Sunday, December 10, 2006

Long Silence

It's been a long time since I posted anything on this blog. I've been busy and sick. The men recently bought a minibus which has started operating. They had their hearts set on getting a large truck so that they could transport people's produce to markets outside of Meheba, but they didn't have nearly enough money to buy such a truck. After some serious brainstorming, they decided to operate a minibus for the next five months. It should produce enough money that by April they will be able to sell it and buy the truck they want.
While I was in Solwezi withdrawing money for them to buy the minibus I found out that I had malaria. I've never had malaria before. Apparently it was a mild case. It wasn't really so bad. I was tired and achy in the morning and sweat more than I have ever sweat in my life at night. I've got a cold right now, which is not as serious but more annoying. When I had malaria I also had some open oozing sores on my chin and neck. When I saw the pharmacist about it, he said he thought it was probably herpes. I will be angry if I have herpes. I've never had herpes before and I have definitely not been engaged in any kind of activity that would expose me to herpes. It seems like every time that I leave Africa I get sick. I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or if there's a reason for the pattern. Maybe it's similar to how one gets sick at the end of a stressful semester in college. You push yourself hard and your body complies and then reacts violently when it is safe to do so.
I guess it's a safe time to get sick. There's not much left for me to do here. Yesterday was the last workshop with the women. Only four of the ten came because it was food distribution day, which everyone had forgotten the day before when I asked if they would be able to come at three in the afternoon. In was anti-climactic. I talked with them a bit about what I expected of them when I left and what they could expect of me. This is very important. When aid and development workers leave, all kinds of promises they made seem to emerge. "So-and-so promised me a camera." "He promised me he would help get me a scholarship to university." "She promised to buy me a computer." It can get crazy. Even when you think you are super clear, there's always someone who tells the people come after you that there was something you promised them. The best you can do is to do your best to be clear with everyone you worked with and friends you had about exactly what you will and will not do. It never seems to be enough. There's always that person you told, "I will try to research scholarship opportunities for you if I have time," which ultimately turns into a promise.
I'll be leaving in two days. Tomorrow the participants are throwing a huge graduation/going-away party in Zone F. Eighty people are invited, but I swear the amount of food they are buying is enough to feed 150 people. I'm planning on some serious food coma. I saw the invitations yesterday, and they are planning on the party going from ten in the morning to five in the afternoon. I have no idea what we are going to do for seven full hours. There will be speeches, handing out of some sweet certificates I made for them (certificates are a must here), food, and music and dancing. A week ago when I mentioned the party one of the women mentioned something about "needing to see how I move on the dance floor." But I can't imagine we will be dancing for four or five hours. Maybe I should bring a couple jugs of water just in case.
The next day I will be leaving. Everyone has been asking when I will return. I don't know. I tell them that I would like to return next year, but I'm not sure if it'll be possible. It's hard for me to imagine that I will never be back. I envision coming back at some point - maybe not until 2008, but at some time in the future. But now they are talking about repatriation of the Congolese starting in 2007 and possibly closing 2008. They seem to just be rumors at this point. It's hard to say how serious to take them. But it's possible. It is, after all, a refugee settlement. Sometimes I forget that.
Meheba has been around for so long. When I look around I see communities. The communities are much more diverse than any other you would find in a rural African setting, but they are communities nonetheless. It's hard to imagine these people all moving away to different parts of different communities - scattering all over Congo, Angola, and Burundi. I try to imagine the places they will be going, how they will get there, how they will live there; but I can't. I only see them in Meheba. But they don't. They aspire to return home.
In the interviews I have conducted with some of the participants, I ask them where they consider their home - Zambia or their country of origin. I expected that some of them would say Zambia - especially the ones who have lived here since they were children. But every single one has said that they consider their country of origin (for most, Congo) their home. They do not feel welcome here. They long to go to a country where they have the same rights as everyone else - where they are not treated like animals (a metaphor they often use to explain how Zambia treats them) and they can move about freely without fear of being imprisoned. But Congo is not safe enough to return to yet.
My translator received news recently that his cousin was shot when he was fleeing from a group of thieves who stopped him along the road. He had been carrying a backpack on his bicycle and they stopped him to take it. They resolved to kill him, so he ran and was shot in the leg. He escaped, but will have to have his leg amputated.
Few people in Congo farm. They prefer business and it is dangerous to work out in the bush when there are so many rebels and bandits. There are no jobs. People have to start businesses. If you want to survive you have to start some kind of business. Most businesses require transporting valuable goods from one place to another - making a person a target for those bandits and rebels out in the bush. Security has not been established outside cities, so you are constantly putting yourself in danger just trying to make ends meet to feed your family. It's a tough choice to make. In one place their movement is restricted by government, in the other by the threat of banditry. What would you choose?
I told the participants to let me know what their addresses are when they move. I want to keep in touch with them and find out what their lives are like wherever they end up, and if what they learned here in Meheba with PACE has helped them to improve their communities there.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Working Overtime

