December in a Flash

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STATUS AS A TENANT -  As I had mentioned in a previous post, I had been lucky to have found an apartment on the same building as the MEDA office. Yet, my luck ran out. I was asked to moved out, since the landlord's wife wanted to have the apartment to herself for the month of December and January. Thanks to Jessica (my manager), I was able to negotiate with the landlord to receive my deposit, December's rent and compensation for the breach of contract. However, I was left without a place to live...Luckily, out of the sweetness of her heart, Giannina (MEDA accountant) invited me to stay with her family, while I sorted things out. Given that I had less than 2 months left on my contract and the holidays coming up, Giannina offered me to stay with her for the duration of my internship. I FOUND AN ANGEL! I cannot express how thankful I am to her and to her lovely family.THE HOLIDAYS - I had planned to take advantage of the days off work and travel from Lima to Machu Picchu by land with a couple of friends. However, due to last minute changes my friends could not come down to Peru and thus I was left without plans for the holidays. Without a place of my own and without X-mas plans, my boyfriend (Patrice) convinced me to head back home for the holidays. Due to the circumstances, Jessica understood and allowed me to leave a few days earlier to make most of my time in Canada ... 8 days later... I was back to Montreal and it had never felt so good to be home!SMALL REFLECTION AFTER 5 MONTHS OF WORK -18 days in Canada with family and friends has made admit it more difficult to be back in Lima, I must admit. Yet, knowing that I only have 1 more month left working with the Techno-Links project has also made me nostalgic. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with my field manager, Jessica Villanueva. She has constantly trusted me with new tasks, encouraged and supported me along the way. I have learned a great deal by her side, not only about the project itself but also regarding the development field and career options in general. Working with Jessica has made this internship experience all worth it!

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Mastering a Health Facility List in Tanzania

Alan, the IT Development intern, Dennis, the IT Officer and I just represented MEDA at a conference on the development of a national health facility registration system, Master Facility List (MFL). It was organized by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoHSW) and brought together representatives from various ministries, levels of government, NGOs, statistics boards and researchers.  (PEPFAR, NMRI, CTC etc). There sat us among several important officials (in a conference centre with the coldest air-con I’ve ever experienced)!

The final outcome is to have a master list that will have a comprehensive set of attributes, from location to services provided, of every public and private facility in the country. Importantly, they will be identified through an ID system harmonizing the several parallel IDs currently in use. It’s exciting to get a glimpse of the design process and the potential for use by stakeholders to better deliver health services and interventions. The MFL will be key to unify national strategy and equitable provision of services.

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Communications, consultants, and customer service

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Time for an update about what I've been doing as the Communication Development Intern at MEDA Maroc. Things have been constantly changing for the past couple months here at MEDA Maroc, with 5 employees leaving our small office of 10, and new staff being hired on gradually.YouthInvest (in Morocco and Egypt) also changed its primary strategy in the past year and things are finally really starting to move in that respect. Rather than focusing on mostly training youth about financial education, business creation and savings, we are turning to the microfinance institutions (MFIs) and banks in Morocco to provide them with a suite of trainings on how to:

    Improve customer service for youth clients (and attract youth)    Develop financial products that appeal to youth    Manage risk specific to youth

