Missing Salone + What’s Next?

Merry Christmas everyone!

I arrived home 2.5 weeks ago, welcomed at the airport by my cheerful dad on a cool December afternoon. As we headed home (with the heater on full blast, of course), I looked at the hazy sky and San Francisco skyline, thinking, “Wow, nothing has changed. I feel like I left yesterday.” That sentiment has more or less stuck during these last few weeks at home, as I’ve attempted to settle back in and get back to a familiar routine. In the process, however, I’ve hit a few unexpected bumps and realizations (surprise, surprise ;) ) that I’d like to share..

1)  Isolation by familiarity
Those of you who have spent a decent amount of time in a country with a distinctive collective culture might have encountered this upon your return home (especially if home for you is the suburbs). Going directly from a very social, energetic/chaotic  and people-oriented culture (where you form friendships on your way to work, at the store, or see a handful of friends every day) to a more isolated, individualistic environment where people keep to themselves and resort to the comforts of their homes, favorite coffee shops, or cars (hello, suburbs of CA),  causes a dramatic isolation “culture” shock. I felt extreme loneliness, lethargy, and overall blueness my first week/week and a half. Although I was super excited to have visiting family over (cousins and their kids, who hit 10 on the cuteness Richter scale), there was something about being in one place constantly, almost having too much familiarity, that made me feel super anxious and down. It was weird. Anyway, the sentiment has not totally faded, and probably won’t for a while, but it was surely a strange surprise.

2) Blessing realization: We can make choices!
Something that occurred to me while in Sierra Leone was that we (generally speaking of course, like those of us who have the luxury of reading this from home/the office/a cafe) are incredibly privileged for not only the circumstances we’re born into or the opportunities made available to us, but also the action to make choices. We can choose where we want to drive, work, go to college, have for dinner, the right doctor to treat the right symptoms, movies we want to watch on Netflix instant stream, who we want to marry, etc.. We are given a ridiculous amount of choices, that, in retrospect and in comparison, is almost sickening. Now, not to generalize for all of Sierra Leone, but there are very limited choices due to the way of living, per capita GDP, societal roles, traditions, employment opportunities (or lack thereof), and so on and so forth. We can make choices because we have a vast selection to choose from! It’s crazy, amazing, and excessive, but we can *choose* what we want to do with ourselves, with our lives. For Pete’s sake, we even have a “Self-help” section in book stores we can visit if we ever choose we want to learn how to improve our lives and enrich our spirits. It’s a beautiful thing that I really hope I don’t take for granted again. Never forget you have more control than you think over the choices you make and the life you lead..

3) Love affair with SL
Among the chaos, confusion, difficulty with the fellowship, I came to love the life in SL. Maybe it was the novelty of everything, and learning something new every day (wow, so I only jump onto okadas with CM on the license plate? Good to know! There has been a new case of robberies reported in the neighborhood and this is what/who I need to look out for? Yeaaah, good to know!), but every day felt like a new day. There was a basic routine of getting up, getting dressed, heading to the office, coming home, and making evening plans, but each day felt like a new day, a new adventure. I attribute a lot of that to of course the environment, but also part of it to the mentality of being new to a place, seeing something with fresh eyes. I haven’t tried to adopt that mentality at home.. maybe it will force me to become fascinated with things that I tend to take for granted, but  it’s definitely easier and more mind-blowing when you’re actually new to a place. ;) Anyway, I really fell in love with the way of life, regardless of the challenges, and hope I take up the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in a new place again.

4) There is no money tree
Dammit! Wait, so money doesn’t grow on trees? It doesn’t grow out of the leather in my wallet or the plastic in my credit card? Wamp wamp. This was more of a personal revelation, since I’m not the most conservative spender. Although I’ve always saved with each paycheck, I would never take a second glance at the cash register bill or small print. Something about living in an expensive city like Freetown, however (yes, it is SUPER expensive, even compared to SF) reminded me how to tighten the wallet a bit and look out for spending. There is a way to strike a balance between spending in a smart way and having fun, and thankfully, my experience in Freetown trained me how to be a smarter spender and watch my finances.

A few people have asked how much the fellowship in total cost. Here’s a loose breakdown:

Flight: $2200
2 nights hotel stay: $220 (no kidding)
First month’s rent: $300
First month’s cleaning/laundry: $35
Monthly rent thereafter (at the new apartment): $500/mo.
Cleaning: $30 for the last 3 weeks
A sushi dinner at Mamba point (expensive treat): $25-$30
Lunch at the office: $1/day
Taxi ride to the beach (1 hour away): $25 (usually split 3-4 ways)
A beer (usually Heineken, Carlsberg, or Star beer, the local draft): $1.50-$2.50
Dinner at a restaurant (there’s either eating local off a cart or at restaurants): $15
One-way taxi ride: $0.25
Bottle of 1.5L of water: $3.50

In total, I spent about $1000/month, which, including flight, amounts to about $5,800. Although it required a little dip into the savings pool, every penny (and leone) was worth it.

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What’s next? I really have no idea, to be honest. As much as I loved being out in the field, working alongside BRAC, the world’s largest NGO representing Kiva, an amazing organization, I don’t know where I stand now. Before the fellowship, my thoughts were: fellowship, office job to pay the bills and save for b school, apply for b school, go from there. No idea really now. Do I go back into the non-profit world, or try something different? Do I apply to business school, or travel for a few more years? Do I go back to Salone, another part of Africa, spend time in India? Do I move to a new state just for the heck of it? Or do I stay at home and take the time to figure out what I want out of life? Who knows, but this experience has helped me develop all types of insights that I am so fortunate for.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading about my journey, supporting me and cheering me on, staying in touch while I’ve been away, and inspiring me to keep going. You and your support mean more to me than you know, and you’ve helped make this experience forever memorable.

Always,

Tejal

Heading Home

I’ve been so wrapped up with life here that I cannot believe I haven’t written here in over a month! My apologies. For those of you following my updates on Facebook, November was a crazy month (most of it fun). Things really picked up a BRAC: my colleague and I trained new branches in Bo and Kenema (provincial cities in Sierra Leone), we completed a few deliverables, did some training and review of our own, and finished our Borrower Verification (the Kiva-type of audit). I’ve also been spending more time hanging out with friends and colleagues in Freetown, making weekend trips to beaches, running around and making visits to different parts of Freetown. I attribute this MIA-ness to taking advantage of having a social calendar and really taking advantage of every moment.