Yesterday evening I felt sorry for the women PACE participants. We were all sitting together in the classroom where they had just finished having a community meeting. Their fatigue was apparent. They sat slouched back over the desks that were behind the benches. Their faces drooped. They spoke in intense short bursts and then stopped abruptly as though they were too tired to continue. I tried to imagine what their days had been like.
Women do the lion's share of the work here. They run double duty, just like women in the United States have traditionally, but without modern conveniences like dishwashers, cars, bikes, stoves, microwaves, etc. Many women do not have husbands at home, which makes their jobs even more difficult with an average of about six mouths to feed. I've never shadowed a woman all day, but from what I know, they usually start their days around 5:00, after having been woken up several times during the night by their infant. They prepare breakfast for their family and clean. If you walk around early enough here, at every house you pass you will see a woman sweeping the dirt yards that surround their houses. At first it seems strange seeing people sweep dirt, but you have to admit that when they finish it is a clean looking dirt yard.
By 6:30 they are out in the fields cultivating, breaking up dirt and creating ridges and furrows out of it, or weeding the grass and weeds that grow everywhere and compete with their crops. Passing fields, you see groups of people swinging gigantic hoes. It's amazing to compare farming here to farming in Iowa, where I grew up. It takes one person about ten days of constant work to prepare a one lima plot (50 meters by 50 meters), which would probably take Iowan farmers all of about five minutes to prepare with their huge tractors.
They cultivate until sometime around noon, when they come back to prepare a meal for their families, if they can afford to eat lunch. Around this time of year, many families choose whether they want to each breakfast or lunch, not both.
The women in my workshop had done all this and maybe more before they arrived at 1:00 in the afternoon to interview a promising and available extension worker. They had decided that as part of their project they wanted to hire a well-trained agricultural extension worker to give free workshops to people in throughout Zone F. After one hour of discussion, they hired the extension worker, Jonas, for twenty five dollars a month to give two workshops a week in the community for the next three months. He will be teaching people everything they need to know as the cultivation season progresses. He'll be starting on Sunday. I am planning on going to a few of his workshops to learn a little bit about cultivation, myself. I'm a bit ashamed at how little I know about farming, having grown up in Iowa.
Immediately after the making all the arrangements with the extension worker, they started a community meeting. Zone F is comprised of nine different villages, spread out over several square miles. Two days before they had invited five people from each village to this meeting to introduce their project to them and have them bring the news back to the rest of the people in their villages. I don't think the women had expected the meeting to last so long. The attendees were receptive but had quite a few questions and concerns. How much would they be charged for each bag of fertilizer and seeds? Would everyone in the community be able to receive the loans, or a limited number of people? If the number was limited, how many and how would they be chosen? When would they be able to get the inputs? I was in the classroom next door working with the men, so I couldn't attend the meeting. Charles, my translator who videotaped part of the meeting, told me that everything went relatively well, but that the intense barrage of questions and concerns had tired the women out.
The meeting wound up around 5:00, at which point they had been working for past twelve hours and not eaten for the past eleven hours. I had considered asking them to stay for another hour to work on the budget until I walked into the room where they were waiting to give me a report on everything that had happened that day and I saw the evidence of their heavy fatigue. I'm not much of a motivational speaker, but I tried my best to give them my best pep talk - reminding them how much they had accomplished in the past five days since they started implementing the project. I asked them to think of any challenges or difficulties as lessons that would enable things to run more smoothly next year.
They have been working so hard the past week, creating time in their full schedules by skipping meals, sleeping less, and eliminating any moments of time they may have had to relax before - all during the most physically demanding period of the year. They are givers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A Lesson Learned

I've been getting worried lately - more worried than usual. The past week and a half we have been sequencing all the little pieces of work that we are going to be doing for our projects. This is the last step in planning and very important because if we don't know what order to do all the work in, we could end up wasting quite a bit of time and money. Sequencing is by far the most difficult thing I have had to teach yet. It involves some pretty abstract logical diagramming. The participants are very intelligent, but not accustomed to thinking abstractly. Their strengths are in thinking about concrete and practical subjects. But that doesn't mean that they can't learn it, just that it will take longer than I thought. I was much too optimistic about how long it would take anyway. I had to remind myself that when I learned sequencing a year ago in graduate school it took us nearly two months to get through the material. And here I am trying to cram it into one week.
This week has proven to be the week of transition weather-wise also. It has been sprinkling from time to time for the past month, but this past week we've seen our first real storms. It's been so long since I've seen lightning. Each bolt seems to be colored. It's hard to say for sure; lighting bolts don't lend themselves to examination. The rain of these real storms doesn't play around like the rain of the previous light storms. It's serious rain, falling as fast and hard as it can in a nearly constant sheet, as though an lake that had been suspended above us spontaneously decided to fall. The noise of a lake hitting the roof of the school couldn't be much louder. If you have ever tried to have a conversation next to a waterfall, you can imagine the difficulty of teaching when a lake is falling on the roof of the building you are in.
Many people get sick during the change of seasons, so in addition to this last step of planning taking longer than I thought it would, many of the participants have been absent due to sickness. Others have been absent because of the rain or because they were sewing their seeds in their fields. This week just happened to be the week of food ration distribution. Some of the participants are either involved in the distribution or receive rations, for which they have to wait around literally all day until their name is read. Such low attendance rates for this crucial and difficult point in the workshops worries me.
What worries me the most is the short amount of time we have to implement the women's project. They want to make loans of fertilizer to farmers in the community, which the farmers would eventually pay back in bags of the crop they cultivated - primarily corn. Most people planted their corn four or five days ago, meaning that if they are going to use fertilizer they will need it by November 20th, just eleven days from now. We will need at least three days to finish sequencing. Only then can we start implementing the project, which will leave us eight days. I am really nervous about rushing this, especially considering that during the focus groups people said one of the problems were that many people didn't know how to use fertilizer because few people had ever used it. I can easily picture us rushing to get the fertilizer, giving it to people, and them misusing it because they were not carefully trained in how to apply it, resulting in low crop yields. They would not benefit from an improved harvest and would have no way to pay back the loan. The business would fail almost as soon as it began.
But if we don't buy the fertilizer in time for people to use this year, there won't be much we can do to help them improve their harvest this year. We will have to wait until next year to make an impact on their harvest. People would be hungry again for the coming year. So it's a question of whether we want to increase the risk of failure in order to make an impact immediately as opposed to waiting a year. It's hard. There is a possibility that it could succeed this year, so I don't want to give up hope completely. But are we willing to sacrifice helping people for several years in the future to try to help them this year? What would the costs be of not starting this year? Would anyone die who may not have if we had started this year? How many children won't be able to go to school again next year?
I am going to tell the women my concerns and ask what they want to do about it. If they still want to start this year, I'm going to recommend that we meet more often in the coming week than we usually do. I really wish I had started a month or two earlier. But there's nothing to do about that now. Just put it on the old "lessons learned" list, and don't make the same mistake again.

