(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Under the Mango Tree

I recently read about a blogger in the US who has turned blogging into a career. You might not say that's interesting except she now has about 100,000 readers on a given day while writing about her kids, her husband, her pets, her treatment for depression and her life as a liberal ex-Mormon living in Utah. I think that's interesting. By talking about poop, spit-up and washing machine repairs she has not only kept an audience, she's become wildly popular. I've yet to check it out but my guess is that she's an awfully good writer. And it's stuff to which a lot of people can relate. Unlike most of the things that I write about.

Since my last posting quite a bit has happened. I traveled to Makamba with some representatives from the US government to look at some of our projects. Good visit overall and they're nice to hang out with. I've known a couple of them for a few years so I suppose it makes it easier to know what their expectations are and how they want to spend their time.

The lady running the show
One of the projects we visited was a savings and loan activity. I had visited one before in Makamba but this was one I hadn't been to. The basic drill is the same. The concept is that we provide them the training and some resources to carry out the S&L activity but they use their own seed money to launch it. This way once they know what they are doing and it becomes sustainable and we can walk away. So far the activities have generally been successful. The pot of funds starts off understandably quite small but grows as each month people pay their small dues. Individuals (groups range from about 15 to 25 or so) are able to borrow against the pot to finance small enterprise activities and then must pay the money back after a certain period of time. There is a whole structure in place with small financial penalties for late reimbursement, prioritization of who receives money, etc. The way the money is counted and stored is tightly controlled (ex. two separate people count, three keys for the lock box held by three different people) help to remove some of the temptation for foul play. Though there has been a case where the lock box "went missing", there has been little problem of that sort so far.

As I said, the cool thing is that it is sustainable and does not require outside funding to keep it going. The down side economically is that it really doesn't add anything to the economy. It's not an infusion of new resources which is what they also need. Nonetheless, it does position themselves to be productive as the economy gradually (very gradually) moves forward. It also provides hope to people who are in a very desperate situation. This particular group was almost entirely made up of former refugees to fled to Tanzania during the civil war. They are now trying to find a way to put food on the table in a country largely dependent on agriculture as people who lost their land while living in exile. It's messy and sad. Our efforts are positive and real but they are small relative to the overall need.

Masonry skills training project
On a lighter note, one thing that was vividly apparent when we arrived was that they knew we were coming. We pulled in and got out of our vehicles. As we walked around a small mud house to where the S&L activity was being held, we were all a bit startled by the bold yellow t-shirts (our organization colors) with American flags on the sleeves (from a previous event apparently). In this charming, natural, tropical setting beneath a very old mango tree near the shores of Lake Tanganyika, it was something that probably could have been seen from a satellite.

Always fun to watch white visitors to the village
 I had told staff recently that they need to be conscious of "branding" when there are visitors and it should not be void of any indication of who we are and who is providing the funding but this was pretty much in your face. I smiled as we walked up telling our guests that this is how these people dress all the time. We all enjoyed the very sincere effort on their part – but l left my sunglasses on. I should add that, though it was clearly over the top, one of the photos they took at this little gathering beneath the mango tree in a small corner of Burundi did end up in a US State Department publication.
A sea of yellow

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Change in the Air

On the Continent

Change is in the air on the African continent. Not sure if there's ever been a time when you couldn't say but there is some serious stuff going on right now. Egypt is in turmoil as its president since 1981 is on the verge of getting the boot. That's huge. Even if you're not Egyptian. It's an entire generation that has only known one person as their leader. I think that's worth stopping and thinking about. Then there's Tunisia who is sorting itself out in a big way, actually a precursor to the Egyptian chaos. Its president was delivered his walking papers after being at the helm since 1987. Craziness. This all seems to be causing ripples of revolt, or potential revolt, elsewhere. Then you have the official announcement this week that the people of southern Sudan have voted for independence – a move that will divide what was the largest country in Africa. I don't have much experience in founding countries but my guess is that those folks have a big job ahead. I assume that it's more than just choosing a national anthem and a national cooking pot. And then there's that tricky little issue of a border cutting across the oil fields. Finally the standoff continues in the Côte d'Ivoire. President A was voted out while President B starts his new job in a hotel protected by the UN, the army mostly backing A while most of the country and the rest of the world is backing B. If that whole thing doesn't end up in a war then it's going to be a miracle.

This is all history in the making. As many Westerners ponder the Oscar nominations and the results of the recent Super Bowl, things that pretty much leave our minds once they're over, countries and the lives of their citizens are being turned upside down. Ever since I first stuck my nose outside the borders of the US, I've been blown away by the amazing events happening around the world that appear, at best, as sound bites in most Western news sources. There's very little time devoted to analysis. People get a few seconds of what's going on and before anyone can really think about it or grasp the ramifications of the events, it's on to the next story about a kitten in Iceland that was born with five legs.

And in Burundi

In the scope of history, things here are also under dramatic change – only not quite as drastic as those above. No one is digging the pavers from the streets, smashing them and then throwing the bits of brick at their neighbors a hundred meters away. It is significant though. After many years of civil war, a 2006 ceasefire, the elections last year, we are now in the critical phase as to whether or not the peace is going to hold. Increasing unrest in recent weeks has made many nervous that something nasty may be brewing. The government states that things are generally ok and chalks it up to banditry. It's hard to say what's going on but it's safe to say that we are all keeping a close eye on things.

And so our projects move forward. Things are actually going quite well and I'm happy with the efforts of the team. We are fully integrated into the Congolese refugee camps in the Eastern part of the country. Our child protection, youth and livelihoods projects are exciting and I'll be visiting the latter tomorrow and Friday with some people from the US government. Our governance, gender-based violence and women's empowerment efforts are particularly interesting and provide another reason to believe that we are contributing to positive change in the country. Regardless of whether you believe we are patching a boat that is headed for an iceberg or if this is just a stretch of rough water, you have to keep your perspective. Someone in this line of work has to keep one foot firmly planted in cynicism and the other in idealism. To lean too heavily in one direction or the other is not healthy and you probably won't last very long. And now, back to the task at hand.