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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Faranji in Addis and Awassa

Getting a lift to the mercato

"Faranji" is a common cry in Ethiopia. It means "white person" and it's easy to imagine how many times I heard this during my stay in Ethiopia if you link the eternal fact of my tan-free complexion with my propensity to wear factor 50 sunscreen, and add to that that Ethiopia is vast, so the tourists that are around tend to be quite sparse.

Me drinking a macchiato (though it looked a little too milky to me) at Tomoca coffee house...In Ethiopia I had to put aside my anti-coffee views and try it!

I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the foreignness of everything on arriving in Addis late on Saturday night. I didn't speak a word of Amharic, and even though the hotel was situated across the road from the CARE office, it seemed very isolated. The roads dusty, the streets dark and the smells unfamiliar, and the hotel rather uncomfortable and extremely dingy. That and the powercuts. No internet, phone or light / heat for several hours and I did feel rather desperate. Power cuts are very common in Addis. Not so in much of the rest of Ethiopia. They don't have power at all there. I was suddenly all too conscious of my reliance on technology and felt frustrated and ashamed of my frustration in equal measures. Luckily the power would eventually come back on. I would just learn to use Ctrl + S frequently during the week!

Looking out of the window of the Addis hotel, there are office buildings far in the distance, but immediately outside are many more being built. Instead of uniform metal scaffolding, everywhere are elaborate constructs of wooden poles, covering the skyscrapers to be and several storeys high. I feared for the safety of the climbers, who have to scale their way to the top of these wooden poles, but the skeleton structure of wood which forms the cages around these building sites is intricate and almost beautiful, and I suspect, strong.

View from the hotel window of the intricate scaffolding

This is much the way of scenery in Addis. Either you're driving past a collection of building sites in various states of completion, or past a range of corrugated iron or stone hastily built huts selling clothes, tourist paraphernalia or maybe a butcher or a liquor shop thrown into the mix. There are throngs of people everywhere, so many people walking the streets day or night. Some are laughing together as they sell fruit from their street stalls; some are on their way to church / the mosque, carrying or leading a small army of young children close behind them. There are more homeless people around than in Accra, sprawled on the central verges of the streets or begging - children, mothers, grandmothers and men all together - on the pavements and around the tourist spots.

In Awassa - five hours south of Addis - there were also pelicans, vultures, donkeys, goats and a menagerie of other creatures thrown into this mix. On the way there camels grazed by the side of the road, and there were frequent stops as a donkey or other lone animal wandered carelessly into the road and paused, oblivious to the trucks zooming toward it at alarming speeds. The colours by the roadside were vivid, especially in the small towns where thousands of people gathered for market day, and we were held up by crowds in the road shouting to us to buy their wares.

The best way I found to see Addis was in a taxi - and what taxis they do have. Ladas are the taxi brand of choice here, usually with no seat belts, although their dashboards are ornate with velvet coverings, complete with tassels. In such a poor state of repair was my first taxi that it conked out repeatedly - no wonder given it was very frail and yet still trying to tackle to steep hills of Addis to take me around. By bargaining like a pro, you can enjoy a couple of hours sight seeing for as little as £8 (and I suspect this is a steep price, aimed at other faranji like me).

Negato and me - and his taxi!

On my last full day in Addis, Negato my taxi driver drove me and escorted me around the mercato and the piazza. The mercato is where the social and work sides of Addis combine, with thousands of residents swarming together to sell or buy spices, clothing, oil, soap, shoes, rugs...anything at all. So large is the mercato that there are 'districts' such as you might find in a city. "It's this way to the spice market", Negato directs me, and then "Would you like to see the traditional clothing market?" Picking my way over the uneven cobbles and past the smells of burning incense and loud laughter and banter, I would be lost in this other world of Addis without a guide.

Injera being served at a little (albeit touristy) haunt in Addis

My greatest fortune in Addis was to make some new Ethiopian friends who showed me Ethiopian culture their way. Maaza, working for CARE, who lived in Ethiopia as a child, showed me the sights and introduced me to her friends.

