“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

~Mark Twain

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rose Colored Glasses

My neighborhood, you can see my hut in the background
When you first get to Peace Corps, you measure your time in weeks. “I can’t believe I have been here 3 weeks!”, “Today marks our 6th week in country!”, etc. At some point you stop measuring in weeks, and begin to measure in months and then you stop measuring. You are simply living your life. You don’t count months when you are living at home, so why would it be any different here. Time passes without you realizing it and before you know it, you are back to counting in weeks. It is now, “Where did the time go, I just have 7 weeks left”. The excitement for having made it another week is now replaced with a sadness about how little time you have left. You can come back, but it will never be the same. You can send facebook messages to your colleagues, but will probably never again talk to your old lady neighbor who only speaks Sousou and does not own a phone. You put on your rose colored glasses. This only makes it harder. I find myself thinking bush taxis are not over-crowded, slow, smelly death traps but a great way to see the countryside and meet new friends. Who would want the sterility and choice of a modern supermarket when the market is so colorful and full of fresh produce at dirt-cheap prices. I think only about the adorable children who sing to me and run into my arms on my walk into work and forget the sweat and fatigue of walking 30 minutes in the hot Africa sun. And about the lady, who despite having a satellite TV and 8 sheep, asks me for money for bread every.single.day. If you only think if the good, leaving becomes impossible and heart-wrenching. So I am attempting to live these last couple of weeks with a Guinean pair of rose colored glasses. That is to say, one lens rosy and the other knocked out by time and wear to a more realistic, lens-less frame. I don’t want to stop seeing everything I adore about this country, but I also need to keep my eye on why I am excited to get back to the states and on to the next chapter of my life. And let’s be serious, Salématou, nobody likes riding in a bush taxi.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Government Shutdown

I have to be honest with you all. When I first heard about the impending government shut down, I clucked my tongue at the far right for hijacking the Republican Party and then mused that it was probably not a terrible thing. Maybe seeing how well the country can function with the majority of staff on furlough might just show the central government how bloated their operations are. Besides, I am dealing with political problems in my adopted home that affect me much more than any goings-on at home. Last Saturday, Guinea had their legislative elections after years of delays and dozens of lives lost. If I have to hear, “We’ll start the work after the elections are over…” one more time, I think I might pull my hair out. Everything has been put on hold, and now the results are delayed. They are previewed to be released on Saturday, mais on va voir…. So far, things have been calm. The Kindia market was a ghost town on Election Day and most of the boutiques have been closed ever since. The women who sell smaller items don’t have the financial luxury to close in protest or to protect their wares from the looting and destruction that accompanies a riot, so life has maintained a hesitant, but oddly normal, pace.

But back to the government shut down…I figured that even with the majority staff on unpaid, mandatory vacation, the defunt US government would still provide more services to their people than the “fully functioning” Guinean one does. But then it started affecting my work.

I am working with some other volunteers on an art show. Over the past two years I have made friends with some visual artists and what to help them access the markets (namely wealthy Guineans and expats) that are hard for them to reach on their own through an art show and business networking training. Our budget is small, so we threw it up on the Peace Corps Partnership Program website (It lets anyone donate to support projects—click here to contribute) working frantically to beat the end of fiscal year deadline and got it up just to see a note, that while you can continue to donate, there is no one to process payments. The volunteer heading up the project got a call that we are going to have to postpone unless people start working soon.

Another project that I am working on frantically (to get it to a good place before my contract ends in <4 months) is importing Hydraid Water Filters, a sustainable solution to the problem of safe drinking water, with my host father, a social entrepreneur in his own right. With commercial shipping, each filter, which lasts over 20 years, will cost someone in Guinea $35, attainable for employed Guineans and poorer families if they can associate and share a filter. Most of that is shipping cost, so while we are trying to find a way to start producing them in-country, we were going to prototype with imports. But then I heard about a program that gives greatly reduced / free shipping for humanitarian projects through un-used space in military ships. I was so excited that we would be able to prototype at a price point that will more accurately reflect our future costs. BUT the woman responsible for the project is on furlough.

