Monday, November 24, 2014

Tap water, beer and beef: The surprising facts of life in Managua

Why does meat taste better in developing countries?
 We'll have been in Managua for a month as of tomorrow, just long enough that I'm no longer getting lost every time I walk out the door but short enough that every day still holds some surprising discovery. Herewith, a small list of things I hadn't been expecting:

  • You can drink the water from the tap in Managua. Who knew? I just presumed we'd be drinking bottled water for the whole time we were here, as was the case for more than two years in Honduras. But I kept hearing from one person after another that Managua gets good-quality water from a lagoon and then treats it. I broke down and started drinking it about a week ago, helped along by the fact that there's no store nearby selling those cheap 20-litre bottles of purified water, and I can't handle the environmental guilt of a giant pile of one-litre plastic bottles piling up. 
  • People like their booze around these parts. Admittedly, the organization I worked with in Honduras was Christian and opposed to their employees drinking, but even putting that aside, the country felt pretty dry. Here in Nicaragua, you never have to walk far to find an open bar full of people talking animatedly. And when the beer truck pulled up to unload what must have been 40 cases of beer at the feria my current organization held last week, I knew for sure that I was in a new land.
  • Religion is a different beast here. People still say things like, "God willing," when you say you'll see them tomorrow, but I don't see the same intensity of faith and complete trust in God that was everywhere in Honduras. Maybe that's what a long history of oppression and revolution gets you - skepticism. 
  • They've got terrific beef here. And cheap. You can buy a gigantic slab of tender, delicious filet mignon that would probably feed 10 people for $20 at the local PriceSmart. I am in steak heaven.  I don't know what they feed their beef cattle, but Canadians should be demanding that if their local stores are going to import beef, they should give Nicaragua a try. 
  • It feels pretty safe in the big city. You'd never want to be getting carried away with your feeling of safety in a big Central American city, but it has been really nice to be able to enjoy Managua without feeling like a target just because I'm out there walking. I even feel OK to pull out my camera for a few shots, something I would never have done in Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula. I go walking every morning around 6 a.m. with the landlady's dog, and so far all we've run into are other people going about their business. 
  • A mall is a mall is a mall. OK, maybe that's not such a surprise anymore. I've had a lot of mall experiences in a lot of different countries. But it still is remarkable to me that wherever you go in the world, you can walk into a mall and pretty much feel like you're right back in your homeland. Same design, same stores, same things on offer, even prices that are strikingly similar. Ah, consumerism. 
  • I can live without hot water. Not even a month before we left Canada, Paul and I asserted to each other that while we could live without a lot of things in this new stripped-down life of ours, hot water wasn't one of them. But then we got to Managua and learned that most of the rental housing just doesn't have it, probably because electricity's expensive here, the temperatures never seem to go much below 30, and the water's never really very cold anyway. So here I am, jumping into a an unheated shower every morning. And it's not so bad. Now there's a big surprise. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Right hands, wrong tools: 'Easy' counts for a lot in international development

