MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

8 Manzanas

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I’m in Wiwili, the department of Jinotega, Nicaragua. On the horizon I can see the Honduras border while I’m sitting on a bench outside doing the final interviews with farmers. In the department of Jinotega there is a large production of chia seeds and the Central American Commodities Trading (CAC), a partner of Techno-Links, has taken advantage of this opportunity.  CAC Trading is well known for having the most comprehensive program of chia seeds in Central America with chia seeds being exported to the United States. They focus on giving technical assistance to farmers and by using the program Techno-Links through MEDA, they have been able to reach farmers in Wiwili.  One particular individual caught my attention today, Jose Andres Basque Martinez. Jose Andres produces chia as his only cultivation on the farm, while his wife and two girls work in the household and manage a clothing store. He has been working with the new technology from CAC Trading for one year and has noticed an ample change in his harvest of chia seeds. A year ago he was growing 1 manzana as Nicaraguan farmers call it, or 0.5 hectares of chia seeds. Today, he has 8 manzanas, 5.6 hectares.  This is one of the goals that CAC Trading strived to achieve by having farmers adopt a methodology with the ability to increase revenues both through the increase in yields per hectare and increased sales prices. Beforehand, Jose Andres faced a technology gap of technological development. Today he said that with the technical assistance of CAC Trading, there is a new market for his chia seeds, a higher production rate at harvest, and an improved quality of chia seeds with new nutrients. He’s happy and his family is happy, and that makes me happy.

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That “Wow” Experience

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The total land area of Nicaragua is 19,990 km2 with Honduras and Costa Rica bordering on each side and 910km of coastlines on the Caribbean and Atlantic together, making Nicaragua the largest country in Central America. I am lucky enough to be travelling for a month across the country doing final surveys for the MEDA program Techno-Links. I gain a vast amount of experience interviewing farmers in their homes to see the impact that MEDA has had on individuals throughout the country. This week alone, I have travelled to Ocotal, along the border of Honduras, Matagalpa, Rama, and Kukra Hill, located in the region of Leguna de Perlas on the Atlantic Coast. This means that I have been in the car for over 14 hours a day. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Travelling and enjoying the touristic aspects of a country is fun, but being able to travel all over the country and go into local farmers homes and receive typical Nicaraguan dishes and playing with the children is a one of a kind experience. I’m not saying this is by any means easy. Waking up at 4am and going over potholes for three hours in the middle of nowhere, is not my idea of a road trip. However, once I arrive in the homes of the farmers, I get this “WOW” experience. I’ll give an example of one of these experiences I had yesterday.We were in Rama, which is located along the Escondido River and is in the municipality of the Autonomous Region of the South Atlantic Region department. We were with the company Tecno Sol, which has a branch in Rama. Tecno Sol has been selling biogas to farmers, which has created amazing results. This is my “WOW” experience. After travelling in the middle of nowhere and being stuck on a muddy hill and having to put rocks under the truck tires to leverage it and get up the hill, we finally made it to our interviewees’ house, Marvin Ramirez. While his kids sat with us and stared at the Chela, a white girl, and we ate arroz de leche, rice with milk and fresh sugar cane, Marvin told us about the benefits he has seen with biogas.He noted the most important things such as health and saving money. The family is healthier because they aren’t burning firewood in their home to cook. Cook stoves are commonly used for cooking and heating food by burning wood. Besides the high expense of purchasing firewood or coal, another problem of cooking over an open fire is the increased health problems caused by the smoke, causing lung and eye ailments and also birth defects.  With the use of biogas, Malvin has been happy to say that his children and wife are healthier. He also talked about how biogas has helped the environment by using the fertilizer from the biogas for his plants and putting minerals back into the soil. Sitting in the middle of nowhere with chickens running under my feet and children staring at the Chela with clients such as Marvin discussing the benefits that he has, is my “WOW” experience. In all the bumpy roads and 14 hour drives, I look forward in this month to those experiences.

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Let’s Go Fishing!

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Christmas wasn’t normal, but I’m not complaining one bit. This is the fourth Christmas I haven’t been in Canada, and I swear each time is a new experience. For the Christmas holiday I was in Jaco, Costa Rica. On Christmas day I was on the beach sipping on coconut water and eating sponge coconut (see why I’m not complaining). I went with a Costa Rican family, also known as Ticas, who had packed a big picnic and this is what my Christmas was. The rest of the holiday was spent relaxing on the beach and going fishing! I had been ice fishing and camping and fishing before in Canada, but nothing compares to fishing in the sea. My friends caught red snapper, dorado, and sail fish. I caught a sail fish, I can see how fishing can be addicting. It took all my effort to real in the fish and the fish fights back and jumps in the air. Once I reeled in the fish I was so shocked to see that it was about the same size as me. The fish have beautiful colors and are all completely different. It was also beautiful seeing dolphins swim beside the boat and schools of fish jumping to get away from bigger fish chasing them. Not only did I get to see the beauty of nature, but the owner of Google has his own boat with a helicopter on the boat, which was docked in Jaco. Overall, the best part of doing these fishing trips was that once the fish were caught we took them home and had them for dinner and could watch the sunset. My holiday was simple and relaxing, but I’m happy to be back in Nicaragua to start my adventures with MEDA again.

