Monday, April 12, 2010

Squeezing the lemon

Hello everyone!

You know those early days of summer, when the weather is so beautiful you can’t help but want to be outside all the time? When I was in Canada, I’d make sure to take advantage of those days. My favorite thing to do was ride my bike in Edmonton’s river valley – it’s still by far my favoritest place to go for a run, ride, or walk. Down Keillor Road, up to the university, down to Hawrelak, over to the Valley Zoo, then back past Fort Edmonton. I loved those days more than anything, I lived for them.

Almost every day in Zambia is a beautiful day. Big blue skies, warm sunshine. I’m lucky to wake up to this kind of weather every morning, and until yesterday, I didn’t fully realize it. For whatever reason, yesterday felt like one of those days back in Canada. Maybe it was the way the sun lit up the sky, maybe it was the cool breeze marking the beginning of “winter”, maybe it was the perfect puffy clouds. Whatever it was, it felt like a great day to be outside, so that’s where I spent it.

Life in Zambia has become just that – life. I no longer see it as something extraordinary or even noteworthy. The people I live and work with are not all that different from the people I lived and worked with back in Canada. People are people are people, no matter where you are. Though the actual differences are immense, and in many cases unacceptable, I find myself enjoying living in the majority world. The injustices still infuriate me, but at the same time, the struggles that are front and center serve as an important reminder; they compel me to act. “I feel alive in Africa.” That’s what a friend once said to me. I tend to agree with her.

At the end of February, I ended my time with Engineers Without Borders to take advantage of an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I now work for a start-up company called Mobile Transactions here in Zambia. We primarily do money transfers on cell phones, but the technology holds much more potential. I’ve been brought in to try something pretty cool – I’m piloting a system that pays small-scale cotton farmers on their cell phones instead of with piles and piles of cash. There are lots of interesting (and challenging!) things about this project, but I won’t go into those nerdy details here.

My contract with the project runs until the end of August, though it’s part of a much longer term process for the cotton company that is our client. There will never be a shortage of work to do here, but as I come upon my three year mark, a larger question looms my head: “How long do I stay in Zambia? In Africa?”

I’m not sure I have an answer to this question. There’s a big world out there. I have a home that I could always return to. If I choose to stay, I want to make sure I’m doing it for all the right reasons. It’s easy to fall into the expat trap, and I don’t want to do that. It’s also easy to get lost in the (I’m afraid to say) dismal development sector, and I don’t want to do that either. What I want is to do the right thing, and I’m not sure where that will take me.

But yesterday, I was reminded that living in Africa is a lot like taking a ride out in the river valley on a precious summer day in Edmonton. I won’t always have the opportunity to do what I’m doing now, so I want to take advantage of it while I have the chance. I kinda want to squeeze that lemon.

Though I spend a great deal of my time working, I’ve been doing a lot more playing lately too. Life’s simply too short to let the problems of the world weigh you down, right? I’ve moved into a beautiful home with the most amazing garden ever (and a great roommate to boot!). I take time to enjoy the simple things, like cooking a meal for my friends or going for a run just as the sun rises or sitting on the patio and reading a book or going to a movie with my boyfriend. Yes, it’s all boring, regular life stuff, but if my two+ year foray into workaholism taught me nothing else, it’s that you can either let it all consume you (and it will) or you can eek out a little space for yourself and enjoy the ride. I prefer the latter, and I’m not afraid to stay it! (Step 9 of WA – Workaholics Anonymous).

It’s taken me a long time to find the words to explain how I’m feeling about things, and this seems to be the only way to describe it: After a long and brutally cold winter, the first days of summer are upon me, and I think I’m up for a going on a sweet ride. :)


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New Blog


I know, I've dropped the ball with the blog. There are many reasons for this, but none of them are really good enough. Many many apologies.

But do not dismay! If you've missed me and my writing (as I'm sure you have), I can be found with The First Mile, here:

A couple friends and I have created a new, shared blog; a space for us to write about the things we're learning with regards to doing agri-business schtuff with small scale farmers.

I can also be found on Twitter, here:

I may return to this blog from time to time, to share more personal moments of reflection, but I'll be out and about on the other two links far more often.

