Last week I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to the orderly and refreshing Bahir Dar. The sweet Lake Tana air and busy Bajajs welcomed me on my drive to the Summerland Hotel.
The African dust stirred up by my hop across the ocean is beginning to settle.What was once so unfamiliar is swiftly becoming the familiar.Yesterday I noticed that my office was finally air conditioned to a habitable temperature. Walking over to the thermostat, I was surprised to find that the office was still being cooled to 28°C as it always was…and then I realized that it was me, I was finally acclimatizing to the heat. I feel only vaguely aware of a metamorphosis I'm going through.It's becoming more difficult to pinpoint the things which once seemed so foreign, now they are camouflaged in the normal activities of life.
The past two weeks have been a flurry of activities throughout MEDA Maroc's offices, which was marked by visits from MEDA staff from Europe and Canada, a Monitoring & Evaluation Clinic organized by the two YEN interns in Morocco (Elena and Rémi, my fellow Canadians), a field trip to Tiflet and Rabat to meet with beneficiaries and partners, and a trip to our Oujda office for interviews and to observe the start of our impact assessment baseline survey. I'll start with the trip to Tiflet and Rabat, and write about the Oujda trip will be my next blog post.Tiflet and Rabat with MEDA EuropeGermans having lunch at Sqala, a Moroccan restaurantTo start off, two weeks ago, I spend Friday and Saturday assisting a small group of Germans engaged in MEDA activities in Europe tour Casablanca, Rabat and Tiflet. The group was led by the main MEDA Europe staffperson, my Communications supervisor, and a tour guide to translate from Arabic to German. We hired a bus to take us around, and late on Friday afternoon, after stopping to ask a dozen people for directions, we arrived at the Tiflet ARDI (one of our partner organizations) office, where the group was introduced to over a dozen beneficiaries of one of our financial services training programs. We then visited the bakery of one of the beneficiaries, which he learned to better manage and thus make it more profitable, before heading back to Rabat for supper and a good night's rest. Saturday saw us heading back to Tiflet (about 1 hour from Rabat, further inland) to visit the "kindergarten" and after-school program another client created after his training. The have approximately 50 kids benefiting from the program, from pre-school aged to high school aged children. We also got a magic show from a beneficiary who animates events and birthday parties. Our next stop was a carpet store, where a brother and sister who took the training do some interesting business. The brother creates contemporary carpet designs, and sends them to women weavers in the area, who produce the carpets. The sister designs and makes clothing as well as household bamboo furniture. The two also source traditional Berber carpets, and sell them. I was very tempted to buy something, but I was too indecisive! Left: Beneficiaries at the Tiflet ARDI office Right: Some of the carpet designs the young man created It was great to see what young people, my contemporaries, are able to do, and how they have created innovative ways to support themselves and their families. They're not rich - but they're not unemployed (unlike 30% of Moroccan youth aged 15-29 according to World Bank estimates) and they're doing something that they enjoy and is productive - that sounds like success! The Germans were very interested in the youths' businesses, and asked tons of questions. Unfortunately (and I must say for the first time really since coming here), I was the person who went around but understood very little - the kids and partners would speak Arabic, then the interpreter would directly translate into German. Since I only know a handful of Arabic, and I seem to have forgotten all the important words I once-upon-a-time knew from two semesters in Herr Schmidt's class, I mostly just followed along and asked for explanations from my co-worker when she was nearby. Since I talk to everyone here in French, I kept trying to ask the Germans questions in French - but mostly they spoke English as a second language, not French, which again was confusing. It felt very odd to be "that person," but the trip was very interesting and gave me a chance to meet youth who benefited from our trainings. What I found really intriguing was the fact that, of the group of 11 Germans, several of the men had brought their teenaged children along. In fact 4 of the 11 were under the age of 20. One of the dads explained to be on the first day that they had brought them along because they thought it would a good chance for their kids to learn about the lives of youth in another country. To make them aware of the differences in daily life, work, education, life style, everything. For their part, the German teens were great: interested and engaged. They even swapped Facebook contact info with a number of the youth we met. How many parents take their kids on trips like that? Where they see the end results of MEDA's work firsthand? Very few. Kudos to them for expanding their children's knowledge, while also being engaged enough to care how and where funding is spent (Some visitors were already MEDA donors).
When I mentioned to friends and family that I had the opportunity to live in Peru for 6 months, the first and the most frequent comment I received was: "Be prepared to gain weight". I am beginning to understand what they meant...especially with the most delicious "churros" I have ever tried in my entire life! and the worst of it all is that they are sold for only s/.1.20 each.Peruvian Gastronomy House - Historical Center of Lima
Peruvian gastronomy is a booming sector. It has become a national symbol of pride, and such that this gorgeous building (which used to be National Post/Telegraph building), is now the Peruvian Gastronomy House.
Working with MEDA has been a busy unpredictable but mostly informative first month. I am interning at the main office for the EDGET project, which stands for Ethiopians Driving Growth Entrepreneurship and Trade, also meaning progress in Amharic. EDGET is a pro-poor five-year project, funded by the Canadian government with the objective of raising the incomes of 10,000 weavers and rice farmers. Theoretically speaking, raising income is a strategy to improve food security. We hope rural Ethiopians will become more resilient against famines and less dependent on food aid programs as a result of EDGET interventions.