I love that my new organization has a weekly radio program.
Radio remains one of the most effective ways of
communicating in countries like Nicaragua.
While my previous work experience with Cuso International in Honduras has probably given me a jump-start of close to a year for this latest position in Nicaragua, that’s not to say things are humming along just yet. But at least this time I've been prepared to have nothing go according to plan.
     International work placements have a lot in common with onions. You might think you know what what you're looking at after a few days of asking questions and reading through stacks of your organization’s reports. But be prepared to discover layer after layer of complicating factors once you get to the point of knowing just enough to realize how much you don't know. 
      For instance: Charged with helping non-profit organizations in the country where you're working improve their communications, you notice that the most recent post on a particular organization’s web site was more than a year ago. 
     They’re using data from a 1995 census, and referring to a five-year strategic plan that ended three years earlier. They list staff who haven’t worked at the place for years, and contact numbers that lead nowhere.
     Once upon a time, I would have assumed that the organization clearly had zero interest in communications. Now, I'm more likely to suspect that they got money from a well-intentioned foreign funder at some point in the past to hire a consultant to build the site. The fact that nobody in the NGO knew how to access or maintain a professionally designed site was overlooked, as was the lack of ongoing funding the group had for hiring someone with the skills. 
    Entonces, as they say around these parts, what results is the all-too-common developing world phenomenon of a web site frozen in time.  Ever so briefly a fresh and useful tool for the NGO, the site quickly grows stale, and in its neglected state is arguably as bad as having no site at all. 
     Another example: A database with nothing in it but information from six years ago. NGOs and funders understandably love databases, because they are treasure troves of information essential for demonstrating the impact of an NGO’s work over time. But there's little useful about a database if nobody puts data into it.
     So why isn't anyone updating the database? Blame it on yet another short-term project, which led to the creation of a complicated database that couldn't be maintained once the hired help moved on.
     OK, maybe only two NGOs in the whole world have faced these problems, and I just happened to stumble into jobs at both of them. But I don’t think so. I expect the developing world is full of half-finished, abandoned, poorly envisioned, and fatally flawed projects. Nobody set out to make it so, but that’s just how it goes at the complex intersection between the dreams – and reporting requirements - of developed countries and the real-world problems of local organizations.
     It’s not just a question of technology. In lands with the wealth to fund international development work, issues like literacy, a well-rounded education, electricity, and familiarity with learning and relearning ways of doing things with each new wave of more advanced technology are so blessedly common that we forget how rare all of that still is in most of the world. Watching a young fellow today trying to figure out how to use his computer mouse and open a document, I was reminded of the growing knowledge gap that separates our worlds.
     That’s not to say the problems can’t be solved. It’s not about a lack of intelligence or ability to learn, it’s about starting where people are at. Had someone thrust all the technological bells and whistles of 2014 onto a typically computer-illiterate Canadian of 30 years ago, we, too, would be awash in dead web sites and forgotten databases.
     There are all kinds of free programs out there now for web-site creation, simple enough to be maintained even by those with basic computer literacy. They're not as pretty or whiz-bang as the sites that web professionals can make, but a bit of a plain-jane site that can be updated easily by the organization is one heck of a lot better than a stunner that will be stale within months of the consultant’s departure.
     As for databases, I’m still digging into that one, and hoping that it’s true that Excel 2013 has a lot of functionality. (And that my organization uses Excel 2013 and not Excel 2002, as was the case with my Honduras placement.) There’s a lot of free software available for building databases, but what I've seen still seems way too complicated for people here to be able to maintain. Surely there's a program somewhere created expressly for use for in the developing world, because I know I'm not the first person to identify these common development problems.
      One day when I don’t have to work for money anymore, I’m going to seek out new (and old) communication and monitoring tools to share with grassroots NGOs in developing countries. I’m going to ask the people who live there: What would you do? and then take their advice. I'm going to create a plain-jane web site chock full of easy tools for people like me, so no volunteer will ever again be sitting in her muggy little office somewhere in the developing world wondering where to find such things. 
     I think we can do a lot to close the knowledge gap. But the work has to start with tools that fit comfortably in the hands of those who will use them. 

I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Prancing horses and candy apples - a traditional Nicaraguan "hipico"