Food Distribution

Two days ago I had my first up-close experience with food distribution, which happens around the seventh of every month. I've heard quite a bit about food distribution, but never experienced it myself. In Meheba, people are supposed to get food rations, provided by the World Food Program (WFP) for the first two years that they are here. After that, they are supposed to be able to make it on their own, and they are taken off rations unless they qualify as a vulnerable person or household. Vulnerables consist of orphans, elderly, chronically ill, disabled (which they call "lame" here), and women headed households (i.e. single mothers).
The building that they use to distribute food in Zone F is the same building that I use to store the materials for my workshops. I was arriving around noon, so the sun was beating down and it was fairly hot, as usual. The building has two small closed rooms that lock, which open to a large covered open area. That was where they were distributing the food. There is usually no one at the building but a couple bored kids climbing all over the chest-high walls that enclose the open area of the building. It is almost silent, so you can hear the various sounds of the village.
This day there were about two hundred people standing around, sitting on the walls, standing near the walls, and standing and sitting outside - all waiting for their names to be read. Two shiny UNHCR vehicles sat a few yards from the building. Women sat under nearby trees selling snacks to the people waiting. I stood and observed for a second before pushing my way into the crowd so that I could get into the room where my supplies were stored. As usually happens in large crowds, I attracted some stares. I saw quite a few people I recognized, some who waved or came over to shake my hand. Inside the open, covered area it was loud. The constant din of the crowd was punctuated by shouts and intense arguing. There was so much going on from all directions and so much echoing off the walls that it was really hard to locate the source of the noise. I finally found the people making the noise. One man was waving his arms wildly and shouting into the faces of a couple others who were almost to the point of restraining him - each one with one hand on him, apparently trying to calm him or reason with him. Everyone else seemed to be completely ignoring the scene, which told me that it was nothing out of the ordinary.
I'd heard stories about how crazy, tense, and sometimes out-of-control food distribution can get. It makes sense when you think about it. These people are relying on this food to feed themselves and their families for the next month. People tell me that even a "full ration" is really only enough to get each person a little more than half way through the month, even when they only eat two meals a day. (When UNHCR or WFP is really strapped for cash, they sometimes downgrade to "half rations".) Only the basics are given out - sorghum, corn, and cooking oil, although I only saw sorghum and corn. No vegetables, fruits, or meats. Nothing most Americans would consider part of a balanced diet. There's nothing "balanced" about poor families' diets. If someone feels like they are not getting the food they are supposed to, they don't take it silently. If they do, their family may starve. With so much confusion about who's getting what and who's on what list and how many people they are supposed to get rations for, shouting is inevitable.
UNHCR in conjunction with refugee leaders of the zone oversee the distribution. They read names from the huge list of people who receive rations. This starts at 8:00 in the morning and continues until it is finished sometime in the evening. If it doesn't finish in one day, they continue the next day, which is fairly common. No one has any idea when his name will be read, so everyone shows up at 8:00 and stays until his name is read. I'm not sure what happens if you aren't there when your name is read. I don't think any refugees would let that happen. Refugees universally report having a lot of trouble getting any officials in charge of things in the camp to look into their problems or complaints. Often they are given the run-around for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. Often they give up. The most persistent sometimes spend two to four hours walking to the UNHCR offices in hopes that someone will give them the time of day to hear their problem and help them, only to find that the person they need to speak with is too busy or is not available today.
I stood around watching and trying to understand what I was seeing before I left fifteen minutes later. Some of the people in my workshops did not come, presumably because their names had not yet been read. The next day (yesterday) I came by again around noon. There were no vehicles and no food being handed out, but there were still a couple dozen people waiting near the distribution center. Two of them were women in my workshops. I greeted them and asked why they were there. There had been problems with their ration cards and they were told that the UNHCR people might come sometime the next day to fix the problems. If the no one came to help them that day, they were told to walk to the offices two and a half hours away the next Tuesday. They were not told what time the officials might come, so they were waiting from 9:00 in the morning to around 2:00 in the afternoon, by which time they would go home if no one had come.
One woman in my workshops told me that her husband had died five months ago while being operated on and left her with eight children to take care of. She has no family in the camp to help, so she relies on rations to feed her family, but for the past few months she has only been getting rations for five people instead of nine. She brought the problem up to an official. He took her card and told her he would try to fix it. It could work out for her. But she is very worried. He has the only document that allows her to feed her family. If she doesn't have that card, she can't get any food. And there's no system of accountability or place to direct complaints, so if for some reason she doesn't get her card back, she is in a terrible situation. You can see why she is nervous. Her ability to feed her family is in the hands of someone who is stretched thin, doesn't know her, and will pay no consequences if he does not choose to help her.

