact and manage their accounts.
There are of course a number of challenges associated with doing my first ever training video production. The first being – planning. During this process it has come to light that I am a “plan b” person….that is to say that I like to make sure that if something goes wrong we have an alternative in place to accomplish the same goals. Maybe this is a holdover from the Bear, Stearns days, but nonetheless, it is something I have taken with me. It probably won’t come as a shock to most of you to know that that is not always possible here in Zambia. Luckily, I was able to have some amazing support from my MEDA colleague, Steve, to guide me through the shooting. We definitely developed some creative work-arounds when things were not going our way during shooting...most notably rain on a tin roofed booth interrupting sound quality, intermittent sunshine changing the look of video, and actors showing up late, various stray people wanting to interrupt filming. For the last one, it is amazing what an ambassador a free t-shirt can be as long as you don't give it out until the end.
Pictured above: Actors hard at work
Based on the advice of Steve and Rachel, I knew that having a comprehensive storyboard and shot list was key to getting the project off on the right foot and ensuring that we had enough footage for the final video product. For those of my more video minded friends, I now have an even greater appreciation of all of the things that go into making a video possible.
Part of the storyboarding process included scripting good and bad customer service scenarios and common customer care issues. For these items, we did live role plays with Zambian actors and our kamikaze film crew of 4 – me, Memory from Zoona, Steve from MEDA, and Tony, our videographer/cameraman on hire from Livingstone. We tried to get as wide a range in ages and appearance as we could, but unfortunately the casting director did not come through at the last minute. Still, we managed to get some very professional actors that took their jobs seriously and succeeded in recreating the transaction process. It was definitely a different experience having actors come up to me and ask me about how they should be playing the role of agent or customer and asking about changing dialogue.
While I had initially thought that filming in and around Zambia and getting various permissions would be the greatest of my challenges, I was pleasantly surprised when people were bending over backwards to make shooting possible. We were even able to film in the busiest bus station in Lusaka. That's not to say that we didn't have our fair share of traffic, horns honking, parade practices shutting down streets, and locals who wanted to run into shots....we even had a man ask us to film him while he was doing some Michael Jackson choreography.
I am so grateful to all of the agents I interviewed for being so patient and open with me. I hope to use most if not all of their amazing feedback to make the case for the benefits of being a Zoona agent and show people how joining the team can impact their lives.
Now that the shooting is complete, I am working on going through all of the footage and making selections for the first round of edits to be done by Steve. After that I will be working on the screencast portion of the training to be followed by putting together the user guide which will accompany all of the training materials.
Pictured right: Me in Livingstone in front of Victoria Falls
In other news after much debate and deliberation I have decided to stay on Lusaka for another 5 months. It was a really difficult decision since I am missing my family, friends and partner, but ultimately it didn’t seem like I was quite done with my stint living abroad or any of the training projects that we are currently embarking on.
Rural Microfinance Intern, Financial Services
Today is March 8th so I will start by wishing you a happy International Women's Day.
One thing that I can definitely attribute to my internship experience is a stronger sense of feminism. Seeing the disparity and the double standards women face in Morocco - which on the whole is much better than many developing countries - but still not up to Western standards - has made me feel like I need to do something more. Here's a little description of street culture in the city:
Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan city - it certainly doesn't have the traditional old city feel of Fes, or tourist-Mecca feel of Marrakech. But the men still rule the streets, whether it's groups of boys kicking a soccer ball, teenagers loitering, men sitting at sidewalk cafés, or old men playing cards, they are at home in public spaces. The errant (young) woman who proposes to go out alone, (imagine!), especially in the evening or at night (really!) must be inviting these men, aged 15-75, to comment on her appearance or repeatedly try to catch her attention by calling out variations on "bonjour/bonsoir," "Welcome to Morocco" (for foreigners), "Hola" and a variety of catcalling sounds: whistles, "oh-la-la," or my least favourite: kissing sounds. Why else would she try to run an errand or walk somewhere by herself? These catcalls can occur from across the street, but the eager man likes to whisper/shout these directly into the woman's ear or face, to make sure she hears them of course.
Even when the men she passes don't say something, they often stare for an uncomfortably long time, even turning and walking backwards for several paces after passing her. She is a piece of meat to the hungry wolves. The exceptions walk past without a word or a glance, but maybe they were staring too - it's hard for the woman to tell since she keeps her eyes fixed to the sidewalk or the street, avoiding looking at people walking by since that encourages more comments.
Of course this doesn't happen to every woman, or women past a certain age, and my Moroccan coworkers tell me that it happens less to them, and that it used to be much worse 10 or 15 years ago. But that reminds me of a phrase from one of my sociology classes about it "getting better." We often do nothing because we argue that things are improving, they are better than they were before, but that rhetoric also implies that women are not yet equals. We don't seem to mind because the disparity isn't as blatant as it was in the past, but that doesn't mean there isn't more work to be done.