Me 'enjoying' a glass of red wine with my dinner

I met Maaza in Awassa, south of Addis where I visited a field team of CARE staff. There I ate injera for the first time - and then proceeded to eat this for pretty much every lunch and dinner throughout my stay. A spongy pancake made from teff, injera is the carbohydrate of choice for Ethiopian food. You eat it served on a large round platter, covered with any filling / range of fillings you like. Lentil daal-like mixtures, bean and cabbage salad, potatoes with spices, chicken, lamb and boiled eggs are all spooned in dainty portions onto the platter for you to dig in. (To eat this you break off pieces of injera and scoop a small portion of a different item onto it and then into your mouth. Every bite delicious.) Most of the CARE team I spent time with were orthodox Christians, and therefore fasting for several of the days I spent with them. Luckily for them, Ethiopian fasting food is a treat rather than a trial. Injera with fasting shiro (chickpea stew, cooked with oil rather than butter as dairy products are banned during fasting) was delectable.

Sharing injera, watching dancing, drinking beer (see picture of me trying the red wine...not good) and then dancing together all part of a fun, relaxed night out in this vibrant city.

At the Addis hash, downing a (small) beer as a forfeit for leaving (right after I joined!)

Maaza also introduced me to my first Hash meet. A Hash is a club, more precisely a drinking club with a running problem. Perfect! Meeting at The Hilton in Addis, about 30/40 people meet up to drive out of the city and run or walk for an hour or so, followed by drinks, a lot of ceremony, and the 'on-on'. The run was rather tough. Not only did I fall down the hill side - almost - about twenty times, hearing gasp upon gasp from those behind me as I slid over the dusty gravel, but running at the altitude of Ethiopia felt like the world's strongest man was holding my shoulders and pushing me back. Over hill, down dale, not having the faintest idea where we were supposed to be going, a crowd of ex pats and Ethiopian nationals traipsed over the hillside, pursued often by the nimbler feet of children from the nearby kebele, screaming and giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. We followed paper trails (or were supposed to - the paper was in absence most of the time!) in a loop over a river with very non-health and safety stepping stones and back over a metal chain-link bridge to the start. Feeling like I was about to expire but proud to have finished first of the women, it was time for beers and catching up in half a dozen languages. Sunshine, running, friends, beer. Happiness on a Saturday.

I feel like I haven't covered even a fraction of what I saw here. The scenery dwarfed me; the food was a delight and so different from everything I've tasted before; the people I met wonderful. I left wanting to come back again.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

CARE In The Communities: Project Focus Part I

High time I spend some time writing about the project itself! In the third week of the project I've flown to Addis Ababa for a week of work there. The project is for CARE International, and focuses on developing a mentoring curriculum for nominated CARE country office staff members - at the level of program manager / senior coordinator of programs.

Traffic on the way to Awassa, in the Sidama region. There was a lot of traffic about! Goats, donkeys, dogs...even camels

CARE International is focused on improving the lives of 10 million women and girls through a vast number of complex programs. One of the ways it seeks to do this is by developing the beneficiaries of their support - in the case of Ghana and Ethiopia this primarily means farmers / textile producers - to be independent in the way that they increase their income and the means of their families and communities.

The Loka Kebele Producer Marketing Group (PMG)

One of the types of programs CARE International supports focuses on developing value chain participation in communities. Broadly, this means looking at the ways to increase income by producing and marketing goods more effectively 'from food to fork'. In the private sector, this is something all too familiar. Use branding, use economies of scale or partnerships (to name just three ways) in order to make more profit.

But if you're a small scale farmer trying to feed your family, how can this apply to you? How can a value chain - especially one which involves a partnership with a large private sector company - be possible, and how on earth can it address the issue of poverty? These are the questions which the value chain initiatives CARE International champions are able to answer.

In Ethiopia, I visited the Loka kebele (a kebele is a small village - perhaps 5000 inhabitants at most, spread over a large area) and met with a producer marketing group (PMG), who are a committee working together to improve the food security of their kebele. Some of the challenges the kebele communities face mean they struggle to produce enough food, both for themselves and to sell - the rains are unpredictable; winds can damage crops; seeds are expensive to purchase and local loans carry very high interest rates.

CARE is involved here working to establish the PMG in the first place,
and to educate the kebele about how working together and approaching their farming from a business-perspective can help them to improve the prospects of the community. One of the ways it supports kebeles like Loka is to establish a village savings and loans organisation there. This is what is commonly called a 'micro-finance' institution. The kind of money needed to buy, say, a goat kid to fatten and sell is currently about 200 Birr. Roughly converted, that's less than £8.

