Wednesday, January 18, 2006

learning the ropes and trying not to strangle myself

Storm clouds have been threatening for the last several days but nothing has come of it - the sun drives the rain away by 10am and drenches the earth with sweat instead. i've been at my site for a little over a month now, trying to fit in and be cool and not do anything stupid. there's a fine line between great ideas and dumb ones here, and as of yet i've been unable to identify the difference. i'll give you an example.

jackson, the marketing officer for SFMAP (YARD's small farmer marketing assistance program) and i went to Nairobi a week ago to meet with several exporters about avocado contracts. they told us that they would be unable to give us any orders until we identified our farmers' potential output by the season (there are three avocado seasons), which we were unable to do. The simple solution, i decided, was to develop an 'avocado production sheet.'

the farmers should easily be able to estimate the amount of avocados that they harvested in previous years, i told myself, even if they didn't keep any records (which i was sure they hadn't) - after all, they picked the fruit themselves.

the first farmer we queried, a round-faced plump 40 year-old woman in a faded black metallica t-shirt, leaned forward in her chair and, resting her heavy elbows on her knees, pondered our question for a good thirty seconds. "i don't know." (keep in mind, this conversation took place in kikuyu, the village dialect, but i'm pretty sure not much was lost in translation) jackson prodded her. and prodded some more. "2 bags" was the final tally that he reported to me. Since the sheet was formatted to record kilograms produced, that wasn't the number i wanted.
"How many kilograms is that?" i asked jackson.
"i don't know."
"well how much does each bag weigh?"
"about 120 kgs."
"so she harvested 240 kgs of avocados." i wrote the figure in the space marked 'season 1.' "so how much did she produce in season 2?"
"what do you mean?" jackson was mystified. "she produced 240 kgs in season 1, right?" i was getting frustrated. "no, that was for the whole season." my system was falling apart.
"the whole season," i repeated, trying to figure out where the process had gone wrong. i gave up the attempt at seasonal quantification. "does she have any idea what percentage were of export quality?" i knew i was chasing a phantom prey, but i decided i'd rather die chasing that prey off the stubborn cliff of stupidity than give up completely. "she didn't export any avocados last year." they finally agreed that 50 percent of her avocados COULD HAVE been exported IF she had been able to.

after some discussion and post-analysis analysis, jackson and i decided that it would be easier to estimate the number of avocado trees on the farm, from which we could estimate the number of fruits produced. although this still proved difficult to many of the farmers, it was easier for me to trust the numbers they came up with for this parameter.

it would be easy for me to storm in here and demand change - and change is needed - but not all change is good. what works for the west doesn't necessarily work for africa. different languages, different cultures, different mindsets all contribute to the dynamic challenge of development. i am frustrated on a daily basis by, to sum it up, kenya. meetings that start two hours late, people that stare and point, coworkers that draw on a new dry-erase board with permanent really tries my patience. considering i didn't have much to begin with, i'm amazed at my ability to develop patience and use it simultaneously. i'm trying to keep my mouth shut more and work on my powers of observation. who knows, maybe i'll learn something.


  1. Jonny, Nail polish remover will take off that permanent marker. So will rubbing alcohol with some elbow grease. Use them sparingly, though, because they will eventually eat the finish off the board.

  2. Anonymous5:31 PM

    why do i feel like this whole thing was a word problem? -veej


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