Friday, October 2, 2009

On Simple Solutions: Playpumps

A former colleague of mine keeps a blog.
Actually, several former colleagues of mine from more than one organization keep blogs. But that's beside the point of today's broadcast.

The point of today's broadcast is that this particular colleague (let's call him Owen) is doing a multi-part series on playpumps from his perspective while working in Malawi. (The playpumps link is to a video from that explains a bit about what a playpump is. Basically, lots of people in different parts of Africa draw water from hand-pumped wells. The playpump idea is that kids can play and do the pumping at the same time, cutting down the pumping that people - aka mostly women and girls - have to do to draw water).

You can find parts 1 and 2 of Owen's series here and here.

Here are a list of reasons why you should check out Owen's posts:
- Owen provides an interesting, full-sentence perspective that you won't get from following Playpumps International on twitter.
- The playpump is billed as something somehow related to the most challenging problems sometimes having the simplest solutions. I think more people need to think a bit more carefully about what 'simple solutions' actually are.
- The playpump is like a lot of other simple revolutions in development. It sounds good and makes contributors feel good... but is it actually good? Does saying that something is sustainable actually cover off all the bases? (NO!) Does looking good on paper automatically mean it will work out in practice? (NO!) Who is making sure that this idea is being translated into good practice? What kinds of problems are being encountered on the ground? Does the playpump make any faulty assumptions about the 'field realities?' Who is paying attention to these lessons? Are they being incorporated into the next phases of implementation?
Yes, you need to ask all those questions and more. Owen's blogposts is all about grappling with questions like this - for him, the answers he's finding aren't really painting a pretty picture for the case of the playpump.
- If you donate to playpumps or to anyone else who promises a 'simple' solution to these sorts of problems, you owe it to the people you think you're saving to understand more about the world that your money is being injected into.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

America: You're starting to scare me.

My old friend twitter brought to my attention the How To Take Back America Conference held this past weekend in the old U.S. of A.

One of the speakers at this conference was Kitty Werthmann, author of Freedom to Dictatorship in 5 Years. Kitty, an Austrian-born survivor of the Third Reich, has believed that Democrats are some sort of communo-fascist hybrid for some time. This time, however, she gave a talk to a packed house on "How To Recognize Living Under Nazis & Communists."

Now, it's no secret that I'm not particularly sympathetic to the tenets of early 21st century American Republicanism, especially the really, really right-wing stuff.

Even so... whoa guys (& girls trying to cope with those pesky feminist attacks on marriage and motherhood). Seriously?

The vitriol being spewed by some of the more... enthusiastic elements of what used to be the right wing fringe are starting to frighten. They're rabid, illogical, and open about their professed right to violence as a possible tool in the fight to take America back from... the communists? the fascists? the feminists? the atheists? (I'm genuinely not sure here - I usually lose the thread of the argument somewhere around the references to the middle part of the second amendment).

I've decided that the best way for me to help America dial back the scary rhetoric and go back to good old fashioned partisan mudslinging is to lend some clarity to some of the terms that most readily apply to the ideas that Mrs. Werthmann and the other folks at the Eagle Forum are so keen to toss out into the body politic. I'm thinking that if we get some clarity around what all these dirty words mean, perhaps we can go back to insulting each other the way nature intended: like we're all 5 years old.

Without further ado then...
Marxism: They hate capitalism, the state, laissez-faire economics, corporations, alienation, exploitation, the bourgeosie and stating their philosophy in a way that would be easy for proletariats (or Joe Plumbers or whatever) to understand. It has also been rumoured that they hate industrialization, but this is difficult to prove because, as previously noted they hate making their philosophy easy to understand. Dudes with crazy beards are good as are labour unions, solidarity, and political plurality. So is class warfare, as long as the proletariat wins.

Calling someone a Marxist is kind of like calling someone an anarcho-syndicalist. It's not naughty if you're correct, because they likely ascribe to intellectually complex ideologies that are probably dangerous to the standard of life that you love and either currently enjoy or aspire to, and they're probably pretty proud of that (pysche! insult turns into a compliment!). If you're wrong though, it's more stupid than naughty. People who aren't Marxists aren't Marxists, and the ones who are get mad when you try and give bourgeosie jerks the distinction of having attained such socio-political enlightenment without them having earned it. Besides, no one really understands what you mean.

Also, Marxist ≠ Communist (or communist!)

: Communists hate private property, people who say they're socialist but really aren't, Marxists who disagree with them, corporations and the bourgeosie. Soviet communists (which are a bit different than just regular communists) also hate Americans and thinking for themselves. Communists (in theory, at least - tbe Soviet communists are again a bit different) like egalitarianism, stateless societies, common ownership of everything, revolutions and big government.

It is widely held that Soviet communists proved that communism is an inoperable ideology - this hypothesis has not been tested widely though.

In America, calling someone a communist! is a fantastic insult. Americans have a proud history of labelling all kinds of dissenters as communists!, regardless of whether or not they have anything to do with Stalinism, Soviets, or even communes. Even school children know that communists! are bad. As a matter of fact, being called a communist! in America has almost nothing to do with communism. So keep at 'er, folks. As long as you mean 'communist!' in the uniquely American homage-to-McCarthyism kind of way and not in the 'someone who subscribes to a communist ideology' way that much of the rest of the world understands it. Because if you mean that second thing, you're being silly again.

Fascism: They hate communists, capitalists, class warfare, political systems with more than one party, and agreeing on universal ideological tenets. Money's good though. So are dictators, differentiated socio-cultural identities based on a common mythology, and successful corporate enterprises that get along with the dictator and makes lots of money.

While lots of people think it's very naughty to call someone a fascist, it isn't, really, because no one actually knows what fascism is. Least of all actual fascists.

Nazism: They hate communists, capitalists, class warfare, political systems without armbands, peace, Europe, America, and lots of religious minorities, stateless peoples, sexual minorities and persons with disabilities. They like secret police, armbands, war machines, and big government public affairs bureaus.They also generally enjoy building large mechanized systems with which to put an end to that which they dislike.

It's very naughty to call someone a Nazi. Seriously. I wouldn't do it if I were you.

And, our two bonus definitions

Godwin's Law
: (updated to the parlance of our times) "As a threaded online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." In other words, the more you talk about something that is increasingly tangential to the actual issue, the more likely you are to call your opponent a Nazi. You may or may not be right in this assertion, but the magnetic draw of probability will certainly impair your judgment on this front.

If you fulfill Godwin's law during the course of a discussion, it is extremely likely that you have made yourself and your argument look silly.

Reductio ad Hiterlum: Wikipedia isn't super-helpful here as the article seems to have been written by some sort of pedantic debator who thinks that logical fallacies are self-explanatory.
The basic gist is that this is an extension of Godwin's law: while some Nazi/Hitler comparisons are valid, most follow the principle of reductio ad Hitlerum, which holds that most references to Hitler abandon both logic and reality in order to make an emotionally-charged and argument-ending point that offers a conclusion totally devoid of context, usually via drawing a ridiculous parallel between their opponent and Nazis.
It goes something like this: Hitler wore pants. Because Hitler is bad, pants are also bad. Anyone who wears pants is a Nazi (and Nazis are, of course, bad).

If you utilize the reductio ad Hiterlum model of reasoning, you have definitely made yourself and your argument look silly to everyone except the people who agreed with you before you started talking. Also, you should probably stop wearing pants.

According to The Economist, Godwin's law and the principle of reductio ad Hiterlerum can be taken together to give us the following rule:
"in most discussions... the first person to call the other a Nazi automatically loses the argument"

You lose, Kitty Werthmann.


Monday, September 14, 2009


I've been very lucky in my life and lucky for a lot of reasons.

I was reminded today of one of those reasons: in private, in person, and sometimes in very public places, a surprising number of really tremendous people have paid me the honour of a compliment.

And not just any compliment. No, no - I'm talking about the kind of compliment that leaves you awestruck and humbled; the kind that was thoughtful and measured and eloquent; the kind where you're pretty sure that you aren't really worthy of such praise, but glad nonetheless that someone out there thought so highly of you, if even just for a moment, and found a moment to tell you so.