Thanks for reading! Hope you continue to follow me elsewhere on the blogosphere.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Creativity and the child in all of us

You can be champion of the world too.

While I was loafing around Livingstone the other day, I did a little window shopping at a fancy pants bookstore. One particular book caught my eye, and I couldn’t not buy it – Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.

Truth be told, I couldn’t actually remember what the story was about, but I knew exactly how it made me feel when Mrs. Holmes read it to my class back in grade 3. It sparkled. It was inspiring.

So I took the book back home with me and began to savour it, reading no more than two chapters each day, letting the story envelope me like it did when I was a child. The story has not lost its ability to capture my imagination, but I noticed something else this time.

There are a lot of implicit messages embedded in this story, great messages for children. The importance of play and creativity, the influence of role models, and, most obviously, the potential for every person to achieve great things.

My childhood was filled with these and other such inspiring messages. They came from a handful of great teachers, my amazing parents, and other encouraging people from my home community.

I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in an environment that allowed me to live by those messages, that I had the opportunities to take them and put them into action. I am the person I am today because of all that. Unfortunately, though, not every child is lucky enough to have that, not in Zambia, not even in Canada.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy.”

This is what Sir Ken Robinson contends in his TED talk: Do schools kills creativity? He calls creativity “the process of having original ideas that have value”, and he says education systems the world over squander the creativity of children. It’s a compelling (and very entertaining) argument, and I encourage you all the watch it.

I’ve met a lot of extraordinary people in Zambia who astound me with their creativity. Now, I admit to not being an aficionado on education in Zambia, but I do know that it is plagued with problems, from a serious lack of resources to archaic methods and curricula to very few post high-school opportunities. But despite a seeming disabling environment for creativity, some people have managed to thrive. Why?

My informal and statistically unsound investigation tells me that role models are very important, especially familial ones. Bedford, a driver, revealed that he enjoys writing poetry in his spare time. When I asked how he discovered this talent, he said it was encouraged by his aunt. George, my unbelievably entertaining story-telling friend, told me he was influenced by his uncle and older sister. Mr. Hamoonga, who built the only sunken living room I’ve ever seen in rural Zambia, said he was inspired by his father’s creative architectural tendencies (pic pending).

However, even the most inspired person can be discouraged if there is a lack of opportunities to exercise creativity. Chimwemwe, a bright, young, passionate guy who studied international business in South Africa told me that he’d love to try some new ideas out if viable business opportunities were available. What’s worse is that creativity can be equated with deviance in a fairly homogenous society, so new ideas can be stigmatized as just plain weird. “Ah, they just make you feel bad when you try something new” he lamented.

Going to the creativity gym.

In the world of international development, and actually, in the world in general right now, there is a lot of talk about the need for creative solutions to address the complex conditions of the present and the uncertain ones of the future. I tend to agree with this, but are we setting our children up to meet this challenge? What about adults: Can the creative child in each of us be unleashed?

I’m not suggesting we send crates of Roald Dahl books to Zambia to solve this problem. Lack of resources is only one of many problems. Lack of role models in a country where 1 in 6 people are HIV positive and life expectancy is less than 40 is another. The lack of opportunities can be incredibly disheartening.

Or maybe…

Maybe I’m not exercising that part of my brain that is able to see possibility instead of pitfalls. As I grow older, I’m finding it important to make the space to play, to use different parts of my brain. I write often (and now I read children’s books). I play sport when I can, and I’ve been dancing a lot lately (I may or may not be in a Zambian music video!). I prioritize play, be it physical, intellectual, or emotional. Play is fun. It is also a precursor for creativity.

What are your creative outlets? How do you exercise your creativity? I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, here’s a message from Roald Dahl (the emphasis is his):

When you grow up
and have children of your own
do please remember
something important

a stodgy parent is no fun at all

What a child wants
and deserves
is a parent who is



Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pragmatism and social change

Is there a Weight Watchers of development?

Ok, that came out all wrong. I didn’t mean to suggest that what the developing world needs right now is a diet plan! It’s just a thought I had when I stumbled onto an article in the NY Times about body image and dieting.

