Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evaluation Time

We are being evaluated.

A Frenchwoman my own age joined us in Minova ten days ago, at the mission's invitation, to examine the impact of the last two years of our project's banana wilt interventions. My team members have spent the past week in the field, conducting focus groups with banana wilt committees, seed distribution beneficiaires and plain-old community members, trying to get a sense of the strong and weak points of our project's strategy.

The conclusions thus far are on the discouraging side. It seems that any gains we've made are far outweighed by the constraints we face. Despite two years of fairly strident awareness-raising efforts, most villagers remain reluctant to put in the hard physical labor required to get rid of their infected banana plants, an essential step in ridding the region of the disease. NGOs are a mixed blessing here in the Kivus; while they bring much-needed resources to an area virtually devoid of tangible government, they also seem to stifle individual initiative and community spirit. Why take the trouble to uproot your infected banana plantation for the good of your children and your community if there is an international NGO nearby who might pay you to do it? While the committees that we put into place have managed to produce a significant number of healthy banana shoots, there's little reason to hope that those shoots will help rebuild local livelihoods over the long term. Wilt-infected plantations still dominate the landscape here, and as long as they remain, any as-yet uninfected shoots are at serious risk of contamination.

The project as conceived certainly has flaws, but the biggest barrier to real progress seems to me the very feeble position of the state. The national agricultural service is the logical actor to intervene when crop disease strikes, but even the higher-ranking Congolese ag employees that I've met suffer from insultingly low and/or nonexistent pay and few resources at their disposal that would actually permit them to do their jobs, such as a means of transport with which to get out into the field. I don't know that what we're trying to do is feasible, given the current political environment. It's perhaps another example of good-intentioned development doomed to failure for lack of long-term, realistic, careful planning.

Perhaps inspired by this bout of introspection, I decided yesterday to create my own evaluation of sorts. We ordered a batch of banana wilt t-shirts for this project. They're on the glaringly ugly side, in my humble opinion, but being new and blindingly white, they're the envy of the entire base. Everyone - the drivers, the storekeeper, the night watchmen - wants a t-shirt.

Hence the evaluation. As I see it, anyone who sports one of our t-shirts in public should have a decent sense of what banana wilt is and how to fight it, as well as how we as an organization have chosen to approach it. And so I wrote up a quick quiz. Want a t-shirt? Answer these questions, correctly, without copying off of your friend's paper, and one shall be yours: Name one difference between the symptoms of fusariose and those of banana wilt. When and where did banana wilt first appear in the world? List three means of preventing the spread of banana wilt. And so on.

The logistics manager presented me with a typed-up answer sheet this morning, and even threw a question back at me. The night watchmen last night huddled together around a flashlight-illuminated banana wilt brochure, searching for the responses. I almost gave them a t-shirt on the grounds of their enthusiasm alone.

And that's the thing. It's hard to be totally discouraged when you're surrounded by such marvelous people, who are clearly getting more out of this project than simply healthy banana shoots or a monthly paycheck. My staff have devoted the bulk of the last two years into this effort, building personal relationships with hundreds of villagers, many of them quite a ways from their spouses and children. They have learned, and shared, an enormous amount of information about how to combat the disease, and, in a larger sense, how to work towards something bigger than themselves.

I am certainly not condoning careless humanitarian interventions. I guess I'm just recognizing that every project involves people, and I am lucky enough to work with a genuinely humane group of people. No matter how flawed, I can't believe that our project has been all for naught.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan

My project is broke.

That's the latest word from headquarters. It's possible, even probable, that we will have to end our activities early, since the funds aren't available to pay the staff, and all of the associated support costs, through the end of August.

I have protested, of course, on the grounds that abandoning our banana wilt committees prematurely will negatively affect both the long-term impact of our project and our reputation as an organization, at least within the communities in which we currently work.

This budget crisis was a long time coming, I suppose. This is a two-year project, and many budget lines had already been overspent before my arrival. The entire mission is in a bit of a crisis, with many projects coming to term and very little new funding emerging. This means more financial pressure on the few remaining projects, which must cover the numerous and significant support costs, like office rental, vehicle maintenance, and paying the cook and the numerous other logistical and administrative staff. On top of that, my project activities take place in two bases, so we have twice the support costs of your average project. I deal directly only with the portion of the budget that covers program-related expenses, such as seeds for distributions and the payment for the carpenters who construct the banana macro propagators. I was only informed that we had a major problem about a month ago.