Passing the Baton

Today was the first day the women participants ran the group themselves. We've been rushing to finish. They volunteered to meet eight extra hours this week because we only have one week to buy the agricultural inputs that they will be distributing to people in the community who could not otherwise afford them. Yesterday they finished planning the things that they will need to do to distribute the inputs to people in the community. After we finished I told them that I would be handing everything over to them. They would be running the show. They run the meetings. They make the decisions. They set the schedule. They tell me what to do and when to do it. I still have things to teach them, but they are essentially skills that they will need as part of the implementation of their project: budgeting, accounting, proposal writing, evaluation of the project, and a couple others. They will tell me when they want me to give those presentations. They were sort of speechless when I told them this. No one said much of anything. They sat looking at me nodding their heads. I'm not sure what it meant. At first I thought it meant that they didn't really understand. Then I thought it meant that they were trying to imagine what it was going to be like. Maybe they were a little scared at what would become of the project now that I wasn't the one organizing things anymore. I don't know; I'm just guessing. Eventually, we nominated and voted on a council: chairlady, treasurer, secretary, vice-chairlady, vice-treasurer, vice-secretary, and council members.
Nominations were fun. They threw out each other's names, and the woman who had been nominated usually made some small shriek or comment, almost as if we were playing some kind of name game. For a second I was worried that everyone was going to be nominated for everything. By the time we got to the bottom, everyone was nominated for at least one position, and there weren't more than four nominees for each position.
They voted by secret ballot, and I counted. I read them aloud, and Charles drew a tick next to a person's name each time it was read off. The first one, for the chairlady, was a tie. We decided to revote, but when it came time for that, one of the women conceded to the other. Everyone commented on her selflessness and clapped for Mama Kanku, who was elected. They clapped for every person who was elected. At the end they gave another round of applause for the whole process and in recognition of the fact that we were in a state of major transition. About to go from planning the project to implementing the project. From me running it to them running it. I met with the chairlady for ten minutes after the workshop ended to tell her that I was willing to assist with the transition in any way I could. She said there was nothing she needed for tomorrow, but that she would tell me if she needed anything.
I was excited to start the women's workshop today. I sat in the semi circle where the women sit, instead of in the front of the classroom where I usually sit. They trickled in a bit late, as has become habit now that cultivation season is upon us. Eventually we reached critical mass and someone mentioned that we should start. Everyone looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders, indicating that it wasn't up to me anymore. I motioned to Mama Kanku, who jumped up as though she had just remembered that she was chairlady and would be leading the group. She sat in front at the desk where I usually sit, and draped herself over the desk, leaning back onto the desktop.
At first it seemed as though they didn't really know what to do. We started with a song, the way that I've been forcing them to start the workshops for the past two months. When I started it, I was worried they would think it was silly, but it really helps to get the energy up. Sometimes I feel frustrated, anxious, upset, or just don't have much energy before we begin. Those sixty second songs almost always put me in a good mood. Today was an especially loud and energetic song. Eventually, they started the meeting by going into the first piece of work we had planned to do - making a list of the qualifications for people who will get inputs. They included: no drunkards, no thieves, no lazy people, only happy people, only permanent residents, and no one cultivating less than one lima.
It started out fairly quiet. The women mostly spoke one at a time. After a half an hour, you'd have thought there were thirty people in the room. The women were almost shouting over one another. At points it may have seemed to someone who just stepped into the room like they were in the midst of a fierce argument. I now recognize that this is how they interact and discuss issues. They were excited. Everyone was participating. Half the time I asked Charles what they were saying he would simply respond, "They are discussing," which means that he doesn't think it's worth telling me. He usually just informs me of the decisions they make, unless I push him to translate everything.
They kept up this intensity for almost the entire remaining hour and a half. Sitting in the back of the classroom, where I had moved because there wasn't enough room for me in the semi-circle once everyone arrived, I had a bit of time to reflect while they were "discussing." I thought about how seriously they were taking this. How after just one day it was no longer just my project or a project of PACE or a FORGE project. It was their project. They cared about it. They needed it to succeed. The community was counting on them. They were counting on each other. In one day I was almost unnecessary. I was thrilled at how seemingly dispensable I was. Of course they would need me to teach them a few more things later, but at the moment they had all they needed. I was seeing all the things I had learned in school about participatory development and empowerment happen in front of my eyes. It was no longer just a theory in an article I was reading for school. It was happening in front of me. For the first time ever, I felt like the project couldn't possibly fail. It may not go perfectly. It may not realize it's full potential immediately. But it will not fail. That's what I was thinking. It's a rare occasion that I am not guardedly pessimistic - considering all the ways that something could fail. However, at that moment in that noisy classroom, with powerful voices ricocheting off the concrete walls, you couldn't have convinced me that failure was even a remote possibility.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Survey Problems

I'm kicking myself. I just realized today what an inadequate job I did teaching the participants with certain parts of how to conduct surveys. For the past month I have been entering the survey data that they collected and coded and finding some significant, worrisome problems and contradictions with their data. I've been spotting the problems, explaining what the problems are to them individually, and asking them to go back and correct the problems. A couple days ago I finally got all the corrections back. This morning I started to re-enter the data into the spreadsheet in which I've been recording the results. I have spent hours recording the results, and the participants have probably spent dozens of hours coding them. Some of the people who corrected the problems decided to completely rewrite their results. The problem I noticed this morning was that the information on most of the respondents has completely changed since the participants revised the responses. For example, respondent number nine may have at first been a fifty year old man with a household of ten people. Upon revision, respondent number nine was suddenly a thirty year old woman with a household of two people. Major problem.
At this point I realize that there are some gaps in what information I gave them about surveying. We discussed administration of the surveys in quite a bit of detail, and I watched them administer the surveys. They did a great job. That's not the problem. The problem was recording the information and coding it. I did not give them near enough instruction on exactly how to do that. In retrospect I can clearly see why we're having the problems we are having now. I neglected to give them a template for recording the information, I did not give them classroom practice with recording, and I did not give them practice with coding.
The good part is that they administered the surveys well. They asked the right questions to respondents and listened carefully to their answers. They benefited from having the experience of each having talked to twenty-five people about the problems they have in the community. That is valuable and proved to be useful for identifying problems in the community. The bad part is that we may be unable to quantify that data and analyze it. I feel terrible considering how much time they have put into this. If we had more time, I would go back and properly reteach how to code, which would hopefully enable us to salvage the results of the survey. But at this point I've only got five weeks left. We can't afford to go back just to work on the surveys. We need to focus on getting the projects up and running.
I guess I can't expect to have done everything perfectly. Live and learn, right? But I still hate the fact that I wasted so much of their time to have to learn a lesson that I could have prevented by thinking things out better. I will say that I am fairly confident that we will not have this problem with any other things that I am teaching them in the workshops. Since the surveys I have been careful to think out every single thing that they need to know to be able to accomplish the task at hand, and I've modeled the process first, which makes a big difference.

