Friday, June 25, 2010

Seeing Victoria Falls from another Perspective

A trip to Zimbabwe would not be complete with a stop in Vic Falls. I settled into Shoestrings Backpackers with a couple guys I met on the bus. I can’t seem to totally recall Niagra, but the sheer spray from these falls soaked me to the bone. Then there was the sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, where we saw elephants, hippos, and crocodiles, and obviously jumping on one of the highest bungees in the world (which was petrifying and amazing at the same time). Multiple people told me about detached retinas resulting from jumping, but I say it was a retina well worth it.

During my wait to hitchhike to the next destination, a skinny young guy named Stanely struck up a conversation with me. We talked for a bit and he said he wanted to show me his art, but I had to wait for a ride. He went home into the bush, and never came back withthe promised art. So as I had been waiting for over an hour with the sun beginning to set, I decided to try to find him. Walking into the abyss of the bush made me feel a bit like Kevin Costner in a corn field. I followed random paths for about 75 meters of thick bush. Then suddenly it cleared, with an entire colorless community of gray cinder block homes in front of me.

Why I did I walk in after this guy, who was probably no different than the myriad of hawkers on the street? I did it partly because I wanted to see his art, but mostly because I wanted to see what life was like over here. I’ve come to realize that I care pretty little about the tallest building, wildlife parks, old temples, etc. I certainly would never give up my Great Wall or Taj Mahal experience, but you don’t understand a country and its people on guided tours or viewing monuments. Give me a cup of coffee with local or a couple nights stay in the slums any day of the week. Anyway, after clumsily asking around for a guy named Stanely, two round, jolly women helped me out. Word got out that a white guy was looking for Stanely, and it wasn’t long before he found me.

Within in half an hour I had two offersof places stay, and decided on Stanely. I was ushered into his three-room home that was only slightly bigger than my room back home. As I sifted through his keychain art (he carved some out of cow bone from beef his family had eaten), we chatted about himself. He was a Rasta (he must have lit up close to 10 times during my stay), and sells his art at a local market, though he is trying to learn Spanish so he can become a tour guide. The house was his uncle’s, a war veteran who received it free, and most of the houses in the community were free as part of a vote-getting strategy. Stanely would be attending a meeting the next day to sign his name for his house. Married to his wife Philani, he has a 19-month-old baby named Patience (last pic), who was busy wearing more food than she was eating. I don’t blame her – it was some of the nastiest okra I’ve ever had.

After dinner we walked around town looking for the two jolly women I owed a drink for helping me. The community was eerily quiet for a Saturday night. Before this fellowship, I thought the rural areas and slums were full of activity, and people were toiling to make every penny. The pace of life is very slow, not because they are all lazy, but because they don’t have many options. Stanely summed it up the next day when I asked what his plans were for the day. “I have no program. Moving is money.”

Shortly after we went to bed, I heard clapping, whistling, and yelling. From the other room I heard Stanely whisper something like, “There’s an elephant.” The full-grown male elephant was less than 50 feet away from the house, eating a neighbor’s bushes. Some of the neighbors were trying to scare it away and/or agitate it. Stanely said they usually come at night, and this is when they’re most dangerous. I grabbed my camera and ran after the elephant as it walked down the street chowing on bushes. Elephants are an enemy of the locals – they destroy houses, eat crops, and in some cases kill people. I eventually got within 30 feet of the elephant, but once it turned and faced me, I ran pretty quickly in the other direction with all the other locals.

My perception of the poor is a summation of all the people I’ve read about and, most importantly, met. Stanely adds another piece. I wonder about some of his reasoning: That he has no money saved for the Spanish classes, which he needs to get ahead; this is because he’s not earning enough currently to cover his family; but he has enough to pay for marijuana. If you were backed up into that position, would you give up those types up habits and do everything to get ahead? Or does everyone have his/her breaking point or weaknesses? More likely, I think, it’s impossible for me to conceptualize this because I haven’t grown up in the same context as him, where success probably isn’t expected and life is just about getting from one day to the next.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ostriches, Farming, and the Education Magic Bullet in the Poverty Fight

After Mutare, I crammed into a bus and headed to Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. I spent the weekend (before last) in the city center, which was surreal. The whole town was essentially empty, the streets were par for the course in Zimbabwe nowadays – badly potholed (Q: How do you tell a drunk Zimbabwean?, A: He drives straight), and there was no power for the majority of the day, which got eerie after nightfall. It felt like traveling back in time or into a zombie movie, or both.