Don't get me wrong - all kind words, if sincere, are worth saying. But sometimes people say things (or write things) that profoundly affect the person that they're saying things about.

I count myself as truly lucky to have been on the receiving end of words like these. I'd like to say more about the gratitude I feel and how I have tried to grow into a better person as a way of demonstrating that gratitude for this luck of mine. But I never have been very good at that kind of thing.

Instead, I think I might try returning the favour or at least paying it forward.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

AIDS Awareness - In Several Guises

((if you came to this blog by searching for something about how you catch AIDS, please skip to the bottom of this post))

Some of you savvier internet-international development types might think it strange that there has been such a furor over MSF's "Boy" ad and things have (so far at least) remained relatively quiet on the "there is such a bad thing as bad press" front for the AIDS is a Mass Murderer Campaign.

While I can't speak to other denizens of the blogosphere, my answer is that I simply won't be deigning to give it the benefit of a commentary. While the 'Boy' ad may have been an emotive and disturbing composite of real (or real enough) events, the new AIDS awareness ads, while provocative, aren't really even an apt metaphor.

That being said, Google Analytics has pointed out to me that a large percentage of the tiny number of one-time readers my blog has come here searching for something related to "how you can catch AIDS." This is probably because of my You can't catch AIDS from sharing textbooks post penned after a visit to a Malawian primary school. Not that it matters - the point is, people come to this blog looking for information about AIDS transmission and I want them - even if it's only handful of them - to get access to accurate and helpful information about it.

AIDS: Some Facts & Resources

(It should be noted that I am not a doctor. If you are concerned that you or a loved one has a medical condition, you should seek medical advice. And even if you aren't you should be careful to trust the accuracy of online information, especially on blogs. I have tried my best to provide accurate information here, but I make no guarantees and will not be held liable for any consequences that may arise as a result of misinformation provided here.)

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency syndrome. It is an incurable and life-threatening sexually transmitted infection most commonly spread through having unprotected sex. It is also spread through sharing needles and from mother to child during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Historically, it has also been spread through tainted blood transfusions (though this is rare and NOT a reason to avoid donating blood or receiving transfusions in most places - please, please, please talk to a physician or a blood donation clinic if you have concerns about this possibility).

AIDS is actually caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency disorder). HIV/AIDS is currently classified as a global pandemic.
Both HIV & AIDS are incurable illnesses. Both are also treatable.

Many people who are HIV positive do not know that they have an incurable and life-threatening condition, as symptoms are not apparent in the early stages.

HIV/AIDS itself does not kill people. What it does it destroy the immune systems of people with the virus, making them more susceptible to opportunistic infections and tumours. Just because HIV/AIDS itself does not kill people does not mean that the virus is not deadly: infections caused by the virus have killed more than 25 million people since 1981.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has an easy-to-read and authoritative Question & Answer section on their website that is available in multiple languages. You can find it in English by clicking here.

Care also has an excellent list of resources.

also offers comprehensive resources.

And I'm sure there are many other good sites out there.

If you are concerned that you may have contracted HIV/AIDS, speak to a physician immediately or get tested for it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The State of Alberta

I would like to write a concise, well-researched post about the state of Alberta.
Unfortunately I don't have the time to comb through the hundreds of pages of documentation I would need to look through in order to do that (researching the state of funding for graduate students in Alberta post-secondary education is quite enough, thank-you) nor do I have the energy to put up with the weeks-long bout of increasingly perplexed depression that researching would no doubt cause.

Onto baseless anecdotal blog-drivel then.

This province is in trouble.

And it's not in trouble because I'm an Alberta-hating hippie who is just pouting because the PCs have been in power my whole life or because I'm some kind of socialist nut-job who hates oil, Stephen Duckett, and the private sector.

Some part of why it's in trouble is that writing down the sentence "this province is in trouble" anywhere and daring to allege that even some small sliver of the blame may rest at the feet of the current government will get me called all these things and worse. But that's not really the point - there's partisan political fundamentalism at work in systems other than ours, and I'll save my thoughts on the damage that does for another day.

The vision for a future Alberta is in trouble. No political party is offering an inspirational or even coherent vision for Albertans to get behind. The PCs don't have to and the Liberals and NDP both seem thoroughly convinced that, despite all evidence to the contrary (including their respective performances in the last elections), the most effective way to get their message out to Albertans is to harp loudly and often about how they're not the Conservatives. I don't care what the Opposition parties are not: I want to hear about the Alberta they want to build. The Green Party is folding in on itself (for shame). That leaves the Wildrose Alliance Party - and in the midst of a leadership race, time will tell if they can come up with something that isn't pandering smoke and mirrors. Here's hoping they can.

The quality of representation and respect that (most of us) get from the members of our Legislative Assembly is in trouble. I have been insulted twice in the past four months by public offhand comments made by elected officials - once by Minister Iris Evans, who thought it would be appropriate to say that I wasn't raised properly and once by Doug Elnisky, who thought it would be funny to make a blog joke that I along every other woman in Alberta should get our 'Equal treatment' in little packets at Starbucks. There have been other denigrating outbursts, like Dave Taylor's garbled 'Scopes monkeys' reference... and I have no doubt many that I've missed. The point is, showing such callous disregard for the basic dignity of constituents through comments that have little if anything to do with the actual jobs of elected officials is saddening and absurd behavior.

Our democratic integrity is in trouble. Voter turnout in this province is embarrassing - we sit in roughly the same boat as places like Colombia, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. And people who vote in those places are risking their LIVES to cast their ballots. Since the last election, both the Chief Electoral Officer and the Auditor General have called it quits, and both did it amidst an embarrassingly small furor over government attitudes towards their department that, for me at least, leave serious questions about the ability of our system to behave in a transparent and impartial way when called upon to do so.

Our system is making bad decisions for us. There was a 16 billion dollar forecasting error in the current budget. Let that sink in a bit: the government was wrong about their budget forecast by about 16 billion dollars. That is a lot of money to screw up with, and the consequences are severe. Cuts to education and health both seem to be on the radar - sectors that can ill afford the loss, given that they're both absolutely essential to the success of our province in caring for its citizens and in assuring economic prosperity in the future and given that neither sector has ever really been given the resources needed to recover from the last round of devastating deficit-inspired cuts. All this on the heels of record-breaking surpluses and certain knowledge that the royalty-revenue boom was not going to last forever. What happened? Seriously, guys (and girls - sorry Minister Evans) - we trusted you with this and you should have known better.

The decision has been made to close Alberta Hospital and the government has said (though I don't know if they still stand by this position) that they're working on a strategy for dealing with the patients that would subsequently be bedless - not that they already have one, but that they're working on it after the decision has already been announced. This all in spite of the fact that Alberta has been through the debacle of closing a psychiatric hospital without adequate planning once before (in Red Deer in 1977) and knows what the consequences of that kind of action are (they're bad).

That's not to mention the rest of the health care system. Unless you believe that 'it has to get worse before it gets better,' recent decisions regarding health provision are doing serious damage to the province's health care system that it will take years and an extremely unlikely policy reversal/regime change to fix. At the top of my list is the amalgamation of the health boards into one mega-board which can't possibly be as familiar with local conditions province-wide as their regionally based predecessors were, and it's already starting to show.

And Bill 44 is a nightmare. Regardless of whether or not you think parents should be able to shield their children from controversial curricular content, this piece of legislation is shoddily worded, largely redundant, and causing more trouble than it's worth on all sides.

Even without the research, this sucks. So much so that, other than sending pointless little rants out to sail on the over-saturated waters of the worldwide web, I don't even know where to start with fixing it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Messages of Hope

I'm a bit starved for inspiration today... but it's Friday, and I think that blogs should go into the weekend with a most recent post that is either amusing, important, or uplifting. My last post is none of these things, and so I'm wracking my brain for things to say.

Unfortunately, my brain isn't a very good place to go looking for things that are important or uplifting today (I won't comment on amusing - I'm a comedic legend in my own mind, 24/7). That fact is that I've spent a lot of my online time this week feeling pretty frustrated, pretty disgusted, and maybe even a bit forlorn about what humanity is up to.

