MEDA Blog

Marrakech: "the daughter of the desert"

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Last weekend, Elena and I decided to make a day trip to Marrakech (French spelling), the third largest city in Morocco but one that gets millions of visitors every year due to its multiple attractions and unique location at the edge of the Atlas mountains and the desert. By train this was a day-long adventure, trains run every 2 hours from the main Casablanca station, and 2nd class tickets (economy) cost only 90 Dirhams one way, about $10 CAD. The trip is about 3 and 1/4 hours long.

Want to play Sardines?At the train station many travellers, tourists and Moroccans alike, were heading to Marrakech. We'd been warned that there is no limit to the number of 2nd class tickets sold, so it is always possible that you will have to spend the entire journey standing, crammed into the small hallway that edges the compartments in each train car.  It turns out that day was one such day.  We crushed onto the train, peered into already full compartments, then, resigned, settled in for the long journey with little air and nothing to sit on. Despite trying to upgrade to 1st class, we were informed all the tickets there were sold out (limited number of tickets if you're willing to pay more for the privilege). It was so busy because the folks that go home for Eid-ad-Adha return anytime over a period of about 2 weeks surrounding the holiday. Additionally, the term vacation for students happened to coincide with our travel date. Sigh.  Needless to say, Elena and I were very hot and tired by the time we reached Marrakech, although we saw some great scenery on the way there which we would have missed in a squished compartment (the only advantage is sitting). We also played a game of "things that could be worse" which lightened the mood and put things in perspective (ask me if you're curious).Majorelle GardensWe decided our first stop in Marrakech would be the Majorelle Gardens, owned and renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent. Once we got a taxi to the gates we sat down and had lunch at a trendy (read: tourist pricey) restaurant. The chicken tagine was good, but the servings and prices were steep compared to Casa! One of the neat things about Marrakech in general was the massive numbers of tourists present, even this late into the fall. Instead of being "one of these things is not like the others" we actually fit in. Quite different even from Rabat and Casa.  The gardens are beautiful. Upon entering, the peace and quiet of the walled gardens surrounds and washes over you. The winding paths past different types of palm trees, cacti, and calm ponds transport you to a different place. The birds welcome you with their melodies.  There is also a Berber museum within the gardens, a cafe and an exhibit of all of the LOVE card designs YSL sent to his friends and clients each new year. Very pretty!Jemaa-el-FnaaDeciding we could easily walk to the Medina next was not a good idea. Miscalculated that one by a couple kilometers... But we eventually found the Koutoubia Mosque and the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square. Originally the place where public executions were held, it has been a marketplace for hundreds of years. In particular it has an overwhelming number of entertainers (musicians, snake charmers, monkeys in chains, storytellers, folks wearing traditional garb for photos, etc). We quickly bypassed the snake-men, and wandered through some of the narrowstreets of the souks. There are multiple souks specific to each type of good you are looking for, like olives, spices, carpets, jewelry, lanterns, and many more, but right around the square you can find a great variety of stalls. The merchants are impressive polyglots too - perhaps not perfectly fluent, but they can shout their wares in French, English, Arabic, Spanish, even some Italian and German here and there! After a-wandering, we followed sound advice and found a hotel that had a rooftop café overlooking the square where we took a break, watched the sun set and the stalls in the square start to light up.      A bit of purposeful shopping followed, then we had the headache of trying to find a taxi willing to use their meter (required by law, ahem!) to take us to the train station during rush hour. No luck. Ended up getting a grand taxi willing to take us for 30 Dh. It seems food prices aren't the only inflated things in Marrakech. First Class, best choiceWith only a few minutes to spare we decided on first class tickets for the return journey and some surprisingly speedy McDonald's take-out from the train station. It was a pleasant journey back to Casa sharing the compartment with a family and another young woman.
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I love my job