I’m leaving this week, and am both sad and excited to be finishing my fellowship. In many respects, it was not what I had imagined. I felt like I was climbing up a slippery slope for about my first 10 weeks, no feeling productive or too helpful at my placement, not fitting into the “ways” of doing things here. It’s definitely been a lesson in patience, humility and adaptation.

Additionally, I’ve been lucky to meet so many wonderful people in Freetown. Both the national and expat community have been amazingly welcoming and have really helped me stay afloat when things got rough.

A big lesson I’ve learned while here is: you never quite can figure things  out. The more you think you know, the less you realize you actually do. Does that make sense? I’ve learned that about myself as well. As much as I thought I knew myself coming in here — about my skills, capabilities, habits — situations manifested here that forced me to rethink my own ways of thinking and behaving. Some of it has been hurtful, disappointing, some of it enlightening, but overall, enriching.

Below, I’ve pasted my latest blog post reflecting back on the fellowship. Hope you enjoy it.

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Malaria Dreams: The True Kiva Fellowship Experience

As my Kiva fellowship winds down, I reflect on the memorable journey I’ve been privileged to experience through the Kiva Fellows Program as a member of its 16thclass. Through personal revelations and humbling lessons in adaptation, microfinance work, cultural differences (and a unique incidence of malaria), I’ve grown attached to beautiful Sierra Leone. Throughout the fellowship, I’ve found my journey paralleling that of a character in a humorous novel, Malaria Dreams by Stuart Stevens, in which a man travels through the Central African Republic in one mission in mind: to find a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to Europe — only to find that his 3-month journey has a lot more in store for him than he anticipated, and nothing goes exactly as planned. My fellowship similarly followed suit with its own surprises, bumps in the road, and memorable moments.

This journey started with a phone call. Much like the experience of my KF 16 friend,DJ Forza, this call arrived out of the blue, and was received with some degree of hesitation. As I was daydreaming about my placement relocation (first placement was planned for the Philippines) to the South Pacific gem, Samoa, two weeks before Kiva Fellows training, Kiva Fellows Program staff informed me that there was an urgent matter we needed to discuss.

A ball of tension immediately struck me in the gut. As the conversation progressed, I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wouldn’t be going to Samoa… and I wouldn’t be going to the Philippines. I would be going somewhere for this fellowship, but the location was yet to be determined, and I would find out in a few days.

Three days later, KFP informed me that Sierra Leone was the most available placement, and that I would have to make the decision and shift gears as soon as possible. I think my response at that moment was, “Wow. Ok. Can I think about it?”

My family started to wonder what I had gotten myself into, what I signed up for. There was a lot of head shaking and concerned looks shared amongst my family and friends, and a lot of pity faces that conveyed, “Oh jeez, Tejal, you’re nuts. What ARE you doing?” I recalled images and scenes from the movie “Blood Diamond,” reports in the news about corruption, documentaries about civil war, and tried to push them far out of my mind. Kiva Fellow alum assured me to relax and do more research, and shared their overwhelmingly-positive experiences in “Swit Salone.” Shortly after, at KF16 training, I met over 20 amazing individuals who signed up for the same experience of spending almost 4 months in unfamiliar surroundings, and realized that if I’m crazy, I have many crazy friends right by my side to help me through this exhilarating journey. And so it began…

A warm welcome

With the BRAC SEP staff in Kenema.

Salone undoubtedly welcomed me with open arms, with its people being some of the warmest and most accommodating I’ve ever met, and its weather being comparable to a rainforest sauna. On my first day at BRAC, I was pleasantly shocked at how quickly the  staff took me under their wing, instructing me how to take public transit around the city, taking me to beaches and local football matches, and planning weekend outings.

Additionally, the Kiva Coordinator, Mbalu, and I found ourselves inseparable: we stuck side by side on field visits, trainings, even for fun weekend cooking sessions. And when I wasn’t at the office, I found new friends in local business owners, school kids in the neighborhood, and families that religiously welcomed guests with a friendly, “How de body?” (Krio for “How is your health?”).

The rainy and humid weather forecast made for exciting adventures navigating through Freetown on the back of motorbikes and cramming into poda-podas to jet across town to complete Kiva deliverables with Mbalu. There really is nothing quite like taking a motorbike ride through a torrential storm in Freetown!

Speed bumps, pot holes, and the trough of disillusionment

Like every journey, mine hit quite a few bumps and pot holes along the way. In Kiva Fellows training, we were told to expect a trough as we progressed through our Fellowship workplan. My “fall” into the trough occurred slightly early, around week two, while I was starting a large project that would help take BRAC Sierra Leone from Pilot to Active status in their partnership with Kiva. A few of the catalysts that induced my “falling” into the trough were a combination of understanding cultural differences, adjusting to a new work environment, and finding a groove to personal productivity.

At first, I tried absorb and observe as much as possible in the new work environment: work culture, policies, traditions, best practices, hierarchy, field work, microfinance products and programs – without passing judgment on what could be “better” or more efficient. But little did I know that my KF-powered brain was already in go-mode, looking for ways to improve things and not actually taking the time to understand how systems worked, and more importantly, why they were the way they were. This resulted in major frustration, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and many hand-on-forehead moments.

Those six weeks in the trough, although very difficult, proved to be some of the most eye-opening of the entire fellowship, and brought to light a very humbling and important lesson: modifying my definition of success and using different benchmarks to measure productivity will in turn change the way I viewed efficiency. As soon as I realized this (thanks to the help of family and friends who gave the golden advice!), everything seemed more manageable, clear, and sensible.

A third struggle I encountered, and unfortunately have never quite overcome, was understanding the weight of poverty and economic conditions in Sierra Leone, and realizing as a Kiva Fellow, as a foreigner, and as an individual, there were few things I could change on my own and had control over, but many more that I could not change. This has by far been the hardest reality to digest. And although microfinance work does help hundreds of thousands of people in Sierra Leone, the reality is that microfinance alone won’t solve all problems, it won’t heal an entire nation.