From the former Auditor General vs. Toronto cyclist incident (which has been reported as far away as India and Malaysia) to the Alberta government's poorly handled and seemingly short-sighted decision to allow the closure of the Alberta Hospital to riots in Gabon to the continuing bad behavior of some Americans, and Canadians and their politicians (never mind all the horrible news in between), I can't help but look back on this week's snapshot of us and see that it looks a bit grim.

'Grim,' however, is a prognosis that I refuse to accept. Here are three little bits of my life that remind me that things can be a little bit better than that if we let them.

"Hold on. Hope hard. It gets better."
-anonymous chalk graffitist, as written on a street in Edmonton on a day when I really needed it

"Quand on se souvenait que tout était sorti des mains et de l’âme de cet homme, sans moyens techniques, on comprenait que les hommes pourraient être aussi efficaces que Dieu dans d’autres domaines que la destruction."
(roughly tranlated: "When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man - without technical aids - , it struck me that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction. ")
-Jean Giono, from L'homme qui plantait des arbres/The Man Who Planted Trees

The Change (video)

Happy weekend everyone.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Oh, He Just Forgot. Well, That's Okay Then.

I'd love to be important enough to forget where all my paycheques come from. that sounds like grand fun.

Peter MacKay drops the conflict-of-interest ball


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

MSF Ad-roversy

I've been following the discussions raging online about Doctors Without Borders/MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÈRES/MSF's latest ad.

While there are lots of places to link to, I'll give you The Road to the Horizon for an excellent collection of related links and an interesting position on the ad (more on my take on that after you've had a chance to see the thing for yourself).

And here's the ad...

My first introduction to this ad was via a tweet by @geroter, co-CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada. I was intrigued by George's concern that the ad "further entrenches the typical story of "Africa" in the media." After watching the ad, I tweeted something snippy to the effect of "Are you sure that's Africa? MSF didn't specify the country, so is the entrenchment of "Africa's" story here yours or theirs?" (Sorry George - the dangers of unedited instant internet communiques).

I left it at that. At first. But George's concerns buried themselves in the back of my mind along with some of my own that I had totally ignored, waiting for a chance to strike.

That chance came today, when a friend sent me a story in The Ottawa Citizen about the experiences of two longtime MSF volunteers.

I watched the ad again.

It's powerful - there's no denying that. Who wouldn't be moved to do something (anything, really) to spare that child from the suffering you can hear in his voice?

And someone is soliciting feedback in a big way about this ad (I say "someone" because I'm not sure if it's MSF or if it's Pete their web guy not operating in an 100% official capacity), so my hat is tipped to them for trying to engage with their 'audience' in the world of web 2.0.

But...well, where do I start with the 'buts?'

I don't like it when ads reinforce the collective superficiality of the West by giving us 10 seconds of emotional connection and a sleek, simple solution at the end. This ad is that. Our heartstrings are pulled, and we are told that this little boy needs us to donate to MSF. It doesn't matter where he is, or whether or not MSF would have stopped the militias from orphaning him (which they could not have - that's not the kind of work that MSF does), or the fact that 'fixing' the problems of wherever that poor child is are far more complex than a monthly donation will solve. 'What you can do' is made easy.

There are more 'buts,' like how the desperation of this ad leaves me feeling empty and hopeless, or how I am uncomfortable with how the anonymity of the ad makes me feel like MSF is complicit in this child's powerlessness instead of working to change it, or that, some part of me feels like the tone of this ad is a betrayal of the optimism that attracts at least some of MSF's volunteers to the work that they do.

Basically, I don't like the ad, and it would take me an essay to explain why. So instead of an essay, I turn to poetry.

Many years ago, a poet named T.S. Eliot wrote a long poem called The Wasteland. Eliot's not for everyone. He is for me though. I find myself drawn to his poetry often, wrestling to unlock what he was saying that speaks to me so and seems so much to offer a wrenching and chilling insight into this world of mine. With regards to this ad a quote from part 2 (the game of chess)...

‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’

'Africa' never speaks to us because we seem to only want to listen when they are screaming.
We never know what we are thinking because really, we aren't.

I think that we need to do better at both if we really want to help - ads like this aren't really helping.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Finger Shake Hat Tip: Edmonton Intl Fringe and Related Matters

I've spent much of this week a-Fringing.

I overlooked my annoyance at the fact that the actual title of the "Stage a Revolution" Fringe doesn't actually have the word "Fringe" in it (again) and set off, program in hand.

Despite being a mixed bag, the Fringe remains one of my favourite Edmonton festivals. That being said, it is a mix, so I wanted to share some of the highlights and lowlights of this year.

I spy with my little eye, something that was the same at the Saskatoon Fringe

And that is the Review for this year's Fringe Production of School House Rock: Live! which played at 3 Canadian Fringes.

Planet S magazine out of Saskatoon and SEE Magazine out of Edmonton, ran the same review of this kids' show, with the exception of some extra "a-a-a"s, an added "ABC" and a sentence or two at the end.

Though I didn't compare scientifically, most of the other shows that toured between Saskatoon and Edmonton (including Burlesque Unzipped, G-Men: Defectives, and Raunch) warranted their own made-in-Edmonton review.

Isn't that cheating a little? Sure the show's on tour, but I for one don't really think it's cool for reviews to be touring too.

Speaking of Kids' Fringe: Tsk, Tsk on the Venue Change, Edmonton

Those of you who attended shows for the kids at previous Edmonton Fringes may remember sinking into the beautiful, air-conditioned and centrally located PCL Theatre to take in whatever tickled your fancy.

Not so this year. This year the kids' venue is the Strathcona Community League.
In addition to being a couple of blocks off of the main Fringe grounds (and therefore a couple of blocks from the KidsFringe), the Community League is HOT.
And as much as it sucks to see grown-up shows in a stuffy over-warm venue, grown-ups who go to the Fringe tend to be troopers. Asking kids to sit through a play is enough of a challenge as it is (even a really, really good play). Asking them to do it in a venue that has to tinfoil over its windows to try and keep the natural light and heat out (and, on the heat front, failing miserably) really just isn't fair. While I think it's great that the Fringe does cater to family Fringers, I think they did a better job last year with centrally located kid-friendly programming and a theatre that made it comfortable and convenient for parents to expose their children to the Fringe.

Yay! Volunteer Love!
As much as I'm annoyed about the venue change for kids' shows, I heartily approve of the Fringe making an effort to take better care of its volunteers. Not that the festival hasn't made that a priority before, but the volunteers (along with the crazily overworked staff) are the lifeblood of the festival, and some air conditioning near the box office seems like a lovely idea.

The Shows
I loved loved loved Addition: An Unconventional Love Story, nggrfg and The Be Arthurs Reunion Tour, and most of the other shows I've seen have been great too (including School House Rocks: Live!. Yes, I go see plays for kids. So what? I like comic books too...). Usually there's at least one or two cringe-worthy performances in the bag I manage to see (and, with a couple of solid days of Fringing left, I might find a cringer yet), but this year has been a remarkably entertaining Fringe for me.

The Arts
When I convocated from the U of A, I was fortunate to have Felix (Fil) Fraser join my class as an honorary degree recipient. Fortunate both because Mr. Fraser is a credit to the arts and also because he's a tremendously engaging speaker.
Towards the end of his speech to my class (or half class, as U of A arts now graduates too many students to be in the Jubilee Auditorium all at the same time), Mr. Fraser said something that really stuck with me. He said,

"In the face of the million human tragedies that are a constant feature of our information society, we need to constantly remind ourselves and the world that we humans, who can kill and maim and destroy in the name of self righteousness, are also the ones who make music.
It is the arts that humanize us. Never let anyone tell you that the arts are a frill; that they should pay their own way; that there are more important things in life than the expression and appreciation of human creativity."

