Friday, August 5, 2011

Akwaaba to Kwaheri

"So many people have tried to define the feeling the French call mal d'afrique …It is a constant vertigo you will never get used to. This is why one day you have to come back. Because once you have been out here, hanging loose in the Big Nothing, you will never be able to fill your lungs with enough air. Africa has taken you in and has broken you away from what you were before. This is why you will keep wanting to get away but will always have to return...When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you’re leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the other end of your journey will be of a different order of existence.”

This time tomorrow I will be on a flight to Heathrow, concluding my two month adventure in Africa with a tray of processed foods and a B-rate movie on a seat screen. I am ready to go and terrified to leave, heaving a heavy sigh of nostalgia, relief, and wonder.

We talked about how
much he loves California.
Wonder: If this trip were a movie, it would be a conversation between me and a taxi driver. I must have met almost 100 of them. No matter where you are, taxi drivers are like telemarketers - erratic, a bit smelly, and a definitive expert on the most unique subjects. Once the car gets going, the initial power play between driver and passenger frequently fades into an exchange of ideas between two unlikely friends that can last a minute or three hours. I have been outwitted by many a cab driver, amused by their taste in music, and humbled by their keen perspective and understanding of the city in which they live. They know the shortcuts and back alleys, what the mayor was doing last week, where to take tourists looking for something a little sordid (not me, I promise.) My time spent side by side with these men will stay with me as a highlight of my summer.

One highlight of many. What an amazing thing it is when you discover you’ve put yourself in a completely foreign situation with people you don’t know and no idea of what’s around the corner…and you’ve survived. Grameen offered me a reason to be here but so much of what I experienced this summer was outside the office walls. For everything that I loved about it (the work), there was something I did not (potato belly), and I think I have yet to really understand what this trip has taught me.  The problem with being a capacity builder is that there’s always more capacity to be built. There is always more work to be done, whether it's on a new highway, a nonprofit program, a government project or....yourself. As I leave here I wonder about it all. Will it get done, and will I be a part of it?

Part of a Nairobi National Museum exhibit.
Relief: When I was growing up my parents had a saying for our itinerant family: "Home is where the dog is." As I grow into my own peripatetic ways I’m developing my own version - "Home is what you miss." You learn to identify the things you love and take them with you wherever you go.  Loved ones' faces cross my mind when I close my eyes at night. I salivate at the memory of a deliciously stuffed California burrito and daydream about the closet of dresses in my apartment. When I finally get back to all that familiarity, however, I know that my senses will long for what I love here. Creamy avocado, hot summer nights, sitting on the roadside in a plastic chair with a cool Star beer. The notion of “home" encompasses a huge world when you feel you could belong anywhere. But the Bay Area is a shining star in that huge world for me, and for now I know I belong there. I am eager, eager, eager to get back and hug my loved ones, amble down Telegraph, get yelled at on the 57, and start my final year of graduate school.

Nostalgia: I’m sorry to generalize but there’s no place like Africa. It is magic and loss and vitality and history and it is rough and real and striking. You don’t ever forget watching men hack the grass with machetes in their right hand, left arms folded carefully behind their backs. Babies tightly wrapped against women’s backs who remain quiet even when their mother bounces them around as they violently pound cassava. Beautiful, big skies and the wet smell of soil. The sound of rain showers or of tro-tros whizzing by and whipping your skirt up because they’re so close. The generosity of strangers. The crowds of city markets. It's all either maddening or breathtaking, and you know it cannot be found anywhere else.

There's an Enid Blyton book I adored when I was a kid about a magical tree that is home to an entirely different world atop its branches. Three children happen upon it and discover that the land changes every single time they visit, and they can never stay too long or they'll be trapped there forever. Africa is certainly my Faraway tree - just enough out of reach that I find myself longing for it, but always providing something new and wonderful when I return.

"This is why one day you have to come back."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Exhibit at the National Museum in Nairobi.
Many find it difficult not to be condescending about Africa. Some might argue that referring to 54 diverse countries with thousands of cultures as “Africa” alone is demeaning, and yet it happens every day (just look at my blog address.) Footage of kids with big bellies and stories of corruption seem to be the only stories to travel across the ocean, and they are typically only salvaged by some agency telling the world not to worry, they’re working on it. No, I am not immune. I’ve been known to lament the inefficiency of “Africa” while sitting in Nairobi’s unbearable congestion or one of Accra’s power outages. At the same time, I feel fortunate to tell a story that I hope will travel across these borders and demonstrate that “Africa” is indeed a place of innovation and hope.

Nairobi is one of the continent’s star children: the one who may place third in the spelling bee but won’t mind because she has a good shot at winning the science fair competition. The region serves as a lab for innovative ideas and the microfinance sector here is a great example. Like Ghana, each MFI in this region has varying models of delivery and a unique portfolio of products. Unlike Ghana, every MFI in this region has a website. Is this a key indicator of success? Surely not, but it indicates that microfinance is a visible and competitive industry here. Microfinance institutions here are not asking “what can we do?”, but “how can we do more?” For them, it’s not just about lending money. It’s about finding ways for that money to create things that generate a larger return for the community. Two trends have emerged here to ensure that microfinance is doing just that: mobile services and partnerships.