On Monday I was finally able to get in touch with Peter Cunningham, whose name is one of the most recognizable in Zimbabwe for his family’s vast farming enterprises. My stay with the Cunninghams turned out to be interesting for more reasons than just my investigation into the land seizures of Zimbabwean farmers. Peter and his family are very strong in their Christian faith, so this was a great opportunity to bounce some thoughts off him and do some deep thinking about religion.

More importantly for this post, however, what I found interesting is how the Cunninghams are pushing education that has applicability rather than a typical elementary NGO school. Peter and his family are involved in large amounts of agriculture, poultry, and ostrich farming, which was fascinating to say the least. I also got to visit their tannery (80% of their hides go to the US, used mainly in boots). In addition to these business endeavors, they have also started two social organizations, one of which I visited called Ebenezer Agricultural Training Centre. At Ebenzer, which has been running for three years, students undergo a 2-year program in which they learn sustainable, efficient farming (for example, how to use different fertilizers, like ant hill). Each student gets three small plots where they plant things like cabbage, potatoes, and onions, to be sold on the local market as part of the business component of their curriculum. This is paired with class “room” learning (as the picture shows, Ebenezer purposely keeps the conditions very basic).

I think in at least one other post I’ve talked about how I feel education is one ofthe keys to combating poverty. As someone who has been schooled for 19 of my 23 years of existence, I’ll admit that this is probably a biased view. But it wasn’t until recently when I was reading “The Elusive Quest for Growth” by economist William Easterly that I had to revaluate this belief. The book is a pretty dry read and never fails to put me – someone who majored in econ and is interested in poverty – to sleep, but it has some good information. Calling out the World Bank and other organizations who trumpet for universal education, he explains the facts are that there is no relationship between growth in years of schooling and personal income growth, and that actually “world average growth decreased from the 1960s to the 1990s [the time of the education explosion] despite the increase in education levels.”

What Easterly is getting at, and what I think Ebenzer understands, is that there needs to be an incentive to invest in the future. What’s the point of investing in your education if the knowledge gained has no chance of being utilized? As Easterly puts it, “Creating people with high skill in countries where the only profitable activity is lobbying the government for favors is not a formula for success. Creating skills where there exists no technology to use them is not going to foster economic growth.”

Here in Zimbabwe, corruption is rifeand many if not most of the opportunities to use high levels of education have dried up, as most of the expatriates will attest. You will only invest in your education/future if you have a chance of using that education. The country still runs on agriculture (and maybe increasingly so, as industry has sadly left or shut down), and so Ebenzer’s education is very applicable for the young rural farmers who attend. It seems to me that education is a very good thing, but only under the right conditions. More things have to happen than just the education magic bullet.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Zimbabwe Created the Biggest Dollar Store Ever

I knew Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was high. I’d seen the bar on graphs breaking off the page in The Economist reports. I knew that the hyperinflation had caused prices to change very often. And I also knew that this had caused them to move to the dollar. But I never really thought deeply about it all.

It didn’t really hit me until I was in the Spar grocery store. I wanted to buy a $1.25 bottle of shampoo. I handed the cashier two dollars. She asked, “Do you have 75 cents?” After I said no and she explained she had no change, she said, “What am I supposed to do?” To me this was the most bizarre question.

“Haven’t you run into this problem before? What is everyone else doing?” I asked. “They are using notes.” Then I saw these paper slips, essentially IOUs, with Spar’s logo – I guess that works because people buy groceries often. I went around asking other cashiers whether they had change. Nope. Apparently bills have made it into the country, but coins have not. As a result, the bills get used a lot – just touching them makes you want to wash your hands. A local farmer named Danielle said she and her six friends did an experiment – they put a little black cross on a dollar, and within six weeks they had all at one point had it in their possession. I’m sure the locals are happy to get their hands on my crisp newbies.

