Monthly Archives: October 2011

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!

Advertisements

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.