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Everyone Loves Field Trips

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I think anyone who works in international development will tell you the best part of the job is always the field visits. It is always a great way to lift your spirits and remember why you do what you do. It is when the numbers you stare at all day really come to life.  My role here at MEDA is titled Impact Assessment but I have been most useful in the monitoring and evaluation position so I spend most of my days creating call lists, compiling net stock out reports or sitting in meetings to discuss how we could do this more efficiently. I often forget, I forget that for me this is simply a job but for those pregnant women this could be life and death for their newborn. Field visits bring that back to live. They encourage me to remember why I started or why I need to put every ounce of energy and focus into my work. The difference matters.  My last field visit was very special for me because I was able to bring along my parents. We went to a local clinic here in Dar es Salaam, which uses the eVoucher system. MEDA Tanzania works with two voucher systems, the paper voucher and the eVoucher. We are trying to introduce the eVoucher system more and more but the mobile network in the rural areas is holding us back in certain regions. In Dar however, we have been able to go completely eVoucher.  We dropped in a local clinic filled with women and their newborn babies waiting for their check up. When a woman comes in their first trimester or in the baby’s first three month they receive a voucher for a mosquito net to prevent against malaria. Once the beneficiary has the voucher code via mobile phone, they take that number to the nearest retailer. We work to ensure these retailers are within 5km from the clinic. At the clinic the retailer shop owner verifies the code via SMS to the host server and once they have confirmation that voucher is valid, they are able to issue the net for 500 Tanzanian Shillings, approximately $0.32 US. The 500 shillings goes directly to the store owner and we find a donor to cover the costs of the net for to the supplier. If an individual does not have the voucher a mosquito net would cost them 1750 Tanzanian Shillings.With the kindness of one of the mothers we were able to sit in on her appointment with her newborn baby, they were there to get their voucher for their bed net. We waited with her for several minutes as they tried to connect and reconnect to the network as the signal was quite weak. Once the voucher ID number finally came through, the nurse wrote the number on a slip of paper and handed it to the mother. With an infectious smile she received the voucher and gathered her things so we could be on our way to the retailer. This clinic and retailer were extremely special because the retailer was only about 100 feet from the clinic making it easily accessible to the women.  We walked across the street to the Duka (shop) where they sold the approved nets. Again we waited for the shop owner to connect to the network so this woman may obtain her net.  After some time, he had received confirmation that the voucher ID was valid. He exchanged her 500 Tsh for a net. When in the office, I see this simply as another positive number towards the redemption rate but to this woman this is securing the health of her newborn baby. It is so easy to be caught up in the day-to-day work, even here; I find it to easy to forget the importance of each report or each redemption rate. Hearing the impact first hand is much more rewarding than any paycheck.

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I can, I will, I am.

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Knock, Knock. Knock, Knock. “Hodi? (May I come in?) Wake up tea!” says Adam, our awesome porter, “Hodi?” In theexcitement/exhaustion of the summit climb the morning before Jaredshouts, “Caribouuuuuu!” His attempt at the Swahili word Karibu (Welcome) gives us all a great laugh, as we are ready to hike the last stretch of the mountain to the bottom.Wanting to make Christmas in Tanzania special a few of the other MEDA interns and I decided to climb MT. Meru, the 5th tallest mountain in Africa that looks directly at Mt. Kilimanjaro.There are a lot of benefits to climbing Mt. Meru, it only takes 4 days, cost is a lot less than other treks and it is said to be a beautiful hike. All these reasons led us to signing up for to hike to 4566m to the summit of this mountain. December 24th, we meet our crew that will be helping us make it to the summit. Ashleigh our guide, Adam our porter and Godfrey our cook. We will also pick up 2 more porters at the gate.At the bottom of the mountain, before we head out they prepare a wonderful lunch for us; my nerves are already starting to bubble up. I try to calm myself down by impressing the park rangers with my kidogo (little) Swahili knowledge. As we start the hike I am able to calm myself down using positive self-talk that I had learned in my Sport Psychology class last year. With every step I repeat the phrase in myhead, “I can, I will, I am.” Step by step I will make it up this mountain. The first day was a 5 hour hike, uphill and downhill and even a few flat areas. Nothing I couldn’t handle. After arriving at the hut, they cook us a delicious dinner and we head to the viewing deck where we are able to see the most amazing stars I have ever seen, absolutely incredible.“Hodi? Wake up tea!” we were greeted the next morning by Adam. I haveto say the best way to be woken up is by someone serving you tea in bed, certainly a great way to start the day! After a quick breakfast, we started our next 5 hour hike up to Hut #2. This trail consisted of what seemed like 1 billion stairs, then paths slanted upwards that went back and fourth for a few hours. Tiring, but again nothing I couldn’t handle. When we arrived at Hut #2, we enjoyed a lunch prepared for us and then we hiked an hour and ahalf up to Little Meru to acclimatize us a little before back down to Hut #2 for the night.It was an early night for us, dinner at 6:30pm and in bed at 8pm. The nerves were certainly building up, the air was a whole colder at the second hut and as much as we wanted to sleep and rest for the hike the next day, I was wide awake. It seemed as though I had just fallen asleep when we were woken up with some breakfast tea just like every other morning, only this time it was 1:30am. It was time to hike to the summit. We tried to force down a little breakfast, put on almost every item of clothing we had for me that meant 5 long sleeve shirts, 1 sweat shirt, a windbreaker, spandex, jeans and wind pants… mostly provided by Nichols College Women’s Ice Hockey. We emptied our packs as much as possible, bundled up, headlamps on and we were off.The trail was long and windy; all I could see was Ashleigh in front of me except when I took a minute to look up at the brightest stars that light up the whole sky. I didn’t do that to often though because it usually involved me running into something or tripping over myown feet so I focused straight ahead following Ashleigh’s every step, repeating the phrase, “I can, I will, I am.” We continued to hike this dark path that was only light up only by our own headlamps. The hike was extremely steep and included many challenges where we scaled a rock wall to get to the next path instead of going all the way down and up again, walked on the very narrow path with a steep fall on either side and walked straight up as the volcanic ash collapsed beneath our feet. It was extremely strenuous and at one point, I felt as though I could not take another step, my legs felt like jelly and my whole body felt weak. I fell to my knees and with an uneasy stomach had my first experience with the dreaded altitude sickness. Ashleigh offered me some water and said, “Great! Now you’ll have more energy! Let’s go!” And incredibly he was right, I had a sudden burst of energy that was able to get me up the next stretch until it hit me all over again.Every time I slowed down, I could hear Ashleigh from a few steps ahead say, “Maria, it’s nearly there, you are so close, come on!” Even though I had learned by this point he was completely lying, I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I continued one foot in front of the other. As we were 50 meters from the summit we saw the sun start to rise right behind Mt. Kilimanjaro, it was the most beautiful array of colors painted across the sky. I have never seen such an amazing sight… too bad I was too exhausted to grab my camera and take a few pictures. Instead, I continued. Three steps. Water break. Three more steps. Another water break. I was going to make it to the top, I was not giving up. With quite a few more rounds of this, I finally found the last push in myself and fought threw the last 25 steps to the top. With my final step, I collapsed on the ground right in front of the “Congratulation” sign. I had made it. It was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done.  Every muscle in my body ached, I was chilled to the bone and my stomach was bubbling in pain but I felt proud. After a few moments, I regained a little strength to stand up, take a few pictures and drink some warm water to satisfy my insides. It was shortly after when we started the trek down.Down felt a little better but certainly still not easy. After a few hours we made it back to the second hut where we enjoyed lunch, packed up the rest of our stuff and hiked all the way down the 1 billion stairs to the first hut. We had hiked a total of 3000 meters that day. Sleep was most definitely in order. We forced ourselves to stay up for a little dinner and then it was off to bed. The next morning after sleeping close to 12 hours we were awaken with our last wake up tea. It was time for the last stretch. I could not have been more wrong when I was thinking this would be a light stroll down the mountain. With every step, every muscle and my body protested. After hours of painful walking, listening to our park ranger play, “Call me maybe” on repeat the whole way down and my pack feeling heavier than ever, we finally made it to the bottom where five beautiful giraffes waited to congratulate us on an incredible accomplishment.There are many experiences that I will carrywith me for the rest of my life and this certainly, is no exception. The summit was beautiful but the true memory for me was in the journey. I was challenged, encouraged, frustrated and inspired all at the same time. I was able to learn from all those around me while sharing in so many laughs. I am so blessed to have these amazing opportunities.