Nairobi's city centre.
Millions of Kenyans are able to hold, send and collect money with their mobile phone through Mpesa – can you do that where you live? An article in the Guardian recently highlighted how mobile money is an impressive force for good. One Kenyan MFI I met with just received an award for its innovative use of mobile services - quite a feat, considering their official launch isn’t until this Friday. Every MFI I’ve met wants to work towards providing mobile solutions to those who need it most – the farmers, the entrepreneurs, and the mothers who work hard every day to improve their livelihoods.

Directors of MFIs here also know that the greatest impact is made in tandem with focused expertise. One microfinance institution partners with an agricultural agency to make sure that their products are transformational for their farmer customers. Staff at many Kenyan MFIs are trained to deliver financial literacy tools to clients, frequently a requirement for microloans. My assignment here has been to partner MFIs with professional expertise from the global private sector and not surprisingly, my job has been easy. Companies, educational institutions and development agencies recognize the pivotal role that MFIs play in increasing income generation and improving the quality of life for Kenyans living on less than a $1 a day, and they’re eager to take part.

Sunrise at Nairobi National Park
I can’t forget that this revolution is taking place less than 300 miles away from a record famine. With foresight, planning and investment, these tragedies in “Africa” can be avoided.  The magic of microfinance is that it grants citizens the capability to make a difference for themselves. Things are moving fast here, and it’s been a pleasure to help establish partnerships to catalyze that movement. In this day and age, I think access to financial services is a human right. A big thank you to the Grameen Foundation for allowing me to help us get one step closer to ensuring that Africa's poor, in all their diversity, can exercise that right.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Traveling In and Through Solitude

Think he ever thinks
about being lonely?
Contradictory to the weather report it is a beautiful Sunday morning in Nairobi.  I am sitting outside my flat on a little bench surrounded by greenery, and I begin this post with the realization that I haven't had a conversation of more than two sentences since Friday.  Traveling is a funny thing.  It is at once a hectic interview with humankind and a quiet introspective journey.  What I have seen and felt over the past 7 weeks can't truly be described in a blog, but I will admit a little something to you: amidst unpredictable magic and proud accomplishments, my summer has also been challenging and lonely.

Most of the people I met in Ghana were expats who shrugged their shoulders when I suggested it must be hard to uproot a comfortable life at home to adjust to the craziness of Accra.  Surrounded by people who embraced life in Africa so naturally made my challenges with mosquitos and power outages seem silly and childish.  But along with lizards and bugs, loneliness eventually crept into my apartment and made those trivial trials even harder to bear.  Read a book, play an instrument, ride a bike, visit a sight, sit with a stranger...sometimes these are things you have to force yourself to do to forget that not a single familiar face is within 3,000 miles of you.  In those moments, the tiniest gestures saved me.  On a particularly rough day in Accra, a taxi driver laughed so heartily when I told him I loved the hiplife song playing on the radio and asked him to turn it up.  So we danced in our seats to a shared love of music for the remainder of the ride, and that taxi driver, who I will never see again, saved me that day.

I am not granted many opportunities in Nairobi to meet people outside the office or to explore the city.  What a disappointment to the fun-seeking adolescent within me!  I want to dance with strangers to ridiculous pop music until 5 in the morning, I want to bike around the streets to hollers of "white girl! how are you?", I want to befriend someone who will remain a lifelong souvenir of my time here.  Not all trips are adventures, though.  My priority here is to help Grameen establish a strong presence here, not to have all my touristic desires fulfilled.  So I spend most of my time here alone - attempting to cook edible meals with a pot and a table knife, avoiding the temptation to throw things when my internet goes out, and aggressively pursuing conversations with taxi drivers, the only locals I have contact with.

I think of my dad who traveled weekly for business for over a decade.  To this day I still get teary when I see a man with a mustache eating alone in a restaurant. How hard it must have been for him to eat meal after meal without his family, or even any companion, all those times.  I'm missing home.  My apartment, the ability to walk around with navigational confidence, cheap burritos, my hairdryer...The hardest part is knowing that when I arrive back home, I'll find myself missing precious alone time, chats with foreign strangers, Tusker beer and the smells of Africa.  Oh, the contradiction.

Oh look! It's a picture I took of myself.
Opportunists make the best travelers.  Those who are willing to say yes to even the most bizarre circumstances will be invited into stories they will tell for a lifetime.  At every moment possible I have tried to be this person, and while it has led me to the best parts of my trip, going with the flow can be incredibly exhausting.  And then there's patience, the necessity of which pops up almost everywhere.  Even yesterday, as my driver and I sat waiting in silence feet away from a lion buried in the grass to stand up, I got bored after about 10 minutes and insisted we drive on.  What a mistake that would have been.  The lion eventually stood up for a brief majestic moment when a herd of buffalo passed by.  That's right, I saw a lion yesterday, and here I sit blabbering like a kid writing a letter home from some third-rate summer camp.

A double G&T at Lord Delamere's Terrace in Nairobi.
Traveling alone is largely learning how to be patient with yourself, for not understanding the language, for not knowing your way, for wanting to be somewhere else when most people would give anything to switch places with you.  You're a different version of yourself, changing from moment to moment to survive whatever you're given.  From day to day, I am shy/outspoken, funny/offensive, professional/drunk, respectful/respectfully yelling at a taxi driver.  In those introspective moments that have punctuated every day of my summer, I find myself questioning which versions make up the real person that is me.