Swit Salone, it’s been real.

Reflection

Despite these challenges, the growth, knowledge and friendships I’ve gained in Sierra Leone have made this fellowship a memorable and life-altering experience I won’t forget. The wonderful people I’ve met, the warmth of the people, the food, the natural beauty, and of course the work I’ve done at BRAC Sierra Leone will always remain fondly with me.

I think back to that memorable day in August when Kiva called me to introduce me to this opportunity, and have never been more thankful to have given the chance to find a home in Sierra Leone during my fellowship. I’m very sad to leave, but know that soon enough, I will find myself back in the embrace of Swit Salone.

Tejal Desai is a Kiva Fellow finishing her fellowship in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She has been working at BRAC Sierra Leone, and has been grateful for the hospitality and support the BRAC Staff has shown her during her time in Freetown. She encourages you to support sustainability in Sierra Leone by joining BRAC Sierra Leone’s lending team and loaning to a BRAC borrower.

Read Tejal’s additional Kiva Fellows blog posts here.

The Most List: Halfway Edition

The last few weeks, I’ve struggled with writing an informative post on Sierra Leone. I didn’t want to another “ah, I’m in a rut, not in a rut, going to the beach, eating good food,” rant about life here, so here’s a list: most enjoyable, most surprising, most difficult aspects of my time here so far (I think I passed the halfway mark over a week ago, but we’ll call it the halfway point anyway). Enjoy, and keeping asking great questions!

Most delicious meal:

Aminata’s dinner: My colleague Aminata had me over at her house for dinner in September. What she cooked was an amazing, traditional meal of – you guessed it – fish, rice, and stew. I can’t quite put my finger on what was so enchanting about this meal, but I remember not being able to stop eating. She and her fiancé got a kick out of it!

Close runner-up: Meal at Mbalus place, Chicken Biryani from my auntie and uncle’s (Indian couple who adopted me as their Guju –Sierra Leone family member and had me over for dinner, mmmm homemade Indian food), and Sushi at this restaurant called Mamba Point. It’s some of the best sushi I’ve ever tried, and coming from the Bay Area, I think that says a lot (we’re spoiled by amazing international cuisine). J

Most generous company:
Mbalu: This speaks for itself. She’s done a ton for me, and we’re like 2 peas in a pod. I’m so thankful to have met someone like her, and work alongside her every day.
Indian couple in the supermarket: The uncle and auntie mentioned above. They invite me over for dinner, to other events and functions, and treat me like their own family. They even let me come over to bum on their couch and watch English and Hindi television. Wow.
Wissam: My first friend in Sierra Leone, he took me under his wing since day one and has introduced me to the coolest expats I know! Not to mention, he was my major source or transportation in my first month, always going out of his way to pick me up and take me around with him to places like Bureh Beach and dinner on Wilkinson Road.

Most memorable experience:
Frisbee on the beach: 2 weeks ago, some colleagues and I went to Tokeh beach. After an adventurous journey getting there (more below), we arrived at the beautiful beach. The place was empty with visitors but packed with kids from the local village. We took a short swim, walked around a bit, had some fresh coconut.. the kids kept running up to use like local salesmen, asking what we needed, if we wanted to buy any more coconut, seashells, drinks.. It was sweet, but man, they were hustling. A bit too much. So we busted out the Frisbee, and played an intense game of ultimate Frisbee on the beach (modified of course, since none of us know the exact rules.. I was trying my hardest to channel my brother’s UF superpowers). It was about 5 of us adults and 25 kids. Sooo much fun. Intense. Sandy. Rowdy. Energetic. And the most exercise I’ve had in 3 months, easily.

Borrower Verification: This was the biggest project on my workplan, and the most fulfilling. Similar to an audit, this project involved visiting a random sample of 10 borrowers and interviewing them, verifying their loan details with the MFI’s management information system and Kiva’s records. I think the most rewarding part of my fellowship has been any opportunity to meet and speak with clients.

Most awesome/economical mode of transportation:
Poda Poda: A taxi-bus that resembles a minivan? 1,000 leones (less than $0.25) each way, blaring music, 4-5 packed in each row of seats? Sign me up! These are difficult to squeeze into (you always have to watch your bag and usually chase on down and beat the other passengers in for a seat), but it’s entertaining, and most economical means of transport in SL. I’ve mostly taken these with Mbalu, but earliest this week, took one myself. Or at least I think it was a poda-poda.

Most idiotic decision:
Not stocking up on water: I have finally caught on and learned to stock up on water daily. But in the beginning, I found myself waterless on some nights, borrowing water from my roommate and restocking his supply the next. You can purchase drinking water in bundles of small plastic bags (factory-packaged so it’s legit), about 20 for 3,000 leons ($0.75) or a large bottle of water for the same price. They sell it everywhere, the most challenging part of buying a large supply is of course transport (how much you can carry on foot). However, if it’s the rare case that someone’s driving to the grocery store and offers a ride, it’s water bundles FTW.

Runner up: Not wearing a helmet while riding okada. I know, totally crazy and idiotic, this should be number one. But when it’s about to downpour, and you can’t find an okada with a helmet, and you’re just down the hill from home and on a safe, well-paved road, you just got to. I am looking into buying a helmet, though. Other alternatives = walking or taking taxi. The latter is difficult, since drivers will usually charge you 15,000 for a short ride somewhere in the city where commercial taxis (the ones that function like buses) won’t go. The Guju in me resists to paying that much. And the former is fine in daytime, although I start sweating through my clothes after 5 minutes. And one time on the walk back from work, I think an old woman tried to mug me. It was weird.

Most awesome song:
Chop my money – By Nigerian duo P-squared. It’s paying as I write this. It plays at work, when I sleep, in the taxi, everywhere! Here’s the youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZslcTuKYeDk

The lyrics are a bit strange (I think the dudes singing it are saying.. they’re so rich, they just need a girl to spend their money because they’re OK with it and they don’t care), but it’s super addictive.