Since about July 2012, staff in North America have been working alongside staff here in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region to develop these training programs. We worked specifically on the Product Development training in September when several MEDA staff from Waterloo and Washington visited Casablanca, and lately I have been working with Casablanca staff to improve the customer service training modules.Customer Service TrainingFor the past month I have been working on a team to streamline, add content and images and otherwise improve the existing customer service training. We have tested out the training with a Moroccan bank through a current partnership, and we have had extremely positive feedback from those evaluations, but we are trying to tighten up the training to maximize the value financial institution staff will get out of it. This is starting to wrap up, but it has been an ongoing project since mid-November.Consultants DatabaseSince October I have been in the process of creating a database of consultants with microfinance experience in MENA, so that MEDA has a go-to list when searching for trainers to provide the trainings mentioned above (the plan is to gradually expand to each MENA region country to offer these trainings, so we need trainers with experience in these countries). It will also be useful for the Technical Assistance MEDA will provide to financial institutions to help them develop youth products and adapt their risk management to best serve youth. The list is currently nearly 200 consultants, but I have been contacting them to find out their interest in working with MEDA and not all have responded. Personalizing the messages to each consultant and recording when emails were sent, responses received, cataloging CVs of interested people has meant that this is a time-consuming but valuable database. There is still lots of work to do on the database, and we haven't even sent out a job offer yet!CommunicationsOn the communications side, we finally finished the November MEDA Maroc Newsletter (for which I put together the English version, alongside my coworker's Arabic version) and sent it out to our partners and the global MEDA staff the first week of December. I have also been assisting with the creation and translation of partnership agreements, pamphlets, client stories, and the 2013 strategic communications plan. We are planning to increase our reach through social media so we've been working as a team on a renewed website too.To supplement our communications materials and presentations, I attended a YouthSavings information session on Thursday to take photos. YouthSavings is a project we are carrying out in the Casablanca region where interns provide a 1 hour presentation on how and why youth should save money by creating a savings account. The interns also provide the forms and help the youth open their own account. Participation among youth is voluntary (it is not during class time) so you have to have animated interns to capture the students' interest right in the beginning. It was a very interesting experience, even though it was in Darija - a language of which I only understand about 20 words!

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Impact Assessment Intern at the UHDP

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So what exactly does the Impact Assessment Intern at the Ukraine Horticulture Development Project do? Please allow me to explain in this next post… ( ha! Like how formal my English has gotten? Tends to happen when you speak mostly to non-native English Speakers or in your non-native language!) Anyhow, basically my job is to create a series of Most Significant Change Stories on the project's participants. For anyone who has ever done any sort of research project, you will know that even though what is most valued is the outcome or the final product, the process is equally important and just as valuable (at least for the researcher anyway!). So I will share both the process and the (still not quite finished) product with you with the hopes that you will get a better understanding not only of what I do here, but what the project does as well. To start the whole process, the clients that were going to be highlighted needed to be chosen. This was done by going through all of the project's newsletters searching for clients who have experienced significant change since starting with the project. The data was coded according to the aspect of the project that impacted the clients' Most Significant Change. A database was created and all relevant information on the clients was imported from other existing databases. Interview guides were created and translated. Prior to interviewing the clients themselves, preliminary interviews were conducted with project specialists to gather more background information on the clients. And finally, the first round of interviews were conducted. None of this would have been possible were it not for Ola, the other intern working for the UHDP- who unlike me, is fluent in Russian!

We have completed our first round of 5 interviews and are working on creating the finished the project. Let me share with you Esma Khalilova's Story:

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Habia Una Vez...

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At this point in my Nica story, I have already learned that this internship is proving to be one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures that I have been blessed to embark on. Not only am I gaining important skills that I can take with me throughout my career, but the things I have already learned about myself make every cross-cultural challenge, language miscommunication and personal struggle worthwhile.Habia una vez... For the first month and a half of my time in Nicaragua I lived near Masaya, in a small pueblo named San Juan de la Conception (La Concha), with an amazingly kind Nicaraguan family. While attending La Mariposa Spanish School, the family opened their home to me and shared with me their food, time, knowledge and most importantly, patience. Knowing absolutely zero Spanish before coming here made the first few weeks (correction: entire trip thus far) a little bit difficult. However, poco a poco, I have learned how to communicate, though their remains many times at which, I smile and pretend to understand what is happening... (more often than I would like to admit, actually..)By the time I left La Concha and my Nicaraguan Family, I felt like I was leaving the nest for the first time. Driving away in a half battered RAM truck, I looked behind me through the dust to see my family waving, worried. I was off to the big, scary city of Managua; and now, after living in Managua for about a month and a half, I see where its reputation originated from...The Big, Scary Managua...If you speak to most Nicaraguan's about Managua -those living in or outside of the city – few kind words are shared. The general perception of Managua encompasses three Spanish words, whose meanings I learned quickly: lleno, sucio and peligroso. AKA busy, dirty and dangerous. Part of this perception is routed in truth, but I also believe that most Nicaraguans are biased. And how could they not be? Nicaragua (outside of Managua) is one of the most naturally beautiful countries I have ever been blessed to visit. Rich, full of beautiful jungles, volcanoes, islands, beaches, and mountains; it is understandable that when knowing Nicaragua can offer these things, Managua may seem like quite the dump. With this realization came a very real truth in my life, something that I knew before, but limited the amount of weight I associated to it: What makes or breaks a place is its people; and Managua is not short of great people.Work LifeI work in a small office, with one of MEDA's partner organizations: MiCrédito. This microfinance bank is blessed to have a hard working, talented and kind staff, complete with patience and open arms. Though my understanding of the Spanish language falls short, I feel that I have been able to make real connections, possibly in despite of or beyond the barriers of language. Though my conversations may move at the speed of a tortoise and involve a lot of "Como?" or "Que?" real depth exists and it has proven to be my inspiration and motivation, while living here.Every city has its draw – its value, which at times, may be hidden. The rich history in Rome, the Culture of Art in Paris, the beauty of Multiculturalism in Toronto and what I can now see as Managua's draw – its soft hearted, good-spirited people, complete with a rough exterior and what can seem at times, an abrasive approach. With the good and the bad that Managua brings, it is where I am calling home for the next 4 months and I am happy to do so!

