Thursday, December 29, 2005

My Best Christmas in Rio Ever!

Time goes by so slowly for those who wait, and so quickly for those who have too much to do! Madonna's remixed Abba song is playing nonstop here, along with a lot of Pearl Jam (they just did their first brazilian show ever last month and it was huge - 40,000 fans showed up).

It hit me today that our stay here in Brasil is more than halfway over and I haven't accomplished nearly half of what I set out to do here. Not that this trip hasn't been productive - it has been incredibly so - but the old to-do list just seems to get longer and longer. The more time I spend in the Casa Rosa, the more things I find that need taking care of...

But I have managed to do a whole lot in two weeks. I bought a victorian 8-place dining table with chairs stuffed in red velvet, a wooden desk for my office, two chests of drawers, a crystal chandelier, two red outdoor lanterns, and several old prints of landscapes in Rio. I also acquired from Ricardo and his mom a microwave, a sofa, a large glass table, 8 wooden chairs, 2 huge abstract paintings, a rug, and a ton of dishes and glasses. Now that the Casa Rosa is much better equiped and decorated, the big task at hand is to organize and install everything.

For the first time the Casa Rosa feels like a true CASA. Home. Somewhere I'm just dying to spend a good chunk of time, preferably together with Ricardo. He has been a tremendous help here, fixing the pump for the pool, carrying heavy furniture up the stairs, installing an electrical shower, and helping me hang pictures. Life is so much easier with a carioca boyfriend!

We've been having a great time here in Rio so far, even though both Rico and I have been super busy. I've met all of his relatives and had a chance to interact with all of them at some point so I feel they actually know me, which is nice. Christmas was the main excuse for family visits and dinners, and we ended up having quite the adventure on Christmas eve.

Brasilians traditionally celebrate the holiday at midnight on the 24th with a big dinner. Rico, his mom, his grandma, and I all went to his aunt's house for the Christmas meal. Rico's aunt is a very successful fashion designer here in Rio and has several botiques throughout the country. Her house is in a neighborhood called São Conrado and is a bonafide mansion, with a view overlooking the ocean and Rocinha, Brazil's largest favela. Talk about contrasts. While we ate cod, turkey, and ham with silver utensils and drank wine out of crystal goblets, we watched homemade fireworks and the occasional bala traçante (automatic machine gun bullets with red light trails) being shot off in Rocinha...

Contrasts apart, Christmas was really nice. Everyone in Rico's family got me gifts, which was totally unexpected, and we opened presents around the fake tree. I generally hate Christmas in the tropics, but this one was quite special.

After dinner and gifts, Ricardo and I were tired and were going to get a taxi back to the Casa Rosa (a 35 minute drive) when his aunt offered to lend us her Mercedes to use for the night, as well as for the rest of our stay in Rio! Of course we jumped at the opportunity not only to have a car to use, but a super luxe car at that. Rico's aunt gave us the key and gave us the rundown about the insurance and how to open the trunk, and we were on our way.

By this time it was about 2:30am and totally dark. As we pulled away from the house, Rico asked if I had ever been assaulted before. I said no, and he proceeded to give me instructions about what to do in case someone tried to carjack us. Keep calm, put your hands up, don't make eye contact, and give up whatever the assailants ask for. Rico said that most likely nothing would happen, but since we were in a Mercedes in Rio de Janerio, we had to be prepared for the worst.

Not 10 minutes later we pulled up to a traffic light and the car suddenly died. Rico tried to restart the engine and it just coughed and spluttered. He turned the key again and again to no avail. The car stubbornly refused to start. Panic started to set in, especially after the assault conversation, and I could see Ricardo getting nervous as well. We were basically sitting ducks, alone in a Mercedes in the middle of the night, with the car full of Christmas presents. I could feel my palms beginning to sweat profusely, and I started to imagine the worst.

After a dozen unsuccessful tries to get the engine going, Rico decided that the car might be out of gas, despite the fact that the pointer was at half full. We got out of the car - which was in the middle of the lane, mind you - and ran down the wrong way of the highway, trying to fit in the narrow shoulder, until we came to a gas station some 400 meters away.

Rico bought a can of gas and we went back to the car. By this time, Rico and called another aunt and uncle (not the ones that lent us the car - they conveniently had their cell phones off - but relatives that lived close by where the Mercedes had died) that came and met us in the middle of the road to try and fix the car. Ricardo poured in the extra gas and, to our dismay, the car still wouldn't turn over.

Then it started to pour rain. Just our luck...

We decided that we had to get the car out of the road and into a safe place, because waiting in the middle of the highway on the shoulder was just asking for an assault. The solution was to push the Mercedes backwards down the highway to the gas station, then wait in the protected area for a tow truck. The only problem was that Ricardo's uncle had just had an operation the day before for his varicose veins and couldn't walk. His cousin Juliana was too young to help out. So it ended up that Rico and his aunt Renata (wearing stiletto heels!) pushed the Mercedes down the wrong way of the road in the rain while I tried to steer the car in reverse to the gas station. What a scene - Ricardo sweating like a pig, his aunt slipping in her heels, and me unable to see a damn thing out the back window because the glass was tinted nearly an opaque black. Somehow, though, we managed to get the car into the Petrobras station, safe and sound. I am still in awe that we were actually able to pull it off!