Most difficult work project:
The Borrower Verification: This project has been as difficult as it’s been fulfilling. Getting data from each branch, making appointments with generous credit officers (everything is phone-based since they don’t use email – no internet in branch offices). Aggregating all the data, following up on discrepancies, sending it to our directors, receiving feedback, and researching again. It’s all fascinating, but no easy walk in the park.

Runner up: Writing posts on the Kiva Fellows blog. It’s hard enough writing on a personal blog, so knowing that hundreds of folks who support Kiva are reading my blog, learning about my experiences, maybe even judging my statements makes me crazy nervous. Also, planning next steps. We do a lot, I’ve discovered, on an ad-hoc basis. This has done wonders for my OCD and obsession with doing this according to plan.

Most beautiful beach:
River No. 2, but it’s really a hard decision. The standards of beach-beauty is really high here. Someone told me the “crappiest” beach is near Goderich, which I’ve only driven by. But um, this beach would probably put Stinson beach to shame. It’s stunning, but clearly, the other beaches here are picturesque and look like paradise, so it’s a difficult comparison.

Most fascinating/shocking aspects of SL life:
Everything. The kindness of the people, the high cost of living, the heavy dependency on aid, the stories of war, the amount of unemployment, the lack of agriculture, the political system. First, with aid – there is a ridiculous amount of aid that comes into SL, and though it is making positive change here, I can’t tell whether it’s helping people make strides forward. I have a total outsider’s perspective here, and in the 2 months I’ve been here, what can I tell about change, but there is a very high dependency on imports. Fruits/veggies, chickens, eggs, meat, are mostly imported from European countries and neighboring West African countries, like Guinea, and second-hand items – items like clothes and shoes donated from the states, are available for people to purchase (it’s a very popular business venture for entrepreneurs who take loans: buying second-hand items to resell).

Cost of living: The average per capita income in around $909/year, taxi rides (one-way) are around $0.25, water to last 4-5 days is $1, bananas are $1.00 per pound, peanut butter is $6, 16 oz of frozen spinach is $8, movie theater tickets are $5 each, a Star beer around $2, a small pizza around $12. Ok – not the most comprehensive sample of data, but you can probably see the inconsistency here. Additionally, rent for nicer apartments (usually rented by expats) starts at $1,000. It’s difficult to find anything nice below $1300 (nice = guards, gate, electricity and generator, hot water). I majorly lucked out because I lived with a local the first month, then moved in with an expat who lets me pay $500 + utilities, but man, this place is super expensive, especially when earning leones.

War also carries deep wounds everywhere in the country – from the people’s homes to the provinces. Various coworkers told me about their experiences escaping to neighboring countries with their families, hiding in the basement of their home, seeing their house burned to the ground and town destroyed, parents killed.. it’s insane how much the people of Sierra Leone suffered in a decade-long civil war, and manage to keep a very positive, and friendly demeanor every day. I haven’t seen this degree of kindness anywhere, and it speaks volumes knowing how much this country suffered not too long ago.

Additionally, after the war ended and the land was uprooted and destroyed, people fled to Freetown, where there was some existence of running water, electricity, and a growing city life with restaurants, nightclubs, tourism, and expats. Thus, Freetown is filled with many people that hail from the provinces, who are looking for better opportunity in the city. There is, however, a major unemployment problem among the youth, and the influx of SL population in Freetown has led to strained resources, higher unemployment, and less development in the provinces. What I’d love to do is visit the provinces and see firsthand why agriculture isn’t being developed: what the major barriers are, what is being done here, where the government’s spending is. I am just an outsider, but feel that promoting agriculture in the provinces has major potential to create jobs, sustainability, and grow the economy… bring people back to their homes in the provinces, help them rebuild their lives, reestablish roots, create strong roads, create industry, establish families businesses.. But again, this is my idealist, novice perspective. I haven’t been to the provinces, just have spoken with many locals who are part of both populations. (Peep this interesting report: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/publisher,UNPRESS,,SLE,4c9c63fd1a,0.html)”

There are 2 major political parties here, the APC (All People’s Congress) and the SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party). Although there are several others, these 2 dominate the political landscape in SL. Everyone’s buzzing with excitement about the 2012 elections, and campaigning is in full swing. I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues about political platforms, candidates, propositions, etc. to gauge how people select who to vote for and their stance on political agenda. To my surprise, candidates are favored not by their political background, beliefs, promises, or proposed changes. Rather, they are favored based on where they are from (geographically) in Sierra Leone, and how that aligns with voters. So the poll results, I’ve learned from a few discussions with colleagues and business owners, are determined by: (1) where the candidate is from, (2) where the candidate’s party has heavily dominated/campaigned (so which villages/provinces they have heavily visited in the past and convinced to mark as that party’s territory), and (3) the amount of people who can vote in each of these provinces. The current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is part of the APC, so there is current a big push from the opposition part, SLPP. The majority of folks I’ve spoken with, though, side with the APC and plan to vote for APC once again.

Sorry – I realize this is the longest sub-post ever, and not super factual. But I hope it gives you a glimpse into the interesting social-economic-political landscape in SL.

Most valuable gift (that keeps giving)
Keychain flashlight – “No Dad, really,” I recall saying while sitting on my last suitcase, struggling to zip it shut, “I’m not going to need that.” Pause. “Ok fine, I’ll put it in my carry on.” This keychain flashlight has saved me many a time: nights where the power cuts, and I need to run to the bathroom, or walk to my house in the dark on the tumultuous dirt road, or find money in my purse while riding in a taxi. This thing has saved me. I never part with it. Thanks Dad for convincing me to take this little miracle gadget!

USB modem: A friend gave me a usb modem to use during my time here, and it has been a LIFESAVER. At first, the one I was using was super slow (12kpbs, whaat) and I could barely manage to post photos on skype. But this newer version has allowed me to post pictures, write emails, skype call with my family and friends. Such a gift. High-speed internet here is close to non-existent, so I’m very thankful to have this wonderful piece of technology by my side. There’s no better way to fight homesickness than video chatting with your family.