My Saturday Evening

The women suddenly clapped and yipped as if they had just come out of a trance. It was six o'clock in the evening on a Saturday. Dusk. The sun had dipped behind the clouds on the horizon making it very difficult to see the black board in the classroom, despite the fact they were all sitting only five or six feet from it. I had just congratulated them on the progress they were making and announced that we would probably be starting to implement their agriculture project next week. One of the women, Shantale, said something and Charles, my translator decoded: "It is good because we need to start soon. The rains have come and already the people are sewing their seeds in the fields." I was happy to hear that coming from one of them. They sensed the urgency.
For the past week and a half we've been planning out the project details, going from a vague idea of what we want the project to entail, to every single piece of work that needs to be done to accomplish the project, cramming much of what took me a semester to learn in my master's program into just two or three weeks. It's intense. A couple days before Justin, who rides home with me everyday, told me that "these are the ideas that one expects to learn at the university." Another one of the male participants had mentioned that he imagined the women were having difficulty understanding the workshops now that the material had gotten so advanced. He was surprised when I told him that the women were actually picking it up a little bit faster than the men, which is true. I hate hearing those kinds of sexist remarks and jump at the opportunity to provide evidence to disprove them.
The women had come back to life after two hours of work that most people would probably consider mind-numbingly repetitive. Now that we have all the pieces of work needed to complete the project, we are sequencing the activities, which is much harder than it sounds. The complexity arises from the fact that, in such projects, some work can be done at the same time as other work, and some work can not be started until other work is completed. To illustrate this fact, I've been using the example of washing the laundry. I explain that the first three steps - gathering the clothes, buying soap, and fetching water - can all be done at the same time, yet all need to be completed to start the actual washing of the clothes. Without any one of those things, you can't start washing the laundry. This concept is incredibly important in our project. Understanding when we need to start and complete each piece of work will help the project to run as smoothly as possible. Boring for some, but important nonetheless. I happen to love this kind of logical thinking.
I have to admit that I was worried that sequencing would be so difficult for them to understand and so difficult for me to explain that it would discourage them. In anticipation, I planned the lessons rigorously, being careful not to skip a single step and check their comprehension at each stage before continuing on to the next. It seems to be paying off.
I thanked the women and shook their hands as they left the classroom. Charles, Justin, and I started to pack up all the materials. There were a lot - six flip charts, 50 index cards taped to the chalk board with arrows going from one to another, excel spreadsheets scattered all over, and a dozen pieces of chalk (apparently I have a problem with breaking chalk, resulting in many small pieces that are quite annoying to try to use). In just five minutes we had it all packed into my back pack. As we were packing, Charles asked me if he could borrow my bicycle for the weekend. He wanted to go to Solwezi and his bicycle was broken. He was accustomed to riding the five hours there and back and preferred to bicycle to taking a vehicle. It takes two hours to walk to the place where he can get a vehicle and costs four dollars each way, which is quite a bit when you live on about one dollar a day. It would mean I'd have to walk an hour home in the dark, but I didn't really need my bicycle over the weekend, so I told him he could borrow it.
As we stepped outside, the crisp cool breeze struck me. I stepped into the courtyard of the school and looked over my shoulder in the direction that the sun was setting. The clouds that hugged the horizon created a jagged line across the sky where they suddenly stopped. There was a mess of pink and blue emanating from the clouds, and their edges were deep orange - like the crayon. There was a hole in the clouds down near the horizon through which a strip of deep orange light cut across the pink and blue in the clouds. "Look at that. All the colors," I said to Charles and Justin. They seemed amused by my amazement. "That's marvelous," Justin said. He says this a lot, and I love it because it sounds like "Thass maavelous." "It is," I said.
Small villages in Meheba come alive in the evening. During the hottest part of the day you rarely see anyone out. People are either in their fields, inside their huts hiding from the heat, or out running errands. Around dusk, everyone comes home and sits outside their huts. Children chase each other, screeching. The contents of pots bubble over flames that mirror the orange of the sky. The women are busy cooking and the men are busy sitting around and chatting with neighbors as the women cook. Even the goats and pigs come home.
Watching all this made me sad that I was going home. I always try to be home before it gets completely dark. I hate riding home in the dark because there are big rocks jutting out of the road. They exist solely to destroy bicycle rims and gash tires and tubes. I would love to spend time hanging out at Justin or Charles' houses for an hour or two in the evening. I think I might soon, since the moon is almost full.
We decided to go visit Samuel, one of the participants in the workshops who is also the village leader. He's been absent this whole week. His leg is swollen to the point where he can't even walk on it. We arrived at his house and shook all the hands that were there to be shaken. I was immediately given a stool to sit on. I sat and gazed at everything, enjoying the sound of Swahili that I heard from all different directions by a dozen voices. When I listen I can pick out words. When I don't listen, it just sounds beautiful. Every language sounds beautiful in its own way. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate when you can understand the meaning the sounds are carrying.
After five or ten minutes Samuel hobbled out with the help of his wife and a cane. It took a couple minutes for him to get the ten feet from the doorway to the chair that was out for him to sit on. Several neighborhood men had gathered by that point. We all watched with empathetic grimaces on our faces. No one was saying anything. I usually wait to take cues from people for what to say in situations like this, but it was getting to the point I felt like I needed to say something. "How are you?" I asked. "OK," he said in French, shaking his head. Obviously not that OK. He rolled up his pant leg to above his knee. I asked him a couple questions in French. Had he gone to the clinic? Was it getting better or worse? He shook his head and started talking me in Swahili through Charles. His knee had been swollen to the size of a cantaloupe (my estimate, not theirs) on Monday. He had been to the clinic every day since. They had stuck needles in it to drain fluid that was inside. Samuel kept looking at me as he explained what had happened up to now. There were literally ten other men there, watching silently, and he was addressing me. I started to feel as though I was supposed to have some kind of solution. Like Samuel and the others expected me to be able to diagnose it and tell them what they should do. This has happened to me multiple times in Africa and each time I wish that I was a doctor. "I wish I knew what to do, but I am not a doctor," I told Charles. "Can he go to the hospital in Solwezi?" I asked. Samuel explained that the clinician wanted to wait a couple more days to see if it got better. If not, they would give Samuel a transfer letter to go to the hospital. We sat there for a little while longer, and eventually Charles gave me the universal "shall we go?" look.
Charles walked me to the junction before leaving Justin and I to walk home. Justin and I talked about what could have caused that to happen to Samuel's knee. "Some people say that there is a powder that people can lay on the ground, and if you step on the powder it will cause the legs to swell." He was talking about witchcraft. I tire of hearing people using witchcraft to explain the inexplicable. "I don't believe in that," I said. "Then you are a true Christian," he said, as though I had just passed some kind of religious faith test. "But we Africans, we believe in these things," he said. I understand why people here believe in witchcraft. Sometimes bad things happen that have no obvious cause. Human beings want to have some sort of an explanation for everything and most people here don't have access to any health or medical care, so medical explanations are almost non-existent. When bad things that have no other apparent cause happen to people who have done something bad, it is a punishment from God. When bad things that have no apparent cause happen to people who have done nothing wrong, it is witchcraft. I'm sure that's a simplification. But that's the way I see it.
Justin had his bicycle with him but was walking with me. I told him that he could go ahead if he wanted. "No. We have come together and we must go together," he pronounced. After a long pause he asked me how I liked Africa. I had trouble coming up with an answer that I found satisfactory. I just sort of rambled about how nice people were and enjoying learning about other cultures. I was hoping he would have some follow up questions, but he didn't. When I finished, he just said, "Thass maavelous." I smiled in the dark.
A man whose voice sounded like J-Man (his real name is Gyro, I think), one of our guards, passed us on a bicycle, carrying a woman on the luggage rack on the back. Later, just after we arrived at Justin's house and I wished him goodnight, the man on the bicycle returned. He walked about five feet behind me with the bicycle for several minutes. I was annoyed. I asked him if his bicycle was broken and where he was going. He answered "yes" to both questions, which told me that he didn't understand what I was saying. I still couldn't tell if it was J-Man or not, since he had a baseball cap on and I couldn't see his face in the moonlight. For the next half-hour he walked about ten feet behind me. I tried to ignore it. Finally, when he got to a flat part he rode up beside me and offered me a ride. I got close and saw that it was J-Man. My annoyance instantly evaporated. I asked him, "I am heavy. Is the bicycle strong?" "Yes," he said, "Your bicycle is strong." It was definitely J-Man. He always uses "your" when he means "my". It still throws me off sometimes when he says, "I am going to see your wife," or "I want to have your lunch."
I've never been given a ride before. I'm so big that very few people offer and I usually decline because I don't want to ruin their bicycles. But J-Man was insistent, so I hopped on the back, straddling the rack as men do when they ride on luggage racks here. Women ride side-saddle. It's funny what customs I choose to conform to. It took a bit to get going, but we eventually picked up enough speed that we weren't tottering all over the road. I struggled to lift my legs high enough that my feet wouldn't drag on the ground. Over J-Man's shoulder I watched the silhouettes of trees and termite mounds float by. We passed my favorite tree on the road, which bends over the road almost completely horizontally at one point. It rarely notice it in the daylight, but at dusk and in the moonlight, it is striking. It feels welcoming and spooky at the same time.
We arrived home. I stepped off the rack and thanked J-Man for the ride. There were three pots of food waiting for me in the dining room that our cleaning/cooking lady, Mama Eunice, had left. She put them on top of each other in a shallow bucket of water on top of a chair. It took me a little bit to figure it out when she had started doing this a couple days ago. It was to stop ants from getting in the food. The ants have taken over our compound, and you can't leave any food out for more than five minutes before some ant will find it and invite his three thousand friends to come share the jackpot. I sat down on the couch out in the courtyard, switched off my headlamp, and ate the cabbage salad and fried potatoes in the moonlight. There were no sounds but the wind and the cracking of the charcoal in the brazer that one of the guards had left out for me. It was peaceful.
Soon after I had finished eating, Auggie, came in and sat down next me on the couch. Auggie is the guard who speaks the best English, is super friendly, and is a jack of all trades. I made him some tea and we chatted about his previous jobs, what Meheba used to be like when the population was almost 50,000 people. He has lived in Meheba since 1978, when I was born. Twenty-eight years stuck in a refugee camp that he had no right to leave for more than a couple weeks at a time, thanks to restrictions on refugees' rights of freedom of movement in Zambia (and most other countries in Africa).
Eventually he reminded me of the postcards I had promised to show him a couple days ago when he took me on a half-hour tour of his farm. I had taken my video camera so that I could get some footage of people cultivating to show people back home what farms were like here. Auggie used to be an agricultural extension worker, so he knows a lot about farming. The soil on his farm was the blackest I'd seen in Meheba. I asked him a lot of questions and told him how almost all the soil was like that on the farms in Iowa, where I am from. He had sounded interested, so I had told him I would show him the postcards, which I bought last minute just before coming.
I ran to my room and pulled out the fifteen or twenty post cards. Most featured farms with cattle, corn, and pigs. I have shown the postcards to several people here, but none have scrutinized them as much as Auggie did. On one there was a picture of a big farm (barns and a silo) surrounded by vast fields of soybeans and corn. He marveled at it and asked lots of questions. He thought the farm buildings were a village. I told him that just one family lived there. More marveling. We looked at pictures of cattle, other farms, a tornado, a windmill, a tractor, and pigs. There's one postcard with a picture of a huge pig with several piglets suckling. Every person I've shown the picture can't believe how big the pig is and proceeds to count how many piglets are suckling (eleven). I told him he could have one of the postcards. He shuffled through them for almost five minutes, narrowing them down before he finally picked one. It was interesting watching him look through them. I tried to guess which one I thought he would pick. He ended up picking the one with three different pictures on it - a tractor, a huge field of corn, and a close up picture of a piece of corn. The corn here is white. Auggie told me how he'd like to have the seeds of the yellow corn because it was harder and more resistant to pests, meaning it could be stored for longer.
We sat and chatted for a while longer before he wished me good night and walked home. It was almost 9:30. I sat on the couch for a while thinking about the day and staring at the few glowing orange coals still left in the brazer. I don't know if it was a typical day. It felt like a good day, except for Samuel's swollen knee. It felt like the kind of day that I should come away from with a lesson of some kind - or an insight into life. I couldn't come up with one and decided not to try to force it. I just sat in the moonlight and enjoyed the cool breeze, which eventually brought a bit of rain.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Country without Bridges