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Not the Happiest of New Years

Usually New Year's Eve is a celebration of a wonderful year and looking forward to what the next year may bring but this year I find it hard to put on a smile knowing that for some the new year simply brings more struggles. It is becoming more difficult to turn a blind eye and live my daily carefree life. My stomach and heart are filled with deep guilt and sadness for those who have to face such difficulties. I find in this blog I often write about the incredible opportunities I am experiencing and forgetting to share some of the difficulties of living abroad. Contrary to what some may believe it isn't all sunshine and beaches.For me, it is easy to say my biggest challenge is knowing all that I am missing back home. I have a fear of missing out. That is a fact. For the most part I miss out on things such as the planning of my sisters wedding, or watching NC women's ice hockey beat Manhattanville or Christmas parties with high school friends or Wednesday game night with all those Silver Lakers in Waterloo but this week I am missing out on a different sort of situation. It is not so much that I want to experience this at all but I am struggling on how to process it so far away. I received news that a friend, teammate and housemate from my Junior hockey team, the Boston Shamrocks passed away in a car accident over the holidays. I can't quite figure out how to deal this shocking news normally but for being an ocean away somehow makes it 1000 times worse. I often look to the future, I try to look at a difference I can make when I am 'grown up' or what kind of job I am going to have or where I am going to live, always trying to plan ahead and look for more but who says I'm guaranteed more time. So many of us know this is the case and yet it seems we don't completely understand it. We spend so much time in life planning for the future, thinking about what we are going to do next, forgetting about the power of now. Living in a new place let's you experience so much that you could never even imagine but it really seems to hit hard when moments like this happen. You realize that the world that you know and love back home does not go on hold for you. By the time I return home so much will have changed and passed by that I will have to find my place all over again. I read an article recently that claimed, "Once an expat, always an expat!" It exclaimed that once one leaves a place for such a long time they always sort of feel something missing whether it be your home country or the last place you lived, one just never feels quite complete. That is a scary thought. It definitely is a fear of mine but the more time I think of this, the more I begin to feel it is still 100% worth it. As demonstrated way to often, life is short and we cannot take any of it for granted. Even if I never feel completely at home or that I am missing someone I met in Boston or Africa or from home, I know it is because they made an impact on me. I am missing them because they mattered and instead of getting sad or frustrated about that I can take what they taught me and share that with someone else and maybe, just maybe make half the impression on their lives.
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It’s Our Problem-Free Philosophy

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Hakuna Matata. A phrase we all learn from the beloved Disney movie, The Lion King. The first phrase people often teach you when trying to teach you Swahili. A phrase that is used multiple times a day here in Tanzania.Sitting on the rooftop terrace having dinner with my parents and listening to some beautiful melodies played by the local Zanzibar band, I had my first ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. Hakuna Matata is more than a phrase, it is a way of life. Hakuna Matata literally means ‘no worries’ but truly means ‘take it all in!’ It means don’t rush through every second of every day rather enjoy the small moments. It means don’t stress about the problems that arise instead deal with them and move on. It means look into the eyes of the one next to you and share a smile over the communication barrier because that sign of happiness is universal.With Christmas approaching it’s hard to not think about what I would be doing back home right now or the beautiful snowfall. I try to stay busy to keep my mind off of all that I am missing back home but this is not completely the answer. Rather I should take it all in, every single moment, every single smile. I need to focus less on what I am missing and more on what I am gaining. I need to learn to live in the present. Live in the now.Life in Africa moves at a different pace, it’s African Time! This is my worst enemy, I value punctuality and efficiency so I don’t understand why every African minute equals five regular minutes. The first few months I let this bother me quite a bit, I found myself getting frustrated when others were late to meet me or stressed out when I was late leaving for a Swahili lesson. I now see, it is not about the exact time but the quality of life we are living. Many of these people face much bigger problems then I could ever imagine so why let such a small thing as time bother them? People are fighting for their lives and I’m worried whether I will be there five minutes early.Now, don’t misunderstand me, I still value punctuality and if I make plans with someone at a certain time I try my best to be there at the time but I realize that it is not something that should cause me stress. I am realizing that life is a beautiful playground. We often make our problems seem so much bigger than they actually are and let that get in the way of our fun. We only have so much time at the playground before we must move on so why not capture every moment to it’s fullest. Smile over everything even miscommunications because Hakuna Matata.In this exact moment, sitting on this rooftop with the cool breeze flowing through me listening to these musicians put their heart and soul into the songs they are singing, I not only feel the moment but am living it. I experience Hakuna Matata to it’s fullest. I breathe all the way in until my lungs are full, close my eyes, and with the release of all that air I recognize all the blessings I have been given in life. I have nothing to be but thankful. So to that I say….Hakuna Matata