This might have sounded like you can't walk down the street in Casa, but that's not the case. You can, and you can go out and meet up with friends, get groceries, do anything you like, and for the most part you never feel unsafe. But you must always be wary, and you must also put on your mask of disinterest to try to curb unwanted attention. And most days you can walk deafly through streets, the comments sluicing off your mental armour. But some days you can't block them out, and you want to say something back, or hit someone particularly offensive.
These tactics help keep women where men think they should be - in the home, or at least not in public, not alone. It is a power thing, and it reflects the fact that these men think they have the right to say whatever they like to women, and that they shouldn't be in the public sphere. Definitely something that Moroccan families need to start teaching their children at an early age: respect for women, all women - not just their mothers.
This monologue of sorts doesn't even address the fact that more women are illiterate, are less to be educated for as long as men, are less active in the economy, and are almost absent from positions of political or social importance. The country’s score under the Gender Inequality Index is 0.510 (104 out of 146 countries). And this is one of the better off countries in North Africa.
So, today, on International Women's Day, think about women in countries worse off than your own, and teach your own children/family what equality means. The only way changes will happen is if there is a behavioral shift worldwide. We are one woman, as the new UN Women song says, have a listen and share: http://song.unwomen.org/
Communication Development Intern, Financial Services
Only a 24-hour train ride from Simferopol and I arrive in Lviv. Lviv is the second biggest city in Ukraine. It was founded in 1240 by Daniel, the leader of Galicia (an Austrian province), and named after his son Lev; which means Lion. Having been a part of 4 different nations throughout history, Lviv is now part of Ukraine and is considered to be its cultural capital. Lviv has a population of approximately 1.5 million and the residents are predominantly Ukrainian (and very friendly!). Finally, in Ukraine I heard Ukrainian, I saw embroidered blouses, Ukrainian dancing and heard my favorite Ukrainian song Chervonu Rutu (not sung by me)!
What I found especially interesting about Lviv, as I mentioned, is that over the course of history, it has belonged to 4 different nations. Lviv belonged to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1349–1772, the Austrian Empire from 1772–1918 and the Second Polish Republic 1918–1945. At the outbreak of World War II, the city of Lviv was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union and with the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Lviv became a part of Ukraine. (This is especially interesting to me, because recently I saw that my great grandfather’s birthcertificat and in said he was born in Austria; for the longest time I was sure he was Ukrainian, but now that I know this about the history of the area, it all makes sense. He was Ukraianian, but he was born in a part of Ukraine that at the time belonged to Austria!)
Most of Lviv’s archtitecture is still intact, unlike many other Eastern European cities that have been damaged by both World Wars. Lviv’s historic churches, buildings and relics date from the 13th century. As a result, Lviv’s historic centre is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list. While I was in Lviv, I was fortunate to visit a number of Cathedrals, maybe too many to keep them all straight! If I had to choose, I think my favorite would be St. George’s Cathedral (pictured right). While its interior was not as extravagant as some of the others I visited, I liked it mostly because of it’s location; it is situated high on a hill that offers an impressive view of the city.
In 1903 the Lviv National Opera House was built and remains one of the most beautiful in Europe- it actually emulates the Vienna State Opera house. I was fortunate enough to see two performances here- one opera and one ballet (pictured left). Both were very impressive, and I was pleasantly surprised when in one scene of the opera Ukrainian folk dancers took the stage; reminding me of my past as a Ukrainian dancer and also making me think of many of my friends back home!
Another beauty Lviv has to offer is the Lychesivsky Cemetary (pictured right). Since its creation in 1787 Łyczakowski Cemetery has been the main necropolis of the city’s inteligentsia, middle and upper classes, and apparently it has the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis. I spent a lot of time wandering here. It was one of the highlights of my trip.
My last day in Lviv was extremely cold (well extremely cold compared to Simferopol), so I decided to take a bus tour of the city and save myself from freezing! The bus tour was very informational and I learned not only about the history of Lviv but also about the many influential people to have lived there. One of the coolest things they pointed out was the former KGB head-quarters. There is a joke that the KGB- building is the highest point in Eastern Europe, because from its basements you can see all the way to Siberia!
It was a quick trip, but well worth the two 24-hour train rides! After the cold weather, I was definitely happy to get back to the mild temperatures and sunny skies of Simferopol. Funny thing, this time when I returned to Simferopol, it really felt like I was coming home! Too bad it will only be home for one more month and then I head back to Canada! Seriously, where has the time gone?
Impact Assessment Intern, Market Linkages