Then I started noticing things. The majority of items were one dollar, never less. You could buy 10 pens, a whole sack of apples, two yogurts, etc. On my trip to Bulawayo, I turned to barter. I traded a half a loaf of bread for three bananas, which I used for my peanut butter and banana sandwich. The situation is bit better here in the second largest city Bulawayo, which seems to have more South African rand in circulation. You can give someone dollars and get rand coins as change, like I did two nights ago for my meal over the UK/USA World Cup game. You might find prices in rand right next to dollar prices (pic 3). Apparently, at Victoria Falls, because of the tourists they are using rand, dollars, Zambian kwacha, pounds, and euros. Perhaps the funniest thing is that the Zimbabwean dollar is still the national currency.

How did they get to this point? I’ll save you the history lesson, but basically the Zanu-PF government headed by Robert Mugabe has decreed economic (e.g. printing money) and political policies (e.g. land seizures) in order to maintain power. It started in 2000 and reached its worst in 2007-2008. Some of the guys at the bar recounted how they would come in with plastic bags of money to buy a few drinks (though they couldn’t get beer, only spirits). My friend Dave said he would go into the TM grocery store, and the entire place would be empty save a couple shelves. Bread was a very rare find. When you could find it, you were talking billions or trillions of dollars (see pic 4…that one cent bill is apparently the lowest denomination bill ever made in the world). People eventually turned to the black market – everything everyone was doing was illegal. I asked Natalie, who had lived in Mutare the majority of her life, how she survived when prices were so high and earnings so low, as she had explained to me. “You don’t want to know,” she said laughing. There was plenty of government tampering along the way, of course. Dave explained that he found rice packaged in 10kg sacks that read, “A gift to the people of Zimbabwe from your friends in India.” The intended aid food had been intercepted by the government at the border and was being sold for $50. Those who had a car would go across the border of Mozambique or South Africa with four people or so (200kg quota of food per person), and buy food for several months.

The stores still look empty to me, but everyone says it’s much better now. Moffat, a store owner I talked to, said his entire stock was wiped out when Mugabe ordered a price cut of 50% in mid-July 2007. People ransacked his store. “In 10 minutes, everything was gone.” He’s still recovering. I noticed that the shelves in the back of his store were about 15 feet from the wall because of lack of stock. People still live in fear – they say that they can’t plan for the future when you don’t know if Mugabe will wake up and create or remove a regulation. And, as a result, the country’s population has fallen by 25% as the educated and capable flee. It’s a sad predicament the country once known as “the breadbasket of Africa” is in.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Avoiding the Rut and a Mozambique Exodus

“I hate routine. That’s how you fall into a rut.”

--Alwyn Viljoen, a South African I stayed who was replying to his wife’s comment that he wasn’t sitting at the usual dinner table seat.

It’s easy to get complacent. Working in an office with AC and fast internet, personal driver, and a comfortable place to sleep in a city and country you feel like you know like the back of your hand is great. You’re efficient in your efforts, you know what you’re talking about (or at least most of the time…), and you don’t have to interact with strangers if you don’t want to. But, after 6 months of working with TechnoServe and CLUSA, I was starting to get comfortable. It was almost too routine.

So, with my contract up, I headed south in a plane to Beira, the middle of the country. All I knew is that I was heading west toward the border of Zimbabwe. At the Beira airport, I kept my ears open and maneuvered my way into a free ride to a town 60km from the border. After two nights stay at the CLUSA office in a bed I had to somewhat construct myself in the office kitchen, I hitched the rest of the way to the border town of Manica, trading phone credit for one ride (when would I need it again?) in a car that was cruising at over 100 mph down the ragged Mozambican roads. Spending my last 5 meticais on a piece of bread that was my lunch, I remembered I had some South African rand left over from my previous bout in that country, which I traded for a minibus ride from Manica to the country line. Wedged into the back seat with all 40 lbs of my luggage in my lap, I could only see to the left and right of me, where two large women were painted on me and a baby took turns crying and wet-coughing on my arm.

I finally crossed the border with easily the most hassle from the border police I’ve ever received (usually, they see a white foreigner and usher you in to spend your greenbacks), and by my wonderful planning it was now almost dark. Alwyn, the South African who supplied the quote at the beginning of this post, also told me that his #1 rule of travel is to always figure out where you are staying before nightfall. Fail there. Not even that, I didn’t know very much about the country or city (Mutare) to which I was going, in general. This seems to be my style. All I had was a reference from a friend that there was a girl at a restaurant which I thought was called The Cooklio (actually The Green Cookel), and a bar called The Legion, which is where a lot of white farmers went.