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According to Plan

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“Everything is possible” the words of our taxi driver that seemed to fit with so many things in this past trip to Zanzibar.Right from the start nothing seemed to go as planned. We arrived at the ferry terminal only to find all the tickets were sold out, thinking that we would have to start our Zanzibar excursion the next morning we headed out of the Terminal and down the street. It was then that we met the incredible Mr. James. He pulled us into his office telling us he would just go talk to the Captain of the ship, it was fine. In disbelief we sat there as they scrambled to find us ways on to this boat. After several minutes, some of his employees came back slightly disappointed but not completely out of options. They exclaimed that they could only get the residents tickets on the ferry but they could fly us to Zanzibar on a private plane and book us a ticket for the ferry back. It was only a $20 difference from the original price but they could quickly tell we weren’t completely sold, so with their excellent business skills they started to throw in extra incentives. They started with free transportation to the airport then adding a hotel in Stonetown with free breakfast for only $15 per person. This was deal breaker.Off we were on our private plane to Zanzibar, some people still in disbelieve this would all work out. There was quite a bit of traffic but our driver ensured us the plane would wait for us! Never worry! We enjoyed a quick private plane ride, were picked up at the airport, customs went flawlessly and made it to the hotel. That night we walked to the local food market enjoying every type of fish, seafood and chicken you can imagine while we made our plan for the weekend. It was simple, we would spend the night in Stonetown, in the morning head to the East side of the Island for some beautiful swimming and relaxation. Then Sunday, head back to Stonetown to meet up with a friend and head to Prison Island. That was the plan at least.The rest of the evening and morning seemed to go smoothly, as we enjoyed delicious dinner and breakfast and were able to get a taxi to drive us to the East side. He found us a great quiet place to stay. This was going to be a perfect afternoon laying by the pool, getting a great tan (or burn) and walking by the beach. It was not 10 minutes after changing into ourswimsuits and getting outside that the thunder started to roll and the rain down poured! Change of plans, it would now be a perfect cozy afternoon listening to the rainstorm, playing some scrabble and enjoying some delicious pizza!Sunday morning, we are packed and ready to head out to meet our friend for Prison Island. Per usual in Africa, we have more people than fit in the car, so stuffed with 4 people in the backseat our driver Ali takes off. It should be about an hour until we are in Stonetown, we’re right on time! Not more than 20 minutes down the road we are pulled over by the police, apparently you are not allowed to have that many people in car…who knew! It was easy to understand that through quick conversation in Swahili that he wanted a bribe, not completely sure how this was going to happen we all sat quietly in the back as Ali got on the phone with his boss. A few long minutes later the Police Officer received a phone call and was told to let us pass. As we are speeding off, Ali tells us that he works for the High Commissioner in Zanzibar and he is able to do anything he wants, “Everything is possible!” says Ali. We are all quite impressed with his achievement and sing along to the most perfect Bob Marley song on the stereo, “Get up, Stand up!”Of course, it is not smooth sailing from there. Our car starts to slow to a roll and then to a complete stop. We are out of gas and it is downpouring again. Ali without a worry in the world just out of the car, grabs a empty jug and hops on the back of a truck to the nearest gas station, as we all sat in the car laughing at the events of this trip. A few minutes later he returns on another car with just enough gas to get us to the last stretch to Stone town.We did not make it in time to see Prison Island or enjoy the warmth of the sun beating down on us. We had to pay a little more to get to there and we did not find a perfect paradise of a beach to stay on. Everything we planned seemed to change but in the midst of all this craziness and chaotic trip we laughed. It is incredible how we can focus so heavily on the little details in life missing the pure beauty of human connection. This is certainly a trip I will never forget. What was supposed to be a quick getaway for the weekend ended up being one of my favourite moments thus far in Africa! I am beyond grateful for the many moments of this past weekend that I was able to learn and experience so much with some wonderful new friends. The friendships mean so much more than any souvenir I could ever imagine. I am blessed.

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The Love for Food, Science, and Word of Mouth

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I love food! One of my favorite side dishes in Nicaragua is tostones, fried plantains. Lucky me because I got to eat all the tostones I wanted by doing a case study in Rivas.I visited the International School of Livestock and Agriculture in Rivas (EIAG in Spanish) where MEDA has supported the lab at the university to combine different plantain seeds to create a vitro plant that won’t be affected by disease or insects. In past years, plantain production has been low due to the spread of an insect pest known as black weevil, which feeds on the leaves, and black sigatoka disease, which causes yield losses. I went into the lab and saw the whole process of the vitro plant. I interviewed twenty male and female farmers to see their progress with the technology. Farmers said the planting of the plantain (vitro plant) was exactly the same as the normal plantain they used before. The only difference was that they didn’t have to use any or few pesticides, a happy side fact. They noted that they had more production and the leaves were bigger and healthier. One farmer had no experience in planting plantains and said it was quite easy with the help of EIAG technicians. One of the most amazing indications found in the case study that I witnessed with talking to local farmers was their desire to help one another. EIAG has a methodology of the Waterfall Method to spread information about the vitro plant, in other words spreading information with the word of mouth. Many farmers, like Norbin Abel, said he likes the innovation and helping farmers with a new level of knowledge. Junior, one of the technicians that explains the vitro plants to farmers, said he was helping farmers to be more stable in their production. The overall objective of farmers, technicians and the university was to help one another in the community. The goal of MEDA and EIAG is to have efficient production and incorporate small producers into the equation with the national and international market. Carl Sagan in Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997) stated, “Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.”

