Thursday, April 30, 2009

We Interrupt this Blog for a Public Service Announcement

Hey everyone. Apologies again for not writing for a while, and I may not write again until the middle of May. The reason for this is that I'm going home and life is crazy busy wrapping things up. The saga of the hydroponics project will be finished when i have a better internet connection and can add pictures! Yay pictures!

But, there is some good news. First of all, the grant that I wrote for AWID to fund a women's movement in South Africa got funded! I'm so happy about that. And, the second piece is actually potential good news, but Makotse Women's Club applied for a Changemaker's competition, which gives out $5,000 to social entrepreneurs. We submitted our plan for our hydroponics/job training center, and I'm very hopeful that we will make the semi-finals. Check out our application, make a comment or two about how wonderful this sounds, and stay tuned. If we make it to the semi-finals, then you, yes YOU, get to vote for the most innovative ideas. And if Makotse wins, then that solves some of our most pressing problems (i.e. money to hire a good business manager). And that gives the whole community hope for a better life.

If I get a chance, I'll write more, but in the meantime, think good thoughts and send us a little luck our way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chapter Three: "Wait! I Thought You Said Something About Tomatoes"

Sorry about the short (for me) hiatus. Currently, it is the end of the fiscal year for Makotse Women's Club, reports must be written, budgets must be developed, and plans must be planned. And that's not even mentioning the micro-mini (well, compared to the national) housing crisis that I've been attending to via emails back in the States. Or the 2,000 tomato seedlings sitting in plastic bags that required a lot of attention back last week. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the last chapter of this riveting saga, I mentioned the poultry project and the request letter that I had to write for the Department of Agriculture so that we would officially ask for assistance with our food garden and poultry project. After I finished, Mma Legodi asked me to take it to the Department of Agriculture and hand-deliver it. Now, this is not an easy task. Peace Corps does not allow us to drive, so I'd have to take public transport. (Even to this day, I don't know why Peace Corps won't let us drive. Do they think we'll drive on the wrong side of the road--believe me, this only happens once--that we'll get in a horrible crash and our parents will sue? Even though driving opens up a lot of opportunties for the organization. Or that good sites that currently won't work with Peace Corps because of this would be available. Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about this issue. Oh well, that's just a little distracting rant on my part. Back to the story.) To go to the Department of Agriculture (oh, let's just make my life easier and call them DoA), I have to wait around for a taxi or walk to the main road, go to Lebowakgomo Zone F, transfer to a Zone A taxi, which requires walking through a very congested shopping center, wait for that taxi to fill up, and then convince the driver to take me within walking distance to DoA. This make take an hour or two for what would be a 15 minute drive. Not the end of the world but the return trip is even longer and the whole thing could easily eat up an entire day. And then Mma Legodi tells me that there is a big function, so Mr Nkuna probably wouldn't be there, but I should go, just in case. Fortunately, I was able to get a ride from Mma Mello. She's the founder of Makotse Women's Club, if I haven't mentioned that before, and is a force of nature. She drove me down, searched for Mr Nkuna with me, and discovered that, yes indeed, he was at the big event. Then Mma Mello suggested that I CALL him and set up an appointment so there would be a better chance of meeting him. Why neither Mma Legodi nor I had thought of this remains a mystery, but I have a couple of ideas. 1) This is the way things were done before cell phones. Cell phones are fairly new, so waiting around and hoping someone will show up day after day is kind of a habit. 2) Phones aren't known for their reliability, so just because you can't connect with someone doesn't mean they aren't there. And it's better to go, just in case.

However, things are changing and now calling people is a pretty good option, compared to the alternative I described in loving detail above. So that's what I did. And two days and a ride later, I found myself back at DoA. Two hours before my appointment. Still, I was happy with the results and settled down with a good book outside of Mr Nkuna's office.

Waiting around can be the most frustrating part of the day, or the most serendipitous. That day was more about serendipity. I met Francis that day, a manager at DoA, who was also waiting for Mr Nkuna. We had a lovely conversation about development work, the challenges and pitfalls along with the successes. It was a bonding moment. When Mr Nkuna arrived and I handed him my letter, he reads it thoroughly and then decides to call one of his managers to discuss the various options they can provide. Enter Francis. So, waiting around had its pay-off that day...

The three of us talk about what MWC is trying to do, and how the food garden isn't generating income and how the chickens all died, and why this extremely competent and committed organization is struggling with income generation. Actually, this is a common phenomenon in community-based organizations. Running a business is tough, and without support and training, it's even tougher. But it's oh so important here to have a source of income that isn't tied to donors or the government. It gives the agency so much freedom. I really want this for MWC, even though I don't really know what I'm doing either. And this is when Francis mentions hydroponics for the first time.

Now, hydroponics isn't new, but I hadn't heard of it before. Later, I found out that it's a very popular technique to grow pot, especially since it can be grown indoors, thus easy to hide. But, it also works well for tomatoes (finally with the tomatoes!). In fact, a 1/4 hectare of hydroponically-grown tomatoes yield the same amount as on 6 hectares. They can be grown year round, which opens up the possibility of being a distributor for a big chain. And distributing for a big chain can mean lots and lots of income. Perfect!

This conversation goes on for a couple of weeks. They come to our site. Mma Legodi and I go back to their office. We talk about chickens and what we would need to do in order to get our poultry house up to snuff. We do a couple of cost benefit analyses. Basically, the hydroponics project has the potential to cover 50% of our R2,000,000 budget. This is more than I've ever heard an income generation project making. I allow myself to dream big. This could turn into a job training center, teaching community members how to create and run hydroponics projects. We could start a co-op where everyone in Makotse would wanted to grow tomatoes could also sell to the same distributors that we do. Makotse Village could lessen its dependence on social grants and mining jobs, increasing opportunities, and giving youth jobs, which is a powerful HIV prevention technique. HIV is correlated with poverty, low self-esteem, and apathy about the future. Having a job can address all of these issues. But first, we had to find the money to build the thing.