Naturally, I appreciate the romance of it all.  I get a kick out of being alone at fancy hotel bars and local food spots.  I imagine (quite narcissistically) that amidst the multilingual buzz of fellow foreigners, they all take turns speculating about that girl sitting in the corner reading a book and sipping on a G&T. I only wish my suitcase had been big enough to fit in accompanying costumes - I could have been a photographer on an urban stopover before the next safari, or an over-worked World Bank employee, or a Western trophy wife tired of the developing world.  Alas, I'm left with just me.

The lesson in it all, I believe, is learning to trust the unexpected.  When I left for work on Friday morning, two staff members rushed to me to give me hugs because I was wearing a blazer and heels (quite the departure from my usual sloppy flip flops and wet hair).  They gushed over me!  Their brief hugs were sweeter than the Berkeley ice cream sandwiches I'm craving, and I squeezed them back so tight my shoulder bag fell onto the ground.  I don't know their names - I haven't even met one of them before - but it was their surprising and affectionate acknowledgement of me that made me feel like a real person again.

Of course, the most unexpected delight of it all is learning to trust the unexpected within yourself, and watching that shy outspoken funny offensive professional drunk get through it all somehow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Worship at a Nairobi Gym

Watching the World Cup Final at the airport gate
It certainly takes leaving a place to appreciate the beauty of it.  While I was in Ghana I daydreamed of the magic of Oakland (three words you won't find together often), and ever since my departure out of Kotoka airport on Sunday, I have found myself counting all the things I miss about Ghana.  Even those little nuisances that tested me daily have somehow formed a big cloud of nostalgia for a place I know I can't visit again easily.

I remember feeling exactly this way last time, and trying to commit to memory every Ghanaian acquaintance of my five senses: the sour smell of my kitchen, the particular call of a bird that was always outside my bedroom window, the infectious smile of my security guard Adams, the men peeing with abandon on the streets, the ever present "you are welcome!" when entering a restaurant or shop or home.  As I write this I am actually trying to imitate the sound that Ghanaians make to emphasize a point or to indicate that they understand.  It's something like "eh-heeeeeh."  Not quite the same in a conversation with yourself in a Nairobi office.

The driveway to my apartment in Nairobi
I arrived here bright and early on Monday morning and was taken by a nice but quiet taxi driver to my flat and then the Grameen Foundation office.  Like a character from a Pinter play who has just woken from a coma, I am trying to remember everything I see in order to understand this new world around me.  I live in Rosslyn Hill, I work in Kileleshwa.  I'm not allowed to cross the street while talking on my phone, but drivers are allowed to talk while driving.  Illegality doesn't stop street vendors from selling papers and baskets and puppies on the median.  There is no shortage of malls or vegetables or foreigners.  A devastating famine is taking place not too far from here.  Hosts on the radio banter about sex and play songs with profanity at 8:30am. This is what I know of Nairobi so far.

I have three short weeks in which to understand how microfinance is working in Kenya and what challenges MFIs have in delivering their services, and what companies and organizations are engaging their employees in skilled volunteer work.  A pleasant discovery was that most microfinance institutions actually have websites here - quite a change from Ghana - and I am taking it as an initial indication that this region is ripe for Bankers without Borders.

Mosquito Bites:  No fresh ones, only scars.  Thank you, high altitude.
Best "only in Kenya" sight this week:  I began my temporary membership to the health club near my place by attending an aerobics class.  Once you've been traveling for awhile you get used to expecting anything, but always with questions in the back of your mind about what awaits you. Would the class be packed? Would it be difficult? Will people stare at me?  I opened the door after the class had started but the class continued without so much as a glance in my direction. Which was surprising, considering the tiny size of both the room and class.  Three Kenyans were bouncing around to the commands of an instructor wearing khaki shorts, Converse and some t-shirt saying something about X-rated. We lifted weights, marched around, threw our hands in the air, kicked our legs up, and groaned through ab exercises for an hour while we listened to techno gospel music.  Pumping my arms to "I will worship you" and "your Kingdom is worthy" was definitely a first for me.  I will absolutely be heading back tonight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The New Adventures of Old Tamale

On the road to Tamale
I’ve been counting down the days to this.  Not that thunderstorms, tigernut cocktails and weekend stays at oceanside eco lodges haven’t kept me busy – my stay in Ghana has been a fascinating combination of experiences both new (opening a coconut with a machete) and surprisingly normal (watching too many episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine while dogsitting for a friend).  But I’m not here just to drive around with locals to chop bars with dancehall music blaring out the open windows to join in the cacophony of Accra streets.  Certainly part of the fun, but not the goal.

I’ve been talking up the Bankers without Borders program to MFIs across Accra, and this is finally my chance to watch it in action.  The Grameen Foundation asked me to shadow a BwB project for a partner MFI called Grameen Ghana in the northern city of Tamale (surprisingly no affiliation despite the shared namesake.)  A volunteer from an investment bank in NYC, Noah, is delivering training on a new financial model over a 4-day assignment.  This is only the second time this Grameen Foundation model has been passed on to another MFI, but BwB hopes this will eventually lead to a standard for financial projections across the industry.
Donkey by the Swimming Pool -
 now the working title of my first novel.

