An Invitation

Image“Set your mind to it, and you can accomplish anything,” or so the old adage goes. Motivation can take you anywhere you want. Motivation is proverbial fuel in the tank. It’s a necessary condition for a project of any variety to go well, and it is no less applicable to development projects.

But oftentimes, the origin of a project comes not from those that bear the responsibility of seeing it through to completion (or, continue it indefinitely, as the word ‘sustainability’ may imply). Often, the grounds for a project are hatched by development workers. That’s their job, as it were: to come up with ideas and test them. Design the car and test drive it.

However, since these ideas are often created by the development worker and not the partner organization (Business, NGO, Government office, etc.), it takes a lot of time, energy, and results before the partner is convinced. The propensity to be convinced, or to ‘buy-in’ to the idea, is necessary for a project’s success. Without conviction, a project isn’t going anywhere. 

I think back to my summer in Zambia, which started a year ago today. I spent four months on a project  hatched by the Agricultural Values Chains team and pitched to a company. But from the start, I don’t think the management was persuaded. For one, the project was delayed several weeks because of a lack of commitment to funding (although, it was later found that the return to investment was 340% in the first week alone) and secondly, there were substantial delays in contacting the pilot sales-agents.

I’m told that the agent network is still functioning to this day. But I gather from Mark Ware that there is little active support from the management to expand or replenish the training for the agents. Why is this?

Is it possible that, although the idea is working in practice, the manager was more or less told what to do?  EWB pitched the idea to the company, but we weren’t invited.

Even if the agent network we designed is earning the company money, it isn’t earning them money through a vehicle of their design. Even if it drives, it wasn’t the car they asked for in the first place. The company can comfortably truck along and earn money in other ways, ones where they can drive without a backseat driver. 

So what’s the takeaway? Should we only fix cars we’re invited to fix?

Is it really the case that, unless a partner organization is the one to come up with an idea, we shouldn’t hypothesize about others? Is there nothing to be said for old fashioned persuasion?


Thoughts from Winter Elliot

I loftily toss a square of chitenge fabric over a round table. A rectangle to fit the circle will do. We’re setting up for a Bake Sale to fundraise for EWB in an engineering building at UBC. The “work” I do here in Canada is (literally) miles away from my AVC work. Is this the EWB I now acquaint myself with?

A face in an EWB calendar catches my eye. It’s not a face I’ve met in Zambia, but his facial structure and the quality of light spark some recognition deep down — something is distinctly Zambian about it. Confirmed by the photo’s description, it’s an employee of Rent to Own – the company my friend Chris Pelkey worked with this summer. I see in his face (any face)– which anonymous to my direct experience, but synonymous with the multitude of Zambians we aim to support– a reminder of why I went and why I’m at this bake sale.

I don’t think of Zambia very often, or at least, not nearly as often as I had imagined this past summer. When I was immersed, the notion that I would turn my back on these four months was both foreign and absurd to my summer self. Like the “Summer George” and the “Winter George” in Seinfeld (is this too obscure a reference?), I occupy a different space and different roles, and my qualities may change depending on those expectations/stresses. But I shouldn’t let go of the confidence, independence and self-awareness I gained while working there. Those are qualities which should remain constant.

Personal relationships have been left at the way-side. I haven’t called any of my Zambian family or friends in over 5 weeks. Yesterday I resumed texting two of my friends (Martha from Petauke and Robert from Chipata). This morning, I received an email from Anna-Marie Silvester. These updates are the brightest beacons of light in any given week.

Here’s the exciting update from Kumawa Agriservices, supported by Mark Ware:

“In the last two weeks of October, Kumawa agents made sales worth ZK 1,000,000 (CDN$200)!!! Farmers are just starting to buy seed (the rains are imminent) and CFU voucher sales are on-going so I’m sure we can expect another excellent month in November. ”

These short bursts, in conjunction with prompts like the face in the calendar, send my flying back to Zambia. But considering that these flights will tend to be unavoidable (in the most positive way), I could make efforts to smooth the spikes. In conclusion, here are the two takeaway reflections from today:

(1) I have to find ways to consistently gain satisfaction from reflection and engagement with my Zambian summer experiences and the still-living-and-breathing Zambians in my life

(2) I can use this as a platform to motivate myself to continually contribute to in-Canada EWB.

Please excuse me while I go sell another slice of banana bread.

Any input or suggestions are always welcome (feel free). Thanks for reading.

Twist my arm, won’t you?

How do you get someone to pay their debt? At the end of August, I spent some time with one of Kumawa’s “agents.” Dyson Jere, a retired army paramedic for most of his life, is now a full time farmer. He loves it. He is also extra keen about being an agent.

On his first agent delivery (bringing products from town back to his village), he returned to his village of Madzimoyo on his shiny bike. Distributing the products around his community plays out much like Santa Claus on December 24th in my mind (except people pay for the products they ordered). But in this story, Dyson comes across a friend who doesn’t have any money on him. Dyson gives him the requested insecticide. The friend insists he’ll drop off payment this afternoon.

The hot sun rises and slips past its zenith; Dyson’s “customer” is nowhere in sight, and Dyson is still owed his payment.

My visit with Dyson occurs three days after this happened. We calculate that the missing payment is around 75% of Dyson’s commission earning. I insist Dyson should pursue him more actively to repay, but he doesn’t seem so concerned. In this small community, trust and accountability among the network is pronounced. He will pay eventually.

“What if he doesn’t? What if he can’t?” I inquire.