I feel echoes of that sentiment when I get the chance to experience the Fringe. It's a madcap expression of the diversity of the human spirit, and it takes the community along for the ride. I love the passion and enthusiasm that the festival brings out in this city, and I especially love that Edmonton has such a great opportunity for so many people to experience the arts, be it for the first time or over and over and over again every single year.

Anyway, like I said, there is more Fringe left to see, so I'm off to go see it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There and Back Again - Hiatus Over

Last time you tuned into this blog, I was in Malawi. More specifically, I was leaving Malawi.

Times have changed, and I've been busy since.
I'm back in Edmonton now, working a steady job and getting up to speed on a surprisingly large number of side projects, including The First Drop. As you can tell by its addition to my side-bar, I'm pretty excited about where this project is going, and consequently am putting my proverbial back into it.

I'm also trying to devote time to Better Edmonton, which you can follow on Twitter or find on Facebook.

There are other projects, but they're not quite ready to be aired on a blog.

Which brings me to the question that anyone actually reading this now might be asking themselves: why is this blog back?

Good question. In a surprise twist, here's an honest answer.

I have always found it helpful to write, and have always found that my writing style has only two gears: inappropriately informal and stuffy to the point of academic incomprehensibility.

As one of the voices @thefirstdrop (and on their blog), I feel like writing more will help me get better at sending words forth into the land of Web 2.0.

I also find it helpful to wax philosophical on occasion and I've found that periodic spurts of ranting and raving enhance my calm. Sometimes, there are real pearls in those rants, raves, and waxes that other people find interesting or at least entertaining. And I like the attention. ;)

Last, one of my open secrets (and, hopefully a 'secret' that many more people share with me), I think that lots of the things I care about are worth caring about and, if something is worth caring about, it's worth knowing about, talking about, writing about and even, sometimes, doing something about.

And I still find it helpful to write.

So this is a place for me to do all that. To write however I want about whatever I care about today, to improve my writing generally, to plug causes that I'm doing something about, to rant, to rave, to wax and to wane, and above all, to have my own little slice of fiefdom on the world wide web where I can release personal diatribes and witticisms that serve my purpose - whatever that purpose happens at that particular moment.

With any luck, my purposes will, on occasion, resonate with yours.


Friday, April 24, 2009

The road goes ever on and on...

News is, I think, best delivered as band-aids are removed; suddenly and quickly with some time set aside to deal with the aftermath.

Out with it then… after some serious contemplation and for a variety of reasons, I have decided to end my placement with Engineers Without Borders Canada early and return to Canada.

The behind-the-scenes preparations for my return to Canada have been in the works for some time already. I delayed announcing this to the wider internet until after I had communicated my decision to my friends and family and to both of the organizations in question.

After wrapping things up at home and at work in Nkhamenya, I will be spending a few days in Lilongwe finishing up handover notes and having some transitional meetings with other members of the EWB staff. From there, I’ll be heading home via Toronto. I’ll be leaving Lilongwe on the afternoon of May 5th and arriving back into Toronto on the afternoon of May 6th. I’ll likely be back in Edmonton later that week.

Though this has at times been a challenging and even occasionally a frustrating experience, I have also found it immensely rewarding. I have been humbled to work with the amazing team of overseas volunteers currently working for EWB am deeply grateful to Engineers Without Borders Canada and to Plan Malawi for facilitating this opportunity. It has been my great privilege to contribute to the work of these organizations and also to work alongside their staff. I have been very impressed by the warmth and support shown to me by my colleagues at Plan, and by the friends I have been lucky enough to make while working and living in Malawi.

I will carry the experiences I've had and the people I've met these past few months with me for the rest of my life.

Thank-you for sharing this journey with me. Here’s hoping I see you on the next leg.

" The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say. "

(h/t to J.R.R. Tolkien for writing what I meant to say before he shuffled off bound for Grey Havens of his own)

[PS: Once I’ve gotten back into gear in Canada, I will be re-designing and re-purposing this blog (have no fear – I do have a design and a vague sense of purpose in mind).]

Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter Weekend

I know this is a week late - I'm sure you'll get over it.
I had a noteworthy Easter in Lilongwe. I got to spend some quality time with a number of other EWB types including Mr. Kang, my good friend Colleen, Alynne, Megan, Anna-Marie, and Garrett (whose blog I haven't been able to scrounge up. Lettner, Ashley and Enam were also around a bit, but they missed most of the hijinks.

Work was done (as Mike can tell you) and fun was had. There was a delicious eggplant BBQ with guacamole made from fresh avocados - the avocados are plentiful and GIGANTIC these days.

There was also an Easter Sunday spent attempting to make kites which quickly morphed into a paper airplane making contest on account of not having any string which in turn evolved into a series of attempts to make branded EWB airplanes = flying light bulbs for short.

And while retreat was not too long ago, it was really nice to see people again. Friends are great to have and great to see often, and I had some quality time with the ones that made it to Lilongwe. It was really great to have the quality time.

(Oops... I never did tell you about the monkeys, did I? Sorry about that...)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dare I Say "Done Well?" What is "Development Work" Anyway?

I say 'development work' or something similar quite a lot in this blog, and no where have I defined what I mean by either 'development' or the 'work' that one might do related to it. That's because vague terms that everyone assumes mean the same thing to them as everyone else are convenient rhetorical devices that I shamelessly employ whenever they suit my purpose.

So, if we were going to get beyond the rhetoric, what is 'development work,' anyway?

According to my trusty Mac dictionary, "development" can be defined as "the process of developing or being developed."

... I may have used "trusty" a little prematurely.

"Develop," then, is defined as "to grow or cause to grow and become more mature, advanced, or elaborate."

Leaving aside the sticky questions about what "advanced" and "elaborate" mean (and especially according to whom) for now (otherwise we'd be here all day), let's move on to "work."

"Work" is "activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result."

So, the layman's definition of 'development work' ought to be "activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to grow our cause growth so that the object of our work becomes more mature, advanced, or elaborate."
Or something to that effect.

That's a nice, vague definition that raises a whole bunch of interesting questions, no? Questions like:
- (as already touched on) Who gets to define what "advanced" and "elaborate" mean in the contexts of societies that are the targets of development assistance (nevermind "mature")?
- Who is making the effort? Who ought to be?
- In service of who? Of what?
- How do we best go about measuring success?
- Does learning about what kind of effort is involved count?
- When do we get to say 'enough - we have finished growth that is 'development' work and now go do growth that is 'sustainable' social evolution'?

It's also, in the contexts of the work I'm doing, laced with a bunch of assumptions about where we do development work, who 'we' is... and probably others besides.

Lots and lots and lots of people in the development sector claim to have answers to some if not all of these questions. And the ones I've linked to here are just a small sample of the experts - that doesn't even get to the institutions, the non-expert policy-makers, the implementors, the amateur volunteer-type speculators (including yours truly) or even, most important of all, the "intended beneficiaries" of all this (largely held to be people living in absolute poverty or people living in countries where there is widespread absolute poverty).

The truth is, though, that no one has "the" answers. What we have is lots of different answers and lots more questions arising out of those answers (and out of other, complicating factors like what happens when we throw more complicated ideas like "accountability" and "empowerment" into the mix).

For my part, the development work I've been doing so far is a little bit of helping and a whole lot of learning. I'm a volunteer, and I work with people who have a lot of experience doing 'development' in Malawi - all currently employed by a non-governmental organization, but coming from many backgrounds including work in Health, in water provision & sanitation and from governments, NGOs, and the private sector. I'm here to help where I can, to learn more so that I can help more, and to see if I can figure out some piece of this whole "development work" puzzle to help others in the sector work better by getting and then sharing a perspective.

Awhile back, I had a conversation with a traveler passing through Lilongwe. He was French and was traveling across Africa in a Land Cruiser. When he asked me about whether or not I thought I could 'make a difference' in a year in Africa - I could tell by the way he asked it that he was waiting for me to give one of those answers borne of youth and inexperience that runs something like this:
"Sure! My mom told me that if I care enough, I can do anything I set my mind to!"
Instead, I thought seriously about the question and said something like this:
"Probably not. I think though, that I can learn a lot about the challenge and complexity of the work I've signed up to do and maybe I can scratch the surface of understanding it. And I think that, as long as I spend the rest of my life trying to make this year up to the people who taught me about what it would really take to 'make a difference,' this year will be worth it to everyone involved. Plus I might actually discover that there are small things I can do that will change things for the better - but if I do, I'll see that as a bonus."

