Monday, December 15, 2008
Among other adventures, during my 4 days in Niger I had dinner on the Niger river; saw wild giraffes; went Taureg leather and silver-goods shopping; and was crammed into a truck bed with 28 other human beings and several chickens.
In theory no proper Niger excurion is complete without going further North into Agadez (which is to Niger what Timbucto was to Mali and its historical desert trade routes), and making a camel trip into the desert. Unfortunately, an ongoing Tuarag rebel movement has pretty much Agadez and northward too dangerous for passage.
Unfortunately my currently slow internet connection is prohibiting me from showcasing photos here; but they are alreay up on my Picassa account if you're interested, along with other photos from the last 4 months. However, I did have to take whatever time was necessary to upload this photo:
Friday, November 21, 2008
I and my friend decided to sow our quarter hectare with soy and peanuts, which in these parts are staple crops. At the same time one might say that here these belong to the minor league of local agricultural products: compared to other crops (like the fertilizer-intensive corn and cotton or time-consuming yams and rice), peanuts and soy demand relatively little capital and time.
For all our work, even if we had tried to sell the goods from our ¼ hectare, we wouldn’t have brought in much: at current prices: our soy probably would have earned about $10 (remember the goats enjoyed the first fruits) and our peanuts maybe $50-60.
I should note for the record that there were most certainly some rookie mistakes committed. For example, we sowed a bit too late into the rainy season, which didn’t afford the peanut plants enough time to develop as fully as they could have. We could have made more efficient use of our land, and I probably paid folks a bit too much when we sought an extra hand in the fields. The most frustrating setback was finding one afternoon that some local goats had eaten a very healthy proportion of our soy plants, which had been left out to dry in the sun. I hate these beasts.
Despite these setbacks—and in part b/c of them—my attempt at putting hand to hoe gave me a valuable glimpse into the culture that all other aspects of life in Nikki revolve around. Your average farming family keeps as much of the crop as they will consume in the next year (which sometimes meets or surpasses what was actually grown), and sells the rest, often immediately, but preferably later in the year when prices go up.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Honestly, there were many some moments that I felt less of a loyal American citizen than my Beninese neighbors. When, for example, they would feed me updates on the election campaign (when I for example had grown tired of fighting shortwave radio fuzz). Or on the evening of November 4th when many pulled all-nighters to watch the results come in while I slept soundly.
Granted, staying current this year hasb been a bit tricky: I have no television, and my comprehension of French news broadcasts shuts down pretty early in the evening.
But I was quite surprised at how fervently my town, Benin, and the rest of Africa followed the elections. Of course, it was with just as much fervency that Africa embraced America’s new president. This realization was settled by the many felicitations that I received; by the news footage I saw of Kenyan’s dancing; and by the BBC radio call-ins I heard enthusiastically supporting a “son of Africa” in the White House.
I was actually taken by surprise by how powerful a thing it was for many Africans, a product of several factors: Obama's skin color, his direct biographical roots to Kenya, and the newness of his political ethos. I think that for the Beninese this last factor (which Obama and supporters has chosen to sum in the word "change") might have carried special weight: Benin's popular president Yayi Boni has also self-stylized his politics in one word: changement.
An American leaving abroad couldn't help but be moved by how emotive and engaged Africans were over the U.S. elections. Of course, much of this was due to the symbolism of it all. For all their interest, most Africans (along w/ Americans) know little how Obama's presidency will practically affect their lives, especially in the areas of trade and U.S. Aid policy.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Market Opportunities. This is no less true today: by some accounts Shea Butter production is considered to be a more important source of household revenue for certain families of Northern Bénin than even the “cash-crop” of cotton. Yet today the benefits and veritable utility of Shea Butter are now well-known beyond the borders of Bénin and West Africa, such that Shea Butter has become a very profitable commodity, both within Bénin and especially in export markets.
Even while such market expansion is taking place, the fundamental activities involved in making Shea Butter in West Africa—that is, the gathering of Shea Nuts (from the Karité or Shea Tree) and the production of the butter itself— are still mostly performed by women across this region, and using traditional manual methods. This combination of market profitability and rural production realities presents a unique opportunity of income generation to women’s groups across West Africa, and by extension a significant opportunity to increase the household revenues for the many families being supported by such women’s Shea Butter-Producing Women’s Groups (Groupements).
Market Barriers. While such Groupement women and families have much to gain from an increasingly profitable Shea industry, this opportunity is not without a formidable challenge: How are traditional women’s groups to successfully access and participate in such modern markets in a way that is profitable and sustainable? This is the grand challenge posed to the Shea Groupements of Nikki, Bénin. Despite their rich and long tradition of Shea Butter production, several factors make it difficult for many women in Nikki to profit from evolving Shea Butter markets.
Market Empowerment. In the last year’s experience of working with local Shea groupements, I and local Béninese NGO L’Enfant Epanoui Bénin have seen these obstacles first-hand. To put this particular experience to constructive use, we have decided to launch a project that will empower 15 Nikki groupements to adopt structures, skills, and strategies for successfully addressing these market barriers.
This project will take the form of a series of conferences, workshops, training events, evaluations, and publicity activities held for these 15 groupements, likely representing at least 300 women and their households. You can link here to read more about the background and five particular project objectives, which include thorough quality control training, the formation and official government registration of an operational Nikki Shea Butter Association, and the identification of a business partner for this association, most likely some type of buyer-lender.
