Sunday, January 27, 2008

finally working

Finally I feel like I’ve reached a point where I can start talking about work. I have been dating a second year volunteer for awhile (this is not work, I know). Other volunteers joke that he is “the captain of the football team” or “Peace Corps’ golden boy.” He is always busy and always has a lot of projects and a lot of advice. During my first months at post, I could not stand listening to him, lest I think about my relative lack of success and complete frustration. In fact, if I could describe my Peace Corps service to date with one word, it would definitely be: “frustrating.” Thank god things are finally changing and we can have frank conversations about work.

Admittedly, a significant part of this shift has to do with my changing posts. At my old post, any ideas I directed towards my colleagues were generally met with blank stares and stubbornness. People frequently talked about me in the third person while I was standing right in front of them. I was scared to open my mouth during council meetings. Everywhere I went, I took frantic notes in a notebook, simultaneously brainstorming project ideas and venting my frustrations. As soon as I switched posts, I ditched the book and decided that nothing would be accomplished without confidence and frank conversation – if my new colleagues would actually talk, and better yet, actually listen to me. They did. Right from the beginning. Things are looking up.

The first positive indication that things were changing for the better came at our in-service training, to which I brought the “chef d’agence” of one of the branches of my new bank. The woman who would be serving as my future counterpart couldn’t come, as she had an infant to take care of. However, the woman, Jeanette, who did come was fabulous and smart and articulate. She spoke American. For example, we had an exercise where we were divided into mixed groups of Cameroonian counterparts and PC volunteers. The activity was to discuss the various goals and objectives of the Small Enterprise Development project plan and give examples of projects that would contribute to meeting those goals. I rambled and rambled and rambled along in French (being the most language-proficient among the volunteers in the group). The volunteers nodded their assent and added tidbits here and there. The Cameroonians looked at me uncomprehendingly. Jeannette, however, got it. “Is this what you’re saying?” She asked me, translating my American-style French and bluntness into Cameroonian-style French and flowery oration. Exactly right! She did this several times, both for me and my fellow volunteers, each time capturing the essence of what we were trying to say and expanding it in a way that was more comprehensible to the other counterparts. I was so excited to finally be working with somebody who I felt understood me.

I am going to start teaching a business class with her in two weeks. While I have never formally taught a class, the materials (prepared by “PC’s golden boy” and another volunteer) are incredibly detailed, practical, and meticulously divided into 5-20 minute increments. Each class is two hours, and there are 12 sessions. We will be teaching classes on what makes a good entrepreneur, feasibility studies, goals and action plans, basic accounting, inventory, leadership, meeting management, income statements and balance sheets, budgeting, financial services available in Cameroon, business plans, and two sessions on marketing. What makes me nervous and what could make or break the class is the need for Cameroonian examples (and maybe my accent). Fortunately, I now know relatively enough about raising animals and farming (agriculture dominates this region) that I should be able to provide some good input. Fortunately also, Jeannette agreed to teach the class with me. I am really excited to start. Finally, something tangible!

In addition to this class, my new post mate (who is also a close friend) and I are working on a mobile computer lab and training to go with it. While on vacation in the states, the volunteer I have been dating got family and friends to donate 5 used laptops. On return, the idea of a mobile computer lab that was able to reach the most rural of populations floated around, but the project stagnated and the computers just ended up collecting dust for about three months (and since this is the dry season, that is A LOT of dust). After I switched posts, with his blessing and encouragement, I decided to take over the project. I wrote a project proposal and started working on the computers with my post mate. We will also be working with members of a Cameroonian NGO named RIDEV (Research Institute for Development). The head of the NGO is also a PC health tech trainer, which means that he leads the 3-month technical training that all of the new health volunteers receive upon arrival in country. The members of the NGO are extremely motivated and dynamic and eager to work on the project. They seem as excited as I am to work on a project which is so close to being implemented.

With the computers, we will travel around to rural villages, focusing our efforts on women and youth that have had little or no access to computers. Our objective is to give them confidence enough to continue to explore these technologies after our training is finished. In addition to the basic computer training, we will also be sneaking in “life skills” training. For groups of girls, we will teach computers, but also require that they attend sessions on HIV/AIDS prevention and good decision-making. For groups of mothers, we will throw in malaria prevention and water purification. For women’s agricultural cooperatives, we will teach budgeting and the importance of keeping a cash book. In order to make sure we keep the “life skills” pertinent to the participants, we will target specific groups in different villages that have relatively homogenous needs. If we instead chose to advertise, we would get a range of people with very different needs and life experiences. For example, you can’t as effectively do a condom demonstration when young girls and older men are mixed in class. In fact, I cringe just thinking about trying to do it.

I have a couple other projects I’m working on, but I think I’ve rambled enough for today. However, in closing I would like to highlight something. The projects that I’ve mentioned are both ideas that have diffused from other volunteers. I feel very lucky because I am posted in province where you can’t go a week without running into another volunteer. While the new volunteers generally use these opportunities to bitch about their difficulty finding meaningful work or friends, having contact with the old ones creates access to an amazing accumulation of knowledge that is completely invaluable. From project ideas and materials to valuable contacts, having the advice of a volunteer who has been there longer than you have will shave off a lot of obnoxious trial and error. We are only here for two years. While that might seem like a long time to our mothers, it is a blip on the development trajectory of a country where things generally take at least twice as long as they are supposed to anyway.

Here’s to finally doing some good work!

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