To you and me, that's a Pizza Express main course - small beans; for a farmer and his / her family, though, it's a huge sum. Banks won't make loans of this kind, so CARE and other international NGOs have stepped in with the village savings and loan schemes to enable very small loans to be available to farmers, but at a decent rate of interest.

The Producer Marketing Group members

Now comes the value chain work - to make the loans a worthwhile investment both for the micro finance institution who supplies it, and for the farmers in the kebele, CARE helps the kebele groups to learn how to improve the quality of their products. In Loka they are waiting to buy goat kids with their loaned money, and then fatten these livestock to sell them at a profit. CARE has enabled them to learn how to do this. With other crops such as maize and haricot bean, the farmers have learned to produce better goods and now, with help from CARE are also engaging with some private sector firms to sell these goods on and earn a better price.

The role CARE has played in this in helping build independence and capabilities is huge. In Loka, the PMG chairman is excited about what CARE has enabled them to accomplish: "Since working with CARE we have created learning for our community. We were attracted by the VSLA approach and have started to organise things by ourselves. Now we've created a learning atmosphere, and we're extending what we've learned to others in the group and to other farmers outside our kebele."

Speaking to the PMG - My colleagues at CARE translating into Amharic and then into Sidama dialect

Spending time with the kebele community in Loka was inspiring - and terrifying since I was nervous about making a good impression. I also only had half an hour with the group! They were supposed to be in government training that day! Luckily they were really engaged with our conversation.

I conversed with the community through two interpreters - first translating my English into Amharic, and then into the Sidama dialect of Amharic! Despite this, and the challenges I've already mentioned, the PMG members shared their successes and vision for their country. "Our vision is to come together and access inputs together, then compete in the competitive market by selling our produce at a good price."

My work is to bring together learning from the communities, project teams, country leadership and the identified staff for the mentoring program I'm developing and learn about what the strengths and areas for development. We are going to use this information to assess where there are key shared gaps for value chain technical skills and professional - or softer skills - and then design a year-long mentoring curriculum to build these skills.

My colleague and I researched this in two different countries last week - Malawi and Ethiopia, and added to this our research from our time in Ghana so far. Now it's time to analyse the results from Ghana, Malawi and Ethiopia together - and start to build the curriculum. More to come on the project as we do...

Friday, 11 February 2011

Touring in Tamale, and more

Friday afternoon in the Accra office and everyone is about to go home for the weekend. Some travel for 3 hours to get here, so extending the working day by half an hour Monday to Thursday enables the CARE staff to leave at 3 on Friday afternoon, to begin their commute by bus or car, through the heavy traffic to reach their homes.

Travel has very much been on my mind this week, as Monday morning started at 3.30am, when Amanda and I headed back to Accra airport to take a short flight 600 or so kilometres north, to Tamale. The third largest city in Ghana, Tamale's airport is more like a concrete strip in flat lands, and the city's buildings scattered around amidst the dusty fields and roads. The airline, much like any other, asks us to be aware that "exits may be behind...or in front of you". Good, exits. Glad to hear there are some. Also offer us tuna or chicken sandwiches as in-flight snacks. Until the passenger in front of me points out that the sandwiches labelled chicken are also tuna. I like tuna: I'm lucky!
In Tamale - a village of termite mounds near to the airport. What infrastructure!

In much more rural surroundings than the leafy suburbs of the Accra office, CARE's Tamale base is shared with another international NGO - Catholic Relief Services - and felt like a war time outpost, large airless rooms painted in flaky cream, modernised only by the addition of temperamental air conditioning and seventies-style rubber-tiled floors. There were CARE curtains on display, however, printed in the batik method being promoted among women as another means of improving their and their families' economic wealth.

We were in Tamale to learn about the field projects, and were lucky enough to spend the entire day meeting many of the project managers and key staff members working out in the north. One such project - related to farming and food security - has encouraged the farming of guineafowl, a bird which turns out to be incredibly hardy and therefore easy to rear in an unpredictable and at times, barren, environment. Understanding the significance of this, I felt I had to try some for myself - Ghanaian style, at Luxury Catering Services, and it was delicious (even though it appeared to have been steamed using a combination of saucepan and plastic bag).