Make some compromises and go back to work. It’s not just Americans that are counting on you, but people all around the world. Guineans are looking for your help getting clean water, create jobs, and support the arts, but even more than that our eyes are on you to show the world that Democracy works and will raise above petty in-fighting to serve the people who elected them.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dare to Innovate: Inspiring Change in Guinea

On August 18th, twenty-one youth arrived at The Dare to Innovate Center to join the eleven facilitators already there preparing their arrival. Over the course of the week, we welcomed the president of a mutli-national corporation, a minister, some of Guinea’s most successful entrepreneurs and representatives from Peace Corps, USAID, and the American Embassy. I can honestly say that nobody left the center without experiencing a profound change and forging a commitment to making Guinea a leader in social entrepreneurship. It was not easy, but it was exhilarating and something that will stay with me forever.

We had our fair share of speed bumps. The day before the participants were supposed to arrive, we were finally informed that our bunk-beds would not be ready in time since they needed a machine hooked up to city electricity and there has been less than expected. We wracked our brains to come up with a solution and ended up having the carpenter rent out a workshop in a town next to a hydroelectric barrage that has 24/7 electricity. A third of the beds arrived around 11pm on the first night of the conference and so PCVs, participants, and carpenters worked together into the night putting them together and hanging up mosquito nets. It was far less than ideal, but at least there was a valuable lesson for the participants that if they want to be an entrepreneur they need to be ready for the less-than-ideal. On day 2, we received the second third of the bunk beds. On day 3, something broke in the electrical system and the farm as well as the carpenter lost power for the duration. We used a generator when necessary and when water got really short (the electricity pumps it out of the ground), the participants happily went down to the stream to wash claiming that they enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy the nature. Anyone who knows Guinea, knows that young men here do not appreciate nature, so this statement alone showed us that we were rubbing off on them.

 In terms of the actual conference, everything went incredibly well. Some highlights…
  • ·      A social entrepreneurship fair where participants learned about what other like minded individuals around the world were doing
  • ·      Giving partners a challenging critical thinking puzzle and having them work on it during free time until the last night, when one group finally figured it out
  • ·      Seeing my students get excited about business model innovation
  • ·      Watching our inspiration wall grow over the course of the week to be full of quotes and drawings
  • ·      Finding out that our participants had a secret meeting to talk about how it was on them to make sure that the Dare to Innovate model spreads so that Guinea can become a country of changemakers
  • ·      Being stopped for the 10th time on my way to bed by participants wanting to talk through some aspect of their idea
  • ·      Seeing my counterpart, Mariama, facilitate challenging sessions with utter joy
  • ·      Watching our mentors impart their wisdom on the youth and really engaging with their mentees. They have all given their job the seriousness it deserves.
  • ·      Watching the youth transform into social entrepreneurs and hearing the presentation of the ideas they will begin to research during the upcoming month

I could go on and on. It was a truly inspirational week and I get reminded of it whenever I visit our facebook page and see that although they are now spread across the country, they are still engaging in meaningful conversation and encouraging each other.

Some of the ideas that were presented were a private high school that integrates technology into the curriculum and fosters a creative atmosphere, the planting and transformation organic bananas to fight malnutrition and protect biodiversity, a rural seed and fertilizer bank to help farmers improve their harvests, public pay-toilets on the national highway to improve sanitation, a preschool that strives to give kids a headstart and free their mothers to enter the workforce, a mobile veterinary clinic, a sports education center that helps aspiring soccer stars have employment options if their goals do not work out, and the transformation of trash into recycled projects. We will see how they have all developed after a month when they return for the business plan competition.

The conference was anything but easy. We developed a new curriculum pulling from many places and hoped that the process we created would work. We faced the week with lots of nervousness. Although there were some things that can be (and will be) improved, for the most part it worked! It was exhausting, but it worked!

Our medium term goal is a national movement and so now my task is to formalize the work we have done, to update our materials, to find funding for employees, and set up a structure. Luckily, I have many partners who believe in this project and are ready to help me make it a reality.