I still don't know if I was right about the prognosis for my placement on either the learning or the probability of making a difference fronts. But I think I was on to something regarding the essence of what development work is for me. I think, for me, "development work" can take many forms, but at its heart is about being critical of your abilitiy to but nevertheless remaining constantly committed to helping as well as you know how.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Choices, Changes & African Proverbs

I procrastinate.
This is a fact, and Malawi hasn't changed it one bit.

Today, I'm procrastinating by thinking, reflecting, and "Googling.

Some quotes that speak to me....

“If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is compromise.”
-Robert Fritz

"Hope is the pillar of the world"
-Kanuri proverb

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
-Barack Obama

Choices are the hinges of destiny."

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."
-Charles Dubois

"They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself."
-Andy Warhol

"The tears running down your face do not blind you."
-Togolese proverb

“There are always two choices. Two paths to take. One is easy. And its only reward is that it's easy.”

"The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn."
-David Russell

"It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows."

"Stay with me.
'Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"
T.S. Eliot

"He who asks questions cannot avoid the answers."
-Cameroon proverb

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Movie Night in Malawi

The Prelude

I was eating dinner in the Rise & Shine Diner the other day. It's a frequent haunt of mine (I think I've become addicted to the nsima with beef relish. soooo tasty).

I wasn't in any hurry, so I sat around for a bit visiting with my friend Nelli and Zealous, the niece of the owners of the diner. Zealous is in town visiting over the Easter break, which lasts three weeks in Malawi. The diner was pretty quiet - this was around 5:30 pm, which is a bit early for supper in Malawi.

While we were chatting, someone put in a Nigerian movie.

A bit about Nigerian Movies

When I say "Nigerian movies" I do mean movies made in Nigeria. But leaving it at that is like describing Bollywood movies as "movies made in India." Nigerian movies are their own genre.

Sometimes referred to as Naija movies or Nollywood movies, Nigerian films are usually English-speaking, multi-part movies with slapstick comeday and crazy melodrama. They often involve witchcraft and/or the tension between 'traditional' and 'modern' Africa. They often come in 4 or 5 or 6 in 1 packs of DVDs, so you can watch the whole series of film in one go.

I could say more on these lovely gems... but I won't. Instead I'll tell you about the one that was flipped on in the Rise & Shine.

Unfortunately, I can't remember the exact title of this one... I think it was "Aziwa II."

The Plot
This Nigerian movie was a remake of Pocahontas. And not just any Pocahontas - this one was based specifically on the Disney animated feature.

The film starts with a 'tribal' princess (you can tell she's tribal because she's scantily clad and has her face painted) talking with the 'foreign' prince (you can tell he's foreign because he's wearing an orange poncho and a matching fishing hat). She's begging him to leave because she loves him but her father wants to make war. The foreign prince insists that he's just here to search for the "herb of life" and doesn't want to fight.

They are, of course, interrupted by a gigantic muscle-bound warrior and his posse. Cue the posse of foreigners with guns, who shoot one of the warriors. The foreign prince-guy is captured and, after being sentenced to death in front a a disgraced and hysterical tribal princess, thrown in a bamboo cage.

The princess visits him in the night and they have a touching exchange. At one point, the foreign prince says, "I would rather die tomorrow than live a thousand years without knowing you" (sound familiar?).

Anyway, the execution is interrupted. First the princess realizes that she'd rather die than live without her foreign prince guy and throws herself between the executioner and the prince. Then the prince's posse show up with their guns.

But the prince is betrayed! One of his men shoots him in the chest (it turns out later that they're planning on making off with a bunch of gold that they must have found in part one).

Luckily, him getting shot by his own people causes the tribal king to sympathize with this foreign prince-guy that his daughter is in love with and the village healer brings the prince-guy back to life using the 'herb of life.'

When the prince guy wakes up, the tribespeople give him a big bundle of the herb of life and he rushes back to his kingdom - apparently, he was off on this herb of life quest to save the life of his father, king of the orange poncho people. He strides into the throne room just in time to accuse his would-be murderers of treason as they're telling the king about his tragic death at the hands of the 'savages.' Huzzah!

But it's not over yet - he's left his tribal princess to pine after him and has to go back and sweep her off her feet properly. But the Queen Mom REALLY doesn't want him to go. And, back in the wilderness, the father of our distraught heroine seems to think that this infatuation with the foreign prince-guy is just a 'phase' and is trying to fix up his daughter with the muscle-bound warrior from the beginning. Ooh... riveting.

The End?

Just as the Prince finished telling his fiancee Princess (not to be confused with the tribal princess - this one is wearing an elaborate silver and blue dress and doesn't have her face painted), "I'm sorry, my heart is somewhere else," the electricity cut out. ESCOM, Malawi's neighborhood friendly hydro-power supplier, has a habit of gifting us with inconveniently timed blackouts. Rumours abound with respect to why that might be the case.

Anyway, I have no idea how Aziwa II ended. I finished my nsima, paid my bill, and went home.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Stupid Internets

So, I hadn't meant to let that other post linger for as long as it has - I've got big plans for a post about what I mean when I say "development work" and I need to tell wonderful stories about a staff retreat (my first trip to Lake Malawi!) involving monkeys and other, more serious things.

Unfortunately, my internet access has been and continues to be a bit sporadic.

Bear with me!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bad Volunteer Staff Member? Bad Person? Only Human?

This kind of work encompasses my whole life unless I fight to wall off little pieces to keep outside of the 'me' that works in development.

Some of that is because of EWB's ethos of volunteer sending ("Being a development worker is not a nine-to-five job – it is a lifestyle"), but I can't help but wonder how much of it is universal to the expatriate experience itself and especially in development work (dare I say, done well?*).

When you travel halfway across the world, the trip sort of necessitates you building a new slice of life (nearly halfway, anyway - I figured it out one day and the actual halfway mark for me is actually a bit closer to Sri Lanka). You've left your friends, family, and context on one side of the ocean, and now have to find new friends, family and context on the other. It's a great adventure to do it, but the stakes are high and whatever costs incurred are invariably more at other peoples' expense than mine.

I'm here to live, to understand and to "have a positive impact:" there are tensions between these three things; not the least of which is having the humility to question whether or not I'll ever be able to figure out what a positive impact even is, the understanding that, whatever it is, I probably won't manage it on this contract, and the motivation to try anyway. One of the other tensions is that, in order to ever come anywhere close to achieving 'understanding' of the cultural contexts and pragmatic considerations of living and working here Malawi, it's important to experience Malawian life and culture firsthand (to use one of the more distasteful turns of phrase floating around in development, it's "necessary to achieve a firsthand understanding of the livelihoods of the intended beneficiaries").
By the same token, I want to make friends, have a house, and learn how to cook so that I can live: all these things involve behaving like "intended beneficiaries" are regular people, figuring out what to do about being a relatively well-off traveling white person, and letting go of the need to 'understand' and 'achieve' for awhile so that I can just be.

And all that is just what I do in the evenings. We haven't actually touched on the 'job' yet, in the 9 to 5, contractual responsibilities sense of the word.

So then we have the job. We also have the bits of life that I wall off as mine: my addiction to technology, calls home, brief road trips to the city to shop and eat cheese. Even these things aren't clearly unrelated to my life as a development worker. Communicating home can be about 'raising awareness,' technology is a tool that helps me 'focus,' 'increase productivity,' and 'do outreach.' Even the road trips end up being about work - be it through taking some time away from the office to write down thoughts on development lessons I'm learning not directly related to my project or my partner, time meeting with other volunteers to share experiences and tools, or even accidentally stumbling into a staff meeting in a different city, it's rare for me to go 24 hours without doing something development-related.

I notice the all-encompassing nature of my life as an EWB Overseas Volunteer staffer most sharply when I'm away from that life.