Amanda and I celebrate another busy week with a margarita and mojito, and dinner at Dynasty, where both of us forget that we're even in Africa (apart from the distinctly Ghanaian waiters) as we enjoy good old sweet and sour pork and chicken and cashew nuts. At some point I'll write more about the project itself, but essentially each week we have another milestone on the project plan to achieve. Week four and we have accomplished this once again, so we're both pretty happy and are in a celebratory mood!

This time we were accompanied by a team of CARE's auditors, Kwaku, based in Accra full time, and Calista and Ed, from CARE UK, who has flown out to audit CARE Ghana over two weeks. We shared a beer and a spring roll (which arrived after a two and a half hour wait...slow cooking!) with them in the evening, where we learned from Kwaku a few words of local language (Akwaaba...welcome...and E te sen?...How are you?). Returning to Accra I asked colleagues if there was anywhere I could learn more. "Primary school?" one suggested. Hmmm. This might be more difficult to organise than I had hoped! Some pictures here of morning tea, where every Friday the staff at CARE Ghana come together for biscuits, fruit and the traditional morning catch up. Today many of the female staff wore beautiful Ghanaian dresses. Spot the monochrome English woman in the background!

Back in Accra after another packed week of work where we have completed the initial assessments we're working on, it's time to prepare for another trip. Next week Amanda will go to Malawi and I to Ethiopia to carry out the same assessments and meetings in those country offices, before returning to Accra the following Sunday for the remainder of my time in Africa. I'm less than excited about flying by Ethiopian air, where Skytrax reviews range from mediocre comments like "The vegetarian sandwich was close to inedible" to the more impassioned "The worst airline I have ever flown with. I received a $300 dollar travel voucher for Ethiopian air, which I won't be using as I will never fly with them again."

So if I ever return to update this blog again, I will be very thankful! Now time to pack up for the day and pack for Addis Ababa.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

*Sit Together And Relax*

Kelewele...fried plantain in spices. Delicious and naughty snack

Sunday in Accra again, almost a week to the hour since we arrived at the CARE offices, and I'm blogging from the office as the internet connection in our flat and my laptop are not getting along.

Air conditioning in the office is definitely rather hit and miss (though of course we're lucky to have it) and in our own little office is really more of a hot air fan. We generally keep the curtains closed to try to stay out of the sun whilst working, but develop a lovely sheen to our faces as the morning goes on, which by the afternoon may be slightly less lovely.

Shiny forehead alert!

On Friday night we headed for some Indian food at Koh-I-Noor, just a couple of streets away from our apartment, to uphold a British Friday night tradition just a little farther towards the Equator. The Indian dishes on the menu were comfortingly familiar, as were the misspellings I always look forward to. "Spinish" this time was a common offering. Perhaps a missed marketing opportunity for those wishing to promote a Popeye-muscle-inducing substance without the bother of steaming? A blackout during dinner added more spice to the occasion, but the food was rather good. Keema samosa, garlic nan, pilau rice and chicken Makhani all served with little ceremony but lots of flavour, accompanied by local beer.

The end of the week brought more settling in activities. We've joined a gym called Pippa's Health Centre, the original branch (one of three) situated around the corner from our apartment and the office. On Saturday morning I ventured out at 6am (gulp) to take part in a power walk for an hour, hoping to meet some of the regulars and make new friends. Three foolhardy gym-goers had dragged themselves out of bed for the walk, but for our efforts we were greeted by delighted, smiling gym staff and given Pippa's Gym t-shirts for making it to the walk. More delight on my part, when it transpired that one of the gym staff turned out to be none other than Pippa herself.

A Canadian national who has lived in Ghana for the last thirty years, Pippa and her husband settled in Accra for her husband's work, and after giving birth to their fourth child, Pippa decided that she wanted a new challenge and made use of her degree in health science and her background running fitness programmes to capitalise on a gap in the market by setting up the first of her gyms. (If I see Pippa again I'll definitely get a photo...maybe even one featuring me wearing my Pippa's gym t-shirt!) Pippa and her staff advise me about running in Accra, where the traffic and pollution are both very heavy after 7, I've noticed. "Ideally you want to finish your run at 6.30 am," Pippa suggests, " after that the pollution is really bad and the traffic busy." Gulp again. I wonder if I will manage to get up so early - and on a week day, even - to see for myself. The Malarone is giving me very odd dreams and I'm sleeping fitfully and restlessly at the moment so a 5am start is not the most attractive idea.