I was recently talking to one of the PACE participants who had shown up an hour early while I was setting up the classroom and preparing for the workshops. Justin is a twenty-two year old man who has not yet finished high school. He's very smart and obviously capable of graduating from high school. He is also a peer educator. He lives on the road between the school where I run the workshops and the place where I stay, so we always ride back together. Half the days he bursts into song as he dodges the rocks in the road that would destroy his rims if he hit them. The other half he recites things he has read in books, learned in other workshops, or heard on the radio. I'll have to write down what he says one of these times. It's hilarious, and I have no idea why he does it, but it makes me think that he has a photographic memory.
I asked why he hadn't finished school. He simply said that he had been forced to repatriate in 2004. I followed up on that because refugees can not under any circumstances be forced to repatriate, and if this was true it was a huge deal. "My parents forced me to go," he said, which was a different story. I asked why he decided to come back and he told me that it was for an education. He had spent all of his life in Meheba and had been educated under the Zambian system, which was relatively high quality and in English. Angola's official language is Portuguese, which I don't think he speaks. If he does, it's certainly not as good as his English. He said that if he would have tried to finish school in Angola they would have forced him to start at a much lower grade level than twelve, which is where he would be in the Zambian system. So he returned to Meheba last year sometime hoping to finish school, and, if he can find a sponsor, go to a college or university in Zambia.
"Why can't you go to university in Angola once you complete your education here? You'll have your diploma," I asked.
"There are no universities in Angola," he said.
"None?" I asked again. He shook his head. There were no universities or colleges in Angola. I was stunned.
Two days later I was talking to Victor, a former librarian who I had worked with last year. He was on vacation from the University of Zambia, where he is currently studying, and came back to Meheba to visit. We started to talk about higher education, and I mentioned how shocked I was that there were no universities in Angola, which was also where his parents were from. He retorted that there were universities in Angola, but that they were in the capital, Luanda, which no one could reach.
"What do you mean, no one can reach them?" I asked, confused. He went on to explain how the roads are in a terrible state of repair in the country and almost all the bridges have been destroyed - over 700 in total - by the war. He said that there are many large rivers in Angola and because the bridges have been destroyed, there is essentially no way to get from one part of the country to another except by plane, which - as you can imagine in a country that is still recovering from recent civil war - is completely unaffordable for pretty much everyone but the richest Angolans and expatriates.
I got out the pocket atlas that I always carry with me (which is one of the best ideas anyone has ever shared with me, by the way) and looked with him at Angola. Sure enough, there are rivers all over the country. I tried to imagine trying to get anywhere without crossing one. It would be impossible. As I looked at the map, I considered how almost the whole population of Angola was stuck where they were. If you wanted to go to university, you had better be able to afford to fly to the capital, stay there for a few days to fill out the necessary paperwork, and fly back. There's no working postal system, according to Victor.
Imagine the implications of no bridges for business and trade. There's no way to get imported products to the inner part of the country, so they would have to be flown there. Of course, the transportation costs are just added to the price of the product, so I imagine that no one can buy anything that anyone bothers to import that far. The same thing for exports. No one's going to be able to afford to ship products by air to the capital or the ports and sell them for a profit. What a big deal to be missing all your bridges. How could you possibly develop as a country without a way to get people and things from one part of your country to another?
Victor said that the Japanese government or a Japanese NGO (I can't remember which one) had offered to help rebuild the 700 destroyed bridges, but you wonder how fast that can happen. Building a bridge isn't exactly an overnight project.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Good Teaching Day