Like now.

Right this moment, I'm sitting at Mabuya Camp (again, not still), writing this post. I've been away from my house in Nkhamenya for a little over a week now. My backpack is packed and sitting beside me, and it's early afternoon. I need to walk or catch a minibus to carry me from expat/tourist-soaked Mabuya to the bus depot, and from there commence the public transportation adventure that will take me back to Nkhamenya.

I don't want to go.

It's not that I don't want to go, exactly. The trip, though a bit stressful (wandering through the market with a backpack in the hot sun while being beset by the wonderful variety of vendors who populate the market) is fun, and usually involves exhilarating brushes with the unexpected. And the bus ride is usually a great space to think, read, and/or meet new people.

And I'm looking forward to being back in Nkhamenya. I've been away for just over a week, and am missing my friends (and, if I dare to admit it, my nsima, compliments of the Rise & Shine diner). There are a group of Pentecostal missionaries from the United States coming to visit the husband of my good friend Nelli, and I want to be there to see them and lend Nelli a hand during what's likely to be a chaotic, crazy-awesome couple of days. I'm also missing and being missed by several of the people in Nkhamenya that I've been lucky enough to call 'friend' (mbwezi) this past while. Three "where are you" phone calls and counting.

I miss sleeping in my own bed, and want to see how disastrous my yard has become without my tender lovin' care. I am not looking forward to hauling water from the borehole, but am looking forward to cooking something homemade with it and to sitting on my couch and walking around in my neighborhood - comforts that are seriously lacking while I'm staying in Lilongwe.

Stalling here is putting me a bit behind at work too. I've got an outstanding project with the Sponsorship Coordinator that I was hoping to work with him to finish by the end of the month and a couple of reports to write. Plus I need to meet with the Health Coordinator to catch up on how projects have been going this part week, get back around to giving a hand, and get the jump on making arrangements to visit another field office.

That being said, I'm still sitting here typing away instead of closing up my computer and starting my journey.

The reason? There are many; some are complex, some are obvious and some are likely subconscious. One is that I'm lazy about traveling in the sense that I dislike all the work that goes into leaving point A in order to get to point B. I'm also a lifelong procrastinator, and the fact that I have a lot of things to do in Nkhamenya is seriously affecting my interest in going, despite the fact that delaying isn't going to make doing my laundry any easier.

On some level, though, it's a relief to be away from my job and my domestic responsibilities. Vacations are always nice - unfortunately, I'm thoroughly unjustified in taking one. That's not what I'm here for, and I think it's a bit of a disservice to my employers and my partner, who are supporting me here on the basis of a shared understanding that I will be giving 110% to the work.

Other than the running water, however, I'm not actually 'vacationing' by delaying in Lilongwe. I'm using the time to meet with fellow volunteers about work stuff, get caught up on 'technical' background reading (which I try not to do when I'm at work and can't do at home owing to the lack of domestic electricity), and get everyone I can get my hands on with EWB onto twitter (outreach!). I'm also trying to use the time away from Nkhamenya to get some perspective on the time I've spent there so far; trying to figure out how I've been doing on balancing the tensions I mentioned above. It's my first time in Africa, my first job as a development worker, and I'm pretty sure I'm screwing important things up; being able to check in with people who have more experience is something I need to do to try (and likely fail, but at least try) to pick through how much of the failure and frustration I've experienced so far is a forgivable part of experiencing, how much requires immediate and severe course correction, and (most troublingly) how much of it isn't me at all, but has more to do with the complex dynamics of 'the big picture.' Successes I can talk about in Nkhamenya - failures are harder territory to navigate with people I've known for such a short span of time whose own jobs and lives are somehow bound up in the work we do.

But do I need to be here to do that? Why am I not trying harder to work through these things on my own in Nkhamenya, or to integrate far enough into local life to find people nearer to my Malawi work and life that can fill the roles that I'm currently giving to the characters and circumstances I meet when I go to Lilongwe?

I don't know if all this makes me a bad volunteer or a bad person who should be doing more and trying harder. All I know is that today I'm in Lilongwe even though it feels like I should be in Nkhamenya.

[UPDATE: My mom says 'only human.' Go figure. ;-)]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Moment of Weakness Multiplies ad infinitum: @amjhenry

As some of you may have noticed, I've added a new box to the sidebar of this blog: I've surrendered to IDEAfest-induced peer pressure and registered on twitter.

Twitter is, in my former opinion at least, kind of silly. It's basically a website that lets you 'tweet' your friends/'followers' from the web or from your cell phone to give them up to the minute 'updates' on whatever you feel like keeping them up-to-date on (a more frequently updated version of facebook statuses, for those of you familiar with that little gem of social media). In 140 characters or less.

While I'm still not sold that twitter is inherently un-silly, I've decided to give it a try. While I'm in Malawi at least, I think it might be an interesting way to try and keep you more immediately in the loop about life, times, and crazy random happenstance as they unfold. Hopefully, I can keep up with it (without totally failing to, you know, do good work) and pass along some interesting insights into things here that wouldn't make it to you in the more formal, I-actually-need-to-sit-down-and-think/write-coherently land of the blog.

Please feel free to let me know if you agree - or let me know whatever else you might feel like telling me. Email, blog comment, facebook, or, introducing tweet @amjhenry. I may be far away, but the internet just might be able to keep me at your fingertips (delayed, maybe, or crazy slow, depending on where I am in Malawi, but at your fignertips all the same).

Also, Happy St. Patrick's Day (green beer day!). When this publishes, I'll be in Senga Bay blasting through a working week of EWB Team Meeting.

Maybe I'll tweet to let you know how that goes (though it depends on talk time - text message tweets cost me a 20 units. Ouch).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Week in Lilongwe

By the time you get to read this, I'll be in Lilongwe again, en route to Senga Bay for a staff retreat (yay post-dated blog posts)...

Anyway, I spent the first week of March in Lilongwe.
The trip had been coming for some time.

While the past 4 months have been rewarding and wonderful and unlike anything I've ever experienced before and likely ever will again - even if I continue in development work or in living in Africa, I doubt that my first four months anywhere else will ever be identical to these - they have also been extremely challenging, sometimes frustrating, and quite often pretty lonely.

I needed to come to Lilongwe for some meetings. I was overdue for a face to face discussion with my contact at the country office of Plan Malawi about the progress on the Community-Led Total Sanitation project. Two of my areas of responsibility are to "document lessons learnt" and "provide assistance in effective scale-up" of the project. Having been able to make some observations, I was hoping to get a check-in on expectations for 'lessons learnt' and make plans to visit another field office so that I can see how the project is rolling out at other locations and provide an opportunity for the two CLTS teams to 'compare notes.'

I also needed to meet with someone on the EWB Team (southern Africa edition) to talk behavior change and get to know one another so that we can make a space to talk strategy, learning, and other aspects of hygiene & sanitation promotion as they relate to our work.

Those two meetings would have taken 3 days, but a combination of circumstance and deeply personal intuition turned it into 7.

The easy bit first: circumstance.

I had a hard time getting in touch with my country office counterpart due to
a) sporadic blackouts (this is, apparently, because Malawi's hydro-electric dam is getting clogged with detritus in the river...) making email difficult
b) network problems with my cell phone (though it may actually be my cell phone - it seems to be possessed by technological gremlins)
c) 'tis the season for Plan to prepare their budgets for the next financial year - so my country office counterpart is understandably otherwise occupied.

So I came into Malawi for the weekend for my EWB meeting, trusting that I'd be able to call on Monday and make a meeting for Tuesday.

But... Tuesday was a national holiday.

So... Wednesday. But as I was heading to the meeting (and I really mean as - I was about 30 seconds from getting onto a minibus), I received a call from my counterpart: he had been called into a high-level government meeting with sector donors and needed to reschedule. That took us to Thursday. By then, it just made sense to stay awhile longer.

