Friday, March 7, 2008

March Update

I've got a new Chichewa tutor. There's a neighborhood woman who has a little vegetable market set up a couple of blocks away from my home. In the morning and in the evening as I pass, she quizzes me (in Chichewa) about what she taught me the last time I walked by. I'm starting to grasp past, present and future tenses of verbs, as well as some basic sentence structure. All that she asks in return is that I never pass by with anybody else's produce. I can only buy from her. This is an easy choice, since her goods are the best anyway.

It has been a slow month work-wise. Some challenges have arisen. Primarily, my ability to be in the right place at the right time is limited by my means of transport. Between 70% and 80% of the areas where I'm supposed to be working are pretty far off the tarmac. I can get to these places with the use of bicycle taxis for a reasonable (if a bit pricey) figure. But by the time I get to where I can meet with the Field Officers it is already mid-morning and they have long-since (cross your fingers here) started untrackable treks into their individual areas (10X10 -- 20X20 km). So if I co-ordinate with them to meet, they will be wasting the easiest, coolest (temperature wise) hours of the day waiting for me to get to them from urban-land. We have some motor-bikes that are pending registration. The fuel costs are relatively low compared to mini-bus transport and bicycle taxis. I'm hoping to have one of these motor-bikes allocated to me for field visits. If I'm to stay until October, it would definitely be worth the cost of a Malawian motor-bike license. I go in with another staff-member to apply for a provisional next week.

Co-ordinating with Field Officers is also a challenge due to the cost of phone-time. The Project Leader has authorized my budget proposal to receive $5 extra each week for cell-phone units. I refuse to pick up the phone when the Field Officers call me. Receiving a call is free. Placing one isn't. And while they make more than Malawian college-accredited primary school teachers, their salary is not enough for them to be spending their personal money on keeping in touch with me. So I return their calls with a call back on my dime. This never functioned with my budget either...

As an administration we have recently found that the Field Officers are reporting statistics in their weekly reports that are grossly inflated when compared to the figures that are listed in the documentation that they keep on their persons for individual household visits. We have recounted and given them some slack to work with. The goals that are set forth for them on a weekly basis (i.e. # of HIV tests, # of TCE volunteers, # of TCE compliances) can often detract from quality. When it comes to future big funding, quantity is of the utmost importance. But when it comes to the communities where we are at work, quality is our only worthwhile goal. If a Field Officer only speaks to 5 families a day, but has a life-altering conversation with each one, the results will be far more tangible than if they have 25 quick bursts that alter nothing. We need to be in the fields more of the time monitoring their progress and conducting visits with them. Without this monitoring, they could easily match their weekly reports to fabricated household statistics. This is a serious risk.

During visits to sites that are reasonable to access by 7:30 a.m, I am constantly surprised at the types of initiatives that these folks are organizing of their own volition. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I met with Patrol 3 in Lunzu and we hiked a few km down a dirt road and arrived in a village. We worked with local women for an hour to clean a well. This involved stripping out all the weeds and trash around the well, and then scrubbing green muck from the concrete basin and chute. The best means for this type of scrubbing are used corncobs. At first, it was kind of gross. But once I got into the rhythm of it, I was totally blissed out with the simple act of cleaning--shoulder-to-shoulder--with the community. The group then sat down with the Village Headman, and the Field Officers gave a lesson on the need for sanitation in order to prevent illnesses other than HIV/AIDS; like cholera and malaria. The discussion was all in Chichewa, but I've begun to be able to pick up more from the tone and body language. The culture here is very honest and forthright to an intimidating degree. In the villages, strenuous manual labor is on the menu for daily living. It is my belief that this level of daily action creates a context where the people don't want to waste their free time dancing politely around any potentially awkward subjects. They say what they want to say, shrug their shoulders, laugh out loud, or cock their head to the side and stare their dancing partner down. This makes it very easy to discuss just about anything with anybody. But it makes it very difficult to change someone's attitude about something once their mind is made up.

I've been taking a lot of pictures of TCE volunteers--"Passionates." Each one works in a specific capacity to further our work in the fields. Some concentrate on organizing and supporting youth clubs. Some distribute condoms--just to give you a general idea. These Passionates live all over the place. So we did our best to find a few central locations where they could gather, we could snap a few photos, meet them and greet them, and continue on to the next site. This is being done so that we can produce individual identification cards for the Passionates. This will help us keep track of who is doing what, and where. It will acknowledge them for the work they do. Through this, more people may realize that TCE is a community force. That while there is an organization fronting the project, at it's core, it is a project that will either be sustained (or undone) by community participation (or a lack thereof).

I've stepped away from fundraising for a couple of months now. Been sitting with the expected role hanging over my head. A foreign pocketbook. It is dehumanizing to us and to the local population to have it taken for granted that we will give them resources which they could source for themselves if they were to work together with some common priorities in mind. Another volunteer--from Hungary--was asked to source gardening equipment while attending a village meeting. She asked them what they've done during planting and harvest times in the past. They pointed to buckets and some basic tools. "Well. Use those," she said. They were shocked. I was shocked when I heard about it. When I first arrived, I took for granted that at each meeting, in each village, I would be asked to give them something, and would be expected to respond to each request individually. In fact, it always seemed to build up to that important moment. I would feel like a politician, delivering empty promises to sustain my popularity with the people. I haven't offered anything except my presence in the last month or so. It doesn't function well to come here and throw resources to the wind. It is unmanageable. It is unfocused.

During this time, I've thought about what single thing I could focus on delivering to these communities. What would have the strongest impact. Our project stays active in the field for 3 years. After that contract period, it is up to people to fight the good fight. To keep on educating each other and maintain control over the health and wellness of their communities. The footprint I'm going to leave behind will be libraries. During the next two months I'm going to source as much free HIV/AIDS literature as possible. There is a sister project that sells secondhand clothing, shoes and books. In June, I will purchase as many used books as possible. I hope to start ten libraries with at least 100 books each in different villages to the north of Blantyre. Please keep this project in mind. I have seen firsthand how NGO's can easily mismanage large amounts of money. I have seen how quickly money can disappear with development interests that diverge into far too many initiatives for any of the results to be truly self-sustaining. Libraries will empower the people to educate themselves, to be literate, to be engaged and invested in their own development. Please plan ahead, and get together some cash to send along the wire to my bank account in Malawi. This will not be tax-deductible. I know that some of you can send large amounts. For most of you, $50 with a $35 wire transfer fee is all that I ask. For the long-term impact that these libraries will have, that is a mere drop in the bucket. Please consider it seriously. There is still plenty of time between now and when the books will be purchased. Also, if you question the workability of this venture, I am very open to dialogue. You know where to find me...

I tried to trade pictures with a departing teammate, and I ended up with an empty camera, an empty CD and no cable to connect my camera to a computer. I'm trying to get those pictures back, and waiting on a USB cable. As soon as I get the cable, I'll be posting a bunch of new pictures.

Happy Birthday, March Babies!!!!

1 comment:

Laladylove said...

Hey Benji,
Have a really, really great birthday. I've been following your blogs, and I'm inspired and so proud of you. I am looking at joining the Peace Corps in the next year. Any advice ?