How You Can Help Empower the People Behind the Product…
To initiate and realize this project we must raise $4,500.00 in funding, an amount which complements a sizeable project contribution already offered by the community of Nikki. We would like to see this money raised by the end of the year: this project’s success largely depends on the active participation of many rural women and as such should be launched well before the rainy season begins next year, the arrival of which immediately occupies any free time in Northern Beninese households.
You can very easily make a contribution by following this link to a secure Peace Corps webpage that has been set up for donations to this particular project. All contributions satisfy direct project needs, and none of them are spent on administrative fees, per diem, etc. of those mounting and managing the project.
I will be posting further info and updates on this project, so please check back soon!
Monday, September 8, 2008
Truth is, a PCV generally has to work really hard to work, and this is especially true the first year, as you are learning the language and locality, and getting a better idea of the needs, resources, and assets of a community. These being the prerequisites to productivity, one could say that work wise the first year sees a lot of false starts: ideas that seem promising, but eventually fizzle out for one reason or another. Nevertheless, I have been doing my best to put those token tax dollars to palpable good use (consider this my yearly report), and will now attempt to satisfy the common question—most recently recited by my sister— “What do you actually do?”
Business Formations. The biggest priority for Peace Corps Benin’s Small Enterprise Development sector program objectives, developed with the Béninese government, is providing business technical training to artisans, small businessman, and trade groups. In the last year I’ve given classes (Formations) on basic Accounting and Financial Planning, Marketing, and Business Planning, with some individual consulting here and there.
Formations usually are completed in 6 to 12 one-hour sessions. It’s hard to gauge a success rate with these, and the real work always begins after the course ends, as you try to follow-up and ensure proper application. Aside from the couple participants whom you see trying to apply the material, there are at least always a handful of participants who seem especially engaged during classes or who come back again to take another course subject. I personally have enjoyed these interactions a lot, as they have helped me to improve my French and to gain important entry points into the lives and business realities of many Béninese.
Working with Shea Butter Producing Women’s Groups. This, almost verbatim, was what I was told would be my primary project at Nikki, in conjunction with a local NGO. The mandate started out vague, but over the last year the work with 4 Shea Butter-producing groupements (women’s groups) has managed to define itself, if only in several different directions. One front of this has been business technical support in the form of accounting lessons, given to each of the groupement’s leaderships. In June we set up a small quality control training, in which over two days one local groupement (who themselves have taken quality control trainings, and who produces quality butter) shared their methods with the others. Three of the women’s groups and my NGO have been working on Karité Tree (whence comes shea nuts) replantation projects, with which I’ve assisted a bit in the manual labor. Two groups have also built Foyers Ameleriorées, simple but more energy-efficient earthen hearths used for cooking and making butter. And preparations are being made to start a garden for one group during the dry season.
The grand vision in the Shea Butter domain has always been to equip the women’s groupements for and open them up to better market positions, ultimately ones that will earn them better profits for their trade. We’ve been talking for some time to a producer/exporter in the South named Natura (who produces groupement butter into soap, then exports it to an importer/distributor in CA), and may be soon selling a small batch.
In any case, a lot of valuable research and experience has been gained in the last year to this “marketing” cause, and myself my NGO are in the works of planning a district-wide Shea Butter training conference early next year, which we hope will open up significant opportunities for many local groupements. More on this to come soon.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Further fodder for the fire has been some interesting articles recently written on the Peace Corps. If you find yourself with most Americans thinking that “Gee, it’s nice the Peace Corps exist,” but couldn’t really place your finger on what the Peace Corps does, or is supposed to do, read these. In one, Robert Strauss, former PC Country Director of Cameroon, goes candid on the shortfalls of Peace Corps in his experience. The other "Where to Go Peace Corps," is more of an distanced reporting on the state of Peace Corps.
My own thoughts on Peace Corps are of course subjective to a certain point: I’m in a particular country program, placed in a particular community and work project, have only only been here a year, etc. And at this point I’m pleased with a lot of what I’ve seen of Peace Corps. Nonetheless, I can’t help w/ agreeing with many others about the very real confusion—one might say skitsofrentia—about how Peace Corps purports, markets, and practically sets itself up to be.
This schizophrenia is basically between trying to be an effectual development program on one hand, and in actuality being some type of cultural exchange pragram. The Peace Corps stateside marketing along with the general sentiments of most volunteers will lead you to believe that Peace Corps is mostly valued for the personal experience is gives its participants, and maybe also the warm fuzzies evoked between Americans and their host country nationals. The realities of how Peace Corps is funded, structured, and operated on the ground further leave little opportunity for it to accomplish formidable development work. One problem with this is that many in host country governments and citizens actually suppose or understand Peace Corps to be a development organization dispensing of technical advisors. Another problem is that of legitimacy and longevity: can such a schizophrenic entity continue to exist, looking and being so many things to so many people?
The benefits of cultural exchange, soft diplomacy, and valuable personal experience are not necessarily bad, but in my opinion would be best enjoyed in the context of a Peace Corps program that first and foremost had a clear and coherent development vision, and was structured and operated accordingly.
You can read the linked articles referenced above if you want more polished versions of what people have observed to be wrong. As far as reform goes, I can consider 4 general points that Peace Corps could restructure itself on in order to be a more viable development agency:
1. Professionalizing the program. This first and most important point here involves the way Peace Corps markets and recruits. It needs mature and to some extent experienced volunteers, not 21 year olds looking for an extension to college life or a way to pad their law school application. This means putting higher demands on candidates, and setting higher expectations (and more serious consequences) on them once they’re in. McCain and Obama both have commited themselves to increasing the numbers in the Peace Corps volunteer ranks. Such a development ambition, absent of higher standards and additional funding (discussed below), would be horrible for the program.