There are many different facets to such an ambitious project, and I am primarily focused on financial services. Financial services supports EDGET’s objective by employing financial interventions, like the Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs).
Dar es Salaam, like any city, is a maze of streets packed with buildings and people. It's just that the packing is a little tighter than Canadian cities and there aren't any parks to escape to. None of the roads have signs, and only the main roads have referable names. Also, it's only the major roads which are paved. The rest of the dirt roads constantly kick dust up into the air making things…well…dusty. Poorer quality side roads frequently instigate meetings between you and your vehicle's ceiling. While particularly deep holes in the road are usually repaired with a couple bricks and some dirt, in desperate situations they are just filled with garbage...and sometimes a metal pipe is implanted across the chasm for support. Some side streets are peppered with chickens, others with cats and dogs, and still others with goats. But every street, no matter how remote or at what time of day, will have people on it. People walking to work or school, people carrying outrageously large amounts of materials on their head, people yelling about the football match, people playing checkers, people sweeping the front of their shop, people buying food, people selling food. If you are stopped on Bogamoyo road, people will run up to your car and try to sell you a coat rack. Yes, an entire coat rack. Or a skipping rope, or hangers, or sunglasses, or any one of a hundred other trinkets. And if you are one of these pedestrians on the Dar streets, you better watch out - motors always, always have the right of way! I'm not sure if all these people filling the streets have a permanent residence. It doesn't always seem that there are enough houses to fit everybody. And yet, people are constantly stepping in and out of the small huts and shops. These buildings are moderate and simple…built from cement…or sometimes from sticks, mud, and bricks…and topped off with a roof of sheet metal or clay tile, but I've also seen roofs made from palm branches. I'm eager to explore some places further outside the city...and maybe spend some time on the coast. I wonder what the islands are like! And where do I find some mountains?!Coconut CrabPlease meet my friend the coconut crab. Locals tell me that his kind are the largest crabs in the entire world. The name is appropriate because this guy loves climbing palm trees to feast on coconuts, which he can open with his bare claws. Being a hermit crab, he probably used a coconut for his protective shell when he was younger… and he will sometimes even mimic being a coconut. If he tries to take my finger, or grabs a hold of anything else he shouldn't, the locals have a secret way of rubbing his tummy to loosen his gripThe BajajiI can't think of a better way to be introduced to Dar than by Bajaji. Soon after my arrival in the city, I had the pleasure of riding in one of these three-wheeled vehicles and quickly realized that this would be my main mode of transport. There is a single seat in the front for the driver and a seat in the back which can fit 2 people comfortably. But the driver will often have a friend or two along, and we will often try to pile 3 or 4 in the back to make the whole thing a wonderful entanglement of limbs. Smaller than cars and trucks, the Bajaji is free to weave in and out of traffic and often bypasses traffic by making its own path in between oncoming traffic and the proper lane…or by simply driving half on the road and half on the pedestrian walkways. Due to the absence of doors, it is not out of the ordinary to white knuckle the seats in order to prevent ejection from the vehicle. It's also prudent to keep appendages inside the vehicle during the numerous close encounters you are bound to have with other vehicles. Bajajis are a cheaper alternative to taxis, but it is important that the Bajaji customer be a quick judge of character – to be able to look a driver in the eye and predict exactly what level of rationality he is willing to show on the road. I have been using the same driver every day to get to and from work. I feel Siprian has found a good balance between making the trip exciting and taking relatively few gambles with my life.IntersectionsDar es Salaam can be translated from Arabic as "haven of peace", although when you travel through its streets you might find the name slightly misleading. The trick to being a good driver here is to have the bigger vehicle - it's a constant game of chicken. There are no speed limits and no traffic enforcement…in fact, I have not yet been able to deduce any rules beyond the suggestion that you should try to drive on the right (as in "not left") side of the road. And although Dar is Tanzania's largest city, there are only a couple traffic lights. And so, it is standard procedure when approaching an intersection to just inch into the cross traffic, get the timing, and then make a move to squeeze through – it's like playing a high stakes version of skip rope. Master Facility ListThe end of my first week at work has been extremely exciting. After a tour of the office on Monday morning (followed by some jet lag naps at my desk), MEDA asked me to attend a 3 day conference put on by the Tanzania Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The goal of the conference was to outline the technical requirements in developing an online registry of all the health facilities in the country. A number of stakeholders were contacted and about 25 people attended to give their input on what was required from the "Master Facility List". I felt very privileged having a front row seat to watch the beginning stages of what I feel is a very significant project. It would be so useful for Tanzania to have a centralized and reliable list of hospitals with their provided services. And to make the information available to other health projects and to the general public, well that would just be a great thing. Mostly I sat back and enjoyed the experience, letting the more experienced members discuss what shape the project should take. However I did get a chance to chip in when I noticed some flaws in the chosen database constraints. And boy was my heart pounding when I said my piece. After being understood, I promptly sat down and returned to my more comfortable role of observing.
Under the theme of 'love,' it is perfectly fitting that I share with you my impressions from the celebration for International Day of Rural Women (a United Nations day of recognition). The celebration spearheaded by our Project was held in Zaporizhzhya, the main city in the area we serve, on October 15 and drew 1000 attendees from near and far!
Helping bring together this event marked my first assignment here at MEDA. The team worked like a well-oiled machine, our open-concept office buzzing with phone calls, quick consults, print demos, and the like. While I joined just in the last two weeks of an event that had been in the works for several months, I was happy to be able to contribute actively—feeling a pleasant nostalgia from my conference-planning days.