Most hilarious moment:
Gosh. So many. One notable “ahh, Africa!” moment was on the way to Tokeh beach. We took 2 cars, both SUVs, and were going through deep puddles and potholes. As we laughed through the bumpy ride, we heard a coughing from the engine, and the car went silent. “Oh, shit.” There we were, in the world’s largest puddle (or world’s smallest lake), engine stalled. “What happened?” our friends in the car behind us yelled. Turns out that the water crept into the engine. We spent 30 minutes trying to figure out the problem ourselves, taking pictures, waiting for cars to stop at offer help, and then decided screw it: we need to push this water out of the car, and tow it. Another car gave us their tow rope and contact information, so 3 of our friends pushed the car out of the water, we connected to tow rope, and dragged the stalled car about 20 minutes to the next village, where a mechanic took a good look. He eventually found that the problem wasn’t the engine, but in fact, was the fuse, and we all had a good laugh and long photoshoot in the village. The car was fine the rest of the way home, but to this day, remains the most hilarious afternoon I’ve had here.

Anyway, please continue to send wonderful questions my way. :) Thanks for reading!

The mean reds + attempts at stalking Nick Kristof

I just got back from dancing to Sierra Leonean music and watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in the theater. Pretty random, huh?

Random is a PERFECT word to describe the events of the last 2 weeks. First, I’ll say, the workload is definitely picking up. BRAC is very ambitious to expand and become an active Kiva partner before November, so I’m working/stressing my brains out at the moment. Talking to people, figuring out what needs to be done and how, why things might be incorrect, finding solutions, banging my head against the wall, pouting for 5 minutes, chatting with other fellows about their challenges and high points in the field, then doing it all over again. It’s been an adventure, and as always, a bit scary and disheartening, but I learn something new everyday. And I’d much rather be confused and  constantly learning than just existing and moving stagnantly. I’m getting used to feeling defeated every so often, but I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s when things are actually happening? I imagine if you come home everyday thinking “Well hot damn, I did an AMAZING job today!” you’re probably having less of an impact than you think. So maybe feeling behind is a good thing? Or at least.. I’ll keep convincing myself that it is. :)

Back to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Audrey Hepburn, who plays socialite Holly Golightly in the film, has the following dialogue with her neighbor, Mr. Paul Varkjak:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

The reds! That’s what it is. I think lately there has been extra pressure of keeping up with my workplan, completing deliverables, staying in touch with  local and home friends and family, taking care of myself, eating well, drinking water, staying sane.. that I’ve driven myself into a really sticky place that Holly Golightly identifies as the reds. Although I don’t have a swanky Tiffany’s store to run to to alleviate my stress and fear, or my favorite comforts available (trashy reality TV, a big hearty burrito, or the movie “Sabrina”), I do have an awesome support network that puts up with my rants, frustrations, high points, and “red” moments. And I am forever thankful for these friends and family, both back at home, in India, and in SL, that lend an ear to listen to me and continue to cheer me on. It really means a lot. I hope you know that!

Onto events from the last week or so..

Last week, I was perusing through facebook, and found out that my favorite journalist, Nicholas D. Kristof, was in Sierra Leone! “No WAY, Jose,” I thought to myself, “what are the chances we are in the same city on the other side of the globe?!” So I researched a little more, but nada. This guy seems to keep a low profile. The next night, I was at a friend’s place for a movie viewing, and met a national who was actually working on the set of his documentary, “Half the Sky,” based on his amazing book (by the same name), which I would HIGHLY recommend you read. I’ve been following his work for years and cite him as one of my professional heroes. He writes editorials twice a week for the NY Times, mainly concerning women’s global issues and poverty solutions. In “Half the Sky,” he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, address major issues and oppression factors against women in the world, as well as proven solutions and ways to help. My description doesn’t give this book or his work justice, so check these links out:
Half the Sky: http://halftheskymovement.org/
Nick Kristof’s Blog, “On the Ground”: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/

Anyway, as you can tell, I am a huge fan of his. So I asked any potential contact or link to NYT/the documentary as I could for his whereabouts (specifically for the filming). He actually gave Kiva a shoutout in his book, and I thought, “what great timing! I could tell him I’m a fellow and try to chat with him for a bit!”

Unfortunately, after a few tweets, texts, online searches, in-person inquiries, and facebook posts, my stalking attempts failed, and I wasn’t able to locate or reach out to him. One of my friends here has a tie to NYT and confirmed that Mr. Kristof has quite a large entourage in SL (and having Eva Mendes on set makes security even tighter and the desire for a lower profile higher, I presume), so well, I gave it a shot.

I honestly have no idea what I would have asked Nick Kristof if I had met him. A part of me honestly believes I would have just grinned big while bursting into tears and telling him how much I respect his work, and how his work is a big reason why I’m in this fellowship. Another part of me thinks I would have stared blankly at his face and really creeped him out. I guess we’ll never know.

For this week, I’ve been very focused on balancing work with “me” time. I have struggled with the same issue at home. When I wasn’t checking work email, I was mentally preparing for meeting, conference calls, projects, etc. I am trying to hold back that tendency to overinvest in work. So I’ve spent this week capitalizing on good relationships in SL, at BRAC, resting when necessary, living in the moment and learning more about SL, and taking a few breaks to hang out on the BRAC balcony or listening to Sade. It’s not the perfect solution, but hopefully will help over time.

Up for air + day to day social interaction

Well, it’s been a while! I apologize for not writing sooner. First I had to pull myself out of the trough, then moved apartments, then went into deep-dive mode with a fellowship project, then celebrated my birthday, then.. fell back into the trough.

The greatest challenge of adapting here has been learning to accept not having a rhythm to things. I’ve had to hush the perfectionist in me many times, and will probably need a few more weeks until I’ve successfully adapted to the flow of things. Not having reliable internet is also another large hurdle. The power goes out frequently at work and home, and my usb modem averages about 15 kbps. It becomes a real challenge when something as simple as sending an email or skype chatting with a colleague becomes a 2-hour task, but people still get a lot done without it, so I think it’s all a matter of adaptation.

Anyway! What’s new here? I moved apartments. My first place was great, I mean the roommate, apartment, everything was pretty fine. But the commute became a drag after a while,  and I was getting super lonely after work. As lovely as Tony Soprano & co. were as company (I brought the HBO tv series with me here), I needed more human interaction. So I moved in with a nice Canadian woman who works for UNICEF. She’s since introduced me to her also awesome friends, and we’ve spent the last 2 weekends hanging out in the city, on the beach, and in our jammies at home. It’s been a nice change for sure. I also never thought I’d need A/C, but man. What a gift it is.