2. Providing more resources, training, and support to volunteers. Professionalizing the program doesn’t end with selecting good volunteers. It implies also giving volunteers the things they need to succeed. This can include a lot of things: more technical training (rather than the very “soft” or general technical and cross cultural training we’re often given), with a focus on contextualizing this information to the country and culture and local challanges. Better information and networking systems in things related to project ideas, news of what's happening in the development-domain in a particular host country, and maybe also a feed to development ideas and trends. A more formidable operating/work budget for each volunteer, depending on his or her site and project, would also be a line item in an improved budget. Finally, peace corps volunteers need better accessibility to project funds. Some good projects really do require little or no funding; but many do. All this will take more money for the program. The good news is that Peace Corps volunteers and the program itself is in some sense already thrifty, running on a smaller per-person budget than any other US develepment program. The bad news is that Peace Corps money has been progressively cut in recent years, a trend which at this moment doesn't seem to have much relief in store.
3. Diversifying its programs and projects to fit a diverse world. The Peace Corps is not operating in the same world it was 50 years ago. If it is to be a development program, it needs to increase its involvement in poorer countries and poorer regions. It will also need to diversify its program to fit the diversified needs of a diversified world and even the diversified regions of a country. It must also recognize the variety of volunteers' skills and experiences, and to give them placements and work mandates that match these realities, even if there may be some uncomfortable degree of diversity within the ranks. Various work sites and mandates means leaving flexibility in living and working allowance, training, work mandate, even terms of service. This is already a reality to some extent, but could be worked on more. A volunteer assisting a country's national courts to write a sustainable business pland and living in the country's capital city maybe should not the same living/work allowance and terms of service as a recent college-grad leading school clubs in a rural post.
4. Working harder to create better work partnerships between volunteers and their host-country work partners. Much of a volunteer’s level of success depends on the quality of his or her work site, project, and work partner. Unfortunately, many volunteers have very passive or uninterested work partners who are themselves without a passion or knowledge for what they’re doing, and many volunteers effectively have no work partners at all, leaving them without a crucial resource to understanding and working in their community. This element in some sense depends first on Peace Corp's initiative to professionalize itself and its volunteers, but requires also more professionalism and intentionality on part of the host country.
Having said all that, I I'm still a fan of the Peace Corps, and feel there's alot of potential in the program to be exploited. Whethere this happens, though, is largely a question of Congressional funding, and necessary courage on part of Peace Corps program to define and develop itself.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Stage consists of 9 weeks of intensive classroom and self-directed learning geared towards producing skilled, resourceful, and productive volunteers once they begin living and working at their assigned posts. This includes the development of sector-specific technical skills, cultural knowledge, French language competency, and certain “survival skills” (safety and health issues, bike maintenance, even cooking lessons).
One of the best parts of stage is meeting the new trainees. This year’s group is no less interesting than other years. Aside from the many recent college grads, there’s an architect who has worked on an amusement park in Dubai, a former accountant with one of the big 3 firms, an experienced nurse, quite a few from the non-profit fields, and many others from interesting backgrounds and geographies.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
The Drop in the Dollar’s Value has brought sudden and unforeseen problems for many government and NGO-supported programs that rely to some extent on American money. For example, I am working with a local NGO on a shea butter project which receives much of its financing from an American fund. Since the project was launched a year ago, however, the Dollar has weakened, effectively lowering the purchasing power of our funds, which most be converted to the Beninese currency to be used. As a result, we can now only afford to buy two of the three shea-butter processing machines we had planned for and ordered (one for each of the three womens groups we are working with). This shortage of machines, in turn, has threatened to cause stresses in the project: progress was halted as we ran around looking for other options, project donors became impatient, the local government was put in a tight spot as we petitioned it for supplemental funds, and discord among the 3 women’s groups/project beneficiaries was foreseeable as one group (at leasty for the time being) will be evidently be short-changed a machine that was promised to them.
The High Price in Gas also causes problems in and around Nikki. While Nikki is less than 20 miles from the border of Nigeria, Africa’s leading producer of crude, there is a chronic shortage in the supply of [legally-sold] gasoline in the town, as in Benin in general. As result, our town’s power—supplied by generators—has been cut regularly from 8 in the morning till sundown. And everyone feels the effects of this and right where it hurts. NGOs and government offices cannot write their reports and artisans and businessmen of all kinds must either invest in a gas generators or else (in the more likely case) put off their work until sundown. This is neither profitable nor necessarily safe for most folks: one Sodeur I have been working with complained to me that working welding after dark is not at all good for his eyes, even with the safety goggles he wears.
The Cost of Living is driven up also by the high price of gas as transportation costs augment the price of goods. Production costs go up as well, for items such as locally produces flours, which rely on gas powered mills for their processing. The global food shortage, itself partially spurred by the cost of oil (and fertilizer) has also reared its head in Nikki. My comfortable stipend here cushions and desensitizes me a bit to the effects I feel by such a shortage (you’d do better asking your average farmer here how he is coping). I'm not convinced yet of what many locals are telling me: that the recent increase in the price of local foods are just a seasonal thing (for things like rice, yams, peanut butter, or soy cheese). When the harvest arrives they may be surprised that prices don't drop back down in historic manner. Prices of imported goods such as dried milk and canned and packaged goods have certainly risen over the last months.