So once the Mercedes was out of the road, we had to wait for the tow truck. What better thing to do to kill some time than exchange Christmas gifts, have some beers, and shoot the shit? Not much, especially if you are in a gas station in the middle of the night! I wish someone had thought to take a picture. We must have been quite the sight. Rico's uncle was laying down in the back of the Mercedes with his legs stretched out because of the varicose operation, his feet sticking out in the rain. His aunt, cousin, and I were all in high heels and formal wear, presents in hand, gossiping and shouting the way only a group of girls can manage. Rico was on the phone with his mom, who eventually showed up at the gas station along with his grandma (who was a little tipsy from having beer at the other aunt's holiday dinner). Basically, we had a family reunion in a gas station while waiting for the tow truck. Only it was Christmas. In Rio. In the rain. And it was the most fun I've had on a generally predictable holiday in years and years.

After about an hour and a half the tow truck finally showed up and hauled off the Mercedes to the mechanic's. The rest of us hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes, laughing out loud at what will likely go down in history for everyone as the strangest Christmas ever.

Whew. Finally I got a chance to write. It's midnight on the 29th - my Dad's birthday, by the way, he is 60 today. Happy Birthday, Dad! Love to you all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Leaded or Unleaded? Sails for Me, Actually.

Since once again I was unable to find a 2-hour slot in my day to sit down, have some juice, and write in peace about my Christmas adventures that ended up in the gas station, I have decided to write about something vastly less complicated.

Sub-Saharan Africa is set to completely phase out leaded gasoline by the end of 2006. Before moving to Mozambique, I didn't even know that people still *used* leaded gasoline on a regular basis. The last time I saw it was a good 20 years ago at the Allsup's in Belen, New Mexico. But, as I've discovered, leaded gas is alive and well in many countries, to the detriment of the environment and people's health.

The transition to unleaded only is being accompanied by some hilarious tv commercials. The one most common on the cable network in Chimoio is actually from Angola and features a guy grinning, practically jumping up and down, letting us know that there is an exciting new option for *new* vehicles that will improve performance and reduce health risks. The guy then goes on to specify that new vehicles are those manufactured after 1989!

On that note, Ricardo and I are off to bed early tonight. Tomorrow we are waking up early to go sailing on his uncle's boat. Yes, sailing. And since his uncle just had varicose vein surgery and can't do any lifting or moving around in general, I am going to learn how to sail tomorrow to help Rico man the sails!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What a Surprise...

Well, once again I had no time to write about all of our ridiculous adventures here in Rio. We spent last night drinking beer on the varanda (newly equipped with furniture!!), slept late with hangovers, then went to Rico's mom's house to unpack kitchen stuff, assemble a bed and some shelves, and have lunch with his grandma. It's past 10pm and we just got back to Santa Teresa. Instead of writing, we're going to the Bar do Mineiro to have a beer and some crabcakes - moving has got us tired and hungry!

Love to all, I'll try again tomorrow to write!

Monday, December 26, 2005

What a Vacation!

I have been so busy since we arrived in Brasil 9 days ago it's insane. Rico and I have been helping his mom move into a new apartment all week, including most of Christmas day. I've also been running around trying to find furniture for the house in various antique stores throughout Rio. It's been a hectic week, but Rico's mom is almost unpacked, I have a new dining room table, a big desk, a couch, and lots of new paintings, and I've met all of Rico's relatives during the various Christmas eve celebrations that took place (brasilians celebrate at midnight on the 24th with a big family dinner).

So far the trip has been very productive, but we haven't had a chance to sit back and relax. I knew before arriving in Brasil that it wasn't going to be much of a vacation (I have to finish writing 2 proposals before we go back to Mozambique), but I didn't anticipate having so much work to do between the move and trying to catch up on the maintenance and furnishing of the casa rosa. I can't complain, though. It's been fabulous...I just wish I had more time to write about it all!!!

Tomorrow I've set aside time to be at home - there is someone coming to look at the roof (leaking again), and to give an estimate to fix some of the doors and windows (not closing properly due to heat and humidity), and to deliver some of the antiques I bought this afternoon. I hope that inbetween waiting for everyone to show up, I can hang some pictures, wrap super-late holiday gifts for my family, and WRITE A DECENT ENTRY IN MY BLOG!

Hope you are all well and had a fabulous holiday. Rico and I spent most of our Christmas in a gas station in the rain. It was straight out of Chevy Chase...more tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Continua Lindo Mesmo!

