Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fresh from the Drawing Board

So my work has now been broken into four different sections. I apologize for the lack of communication on my work. It’s not that I am trying to be secretive, simply that some things I chose not to put on the blog. I will try to get better at that.

1) Computer Training- I won’t spend too long explaining this because it is obvious. This breaks down into training co-workers in MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and just general skills. This is important because the change I am shooting for and much of the development industry, will eventually require some computerized form of reporting. Imagine doing all finances with a paper & pen and calculator instead of excel. Imagine simple reporting taking 5x longer than it should. Through computer training the efficiency of the office can hopefully be improved and workers will be equipped with the proper skills to use manage large amounts of data. (This one I have been working on since the beginning of my placement)

2) Training local contractors. One problem of development is the construction of infrastructure. Usually contracts will run far late of their expected date of completion. For the rural citizen, this means waiting way longer for their school, well, or particular infrastructure project. Also, the quality of these projects is in question. Roads that get washed away the year after they are constructed, or schools that quickly fall into disrepair. In response, the district works department have come up with a way to address this through workshops and increased monitoring. This doesn’t address all the causes of this problem, but more importantly it enables implementing staff to execute a plan of their own, and hopefully prove to decision makers that it is worth it to invest in implementing staff.

3) More Rigorous planning based on reliable information. This is the main focus of my effort right now. Working with the district planner and other departments such as education, water & sanitation, and health; we will be working on creating a more transparent and rigorous way of selecting communities for infrastructure. This will include using monitoring and evaluation to acquire essential data, and developing a ranking system for deciding which projects go where. What this means for the rural people is that the communities that need services the most will be next in line, as opposed to select communities accessing service upon service. Essentially it is a fair way to select communities for infrastructure

4) Last I will be working on a better monitoring and evaluation system and increased commitment to M&E by government staff. This means that the link between the people accessing public services and the government will be stronger. Not only will there be a better system for learning from implementation and being in tune with community needs, but also the accurate information will be made available to decision makers to make better decisions.

In a nutshell that’s what I’ll be working on for the next 6 months. Feel free to email me questions or post comments.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

One Hell of a Day

I wake up and immediately feel that something’s off. I glance at my cell phone to see how much I overslept. It’s 4:45am, the time I was supposed to be leaving my house to catch the bus. Little did I realize at the time that this was a blessing in disguise, that my determination inconveniently inhibited me from recognizing.

There is one main bus that leaves Saboba every morning at 5:00am and goes to Tamale. I wake up, quickly packing my bag, and not even brushing my teeth. I check the boxer briefs I have hanging in my room from yesterday’s laundry. Still damp. Ah well, I decide to go commando for the ride and buy some in Tamale. I throw on my bran new pair of dress pants, without grabbing a belt; confident my tailor measured me to size.

Bad idea #1: Going commando without a belt in new pants. I realize this 10min into the bike ride from my community to town.

To my immediate relief, but later demise, the bus is running late. I buy a ticket, and because today is Sunday, the bus is only half full. In my mind, things are going alright: bus was late as I was, and now I get two seats to myself.

30min into our trip, the bus suddenly starts to tip to my side just a little too much. Things happen so fast in life you hardly have time to react. Before we know it, the bus is suddenly stopped, and in a precarious position-tipping 45 degrees to my side. We all abandon the bus only to realize that the driver drove on the shoulder in order to avoid some deep mud in the middle of the road. Unfortunately for us, the shoulder was also soft, and gave out under the weight of the greyhound-sized bus; narrowly escaping a roll onto its side.

This is where the journey really begins. On the side of the road, we try at all lengths to free the vehicle. 15 of us pushing from behind, only to see the bus slip deeper into the mud.

Bad idea #2: taking pictures while everybody is pushing the buss. WHAT!!! Like you wouldn’t. I wanted to capture the moment, and especially when everybody started pushing because I was convinced the thing would tip. It only took an annoyed bus driver saying “white man come push, stop taking pictures”, to make me retire the camera for the rest of the efforts.