I jumped in a truck heading toward Mutare, and since “The Cooklio” didn’t ring any bells with the driver, I had him take me to The Legion. It’s now 6:30pm, pitch black outside, and I stumble through the door, barely able to fit through with all the luggage dangling from my body, and find about 10-15 farmers with beer and whisky in front of them, in pure silence.

The Zimbabwean farmer circle is quite small, and it turns out the folks at the bar know the guy who was referring me and they had the number of his daughter, who I was supposed to fetch at The Green Cookel. Four beers later I was feeling much less stressed, I’d made 7 or so new friends, and the bar manager had offered me a bed. We headed back to his place where we cooked steak and potatoes and I listened to his stories. I am definitely not in the rut.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Updates from the Trail

When I received the fellowship just over a year ago, I did all kinds of planning beforehand. I did more planning than schoolwork and running combined that last semester. Planning helps me keep my sanity, most of the time. But for all of the planning I did, my fellowship has been very much on the whim, and I think I'm becoming more comfortable with this. I think when you try to plan an itinerary for an entire year, you don't account for people, or at least I didn't. My itinerary was full of places and organizations. But then people happened. My itinerary changed (if you want proof, go look at the original here). A lot of these people I'm fortunate to still be in touch with. Here's some updates just from a few:

Anis the Rickshaw puller: Through my translator-turned-good-friend Omi, I got an update on Anis (remember, we tried to "loan" him money for rickshaws) in late December. He finally heard back from Anis, who said that he wasn't able to pay because his dad got into a quarrel in his village over a family feud (too long to tell that story) so he had to leave for the village, and because his wife went into early labor, causing hardships on both his wife and child. Omi said Anis was implying for me to give him more money. To me, this is sad. Like many slum dweller I meet, no matter how much I try to be their friend, their equal, or even their partner, they still see me as a rich white guy. As a foreigner trying to be culturally sensitive, I try hard not to be patronizing. But when the poor corner you into that position, that position where you are the one with not only all the money and power, but also all the ideas, how can a person like me actually expect to have an impact on someone with that mentality?

Basic Needs School opening: A couple of posts titled "This is Rural Bangladesh" found me out in the backwoods of northern Bangladesh. I was visiting the community supported by Basic Needs Program, an NGO I mentioned before that was started by my good friends Richie Hubbard and Sohan Rahman. I was happy to hear recently that about two months ago their school opened (I stole the picture, but I don't think they'll mind). When I visited it was built, but had just bare rooms. Great to see their progress.

Mei Xiang Yak Cheese: I have been in touch occasionally with the workers at Mei Xiang Yak Cheese, and things seem to be going relatively well. My work there certainly wasn't a "game changer." But, I was happy to receive an email from a Ventures in Development/Mei Xiang representative about another cheese sale in mid-April. Mei Xiang had been supplying the JW Marriott, with which I had been working with, for the past month and half. Thank you, Ritz-Carlton connection.

Mahindra the fisherman: In late October I was in the slums doing research when I met Mahindra. I don't believe I wrote about Mahindra, and I don't have enough space to explain everything here. However, I will say that after the first occasion I went back and checked on him. Both times he was very down. His back was severely injured when he fell from a coconut tree, which gave him a hump back and decreases the time is able to work on his fishing. In his late 40s, he is destitute, still single, and living with his parents. With his injury he has no chance of finding a wife. At one point during our conversations, he started crying. Maybe worst of all, his own cousin is trying to take his home and turn it, and the surrounding homes, into a parking lot. In late January I talked with Manish, who had been my translator. He has since went back a number of times, and the visits seem to lift Mahindra's spirits. Unfortunately, meeting Mahindra in the tail-end of my stay, I wasn't able to do anything substantial, but if Manish can bring a bit of light into his life, that's a start.

South Africa
Siphiwe in Soweto: I heard back from Siphiwe who, in the email, referred to me as Sipho, the nickname given to me by the other people I met in Soweto because I was spending so much time with Siphiwe. Communication with him is not excellent, as his income level doesn't allow him to access the internet much, but I did hear that business is unfortunately not good. I hope it picks up for the Cup.