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What does a ride with some nice police officers and a mud bath have anything to do with renewing my passport?

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A few weeks ago I had an unforgettable experience in renewing my visa in Costa Rica. Catherine, the other intern with Mi Credito, and I went to Liberia, about an hour from the Nicaraguan border. The first experience I had was seeing the economic gap between the two countries, and it was hard to miss. The living standards in Costa Rica are higher and the country uses 95% renewable energy. Based on the history in Nicaragua it hasn’t been able to develop as Costa Rica has, but it has potential that it’s sometimes hard to comprehend that it isn’t a developed country yet. Nicaragua has rich and varied land, with different soil, climatological, and altitude characteristics. The country’s many rivers and volcanoes offer easily exploitable sources of both hydroelectric and geothermal energy, and internal waterways facilitate inexpensive domestic transportation. As well, the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea over international importation and exportation. This was the first part of the experience that I thought was interesting.The second part of the experience in Costa Rica was Liberia itself. From Managua to Liberia it takes 6 hours, including stopping at the border and going through customs. We arrived mid-day and wanted to do something relaxing after sitting on a bus for so long. We went to a beautiful waterfall, Llano de Cortes. However, our relaxing tropical waterfall didn’t turn out as we had hoped; my passport was stolen. It did, on the other hand, create an amazing story that will never be forgotten.

To begin the new passport process we hopped on a bus at 3am to head to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. By 7:30 am we were in the Canadian embassy. Even with all the stress, it felt nice to be in the embassy, a reminder of my country with French and English signs everywhere and the Canadian flag decorating the office. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful; I got a new passport the same day! We then travelled back to Liberia, a 4 hour bus ride from San Jose. After this very long amusing and frustrating day, it was kind of like it never happened.  The next day we went to a national park, El Rincon del Viejo (Old Corner), which has fumarillos (steam vents) and paillas (mud pots). We hiked for three hours with monkeys jumping over us and we were surrounded by hundreds of Coatis, the cousin of the raccoon. We met a nice French couple that knew all about different species of plants and animals, they were pretty much our own private tour guides. After the hike, we were taken to a hot springs that included a mud bath. I might as well have owned the hot springs because there was no one else there. It was paradise and losing my passport was like a dream (or nightmare, depends how you look at it). It was definitely a week that I’ll never forget, that’s for sure! Through all my amazing and sometimes frustrating experiences with travelling, I have incredible memories and an understanding of new and different cultures that could never be replaced.

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Mis-Frustration

Some individuals could find their way in any place with others who speak any language and find a way to connect, I however, find this extremely difficult. Even though, Ninajifunza Kiswahili (I am taking Swahili classes), I still find many instances where there is a significant communication barrier.As part of my internship, I am currently managing our call center of four employees. When I started we had two employees in the call center collecting data from our retailers in the North and South on how many nets they have in stock. Now, due to donor demands on data that should be collected, we have four employees collecting data on retailers in the North and South, hard to reach retailers, eVoucher redemptions and clinic voucher stock outs. As the manager, it is my role to train the new employees, create the calling lists for each, monitor and analyze the data retrieved. This is all new to me in English never mind Swahili.As I am putting together these different lists, I confuse myself over the different retailers and clinics, whether they’re eVoucher or Paper Voucher clinics and who is collecting what data. Meanwhile, as I’m only confusing myself more, I am trying to teach one of our new employees what I am looking for her to do. As I ramble on, back and fourth she continues to nod her head and accept the tasks I have given her. I finish my explanations, ask her if she has any questions and when the answer is always, “No madam” I return back to my desk. A few hours later or some times even at the end of the day when I am looking to collect the work from the day to review, I receive an email in response that explains that she is unsure of what the task was and was not able to collect the data. This is not ignorance or lack of wanting to work, this is a conflict in communication.Growing up and studying in North America, I would expect if someone did not understand the task, they would ask for clarification but that is not the case here. I have started to learn in many circumstances that Tanzanian people tell you what you want to hear. Tanzanians are extremely polite and this is simply a part of their culture as they do not want to offend you so they tell you what will make you happy. When asking a waitress to get you something the correct phrase is “Naomba maji?”  which directly translates to, “I beg you to get me some water?” The cultural universals are based off of politeness rather than efficiency. This allows me to appreciate the way of communication a little more but it is most certainly not an easy adjustment for me to get used to.I am learning that is difficult for me to understand many things until I am able to actually experience them. Even through all my communication studies during school I don’t think I really understood the frustration of miscommunication. I am embarrassed to say but initially I was quite frustrated at the situation but that is not fair or right. It is up to both me and the employee to work together to be sure the other understands what is being said. It is up to us to learn to work together to accomplish the tasks. It is up to me to embrace the culture for what it is and rather than being upset of time lost, take the time to use these as moments as teachable opportunities. I am learning, it is difficult but I am learning both Swahili and communication norms.

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LIfe without ‘Kodak Moments’