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The beauty's in the breakdown

I was just listening to the call to prayer, and I thought: That's probably something a lot of people at home have never experienced. The call to prayer occurs - well, a bunch of times a day. There's an official schedule, but basically: Dawn, sometime around midday, sometime around the end of work, and dusk. (I'm sure I'm missing a few.) It comes over loudspeakers designed to cut through the city noise - which means, yes, it will wake you up until your body stops responding - and you hear a man singing, sort of. It's not exactly like Moroccan Idol; his voice wavers and drops and rises. Sometimes it goes for a long time, but often it stops just as you're getting used to it. I think it's something I initially had a hard time relating to. Religion, here, is public; it's not that you see mosques everywhere - they are everywhere, but they are private, where churches and temples and mosques in Canada are visible. The expression of religion, on the other hand, is open. Everyone worships the same God, so maybe it's less fraught with the difficulties we'd have back home. We pray in private, but our places of worship are more public. (The exception, of course, is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is enormous, big enough that it eclipses almost every other structure in the city. It is - unlike most of the buildings in Casablanca - new and gleaming, meant to be seen and admired. The contrast between the mosque and the crumbling apartment buildings and shantytowns and ruined sidewalks is incredibly stark; they don't look like they belong in proximity to one another. I'm not trying to say that they should have spent the money on infrastructure instead - just that it's funny, how there always seems to be money for huge monuments, and none for everyday necessities.) * Me, well; my hair is longer, and my bangs are slowly growing out, which is a super irritating process when you don't have a flat-iron or any styling products. I'm sleeping better, although some days I still feel more tired than I should be, and I've more or less figured out what to cook and what to eat, which is awesome. I have moments where I wonder what I've done to my life, and moments where I am genuinely grateful that I did it. I don't love it here yet. I'm not sure I'm going to. Is it okay to say that? I feel like I'm contravening some unspoken etiquette here, but I'm not sure that I've really found my place in Casablanca, and maybe I won't. I have another 3 months left, and I have done a lot and learned a lot and I wouldn't trade it back for anything - but I don't love the city. I love the work - the work is amazing - but I don't really have a place in the city, and I miss having the sense that I have a place. I've come to terms with the harassment - the cat-calling, the men who try to whisper in my ear, the kissing noises when I walk by, the men who slow and literally bend backwards to stare at my chest for another few seconds - but it's tiring, too. I feel like I can't go anywhere without being stared at; whereas at home I can be invisible, unnoticed. Mostly, I miss my friends and family. I'm not constantly homesick anymore, but I miss being able to go out with my friends, or call my dad, or just be there for important things. My best friend from high school is getting married in June, and I find myself wishing I could be there to go dress shopping with her, or to try on the maid of honour dress she ordered for me. There are things like birthday parties and illnesses and funerals that I regret missing. Funnily enough, I miss Canadian weather. I've been away from Canada for (now) nearly five years, and now I daydream about those cold days when it's just snowed and everything is absolutely silent. I think I'm thinking about that now because it's never silent here; you can hear traffic and people and the call to prayer and animals and everything almost all the time. It's not bad, but for me it's not ideal. I love to travel, but I wonder if I'm just too far away for too long to be really happy here in the long-term. Not to worry - I have another 3 months and 1.5 weeks before I'm done, and I'm looking forward to it - but part of my reason for coming here was to see if I wanted to work in the field fulltime, and I'm not sure now that I would be happy doing so. I think a position where I could travel to the field a lot but come back to a home base in Canada or the US would be ideal for me right now.