After the exertions of the walk followed by a good thirty minutes of abs exercises I'm feeling keenly, Amanda and I head for a quieter day out at La Palm Hotel, Labadi Beach. This is an oasis for those who want to pay for the privilege to stay here and lounge around being served drinks and using the free wifi around the pools, or, as we chose, to hang out at one of the beach-side tables and read, eat and relax. It's a place where you're free to go if (like us) you're not so rich, luckily, to use the facilities without having to fork out hundreds of cedi for a room.

We make another friend here - Theresa, who brings us beer and Kelewele (ginger and sweet spice-fried plantain pieces. Completely delicious and almost certainly VERY bad for one). Theresa explains how to make Jollof rice, Kelewele and we discuss Red Red in more detail. Time to get cooking...perhaps future postings will include photos of my first efforts at concocting Ghanaian dishes.

A STAR by Labadi Beach, Saturday, a beer popularly known as "Sit Together And Relax"

Planning a lazy Sunday as we are being picked up at 4.30am on Monday morning to travel to Accra airport and fly at 6am to Tamale, the third largest city in Ghana. One of CARE Ghana's major field projects is out there - so we shall meet the program and project managers and spend the day with them, returning early to the office on Tuesday morning. I'm hoping at last to understand what it means to do a 'field' visit, and will be packing - all being well - to be dressed appropriately, whatever it turns out to mean!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Arriving in Accra

Arriving in Accra the airport has the distinct feel of being close to the outdoors. Nothing like the enclosed, air conditioned and double-glazed insularity of Heathrow here.
Luckily, Charles, who has worked with CARE for a year and seven months, meets us at the airport entrance to drive us to our apartment. We don't have the address as no one has supplied it, so we just hope that he knows where he is going! I ask Charles if he likes working for CARE. "It's a lot of pressure," he says.
"Sure," I think, pressure. "You're a driver. What's to be stressed about? Rush hour?"
Then he tells me that he gets up each day at 4am to make the 27+ KM journey into the centre of Accra to CARE on public transport, arriving around 6am. If he leaves later he will be late for work. After working a full day he goes home on public transport once again, leaving the plush environment of his silver four-by-four car, air conditioned and shiny, for his home outside Accra, where he arrives at 9pm.
I have changed my mind.

In the CARE office on Monday morning, the clocks tell us what time it is in France, in Ghana and in Atlanta (though the latter's clock has stopped. Clearly the head office is timeless). There is a dusty smell and white plastered corridors lead the way to closed off offices. Far away are the cubicles and hot desks. We wait in the bustling reception whilst everyone comes to work, smiling at us and saying "Good morning".

My master bathroom

Fred, the caretaker / office go-to man, asks Amanda and me if we're married, and tells us "I like white girls" as he shows us around. He helps us find the wireless access (yes!) and the conference room, where, by chance there is a staff orientation happening on our very first day.

He also takes us - with Charles - to the supermarket, where an iceberg lettuce - something I realise I will have to bleach clean because of the risk of cholera - costs me 11 cedi (about £4.00) versus three huge ripe mangoes for 5 cedi (which I can peel so are not dangerous). Thank goodness for mangoes, since I can't get fresh milk either (also owing to cholera risk). Breakfast is served for the next two months!

Digestive and rich tea biscuits in orientation makes it feel like home, but the reserved silences of English orientations I've attended are not so much in evidence here. There are lots of silences at first, but when HR procedures are covered in the orientation, the talk soon turns to salaries and benefits. I would love to be a fly on the wall in my own office where the HR rep is grilled by 10 eager professionals interested in working for an organisation which works for them all, on a personal level.

First Ghanaian gin and tonic. So Good.

We walk home the two streets to our apartment to make our first dinner of chicken and (well cooked) vegetables in tomato sauce. I make preparations for the rest of my stay by installing my duty free Bombay Sapphire in the freezer, and make ice cubes from mineral water. There are some home comforts I'm happy to be able to recreate here.