Thursday, November 29, 2007

What makes a good "change agent"?

Who’s the boss?!

The chairman of one of the grower cooperatives involved in the sorghum project came to visit me today. He wanted more copies of the Sorghum Production pamphlet we had put together for the farmers. We chatted for a couple of minutes about the rains and how farmers are starting to plant. And just before leaving, he said to me, “You are our boss!” I was floored. “I most certainly am NOT your boss!” I thought.

Whyson and I have been working incredibly hard to de-emphasize the role CARE is playing in this project. The goal is to create a sustainable sorghum market in Zambia via local players. We partner with strong cooperatives in the district and let them lead the project – they are the bosses. Not CARE. Not Whyson. And certainly not me!

I often wonder how the cooperatives and farmers really perceive me. I mostly feel like a “glorified Vanna White”, as Nina put it (though I do hope I’m adding more value than just being flip-chart holding eye candy!) No matter how hard I try, I will always be different. And sometimes, this difference creates a weird dynamic between the farmers and me, as was made apparent by the chairman who had no qualms calling me his boss.

Pretty much all the field workers at CARE are Zambian. They speak the local languages that I’m desperately trying to pick up. They understand cultural nuances that fly way over my head. They can relate to the farmers on a more genuine level, or at least, that’s what I think. Then there are the leaders within the communities themselves that understand their own challenges better than I ever will and are probably the best people to lead the change we’re intending. So I wonder…am I the best person to be doing this job? What makes a good change agent anyways?

My co-worker, Nchobeni, and I out in the field

“Come And Receive Empowerment!”

Empowerment is a popular development buzzword. Every project out here is trying to “empower” something or other – women, children, vulnerable farmers, their chickens…the word is so over used that it has lost its important meaning. Even the intended beneficiaries of this “empowerment” aren’t impressed by it anymore. A clever farmer in Sikaunzwe jokingly said CARE stood for “Come And Receive Empowerment”. (CARE was an acronym at one time, but it definitely wasn’t this one!)

I can see where he’s coming from. CARE’s reputation for handing things out – food aid, bed nets, free seed, etc – precedes them wherever they go, so it’s not a stretch to imagine farmers lining up to receive “empowerment”. This picture is made even more comical/scary when it’s me, a foreigner, handing it out…yikes!

All joking aside, this is actually quite a serious issue. This sorghum project, amongst others that CARE is undertaking, is not about hand outs. It’s about improving rural livelihoods by facilitating a sustainable agricultural market. We’re encouraging entrepreneurialism at both the farmer and cooperative levels through sorghum, our commodity of choice. Our underlying assumption is that we can create this “behaviour change” by demonstrating that growing sorghum as a cash crop will improve food security and increase household income.

Whyson speaking to a group of women farmers

Positive Deviance.

There are many ways to approach creating behaviour change within a community. A popular line of thinking is based on positive deviance. The basic principle behind this is that finding small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in a community and amplifying them creates more permanent change than importing solutions from the outside in. In other words, a local change agent leading a locally made solution creates lasting behaviour change.

In our production training sessions, we tried to identify these positive deviants, or “teachers amongst us”, as Whyson likes to call them. Instead of a top down, lecture style learning session, we broke the farmers into small groups and gave them some questions to answer about sorghum production methods. We allowed them to discuss the answers amongst themselves and then present their findings to the whole group.

A small group engaged in discussion
about sorghum production methods.

A lively conversation ensued that highlighted the good practices of farmers who had experience growing sorghum. This led into even more interesting discussions about agricultural marketing, which highlighted the practices of farmers who know how to do business. We left each session feeling confident that the activity had not only identified positive deviants but allowed other people to engage them in fruitful discussions. They weren’t learning from us, they were (and hopefully still are) learning from each other.

A group compiling best practices.

Social Marketing.

Another way of approaching behaviour change is through social marketing. Social marketing aims to bring about social change using concepts from commercial marketing. The ultimate objective is to influence action. Though I won’t go into details about the theory behind social marketing, there are a couple important points to consider. One is that the intended change should be a credible answer to the actual frustrations being experienced by the target audience. Another point is that understanding the audience perception is critical and almost more important than reality.

So the questions we much ask ourselves include:

- What are the farmers in the Southern Province unhappy about?

- Does our project address those dissatisfactions?

- And how do they perceive our project and the change it intends to create?

In answering the first, it is fair to say that most farmers in the Southern Province are extremely dissatisfied with growing maize. It fails to meet expectations, year after year, as erractic rainfall and localized droughts reduce yields. But maize is the only marketable crop for farmers (the government is the buyer), so they keep growing it even though payment times can be incredibly drawn out (some farmers have yet to be paid almost 6 months after harvest!) It’s a catch 22 that keeps rural households food insecure and low on cash. Sorghum, with its drought tolerance and available market can address these dissatisfactions.

So what about their perception of the project? Mr. Muleya, another cooperative chairman, says NGO’s come in all the time to promote different crops. He says villagers listen very carefully to see if there is “life” in the project before buying in. That “life” usually comes in the form of an available market. His village has tried growing tobacco, paprika, soy beans, and even castor oil seeds, all in hopes of accessing that ever elusive market. But all those projects failed because, from what I understand, the markets never materialized.