After a long evening of preparation on-site, and after overstepping some unexpected thorns in our path, at last the unveiling of the big event arrived! I was stationed right at the door to meet and greet along with Meghan, the other CIDA intern working out of the Simferopol office. While it is somewhat draining bending and yelling into the ears of old ladies (bless their hearts!), I really enjoyed the opportunity connect personally with the guests, many of which were clients of the project. Seeing the joy and pride on peoples' faces when they were welcomed to an event that celebrated them – their hardships, their perseverance, and their roles as providers for the people-- was pure inspiration.
Maybe I can place some of the blame on my investment banking roots, but I know that even apart from that training, patience is a virtue that I have in short supply for most things (somehow this impatience does not extend to my ability to wait for hours to stream TV on our slow internet connection...go figure :)). During my MEDA orientation we discussed a lot about culture shock and adapting to being in a new environment. Although I was definitely concerned about living in Africa for the first time ever, I was confident that my previous experiences abroad would help me along in this process. This is of course not to say that I don't have my moments when I am missing my loved ones and my life in New York/Washington DC, especially being away while friends and family are dealing with turmoil in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I also am now equipped with some wonderful strategies to cope with homesickness and culture shock that I learned during the MEDA orientation, which certainly adds to my confidence. Nevertheless, what I am writing about today is the thing I was/am most concerned about (even back in that conference room in Waterloo) during this experience - the adjustment required when working in a different culture. Though I have had some experience in this area (working on project finance deals in Mexico, traveling to Russia to do financial and organizational capacity assessments for the SEEP Network; working remotely to gather indicator information from partners in Africa and Latin America, or doing online webinar trainings for microfinance associations) I have always found it the most challenging of development work. Whether it is coordinating different work styles, working with different time lines, terminology, wait times or simply put, work hours, it takes a while to figure out how things run or what is appropriate work behavior in the country you are working in. About me - I am definitely used to a "time is money" mentality, meaning that I am used to running around in crisis mode, all the while trying to maximize my efficiency... mean, I worked at a firm where the CEO wrote a book on how paperclips were wasteful.Since arriving here in Zambia I am very much of aware of the clash of work cultures I am experiencing. Some of things I have noticed: #1) it is not uncommon to have to ask someone to do something several times before they will actually do it. I don't think this is actually considered rude, though, which is nice. It does make crossing things off on your to do list a little difficult, though :). #2) Face time is also not a requirement here...therefore it is also not uncommon for people to make their own work hours, as long as they get their work done (although deadlines don't appear to be that formal either). #3) Healthy fear of the boss doesn't exist here - people don't seem to be intimidated or alter their behavior based on their manager's presence. #4) There is a more laid back sense to things getting done...you almost never see anybody rushing around to get something done. In fact, I think they find me quite strange since I do that already quite frequently here. Simply put, if something doesn't get done today, there is always time for it tomorrow. And finally #5) people don't appear to get flustered, frustrated or worked up when something is done incorrectly. They simply just say oh well and move on from there. I often get stressed out when I am the one finding the errors in things since I am the newest person here and probably the least qualified at this point to do so. However, people here would just say "good thing we have you" and move on, which just may be the most healthy approach to life there is instead of stressing out about it :) Other work differences I have noticed - generally, customer service in Zambia is very different than in the U.S. Here, you often enter a business and can wait around for a long time, watching people make coffee, staple things, or sit at their desk doing nothing, before they will ask you if you need assistance. For instance, the other day I walked into the bank to get a check cut and ended up standing in the lobby for about 20 minutes since the people at the desks in the front of the bank would not engage me. I finally had to approach a teller to ask if there was anyone who could help me with a bank check. When they told me the branch manager had gone and no one else could help me, and was told that the Bank Manager wasn't there and nobody knew where she was, so I needed to go to a different branch. Compared to many banks in the U.S. where the second you walk in, there is either a sign up sheet or a person to greet you and ask you if you need help. It could just be that many of these services are still luxuries and so it is not like the businesses are competing for customer attention. I think customer service is understood as tending to a customer's needs, but it certainly does not mean approaching someone in a lobby to ask if they need help when they walk into an office.In fact, the mentality is much more like you should be thanking the person for their help, which definitely may take some getting used to. For me going forward I think I will try to take a step back and maintain a sense of perspective, especially when I realize any of these things are happening. Come to think of it, the work culture clash from the U.S. to Zambia is probably not unlike the work culture clash between the U.S. and Italy, France or Spain. People aren't living for their work, but working so they can live. Suffice it to say that apart from the material knowledge related to mobile banking, I am looking forward to growing my patience in the months to come! Do you have a good way of dealing with cultural work differences that you want to share?
My life in Nicaragua is starting to sink in. Not only have I had the opportunity to see so much more of this city and country,but I have also gained a much more intimate understanding of what my job will entail. This truly was the busiest I have been in a long time, with the Friday and Saturday being spent driving around to different towns to visit small scale farmers working with our first-round grant recipients of the Techno-Links project.