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Within one second, they were all gone and there was nothing I could do about it. I guess that’s one reason why I should stop living my life through a camera lenses. So often when I take a picture the thought… “This is going to be a great cover picture!” comes to my mind. I think of the instant gratification from others with a facebook ‘like’ instead of experiencing every moment to it’s fullest.This past weekend I spent in the Ngorogoro crater near Arusha, North Tanzania. This crater is a beautiful, widespread mass of land that is home to many of Africa’s greatest creatures. I had the chance to see elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, lions, hyenas, gazelles and so much more! Every time we saw an animal all of us reached for our cameras snapping an over excessive amount of pictures of that one animal which for the most part just laid there and watched us. As soon as we got the ‘perfect’ picture, we told our driver and he drove us to the next part of the road where vehicles were crowed around another magnificent animal. All the while, I’m taking these pictures I’m thinking about how I can’t wait to show my friends and family about this amazing experience I am having and I guarantee you, all of you would have been amazed. Too bad, someone had another plan for me and decided to teach me an extremely valuable lesson.This morning when I go to look to my photos and decipher which ones I would like to share, I notice an entire folder missing out of photo library. Trying to think rationally, I think maybe I just put them in a different folder or maybe I can get them back some how. I start the search. So many incidents seem to have led up to this casualty. I think maybe I can just re-download them but I decided to clean off the memory cards of my camera so I wouldn’t duplicate them on my computer. I emptied the trash on my computer to free up some space. I figured I could just download them to Iphoto yesterday and then today would add them to dropbox. It’s okay they should be in my photo stream…my photo stream was turned off. Wow. They were seriously gone. Permanently deleted.A few days ago, a coworker of mine taught me a very powerful lesson that has been coming up more times than I can count. He taught me about the power of now. He read a book recently that taught him to focus on the exact moment you are in. When all these problems seem so great and overwhelming the key is to focus on the now. “What is your biggest problem right now?” he asked as I was sitting on a beach on a small deserted island. Well, obviously I couldn’t come up with any problems at that moment but I was sure that if you got me in a really stressful situation that would be different. Since that moment, I have found myself in a few different situations where normally I could work myself up over the circumstance but I was able to think about my biggest problem at that moment which always came back to nothing. I had food, I had water, I had shelter, I had family and friends. I had a lot more than most people have in a lifetime. All of a sudden instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt grateful.So even though, I have to end this post without showing you any photos of my amazing trip, I am still incredibly grateful. This weekend I was able to see Africa in a new light. I saw the beautiful terrain of the crater that was filled with magnificent animals of all kind. I saw the Massiah men show us a dance from their culture. I spent many great moments with friends sharing stories about their lives and their cultures. I got to experience something many people will never get the chance to see. I was so excited to share all those pictures with everyone to show how much fun I am having but I think that sharing these experiences and lessons learned is even more special. I often here the phrase, a picture can say 1000 words… but what about all the words, lessons and memories that the picture can’t get across to just any viewer. What about everything that led up to that picture?I am learning to experience life in the now rather than how that picture will be received later. Even with someone video taping my every movement here I couldn’t completely show how much I have already learned from these people, this culture, being abroad and learning to be independent while still maintaining the relationship with a community. Not a picture or a movie or an essay could explain that but whom I become from what I have learned throughout this experience will. That in itself will be evidence that I am on a magnificent journey.***Added Nov 29:Then, once I think I have it all figured out…everything always seems to change completely. I had come to terms with that fact that I had lost my pictures and actually wasn’t even the slightest bit upset about it anymore! Then when I go to show Shaunet just a few of the pictures I thought I saved somehow… they ALL appear! Life is a serious mystery! So I thought I would share just a little of my favourite moments and hopefully you can feel a slight glimpse of the magic I felt seeing all these beautiful creatures!

 

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Ox, Donkeys, and Umbrellas in Church… or, how I spend my weekends

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I’ve had many people ask me what life looks like over on this side of the pond, so I figured a few of you would be curious to read it! While my weekdays are pretty busy, my weekends are typically just as filled… mind you, with a little more fun stuff. That being said, other than my visit to the National Museum, I haven’t really mentioned what I’ve been up to during my weekends! I try and get out to experience something Addis has to offer every Saturday...

 

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Goodbye Personal Space

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This past week I was able to spend some time in Capetown, South Africa. So many things about this place reminded me of North America, it is definitely not what one would imagine when thinking about Africa.The uniting language between strangers on the street is English, the roads are nicely paved, the price they tell me, is the price I pay (No bartering…my worst nightmare)! It was definitely a very different scene from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania but one thing that was not completely different was the train station at rush hour.I spent the day surfing, while my friend Marina was at school and work. I jumped on the train around 5pm to head back to her place before dark. I sat third class as I normally do. At first it didn’t seem like a big deal, I was still able to get a seat but with in the matter of three stops the train filled up so much that I wasn’t even able to see out the windows. I wasn’t quite sure when my stop was so I decided to stand up which at least would let me see out the window so I could get out at my stop.After a few more stops, I must have had a look of panic on my face because a map had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Where are you going?” with quite the questioning tone. I told him Observatory and asked, “This is the right train isn’t it?” He laughed and told me, “Yes but I was still about 7 stops away!” Phew, at least I wasn’t completely lost. He offered to tell me two stops before mine, and when to walk over to the door. Within the next few stops that train filled up so much that I was now spooning someone from every angle, there was no where left to stand, or so I thought but somehow they kept piling more people into this car.The kind man told me it was now my time to head towards the door. I looked to the left and the right, unfortunately I was standing directly in the middle of the train. I had no idea how I was going to be able to get to the door. I tapped the shoulder of the woman beside me, “Excuse me, can I sneak by?” and the man, “Excuse me, my stops coming up.” They all started to giggle a little and moved about a millimetre to let me by.  I had moved barely at all and new I had very little time until my stop so I started to push my way through, apologizing the whole way.Finally at my stop, they helped push me through the door. Once I stepped foot on the ground, the whole train started to clap and laugh at me. I once again was the centre of attention! I am not really sure how I get myself into all these situations where I seem to have all eyes on me but it sure does help me make friends easily.My trip to South Africa was wonderful, I was able to surf, climb Table Mountain, see the penguins and meet many wonderful people. It is a very different part of Africa, so much that some times I even forgot I was in Africa. I have only been to a few places in Africa so far but I am learning that the Africans are unbelievably kind, friendly and joyful. Even in the most stressful situations they are able to put a smile on my face!