Mr. Muleya beside a wonderful masuku fruit tree

I wonder, though, whether my very presence as a foreigner brings “life” to a project. I’m very aware of the fact that Mr. Muleya’s answers are going to be slightly – no, very – distorted because he’s talking to me. But this is not the first time I got this feeling.

The sorghum project has had an EWB volunteer attached to it from its inception, and I wonder whether part of its success is due to our very presence as foreigners. I wonder if we bring some sort of sparkle-factor that villagers perceive to be attractive or exciting. Perhaps we lend a credible voice to the project because we, as foreigners, are perceived to be honest, straightforward, and, realistically or not, more intelligent. At worst, our presence brings out a sense of fearful respect, vestige of years of colonial rule and imposed development projects, that motivates people to buy in. It’s entirely possible.

Fair game.

Within the context of marketing, I think this is fair game. When was the last time you bought a product just because some snazzy celebrity endorsed it? Or because a smart salesman convinced you? Or because someone you respected a great deal told you to? Is this not the same thing? Right, wrong, or straight out manipulative, I feel that having a foreigner on a project like this definitely helps adoption.

But there are some drawbacks. Contrary to a positive deviance approach, this can be like imposing a solution from the outside with a big assumption that it’s the right solution. To be honest, I’m beginning to feel a little evangelical about sorghum! I do believe it’s the right solution, but that’s a judgement call this project has made.

I also definitely don’t feel comfortable being the reason farmers are adopting the crop – especially if it is out of fear. I don’t think this is the case most of the time, but when a chairman calls me his boss, I begin to wonder. Because of this feeling, I’ve been keeping my direct interaction with farmers to a minimum. I would love to spend most of my days out in the fields with the farmers, learning more about their livelihoods and breaking down stereotypes about foreigners. But I can’t do it as much as I’d like to for fear of distorting the project.

When I do spend time in the field, my honesty and enthusiasm appears to be well-received, which does much to build trust. And at the end of the day, this is what counts most. I’m beginning to feel that genuine excitement is a critical part of being an effective change agent, no matter where you’re from. Excitement is contagious, so I’m going to continue to spread the (sorghum) love!

Feelin' the love!

Hugs to you all!

Thulasy :)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

These are a few of my favorite things...

Comfort vs discomfort.

I distinctly remember how I felt when the plane landed the first time I came to Zambia in 2004...”Oh my goodness! I’m in AFRICA!” I was wide-eyed and giddy with excitement. My senses were overloaded. My emotions swung between the extremes of joy and sadness, gratitude and anger, and inspiration and frustration with all that I saw and experienced. It was a time of learning and great personal growth. And in the end, I left Zambia with a strong sense of hope for the future and a feeling that I would return, though I didn’t know when.

Now I’m back, and while I still marvel at the world around me, my reaction has not been as strong as it was the first time I came. Cramming myself into a sliver of space in a crowded, rickety minibus is no longer an adventure but simply a way to get around. Eating nshima with “interesting” relishes (like cow tongue, which I had for the first time the other day) is not a special event but a normal, everyday activity. Using the local greetings isn’t a self-deprecating act of hilarity but just an expected and respectful way to say Hello. I am feeling very comfortable here...and at first, this worried me. I was afraid that I was losing my sense of wonder. Why wasn’t I feeling anything as strongly as I did before? Was I not being present? Was it possible that I was I feeling too comfortable??

I’ve since realized that there is nothing wrong with this sense of comfort. Far from being a sign of cultural stagnation, it’s actually a sign that I’m getting into the real stuff of life here in Zambia. Instead of being struck over the head by the big things, it’s the sum of all the little things that keep my sense of wonder alive and well. So I thought it would be fun to share with you all those little things that make me smile everyday.

Home life.

I now live on a farm, the Gold Acres farm, 7km outside the town of Kalomo. I live with a Tonga family 15 people strong, and they are the most wonderful host family I could ask for. We live in an old farm house, remnants of white farmers from years gone by, and although it’s a little run down, it’s perfect for this family. Mr. Mwiinga, my host father, is the manager of the local abbatoir. Beatrice, his first wife (Tonga’s are traditionally polygamist), is a seamstress with a very big heart. Then there’s a swath of children, some of whom are orphaned cousins, and there are always guests, members of the extended family (3 aunts at the moment). And I mustn’t forget to mention the cattle, chickens, dogs, and cat (Chelsea, named after the football club) that roam the property all day long.

Welcome home!

Jr. and Namwiinga in front of the house and
beside my primary method of transportation

This is a farming family. Although they rent the farm and manage the owner’s cattle, they are allowed to plant their own crops for sale and consumption. We will soon be planting maize, potatoes, tomatoes, and hopefully sorghum in anticipation of the upcoming rainy season. But for the time being, they irrigate a small garden plot for home consumption, and I LOVE eating fresh veggies everyday.