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Delicious fall

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Dear friends of the e-world! The time has come for my fairy rants to materialize into photographs! Here is some eye candy (well, more like eye veggies) that I hope will tide you over until I have to unleash my next tidal wave of 'WOW-LIFE IS-GREAT-THANK-YOU-WORLD- LOOK-AT-ME-GO!' Without further ado I would like to present the piece de resistence of my experience here! Bon apetit!This is Natasha, one of the lead farmers of the project. She is walking us through her abundant and organized greenhouse (huge!). Hard to tell from the back, of course, but she looks to be in her mid-late twenties. It is a leap for young people to get involved in farming but I think they will be the ones that push Ukrainian horticulture forward-- there are a lot of innovations to be captured, money to be made, (and people to be fed!) , and Ukraine has some of the best natural resources out there. My hope is that there will be more young people like Natasha realizing that farming is a business, not an image. Round table at the International Day of Rural Women. This was very cool to sit-in on. The speakers consisted of representatives from oblast-level government (sidenote, an oblast is like a province), CIDA representatives that are in charge of all the projects in Ukraine, members of large NGOs here, financial sector representatives, and of course some of our staff at MEDA (our Project manager, Stephen Wright is on the left). In the audience were many of the lead farmers of project, who also didn't shy away from adding their '5 kopeks' to the discussion.Skipping now from purpose to pleasure, this is one of my off-the-beaten path weekend activities that I've enjoyed in the past weeks. There was a re-creation of a battle in 1943 between the Soviets and the Germans -- drew a HUGE crowd (think several thousand in a city of only 150 000!) They didn't skimp on anything-- all the equipment was in place (tanks, planes, war cars, canons, and more) and there were full-out explosions with dirt and debris flying everywhere!Melitopol's Central Park, one of my favourite spots in the city. My Sunday morning stroll has become a ritual!The park is complete with a 'Story Land', a gated 'happy place' for kids and grown-ups alike. (Grown ups get charged more because they assume you have a camera and aren't just there to daydream.) These are the bears from Goldilocks and the 3 bears if I'm not mistaken! Actually most of the characters I didn't know, since they came from Soviet stories. It was interesting to note that a few fairytales made it across the iron curtain: Goldilocks, the Little Mermaid, and the Three Little Pigs.I had a magical time here, soaking up the incredible fall lighting and watching kids and parents play together. This is what I wrote in my all-purpose moleskin when I stopped for a rest on a nearby toadstool:"It is the calm after the storm. Rediscovering your childhood playland after being trapped in grown up chaos. It is so beautiful that a place like this exists. And that it was funded by the public sector. I think that part of the joy of having children is that you get to be a kid again yourself. Even if you fake it at first to be a good playmate and parent, that sense of wonder, discovery and non-judgement comes back in a real way. I see it now." The following weekend in Yalta, the idea of 'play' got taken to the next level. Although I'll confidently say that dress up is a game fit for all ages! Also the whole thing felt very appropriate given the setting -- much of the old nobility and royalty used to have summer homes in these parts. Dreaming of having my own place by the Black Sea one day... although I'll enjoy it in slightly different attire, I think!Last but not least a shot of the Chrysanthemum festival at one of the botanical gardens in Crimea. Went here with Meghan and my coworker, Vika, who walked my steps last year as an intern and stayed on the Project full time. Through a series of unfortunate-turned-fortunate events, we became flatmates (and partners in crime) just a few days ago! I like to think of her as the wiser more lady-like version of me. Lots to learn and share and laugh about. Couldn't ask for more!