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Life is a Beautiful Struggle

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Life is a beautiful struggle.These are the incredible words of my friend Elise that described the weekend perfectly. A group of us had decided it was time to made the trek to Zanzibar for those of you who don’t know this is a beautiful island right off the coast of Tanzania. Saturday morning we took the ferry, which for residents costs about $10 US. The 90minute ride I was filled with a whole lot of excitement as I had only heard great things about Zanzibar. When arriving in Stonetown, the main city of Zanzibar we had to go through customs even though Zanzibar is still technically a part of Tanzania. It seemed pretty quick for the most part until we noticed that one of us was missing. Elise had been pulled in for questioning. They were accusing her of breaking the law because she did not hold the proper visa. Elise is a student and has a student visa but the officers would not let her go until she paid the $200 US for a working visa. They were not budging; there was no negotiating to be done and after a long while Elise finally gave in and handed over the $200.Luckily, we quickly found a taxi driver to take us an hour up north where we were hoping to book a hotel, this is where we were told they have the most beautiful white sand beaches. From only one question our driver knew exactly the hotel we would like. All he asked was, “Price range- cheap or expensive?” Simultaneously we all shout, “CHEAP!” He knew the perfect place! We were able to get a hotel room with 4 single beds, right on the beach, free entrance to the beach party and free breakfast all for $20 each. It was perfect.From all the pictures I had seen on google about Zanzibar I knew it would be beautiful but I didn’t expect it to be half as magnificent as it was. The beaches were a perfect soft, white sand, the water was this phenomenal clear turquoise color, the staff was incredibly friendly! I was seriously in paradise.We spent all day swimming in the water, laying on the beach and even playing some American football! It was the relaxation I needed. Then at night we had a giant dinner buffet right on the beach while we watched the staff perform different dances and acrobatics. We finished the night off with their usual Saturday beach party that included dancing, bonfires, stars and great conversations. It was a perfect ending to the amazing day!It was too perfect. The next morning, I woke up at 6am ready to go for a morning swim before we were heading out to the spice tour. Elise just came in the door and told me that her and Curtis’s phones had been taken from our porch last night. The porch was the only electrical outlet that worked so they had left them out there to charge. We should have known something was bound to happen, everything seemed to wonderful to be true but I am way too naïve to think that way! So her and Curtis spent the morning talking to the staff, security guards, managers and watching video tape. Nothing could be found.Since I was no real help, I decided to take a swim before breakfast. This is where I had my first real, “I’m really in Africa!”  moment. Sitting on the beach with little to no one around, listening to the waves and the birds, feeling so refreshed from the cool blue water.  It was the most at peace I had felt in a long time. Without using too many cliches, the best way to describe it is that moment where time really does seem to stop. It felt as if all was good in the world. It felt as if everything was going to be okay. It restored hope inside me.After I met up with Elise for breakfast. We talked a lot about what could of happened to her phone, what could have been done to prevent it and how vulnerable it made her feel. I knew all these feelings because I had gone through a similar situation recently. In the midst of our conversation though she simply took a breath and said, “Life really is a beautiful struggle.” I was taken a back by this quote. We were in this perfect beautiful paradise where all these unfortunate events seem to be happening to her and she was still able to see the beauty in the world.The most amazing thing about travelling abroad is the people you meet! I am truly blessed to have this opportunity!

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What a long dreadful train ride

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“What a long, dreadful train ride” I heard people shrugging, while I was watching the landscape slip away behind me. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, in what appeared to be “ghost stations”. I didn’t’ really ask why, I didn’t really care, I was simply enjoying the moment and anticipating my first work related trip. I was heading to Tetouan to assist with a 3 day training session organised and supported by MEDA Maroc, which focalizes on informing credit agents and directors from MFI’s on how to better understand and handle young clients. The train stops yet again, the AC wasn’t working, and some of the windows wouldn’t open, the passengers are all quiet, it was too hot to bother talking. Kids were coming out behind piles of rocks and bushes, running from a distance towards the train, trying to hop on the train for a free ride to the neighboring costal city: Azilal. They were bright eyed boys with big smiles, having the time of their lives while being chased after by the security guards and their dogs. I always enjoy road trips; I lose all concept of time while basking in the images and live portraits surrounding me.After resting in Tangier I hit the road to Tetouan! The development agents I met there were all enthusiastic about the training. Their interest and participation were great, even though the sessions were held during the week-end. We all had a sense of how important it was to provide appropriate financial services to the youth, and countered the multiple stereotypes surrounding young MFI clients. Clients weren’t numbers anymore; they were people from their community that they were eager to help. While I was capturing these moments with my camera, I noticed the same bright eyes and smiles I previously encountered during my train ride. I kept wondering what was so similar between two completely different groups of people. Could it be hope? Hope to reach more clients...hope to reach the beach or hope for improvement...hope for a better future.

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MEDA Staff Visit and a Quinceañera to top it off!

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I was given the pleasure of meeting Allan Sauder, Katie Turner, Nick Ramsing, and Dave Warren and accompany them along with my coordinator Roger Larios to different companies that the project Techno Links in Nicaragua is supporting. This was a great experience for me in getting to know some of the MEDA staff that are working on the same project as me. There were a lot of great explanations and ideas shared with me on the Techno Links project. On Tuesday afternoon I arrived in Managua with Roger, where are hotel was for the week. On Wednesday morning we were up by 6:00am and out the door to meet MEDA staff for 7:00am. Each day was like this as we had a full packed schedule of visiting different companies of Techno Links. We travelled to Rivas, in the southwestern region all the way to Ocotal, near the border of Honduras.Of the 10 companies in Techno Links we visited EIAG, Burke Agro, Chiles, and Davila & Associates. I was excited to visit each company because they bring such different aspects to the project. During one of the visits, I got a little carried away and started asking my own questions in Spanish to the producers. There was a machinery room with the cleaning and sorting of beans (frijoles). At Davila & Associates they have used the assistance from Techno Links to use sustainable energy such as the fertilization with worms. They also have a rain catcher to save water. Each of the companies have different processes since each company is using different crops and have different needs. I was fascinated by the different sustainable developments and technology used in agriculture. It was a very comfortable environment and I appreciated the laughs and lessons learned from the trip. I arrived back in Leon Saturday afternoon and there was no time to rest as I had to get ready for a Quinceañera. The daughter of the house of where I am living had her 15th birthday last week. In Latin America turning 15 for a girl signifies becoming a women. There is a large celebration for this birthday with invitations being sent out to family and friends as well as attending a mass before the party. This was definitely a nice way to finish my amazing week with dancing and learning a little more about the culture!