In it, the woman being interviewed berates programs like Weight Watchers saying that we should “give up dieting and learn to recognize hunger and appetite and respond to them. Dieting…cause[s] compulsive eating and destabilizes our relationship to food.”

I think most people would agree with this, what she’s saying is self-evident. But if it were as easy to change people’s eating habits as she suggests, then problems like obesity and eating disorders wouldn’t be as pervasive as they currently are.

I often think about what it takes to get people to change. The goal is usually a simple one: To eat less and healthier. Or for rural villages in Zambia, to buy soap and wash hands after using the latrine, or to plan out farming activities in advance of the season. Now, how do you get there?

I think it’s pretty complicated. These things are influenced by a bajillion different factors including touchy ones like politics, emotions, and culture. I think people usually get why they need to fundamentally change, but if simply getting it isn’t enough to change behaviours, what is?

Bam! Pow! Bang! Pop! Jenga! (Jenga?) Yes we can!

Holy social change Batman!

If you ever find yourself working in a field that is focused on creating social change*, you’ll come across a variety of approaches.

(* There is no universal definition for ‘international development’ but if nothing else, it is about change, about people changing and changing people…which is where it gets confusing, but I digress.)

Like the woman in the article, there are those who espouse the importance of “changing the paradigm”. These people can be down right militant about it; from their perspective, everything needs to change before anything can start to change. “Blow it up!” they say, then build it back up from a place that is grounded.

There are others who champion a more strategic approach. If you focus your efforts on the right “leverage points”, you can make even the most rigid system change in time. Like a game of Jenga, you have to be patient and have steady hands, but eventually, the blocks tumble down.

Many prefer a more inclusive approach based on the principles of awareness, participation, freedom, choice, and democracy. This approach sees a groundswell of people making a bunch of individual choices to create a better end. Yes, we certainly can.

There are many more approaches to creating social change and while I don’t disagree with many of them, I wonder what the best approach is. Is blowing up the system a realistic strategy? Provocative but not very practical. Is incremental change from within the way to go? Patience is definitely a virtue. Is it really just about getting people together? Sounds like fun, but it could also be like herding cats.

People are people are people.

People are not like cats. People are people. But though we like to think ourselves rational, it’s important to recognize what we are is beautifully and fallibly human. I’m finding that if I approach things from this perspective, they get a bit, though not entirely, easier to deal with.

The article about dieting started off a chain of thoughts in my head about what works, what gets the change process started in the short term. I’m not promoting Weight Watchers, but I think programs like it are onto something.

What they do is help people navigate the difficult process of personal change. It gives them simple tools (like a point system), a safe environment (like group meetings), and incentives (like avoiding shame during public weigh-ins) that allow people to not only take the first step but to take ownership over the change process.

Some would argue that programs like this address symptoms of the problem and not the root causes. Some would say that they’re just money makers that prey on and even exacerbate unfounded insecurities. I’m not in denial of these things, but I do see value in this as a practical approach. What’s more is that people seem to like it and are willing to pay for it. That says something, something important about people.

Maybe I’m stretching things here, but I wonder what a Weight Watchers-esque behaviour change program would look like for rural farmers in Zambia? Certainly numerous things need to be happening in concert, but it’s the pragmatist in me that wants to know what it would take for them to really own the change.

I don't know much, but I do know some things.

Hey, maybe I'm just on crack. But it doesn't stop me from thinking.

And in all this thinking, I’m constantly searching for truths that help me make sense of the complexities involved with creating change, that anchor me to the ground and help guide me through what is a very foggy process. I’ve landed on a few:

People are people.
Good things happen through hard work.
Change takes time.
Change happens within first.

So the question I should really be asking myself is what would it take for me to change?

Yup, that’s likely the first step. Now, if only I had something to help me take it…

t ;)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where I've been lately

Body: Sunrise on Easter Island.

In a cold, dark moment before the sun rose over the Pacific, I had them all to myself. All fifteen Moai, basking in the white light of a nearly full moon that was high in the sky directly behind me. We were early, my travel companions were out of sight, out of mind. I was alone.

How on earth did I end up here?