To ease the effects of the high cost of living I’ve heard that the World Bank has given some financial assistance to Bénin, along with other African nations, and that the national government has tried to ease the burden of the poor by subsidizing what it deems as “basic” consumer goods. I’m told also that fertilizer is to be distributed to farmers to improve this year’s crop yields. However, slow decision making, profiteering commerçants and food traders, and inefficient distribution systems slow or effectively blocks the impact of these state interventions at the rural level.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
In the news world, financial-business world, and the development world, there is lately a renewed and strong interest in the idea of “Investing in Africa,” whether through venture capitalism, private equity, or through public market exchanges. Indicators I have seen of this trend include magazine articles, books, blogs, websites, SRI material and other investment prospectives, business and development conferences, and even a documentary that honing in on the subject.
Why the sudden and new interest? Some claim the disillusioning recession in the U.S. and elsewhere and the ostensible saturation of other markets is turning the attention of investors on Africa as an investment target. Certain shining examples of companies in such growth industries as precious minerals, banking, and cellular service across sub-Saharan Africa helps to turn these gazes. I think also that African markets are becoming more accessible, or at least feel closer and more important, to investors: African exports are feeding the “emerging economies,” new stock exchanges are slowly opening across Africa, and—as I read recently in the Financial Times—several African countries are trying to get a number of Africa-owned companies listed on the Chicago Stock Exchange. As a final possible factor to the recent attention, though“Socially Responsible Investing” rightly has plenty of critics, no one can deny also that the very idea of “Investment in Africa” is an admittedly more sexy one that buying stocks in your typical Dow-Jones company.
A Good Thing?
My very cursory understanding of developmental growth theory economics tells me that this buzz of investment interest, if materialized, could be very good, because the “I” variable (Investment) is one of the most—if not the most—necessary variable for macroeconomic growth. Big financial investments are also necessary (though not sufficient) for long-term poverty alleviation, as jobs, assets, productivity, and government revenue for social programs (through taxes) are all generated. When the end-consumer is the poor person himself, he or she can also be empowered by being offered a newer or cheaper product to improve his or her quality of life (This argument is advanced in Profit from the Bottom of the Pyramid). Sometimes these suddenly accessible “consumer products” are as essential as small loans or reliable ambulance services.
On the investor side of things, prospects are also good…very good in fact with potential returns marketed at twenty-some percent. Africa represents to many investors an environment perhaps poor in material assets rich in land and natural resources, labor, entrepreneurship, and a potential consumer base, and so primed for explosive growth so long as one can identify those good targets to inject the funds.
And “so long as…” remains the biggest potential barrier to this kind of profitable and sustainable investing. Africa is a rich and varied continent…investors cannot afford to categorize it as one place; rather, they must specify their research and understanding of a country’s realities and economy. Certain crucial factors of investment climate must be well analyzed such as trends related to infrastructure developments, corruption, rule of and respect for private property and commercial laws, taxation, and political and social stability. If not, one may be likely either to see the whole region of Sub-Saharan Africa as a continent of genocide, civil war, and election fraud. Or else, one is likely to commit the opposite error by actually investing in a Darfur, a Northeastern Congo, a Zimbabwe, or some other place more likely to erupt in some mass social disruption than in economic growth. This error happens by forgoing deference to the complex histories and varied difficulties that characterize many African countries.
America is suffering at this moment the fallout from the bursting of a particular financial market bubble that was based on irresponsible and unregulated risk. The last thing the world—and especially Africans— needs now is another mass financial venture that is a powder keg in disguise.
Is Bénin a Ripe and Risk-Minimal Market for Investment?
Given the potential benefits, along with the appropriate risk assessment that must happen, could Benin make a good target should the region see a financial investment windfall? I think so.
On the risk side of things, Benin is about as stable as you could get in the region: There has not been severe civil disruption for almost 20 years (see the Onion article satirical affirmation of this fact) and has enjoyed free and fair elections since then. There are also no outstanding ethnic, political, or resource-driven issues that have driven other African countries to war and unrest. Benin has no extremely lucrative resources that might attract corrupt leadership or render other exports too expensive to develop. The itinerant president, Yayi Boni is widely supported and has made it one of his primary goals to stem corruption. Evidence of this includes Benin’s election by the U.S. as a beneficiary of the much-prized (but hard-to-get) aid from the Bush’s Millinium Challenge Corporation. Among other things the MCC project is expanding and cleaning up Cotonou’s international port, once infamous for its corruption. Such are some of the indicators and evidendences that Benin may be a healthy environment for a large investment, especially when compared to other countries of the region.
If Benin were indeed poised for explosive growth, here is my estimation of the potential profitable sectors into which investors could inject their confidence, ideas, and inflow of private capital:
Transportation. There is the need and market here for car-taxis to service city populations, bus lines to serve the cross-country travelers, and possibly also a rail service to run over Benin’s largely unused railway line.
Tourism. Benin’s beaches, wildlife parks, and varied cultural landscapes are beautiful, but remain unknown to tourists…what’s needed is marketing and a more developed tourism infrastructure of hotels, touring agencies, etc. to exploit this possibility. Holding company Dubai World entered into negotiations earlier this year to develop beachfront, hotels, and game parks in the South.
Communications. Perhaps telecommunication but most especially internet, especially with the virtually untapped fiber optic line that runs through the country from the south to the north.
Banking Services. Perhaps in mortgages and micro-loans, as is taking place …across much of Africa.
Certain Agri-based products. Shea butter, cashews, and pineapples immediately come to mind, for which large and unsatisfied markets exist abroad.