I had been hoping to relax into my last few months here, now that a lot of the major stressors up to this point are gone: my problematic boss, the planning and logistics-heavy parts of the project, the initial few months of adaptation. I'm finally finding the time to invest in Swahili lessons, evening conversation with the night watchmen (instead of working 'til I drop) and trips to various far-removed field sites.

This throws me for a bit of a loop.

But I suppose, like any unexpected change, it will simply take some getting used to. The worst part will be having to dismiss my staff sooner than expected, if it comes to that. And of course I need to consider what my next move will be. Am I hooked enough on this lifestyle to want to continue? Am I ready to return to the familiar mountain ranges of the US and start to build a life for myself there? And how to ensure financial autonomy while I make these decisions, with a crushing student loan dept?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

In the Mood for Imodium

When I started puking again, my first thought was of the pizza.

I can't really blame the cook, who, as I have mentioned, is normally wonderful. She's never seen a "real" pizza before, of course, and has to improvise an oven each time she makes one. Also, the only cheese for sale in the Kivus (for less than outrageous prices) is a cheddar-like round hailing from the high mountain pastures. It's pretty impressive that she's able to produce anything resembling pizza at all.

However, this time I was admittedly less than tantalized by the cook's pizza-making exploits. In a burst of inventiveness and frugality, she had decided to insert leftover spaghetti underneath the cheese and eggplant layers. When I bit into my slice and discovered this, my stomach turned, and suddenly the pizza lost all appeal.

Fortunately, the housecat was ravenous that day, what with five new mouths to feed, and she was only too eager to pick up where I had left off. After gorging herself on the cheese, however, she abandoned the slice on the kitchen floor, where the spaghetti strands sprawled like worms for the next day. For some reason, the sight of them there, as they slowly congealed to the cement, made me nauseous.

I finally gathered up the will to toss the uneaten slice into the garbage and did my best to put the image of it out of my mind. But the next day, I felt seriously sick to my stomach, and around midday excused myself from the office to puke all over the gravel driveway. I had experienced similar symptoms about a month before, and although I had recovered quickly, I figured it was time to get some official tests done. Likely, I had some kind of internal parasite that would continue to manifest itself from time to time, and I supposed I should nip it in the bud.

The vehicles were all in the field with the staff. As I waited for one to return to the base so that it could take me to the hospital, the diarrhea began. Intrepid, I prepared a sample in a plastic water bottle, stuck it in the fridge, and popped some Imodium.

When I arrived at the hospital, it was nearly closing time. Though I managed to puke on at least three of the nurses who attended to me, the laboratory was, alas, shut for the evening, so I was informed that I would have to come back tomorrow to have the tests done. Much to my disappointment, my stool sample was rejected, and the doctor suggested I supply him with a fresh one in the morning.

And so I returned in the a.m. as instructed, and produced blood and urine on command. But the third, and most necessary, sample was stubbornly unforthcoming. Determined to wait it out, I plunked myself on a wooden bench outside the lab, clutching the awkwardly tiny glass vial that they had given me with which to capture the stool.

You might think that this would be an unlikely moment for romance, but if so you know very little about Congolese men and their infatuation with wuzungu. A good dozen nurses, interns and other passersby seized the opportunity to impress me with their English vocabulary and try to weasel my phone number out of me, discreetly avoiding mention of the glass bottle in my hand. But my number, like the stool, remained locked away, and I reluctantly told the lab staff I would have to come back later, when my bowels started cooperating again.

Funnily enough, on my way back to the car, my bowels suddenly sprang to life, and I dashed back into the hospital bathroom and triumphantly presented the vial to the lab crew soon after.

The results from a multitude of tests came that evening. Nothing was wrong with me, from a strictly medical sense. No amoebas, no intestinal worms, no malaria, no giardia. Nothing.

As I considered this news, my stomach turned anew. My supervisor would be coming to visit the following day. Although my appetite was returning after this recent bout of illness, the thought of his visit suddenly made me very tense. I could physically feel my blood pressure rising.

Then it hit me...the very same symptoms - the queasiness, headache, stomach pain, vomiting - had struck me two days prior to my boss' previous visit, and had gradually disappeared after he had left.

I can only conclude that my nausea in both cases was induced by the stress I felt in anticipation of in-person interaction with my boss.

The good news is that he has decided to leave the country, and as I write this no longer has any authority over me.

The bad news is that somehow I had allowed one person the power to significantly affect my physical and mental well being. No matter how abusive, irrational and domineering he was, I should have figured out a healthier way to deal with his behavior.

But fortunately, there's more good news, if I choose to view them that way, and it's that there are several zillion Congolese males who don't much mind my non-mastery of emotions. They don't even care if I'm physically leaking out both ends. They just want my digits.
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