Was I supposed to revere these ancient statues, full of mana and the sweat of thousands of Rapa Nui that toiled to carve and drag them to the coast? Was this supposed to be a spiritual moment? I wasn’t so sure.

I stopped thinking about it. The sun rose, just like it does everyday.

But this time, I was watching.

Head: “But why, in Africa, has it come to this?”

Even to begin to answer that question you need time, so much time, dead time. Time has to hang heavy on you. You need to be stuck, bored, and to watch: to watch not attentively, eager to prove or disprove a lively hypothesis, but listlessly, with your eyes roving and your mind empty, and nothing to do. Only then do truths begin to swim into vision.

- Matthew Parris on Ethiopia

This is not the type of work you can simply think your way out of. In fact, thinking too much might lead you astray. This, in part, is the problem with a lot of development efforts: It’s simply too easy to get disconnected, to theorize and strategize and intellectualize everything until it is almost completely irrelevant.

As the Parris quote suggests, this work takes time. It’s hard and frustrating and thankless and complicated and challenging beyond belief. But it’s also incredibly important. It’s definitely worth trying, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But if I’m going to continue to do this, I want to do right by it. Think BIG but start small, stay connected, and try as best as possible to keep it real. This is my commitment.

Heart: She’s gone.

In the early stages the disease, she reverted back to what I think was the happiest time in her life, her days as a young girl studying to be a teacher at Ramanathan College in Sri Lanka. She’d chatter away about her friends, smiling, laughing. Though there was never a flicker of recognition, I’d laugh with her and take solace in the fact that at least now she was wholly happy.

She wasn’t always happy. She was quiet; she kept what was more than her fair share of tragedy locked up inside. She bore heartache that is completely beyond my comprehension. She suffered a great deal of loss…she suffered so that I would never have to. For this, I will always be grateful.

I’m writing this post from Toronto. I’m happy to just BE with everyone, to go through the ceremonial motions, the crying and the laughing. She would be glad we laughed together.

I've also been forced to stop and think about what tradition really means to me. This is the hardest kind of thing to articulate, so I will just say this: I love, hate, and respect it all at once, but I don’t really understand it, and that might be ok.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition if a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.

- Excerpt from White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

On balance.

I am trying with difficulty to make sense of the cumulative effect of all my recent experiences, to balance the various forces pulling at me and try as best I can to, well, do the right thing.

I was lucky to meet and receive some words of wisdom from James Orbinksi in January. I think he would be loathe to call what he gave us that day “advice”, but it stuck in my brain regardless of his intention.

He said that your success always depends on the success of others, that it’s important to genuinely understand the people around you, to be attentive to the people you are with.

Meaning is in the living, not simply in the thinking or the feeling. And it seems to me that living well is mostly about loving well.

– Brother Benedict quoted in An Imperfect Offering, by James Orbinksi

And so, this just might be the stuff life is made of. Life isn’t something that’s going to happen sometime in the future, it’s happening right now. Self-evident, I know, but it’s easy to forget this simple truth when you are busy busy busy. There is a lot to balance and it might never make sense and fit into a nice little box you can point an arrow to. But this is it – and I’m thankful for every little bit.


Friday, December 5, 2008

What is she doing??

The short answer.

At the beginning of October, I started my second placement with Engineers Without Borders. This time around, I’m partnered with International Development Enterprises (IDE). Their mission: To increase the income of small holder farmers through the production and sale of high value crops, namely vegetables. How do they do it? The gist is this:

+ Training (in vegetable growing)
+ Access (to micro-credit, inputs, and irrigation)
+ Opportunities (to sell their vegetables at a fair price)

= Rural Household with $

This is an easy thing to write in a proposal (1+1=2, right?), but it is actually an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. It involves taking an approach that is radically different from those taken in typical agricultural projects.

This is all about business. Nothing is given away for free. Everything is accessed for full price through the private sector. Easy peasy? Not quite. The agricultural sector in Zambia is very under-developed and poorly functioning. It tends to exploit or completely exclude small holder farmers. Small holders can’t make money from farming, and if they do, not fairly.

There is a lack of confidence in the system. But because of this, there exists an opportunity for NGOs, like IDE, to act as honest brokers to help create a functional market in which small holders can fairly participate.