Electrical Power. Most of Benin, derives its power from gas generators and is therefore electrically reliant on Nigeria. This source of energy is expensive and non-sustainable and will only become more so as oil prices increase with the demand for power. Alternative sources of energy could find an eager consumer base.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
I can’t pinpoint exactly why the popular people’s pose is this way, but I recently read something by an Art Historian named Kathy Curnow ("Prestige and the Gentleman: Benin’s Ideal Man") that makes me wonder if some of what encourages such stern and stolid expressions before the immortalizing powers of a camera is some effort to prove and portray the “Ideal Man.”
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
1. You will not live in a grass hut. No volunteer here in Benin does, due to the housing standards set by the Peace Corps program here (cement floor, at least two rooms, at least a metal ceiling, etc.) and due to the more developed towns in which most volunteers are placed. I think about half volunteers have electricity, and some even have indoor plumbing. Truth is, these standards, combined with your living allowance, certain reimbursements, and health coverage will place you squarely in the upper-middle class echelons of Beninese society.
2. You will not learn (fluently) a local language. Volunteers at most learn to small talk very well. While we're on languages, don't set too high of expectations regarding the French. If you come in with little or nothing, you will obviously gain a lot, and will more or less become "fluent" for West African purposes, but not in the Frenchy-French sense. Most don't really care much about attaining to the latter goal anyhow.
3. At the end of the day (and two years), you are not here to do development work. Peace Corps is a great way to be exposed to the realities of development work, but thinking of yourself as a development agent will set you up for disappointment. Better to think of yourself as an very active student in a cross cultural program, than as part of an important development agency. That said, many volunteers do in fact do good "development" work, but this reality is often a function of several key factors: personal motivation and technical skill on part of the Volunteer, good work partners, motivated community, and perhaps also the ability and resources to raise your own project funds. In any case, maintaining a student's posture--patience and humility--will always serve you well.
4. You won't like the food, but then you will. The food here is not fantastic, but you get used to it, and many (especially guys, as it is) come to like it. I started out really not liking the food. When I got to post I cooked for myself almost all the time, but at this point I buy most of my meals off the street. In my opinion the North has more to offer than the South (especially fresh cheese, soy cheese, a dish made from pounded yams, and a rice and beans,), but if you know your town well you can eat well. Expect lots of carbs and spice, and not a whole lot of easy protein or produce.
5. You will never be perfectly accepted or integrated. Bien intégré is a mantra among many volunteers. But no matter how well you may speak French, "saluate" in the local language, dress in local garb, stay at post, consume local food and drink, and adopt Beninese mannerisms, at the end of the day you're still a "white person" ("yovo," "weebo," "bature," "anasara," depending on where you are). This is not necessarily bad, it just is, and is worth swallowing from the get-go, because then you are free to understand and empathize with the Beninese people and culture in a way that's honest and real.
6. You will be sick a lot, at least at first. The physical adjustment that your body goes through in Benin is probably more significant than any cultural shock. You will learn that there are lots of interesting ways to be sick, and probably spend several late nights under your mosquito net reading the PCV Health Manual in a futile attempt to diagnose the noises and sensations that are coming from your belly. De Courage...eventually you and your stomach learn how to adjust, and bowel movements cease from being the main topic of conversation when you call home.
7. You will be bored a lot. While any given volunteer has an ostensible work partner and work mandate, you will have lots of time on your hand. Think of it as like being in perpetual summer vacation when you were 10. Volunteers have different ways of coping with having excessive time on their hands. Some travel a lot, others sleep a lot, some cook a lot, most read a lot, and many spend a lot of time writing up lists. I generally suggest cultivating a curiosity for and desire for exploration of your local area. There's a lot to learn, and most things around you are not what they seem. So develop the habit of asking yourself good questions about what's going on around you. Then go explore.
8. Peace Corps "policy" might be a significant part of life, but doesn't have to be. The Peace Corps is essentially a lot of young people living by themselves, with a lot of freedom and in conditions that can't always be understood let alone controlled. While we may indeed be an "asset" to our local communities, to the folks in Benin who are responsible for us to Washington and to the Beninese people we are to some degrees walking liabilities, even though this concern really doesn't apply to the vast majority of volunteers. Nevertheless, a natural consequence of this is that there will be certain in-country rules on how to conduct yourself. Sometimes you may feel micro-managed, but my honest opinion is that the policy here is sensible and non-suffocating. Some volunteers like to make Peace Corps policy a staple topic of conversation and a big deal in their lives, but I think its boring for the most part.
9. Voodoo really isn't that big a deal. First, to clarify: Voodoo is the word for the particular variety of African spirituality (known widely as Gris-Gris) that was born and bred in Southern Benin. It's an important element to the South (as is other types of Gris-Gris to other parts of Benin). But so is Christianity and Islam, and other cultural factors. I feel that it's unfortunate that tour guides and tourism profiles of Benin feature Voodoo as the country's main claim to fame. This is first of all deceptive because, even over your 2 years of service, any manifestation of voodoo you're likely to see is in certain places in the South, and probably will be something inauthentic and hyped up for tourists. This claim to fame is also unfortunate, because Benin's traditions and culture have so many more flavors and nuances than what is captured in the typical Westerner's idea of "Voodoo." All that to say, it might serve you better to read up more on Islam, Christianity or traditional West African spiritualism than investing much in Voodoo research.