The hard part: personal intuition.
The last month has been hard. I've been homesick for both personal and professional reasons, and have recently been bowled over by a series of really profound personal epiphanies. Personal epiphanies are good, true - but they're a bit difficult to process so far from home and the people that I have been friends with for long enough that they'd understand where I'm coming from.
It's also been frustrating at work, but I didn't really realize that at the time - my frustrations and their sources really only came to my attention after I'd been in Lilongwe for a couple of days.

Anyway, back to missing home: I reached out via email to reconnect with those people -that I was missing and who would just know what I was thinking and where I was coming from without having to really explain - also good. Really good. I'm deeply grateful that I have been privileged to have such close friends and colleagues.

But being able to reconnect with them threw my level of satisfaction, focus and performance at my work with Plan into pretty sharp relief. I still haven't picked through exactly what was going on there, but something was going wrong, and I needed some perspective on what it was, why it was, and what I could be doing differently to make things work better.

Which set off a weird cycle in my personal life. Just as I was making friends in Nkhamenya, and starting to really be comfortable enjoying my life there, I was also being confronted by pretty heavy work and personal stuff that was kind of quintessentially 'Canadian' (as in, related to my life back in Canada - I have no idea what universally quintessential 'Canadian' stuff would look like) and (as I learned rather quickly) extremely challenging to talk to my Malawian friends about. Not impossible - but the degree of challenge in the conversation caused those conversations to be interesting learning experiences of their own that didn't really help me deal with all the, for lack of a better word, 'upheaval' I felt like I was going through. Learning, good - feeling increasingly out of my depth and alone in uncharted personal growth waters - not so much.

So that's how I was feeling, and I kind of knew why (but not really) and it was really messing with my ability to 'be' (useful, yes, but also just 'be') at work.

So I went to Lilongwe. And spending a week at Mabuya socializing with other EWB volunteers, various other development volunteers (including a pack of people from the United Kingdom volunteering as teachers), tourists, and the crazy hodgepodge of expats who are regulars at the camp gave me a profound and much-needed recharge. As much as I'm starting to really love Malawi and find my Malawian friends becoming wonderful, heart-warming fixtures in my life, it helps to be able to talk to people whose life experiences are a little bit more similar to mine.

Some part of me feels pretty conflicted about that admission - I kind of feel like I've cheated somehow. But I haven't delved into why or if that makes sense or is something I should be keeping tabs on in future - right now, I'm just accepting that some part of me knew I needed the time, and some other part of me listened to that little voice telling me to 'go' and took it.

That seems like an incomplete, anti-climactic place to finish. Which is bad blog etiquette, but probably the most stylistically honest way to close.

Til next time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Canada Plays Snookers With Bilateral Aid

I've been meaning to post about the Canadian government's recent announcement regarding their decision to shift our bilateral aid focus to the Americas.

I haven't gotten around to it, because the decision makes me angry, but in a "familiar & forlorn, wow, this decision's already been made - way to go, jerks" way as opposed to a "I think they might listen to well-thought arguments and rethink this shadiness" way. Again.

Anyway, EWB Canada is fighting the good fight in Embassy magazine.

Please take the time to at least care.

[Quick aside: what I've written here and here provides a nice, long, "between the lines" summary of my thoughts/fearful predictions of yore.]

Absence makes the... brain explode

I've been out of Nkhamenya for about a week (more on that to follow - and I really mean it this time. That post is already nearly done).

In the meantime, the place has gone and changed on me!

Minor details first: someone swiped my mop. To be fair, it was my own fault - I left it hanging on the clothesline instead of locked in my house.

There is a row of trees behind my cooking/bathing house that separates the houses owned by my landlord from the properties just behind. I don't know what the trees are called, but they bear tula fruit (which is extremely poisonous and may not be spelled correctly).

While I was gone, those trees were pruned. And I mean REALLY pruned.

While I don't have a 'before' shot, here's a view of the arboreal carnage:

On the other side of my yard, the extremely large house that has been vacant since I moved in (it used to house a PeaceCorps volunteer) has been occupied. That means that I now share a latrine.
Which is a bit embarrassing, as I had neglected to clean my latrine before I left for a week, trusting that no one would have to deal with the declining conditions in the building except for me. Nothing like having to greet the new neighbors with a "sorry about that."

As a result of this new arrangement, the 'long way' to the latrine has now been 'thrashed' (meaning that the grass has been mowed by means of swinging a long thin piece of metal at it with a technique that I have yet to try and master). Which is nice, but the pre-exisitng overgrown state of that path compounds my neighborly embarrassment.

Speaking of 'overgrown,' my yard looks like some sort of strange jungle. That is NOT supposed to happen - my neighbors are all quite careful to keep theirs free of errant vegetation and swept clean.
I have hired the boy next door to take care of it for MK 300 (about $2.70 thanks to the tanked exchange rate - sigh...) but may pay him a bit more to assuage my guilt over how bad I let things get.

My yard:

My neighbor's yard:
(the weird halo effect on the house is rain bouncing off of tin, I think)

Speaking of decrepit... in the week that I have been gone, some sort of blight has killed a bunch of the maize growing in the garden that my latrine is located in the middle of.
The maize belongs to my neighbor. I'm not sure if she knows that a significant portion of it is dead, and am really not sure how to tactfully raise the subject.

Speaking of my neighbor, she has taken to singing in the evenings with her nephews and house guests (both nights I've been back - it's kind of awesome) and has new house guests.

Speaking of new people... At work, one of the field staff has transferred to a different office, so there's a new face.

On my way to work, there are new vendors: a phone booth (which is actually a table manned by someone who stewards the phone and sells mobile phone talk time) has set up in the trading centre, and a previously unoccupied shelter across the paved road from the entrance to my neighborhood (well away from the trading centre) now houses a chip vendor.

Last but not least, mango season has officially ended. It was tapering off before I left, sure, and we had already started buying 'oranges' (which are actually green and quite sour) from the vendors, but there are well and truly no more mangoes to be had.

I had something profound to say about my emotional reactions to all these changes, but I've already made peace with my initial knee-jerk disappointed internal "hey" changing into a quietly reflective pondering of my assumptions about 'timeless Africa' and more pointedly about 'timeless rural life' mixed with a pang of regret on being away from "my" community and some stress about upcoming time away all swept up in an irrational bit of optimism at the end on how changes, no matter how small, show us that bigger things can get better too. Or if not better, at least different (yes, I just said "can get different" - figured I'd share the brain explosion with any arm chair grammarians in the audience).

Instead I say "bring on the guavas!"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

IDEAFest Edmonton

While doing the kind of work I"m doing right now on the kind of contract I'm on has all kinds of difficult and interesting challenges, one of the hardest is simply this: missing things at home.

While I miss my family & friends and personal landmarks like birthdays and funerals, I am today specifically referring to IDEAFest, an event organized by a long-time friend, colleague and collaborator of mine.

I'm going to h/t Chris LaBossiere and shamelessly rip off his description of the event (as I couldn't have said it better myself(:
IDEAfest is a perfect example of how one person can start a movement, and bring people together to discuss ideas in person. IDEAfest was the brainchild of U of A graduate Michael Janz. (his Twitter profile can be found here).

IDEAfest was a rapidly formed event (two weeks of grassroots planning, marketed strictly through Edmonton's Social networking community). It took the format of a larger, popular idea sharing event called TED. What I found exciting is that people were asked to self-register to give presentations on ideas and topics that they were passionate about. If you are one of those that think our younger generations are simply screwing around on Social Networks, I challenge that thinking.

Here is the link to the event that was mostly planned and administered in facebook. you can see that the topics of discussion was very broad, and for the most part the quality of the presentations was exceptional. For a first event it was well organized, and I can easilly see it growing into a new "festival" for Edmonton. Something that we as a City do very well. What could be done better as it grows, is better coordination of AV/Tech needs and attracting even higher quality speakers, but again I have to say the first run was very successful.

I'm really excited to hear about the amazing things going on with social media, with my friends (who are doing amazing things that I expect to see flourish... sadly, even in my absence), and with broader themes around new eras of interpersonal interaction, social intercourse, and intellectual and civic engagement, especially amongst young people.