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Ninapenda Kula Chakula!!

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Chakula time! My favorite phrase of the day…food time. For any of you who know me, you know I am handicapped by any foods that are too spicy… or that have any spice at all really. All of you would be so proud. Although, not all the food here is spicy, hardly any of it really but they always have an option to make it spicier. Here at the MEDA office we are fed lunch everyday. We are given 3 or 4 options the day before; mostly the same options everyday with one new option, that again… I usually stay clear from. I have been sticking in my comfort zone with wali ne kuku (rice and chicken). Now this rice isn’t the same as rice in North America though. I never really enjoyed rice back home, I would only eat with some delicious sauce on top to let me forget about eating the rice but here it is a whole new world. I am told it is because this rice is whole and does not go through as much processing, whatever the reason may be… I can actually say that I crave rice. I enjoy my comfort zone, I feel safe eating that but my roommate/fellow intern Curtis thinks I need to be more adventurous. He often encourages me to try the new things on the menu that even he doesn’t know what they are. This is why… I have a strong suspicion that he changed my order one day. Sitting at my desk, I finally here “Chukula (food) is ready for all!” I was starving that day and could not wait for my wali ne kuku… only when I open up my container I find a whole samaki (fish). When I say whole fish, I mean whole… head and all. The little guys eyes were just staring at me! We are fortunate enough to get food every day, so I didn’t have the guts to say this isn’t what I ordered instead I just had to eat it. I was forced out of my comfort zone! I used the lid of my container to cover the head, I just couldn’t eat it with those eyes staring at me. It just felt so wrong. I looked around to see how others were attacking this meal. No forks and knives, just their delicate hands peeling the meat of the bones and then throwing it into their mouths. Oh boy… unfortunately Nichols College etiquette dinner didn’t prepare me for this. I forced down as much of this fish as I could. Wasting over half of the meat on the fish that apparently is in the head. I felt so awful but there was no way I could put any more of that fish in my body and I have a feeling my face gave off every ounce of misery I felt during that lunch. It is not all bad though, I have found quite a few foods that I enjoy. There is this wonderful sauce that I put on top of my rice; a sort of salsa that is not spicy but has the sweetest most flavourful addition to my amazing rice. As well as a form of rice called, Pilau. It is brown rice cooked with different spice that gives it an amazing flavour! Being in a big city though, we have a lot of selection such as Indian, Ethiopian, Thai and even Pizza. I can certainly find something to here that is not the problem. Also, I am lucky enough that Cutis, anapenda ku pika chukula (likes to cook food). I try to repay him by doing as many dishes as possible. Maybe one day I’ll make him an amazing grilled cheese sandwich!

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Karibu Tanzania

I have only been in Tanzania for 3 and a half weeks but I already feel I have so much to tell you. I could talk about the major culture shock I experienced or about having to dance my way through a church service or about having my purse stolen right off my neck. I have so much to share but I feel I should start with what the heck I’m doing out here.After graduation last May, I was offered a six-month internship with MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Association). MEDA is a non-profit non-government organization that works to alleviate poverty through sustainable economic development in many different countries around the world. They work to encourage struggling rural farmers, to empower women, to motivate youth and more. In Tanzania, we work with Hati Punguzo bed nets.In Tanzania, malaria is responsible for more that one third of deaths among children under the age of 5 years and up to one fifth of deaths among pregnant women. Effective preventive and curative measures have been developed; however, sleeping under bed nets remains an important strategy for protecting. When the bed nets were given out for free though, they found that Tanzanians were using them for anything but a bed net. Therefore a small fee was introduced to create a higher value for the Hati Punguzo bed nets. To be sure that those most susceptible to Malaria were still able to get a bed net at a cheap price, a voucher for pregnant women and infant children was introduced.When a pregnant woman or a parent with their child goes to a clinic for their check up, they receive a voucher for a bed net. They take that voucher to the retailer where they are able to redeem that voucher and receive a bed net for 500 shillings, which is about $0.35 U.S. MEDA is the logistics manager in the whole operation. MEDA ensures that the clinics have vouchers; the retailers have nets in stock; the distributors are supplying the nets to the retailers on time and collecting data to keep track of the all the vouchers calculating the redemption rates for each region.I was hired as the impact assessment intern for the next six months and am a member of the monitoring and evaluation team here. We work with many field officers and collect data from all regions to compare, analyze and recommend new solutions to reoccurring problems.With only six months, I am working hard to contribute as much as possible as well as learn from the incredible coworkers I am surrounded by. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that I am starting to get a great introduction into and am constantly impressed with the work ethic of both those in the office and the field. I have been able to make one field visit so far and hope that there will be a few more in the next few months, as it certainly makes the numbers I am looking at all day have a lot more meaning.

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Two words: snail soup

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me make something abundantly clear, snail soup is probably one of the best street foods out there! The moment I stepped foot in Morocco, my thoughts were haunted by the delectable gooey critter. During orientation week in Waterloo, we were taught to examine our surroundings the second we arrive in our residencies; I am a tad bit ashamed to admit that I went snail cart hunting instead, though I promise I promptly scrutinized my environment afterwards. Once I unpacked in Casablanca, I went for an evening walk to get acquainted with my new neighbourhood, and of course track down the “bebouch” (snail) stand. I was able to smell the tempting broth from miles away; sweet scent of herbs and spices such as thyme, oregano, tarragon, mint, peppermint, liquorice roots, anise seeds, and the list of ingredients goes on, and on…and on. For those of you who have an adventurous gastronomic side, I suggest you try some snail, click here  for the recipe or hop on a plane to Morocco.After checking off “bebouch” from my bucket list, my real adventure started: interning as an impact assessment agent with MEDA, in the city of Casablanca. The team here is great! Everyone is eager to help and love to share different information about the area. YouthInvest is the project that MEDA Maroc is currently working on, it’s truly catered to the Moroccan demand; unemployment being a heavy burden, this project facilitates youth access to micro financial services as well as the work market. Next on my bucket list: sheep brain.

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