Three businesses had been selected as the grant winners from the first-round: Burke Agro, who works with drying and packaging fruits for export to buyers such as Whole Foods in the United States; EIAG (Escuela Interamericano de Agricultura y Ganaderia – Interamerican School of Agriculture and Livestock), which is a post-secondary institution in the southern region of Rivas, that works with educating farmers about using their new "vitroplantas", a selected strain of in vitro plants that are a more versatile, healthy, and resistant plantain crop. From this the farmer can use less fertilizer and pesticides because the plantain is already at a greater advantage from the previous in vitro process. The final winner we went to visit on the following Wednesday was that of Tecnosol, a company working to provide biogas from manure through the installment of biodigesters, of many uses in the house including cooking and a lesser need for fuel woods, while also simultaneously creating fertilizer to be used on the farmers' crops. For Tecnosol we needed to drive up into the mountains of Matagalpa, the coffee growing region of Nicaragua to the north. Here we performed a similar task as to the others, performing questionnaires with the farmers who are working in partnership with Tecnosol to improve their crops through the said technology they work with and promote.
"A whole new world Every turn a surprise With new horizons to pursue..." This week was an especially full week of firsts - I had my first trip to La Corniche, an area of Casa along the waterfront, I cooked my first real, acceptable dinner completely from scratch, I tried bstilla and found it delicious, and learned how to play Pétanque at a costume party in Maarif quartier.La CornicheOn Wednesday evening, the staff of MEDA Maroc's Casablanca office went out for dinner, together with our colleagues from Waterloo, Washington and Cairo, who were all here to work on a training program we will be developing for microfinance institutions. I will elaborate more on this developing project in a separate post in the near future, as it extremely relevant and an exciting opportunity for MEDA in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, and in general. We went to an Italian restaurant on the ocean's edge in La Corniche, an area filled with restaurants, shopping and big houses. Popular with tourists. The restaurant was positioned between two swimming pools, a stone's throw away from the beach itself. The public can pay to spend a day at the club and the water is filtered salt water from the ocean. Good food, and great company. On the way to La Corniche by taxi we passed through one of the shanty towns near the lighthouse which were juxtaposed by elegant restaurants with security at the entrances mere metres away. As we drove along the coast we watched the sun set. Pineapple and Pepper Chicken CookingI admit that most of my dinners after work have been pretty simple - sandwiches, bread and veggies, spaghetti with canned sauce or rotisserie chicken or chicken soup that my roommate and I make from the leftovers. While yes, that counts as cooking, I cooked my first creative dinner completely from scratch the other day, and had leftovers to enjoy later this week - chicken breasts with sautée peppers and pineapple. Yum! It feels good to cook something - but what I would give for an oven or a microwave! Oriental DancingFriday night, my friend and I tried oriental dancing at the gym a few blocks from my apartment. I managed to get us a trial class for free before deciding if it is somewhere Iwant to get a membership, and my friend was game. The instructor was very low-key, and not particularly vocal, but we had a lot of fun trying to duplicate what the other women were doing. Similar to belly dancing, there is a lot of lower body movement, hip action and wrist and arm rotations to go with the steps. A fun experience, and a very good workout. The ladies in the class were friendly. The only things we were missing were the jingly scarves everyone was wearing around their hips. BstillaI had to look this name up. While shopping for a few things yesterday with a friend, I bought a bstilla, a sort of chicken "pie" in layers of phyllo dough, and dusted with powdered sugar. The chicken (in researching this it says it could be pigeon - but I'm going to pretend I know for sure it was chicken) is seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices, and raisins and something that was perhaps cabbage round it out. Whatever it was, it was filling, delicious, and only cost 5 Dirhams. I have my friend to thank as she pointed out the store where they sold these, along with shrimp filled pastries, sweet pastries, msemen, and other typical Moroccan bread items. I will have to look for these at one of my local shops.PétanqueSaturday night I attended an apéro, then an "M" themed costume party. I got better acquainted with more of the French interns who come to Casablanca on a similar, but much longer program than our CIDA internships. They general work here for 1-2 years. A few of these new friends introduced me to Pétanque, a very popular game from the South of France that is similar to lawn bowling. In teams of 2 or 3, you attempt to get your team's balls closest to the "cochonette" or "bouchon", a much smaller, wooden ball, that you first toss to the other end of the "terrain" (must be thrown 6-10 metres, in the sand). Kind of like curling, you can hit the other team's balls away from the cochonette, but you can also hit the cochonette and send it closer to your balls. You play ends, and calculate points the similar to curling. The team to reach 13 first wins. Lots of fun, and I scored some points!
The Ethiopian New Year is marked on September 11. Ethiopians follow a calendar that is slightly different so the year is now 2005. Melkam Addis Amet!
I was fortunate enough to arrive at such an opportune time and experienced a few of the special customs they celebrate.
I think I'm finally recovering from my jet-lag! (Knock on wood.) Now that I've discovered white noise tracks that I can play on my iPod when I go to sleep (to drown out the street noise below!), I'm sleeping a lot better. Today was a holiday, so I slept in and took a nap. I'll have to relate my laundry adventure another time; suffice to say that the little portable washing machine here was not as intuitive as I initially assumed! I'm headed for another early night, which will be nice, since tomorrow at work should be a lot more intense than Monday! (Fortunately, it's a four-day weekend thanks to Eid and the King's birthday. Lots of time to look around Casa and catch up on sleep!) The culture shock is a little bit harder to deal with. I feel quite timid a lot of the time, which is not how I normally am; it's like I've suddenly become extremely shy. Partially, I think I don't want to offend anyone; I'm the newcomer, but it's hard to know what's acceptable. The other part is probably that being a foreigner attracts a lot of attention, and it can be super jarring to have someone yell after you on the street. One guy yelled, "Ça va?" (equivalent to "How are you?", or, in this context, "How you doin'?") after me for a full minute. It's definitely something I've encountered elsewhere, but because here it seems discriminate (that is, because I'm a foreigner, rather than just someone walking by a construction site in NYC), I think I'm finding it more jarring.