Dyson won’t have to twist his friend”s arm… hard. Apparently if Dyson decides the outstanding debt has persisted long enough, he will simply ask his friend to come assist him on his farm for a few hours as payment. According to Dyson, this isn’t so unusual; people have no qualms about putting in a few hours to resolve the debt. But I wonder…is Dyson under-representing the difficulty in getting this friend to do work?

Stories like this remind me of the overwhelming similarities between Canada and Zambia. I’ve seen this kind of repayment occur in Canada (think: teenagers babysitting, helping someone do yardwork, etc.).

How does this interaction differ from what you may see in Canada?

Affirm My Swagger!

Today I found myself happily strolling across UBC’s epic green campus. The pristine manicured lawns and tidy rows of lush trees are shockingly a world apart from inner-city Lusaka and Chipata, too (in the dry season). My heart leapt into my throat when I ran into my dear friend Florin (a former volunteer in Zambia a few years ago). We chatted about this and that. He casually mentioned that when he first saw me, he noticed a “swagger” to my walk which struck him as distinctly African.

Joy erupted from this comment–why? If I boiled it down to a sentence, I think it’s because I feel like something has changed in me and I am all too happy to receive confirmation that other people have noticed. I changed! It’s noticeable!

— — — —

Upon return to Toronto, the JF volunteer group had three days of de-brief. One of my friends told me she would prefer that people not mention her changes. The motivation behind the request? It will make her more aware and self-concious of her changes; it may lead to an attempt to rectify the change or amplify it (ingenuously).

We’re all different, and on this subject I am the opposite of my friend. I appreciate hearing about my changes. What about me strikes you as different? What is surprisingly the same?

When you undergo personal change, do you prefer people to comment on it or accept it without remark (or something in between)?

And all those other things

And so, today I write my blog post in Anna-Marie’s flat in Lusaka (Lusaka Province), Zambia. Sadly, it is my last night in Zambia. Tomorrow, all of the Agricultural Value Chains team (AVC) travels for +12 hours to Lilongwe, Malawi. Lilongwe is eerily quiet, so flying from there is a non-issue.

I must apologize for my absenteeism from my blog, and for violating my self-imposed daily goal. Let me give a very brief run-through of my last week:

-Spencer’s and my presentation to a large NGO called “PROFIT” was post-poned. I’ve learned that you should call to confirm the day before your presentation, the morning of your meeting, as well as one hour prior.

-Myself and four other JFs took a 7 hour bus south to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls.

-My birthday on Monday was super fun! Three JF friends from Water Sanitation EWB (Malawi) came to join us in Livingstone. Two of them bungee-jumped, which I shared vicariously.

-the presentation to PROFIT went very well on Tuesday. More on that later.

-Our last and final AVC team meeting ran from Tuesday night until Thursday evening. We discussed lessons learned, pursued personal reflection, and we made final transitions to our two Profession Fellows.

-A celebratory final AVC dinner commenced this evening at a fantastic indian restaurant in Lusaka, where I earned the affectionate nick-name of “Buckets” (dubbed courtesy of Chris Pelkey), coined because of how spicy I find indian food.

I plan to go back and unpack all of these things on the blog once I get back to Canada on Sunday August 28. Stay tuned!

A handshake is forever

[Cheesy alert: this blog post is for those who enjoy the most obvious *palm-to-forehead-smack* analogies.]

What am I to make of the relationships I’ve developed since arriving in Zambia at the start of May? My friend Stephanie reflects on how it must feel for families that have encountered volunteers in the past to stay stationary as volunteers come and go. For me, this place will remain alive in my memory and imagination until I return. How does it feel to be the one left behind?

– – – –

It’s 3:45am and my bags are packed to go. I said ‘goodbye’ to Isaac and my host mom Juliet the night previous. They said they would wake up to truly say a last goodbye the next morning. I shook Isaac’s hand for probably five minutes as we exchanged farewells before going to bed. I called him a friend but he insisted I was family. Considering how difficult saying a not-quite last goodbye, I am disappointed and partly relieved that by 4:15am, they weren’t awake to say goodbye. I was late for the bus, so I slipped out the gate and clamped the three padlocks shut behind me.

– – – – –

Late afternoon: Spencer and I have been in Lusaka for a few hours, and the big capital city is thrumming in the streets below our flat. An SMS lights up my phone. “Elliot you left and did not say goodbye to me. you do not see me as a true friend.” It’s from my friend Jane, next door to my home in Chipata.

The night before, I couldn’t tell Jane that I was leaving. Although I went to her home that evening, she wasn’t around and so I left without a word. It would be so easy to pick up the phone and call her again (I’ve tried three times, but her phone is off) but I find it’s so hard to find the words to explain why I didn’t try harder, or why I didn’t tell her sooner. Sometimes it’s easiest to slip away in the night.

– – – – – –

I’m packing, and the realization that I’m leaving is sinking in. I pick up sheets of paper, socks, and granola bar wrappers (that I brought from Canada, and still last me — a testament to the shortness of my time in Zambia). Under a bag I find a small lizard. I hold it on a photograph of a cave I visited with my friend Thomas. I set it down in the corner, and it is too frightened to move. When I flick out the lights it is stationary save for its lightning fast lungs expanding and contracting. I take a photo to try to remember. By morning it’s gone without any trace.


Two blogs are better than one

At the start of this summer, I never thought that my project would be so similar to another JF’s. However, Spencer and I have been going through almost identical placements, sometimes at different points, but along the same general trajectory. Spencer’s blog offers an insightful journey into agent systems and takes a lot of pictures of me in the process. Check it out.

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