My role on the project varies depending on who you talk to.  BwB would like me to evaluate the project from both volunteer and client perspectives with an objective third eye.  Not having a chance to introduce myself during the kick-off meeting with the MFI, however, gave the director the opportunity to task me with a different role.  “And Noah has brought this pretty woman”, he announced to the team, “so everything we do will be prettier”.  Challenge accepted.

Tamale is a wonderland of NGOs, motorbikes and donkeys.  Okay, I’ve just seen the one donkey, but stumbling upon him and a massive turkey lounging near the swimming pool as I walked to my “hotel room” was noteworthy.  Londoners and New Yorkers would immediately understand what it’s like to leave the stress of Accra and feel the welcoming arms of the countryside.  The sky is bigger, the air easier to breathe, the day easier to enjoy.  The Northern region is predominantly Muslim and host to over 30 different ethnic groups, yet Tamale easily maintains the friendly and laidback life so characteristic of Ghana.

Four days is a short amount of time for a complex project like this, especially when the employees gleaned that Noah is a goldmine of information and asked him question after question about Excel.  While Noah was showing them a few shortcuts, I felt like I was at a party watching the popular guy do card tricks. You really don't hear “oohs” and “aahs” or laughter during Excel presentations at home. Early tomorrow morning we will travel three hours north to Bimbilla to meet with Grameen Ghana borrowers in the field.  Apparently the distance is only an hour’s drive, but the potholes really slow you down.  It will undoubtedly be an incredible day, even if my butt is bruised at the end of it.

As I write this, I’m watching the donkey from my little hut.  He’s using one of the pool umbrellas to scratch his head, making it look a bit like he’s wearing the umbrella as a hat.  It’s 5:30 in the morning, the sun is coming up and I can hear trucks and motorbikes passing by on the road from Kumasi.  I keep asking myself: in a few weeks’ time, will I believe I was ever here?

Mosquito bites: Still in the twenties.  Got a nice fresh set of 9 up and down my back.   Seems I'm single-handedly feeding the population here.
Waiting 10 hours for the flight to take off was surprisingly fun.
Best "only in Ghana: sight this week:  I showed up for my Antrak flight to Tamale at 4:30am as I was warned that the 6am departure could actually mean 5:30 (perpetually late Ghanaians manage to get flights off the ground EARLY??).  Sat in the departure lounge until about 5:30 when we were all shuffled through security (the pat down was so thorough I blushed).  After about half an hour in the gate, a man in a neon vest announced to the group that the flight had been delayed until about 1pm because of storms in Tamale.  Noah and I headed back to town, got some breakfast, went to the mall, and got back to the airport around noon.  We had a quick beer at the airport bar but made sure to get back to the gate in time for departure. An hour passed in the departure lounge. Then another.  Around 2:30pm, like sweaty cattle, we all made our way through security to the gate.  And sat for another hour.  Finally around 4pm, almost 12 hours after the departure time, we took off.  The most amazing thing about this whole process is that apart from the announcement I mentioned, not a word was said.  Noah and I were cued only by the sudden rush of people from one place to another.  How did they know?  What did I miss?  The views from the flight, however, were stunning.  Felt like I was in the back of Denys Finch Hatton's plane, looking down on the glorious greenery.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Green Means Growth

Ghana moves slowly.  Meals at restaurants can take an hour to arrive and the mud sidewalks are crowded with ambling pedestrians who stop to chat frequently.  Last night a friend told me about checking in on an item he had ordered from a vendor; when he asked when it would be ready, the response was, "for sure maybe tomorrow."  This is at once the most wonderful and most frustrating characteristic of Ghanaian life.  Something I really wanted to do on this trip was meet at least one microfinance client to see for myself if a small loan really made a tangible difference.  Recognizing the sluggish speed of life and acknowledging my short time here, I wasn't too optimistic that I'd get the opportunity.  But as those who have come to know Ghana understand, things have a way of working out in ways you can't anticipate.
The view from Hillburi, Aburi

The first MFI I met with last week was impressive from the moment I entered the office.  I did not expect them to be in a five-story office building with glass walls and cubicles, nor did I think that my flip flops and sundress would render me embarrassingly underdressed.  A team of three men in sharp suits, including the CEO, ran me through a well-prepared Powerpoint on their background and operations.  They base their banking on mobility; that is, their loan officers each have a mobile phone and a mobile printer through which they can serve hundreds of customers in remote villages throughout their target regions.  Customers receive a printed receipt while their information is sent from the phone back to an impressive information management system (that the company developed internally) so that the head offices can keep track of individual balances, outstanding loans, and agent collections.  This model is limitless, especially in terms of reaching customers in remote areas who lack access to financial services the most.  After an hour or so I thanked them for their time, and left the meeting more than satisfied.