It's not just that everything is different; it's that, in this context, I'm different. What I thought was pretty decent French is appallingly insufficient, which has made me - even with English speakers - almost a mute. (My accent is bad, and theirs is indecipherable to me - not a good combination!) I don't know how to be polite; I don't know how to do anything, almost. Sometimes I've even felt nervous about leaving the house, which is so not me, and not reflective of the place I'm in, either - Casablanca is not a dangerous city. But between the language barrier, the stress of moving, jet lag, and adjusting to a new culture, I've felt like everything is out of control. So here's the truth: My French will improve, and my culture shock will get better. Everyone's does. From reading that MEDA sent me to my own research, it's just a necessary phase. I remember going through parts of it when I moved to Baltimore from Calgary, so it's no surprise that I'm feeling it moving from the East Coast to North Africa! The intensity has surprised me, but after a few weeks I'm slowly starting to get my bearings. (Hopefully they'll forgive me at work for doing my best impression of a silent data analyst... I'll stop stuttering eventually.) Here's what I've found the most helpful for combating culture shock: 1. Reach out. Reach out to your family, reach out to your friends. Write letters, Skype, send texts, Facebook - whatever. Some of the websites caution against relying too much on your 'old life' for support, but when I really need to feel grounded, my friends are the ones who provide that. (Love you guys!) 2. Don't hole up. It might be enticing to hide under the covers, but it only delays the inevitable. You will need food, water, diet Coke (if you're an addict like me), etc. Even if it's just for ten minutes, get out of your own space. Say hello to the shopkeepers. Keep your eyes up (unless you are on an uneven sidewalk - in which case, do not do what I did and sprain your ankle!). 3. Don't force it. You will have good days, like I had today, where you get into your project at work and talk to someone you love from home and feel great about the next six months. And you will also have bad days, like I had yesterday, where everything seems impossible. (The things you admit to on the internet... in my defense, I totally felt better afterward!) It's normal. From what I can tell, everyone experiences different levels of this, and nobody is immune from culture shock. It manifests differently for different people - I am prone to worrying, so obviously mine is manifesting in anxiety right now - but it's something that most people experience in different ways. 4. One day at a time. Instead of thinking about how bad you're going to feel for the next six months, focus on getting to the end of one single day. Not only does it prevent self-fulfilling prophecies - I'm miserable because I knew I was going to be miserable! - but it narrows your focus, which makes everything that seems huge and impossible seem smaller. 5. Perspective is important. Six months is nothing. I spent six months transitioning out of my last job! It's not that I want to dismiss this as being 'all in your head', but to some extent, if you're physically safe and your basic needs are provided for, then that knowledge can help to get you out of feeling insecure. 6. Read, read, read. Read everything you can about the culture you're in. A lot of websites suggest doing this before you leave - and that's a great idea - but doing so when you're there can also be really helpful. 7. Go easy on yourself. This is one I struggle with - I really felt like I was "failing" to adjust here, rather than going through the process of adjusting. Give yourself some room to make mistakes or just plain feel homesick, instead of viewing that as some kind of zero-sum loss. Let every day be as clean a slate as possible
It's a difficult thing to do – leaving everything you love.I love home.I love my grandparents, my parents and siblings and extended family.I love my friends. I love my bedroom and my pet dog.I love road trips and weekend adventures. But it’s probably that appetite for adventure which allowed the whispers of flight to materialize into action. So where did the whispers come from? By nature I’m an incredibly curious person.I often find myself wondering how things work.I find delight in exploring and discovering.Naturally this leads me to sometimes wonder what the lives of other people around the world might be like.What’s happening in the developing world?What is their culture like? What are the people like? Why don’t they have what I have?Do they even need or want what I have in Canada? Why are things unbalanced?And why is humanity so broken anyway?I’m not naive enough to think I will find answers to all these questions.Nonetheless, it was time for me to find a way into the developing world and scratch the surface.So now I’m on my way to work with Mennonite Economic Development Associates doing an IT internship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.The project I will be involved in is the Tanzania National Voucher Scheme, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunity to discuss the details of my job position in future entries.Today I’m focusing on what it’s like to leave.And of course the emotions are intermingled…yet I find that when I suppress my apprehension, I’m excited to live in a new culture. When I suppress the sadness of leaving family, I find I hope to make new friendships.I hope to find creative and practical ways to serve the local community.I hope that I will find my work meaningful.I hope that the sacrifice will be worth it.