An hour passed before the first truck leaving Saboba half empty of passengers passed us by. At this moment, I don’t know what compelled me to stay. Maybe it was a sense of commitment . . of not leaving when the going got tough . . . of not abandoning ship and swimming for shore. A few passengers of the bus hopped onto this rescue vessel leaving our sinking ship, but to my surprise not many.

Our first attempts were collective. “EVERYBODY GETS ROCKS” yells one of the alphas in the group, as we try to provide some stability for the wheels. I am initially passive just taking orders, seeing as the bus conductor and two drivers (the heroes of this story) had taken the lead.

After a few failed attempts, I start to get frustrated. Not because I was working, because I wasn’t, but because no other bus was coming. I had some weird misconception that upon a bus breaking down or getting stuck, another would be sent to pick the customers who had paid for their ride. This was not the case.

And then something clicked! “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”. I was no longer going to criticize failed attempts from the comfort of my armchair (really a patch of soil under a tree).

If there’s one way to get your idea adopted, it’s by championing it. Lost the sandals, rolled up the dress pants, rolled up the sleeves and started to dig with my hands. Nothing like digging through mud and rocks with your bare hands to help some freshly popped blisters from the previous day’s farming work.

By this time a tractor had come to our aid from a nearby village, along with some members with shovels. I decide that we need to brace the back tire, and we start to dig it out with vigour. Adding stones and branches where we can, we hope that with the help of the tractor, the thrust from the bus, and our measly push from behind, we can free this behemoth of a bus and carry on to Saboba.

6 hours I spent on the side of the road. All to no avail. Using a jack to raise the bus. Pulling forward with the tractor. Pulling backwards. Laying branches and rocks. Only marginal progress.

After a few other vehicles drove by and picked the remaining vehicles, I made a decision that I would go on the next way out. A cargo truck pulls up with some market ladies in it. I hope into the back of the truck only to have one of the bumpiest trips ever, and in the wrong direction. That’s right, back to Saboba to see if I could get my co-worker to give me a ride to a bigger town.

When you’re riding in the back of a truck and you can’t see what’s coming, it’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with speed. This driver was in a rush, or so it seemed, which is scary because knowing that at any point an unsuspecting cow herd, pot hole, or deep stream could cross our path, it would send all of us flying up off our seats. And it did. Buckets, bags of crops, spare tires, and people would hop up off the truck everytime it hit a bump at full speed.

Slowing down didn’t offer much reassurance either, because whenever the vehicle slowed, it meant that one of those obstacles was approaching, and probably too fast for the driver slow enough. Everytime he let off the gas, I held on for dear life.

I get back to Saboba, and hop on the back of a motorcycle to go to Yendi, the next biggest town. After an hour and a half of leaving the bus, it is still there, but with re-inforcements. There is another MetroMass bus, with a mechanic, pulling the first bus out of the ditch. They break free as I am passing, so I decide to get back on the bus.

Like a rugby team coming from a championship match, everybody’s higher than life. Dehydrated, sweating profusely, exhausted and muddy, a sense of triumph fills us all after persevering through seven hours of blood sweat and tears. (ok so I wasn’t there for the whole thing, and there were no tears)

The rest of the ride is alright, though when we get to Yendi, the driver adds insult to injury when we end up stopping for 45min to pick up more passengers. By this time we had all been travelling for 10.5 hrs. A passenger convinces the driver to take off, and reach Tamale 12hrs after departure, a trip that normally takes 2.5hrs.

The first thing I do is find a vendor on the side of the road, and buy some underwear. Exhausted and not thinking straight (I haven’t eaten anything), I’m unable to see that I am buying tighty whiteys instead of my usual boxer briefs. I find a secluded corner somewhere in town, and drop my pants, only to squeeze on what feels like a cotton speedo the size of one I wore when I was 8.

I write this post to you now, after having eaten, still sitting in the same clothes, in my new speedo.