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.