OK, we're getting closer to real time hydroponics building. I don't know when I'll write again, but soon you'll be able to read about the difference between dreams and reality. Just in case you thought that every good idea effortlessly came into being.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chapter 2: Chickens! No, Tomatoes! (Are We Sure We Don’t Want Chickens?)

So, one fine September morning, I walk into the office, prepared for the usual desk-sitting-staring-at-the-computer kinda day, procrastinating working on the still-not-completed computer manual, when I am turned around at the door. Mma Legodi informs me that we are going to the Department of Agriculture because she heard about a funding opportunity that we had to take advantage of right! now! Of course, I offer no protest as this legitimizes my procrastination (see above), so off we go. Two taxis later, and watching Mma Legodi argue with the taxi driver to get us dropped off at the right place, we’re at the Department and I hear more about why we came.

The previous Friday, an agriculture extension worker came by to do a needs assessment. This young man had visited before and told us that there was a new director at the Department and that we should talk to her as soon as possible, before she has already committed to funding other projects. In other words, now was the perfect opportunity for influence and manipulation! Except that things don’t go according to plan. First of all, to this day, I haven’t met a new director. I don’t think she exists. And whether the extension worker misunderstood, or Mma Legodi misunderstood him, or I misunderstood Mma Legodi, or some permutation of those three, we didn’t meet her. Instead, we met with Mr Nkuna, one of the managers there. Mr Nkuna is a friendly man, with a simple happy expression on his face that one doesn’t immediately associate with government workers. Instead, it seems more appropriate to a three year old boy who just got a new puppy. This is not the first time that Mma Legodi and Mr Nkuna have met, I found out. In fact, he had previously donated mango tree seedlings to MWC, started by his son. 300 of them. Although this seems like a promising connection, most of these trees died in a fire started by the garden workers to burn up the weeds (this is not a recommended practice). Mr Nkuna thus didn’t think that MWC was all that responsible, number one, and number two, he felt personally slighted for his son. Hmmm.

But, all was not lost! Mr Nkuna had a good experience with another Peace Corps Volunteer, Brandi, in starting a poultry project. Which, I discovered at the moment, was what we wanted to do. Because we had started one before. Without a lot of research. And all the chickens died. Within a matter of months. So, if you’re keeping score there are two strikes against MWC and one personal foul, but the team with a PCV gets an automatic free throw and bonus points for good behaviour (no, I don’t know what game metaphor I’m using, either). So, Mr Nkuna arranges a visit to Brandi’s site to see her poultry project, even though she’s not there and is leaving for the States the following day. But, she’s got a nice project, and we leave the project with some enthusiasm and the homework assignment to write a letter of request outlining what we wanted to do.

And, that’s all for today. I’m tired. Stop by later for Chapter Three: “Wait, I Thought You Said Something About Tomatoes!” And so I did.

Monday, March 9, 2009

My Legacy: Chapter One. The Beginning. And Before.

OK, I’m going to finally get to the business of talking about what I’m doing here. There’s a project that I’m working on that is a very typical TIA (“This is Africa”) project. There’s a bit of a backstory to get you up to the present, so here we go.

First of all, my work here hasn’t been very project-oriented. When I accepted this assignment, my job description was “NGO Capacity Builder” and that’s what I’m doing. Actually, this is an interesting story in and of itself, if you’re interested in the inner workings of Peace Corps (and who isn’t?). So, during my initial interview with the Peace Corps, we agreed that I would go to Africa and work with NGOs. Since this is exactly what I wanted to do, I was quite excited. I got my invitation to go to South Africa as an NGO* Capacity Builder. So far so good.

Now, the reason they have an NGO program in South Africa is mainly because of the AIDS crisis. The main responders to the crisis have been people in the community taking care of each other. At the same time, the government knows that it can’t reach everyone that needs assistance, so they start seriously funding NGOs (or Community-Based Organisations, CBOs, or Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, depending on the acronym of the week). So, the women feeding orphans out of their kitchen start receiving money to start an organisation. Unfortunately, they tend to know much more about feeding orphans than running an organisation, which is not too different from non-profits in the US, and many of them fail. Or aren’t as effective as they could be. So, South Africa decided that Peace Corps could provide capacity builders to strengthen these organisations and thus support their AIDS prevention and relief strategies.

Well, for many reasons, capacity building hasn’t been an overwhelming success as a Peace Corps program. Most volunteers have come into the program from a health perspective and want to work directly with on AIDS issues. So, right after I got here, I found out that the project had changed from capacity building to the fun-to-say acronym, CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program, or Project, I forget which). This change ended up not being a big deal for me, even though I'm not a health worker, because Makotse Women's Club wants capacity building. And capacity building I do.

That means that most of my time has been spent at the office, helping with strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation, financial management and financial stability in the form of writing lots and lots of grants. This all makes me very happy even though I occasionally peek over the shoulders of other volunteers with their girls’ clubs, library projects, and food gardens with a bit of envy. After all, Peace Corps is supposed to be about getting your hands dirty and start a sanitation, forestry, youth or animal husbandry project within the community, not sitting at a computer every day. All day.

And now, I have my chance! I am the project manager of a hydroponics project, which means I wrote the grant to get it started and more work happens when I'm around than when I'm not. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Because it didn't start out as a hydroponics project. Nope. It's more of a meandering journey than that. So, stay tuned for Chapter 2: Chickens! No, Tomatoes! (Are You Sure We Don’t Want Chickens?)

*Non-Governmental Organisation for those not in the know.