As life would have it, there was a curve ball waiting for me when I walked into work two Mondays ago…I was asked to fill in at the last minute for a colleague and assist on rolling out some financial education trainings for loan officers of a large microfinance bank in Zambia. Since the trainings were going to be decentralized by region, it would require flying to some pretty remote areas of the country on progressively smaller propeller planes, and also give me my first taste of bus travel in Zambia. Even crazier, though, is that I would only have 24 hours to get up to speed, buy, print and assemble all of the materials for the trainings, pack AND learn enough about Zoona so I wouldn't embarrass myself as their representative at the trainings. I, of course said yes, although I am not sure I had much of a choice ;) In the end it probably ended up being the best thing for helping me learn about the mobile banking business, the challenges and opportunities that mobile platforms have for microfinance, and allowing me to learn a little more about the country I'll call home for the next 6 months and the wonderful people who live in it.Starting from the beginning though, I was to fly to Ndola in the northwestern part of the country, also known as the Copperbelt, for our first training. Well, I almost fell over when I saw the 10 seater aircraft with two propellers that was responsible for getting us across the country. After some reassuring words from my new travel partner, Jackie from Microfinance Opportunities, I tried to push the terror aside and remind myself that i was lucky because "at least we weren't going on the plane next to us that only had one propeller" (more on the 1 propeller plane later ;)) For a person who loves rollercoasters, I don't know why the same movement on an airplane makes me want to try like a baby. Suffice it to say, the shaking, incredibly loud humming of the plane's engine and sudden drops made me ecstatic to jump off the plane after we landed. The most interesting part about plane travel in Africa, though, is getting to observe who is able to use this form of transportation. I think it is important to note that in the cost of my airline tickets (for 4 flight legs) was 5.2 million Zambian Kwatcha or $1,020. That's right to fly to 2 places in Zambia it cost more than my flight to Zambia, excluding the taxes or which is even more frightening roughly similar to the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. Sadly, this does not even include the passenger charges that we had to pay at each airport of departure which were another $12/each. Now, despite the fact that I am a scaredy cat when it comes to flying, I know that it is an incredible luxury and it makes me feel uncomfortable when I think the median income of Vision Fund clients who will be the beneficiaries of this financial education program. But, since Zambia is such a big country (larger than the state of Texas) and road travel is not always the easiest, fastest or safest, this is the only way we can fit in all of the trainings in a week and half's time. Since we were heading to the mining belt, it is no surprise that there were a few mining/businessmen types on the flight. Many of the mining guys (they are always men) are Aussies and are wearing jeans, Oakley sunglasses and cell phone holsters. Then, there are the impeccably dressed African business men; the very casually dressed tourists (although not sure why tourists are going to the mining region), and then there are the NGO crowd, usually laden with materials or bags with packets etc. In this particular instance…this is us. Once we arrived in Ndola, we had about an hour's drive to Kitwe (the second largest city in Zambia) where the training would be taking place the next day. Being that we were in the Copperbelt, it seemed apropos that we ended up staying in a place that was smack dag across the street from a big mountain of ore or something. Thankfully, the warnings of my Zoona co-workers about the air quality never ended up being an issue. Since we were staying a little ways out of the city center, I can't give too many impressions about Kitwe, except to say that it is expensive! I was shocked at what $57/night ($290,000) gets you. I was told that the mining concessionaires and the constant influx of people keep the prices high. I did have A/C and hot water, which was a blessing since it was hot during the day. The first room I saw, though, did not have a toilet seat ;) I think the most memorable parts of the stay in Kitwe were (a) my first meal with Nshima served without utensils; (b) my first introduction to Zambian time…everything is always 10 minutes, even 1 hour after the fact; (c) having to provide an introduction to Zoona and field questions during the challenges with the Zoona platform section; (d) seeing the enthusiasm of the loan officers when they were presenting lessons on financial education; and (e) the twice daily power cuts that made planning your shower all the more important. It was also very clear after our first training that I was not only incredibly fortunate to be seeing so much of Zambia in my second week on the job, but also because I was going to learn so much about the mechanics of training, adult learning, and financial education. Just as a background, Zoona is working with an MFI to do client loan disbursements. Formerly, the MFI disbursed loans in one of two ways - (1) loan officers had to travel around to loan groups with large sums of money which was neither safe nor cost effective, or (2) clients would have to travel long distances to get to their nearest MFI branch to pick up their loans at their own expense. While all of the operational challenges of this partnership have yet to be sorted out (I am hear gathering feedback about these challenges and disseminating updates about progress), Zoona's mobile agent network has the potential to make loan disbursement much easier in terms of time and cost for the MFI and clients. I was really impressed by the first training, the material was not only engaging, but you could also see how interested the loan officers were in learning how to train their clients on financial education. Some of the topics that were covered were lessons on: (1) When is a loan good or bad?; (2) Tracking your business and household expenses; (3) Ways to Save; and (4) Using Zoona to manage your money. Although many people were familiar with Zoona's money transfer services, it was great to be able to talk about some of the other services that could be useful to their clients...i.e. as a safe place to deposit your money, using Zoona to pay your bills or even to repay your loan. I think I will save the part about the challenges of the Zoona account for Part II of the blog since it gets more into the nitty gritty (or mechanics) of mobile banking. After a successful 9 hours of training and a good night's sleep, though, we had to head out to our next stop on the financial education tour - Kasama. Kasama is in the northern province of Zambia, very close to the border of Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika. Based on the reactions of Zambians when I told them where I was going to next, I would also venture to say that Kasama is not a place that many people travel to for work or otherwise. This is where the trip starts getting a little more interesting/challenging as the planes start to get a bit smaller. This time we were led to the tarmac where there was a single propeller plane waiting to take us back to Lusaka , so we could then fly to Kasama. At this point I wasn't sure I could do it...the look of panic on my face was something I couldn't even hide from our pilot who actually asked me if I was going to be okay. Obviously I made it, but I was definitely counting down the minutes till the flight was over and relied on the music from my ipod to get me through the two long trips. That's before I even realized that we had to land on a red clay/dirt runway, my first ever. You can short of tell what type of town you are arriving in by the red dirt runway and singular airport building…Kasama is sort of one horse town. There are only two flights into town per week and it is about a 10 hours to Lusaka by bus or car. Since we arrived on a Thursday, we have to stay in Kasama for the weekend until the next flight date - Monday. There are also not a whole lot of mzungus (Swahili for white person) so I definitely attracted a little bit of attention when I walked around the town. Kasama has one main drag with a few strip malls, a few ATMs and a ShopRite, which makes Kasama the place where people come from around the smaller towns in the Northern province to do their shopping, commerce and banking. Hence, it is the perfect town for a Zoona agent. I am excited to say that this was my first visit to one, apart from the training center in downtown Lusaka. I got to sit with him for a little bit of time and ask him about the challenges he was facing as an independent agent. After being in Kitwe for the training I had a little more context related to the challenges of using the agent/mobile money platform for microfinance loan disbursement from the MFI side of things, but it was great to get an agent's perspective on the challenges.