10. You won't need most things you think you do need now. Many of the blogs out there feature exhaustive packing lists, and I myself remember spending countless hours in logistical planning, purchasing and packing. Give yourself a break and just don't think about it that much. I'm not going to add any more specific advice to the countless--and probably contradictory--recommended packing lists that are out there. As a general rule pack the bare essentials--even if you think you need it now, keep in mind that you become materially lower-maintenance as time goes on. And anyways, you really can find a way to get further items later on as you decide you need them. The lighter you pack the better-- you will save time headache, and in the long term have a more meaningful experience in Benin knowing you haven't been dependent on all the material comforts of home.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
According to the most recent statistics I have seen (for 2005), Bénin has a surprisingly low HIV prevalence rate, around 2% as the national average. The Borgou Commune’s estimated prevalence rate is estimated even lower, at .3-.5%. Due to the extreme difficulty of collecting comprehensive and accurate data, these rates most likey are signigi Nevertheless, they might still indicate a real improvement from Bénin’s historical rates and a better rate than some surrounding African countries, it could be also that testing methods and difficulties (especially in more rural parts, as in the North) contribute to such low rates.
There are a number of cultural patterns that are likely to contribute to HIV prevalence in Bénin, among them prostitution and polygamy. But the most overt problems I observed during our sensibilizations had to do with behavioral patterns, mostly (among the guys) to do with views of sexual relationships, condom stigmas and the general kind of short-sighted decision-making that doesn’t take consequences into proper consideration.
Barriba woman at a water pump, Filani woman in the background.
For our tournée, the majority of stops were Barriba communities which seemed to have good grasps on the nuts and bolts of HIV/AIDS and how it’s contracted—these were not extremely isolated communities, and it seemed clear that at this point their people had been hit many times over by NGOs and government groups giving AIDS talks. In short, the “sensibilization” phase (not actually even a word in English) of the fight against HIV/AIDS seems very much over with for many of the populations that we talked to. An exception to this seemed to be villages consisting mostly of Peuhl and Gondo minorities. These folks, perhaps because they live somewhat outside the mainstream Barriba society, and speak another language, understood surprisingly less about AIDS.
For all stops, especially in those villages that were well-informed, the talks (at least with the “young men” group that I was with) were geared mostly towards reviewing and clarifying facts and encouraging certain sexual behavioral changes. This latter task is obviously not accomplished over the course of a 1-hour “sex talk and so it is most realistic to conceive of our efforts as a contribution to and continuance of an already-begun community conversation about AIDS. Hopefully in the long run such a conversation yields a positive change in community norms, individual behavior, and overall quality of life.
Brief respite before our final leg into Nikki.
To see all photos taken on the bike tour, link here.
Friday, May 30, 2008
In reality, “development” and the bloc of nations constituting the most “undeveloped” part of the world are ideas which have very much outlived the definitions that might have been pinned to them 60 years ago, as well as the periodic adjustments that have been made to these categories thereafter. Collier states that most of what was the developing world is now very much on its way, and what remains is a group of 58 nations—constituting about a billion people—who are “stuck,” not just in low income and poverty, but in a worse way: without growth, which translates to pandemic paucities of hope within these nations, and a new “diverging” world without.
Collier attributes the condition of a nation’s being stuck to 4 “development traps,” each Bottom Billion nation essentially being snagged by at least of these traps. 73% nations have recently experienced civil war or coups. 29% suffer from the drags of natural resource-dominated economies. 30% fit the profile of being landlocked, resource-scare and with bad neighbors. And 76% have been through a prolonged period of bad governance and poor economic policy. While each of these realities themselves slow or deplete growth, Collier labels them as traps because the conditions are self and inter-perpetuating.
Is Bénin Trapped?
Africa happens to be the epicenter of the Bottom Billion—not exclusively (there are others outside Africa) but enough such that Collier can rename the Bottom Billion “Africa +,” meaning a lot of African and some others. I myself read Bottom Billion with the continual curiosity of whether Bénin has in fact made Collier’s list of 58 nations. Collier doesn’t list the Bottom Billion countries by name, though he uses many as case examples throughout, including Nigeria, Niger Burkina Faso, and perhaps also Togo, all of whom are Bénin’s only neighbors.
According to the UN’s Human Development Index (a composite ranking that seeks to quantify the quality of life for the average citizen in a given country, then to compare this level of life with that of other countries) it is evident that Bénin is among the world’s poorest nations, in 2005 it was ranked the 163rd most poor of 177 nations. But what about in terms of growth or development traps? That is, the average Béninese may very well be poor, but is Bénin as a whole free of development traps such that the average Béninese can in good faithharbor hope that things will get better?
It’s clear that Bénin has never been snagged by two traps: Bénin it is not land-locked, nor has it discovered any lucrative natural resources within its national bounderies (“yet” one might add…an estimated million barrels of oil was recently just found off nearby Ghana’s coast).
However, Bénin did suffer from some of Africa’s worst Economic Policy during 1970s and 1980s which earned it the nickname the “Cuba of Africa.” In the end the economic fallout of these policies were so horribly evident to both citizens and leadership alike that they prompted in 1990 what I think might be the region’s only “peaceful revolution” to democracy. Bénin has, however, seen prolonged armed conflict and instability: before its shift to Marxism, Bénin's government was subjected to 5 coups d’etats in less than a decade. So it looks like two traps have snagged Bénin at some point in the past. But, depending on what kind of time parameters Collier’s trap categories assume, perhaps Bénin has successfully “escaped” one or both of these: Is two decades of attempted reform and over 35 years of internal peace long enough?
It may be worth noting—as Collier does—that other development traps have been proffered by other economists, most notably the “health” trap by Economist Jeffrey Sachs (put forward in The End of Poverty) a category of snares that Bénin would most likely fit into.