Aside from that, as I said, I’ve been visiting beaches, exploring town, making friends, celebrated my birthday. Some friends and I went to dinner at a restaurant called Montana (awesome pizza) and dancing later at a local bar called Aces. I’ve also been spending some time with a nice Indian couple who took me under their wing like a member of their own family, which has been really great. I feel so grateful to have met such kind, warm-hearted people here.

Speaking of people.. one of my friends asked what every day social interactions are like. Well, it definitely varies, but here’s a shot at a typical day:

Morning: walk to work, pass a few folks on the street from the neighborhood, starting with the construction guys on our street. “How ya morning!” they usually yell. “Fine, fine!” I yell back. Kids run up and wave a big HELLO! It’s seriously the cutest thing.

Anyway, once in a while, I’ll be approached by a young man who wants to get his flirt on and shout “Heyyyyyy, white girl! Hey girl, say hi to meeeee.” There are a lot of young men who I pass at work, many of who like to take the extra effort to approach me/other foreign women on the street or shout from afar. It’s usually harmless, and after a while, you sort of get used to it.

At the office, I greet the folks downstairs, some of the Bangla staff I pass on the staircase, and my colleagues on my floor. Once I settle into my desk, my friend Mohamed usually comes by to shake my hand. He always has this hilarious Rico-suave look on his face when he does it. “Hello, Tea-jaal,” he says. “How ya morning? How ya body.” “Great,” I reply, “How ya body?” “Ma body fine, health fine” he replies and grins. The Bangla staff are definitely more reserved that the local SL folks. Most of BRAC consists of men, so it’s interesting to see the difference between the two cultures and styles of communication: open, inquisitive, and relaxed vs. more reserved, quiet and disciplined. But this is just in the work context, and at BRAC. It could definitely be different elsewhere.

My colleague Mbalu and I sometimes act more like sisters than colleagues on our breaks or in the field (or when we’re going crazy once in a while, like when waiting for taxis in the heat) but get a lot done when we’re on the clock. I think it’s wonderful to have someone at work I can talk to about my life.. about weird stuff I saw on the street or ask honest questions about SL and the lifestyle. She reminds me so much of my cousins in that way. I feel at ease when I’m with her.

At lunch, if I pay earlier to eat at the office, I’ll usually dine with local or BRAC staff (usually mixed at tables) in the dining room, and chat about our weekends or plans after work. Nothing work-related. Lunch usually consists of a large portion of rice and stew, with a side of fried chicken. If I decide to eat out, I usually join one of BRAC’s staff on a 5-8 minute walk up the hill to someone we call the spaghetti lady. I need to find out how to spell her name, but this woman’s lunch spread is amazing. She has giant Tupperware set up on her cart, filled with: black-eyed peas, fried rice, spaghetti noodles (no sauce), lettuce, cucumbers, fried chicken, fried fish, stew, and couscous, acheke (local dish, processed cassava) and chili. You choose what items you want and she throws them into a nice aluminum dish. My regular order is usually bean salad (black eyed peas), fried chicken, couscous, chili pepper, veggies, and stew. Mmmm. The most random combination of foods, but delicious (and cheap! 7,000 leones, about $1.75).

The rest of the day flies by, and on my way home, I’ll usually stop to say hi to a few friends/business owners, like Mohamed, the Airtel (mobile phone company) guy who helps me add credit to my phone when I walk home from work, Magdalene, a woman who owns a small store that sells water, biscuits, soap, laundry detergent. Once I walk down my street, the neighbors will usually wave, or join and walk with me in my direction. One man today started walking with me once I passed his house. “Where you work?” he asked. “BRAC.” I said. “Ahhh ok,” he replied, “You stay here?” “Yes, you know such-and such person? In their house.” “Oh ok. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow when you walk home.” Haha. Once I pass the last store before my street, I’ll make small talk with the older man, the storeowner, and his niece/granddaughter, Janet, an 11-year old smart girl who helped me carry water one day. She told me how much she loves to read and write and do math. I think she’s going to run this country someday. Ok, it was only a 3-4 minute walk, but I’ve never met a young girl with so much confidence, positivity, and sass.

Once I’m home, my roommate Karen and I will usually talk about our days, any characters we encountered in our day, plans for the evening. Once in a while, we’ll plan to go somewhere on a weeknight.. quiz night, neighbor’s house for board games, but sometimes we both like to veg on the couch and chat or zone into our computers. On weekends, we’ll hang with other expat or local friends, head to the beach, go to a restaurant, the movies (there is one movie theater located in a Chinese casino, below a nightclub. Love it, and they serve the best popcorn). We have a running joke of a taxi driver, Eddie. Here, if you want a private taxi (not shared taxi, which functions like a bus), you need to pay a driver more to take you somewhere, and usually if you meet a decent driver, you can call him often to pick you up and drop you places for a negotiable rate. Eddie is a driver our friend Jo found, but he’s super unreliable and head over heels in love with her. He’s let us down quite a few times (arrived late, drove recklessly one afternoon and broke the gear in his car, drove recklessly at night chasing a friend’s car, to name a few), and Jo has “broken up” with him many times, but we seem to still call him when the weekend comes around and we’re in need of a ride somewhere. Ahhh, some relationships are just so hard to let go of. :)

Anyway, that’s all for now. Take care.

Click to view photos.
Link to my latest KF16 blog post.

Be Loved

This week was one of those weeks that I knew would be challenging. I expected I’d come home exhausted, feeling dirty, possibly a bit disheartened, which I did. But thankful and loved as well.