     Enjoy this little sample of Nicaraguan culture, my video of the hipico held yesterday in the streets of Managua not far from our house in the Bolonia district.
     Apparently the display of dancing horses has become associated with celebrations in August that recognize Managua's patron saint, Santo Domingo de Guzman. But this is November, and I never could find anyone who could explain why there was a dancing-horse parade on at this particular time.
    But what the heck. It was pretty cool to watch, and never mind that events started about two hours late and the light was fading fast by the time the parade ended (the sun sets at around 5:30 p.m. in this part of the world). Or that nobody seemed much moved to stop the flow of cars during the parade, which meant the prancing horses were intermingled with motorcycles and only slightly sheepish looking drivers throughout the event.
     An impressive number of booths were set up along the roadside selling cheap beer and rum punches, but they never looked as busy as I'm sure the vendors would have liked. Another cultural puzzle: Why was there so much seating for people drinking beer, but none for those who wanted a rum punch? And did the pretty young woman trying to sell Smirnoff Ice slushies even sell one of them? We were posted right across the street from her and could only speculate that the absence of sales was about the price - 80 cordobas (more than $3) as compared to 20 for a beer and 60 for a very generous trago of rum and luridly coloured juice of your choice.
     I was delighted to discover that cheap candy apples appear to be part of the cultural fun here. They sell them for 10 cordobas - less than 50 cents - and they are yummy. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

If the Man With No Name was a woman...

   I’m fascinated by my new boss, the presidenta of Femuprocan.
     She’s a hard-core campesina and colectivista, of an era that would have known the revolutionary years of Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement. Whenever I see her, she’s standing off to one side of the group, cigarette in hand, observing the scene with an impenetrable gaze. Cue the theme song from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
     She intimidated me when I met her on my first day of work this past Monday, me in my summer dress and sandals with my hair up, her in what I now think of her uniform: jeans; long-sleeved shirt suitable for labouring in the fields; worn sneakers. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and not of the flippy, going-to-the-mall variety.
     She gave me a good once-over and declared in a deep, union-president kind of voice that Femuprocan was an organization of el campo – of the countryside, which I understood by her tone to mean not the kind of place where women with girly hair-dos wore summer dresses and sandals. I told her I loved working in the countryside and had better shoes at home. That seemed to break the ice.
     Her name is Martha Heriberta Valle. I don’t know her age and wouldn't dare ask, but I would guess somewhere in her 60s. She has led Femuprocan since the women’s agricultural organization first broke away from a mixed-sex agricultural group back in the 1990s, the women having decided that they would never be heard as long as they belonged to an association where men were always listened to first and priorized the projects. Part of my orientation this week included watching a video with photos from the early days of Femuprocan. There was Martha, looking exactly the same as she does now.
      By the end of this week, Martha appeared to be warming to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I helped clear the table after our first group lunch together, demonstrating good colectivista behaviour. Maybe it was because I jumped right into the work - taking photos, chatting up the campesinas when we all went to a meeting out of town on Thursday, asking how I could be helpful.   As it turns out, Martha and I share a dislike for too much blah-blah-blah, preferring action over talk.
     Most likely it was because I told her she was welcome to come all the way into my little office even if she had a cigarette in her hand rather than stop at the entrance, as is her custom. “They say these things will kill me,” she joked in Spanish, gesturing with her cigarette, “but what’s more likely to kill me are the cars in the street.”
     I have long loved a good orator, the way the union movement used to grow them back when Scottish men with thick accents and big hand gestures ran things. Martha is all of that. She doesn't say much, but when she does, people listen. When I went to a meeting with my co-workers this week to plan Femuprocan's 17th annual farm fair, several women shared with me in passing some bit of Martha wisdom: That a good productora is punctual; that power is in the collective, not the individual. I expect I’ll return to Canada with several Martha-isms added to my lexicon.
     The meeting was at a demonstration farm that Femuprocan has about 70 kilometres north of Managua. Martha was already there when we arrived. I later asked her if she lived in that area, presuming she would have driven out with us if not. She told me that she hadn't lived anywhere for 40 years, preferring to roam from place to place.
     “I can stay for two days somewhere, but by the third day I want to leave,” she said. “I've got my truck and my backpack. That’s enough for me.”
      Cue the Ennio Morricone music. Martha, I think I’m going to like you. 
I'm on assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteering in 17 countries around the world. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Singalong for Canadian Sex Workers