I find the intricate details of the world fascinating.I like reading stories of how humanity has investigated these details and learned to harness the power of nature.Theories of how the ancients might have birthed mathematics.Sometimes I enjoy just pondering the miracle of mathematics.It’s nothing short of a miracle that mathematics makes contact with reality – that it can be used to accurately define rules which the universe obeys.I like the stories of humankind creatively devising experiments to validate their conjectures.And how the journey has led to the creation of amazing technological tools, which have transformed our interactions with the world and even our interactions with each other. But I know the stereotypes about the Information Technology field.Countless times I’ve seen first interest and then consciousness itself drain from people’s faces when they’ve unwittingly asked me what I do. That’s probably why I shy away from talking about it…even though I absolutely love my job. However, a number of friends have asked me for some sort of description of what I’m doing in Africa.Perhaps the fact that I’m applying my training to international development will make the story a little more interesting.So I’ll keep the technological part to a minimum, and I’ll go in stages…leaving you with plenty of exit points as I drill into the details.

Okay. The big picture. If there’s only two concepts you remember from this entry, I’d hope that they are “malaria prevention” and “long lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLIN)”.Those are the end and the means of the Tanzania National Voucher Scheme (TNVS), which I am involved in.TNVS, as the name suggests, implements a voucher system.When a pregnant woman or infant (the ones at highest risk of contracting malaria) visit a health clinic, the health worker issues them a voucher.This voucher can be taken to a retailer to obtain a LLIN at a subsidized cost (funding by USAID and DFID).The price paid by the beneficiary is very affordable, and I think it’s more of a token amount just so that they have some skin in the game. Besides malaria prevention, the program also aims to jumpstart the market for mosquito nets.This includes creating both an awareness of and the demand for mosquito nets.In addition to driving down net prices through economies of scale, there is a second strategy.Initially, the program partnered with a single net manufacturer.However, we are currently working on introducing a second supplier into the program. The hope is that providing the beneficiary with a choice in net type will create a little competition between the manufacturers.This will motivate manufacturers to make better nets at lower costs.Don’t worry, LLINs must be inspected and certified which ensures no sacrifice in quality.The desire to drive down net prices stems from a desire to make nets more affordable to low income families after the voucher system is removed.The hope is that the LLIN market will remain even after TNVS shuts down.If it all works according to plan…net manufacturers will be creating more jobs and income, retailers will also have an increased income from selling nets, and the general public will have an opportunity to better protect themselves against malaria. Okay, now for some of the challenges.I’ll give just two examples of the types of projects I have been working on.The first one is automated reporting.The second is market actor profiling.Grab a coffee!!TNVS is a nation-wide program with around 5,000 clinics and 6,000 retailers redeemingjust over 370,000 vouchers every month.MEDA TZ handles the logistics of the entire program.MEDA TZ only has about 25 employees in the office (there is also another 10 field officers with drivers scattered throughout Tanzania conducting training).It’s a great opportunity for technology to help ease the workload! In order for a program like TNVS to thrive, it’s important to know which locations are succeeding and which ones are failing.This feedback is extremely useful to learn from success and nurse weaknesses.It’s kind of like a strategy game.MEDA TZ keeps a pulse on the health of the program through weekly reports.Weekly reports guide field officers to the locations which require attention. Performance indicators in the weekly report include figures like the number of issued vouchers, the number of redeemed vouchers, and the percentage of issued vouchers which were redeemed.Manually gathering and summarizing this information for all the clinics and retailers can easily take a half day of work. Every week.Similarly, the payment report, which tallies the number of nets distributed and the money owed to the net supplier, will take a half day to compile.It’s done every other week.To put it in perspective, one employee (I think it was supposed to be me) can spend well over a week of every month compiling reports.My first project was to automate the process so that the reports could be generated by a button click and save a lot of time and manual work. But IT skills can do much more than just improve the efficiency of report generation. The paper voucher system suffers from a problem. The problem is its limited visibility of what’s actually taking place in the field.For instance, we are unaware when a clinic runs out of voucher stock and stops issuing vouchers to patients.We are unaware when a retailer stops redeeming vouchers because they have run out of nets.Furthermore, we can’t detect if a clinic worker and retailer are colluding together to steal nets – they could get together and make up fictitious beneficiaries to issue vouchers to and redeem vouchers from…and then keep the nets for themselves.The voucher system needs a way to extend its sense organs into market actor transactions. This was the motivation behind the eVoucher system.It is an sms based tracking system which documents market transactions.Clinic workers must use a cellphone (everyone’s got one!) to text MEDA’s shortcode when issuing a voucher.Retailers do the same to inform MEDA of a voucher redemption.A retailer will only be restocked with nets for voucher redemptions which were reported.A voucher redemption will only be successfully reported if its issuance was also reported.Basically, the system works…and we have information about the time and location of every issuance and redemption.Information which allows us to profile clinic/retailer behaviour.This is known as data mining, and it’s another project that I’ve been involved in.I create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer is out of net stock.I also create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer or clinic is engaging in fraud. Okay okay, I’m beginning to realize how incredibly long this story is.I’m curious how many people made it to the end.Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a taste of my work and satisfied some of the curiosities floating around.Let it be known that it’s not ONLY exploratory adventures for me.I work hard too!
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Memorable Meskel