I have been waking up each morning feeling lethargic. A bit unmotivated. A bit annoyed. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. I sometimes think about the other fellows in my class and wonder how they’re doing, what adventures they’re chasing, wondering whether they have down days as well. How happy they are in their placements, with their respective MFIs, if they feel lonely too. I think about my loved ones, what they might be doing at this hour. I think about the other placements I might have had, whether I would be waking up in a different bed in a different country, if it weren’t for a change in circumstances. Really bad thinking. I tense up thinking about the local men I’d have to answer to on the street with the “I’m married, just leave me.” I stress about my workplan, about my responsibilities. Worrying that I won’t make an impact. That no matter what I do, Freetown will stay the same, poverty won’t change, people will still struggle. I let my shoulders droop when I check my email and don’t receive any new mail from my loved ones. I let myself sulk. It’s a really sad routine, I’m fully aware, and don’t take any pride in admitting how lame I let myself get on the down days. Before I moved here, I would have never let myself get this negative on a daily basis. Maybe in special cases (after facing some sort of rejection, going through heartbreak, being sick), but otherwise, my body would reject it.

Not anymore. Lately, there have been more down days than usual. The hub of negative energy makes its daily rounds. I encounter it every day, and sometimes let it persist for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours. Lately, I’ve allowed it to linger for longer than usual. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s the loneliness that makes me feel like sulking or complaining, thinking about the “could haves,” and less of, “wait, isn’t this what you wanted for years and years? Didn’t you light up talking about this opportunity?” I make more excuses, like I have the right to feel crappy because of reasons x, y, and z. I have these internal dialogues between the negative hub and my quiet optimism every day.

My day yesterday started per usual, taking okada and taxi to one of the branch office. On today’s agenda, Mbalu and I were supposed to visit one branch office in Waterloo, which is usually about an 1.5 hour drive by car. Since neither of us owns a car, we rely on public transit. So this is how our day went:

Morning: meet at the area office. Leave at 9:30 by poda-poda to Kissy, the east side of town (more poor, crowded, and full of pickpockets). Arrive there after an hour. We walk down Kissy road to catch another poda-poda to take us to Waterloo, another hour away. Except the routes are all messed up today (the recent downpours ruined one of the roads, making it difficult for poda-podas to navigate), so we spent about 20 minutes asking people where we could grab a ride to Waterloo. After finding the tucked-in alleyway, we saw three vans/poda-poda looking vehicles stopped, bumper to bumper. Apparently a small accident had taken place (no evident damage), and the drivers were off in a verbal fight. Eventually, two of the three vehicles left, and once the third car opened its doors, Mbalu, I, and about 20 other passengers pushed and shoved our way into the vehicle. “WATCH YOUR BAG!” shouted Mbalu from 3 feet in front of me. “SOME PEOPLE WILL JUST STEAL FROM YOU HERE!” I slipped into a space next to the window, holding my bag like it was my infant child, certain I’d damaged one of my “sitting” muscles/bones in the process of jumping onto a metal rail. The hot morning sun was just started to bear upon us, but luckily we jumped into a poda-poda in time to hide from it.

The poda-poda took us directly to Waterloo, where, after 2.5 hours, Mbalu and I met with 2 credit officers. We spent 3 hours going over my workplan, Kiva’s partnership with BRAC, and the pilot to active transition, and I faced the burning, common question from credit officers:

­­­­­”Why should we (credit officers) help Kiva? There is no extra incentive for us. We do so much work, get paid very little, with no promotions in sight, and no extra compensation. Why can’t you (Kiva) change this? We are struggling. We get no promotions, no upward mobility.”

Honestly, the system right now kind of sucks. No, it really sucks. You would lose sleep thinking about it. From what I’ve read, many officers get paid around $150 a month. Transportation usually costs $1/day, food about $4/day, so if you do the math, it’s virtually impossible to save or make the occasional splurge. Each employee’s experience is different, but what I’ve unanimously heard is that Sierra Leone does not have much opportunity for ­­career prospects, growth or promotion. BRAC operates on a different level which I’m slowly beginning to understand, and from what I’ve heard, moving up, or anywhere, within the organization, is very hard.

Now Kiva funds go only through the MFI to the borrower, and do not support operations. Kinda wish there was a way to bridge this. I really feel for the credit officers and Kiva coordinator. Freetown is a very expensive place to live. High costs of living, high unemployment, and low per capita income make for a difficult financial balance, and a hard hustle.

Afternoon: We had achecke (local food that consists of: couscous or rice, noodles, mayo, sometimes stew, and some sort of fish or meat) – Mbalu, the 2 credit officers, and I, and talked about life in Freetown, marriage, and religion (most frequent questions I’ve been asked so far: why aren’t I married/planning to get married soon, and what are my religious beliefs). After a nice lunch, Mbalu and I make our way back to Freetown, but hit a few hiccups on our way back. Apparently, due to the fluctuations in gas prices, taxis are on strike, thus less available. Poda-podas then become in higher demand and fill very quickly, especially over long distances. So Mbalu and I wait about 15 minutes for one to come by (thank goodness) and it takes us back to the east side of town, where the sun is ridiculously scorching. No taxis to be found for 10, 20 minutes. Water supply running low. Head throbbing. Feet failing. Then finally, Mbalu asks a young stranger in a blue Nissan if he could drop us closer to the center of town. He agrees, turns up his Bob Marley CD, and off we go.

The bumper-to-bumper traffic has us sauna-ing in the car for a good hour or so. I lay my head on the seat headrest, watch the pedestrians and salespeople walk by, with the Marley song “Be Loved” drowning out my thoughts like a nice pour of Jameson.

After reaching town, the driver, Michael, drops Mbalu at her evening class, and takes me to my junction further into the city. He pulls over and says, “Make sure you find a good okada here.” “Ah yes,” I respond, “I usually call my friend to take me home.” I pull out a little cash and gesture towards him to please accept. “No no,” he nods, “No.” I shake my head back, “Please, Michael, you’ve helped us so much, take this please.” He still doesn’t accept, and I slowly exit the car, speechless and touched by kindness. I don’t know where Michael was supposed to go that day, what was on his agenda, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to detour through the east end of town, sit in traffic, bake in the sun, and take two people into town during rush hour.

