Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Eat your heart out, Conrad

My friend Anja taught me how to drive a motorcycle a few weeks ago. Since then we've been around town twice. There are only a handful of white women in town so to have two of them go by on motorcycles in apparently quite a sight. Anja and I went to the Uruguayan water plant (yes, Kindu has a water plant run by Uruguaynas. Don't ask why, just accept) and practiced. Had we done it in town we'd be surrounded by Congolese kids in a heartbeat. It only took me a few tries to take off in first gear. Kindu's dirt roads are terrible so we can't get going too fast and I wear a helmut (this last information is for the benefit of my family, who thinking back to me learning how to drive a car, is likely slightly concerned by the motorbike concept). I gotta say, straddling a motorcycle and revving the engine is pretty friggin cool. And I think my reputation jumped a few notches in Kindu.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Selfish Altruist

I wish I could lay claim to the term "Selfish Altruist" but it's the title of a book I just finished regarding us humanitarians and the mess-ups that we do in the name of saving the world. The title was probably my favorite part of the book.

In December I was drinking bear and playing poker with my siser at a Mexican in Marietta, Georgia. We got to talking with our fellow players, about where we went to high school and where we lived now. When they found out that I did aid work in the Congo, it's like you could see them visualizing me with a halo above my head. They let me know just how great they thought I was for doing what I do. Even though I had a beer in one hand and was trying to bluff my way out of a bad hand. Even though this is my job, just as father is a lawyer and my mother is a teacher, and they give to charities, doing their own part to make the world a better place. But the difference is that I was perceived as making a large sacrifice. I've never seen it as that - in my mind it's more a "questionable career decision" or "temporary moment of insanity" and who doesn't have those? So I particularly like the term selfish altruist because it captures the spirit of this work. If I were a complete altruist I could sell everything I own and work here for free. Heck no. I do this work because I want to make a difference in this world and because I like the challenges and new terrain that it involves. Both of these motives are highly personal, and they come back to my own needs in the end. And in the end, compassion and altruism are much harder to hold onto in this line of work because you get quite used to poverty and you start to really understand that many factors keep people and countries pooor - and you wonder why people as individuals, communities and governments are not doing more. You see that doing good is a business with competition for resources, good and bad bosses, and late nights in the office. You wonder at what point you will stop being an optimist, because if we don't believe that things will get better, then we will be forced to see our work a failure.

Above all, I think the element of self interest is necessary. We are only as good as our work. Good intentions are the same in this work as anywhere else. To really make a difference, you need to be motivated (your own self interest, which can be competive wages, trainings, etc) and work with effective organizations (their own interests to continue to receive governent and private funding). The UN Volunteer program relies heavily on the "volunteer spirit." I can tell you right now that if someone brought up in a staff meeting that we were all going to take a significant paycut this year but that "it's not about the money, right? it's about helping people! Volunteer spirit!" we'd promptly toss that person out the window (if it didn't have bars on it). Perhaps I should just hit delete and keep on being an angel.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Nescafe Model of Development

Anyone who's ever spent time in the Africa (and many other places - feel free to chime in) has run into the "Nescafe" phenomenon. I also like to refer to it as the "who do I have to kill to get a decent cup of coffee" kunumdrum. Rather than real coffee, most establishments, office coffee areas (if you are lucky enough to have one), etc. have Nescafe - instant coffee. It's just not that great. And rather than just recognize it's inadequacies and replacing it, it's just modified and jazzed up to appear better than it is. This is a nice metaphor for governments and development in many third world countries. Say you have a bad road maintenance system (or a "Nescafe" road system): roads are deteriorating more and more, newly rehabilitated ones are not maintained, repair work is temporary and shoddy, and the government agency in charge of it has neither the funding nore inclination to make things better. Logically you should replace it with a system that works - alter government agencies' roles, responsbilities, methods of finance, etc - and turn it into a "Pressed coffee" road maintenance system. No need to aim for "Cappuncino" road maintenance system - let's be realistic. Instead, however, we try to make the old thing seem better when it's not - we effectively turn it into a Nespresso. The same old government agency that hasn't been able to do anything puts a spin on its role, makes bold statements it can't live up to, and just keeps being the same ineffective actor it was before, just packaged differently. I, for one, am tired of Nespressos, Nescappuncinos, and Nescafe Lattes. It's time for change; it's time for the reign of Nescafe to end. Join me in the revolution.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The boy on the right is my Tunda buddy. Posted by Picasa

Tunda: The Return

Tunda is a town that is no more than a small dot on the map in central/Eastern Congo. There is a coral church, built in the 1920s, at the end of a dirt road lined with palm trees. Sound familiar?

Tunda was a big part of my June blog, when I spent a week there with an evaluation team. I biked through the jungle, causing women to cheer and make a high pithed noise that reminds me of Xena Warrior Princess. After saying my good-byes and boarding a plane, I thought that would be the end of my visit to Tunda. But then the plane ran off the runway and the pilots and I were stranded for a few days more. So needless to say, I was recognized when I got off of the UN Helicopter in Tunda last week.

I am happy to be bringing assistance with me this time - we will be distributing farming tools, used clothing and soap to more than 1000 households.

It was actually a bit emotional. There was this child, a boy who was probably five years old or so, who took to holding my hand when I walked through the village. It felt so nice. Many places is the Congo make you feel used, but Tunda makes me feel welcome.

In other news, stay tuned for my adventures learning how to drive a motorcycle - complete with photos!

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Muzungu Files

While the following statement is downright obvious, I would like to point out that the Congo jungle is mighty hot. That’s why, when we do distributions of household items to families, we create nice shady spots in villages. That is, assuming your trucks with said items make it to said shady spots. If they break down 500 meters down the road, all bests are off. So instead of roping off a nice little field area and doing this thing the right way, we just made everyone walk downs to the trucks and did it on the road (more aptly described as a jungle path). I’d like to say that this was “the fun way,” but alas, it was just a bit of a headache.

I did, however, get to practice some Swahili. Having gotten tired of the guys waiting on the sidelines trying to get my attention by hissing at me (this actually isn’t necessary impolite, though hard to get used to) and saying, “muzungu. muzungu. MUZUNGU!” (muzungu = white person) I decided that it was finally time to abandon my French and pull out the big guns. My colleague helped me translate something, and I read it a few times to get the pronunciation write. Then I took our megaphone, walked up to the guys and said. “Mwengine mutu mwenye ata ni ita muzungu hata pata tena kit.” This means “the next person that calls me muzungu is not getting a kit.” I added with a smile, “Assanti sana.” (Thank you).