The next day I received an e-mail from the CEO who asked if I would accompany him on a day trip outside of Accra to visit the branch there and observe their interaction with customers.  This, as it turns out, barely begins to cover what we did on that day trip.  The two hour drive began with traffic and dust and potholes but ended in the beautiful mountains of the Eastern Region.  Our first stop was to meet the branch manager in Nkurakan, a smart young woman who oversees a number of villages in the area.  The three of us then moved on to the next village, where I was introduced to Emmanuel.  Emmanuel owns a business called Greenfield Spare Parts ("why greenfield?" I asked. "green means growth.") and has taken a total of approximately $1,500 in loans.  When the warehouse he buys his parts from increased their prices, he was worried he wouldn't be able to complete his stock and business would plummet, but this loan ensures that he is able to continue serving his customers the way he needs to to stay afloat.  When I asked if he would continue to take out loans, he grinned and said "of course, of course.  I am so grateful."
Wish this picture had captured how incredibly hot it was.

From there we moved from village to village to meet with people, finally ending at a huge trader market.  Huge.  Everything you could imagine was sold here, from dried Tilapia to toenail scissors to second hand trousers.  The MFI hosts a stall with a DJ and computers, and volunteer agents walk throughout the market to visit with existing customers and invite new ones to register at the stall.  One staff agent grabbed my hand and led me through the market, introduced me to clients (all women), invited me to try fruits I'd never seen before, and told me how much he loves his job.  I could go on and on about this trip - about how one customer whose business in a wood shack had been robbed and a loan allowed him to buy a more secure tin shack, about how the CEO is incredibly smart and sees only growth for their company, or about an amazing lunch in the mountains at this place, but there are other stories to tell.

The next day, a different MFI invited me to attend a group lender meeting and a group leader training.  This MFI aims to serve the urban poor, referring to their clients as partners, and while they lend to individuals, these partners must be part of a community-formed group.  These groups hold weekly meetings to discuss any issues and ensure everyone is paying back their loans.  The group I visited with was named "God is Good" - which also served as a chant the leader shouted out multiple times to the group's collective response "all the time!"  As the leader went through the agenda, the treasurer of the group collected everyone's payments in a lady's purse hung around his neck.  On a personal note, I love watching group interactions like this.  They teased each other (a conversation I thought was a serious discussion on the tardy policy was actually one guy asking the group if the ring on my finger meant I was married or available), and laughed and clapped when I said thank you in Twi (Medase!), and prayed in earnest to start and close the meeting.  This MFI's customers are 98% women who typically borrow about $80, and each client must undertake mandatory training before leveraging the MFI's loans or savings products.

Anthony, a customer, in front of his business.
These stories have been encouraging.  Microfinance certainly has a place here and seems to be in a state of development.  But a hard fact remains: the number one challenge facing all of these institutions is the lack of funding and financing.  Some are donor dependent, some rely on investments from personal contacts, some seem to have no long-term sustainability plan.  I have also noted a lack of collaboration among these organizations, which ultimately means that the sector suffers from a lack of best practices and self-regulation.  Looking forward, many of these MFIs hope to tap into new sources of income and explore how technology can expand their operations.  Previously ignored by the Bank of Ghana, MFIs will be boosted by the launch of a new Central Bank microfinance division by the end of the year.  Will this be a catalyst for MFI sustainability and growth?  For customers like Emmanuel and the members of "God is Good", I certainly hope so.

Mosquito bites: 22 (mostly on my feet)
Best "only in Ghana" sight/sound this week: Last Friday I had my first tennis lesson at the courts behind the National Stadium.  Sule, my Nigerian instructor, is patient and calm and I love hearing him say things like "Keem, we will work on your foh-hond" or "Let me be moh cle-ah, you must bend yo kneees!"  What was not as calm, however, was the swarm of little kids on the court who were desperate to be our ballboys (or friends?)  Innocently obnoxious and desperate for some action, they were prancing around the entire perimeter of the court so loudly I could barely hear the balls hit my racket.  After the lesson I made friends with an 8 year old boy wearing an Oakland t-shirt.  I taught him a high five low five, and he taught me a fist bump.  Fist bumps on the tennis court...Wimbledon, this is not.

Monday, June 27, 2011

KKT's Ghanaian Rules of Thumb

You're welcome.

wait...which way?
Getting Around
Planned to go to a restaurant the other night, got these official directions in the guidebook: "If coming from the airport area, cross the railroad track, follow road as it turns, take the 2nd left. This road will go over a small "river", then take first left - opposite a signboard that reads "cape 3 office". The restaurant is in a house, on right side, painted mustard yellow. There is no name on the house." I skipped dinner.  

You can sit anywhere you like, really.
Taxis are a pretty convenient way to travel if you don't mind haggling with the driver for a fair price (minus what my friend calls the "white man tax".)  Sit in the front seat and put on the seatbelt, if there is one.  The driver will honk throughout the speedy journey for no apparent reason; he may be saying "Get out of my way, pedestrian!", or "I'm available for a passenger", or perhaps just "look at me! I'm driving!" If it seems like the car is falling apart, it is.  One of the doors or something on the bottom of the car is sure to be rattling loudly, hopefully in time with the driver's honking to make up for the ominously missing radio.  If the door doesn't open from the inside, half of the time it won't, just act cool and open the door from the outside.  And always be friendly - drivers are happy to share directions and talk about their favorite football team.  If you don't feel like chatting, enjoy them singing along loudly to hiplife or a skipping CD of the greatest hits of Celine Dion.