What am I doing? My mandate is to build the capacity of IDE’s field staff to better facilitate market linkages. Disregard the jargon and read on.

The long answer.

My work with IDE has me abuzz with new thoughts on development and (gasp!) even some hope. Yay! Gone are the days of thinly veiled cynical melancholy. I’m excited all over again! This time, though, I’m a bit hardened, a bit more realistic, and perhaps even a little contentious. Watch out!

What am I so excited about? Simply put, it’s about the people.

“Well, Thulasy, if it wasn’t always about the people, what was it about??” Good question.

I spent my first 14 months overseas trying to define this problem of poverty for myself and coming up with some reasonable solutions to it. It was about ideas and how those ideas relate to people, mostly village farmers. What did I learn?

I learned that there are a lot of smart people out there coming up with some pretty ingenious solutions to the ginormous, multi-dimensional, infinitely complex problem that is poverty.

The main challenge, however, is not really in finding the perfect solution, per se, but in actually applying a good-enough solution to the real world. In development-speak, we call this “implementation”.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just givin’r and gettin’r done.

When it all,
all falls down.
I’m tellin’ you all,
it all falls down.

– Lauryn Hill, The Mystery of Iniquity

Markets and trust.

Local field workers are at the front lines of development projects. They are the ones who are ultimately responsible for translating those great ideas - seeming panaceas for poverty - into meaningful impact.

Problem is, big time donors, who are wildly excited about the great-idea-of-the-moment, expect big time results from these field workers, not just by now, but by yesterday.

Expectations like that cannot be met in the blink of an eye. This project may be about getting more money down to farmers, but it takes a lot of time and concerted effort to get money to flow in a system that is completely devoid of any semblance of trust.

Functional markets are built on trust. Think about it: You implicitly trust that you’ll get the perfect non-fat, extra-hot, half-sweet venti chai latte from the stranger behind the counter mere seconds after you order it (at least I do). The barista, in turn, trusts that you will front the cash before you indulge in your afternoon pick-me-up.

Small holder farmers, however, have never been able to trust seed suppliers to offer reliable products and services, and vegetable buyers have never been able to trust small holders to supply a reasonable quantity and quality of produce. There is zero institutional trust.

[L]ow income societies have less trust than rich societies….What is important is the radius of trust. Do you trust only the members of your immediate family? Or does the circle widen to include your extended family, or your clan, or your village, or your ethnic group, or all the way to strangers? In a low-trust society, you trust your friends and family, but nobody else.

– William Easterly, White Man’s Burden

“And you’re excited about…?”

Luckily, field staff are excellent trust builders, particularly with farmers. But the role of field staff is changing. They’re responsible for more than just the farmers. They’re responsible for transforming the tenuous (or oft-times non-existent) relationships between farmers and private sector actors (like seed suppliers and vegetable buyers) into healthy, mutually beneficial ones.

I’m here to help the field staff take on this new mandate. I’m responsible for designing and rolling out a tailored, long-term training program for field staff to improve their ability to build these relationships. This is exciting for two reasons:

1) I have a growing hypothesis that investing in good people will improve the implementation process (and, by extension, the impact-generating process) far more than simply pumping more great ideas or money into the system. This will be a great chance to test this hypothesis and hopefully demonstrate success.

2) I am particularly psyched to be working with the up and coming generation of development workers, young Zambian folks like myself, who are unsatisfied with current approaches and are willing to try new things. Many of them are incredibly intelligent and capable but they just need a bit of a boost (training and practice in the short term, coaching over the long term) to take it to the next level.

I’ve spent the past few weeks visiting all of IDE’s 6 field offices, getting to know the field staff, their work, and their challenges. I spent my first placement in Zambia trying to understand and empathize with small holder farmers, and now, I find myself doing the same with field staff.

It’s important for me to consider them as whole human beings - just like myself, just like anyone in Canada - to understand their aspirations, their limitations, and how we can work together to achieve the goals of the project.

It’s always been about people.

This time, the people are just different.

T :)


Order your 2009 wall calendar and holiday cards from EWB, and help us build a world of opportunity. / Commandez votre calendrier 2009 et vos cartes des fêtes d’ISF, et aidez nous à bâtir un monde d’opportunités.