    And as the UK legislature moves to reject the criminalizing of sex buyers, Canada steps forward into its regressive law that does the opposite, which the Senate has now passed. For the first time in our history, the customers of adult, consensual sex workers are now going to be criminals.
     I guess we all knew how this was ultimately going to go from the minute that Justice Minister Peter MacKay started making noises about further criminalization of the industry earlier this year. But still, the news is so discouraging. Far from abolishing the industry or saving victims, the new law simply pushes sex workers that much deeper into the shadows, where they will now have to take even more care to avoid police and shield their customers from arrest.
     As one might have thought from what we learned after the Pickton multiple-murder case, it's in the shadows where bad things happen, which means that's just about the last place a normal country would force its sex workers to work in. But as this Conservative government has taught us repeatedly, there's nothing normal about what's going on in Canada anymore.
     Nonetheless, no point in bemoaning the wrong-headedness of a government known for doing what it wants, and damn the consequences of ignoring science, popular opinion, the real-life experiences of sex workers, informed thinking and sheer humanity. So here's a little Singalong for Sex Workers as an antidote to this grim news.
     We recorded the song with a few of my talented musical friends in Victoria on the night before Paul and I left for Nicaragua last month. It was good fun, but we really meant it: Sex workers are first and foremost Canadian workers just like all the rest of us, and in no way will they be "rescued" or their industry abolished by bad law that criminalizes their customers and limits their ability to work together in safer conditions.
    Enjoy! Share! And let the next stage of the revolution begin. Peter Mackay, we're coming for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Like everything else, international volunteering gets easier with experience

Home sweet home for the next four months
  Meet new boss: Check. Open Nicaraguan bank account: Check. Find place to live in Managua for the next four months: Check.
    And so we are ready, Paul and I, for whatever comes next.
As we had expected, we are settling into our Cuso International positions much quicker this time around, having been able to draw on our last experience in Honduras and get things done in a much more efficient fashion. There will be unexpected bumps and frustrations to come; there always are. But how different it feels to be a more seasoned Central American volunteer, not to mention being relatively fluent in Spanish, as compared to the rather stunned and stumbling first-timers we were three years ago.
     House-hunting was a breeze this time, what with us knowing that the only way to make it happen is to hit the bricks and ask anyone who passes by whether they know of a place to rent.
    We had a free afternoon on Thursday during our Cuso in-country training and seized upon it to walk around the neighbourhood near our offices seeking out for-rent signs. When a security guard in the 'hood spotted us looking uncertain and asked if he could help us with anything, we knew enough to just fess up that we were looking for a place to rent, and then follow him without hesitation as he walked us to a big shared house nearby with five habitaciones for rent. Within a couple of hours, we'd met the landlady, brought a Cuso staff member around to check the place out, and were set to move in (which we did today).
     What was even more different than last time was the meeting that same day with my contraparte, the vice-president of the Nicaraguan NGO where I'll be working, I had such little Spanish last time around that I could only sit like a silent lump last time around, saying a few sentences I'd rehearsed in my head but nothing more. Happily, two-plus years working in an all-Spanish environment in Honduras meant that this time out I could actually have a discussion with my new boss at the Federacion Agropecuaria de Cooperatives de Mujeres Productores del Campo de Nicaragua (FEMUPROCAN), and develop a work plan with her for the next four months.
    I think I accomplished a lot in my last placement in Honduras by the time almost two and a half years had passed, and never mind that I had such poor Spanish initially. But a four-month placement this time around means I have to be on it right from the start. I am grateful for the language skills acquired in Honduras that are going to let me do that.
     In the last posting, I was primarily working in communications. This time, I'll be helping FEMUPROCAN develop a database to improve their collection and reporting of statistics from the almost 2,000 women they work with in the country, and reviewing manuals that FEMUPROCAN believes are very important but under-utilized. Once again, I'm grateful for all the lessons I learned in Honduras around such things, the most vital being that in countries where literacy is a challenge for much of the population and oral communications are the norm, any written information has to be put together with all of that in mind if there's any hope of it being utilized.
    It'll be a challenge. But that's what I love about working with Cuso in developing countries. Can't wait to learn more.