A Realist’s Insights
At the end of the day, I don’t think Collier’s book is meant to be read this way, as interesting as it may be to try to deduce the technical preconditions of the Bottom Billion and the exhaustive list of its constituent’s names. Rather, Collier makes many new insights on economic development, particularly for the African countries that are the materially “poorest” and proposes that Industrial Nation leaders must complement aid with certain trade policies, international laws and charters, and even military interventions in order to set the stage for escape from these growth traps. Though ultimately a conservative himself, (at the end of the day, enduring reform and change can only come from bold reformers within the nation itself), Collier acts as an alternative voice of realism between the rivaling opinion camps of economists Jeffrey Sachs (more Foreign Aid is the solution) and William Easterly (development through markets).
No matter the reader’s political-economic predisposition, even taking Collier’s claims only as suggestions has the potential to refresh the ongoing conversation on “development”…a subject whose research very much needs honest and constructive refreshment, given its complex nature and high stakes.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Chaleur. The Chaleur or hot season arrived and went full speed ahead in my absence. Yesterday was 102 Degrees F. Basically this means that from about 11 am until about 4 pm you are in a semi-coma state. As one of the few dividends of being driven out of your house during chaleur, I and my neighbors have been sleeping outside. Dusty wind and screaming goats aside(do they ever sleep?!), sleeping under the stars is a beautiful thing.
Power Outages. Nikki’s electricity, normally powered by a number of gas-generators, was recently brought to its knees, presumably by the heat. Now Nikki’s 5 quarters are taking turns with 2 small generators, which works out to 8 or 9 hours of power every other day.
Mango Season. One of the other silver linings to the hot season. These start ripening and dropping in April or so. Because it hasn't rained much yet, the big ("vrais") Mangos haven't yet dropped in Nikki. So I eat lots of the small ones. Yesterday I ate 9.
Elections. I came back to local elections week in full swing. This meant campaign posters everywhere and other political fare. And that pack of men gassing their motorcycles through center town? To the untrained eye, frat boys just getting out of a football game, but local closer and that's someone's campaigning centerpiece. Sunday the town went to vote, at one place in a booth partly corridored by a turned over car. When all the dust settle on election day, I was told that all went smoothly. Long live democracy.
My dog. The saddest piece of news coming home was that my dog Cowboy had fallen sick and died. Ostensibly, in the course of his daily rummage through a rubbage heap just outside my concession, Cowboy had found and eaten some really bad meat that someone had thrown out. Since Cowboy was the only dog in Nikki to have a name, a collar, and regular walks, I'm pretty sure many folks will miss him.
Friday, April 11, 2008
The top highlight of the trip was a four day hike through Dogon country, a region of beautiful escarpments in middle-Mali that for centuries have been inhabited by the Dogon people, cultivators who have settled at the base of, at the top of, and--in some places--inside these escarpments. Alongside "beautiful," the other word needed to explain this area is "fragile," as the very traditional Dogon villages are vulnerable to encroaching desertification, tourism, and other outside forces, the effects of all of which you can vividly see. We had a fantastic time trekking the area, sleeping on roofs, meeting the locals, and hanging out with our fantastic guide, Oumar.
Visiting Africa's largest mud mosque in Djenne, Mali's "sister" city to Timbouktou was another highlight. A cleaner, more accessible, and quite possibly more beautiful version of Timbouktou, Djenne is a Muslim city of North African architecture, winding narrow streets, and lots of camera-friendly kids.
Though the miles and miles of "bush taxi" we covered could only be described as "fun" by the chronic masochist, I feel that something should be said about this element that consumed about half of our trip. What would voyaging in Africa be if not done in style: Sahelian heat, harmattan dust, broken axles, flat tires, wooden benches, sharing space with peeing goats and dying cows.
I've posted some photos from the trip online. Link here to see the whole album.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Not sure how much U.S. media attention was given to this diplomatic trip, at least “positive” media coverage. I imagine not much. However, here in Bénin (one of Bush’s stops), Bush’s visit was quite a big deal vis à vis its political importance, the vast media coverage, and even what was talked about on the street by the typical Béninese. Bénin even shut down its sole international airport for several days, and extended a runway in order to receive Air Force One, if only for a couple hours (I’m told Cotonou didn’t have sufficient hotel capacities to lodge all of the President’s numbered traveling support staff overnight).
Such a warm welcoming, however, is probably indicative of how momentous an occasion this was for many Béninese. Many seem to see this visit, which is the first time the country has ever been visited by a current U.S. president, as affirmation that Bénin, led by President Yayi Boni, is emerging as an African Nation that is stable, veritably democratic, and economically competitive. Distinctions are all the more noteworthy when they are compared with the recent histories of many of Bénin’s West African neighbors.
Yet, as I listened to my shortwave radio throughout the time of Bush’s visit and heard opinions and reports coming in from across Africa, it seemed to me that most of the sub-Sahara—not just Bénin—looked favorably upon Bush’s visit. According to Pew Research, 8 of the top 10 world countries that give America the highest approval ratings are African.
Interestingly, some of this pan-African enthusiasm comes from many Africans’ approval of the President’s self\-assured (never mind sometimes misled?) demeanor and policies—he’s a man that doesn’t just talk, but takes action. But personal motivations aside, there are in fact very good reasons for Bush’s approval ratings in much of Africa. During the course of Bush’s presidency, American aid to Africa has increased threefold, into programs combating Malaria, AIDS, and corruption, among others. Bénin for example, has received millions of dollars (through the President’s Millinium Challenge Corporation initiative) to restructure, render less corrupt and more competive, its port in Cotonou. In the diplomatic world of many worthless words, America has also been one of the most aggressive international actors actually pushing for action in Darfur.