 

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RIVAS & RAMA - Al Campo Take 2

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Upon the realization that we were lacking our required quota of small-scale farmers from each client, it was time for Roger (coworker and business consultant here in Nicaragua for MEDA) and I to embark on another adventure into the rural expanses of Nicaragua's countryside. The first two days would be spent in and around the municipality of Rivas, where we would gather information on 5 more farmers by means of a lengthy questionnaire taking approximately 1 hour. The clients were all very friendly and helpful with giving us all the information that we needed, and at the one farm we needed to park Roger's car and head to a different part of his farm by motorbike, as it was the only vehicle that would fit through certain areas and tiny dirt roads.

The best part about this was that the guy I was doubling with carried a shotgun strapped around his body, meaning it was literally pressed in-between us on the motorbike.

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Social Media Saavy

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Each year, MEDA hosts its annual convention, Business as a Calling. I had the opportunity to attend this year's events in Niagara Falls, Ontario from November 1-4, 2012. I was excited to learn more about MEDA, contribute to work behind-the-scenes, and meet some of our supporters.

I arrived with the rest of the Marketing team on October 31 to help with registration preparation and logistics. It was a great to be able to meet face-to-face the staff I had been corresponding and working on projects with.

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What's the Attitude

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We went to Rabat on Saturday; what amazed me, after Casablanca, was how clean it seemed. There were still some parts that were less than beautiful, but the streets, the buildings, and the tourist sites were all really well-kept. Casablanca has grown on me a little, in the way that familiarity grows on you, but it's definitely a city in progress, trying to bridge that gap between community and progress, trying to find its character. The city itself is almost bipolar; shantytowns aside clothing stores, major fast-fashion chains on palm-lined boulevards only minutes from boarded-up storefronts, Africa's biggest "destination mall" in a city with crumbling infrastructure. I'm sure all of this is present in Rabat, but it seemed less stark, at least. We saw workers maintaining palm trees, the site of a new café on the waterfront. The royal mausoleum, where guards in full formal dress sat on horses. An art gallery, in the old casbah. * Work has been really great so far this week. We have a contingent of people here from MEDA Waterloo, and one of our staff from MEDA Egypt, and we are doing a clinic on a training that MEDA is developing for creating youth financial products with MFIs and other financial institutions. The idea is to teach staff how to effectively go through the product development cycle in order to offer targeted youth products, which benefits both the youth in question as well as the institution. I don't know much about training, so this has been really interesting to me. There are materials available from places like CGAP, but MEDA adds value to these kinds of trainings by having in-country networks, experts, and the focus on youth that many microfinance organizations lack. Going through all the presentations, both from the perspective of staff and the perspective of trainers and trainees, has been really helpful for me in learning more about MEDA's actual programs – which I know is going to help me do my job in impact assessment! I've really liked getting to know the team better. Also, it's been really nice to work in an English-speaking environment for a few days. * Left:The Royal MausoleumCenter: French protectorate=era achitectureRight: The main boulevard I feel myself changing as I'm here. Parts of me keep chipping away; I'm not sure if it's a good thing, yet, because I don't know what will replace them, but it's an intellectually interesting process. I think it comes from being continually challenged, by losing the context through which I had always defined myself. In Canada and the States, everything visible about me meant something to others, defined my role: My glasses, my hair, my gender, my name, my clothes all spoke to where I belonged – to whom I belonged, my friends and family, my country, my company. Here, those things are true too, but in a completely different way; here, they mean outsider. It's not a loss of internal identity so much as an absence of an external one, which in turn is challenging my internal identity. It's making me question how much of how I act was performative in North America, done because that's how I thought it should be done, and how much is integral to me as a person. It's not that I think of myself as a fake sort of person (actually, I am hilariously transparent most of the time), but I do think that knowing where your 'place' is in a society affects how you behave. In this case, I don't have any idea of where my place is – still – so I'm often at a loss.
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The Oriental Express 2.0

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I recently got to experience my first trip on the night train to Oujda, where the satellite office of MEDA Maroc is located. It is a 10 hour overnight trip from Casablanca to Oujda by train, which travels via Rabat, Fes and a few smaller stops before reaching the end of the line in Oujda, a mere 15 kms from the Algerian border, and 60 kms from the Mediterranean. Because it is the easternmost part of Morocco, this region is referred to as the Oriental region - hence the Oriental Express 2.0 title. Not the original, but not inaccurate!