I redeemed myself yesterday. At the end of last week we picked projects and had a general idea of what the projects would do. The women finished an hour earlier than I had planned on them finishing. I dove straight into the next lesson which was to think of every little thing that we needed to do to get the project done. I call these little pieces of work "activities". I hadn't prepared to teach that lesson on that particular day. I just dove in, explaining that now we needed to decide exactly what we were going to do to complete our project. I received ten blank stares - the kind that could have either meant "That's a good question. I am in deep contemplation about it" or "I have no idea what the heck you are talking about, but I am not about to be the first one to admit it." Unfortunately, it soon became clear that it was the latter. I spent the next fifty-five minutes trying to explain what I seemed to think was a fairly simple concept but to no avail. By the end of the workshop they were just confused and I was just frustrated.
I biked home disappointed in myself. Anytime that my students don't understand something I always assume it is my fault. It's hard to blame someone who doesn't know something for not knowing it. Any teacher who gets angry at students for their ignorance is just a bad teacher. A teacher's job is to figure out what students know, what they don't know, what they need to know, and figure out a way to get teach them the things they need to know that they don't know. I hadn't done my job as a teacher, and I'd gotten frustrated with the situation. I am a perfectionist with pretty much everything I do (except making my bed) so I was upset the whole weekend. The more I thought about what I was trying to teach, the more I saw how complex it was and all the steps that I could have taken to explain planning more clearly. I took a few hours to make a new lesson plan that started from the beginning and walked them step by step through the process.
They say that teaching is the best way to learn. I agree one hundred percent. While writing this lesson plan, I gained a much clearer understanding of how to think of all the little things you have to do to get a project done, which is NOT nearly as easy as I had thought it was. From my experience, when you are writing a good lesson plan, you know it's a good lesson plan. Everything fits together perfectly. Each step is clear, and there are checks along the way to make sure that everyone is understanding what you are talking about.
I went into the workshops yesterday knowing that I had a much better lesson plan. And sure enough - it worked. In less than an hour, they were listing off all the little pieces of work that will need to get done in order to do the project. They were thinking of pieces of work that I hadn't even considered yet. This part of the planning process is crucial. If the project was like the Frankenstein monster, we would currently be creating all the internal organs. It would be pretty terrible if we patched it up and set it off without kidneys or a pancreas or vocal chords. It wouldn't get very far.

Jeffrey and I are on the Same Page

I've been reading The End of Poverty, a book by Jeffrey Sachs that discusses the causes of extreme poverty throughout the world and describes what he believes needs to happen in order to eliminate poverty by the year 2025. It is an excellent book. I don't think that I could be reading it at a better time. There are some times in my life when I feel like several things come together at just the right time. This is one of them. Almost every page resonates with me. I feel like many of his insights and conclusions are ones that I have come to over the past two years of studying at Boston University and working with FORGE in Meheba. He talks a lot about taking a clinical approach to eliminating poverty, by which he means identifying the specific causes of poverty in a particular country, region, or community and creating a solution to address poverty there based on the particular combination of causes. That's what I've been trying to do with PACE. It's exciting to see my thinking reflected in this book. Jeffrey Sachs has been thinking about this a lot longer than me and has a lot of ideas that I haven't thought of and work perfectly with how I think that something like PACE could help to eliminate poverty.
I view PACE as something whose future is constantly evolving in my mind. Even the lesson plans that I've made change based on things that I learn about the participants, the community, and the problems that we are up against. Lately I've been thinking of PACE as an investment in a community. My ultimate vision is to be able to give a community all the knowledge and resources that it needs to make it onto the "ladder of development" as Jeffrey Sachs would call it. I'm still not sure everything that this investment might entail and how it would be different for different communities. That's why the approach needs to be so adaptable. I do believe that we're making a great start in Meheba with PACE. Something I just read today in The End of Poverty reinforced that belief.
In the chapter entitled "Making the Investments Needed to End Poverty" there is a section called "Investing in Technological Capacity" in which Sachs says, "Rapid economic development requires that technical capacity suffuse the entire society, from the bottom up... The trick, I believe, is to train very large numbers of people at the village level in creative and targeted ways, specifically for the main tasks at hand. Every village should aim to have a group of village experts, who have enough formal training to address basic technical needs at the village level." He goes on to give examples of a community-based agricultural extension worker and engineer. The PACE participants' projects incorporate both of those things. The women doing the agriculture project are planning on hiring an agricultural extension worker who will give workshops to people about modern agricultural methods and technologies. The men doing the transportation project will be hiring a mechanic/driver who will be in charge of operating and maintaining the vehicle that they will be buying for the community to use.
In just over a month, the participants of PACE have come to some of the same conclusions about what investments should be made in their community as what Jeffrey Sachs, the international expert economist on poverty, has come to after years and years of researching and thinking about the problem of extreme poverty. That leads me to believe that I'm doing something right here. The fact that these solutions are coming from the community members who are participating in PACE means that making good future decisions about what investments should be made in the community will not have to depend on my presence or the presence of anyone but those PACE participants. I just need to make sure that PACE is available to help make those investments when no one else is willing to make them and to continue to help them to find other places willing to invest in the community.
Ending extreme poverty is possible. It just requires the right investments. I am SO excited to have the opportunity to help make those investments. For a long time I've wanted to be able to help stop suffering I see in communities like Meheba. As each day comes and goes I feel like I'm inching closer to that dream.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

