Thursday, February 28, 2008

Safely on The Ground

Getting there.

After spending Friday night on a plane to Amsterdam, then Saturday night trying to catch up on sleep on yet another flight, I woke up to the sun rising over a mountainous, sleepy looking Kenya. This photo almost captures it, my first view of Africa.

Sunrise over KenyaMount Kilamenjaro?

It is strange to think about all the preconceptions that I have created over my lifetime about an entire continent which I had never visited. Africa to me, up ‘til now, has been a mix of images of Safari’s, of starving children, of our government officials shaking hands with their officials, images of men walking down the street with guns, women collecting water … and all of it seemed inhospitable. There was one image that had also developed in parallel over the years, that is an image of the smiling mother with kids playing and possibly a big tree that didn’t resemble any tree I was familiar with in Canada.

Next we took a final flight into Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Now it becomes real, I am here for a full 13 months and well, ya, I feel like a foreigner. Everyone is different, there are only 6 white people in the airport, 4 came with me, 1 is there to pick us up, and then there is me, I made 6. We step outside and instantly there is a warm refreshing breeze mixed with a level of humidity that reminds me of summer in southern Ontario.

Finally on the ground in Zambia


So here I am, 2008, finally seeing with my own eyes what this mysterious place is like.

My 3 day overall impression is that the climate and the people make this place quite similar to what I would call a paradise. The daytime high is around 28 and the low is around 15. We are right in the middle of a huge city and still, when I look into the sky at night, I can see thousands of stars.

Our hostel (note: flipchart in background)

Today we went to a poorer region of the city and spoke with as many people as possible. Zambians, much like Canadians, hold the virtues of being friendly, nice and welcoming, quite high. I got to meet a couple of university students, a few school kids, some seemingly homeless kids, I met a shop owner, and said “muli bwanji” to many others passing by on the street. (Muli bwanji is ‘how are you’ in Chichewa/Nyanja)

The person I spoke with the most was a 30 year old women named Susan. She is jobless and a mother of three, she lost her husband to a car crash and can’t afford to send her kids to school but has faith in god to take care of her. She lives with her mother and whenever things aren’t going well she finds a way to get by and is more than happy to share her time and extra food when others are in need. Susan sang one of her gospel songs and wrote down her address…which isn’t an address at all, but rather instructions on how to find her.

Getting set up

I was surprised to see that there are at least 50 different places to buy a cell phone and they’re all within a 10 minute walk. Everyone has a cell phone! Internet access however is very difficult. Once I finally found an internet cafĂ©, I sat down to discover that the computers worked fine but the internet was down. The electricity is on and off too.

The next biggest change that I have to get used to is all the attention. As a white person, you are far from unnoticed. Like the hot girl that walks into a bar, the eyes follow, necks are strained… but mostly people are friendly, sometimes they walk with you for a while, and other times people are only speaking to you because they want money and the kids are usually shy at first but mostly amused. It has been nice to see familiar faces though, especially Thulasy, who has been here for six months.

All of a sudden I feel like I am a high maintenance person. I have been told that Malaria and HIV are huge problems in Zambia, however, I have yet to see any evidence of either. Malaria is a disease that is passed on by mosquitoes and every year 500 million people get it, of them, 1 million die. The first sign of Malaria is a fever. To help prevent myself from getting this I sleep under a mosquito net, I wear bug spray and long pants at night and I am taking Larium.

My time so far has been a huge learning experience. I have to say that my smallest image of Africa, the one with smiling people and kids playing in the street is the one that is most apparent in my first few days.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

One week 'til take off.

Here goes my second entry – and your second glimpse into what I’m thinking and experiencing as I near departure.

EWB is intense, which is great. I‘m not sure if I’ve ever learned so much in a one month before?

They keep teaching us big complex things such as - facilitation methods, various frameworks, concepts, tools… and intermingled among them all are words such as; approach, leverage, gender, culture, capital, transformative change, humility…all of which I am now able to speak at great lengths about what they mean and how they relate to the work I’ll be doing for the next year.

The Team

Meanwhile, I haven’t been doing this alone. Every step of the way there are 11 other people beside me, we eat together, walk together, train together and all of us live in the same 3 bedroom house in downtown Toronto. Lately we’ve been taking turns telling our life story. Each night, one of us sits down in front of the candle while the rest gather around. This person takes us all on a journey filled with personal challenges, their ups and downs with family, friends and of course, relationships. I highly recommend taking the time to do this with your grandparents or friends. So far they have been far more entertaining than any movie I’ve seen.

The team walking through a winter wonderland.

I also had the chance to get-out-of-town for a weekend. I went to the Hillside-Inside music festival in Guelph. Not only did I get to dance for 10 hours straight, but I saw and met people who are so caring and happy and sincere and ya, I just felt what it was like to belong to a harmonious community for a weekend.

So am I ready to go?

Surprisingly, I’d say yes. Maybe I'm a bit too comfortable with the idea? I sorta feel like I’m in the Truman Show and now it’s my turn to head off into the unknown world that I’ve only seen or read about. I want to see it with my own eyes, to hear the laughter of the children, to smell the forest and…well I guess its rainy season in Zambia, so maybe to taste the rain? How will it be different? I decided to look up annual precipitation trends for north-western province and found out that they have 116 days where it rains more than 10mm. This didn’t mean much to me until I looked at what it was in Vancouver, which in my mind is pretty wet, and they only have 39 of these days a year. (note to self – don’t forget rain jacket)

My checklist is almost done - I have a haircut, my Malaria meds, pictures of family and girlfriend, a journal, a camera and a ticket to fly. For sure I’m forgetting something.

It’s just hair.

(this paragraph is mostly for me)

We’ve been told to write down 10 things we love to do so that two months from now, when our ‘honeymoon’ phase is over and the culture shock hits, we can look back and see which things we are not doing. My ten things include – music, taking leisurely walks, reading, seeing the sun rise, seeing the moon rise, listening to stories, riding my bike, watching movies, seeing live music and taking pictures. I also enjoy seeing the northern lights, skating outside, hearing from Laure-Eloise and speaking to my mom…all of which I anticipate to be more difficult in a weeks time.

(this paragraph is for all of you that are interested in development)

What has been surprising so far?

  • If you want to promote good hygiene practices, maybe it’s possible that Unilever (a multi-national food and soap company) is better positioned than anyone else to do this?
  • Most things are common sense, however, there is a big difference between the theory of common sense and the application. (hence the 1 month of training req’d)
  • The power of questioning – this is an extremely effective way to learn and to help others learn.
  • The development sector is broken! Flat out. Aid money isn’t working and EWB is trying to improve it. The key issue here is accountability. Ask yourself - whose head rolls when a project fails overseas? How can feedback systems be used to improve this?

So it’s been a big month to say the least. My Grandpa passed away in January, which is tough, but I was able to say a proper goodbye before I left Calgary. He seemed to be very much at peace.

To prevent rambling, I'm going to sign off in hopes that you will check out my next update which is sure to be from the capital city of Lusaka in Zambia!

It'll be strange to leave Canada for such a long time. Up until now I've only left Canadian soil a handful of times, and never for more than two weeks.

All smiles.