From Chicken to Teaching: On my second to last day in Nampula, I got a surprise call from Mussa Saide (pictured), my former translator during my poultry project. He dropped by my office and we chatted for an hour or so. He had been successful in passing his teaching exams and was now teaching in the little town of Ribaue. Maybe it was the time alone in a small town, or that he had taken his 7-month-old child to live with him, but he seemed more adult. In his teaching position he is now earning over 3 times more than he was earning at Chicken King selling feed. However, he wants to come back to Nampula to be near to his family, and he still has a desire to start chicken farming while he teaches.

Soy Foods and Josue: With my recommendations submitted and the soy project wrapped up, I was pleased to learn from CLUSA's country director that CLUSA will be acting on my recommendations. In my last couple days I made the introductions of the key people to CLUSA, including Josue to the country director. It looks like CLUSA will be supporting him, and I am excited to follow the developments.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bananas and Taxpayer Dollars at a Big Aid Conference

Yes, I am still in Mozambique. You know you've been in a country too long when people start asking, "You're still here?" Actually, I don't think my friends hate me, but rather they ask that because I had planned to leave (and told people so) a few weeks back. Another indicator that you've been in a country too long is when, walking home, you think to yourself, "We needed rain," or when texting in your cell phone, the T9 automatically predicts Portuguese words before English words.

At any rate, I am leaving soon, but I extended my stay to help USAID with a big international fruit conference. I had the duties of PowerPoint clicker, name tag designer/cutter and, most importantly I think, composing the conference summary document to be sent out to all attendees. Over the past six months, I have been fortunate to experience the "big aid" side of development, and attending one of these conferences was the icing on the cake, or the cherry on top, if we're trying to go with a more appropriate analogy.

Basically, the setup was a two-day gathering of about 150-200 big shots in the industry, from large-scale seedling producers, to the governor of Nampula, to the director of the Port of Nacala. The head of USAID Mozambique opened the conference, and several of my former bosses at TechnoServe came up from Maputo. TechnoServe is one of the primary facilitators,
along with USAID, in this big fruit industry push. It was one fantastic reunion for me.

The first day was spent at the conference complex. There were presentations and panel discussions. My first impression was just how bad some of the presentations were (though some were great). We're talking excessive text, redundant information, and no illustrative graphics. I had to actually show one presenter how to move to the next slide - he had clearly had his presentation prepared for him. The second thing that really struck me was the overall grandeur of the entire process. Between the coffee breaks, gut-busting buffet lunch, little pastries, and desserts, by the time we got to the cocktail party at the end of the first day I was too full to put down any more than a couple of these amazing appetizers they were relentlessly walking around with. One of the Mozambican USAID workers with who Andrew and I work asked, "You guys don't tip the bartender?" Our response was something along the lines of "We already did, and paid your salary. It's called US tax dollars." However, thinking more critically about it, I think it would be hard to do it any other way - you probably need to have things done up nice when you're flying in the chefies and trying to launch an industry.

The biggest takeaway for me was that there seemed to be a lot of fluff thrown around, lots of general comments without substance. I took some choice quotes, such as "To produce and to be competitive, we have to be efficient," and I found myself often wondering if people would just fly back to Maputo and forget about all this.

Chiquita and its local producer/partner Matanuska were one of the few to actually keep it real. Chiquita buys top grade bananas from Matanuska, which took a lot of risk as the first company in Mozambique to pioneer the fruit export business in northern Mozambique. On day 2 we visited the Port of Nacala (pic 2) and, more interestingly, Matanuska's farm (pic 3). Chiquita and Matanuska explainedthat EU tariff advantages for African countries on fruit (esp. banana) were being phased out over the next six years, so Mozambique didn't have long to become competitive. Chiquita/Matanuska didn't want excuses, and it got a bit heated. When the port director explained that their efficiency shouldn't be compared to India but rather other Mozambican ports, Chiquita, Matanuska, and others said absolutely not, we need to be compared with the world's best. And Chiquita argued with a research institute and the government, let's not wait for this training center that you are two years behind in completion. Bring the trainees to Matanuska's farm. I liked those guys.

In the end, I had to compose the summary document, and most of the outcomes I found are still being threshed out. They don't happen at the conference, but at arranged meetings, through phone calls, and via emails. What conferences like these do well, I think, is bring a lot of people with similar interests together to exchange business cards and get them talking.