If you are taking a cold shower at 3am, because your body temperature hits an unsleepable degree, and the power goes out (usually a very dramatic whirr into silence) - do not panic.  Enjoy the shower in the darkness and most likely, by the time you are done, the security guards will have figured out how to turn on the generator after a few loud arguments and many mysterious banging sounds.  Why does the power go out so frequently here?  Grossly deficient infrastructure.  It's the same reason that the streets are lined with tunnels of dirty water pouring into the ocean. Which brings me to another point - open defecation is practiced often here, even by women.  Watch where you're walking.  And please don't take part.

Sounds of the Night
Loud banging to fix the generator will be only one of the nighttime sounds you'll hear while laying in bed in a pool of sweat.  Church services take place in the middle of the night and worship is just as loud as it would be at a more appropriate hour.  Funeral processions will clang past your complex at 5 in the morning with chanting and drumming and bells that seem to follow no particular rhythm.  Frogs and crickets and birds and something making a sound that can only be described as Michael Jackson's signature "ee-eeee!" will also join the chorus.  It may seem like you'll never get to sleep, but don't worry, the heat will eventually ease you in to a soundless coma.

Food and Cooking
bug free breakfast.
Some of the juiciest mangos, passionfruits and papayas can be found in Ghana.  Adequate vegetables can also be found at stalls on the street, and yes, they will be covered in little bugs and flies.  You can get vegetables without inhabitants at the grocery store if you're willing to pay $3 for an onion (turns out, I am.)  Before you put everything in the fridge - forget everything you've learned about avocados and tomatoes and bananas not needing refrigeration - slice them all up to make sure the bugs have an escape route.  The simplest meal at home will take you twice as long to cook here because you have to inspect everything, cut out the questionable bits, and wash and cook every piece.  Or, if you feel confident in your ciprofloxacin medicine, go ahead and live dangerously and bite in to that fresh tomato.  What's the worst that could happen?

Marriage Proposals
Women with low self-esteem could use Ghana as a sort of rehab.  The catcalls of construction men in the Western world don't compare to the charm and persistence of Ghanaian men.  Men will tell you they love you, tell you they want to be close to you, offer to do anything for you and take you anywhere, ask you to be their wife or their Facebook friend before you've even had a chance to say hello. Responses like "I have a boyfriend" or "But you don't know me" won't put them off, but don't be rude. If two men in a car are driving slowly alongside you as you walk, stop and chat with them and firmly tell them that you are on your way somewhere. I conveniently leave my phone at home and refuse to memorize my phone number. Getting their information ends the conversation (if you're lucky) and leaves it in your hands. If you do give your number out, expect to receive phone call after phone call from men asking repeatedly "how are you?" They are not being sleazy, they just really want to know how you're doing.

The Fun Things
You can show up late to meetings and you'll probably be the first one there.  Handshakes here are almost as fun as high fives (with a clicking of each other's middle fingers).  Jollof rice is tasty.  Big beers are cheap.  The clothes are wild.  Life is lived out on the streets.  And everywhere I go, I am welcomed.

Monday, June 20, 2011


any guesses?
From tequila shooters to Rastafaris to Ghanaian police officers, the first weekend here was exactly what I hoped it would be.  Left the office early on Friday and roamed around the Artist's Alliance with Lynda and some other volunteers - a three story building with some fantastic Ghanaian art and crafts. What followed was, thus far, the highlight of my trip.  David, a Ghanaian Grameen employee who just moved back here from India, invited us out to a dinner at a seafood restaurant with a few friends.  About 12 of us finished 9 bottles of wine and 9 platters of various (some unidentifiable) seafood dishes, including swordfish and clams and octopus. As a girl who turns her nose up at fish I have to bone myself, I am proud to say I tried every single dish, lobster was the one exception, and I really enjoyed the meal. Afterwards, we sat outside at Venus, a hookah bar in the Osu district, where a South African taught me how to do tequila shooters. From there we moved to Bella Roma, a nightclub populated with locals, and danced the night away. I returned home around 4:30 and went to sleep feeling totally confident that I'd make my 8:30 yoga class.

Big pile of bikes in front of police station.
I did not. But by noon or so, David, Lynda and I made our way to Kokrobite. For an 18 mile distance, the journey was long. Funeral processions, commonly held on Saturdays, only added to the perpetual traffic in Accra. We finally picked up speed, but my tired eyes perked up at the sign pointing to Kokrobite just a little too late, and David had to make a debatably illegal u-turn to go back to the turning. What a mistake. A young police officer standing on the road pulled us over, motioned for me to move my backpack over so he could get in the backseat with me, and nonchalantly demanded we drive to the nearest police station. I was told the night before (by an Australian) that this is simply how it's done here.  Bribes are common, but we were too good hearted for that.  Earnest Lynda asked the officer for forgiveness, but the officer just chuckled.  Apparently you have to buy forgiveness here. We waited for 15 minutes at the police station while David worked his Ghanaian magic, and soon we were back on the road without having to pay a fine. David guessed that the police officer most likely just needed a ride back to the office. Terrible system, but fun to observe.