One Man's Trash

There's a big pile of trash just about 20 feet outside our compound. I can see the pile through the window in front of my desk in my room. Today I noticed two primary school girls - maybe 12 years old - walking around outside the compound. They were moving slowly and looking up at the trees. I figured they were looking for fruit on one of the trees, although I'm not sure what kind of fruit they were hoping for since I don't think anything is in season. Then they saw the big trash heap and started to move towards it.
I watched them crouch down to pick things up and hold them out towards each other, probably inquiring whether they thought whatever it was was worth keeping. I wasn't sure how to feel about the whole thing. It's kind of strange watching someone go through your trash. I guess at first I was embarrassed. Your trash is kind of an intimate thing, when you think about it. It says a lot about how you live, what you consume, what you read, and what you don't value. Then I was curious. I wondered what kinds of things they thought were valuable that we - apparently - thought were trash. They picked up milk cartons, big pieces of paper from an old calendar, some plastic sacks, and a couple other things I couldn't identify. I wanted to know what things are valuable to them so that I could try to clean them up and set them out for people to take so that they didn't have to go through my trash.
I wondered if they would have been embarrassed or ashamed if they had known I was watching them. I don't think that there's anything to be ashamed about. I and many others I know go dumpster diving in the U.S. In fact, in college towns such as Boston around September and May, when people are moving into and out of apartments, it can be a great way to make a few extra bucks, furnish your room, or find some surprisingly nice things for your place. Is there anything shameful about picking things you value out of heaps of things that someone else doesn't value?
Maybe it's all the filth that's mixed it with the valuable stuff that made me uncomfortable. I really wished that the girls didn't have to touch all the dirt and rotten food scraps that were out there. Maybe I should separate my trash from now on. Maybe we should burn our trash or put it somewhere where it's not just out to be picked through. Maybe I shouldn't do anything. Maybe there's not really a problem. Maybe if these girls' families made a decent income and could afford the nice things I can afford, the things I think are trash would be the same things they think are trash.

My Idea of a Good Time

We had mini celebrations in our workshops yesterday. Both groups decided what problems they wanted to address. The men unanimously decided on addressing the problem of a lack of transportation in the community. Every woman but one voted to pick the problem of poor harvest. Both groups tried to get me to vote, but I told them I wasn't going to have to live with the project; I'd be going back to the U.S. in a couple months, so I shouldn't vote.
After the votes were counted and the problems had been chosen everyone in the room seemed to be excited. It had been pretty clear for the past three weeks that transportation and poor harvest were the foremost problems in the community. We had been hearing it from everyone. So we had a mini celebration - a round of applause - and a couple of the women let out some "Yey yey yey"s, which I think you might have to hear to know what I'm talking about. I'm guessing that everyone is relieved to have the needs assessment and problem identification part of the curriculum finished. I can't tell you how many times I said and heard the word "mambo" - "problem" in Swahili - over the past few weeks. Because all the written work we do in the workshops is in Swahili, I now recognize the word for every conceivable community problem in Swahili. We've discussed each problem so many times in so many ways that I think in the past few days it has gotten to the point where it's so repetitive it's almost boring. I have to remember that this is a good thing. It means that we're not forgetting anything.
Now comes the exciting work. After the 30 second celebrations, I told the participants that we were going to be diving straight into the next step - ensuring that we have a complete understanding of the problem, its causes, and effects. Today we started to break down the problem and create visual diagrams of them, which help to see identify the different ways in which we can approach the problem with our project. Then we start putting together the details on how the project will really work.
When I put it that way, it doesn't sound so exciting. But when you consider that these details have the potential to increase the annual income of the people in the community by up to six fold, it gets a lot more exciting. Imagine increasing your annual income by six times! I know I'd be excited. My calculations are based on people's projections that with good seeds and fertilizer a given area of land will produce three times the amount of corn that it currently does. Transportation will allow the community access to markets where they may be able to sell their corn for three times the price that are currently forced to in Meheba. Of course, some of that extra income will have to pay for the costs of the inputs and transportation, but they should still come out way ahead.
Of course, this is all just in our imaginations right now. These are dreams, but slogging away on boring details can make exciting dreams come true if you do it right. Hard work isn't enough though.
My graduate advisor - who says wise things every four sentences - once said that hard work is not hard enough. She told us this is something her freshman have difficulty understanding. After receiving Cs or worse, some of them come back and tell her, "but I put more time into this paper than I've ever put into a paper before; I can't get a C." A good paper is a good paper, and a bad paper is a bad paper. It doesn't matter how hard you work on a bad paper. It's still a bad paper.
I try to keep that in mind a lot as I work on PACE and teach my participants. There is no doubt that we are all working hard. But hard work guarantees nothing. Many people have worked for much longer than I have and failed miserably or actually made the problems they were trying to fix worse than when they started. The key is good, thoughtful, meticulous planning. For the next month, we will be planning meticulously - examining our problem from every angle and molding a solution. Few people would describe being meticulous as exciting. Some might say downright boring.
But success is exciting. And so is having the means to give your children three meals a day, send them to school in nice clothes, and get them to a hospital when they are sick.