I arrive home, and as expected, feel tired, dirty, and overwhelmed. I push the negative hub out of my system for the evening, a think of the kindness so many people like Michael have shown me. And I feel thankful and blessed. Whether it’s Mbalu yelling at a taxi driver for trying to rip me off, or taking me around to find a cell phone and cursing the young boy who tried to pick pocket me.. or the Indian couple who approached me in a grocery store, immediately invited me over for dinner, and treated me like their own daughter.. or new friends who goes out of their way to give me rides to social functions in Freetown and back home… I’ve been touched by the selflessness people have practiced here. It’s on an entirely different level than what I’ve experienced before, so still takes time to digest and fully understand, but hopefully I can remind myself of the kindness that people possess when I feel an ounce of negativity, and use it to replace the hub in my daily routine.

Thursday

Family and a few friends have asked what a typically day looks like here. I didn’t really develop a “pattern” or routine until recently, so here’s a glimpse into a day in Freetown.

Taking last Thursday: wake up at 7am. The neighborhood roosters, goats, and dogs that sing the praises of the morning usually start their show around 6am, but I’ve adapted to sleeping through them for an hour. I have breakfast, which consists of a bowl of granola from Trader Joe’s (bought enough from home to last me a good 3-4 weeks) and a few “Digestive” brand (local sweet) biscuits. Wash up, iron my clothes, fill my backpack, and walk down the street, where I meet my okada (motorbike) driver, Emma (whose name at first I thought was Amara), at 8:15. Hope on the back of his bike (with helmet, of course), and he takes me to the nearest junction, where I walk about 7 minutes to catch a taxi. The taxis here function like buses, shuttling from one destination to another, and for relatively short distances, charge 1000 leones a head. They don’t indicate where they’re going or willing to take you, so you have to yell out where you’re going. Thursday, I went to the country office, so I knew exactly where my taxi would be waiting (luckily, ones that go in direction are parked on the side of the street, so no running/yelling involved). The taxi waits for 1-2 minutes until all 4 seats are filled (sometimes we squeeze in 5) and we head to the next junction, which is about a 10 minute walk to my office. Door to door, it takes about 35 minutes to get to the office.

Once I arrive at the country office, I sign the lunch roster and pay 3,500 leones to the cook. This is an optional perk for all staff and persons working in the BRAC country office; pay a small fee in the morning, and have lunch prepared. I then hang out for a bit as people trickle in, and we head up to our desks around 9. Mbalu, the Kiva Coordinator, and I review the priorities of that day and week, which include visiting the area office (about 15 min away) and planning upcoming borrower visits. The internet is usually slow like molasses, if not almost entirely absent, so every day is different mix of online and offline work and finding a way to get things done. If I’m offline, I usually update my work plan, call credit officers to plan borrower visits, or prepare files for an upcoming project. Or, like I’m doing now, write a blog post. :)

Lunch time rolls around at 1pm and most folks head downstairs to the dining room. We dine on a plate of rice (aka a mountain of white, or sometimes “jallof” rice) with stew and fish or chicken. Rice is kind of a big deal here. No traditional “Salone” meal is complete without a large portion of it. Hang out until the end of lunch hour, 2pm, then head back upstairs. The rest of the afternoon flies by rather quickly (got to love late lunches!), and every now and then, a few colleagues and I will stand on the balcony to watch the passerbys or downpours, catch up on each others lives, etc. Usually when the power cuts out.

By 5pm, everyone’s clearing out and starting to head home. I walk back to the main junction, about 5-7 minutes uphill, and shout out my destination to the trail of taxis. One nods, indicating he’s going my way. Squeeze in, ride to the next junction, and pay 1000 leones. I have a 5-7 walk here, and usually drop by the local Lebanese-owned grocery store (there are many of these in Freetown). I check out the spice aisle and stock up on red chili flakes and Italian seasoning, then make sure to grab some olive oil and any last minute necessities. Once I leave the store, I give Emma call to see whether he’s at the junction, ready to take me home.

I walk to the area where Emma and I usually meet at, and am approached by 5-8 other okadas, usually men in their late teens/early 20’s, that yell: “white woman! Psssst! White woman, come here. Seat open. I take you.” They come up, circle me sometimes, get too close to my space bubble. Yeah. You get used to it, but it doesn’t stop being annoying (my Asian/Caucasian/European female friends all agree). Best reply is “My okada is coming, lef (leave) me.” Then I usually give a cold look and wave them away. I know, not super friendly, but if you aren’t firm, the okadas will just keeping bugging you. It’s an interesting mix – knowing where, when, and to whom you can be warm and friendly with, vs. cold and firm. Finally, Emma arrives, and we catch up on how our days went. He drops me at my apartment, and I head upstairs to my room.

That evening, I clean my room (it’s like India here, you have to sweep your space every day otherwise things get dirty very quickly), and get ready for a shower by putting a large pot of water on the stove. Shower (bucket style, yayuh), change, organize my backpack for the next day, and walk to a cross-street about 15 min away (the road I live off of is terribly rocky/underdeveloped; cars rarely come down this way). My friend comes to pick me up around 7:45p, and we head to a pub about 10 minutes away for trivia night!

There, a few BRAC colleagues and I form a team, pay 5,000 leones to join in, have a round of Heineken, and start the pub trivia extravaganza. It usually consists of 6 different “quizzes” – each team has to fill the answers to the game host’s questions, and after 2 rounds, each team rotates papers to “grade” one another’s quizzes. By the end of each pair of rounds, the host announces the standing of each group, and we continue with the rest of the game. By 11, the game is over, and the host announces where each team stands (we placed 5th among 10 teams. We’re fired up to take it next week!). This is part of a 4-week series, and the top 4 winners by the 4th week will receive prizes in the forms of bottles of wine and gift credit for the pub. We all head home, and my colleagues kindly offer a ride home (thank goodness, otherwise I’d have to resort to an okada, not fun or safe at night).

I come home, turn up the fan, change into PJs, tuck my mosquito net into the mattress, and if I have enough energy, read a few pages of a kindle novel. Call it a night, and set my alarm for the next day. Usually get woken up a few times at night from the neighborhood dogs (they like to pick fights into the wee hours of the morning) or the sporadic, freak thunder and lightning storms that send flashes of bright light and curtains blowing into my room.

That’s my Thursday! Once I meet more borrowers, train branches, visit new parts of SL, I’ll share what the experience is like. Now, what do you want to learn more about..?