All of this would not have been possible without the help of my amazing team. So, although you probably don’t read this Chico, Chris, Hilary, Emma, Abe, Wiatta, Kenny, Maren, Chalupa, Mariama, and Yans merci, merci mille fois.

I will keep updating as this unfolds, but if you are interested in following the conference more closely and want to see pictures, feel free to follow our blog, OsezInnover.com. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rooting for the Underdog

In the Guardian’s article, “Guinea’s Anti-Corruption Activists Raise Doubt Over Mining Crackdown”, they write:

There is a saying in Guinea that is popular among those who work in development: "Everything is a priority". It is a wry observation that, in a country in which almost nothing works, it is difficult to work out what to tackle first. The facts are stark. A recent survey showed that 62% of Guineans have no access to running water, 62% have no access to electricity, 65% say they have inadequate access to roads, and 72% think the
justice system is broken. The country's human development indicators are well below those of other sub-Saharan African countries – the UN ranks the country's development 178th of 185 in the world.

Wow. This is the country that I have called home for nearly two years. I know the lack of water and that our electricity is so scare that you do not call periods without electricity blackouts, rather you call the hours with electricity a grand surprise. While the roads in my region are not bad by Guinean standards, not even the national highway is completely paved and it is only the national highway, one road snaking around the country to hit the major cities, which is paved. My problem with the justice system, starts with the fact that something so lacking in transparency cannot really be called a system. And justice… A recent survey found that 98% of businesses in Guinea, and 93% of citizens, have experienced corruption.

Lack of electricity means lack of food conservation. This is a workshop on how to preserve our abundant mangos through jamming!
And so this is the country that I have come to love and am here to help develop and it can be a daunting task. I’m in my fourth quarter, the clock is running out, and we are down so many points. What’s a girl to do? For me, the answer is social entrepreneurship. If you don’t know which problem to tackle first, go for the base. Start with the youth. They have time and the passion to make real change.  Teach people to see a lack of development as an opportunity. Give them the skills they need to create innovative projects and manage them for success. Teach them the benefits of networking so that they can have access to the resources that are present in the region. Give them mentors who know how to operate in the context to serve as their guides. Find positive deviants and give them the confidence to be visionaries. And that is the Dare to Innovate project. It has grown immensely over the past year and starts officially with a weeklong conference August 11th. It will launch the social enterprise sector in Guinea and already is attracting trainees from other West African countries. I’m excited and proud of my partners and have seen enough sports movies to know even if there are mere minutes on the clock and you are down, the underdog, full of passion and grit can win. And Guinea, is nothing, if not the underdog.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It's that time of the year...again

The month of Ramadan has arrived. Last year, I was a bit cranky during this period of the year. When I was fasting, people would tell me I could not fast until I converted to Islam and if I wasn’t fasting they told me that I must. Finding a bowl of rice while the sun was out was a challenge. People move slower, work less, and lose their tempers more.

As Ramadan approached this year, I tried to get in my zen place. Within a day, I was already getting frustrated. I cannot count how many times I had the conversation, “Are you fasting?”, “No, I’m a Christian”. It was driving me crazy, but why? I have the conversation “Are you married?” almost as much and it does not drive me nearly as crazy.

Peace Corps is all about integration. The biggest compliment you can give another volunteer is that they are bien integré. You spend your life here proving that you are the same as the people you live and work with. Wontanara, we are together. I’m no different from you, see us both waiting in line at the pump? I go exclusively by my Guinean name and I speak local language as much as possible. My French has completely lost the formality of my high school textbooks and contains the whole rainbow of Guinean sound effects. And this is why having to declare my Christianity on a bi-minutely basis is so frustrating. After spending months upon months trying to show the similarities between all of us, I am forced to constantly point out a major cultural difference or else go without water in the hot sun.

I’m not sure what that means for this month. I am not sure if it will make me fast more or less, but it is nice to be able to name the place that the frustration is coming from and try to move past it and spend this month learning about a key aspect of Guinean culture.

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