Visit / visitez le

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Choose your own moralizing pitch

I know this is a cop out. I know I owe you all a post about what I'm doing right now, and I promise, it's on the way! Just so you know, I'm working with International Development Enterprises (IDE) on their Gates Foundation funded Rural Prosperity Initiative in Zambia. More to come, but you can peruse their website while you wait:

In the meantime, I wanted to share this, an article I wrote for Dalhousie's Gazette/Sextant newspaper. Much love to Graham Lettner for pushing me to write something that says all the things that usually go unsaid.

T :)


Choose your own moralizing pitch

Today, I wandered into the market in search of a lady selling roasted peanuts.

When I lived in Kalomo, small town Zambia, I knew exactly where to find the ladies hawking their little bags of salty goodness. I also knew with 96% certainty that the nuts were grown locally – so a hard-working small scale farmer got a cut, the struggling market lady got a cut, and I gots me some peanuts. It felt like I was having a bit of direct impact in this world.

But now I'm in big city Zambia. Lusaka. The market has lots to offer but no roasted peanut ladies. So I headed to the grocery store and found some roasted peanuts at the counter. The not-so-impressive label stamped on the not-so-fancy plastic bag said these nuts were grown, roasted, and packaged in Mongu, Zambia.

“Locally grown, locally processed. I’m going to buy local. That seems like a good thing to do.” But before I could pat myself on the back, I hesitated:

Did a village farmer grow these nuts? Probably.
Was the farmer given a fair price for the nuts? Maybe.
Is the processing company good to their workers? Gulp.

I was suddenly reminded of the anxiety I’d feel back in the supermarket in Canada. How could I know that farmers half way around the world were getting a good deal? Now, here I am, in country, and I still don’t know for sure!

This is where you, kind reader, roll your eyes into the back of your head and think, “Buy the peanuts already, you self-righteous, melodramatic hack. While you’re at it, take that patronizing bleeding heart of yours and shove it up your…”

I’m aware that you’re aware of the food crisis. The energy, financial, and climate crises. You’re likely tired of the barrage of pleas to eat less meat or buy a Prius. Plant a tree. Exercise. Talk to old people. I’m not trying to convince you of any of this. Here is where you get to choose your own adventure:

Go to A) if you want to hear a didactic rant about why you should think more about your food.

Go to B) if you want to hear why I bought the packaged peanuts.

A) The world is going to hell in a hand basket, and you – YOU – should care more about it. You should be worried about where your food comes from, how the environment and people get hurt all along the way. You should be worried about the long term effects of fertilizers and pesticides on your pituitary gland. Or those of your unborn children.

Maybe you should consider that 100-mile diet. Or maybe you should think about the farmers in nowheresville Zambia that would rather get something from YOU than nothing. Think about sweat shops. Think about the bird flu. Think about bird flu inoculated terrorist bombs. Think about whatever it takes to make you ACT, because let’s face it, if we don’t act soon, Chernobyl won’t look all that bad.

B) I bought the peanuts. I bought them because this isn’t an either-or kind of thing. It isn’t about thinking global and acting local, about being guilty or being noble. This isn’t about us and them and it.

I bought the peanuts because I had a hankering for them. And when I bought them, I appreciated the work of the farmers, processors, and transporters that brought them to me, and how those people have as much a right to make a living as I do.

At some point you have to put your stake in the ground and say, “I think I’m ok with this.” This world is wrought with complexities beyond my comprehension. I don’t claim to have answers.

All I know is that change is possible as long as good, sensible people around the world (like you) are allowed to make decisions not from fear or anxiety but from prudence and sincerity.

Or maybe we should just buy Fair Trade. It’s easier.

For the past year, Thulasy has been working to increase the participation of small scale farmers in fair and sustainable agricultural markets in Zambia.


If that's given you some food for thought, these might too:

Farmer in Chief

Britain on a Plate

And if you're in Edmonton on November 12th, you might be interested in attending an event at City Hall regarding Food Sustainability for the Edmonton Region. Email Debbie Hubbard at: for the deets.