Love,in all its forms (or lacktherof) is all people care about, IMHO! I aim to capture and share what love looks like in the Ukraine- by drinking up the culture (na zdorovya!), getting intimate with 'the hard life,' and injecting my own love into the agricultural development project I have committed to for the next 6 months (Thanks CIDA and MEDA!)My introduction to this country has left me feeling star-struck. It started with a week of courtship-- wining, dining and soaking up the sun on the breathtaking coast of the Black Sea in Crimea. There is a calm in the air. The cove where we were staying is hugged by mountains with huge trees,beautifully groomed grounds, rose bushes, marble benches and mineral springs to drink from along the way. Near our resort (actually closer to the town that my Dad grew up in, Gurzuf) there is a mountain that looks like a bear drinking from the sea called "Medved Gora." The beaches here are stoney, different beaches (marked by cement dividers that break the waves) have different size and colour stones. After a quick swim on my first day I was quickly captivated by the mosaic on the beach and have collected so many natural works of art:)The mountainside hides away several impressively large "summer homes" of old Tsars and nobility—my favourite was the Livadia Palace where Nikolai II, Anastasia &Co used to vacation before their tragic demise. The mountain side has since been populated with health resorts where people come for an all-inclusive stay of healthy food and various procedures (as prescribed by the doctor when you arrive and based on your medical history.) The approach is really interesting to me… The government (both Ukrainian and Russian) pays for the elderly to come once a year for 3 weeks as a preventative measure so they don't end up draining hospital funds. (And perhaps also in gratitude for years of service to the country....but who can say!)Life on the mountains makes for plenty of natural exercise (goodbye, eliptical!).The gardens are easy on the eyes and there are toothsome treats growing wherever you look-- figs, grapes, berries and cactus pears. Of course the views are what make the climbs such a soulful experience. My climbs lead me to discover what I now consider to be one of my sacred places: A 300 year old tree (The Platan) where many famous authors, poets and painters drew inspiration. I have done a bit of writing there myself (couldn't resist!) and plan to return soon.I also lucked out in my introduction to the team at MEDA that I will be learning from and supporting during my internship. The day my resort time finished was the start of the annual retreat of the two Ukrainian offices (Melitopol and Simferopol), in Alushta, just a short drive down the coast. The weekend consisted of warm welcomes, passionate presentations, a horseback trip through the mountains and evenings of singing, dancing and 'enjoying' -- Ukrainian style!My arrival to Melitopol also brought some gifts of fate. I arrived on the "Dyen Goroda," which is the city's anniversary celebration. We celebrate Melitopol's 228th in style! Sasha, the lead on the gender component of the project (where I will start my work) met me in the morning with her husband and son for a full day of fun and getting to know my new home. There was a huge festival (think 50 000+ people in a city of 150 000!) with various groups strutting their stuff in a parade that seemed to go on for an hour--- marching bands, athletic clubs, various cultural groups and a TON of ballroom dancing groups! Another lucky break for me :an ex-world champion in ballroom dancing teaches in Melitopol!After a full historical and cultural programme, I said goodbye to the charming and welcoming family and headed to my new apartment. Klassna! That means cool / classy (?) in Russian.. a popular slang word. After christening the place with a dance party I settled in and started writing about my adventure to date.. only to be interrupted by fireworks jumping into my living room view! This was a moment of deep connection with the city for me. There is something about being part of collective attention---sharing moments of consciousness and joy-- that weaves you into the human energy grid of a city.First day at work was also comical and unique—but hey, I am spoiled by this point and already expect that something is up! As a joint celebration for my arrival and for my coworker's birthday, a 10am cake and cognac were served! In terms of work (which was ever-so-slightly affected by the morning's festivities) it was mostly exploring the existing documents-reports, spreadsheets, and getting settled into the office.The rest of the week consisted of field visit days – to the MEDA office in Simferopol, and to sort out some logistics for the upcoming festivities for International Rural Women's day in Zaporizhzhya and finally in Tokmak, where the Zap. headquarters of UWFC (Ukrainian Women's Farmers Council) is located. UWFC in Zaporizhzhya is a large NGO that brings together rural women around topics of agricultural production, marketing and capacity building.Services provided by this NGO are in great need in rural communities, where most women have limited access to information about new technologies and approaches in agribusiness. I will be working closely with this group, helping the staff of five improve their business skills through a series of workshops and also collecting information for 'Success Stories' and 'Lessons Learned' in the project's reporting scheme. It was amazing to meet some of the clients of the project, getting tours around their farms, which for the most part have been thriving since their involvement. The farmers I met all had kind, hopeful eyes and an inspiring love for the land. Week two has been full immersion into office life. We tackled Monday with another celebration (Thanksgiving!) and the following days have been showing me a clearer picture of what to expect for the coming months…the unexpected!Looking on with energy, delight and gratitude--care to make it a date?Yours truly...