The nets on the fishing boats at Kokrobite
Our journey's surprises didn't stop there. A recent storm had created crater-size potholes in the long red mud road to the ocean.  It was slow going, but we finally arrived about 3 hours after we had set out.  Our destination was Big Milly's Backyard - a little enclave on the beach with a pervasive Rastafari culture and the perfect set up for relaxation.  Milly's was kind to us.  We ate traditional dishes like Red Red (bean stew and plantains) and groundnut soup while observing fishermen pull in their boats and women with babies tied to their backs sell pineapples and biscuits.  We took a drumming lesson and the three of us each bought drums to continue our vocation independently.  I also bought shaky balls - the Ghanaian version of maracas, but much harder to play. We stayed at the Dream Hotel in a room with a doorless bathroom and a flooding toilet. We drank a white wine called Obama of Africa and we danced to a Reggae band with the locals.  Ghana at its finest.

I am writing this now from my apartment just behind the Grameen office.  I have hot water, various foods in the fridge, a mosquito net, and semi-reliable internet access. I really couldn't ask for more. I am eagerly awaiting the week ahead, when I finally get to start meeting directors at microfinance institutions in person! I'm also hoping to dedicate some time to my drumming, take my first Ghanaian tennis lesson, and persuade some of the people I've met to join me at a pub quiz night this week. Getting settled certainly takes some time, and I imagine there will be ups and downs along the way, but tonight I am content.

Mosquito bites: 7
Lynda, Stephan, and said smoothie
Best "only in Ghana" sight/sound this week: A Ghanaian man named Stephan kindly offered us a ride back to Accra from Kokrobite in his Jeep.  Stephan runs an organization called Foundation of Hope, and talked excitedly about what he does, how much he has learned from his volunteers, and what he would like to see changed in his country.  When he heard I was looking for a bicycle, he offered to drive one down to Accra for me today.  Refusing to let us pay him for the trip, he allowed us only to buy him a smoothie to say thank you.  Only in Ghana can you get in a stranger's car and end up getting a free bicycle delivered to you at the end of the ride, all for the price of one smoothie.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Microfinance: Not a cure-all

While I'd love to bore you all* with stories of questionable foods, house lizards and Ghanaian taxi drivers (and promise to do so very soon!), I'm choosing instead to get the ball rolling by sharing a bit about what I'll be working on this summer.  I've begun two out of five projects this week - one is researching current linkages between mobile technology and agriculture (to inform a pilot Grameen Foundation initiative) and the other is researching the state of microfinance in Ghana.

Compared to other African countries, Ghana has a relatively developed field of microfinance with over 40 institutions providing loans of $130 million to about 350,000 customers.  As expected, I've encountered arguments, some bitter and some worthy, over what works and what doesn't.  High interest rates, inclusive and short-term financial models and an immense funding gap threaten the livelihood of the sector in certain areas.  Some critics go so far as to say that microfinance even perpetuates poverty by offering "second-rate" financial services to the poor.  The problems with arguments against microfinance, as I see it, are as follows: 1. Microfinance cannot be viewed as a cure-all for poverty, and 2. critics tend to examine microfinance in its current state and fail to acknowledge the evolving nature of financial services for a complex group such as the poor.

Ever since Mohammed Yunus made that first $27 loan thirty five years ago, microfinance has burgeouned into its own professional field accompanied with declarations that this is the solution we've all been looking for.  Critics who warn that microfinance isn't all it's cracked up to be are usually reacting to blanket claims made by professionals in the field that microfinance is the only way to solve poverty effectively.  (They do this in part to attract donor money, and you can't blame the players in the tricky game of fundraising.) But to state that microfinance is having little impact on conditions of the poor is ignorant at best, and these black-and-white generalizations - on either side - do nothing to further positive development.  It's like saying that the eradication of AIDS will not lift all people out of poverty.  Clearly that is the case, but does it mean that agencies dedicated to seeing the end of the disease should just quit their jobs and head to the beach?  Of course not.  The truth is that poverty is a deep, complex problem entrenched in history and societal standards, and no one thing could ever blot out the horrific conditions of the poor.

Because of this, microfinance cannot exist in a vacuum.  The sector is well positioned, especially in well-developed markets, to serve as a tool to enable all other functioning models of development, like healthcare, education, food security and access to water (saw a great Austrian film on water at the Goethe Institut on Monday: Uber Wasser.)  MFIs need to have the capacity to create strong ties across sectors to develop a sector worthy of investment in order to penetrate massive societal challenges.

There are several cases of pioneering models.  Companies seeking to strengthen their value chains have partnered with microfinance organizations, as Unilever has done in India.  MFIs and development organizations can team up with established banks, like the partnership between CHF International and HFC Bank or Barclays Banks' work with susu collectors here in Ghana.  Governments can assist microfinance sustainability by not placing ceilings on interest rates and promoting competition.  Innovation, technical expertise and technology will also push the sector into addressing more than just the financial needs of the poor, and that is where services from organizations like the Grameen Foundation come in.  Microfinance will not save the world (can anything really?) but it is certainly one big and helpful step in the right direction.  As I begin to conduct in-person interviews with MFI staff and customers on the ground here, I look forward to sharing their views on what microfinance has accomplished, and what the future of the sector looks like here in Ghana.