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Meskel Demera Bonfire
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Queen Helena meskel
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Meskel demera bonfire

Here are my brightest memories of Meskel...

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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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Diwali

Yesterday, Marie (my colleague, housemate, and honorary little sister) and I traveled to the city centre, home of Dar’s skyscrapers.Diwali, the festival of lights, has enticed us downtown with the promise of fireworks.We were on an adventure to find “the courtyard beside the Indian temple”.And although we have become quite talented at using creative landmarks to find our way through Dar’s unlabeled streets, there are still other challenges which can confront us on our journey.

For instance, this evening one of the streets we need to travel is unlit…pitch black unlit.But seeing that the darkness only lasts 100 feet, we decide to brave the abyss.A mistake.About 50 feet into the blackness, my left foot disappears into the pavement.Of course it has to be the unlit street which is missing a storm sewer cover. My entire left leg was swallowed by the sewer.My right leg and both hands hit pavement."Pole!" Marie hands me a sock and wetnap to help clean the dirty water off…then we continue on our way.

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I am in DAR

I’m in Dar es Salaam. I’m typing from my posh office in possibly the nicest neighbourhood in the country. It’s populated with embassies and residences for said ambassadors and their families. It`s my second day at work and I’m supposed to be reading background documents to prepare for my impact assessment job. I’m too distracted. This is the third country/ continent I’ve stepped on the past 3 days, Canada, England, now I’m in Tanzania!

So much is going on here. It’s busy, it’s noisy, it’s exciting, it’s beautiful. There are hustlers weaving in and out of stalled traffic, hawking hangers, cigarettes, and inflatable beach floaties all at once. Conductors hanging out of dala dalas (public busses) yelling out their destinations as people jump on the vehicle mid-motion. Ladies by the roadsides crouch by their deep fryers, flipping chapatis and vitombua (rice flour balls). This article written by a longtime resident of East Africa gives a vivid sense of a drive through Dar’s asphalt arteries.

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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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Chickens, Children, and The Call to Prayer


Chickens, children, and the call to prayer. These are the reasons I can't sleep. Nope, it's not because of deep philosophical matters. Just the practical.

The call to prayer is trumpeted from Islamic mosques five times a day. There is a mosque just down the street from my apartment which has provided me with a piercing education that one of these calls happens at dawn. Every morning. Recently, however, I have stopped waking up to the call and continue sleeping.

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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

Lake Tana
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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Chaza Mwamba & Bondwa

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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.

Chaza Mwamba

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In the Field: Meeting Clients, Practising my German





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 Europe

Germans 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).
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Second Month: It's all about Peruvian Gastronomy




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.

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Village Savings in Action

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Village savings and lending association promoter training
registration booklet for attendance
Village Savings and Lending Association in Mizan Group Picture

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).

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First week impressions

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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.

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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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Patience is a virtue that I am working on…

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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.[1] 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?
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