The realist will respond that the U.S. has its interests in Africa, too. Bush, at the end of his unpopular term, certainly was in need of some positive PR. Many are saying that the President’s visit to several West African countries (Bénin, Liberia, Ghana) were prompted my expectations that the U.S. will soon be reliant on this region for 25% of its oil imports. One correlative of the President’s war on terror has been increased friendliness and aid to certain Northwest and Eastern African countries proximate to the Arab-Islamic world. And then there is the raising of support (and the securing of a location) for AFRICOM, which beginning in 2008 will be the headquarters overseeing all U.S. military, diplomatic, and developmental operations in Africa.
Bush’s presidency has left no lack of cannon fodder to be fired back at him concerning the economy, the War in Iraq, and several big domestic issues. Yet I—and apparently many Africans— think the last 8 years have been encouraging for U.S.-African policy.
Friday, February 8, 2008
The newest acquisition Chez Ryan.
His name is Cowboy, but this (and the collar) are about the only thing American about him.
Cowboy eats ignam pile and other Beninese food, responds to French commands, lives in a African outdoor kitchen (see open door in back of photo), and runs with all the other African fauna that happen to be outside the concession.
The service sector itself is composed largely of Artisans (and Artisan Entrepreneurs), a broad economic category which includes mechanics, electricians, metal workers, carpenters, tailors, hairdressers, food and drink producers, potters, artists, and small-scale transformers of various household products.
Among Peace Corps Bénin’s Small Enterprise Development (SED) objectives is the technical training of Artisans/Small Business Owners in business skills which will reinforce their organizational and management capacities, and helping to create linkages between markets that will spawn business growth and development for such small and medium-sized businesses.
Such an objective can include an array of activities for a Peace Corps SED Volunteer. For Artisans who have and/or manage their own shops, I recently began teaching Comptabilité (basic accounting). If successful, these formations (training) will not just teach artisans to “crunch numbers” and augment profit. As crucial as profit margins are to the life of a business, good business and development itself is not just about quantifiable growth and the bottom line. Rather, it is my hope that the analytical rigor that accounting demands will also trigger more analytical planning and problem-solving in other arenas of life. I also hope to use the general discipline of accounting to open up other important “less-quantifiable” topics of discussion, to include corruption and transparency, worker’s/employer’s and children’s rights, conflict-resolution, and the conscientious management of household/personal income and resources.
Aside from accounting, SED Volunteers also have taught formations on Marketing, Business Managament, Personal Finance, Savings and Credit, Time Managament, and other topics of practical interest to entrepreneurs. Additionally—pursuant partly to the demands of Sustainability—many volunteers offer formations to “train-up trainers.” These endeavor to teach business specific skills, offer guidance on teaching, and create a “system” of incentives that will ensure that low-cost technical business training continues when Peace Corps Bénin has left Nikki, and eventually Bénin.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
In Bénin and across West Africa, a groupement is a group of women (in this case about 30-40) who form some economic collaborative such as the cultivation, preparation, and selling of vegetables, yams, soybean products, cheese, etc. Our groupements are in the business of Shea Butter.
Shea Butter is more recently known to the States as an ingredient to certain beauty products or as an item in the natural products niche market, given Shea Butter’s veritable uses and its supposed homeopathic qualities. But in West Africa, the only region where the Shea Nut (coming from the Karité tree) naturally grows, Shea Butter has been used for centuries for a plethora of household ends, most notably as a moisturizer, healing product, and for cooking.
Although Shea Butter has been produced across this sub-Saharan strip of Africa for generations, most groupements (being the most common producing agent of Shea Butter) employ the same tools and methods always used. Basically, the women will de-husk the nuts with a mortar and pestle; further remove moisture from the already dried nuts by grilling them over a fire; run this through a mill; enliven and “refine” the butter through a lengthy and technical process of kneading, cooling, then boiling the paste; then leave the refined oil to dry into butter in calabash bowls. The end product, as you will see it in a local marché, is a spherical greenish/crème-colored solid with a earthy/nutty taste and odor.
According to my own observations, transforming a 25kg of dried Shea Nuts takes: about three days, the manual labor of several women (at least), and about 4300 CFA (about $8.70) in direct costs. Yet, in the local market such a transformation will yield only about 5,000 CFA (about $10.00) in sales for the women to divide up or reinvest in the next production cycle.
Our project hopes to cut the direct and indirect costs of the production cycle by purchasing for each groupement a machine that effectively subverts the time spent de-hulling, and the money spent running the nuts through the mill. We also hope to regularize the quality and quantity of production enough such that we are able to export raw Shea Butter to a buyer in the States (where demand for raw Shea Butter is catching on fast) or Europe. According to my preliminary research, in these markets one can generate revenues of more than four times that in the local Béninese marchées. If such a point could be reached (indeed, many groupements across West Africa are already selling directly to buyers), our groupement women and their families could benefit greatly from the sustainable supplemental income that is generated.
Supplementary and complementary activities will include the replantation of Karité trees in the our locality; community sensibilization concerning the problem of desertification; and the technical training of the women’s groupements concerning topics such as accounting, shea butter production techniques, and others directed towards the better well-being of their households.
Top Left: A woman from a local groupement sells Shea in the Nikki Marche.
Bottom Left: A drawing depicting the kind of Machine Production of Shea Butter that is replacing more traditional methods. Acquiring such technology will greatly economize our groupements Shea transformations.