Left: A mural near the Moulay Slimane Foundation centre for sustaining traditional arts I set off on my adventure in good company, one of the other interns from our office was heading up to Oujda along with her YEN supervisor who played a role in starting the impact assessment of the "100 hours to success" program MEDA Maroc has successfully been running since 2009. Other staff had already arrived in Oujda earlier in the week, while we were at the YEN clinic my co-intern co-organized, and the pilot of the impact assessment study was starting the following morning. We boarded the train in the dark - E. and I were lucky to be booked together into a compartment with a small couch to sit on between the beds, rather than the very tight bunk bed set-up in the adjacent compartments. Not to say there was a lot of room to stretch. I tried to get a decent night's sleep but I found the noise and the motion and the foreign-ness of the whole experience too distracting. I think I mostly cat-napped.

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Business Plans in Bahir Dar

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Lake Tana and garden
Cooked Lamb with Injera
Rural Bahir Dar
Flowers in barbed wire

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.

Desset restaurant on Lake Tana

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It's all about the ladies!

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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.

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Al Campo!

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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.

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Jet-lag and culture shock

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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

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Packing

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.

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In typical Ferreri fashion...

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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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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From Waterloo to Dar es Salaam

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.

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A Ploughman's Paradise

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In September I was given the opportunity to attend the 2012 International Plowing Match (IPM for short) in Roseville, Ontario. To be honest, I had never heard of the IPM until this experience so I was surprised about the crowd it gathered. Over 100,000 people (mainly farmers) visit this farming and agricultural expo of sorts each year, bringing together people over various competitions, displays, demonstrations, and food.

MEDA had a booth in a tent with other community organizations and we were just there to spread the world about who we are and the work we do, with a particular focus on our agriculture projects like Techno-Links, Farmer to Farmer, EDGET, Ukraine Horticulture Development Projects, GROW, and Cassava Seed Champions, amongst others.

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Managua - Take 1

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Bienvenido a Managua, Nicaragua

I am finally on the ground and life is buzzing with change, challenge, and adventure. This is definitely not my first time landing in a new country with a completely foreign environment in front of me, and quite frankly, this time is actually easier than some in the past, as when I stepped out of the arrivals area to confront the herds of taxi drivers and seemingly best of new friends, I had the advantage of some familiarity with the language, which was not always the case many times before. I was meeting Kathy, my fellow co-worker and intern with MEDA in a hostel/guesthouse that was supposedly located somewhere near the office of MiCredito. The first taxi driver did not take my proposed price and insisted on double, but I soon found the chosen cabby to help me complete the journey into the city for the reasonable fare of 10 USD. When we finally pulled up to the hostel it was clear that I was expected by the owner, as the moment I stepped up to the gate (as most every place is gated in Managua, either communities or single dwellings) she immediately exclaimed: "Adrian?" with a very inquisitive tone. Once inside she pointed to where Kathy was and I snuck up to surprise her for a grand reunion and hugs :) The next day was my first set of waking hours in Managua, as things look quite different when you can see them in plain daylight. The city is completely disorganized (like many developing nations' cities), but the addresses here are fairly difficult as well, as there really aren't any. Almost all directions and addresses point to a general reference of where you are going. e.g. two blocks south of the "virgin roundabout", 1.5 blocks east of here, and then 2 houses more to the south with the house on your right hand side. This is the address of said house you may be trying to find. Needless to say, when things are already extremely confusing, this doesn't facilitate the matters much. The streets themselves are always a good way to get a sense of the noises, the smells, and the scenery, that constructs a well-rounded feel of the city. Some characteristics are notably similar to other places I've been, but certain aspects that I experienced here are not as prevalent around other capital cities in Latin America. The mule-drawn carts were one scene I haven't seen a whole lot of before, and the level of handy craftsmanship in constructing wheelchairs using plastic patio-chairs.

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