My 12 year old host sister, Twaambo,
in front of the garden and bore hole

I’ve been particularly lucky to find a good friend in Sylvia, the eldest in the family. She has a daughter, Nyarai, who has just turned 1 year old. Like a lot of the small children here in Zambia, Nyarai was very uncertain of my presence. She would furrow her brow and give me a disconcerting stare, as if to say, “I don’t know about you...” The look is priceless. Fortunately, she is now used to having me around, and I’ve taught her to give high fives and makes blubbering noises with her mouth. We’re tight.

Left to right: Baby Nyrai, Sylvia, Lenley (back),
Yvonne, friend I don't know, and Twaambo

That's the look...oh, she's so not sure of me...

The fields of Zambia are filled with good intentions gone wrong – unused wells and pumps, solar panel systems that have fallen into disrepair, and of course, tonnes of broken down, rusted out, stripped down tractors. They’re everywhere. And each time I see one, I’m reminded that handing out seemingly useful technologies may not be the best way to improve people’s lives, no matter how good the intentions are. But they do serve one good purpose – they can make great lawn ornaments.

Best lawn ornament ever

Town life.

I use my bicycle to get into and out of town for work everyday and spend most of my time on the weekends there too. My favorite places in town are the ones where people go to talk, have a chat, and shoot the shit with friends.

Beatrice’s shop is in the heart of the market, and she and her cohort Sarah host a constant flow of patrons and visitors. Beatrice is an excellent seamstress and spends her days making beautiful chitenge suits (blouses and skirts made of colourful African fabrics) for the ladies of Kalomo.

Sarah in the foreground and Beatrice,
chatting up a storm, behind the counter

Judy’s house is where I get the low down on what’s really happening in Kalomo. Judy is Mr. Mwiinga’s 2nd wife. She’s a talker...the kind of lady you want to be friends with but also the type you never want to be foes with. Between talking to Beatrice, Judy, and their daughters, I’m getting a glimpse into the fascinating world of polygamy. I could (and may, in the future) dedicate an entire blog entry to this subject, but for now, all I can say is that it’s kinda cool most of the time, kinda frustrating some of the time, and crazy confusing for me almost all of the time. I still have a lot to learn.

Judy and the girls

Life life.

Then there are a plethora of little random things that I love seeing everyday.

There’s the beautiful jacaranda tree, whose purple flowers bring life to the dry, dust swept landscape of the dry season.

Stunning tree on my ride to work

There’s a moringa tree in our farm yard. This, in itself, is rather un-extraordinary. BUT, it’s pretty humorous to me. Amma has been cooking the fruit of the moringa trees in her traditional Sri Lankan stew for years and years, but I never knew how they grew or what they looked like in the wild. I actually never really thought about it. Just another reminder of how disconnected I am from the food I eat.

Moringa trees...who knew?

African bubble gum is a fruit-like thing that grows on trees in our farm yard. You basically crack them open, take out the seeds, and chew the sweet, gooey segments into a pulp, which you then spit out. Chewing these is favorite pre-supper activity for my family. And they’re pretty tasty too.

Crack 'em open and chow down

Deleli, or okra, comes in two forms in Zambia: the pod form (which can be found in Canadian supermarkets as well) and the wild form. The wild form can be found in the hinterland behind the farm house. So every once in awhile, the ladies go out to pick the wild okra. We go out in the evenings, when the sun is setting and it’s cool. I love going out, picking them, and immediately cooking them into a yummy, albeit gooey, relish.

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to pick we go!

And in the middle of no where...

...we find them

A lot of people in Zambia cook over fire or charcoal stoves because they don’t have power and/or electric stoves. One day, my friend Hilda said we would be baking cakes, but I had no idea how we were going to do this without an oven. When I inquired, she simply said, “Fire on top, fire on bottom.” I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw it. It’s brilliant! And the cakes were delicious.

Fire on top, fire on bottom baking

Green cakes for a treat

As with most things, there is, of course, balance.

I’d be lying if I said everything was hunky dory over here. I can safely say that yes, 98% of the time, things are hunky dory (whatever that really means). And the rest of the time, well...

I’ve had my fair share of “Arg! I’m so irritated!!” moments. These mostly happen when I’m exhausted. Too tired to listen to and learn Tonga, too tired to humour the people who call out to me at the market, too tired to explain that one lump is plenty nshima for me, too tired to laugh when being laughed at for whatever strange thing it is that I’m doing, too tired to push myself to learn more and be thoughtful...these moments are very rare, but sometimes, there’s only so much putting-myself-out-there I can do without getting any reciprocation.

I’m more than happy to get to know people and their culture, but I see cultural integration as a two-way street – I get to know you, you get to know me. It’s just that the getting-to-know-me part is hard to do. It requires a special sort of friendship with a lot of trust and understanding. I may be on my way to getting this with my host sister Sylvia but not with anyone else quite yet. And that’s ok. Because most of the time, I’m over-the-top happy about being here, experiencing amazing things, doing work that I love doing, and being able to share it with all my family and friends back home.

Thulasy :)