Just came back from training in Waterloo, ON for my new job. It was a mile-a-minute introduction week to MEDA, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, with a fantastic group of 13 other interns who have placements everywhere from Zambia to Ukraine. Training was far more engaging than I expected as we were introduced to MEDA’s ethos and development programming.
One hears many theories and strategies for the best, most durable means of engaging in development and social change while studying development at school. I was impressed with MEDA’s approach that stressed demand-driven programmes that would be sustainable, scalable and measured by a double bottom line: for financial performance and positive social impact. It is through acting for economic empowerment, inspired by Mennonite values, that MEDA chooses to pursue social justice among the poor.
I suppose it would be a good idea to tell you what it is that brings me here to Ukraine! For those of you who don’t know, I am participating in an internship sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). CIDA is a branch of the Canadian Federal Government, and as the name dictates, it deals with International Development.
People often ask, “What is International Development?” This is a funny question for me, because even though I did my Master’s in Development Studies, I still have a hard time defining it! There are many definitions and debates surrounding development, but I think a practical definition- and the definition most prevalent to my internship, would be that International Development is/are deliberate attempts by foreign actors, working with local partners to assist in the economic/social/political development of a country or a specific group of people.
Picking up from where we left off...One of the things that came out of the Kasama training is that the mechanics of mobile money and the agent network are a little difficult to wrap one's head around. I will be dedicating one of my next posts to the mechanics of mobile money and the agent network, but since this posting was about our trainings I thought I would include one of the diagrams I ended up drawing during our trainings to show how an agent manages his/her float or cash liquidity.
The other part of this equation is managing the funds in an electronic bank account so that he or she can transfer on behalf of a client. I mean in reality, the agent is like it's own little bank...an agent must ensure that it has enough cash on hand to meet customer demand for it (for money transfer or loan pay outs) while at the same time having enough funds in an electronic account to transact (really, transfer) on behalf of a client to a third party or savings account (i.e. money transfers, or Consumer to Business bill payments, loan repayments or air time purchases).There is a constant deposit and withdrawal of money, and shifting of money from cash in hand to electronic in this agent model. Not being an expert in mobile banking (yet?), the biggest issue an agent faces is not having enough money for payouts, with the second one being not having enough electronic funds in his/her bank account to transact for clients. To this end, they are constantly converting cash funds into electronic or vice versa. As I mentioned in part I of my blog post on the topic, the financial education trainings also included educating the staff of Vision Fund Zambia, a microfinance institution, on how clients can use Zoona to receive and repay their loans, as well as receiving feedback on the challenges clients had with the platform. You may already be able to guess what I am going to say...but the more you think about it, the more you realize how much stress loan payouts can exert on an agent's liquidity, especially if loans are disbursed in groups. I will undoubtedly be addressing ways to combat these challenges during my time here in Zambia, but needless to say it is one of the big hiccups to growing mobile banking/payments too quickly. This is even more true when you are trying to support small and medium businesses as agents, where access to working capital is severely limited, if not non-existent. I am happy to report that the trip also gave me an opportunity to do some some wonderful sight seeing in the Northern province, thanks to our weekend layover there. We were told that a trip to Chishimba falls could not be missed and as you can see from the pictures, they were right :) The falls certainly did not disappoint and we were some of the only people there....well, that was at least until we stumbled upon a church choir who was recording in front of the falls. Left: Mutumuna, my MEDA bag, and me - up close and personal The church choir was gracious enough to let me snap a million photos of them and even take a few recordings that I will try to upload soon...well, all for the small fee of taking a Mizungu picture with every one of the male members you see to the right. Not sure why I have that kind of appeal, especially with the beautiful nature in the background, but I guess I am the exotic thing in the remote area of Zambia. Even so, such a small price to pay for such a gift. The other must see in Kasama is the ancient rock paintings. I was initially drawn to see this site after reading in the Lonely Planet that "Archaeologists rate these paintings as one of the largest and most significant collections of Ancient Art in Southern Africa." Sadly, the paintings (who I suspect are not all that well visited) are starting to fade and the tourism infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, our guide didn't feel see the point of taking us to any more than two of the painting areas since there were pictures of the paintings in the visitor center and it was pretty hot out. :) After having traveled around a bit, I am now very much aware how much I had taken for granted the tourism infrastructure which is commonplace in the U.S., Canada and Europe.Had I not been so rudely interrupted by a massive wasp sting that left me writhing in pain, I was hoping I could press our guide into showing us more of the painting sites. Oh well.... After removing death grip from the plane arm rest, I was finally able to snap a photo of the view from the flight.