(*or just my mum, since she's most likely my one reader.  Hi mum!)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Announcements, Emergencies and Fumigation*

My journey yesterday started at 4am.  One car trip, boat ride, train trip, taxi ride, and a flight later, I was sitting on the floor of a gate crowded with Ghanaians at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.  When the KLM agent announced business class boarding for the flight to Accra, almost everyone stood up and crowded the entrance to the airplane.  "Business class only," she reminded them, "everyone else please sit down.  Please sit down!" A few stepped aside, but no one took a seat.  Every time she announced a specific section of seats ready for boarding, she would have to repeat the announcement to restrain the travelers crowding around her.  I was annoyed.  Why can't they follow directions?  I recalled a recent situation that had irked me similarly:  I was waiting in line in a small grocery store in Barcelona only to watch customer after customer cut in front of me to pay.  "Oh yeah," my traveling companion remembered, "they don't queue in Spain."
My German upbringing has left me with a need for a great amount of personal space and little patience for inefficiency.  The English part of me apologizes profusely for the most harmless bump into a stranger, and the Bay Area girl in me loves to talk about what the weather's going to be like tomorrow.  When I observe cultures where people do the opposite of what I do, my Dutch inclination to live and let live gives way to quiet resentment (or loud, as I share this in a public blog entry) as I think about how much better things would be if everyone did them the way I do.
What attributes would we want to emulate from each culture in a perfect world? Certainly not the Ghanaian laissez-faire attitude that had me hunting down my 24 hour visa when it hadn't shown up 6 days later.  Probably not whatever prompted the German at Frankfurt airport to look at me in disgust when I attempted ordering a Bockwurst in his language.  I for one could do without the English tendency to smother sunblock on like white paint, and abolish any culture in which foul body odors go unnoticed.  Am I being insensitive?  Absolutely, and that's my point.  Clearly it's easier to see what we don't like about other cultures rather than what we do like.  So, to get in the traveling mindset, I'm reminding myself that each culture is a national personality, and a celebration of history and tradition and identity.  Most importantly, whatever they're doing works for them.  If it doesn't work for me...why on earth am I traveling?
We landed in Accra and within moments, while the plane was still moving, people clicked off their seatbelts and started opening the overhead bins.  I was horrified.  "The seatbelt light is still on! Come on people!"  How I wished the flight attendant would berate them for not following protocol.  But she didn't...because this is not her first time to Accra.  In the airport, before I found my roommate, I heard a familiar sound.  Taxi drivers were hissing at me (tsssss!  tssss!), a culturally acceptable way to get someone's attention in Ghanaian culture.  The American in me thought "how rude", but the Ghanaian in me just turned and smiled.  Time to get acclimated.

(And yes, this is all a long way of saying I've arrived safe and sound. Accra is marvelous, and I will write more when I've soaked it all in.  For now, I will leave you with a picture of my impromptu drumming lesson at a market this morning.)

*Just a few fun little anecdotes from my journey.  A public announcement was made by the train driver upon our arrival into Waterloo: "The American girl who's napping may want to wake up now."  Then there was a medical emergency requiring a doctor on my flight to Accra, which ended with some kind of fumigation that is apparently now required on all flights to Ghana by the World Health Organization.  Sure smelled nice, though.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Second Time Around

Almost three years ago, to the day, I was returning from my first trip to Ghana. I left there with a big hole in my heart because I knew it was unlikely I would ever return. Life certainly is full of surprises!  In under 48 hours (if my visa arrives tomorrow...) I will be on a noon flight back to the land of pygmy goats and Star beer. This time I'll be joining the Grameen Foundation in Accra, the nation's capital, to conduct landscape analyses of microfinance markets in Ghana and Kenya for their Bankers without Borders initiative. This program is designed to utilize private sector resources - namely volunteers with professional expertise - to build the capacity of microfinance institutions in order to help the poorest people throughout the world move out of poverty. Their program stood out to me when I was researching corporate engagement at the Taproot Foundation. They are clearly pioneers in leveraging volunteer resources effectively and innovatively for poverty reduction, and I feel incredibly lucky to work for them this summer.

I deliberated on reviving my blog for the sole reason that what I'm doing just isn't that extraordinary. Every day, hundreds of people are volunteering throughout the African continent - and the globe - sacrificing the conveniences of home and time with loved ones to hopefully make a stranger's life a little bit better. My story is no more interesting than theirs. While I will no doubt be sharing personal anecdotes and my perspectives on the day to day Ghanaian life, I'll also be seeing things through a newly refined policy lens (thank you, graduate school). Having researched corporate engagement and skills-based volunteerism for a few years now, I've had to wade through countless arguments over better practices and efficient models of service delivery. Does microfinance work? Can volunteers make a difference? Is anything we're doing really lifting people out of poverty? I hope to find out, and I hope that anyone who is interested will join the conversation.

I also hope to fall back in love with a land that has seemed so far away since I left! A lot has changed in the country since 2008 - now a middle-income status nation and currently tapping in to newly discovered oil - and a lot has changed in me. Will I still be greeted with shouts of "yevu!" and "I love you!" on the streets? Will tiny little goats follow me wherever I go? Will I get used to people showing up at 4pm for 1oam appointments? Will strangers invite me into their home and share their food and life stories with me?

Let's see.