But I'm also moved by regret. As much as I'm learning here in Malawi and as much as the work I'm doing here is valuable and deeply needed, I feel a pang at not being involved at home. Especially with events and projects that are moving so fast along courses that I so fundamentally want to be involved in charting.

I miss you guys.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What would you do if you were a donor? Some Answers from the Field (Office)

Sorry for the radio silence. It's because I wanted to give the utter awesomeness of my last post (or note, as those of you who follow this publication on facebook are wont to say) time to sink in.

Actually, Malawi has been having some serious electricity issues these past few weeks, which has been making it a bit challenging to stay caught up. In my case, 'caught up' means trying to type and email a quarterly progress report and a project update without the benefit of a computer to do it on and support my counterparts at Plan Malawi who have been extremely busy with some budget stuff.

During one of the irritatingly frequent blackouts (for Canadian and Malawian residents alike), I had an idle chat with some of the staff at the field office.
At one point in our chatting, the community development facilitator who was part of our group (CDF or field staffer) asked me what I'd do if I were a donor to help (here in Malawi, specifically) - it was as this point that our chatting became less idle.*

*[no less paraphrased though - this was awhile ago, so my recollection might not be exactly accurate. Anyway, you'll get the general idea]

I didn't have an answer for him, so I made a joke (that wasn't very funny) and spun the question back to him.

The field staffer in question said he'd spend on getting HIV/AIDS under control, as it affects everything, from food security to the growing challenge of orphans in Malawi.

The ICT Coordinator said dealing with HIV/AIDS as well.

The office assistant said nutrition and research - into AIDS as well but also into health and disease more generally. That's interesting enough, but it was the way he put it that was really profound (and caused both of the other members of our chat to agree emphatically). He said that developing countries need to invest in research because their priorities (HIV/AIDS, malaria, nutrition) are different than those of developed countries (heart disease, cancer). He argued that developed countries devote their time and effort to challenges that affect them, and that it would be really positive if development aid were to go to recipient agencies in ways that stimulated the same.

Intrigued, I asked out of NGOs, the private sector and government, which places (if we were to take this question of research, anyway) donors should direct money to. The CDF said, without any hesitation, that it should be NGOs; because, as he put it, "the money we see given to NGOs at least goes directly to the people." The ICT Coordinator said the private sector, and specifically "those companies at the leading edge of whatever field we mean." The office assistant said "not the government."

Things went sideways then, as we were chatting during the week where Presidential candidates to hand in their nomination papers, officially kicking off election season and the mention of the "g word" of course led to a discussion about that.

A bit later the power came on.

The conversation really left me thinking. Now it can do the same for you (I hope).

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Star Trek is Teaching me about Development

I'm no expert on the development sector and I'm certainly no expert on Star Trek, but starting in my first couple of days of pre-departure learning with EWB, these two areas of non-expertise have somehow met up in the strange corners of my mind to share insights with one another.
So far, here are the top 4 things that Star Trek has taught me about development:

4. Technology is the engine by which humanity brings to life its most beautiful dreams and its most terrible nightmares
(to paraphrase another bit of science-fiction on the big screen that I'm a fan of...).

It's a theme throughout all the iterations of Star Trek. Technology is everywhere, and it gives humanity (and humanoid variants) tremendous power, but with tremendous responsibilities.
In the future, (aka Star Trek) hunger is all but eradicated (yay replicators!), transport to and from your starship is instant, and all but the zaniest interstellar diseases are no problem.
But... most of the zaniest interstellar diseases are man-made, and many of the tragedies of the Star Trek universe are man (or species similar enough to human to make the lesson transferrable) made. From Bajoran to the Borg, Star Trek continually comes back to the beauty and the horror that technology puts at our fingertips - both in its existence and in the disparity of access to it.
Technologies (appropriate, integrated into more diverse approaches, and otherwise) are viewed as one of the tools we can use to solve the tragedies of the world in which we live. And being able to "beam me up" would definitely make my life easier as well as solve one of the more ubiquitous challenges faced in development - namely, getting people and supplies from Point A to Point B.
On the other hand, technologies are also a fundamental part of the many, many, many problems we're now trying to address - climate change, war, drug-resistant TB and malaria, and the widening gap between the developed and underdeveloped worlds are all at least partly because of a technology (or several) developed by humankind.

3. Scotty's School of Managing Expectations is where it's at
This one is from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Relics. Don't ask how Scotty and La Forge manage to be in the same room in the same century: it's better if you just accept it and enjoy the wisdom of this little gem.

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Look, Mr. Scott, I'd love to explain everything to you. But the captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.
Scotty: [thinks about it some time] You mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.
La Forge: Yeah. Well, I told the captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour.
Scotty: How long would it really take?
La Forge: [annoyed] An hour!
Scotty: [looks unbelieving] Oh. You didn't tell him how long it would REALLY take, did you?
La Forge: Of course I did.
Scotty: Oh, laddie. You've got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

He goes on to explain that, if something will take an hour, you should say that it will take at least two, be really dramatic about how impossible it will be to get it done in an hour, and then deliver it in the 60 minutes alotted, thus guaranteeing that everyone is really impressed with whatever you did instead of accepting it as part of the job you're supposed to do without any fuss.
That's quite possibly the best fundraising advice I've ever heard. I think it also applies to job performance in general... though only if no one else understands what it is you do well enough to hold you accountable. Which is, in a nutshell, the development sector (how long do you think it actually takes to "document lessons learned regarding the implementation of CLTS in the pilot phase, hmmm?).
[Random aside: The CLTS website I linked to there is new! This excites me, and has delayed the publication of this post, as I stopped editing things to spend some time exploring the new site.]

2. If we can dream it, we can "make it so."
Just before I left Canada for Malawi, I was watching the Discovery Channel in the middle of the night and stumbled across a little special called "How William Shatner Changed the World."
While I'm not sure that everything cool invented since Star Trek first aired can actually be attributed to all inventors since then being Trekkies, I like the idea that a fictional universe helped unlock the potential in humankind to dream. I also like the vision of a better world (and strange, new worlds) that Gene Roddenberry gave us a glimpse of in the original Star Trek and in spin-offs since. The power of the human imagination in both cases showed us all that we can boldly go where no man has gone before - a lesson we can and should take especially seriously when we're trying to improve the world we have.

1. The most effective people and the least effective projects in development have one thing in common: a Kirk Complex.
There's a certain exchange in The Wrath of Khan that sums up what I mean when I say "the Kirk Complex." The exchange is regarding Kirk's impossible success on a simulation in Starfleet Academy (the Kobayashi Maru scenario):

McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
Saavik: How?
Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
Saavik: What?
David Marcus: He cheated.
Kirk: I changed the conditions of the test; got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose.
Saavik: Then you never faced that situation... faced death.
Kirk: I don't believe in the no-win scenario.

In people, this complex is a strength: it is lateral thinking and perserverance and mental agility and ironclad determination, even in the face of impossible odds (in the case of both Kirk and some of the most urgent development work, of death itself). Attributes that, in my limited experience, are critical to success in development work.

In projects, however, it is stubborn fanaticism in the worst sense: clinging to optimism, even when the signs of failure are obvious and crying out to be seen and responded to; perhaps by a person willing to try something else, even something unorthodox, to deliver a success instead of another doomed silver bullet.

The jury's still out for me on what that means for development organizations, which are comprised of both people and projects (and the relationships between).

Anyway, thus concludes our lesson. Live long and prosper.


The point of this blog is to share my experiences and perspectives on my experiences as an OVS, the politics of my world, the wonders and tragedies of my communities, and anything else that finds its way into my average little head. Keyword: "my."

The opinions expressed on this blog represent my own and not those of my employer or any organization I may be affiliated with.

In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time. I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind and a natural result of the experiences that this blog chronicles.
Furthermore, I enjoy reading other peoples' blogs, and commenting on them from time to time. If you run across such comments, the opinions expressed therein also represent my own and not those of my employer or any organization I may be affiliated with, nor should you expect the views in those comments to remain static for all time. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about my formal political leanings and affiliations from the slant of those blogs, with the understanding that those conclusions are probably wrong.

(props to daveberta for inspiration on the wording)