Right now I am sitting in front of three 10-foot tall windows, enjoying a sunny break in the drizzle here in Rio. Of course it was raining when I arrived (why break with tradition, right?) but despite the somewhat gloomy weather I am so excited to be back in the Casa Rosa.

Rico and I drove from São Paulo to Rio yesterday evening with his brother and sister-in-law. The trip was full of traffic because of holiday shoppers, so we took about 5.5 hours instead of the usual 4 to arrive in Rio. I was woozy the entire trip because I have a cold and the stupid pharmacist in SP sold Rico cold medicine with antihistamine in it, swearing the whole time that it wouldn't make me drowsy. The trip was made better, however, by the fact that I tried out my iTrip for the first time (thanks, Dad!) and it worked beautifully. The technology that thing uses is unbelievable - I was playing dj in the backseat and the songs I chose were broadcast on the car radio.

So I met Rico's mom and grandma when we finally got to the Rio, and now know his whole immediate family. I have this funny feeling in the bottom of my stomach that they both got the impression that I don't speak portuguese very well (good scenario) or that I was high (not so good scenario). Why? Because of the damn drowsy cold medicine I took. My nose was dripping so much in the car that I took two pills about an hour before arriving in the city. By the time we got to Rico's mom's house, it was 11pm and I was so out of it that I was slurring my words and my eyes were half shut. Rico and I joked on the way to the Casa Rosa last night that I might end up with a dictionary as a Christmas present. Either that or a recommendation for an NA group!

Rico and I arrived late up in Santa Teresa after the brief visit with his family, ate a papaya and some Christmas doughnuts called rabanada that Rico's grandma made for us, hugged and kissed Beth, then went to bed. We were both totally exhausted from the long days of travel since leaving Chimoio last week.

This morning I woke up to rain, but it didn't matter. It is wonderful to be in Rio, and even more so to be in the sanctuary of the casa rosa. There were fresh mangoes and guavas on the kitchen table, as well as the most fabulous bunch of bananas I've ever seen. Each banana is twice as thick as the ones you usually find in the grocery store, and the flavour is delicate and sweet. The coolest part is that they are from our banana trees in the garden! Needless to say, breakfast was delicious.

I've spent the rest of the morning conducting an inventory here in the casa rosa, taking note of every little thing that needs to be fixed, what funriture I need to buy, what questions I need to ask the various workmen that have been here in my is a process that is already pretty overwhelming. There is a lot to be done, but I am so much more relaxed about the whole thing since Ricardo is here with me. It's such a luxury to have a man around that can fix faucets, re-wire electrical outlets, lift heavy objects, and deal with the workmen when they've done a shoddy job.

Well, much love to you all...I'm off to have some pineapple juice and finish my list of things to do around the house.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Business in Maputo...

Thoughts from a few days ago in Maputo...

One of the coolest things about doing business in Africa is that you have relatively easy access to the most influential people and projects in a way that just doesn’t happen in any other place in the world. To illustrate, Agrolink – a very young company both in terms of its track record as well as its shareholders (average age of 29) – has the unique privilege of working on some of the most important projects in Mozambique, including a start-up business involving the country’s former president, and work with an institution that has as its main shareholder the former first lady of both Mozambique and South Africa. In the majority of the business that we deal with, we meet directly with the Director right from the start. No run-around necessary to get a direct line for the person in power, no bullshit preliminary meetings with executive assistants or company representatives. We are able to go straight to the top in a way that I’ve never experienced in my professional life in the US or in Brasil.

While definitely a very positive scenario for me and Ricardo and all of our associates, I recognize that the state of the African business world is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is a reflection of the continent’s colonial legacy and the consequential racial and economic distortions that continue to shape business interests in most places. Not only is monetary wealth concentrated in a small percentage of the population, the vast majority of Africans also miss out on the opportunity to obtain a quality education (any education, really) and to develop the skills necessary to capitalize on the tremendous resources and potential that exist here.

On the other hand, I feel like having access to the big deals and opportunities here is a fair reward for those willing to take the risks associated with business in Africa. While the access is relatively easy, actually realizing a project is definitely not. There are multiple barriers along the way to making a business feasible, much less successful, in any part of the world; in Africa, these barriers are a thousand-fold, not only in terms of the investment environment but in terms of infrastructure and overall quality of life.

It is a complex and unequal situation that, among other things, has attracted heaps of attention and donations from the international community. While this aid is well-intentioned, and many times specifically earmarked to support local business development in Africa, I increasingly believe that it does more harm than good and, in the end, contributes to keeping potential businessmen and women uncompetitive and dependent on others for survival.

I frequently ask myself where that line is that separates the beneficial from the harmful in terms of conducting and supporting business in Africa. What activities constitute a continuation of that vicious cycle of exploitation and inequality that has plagued the continent for so long? Is it actually possible for an outsider, be it a company, an NGO or an individual, to come to Africa and not inadvertently contribute to the problems? How are Agrolink or Guarani or any of the other projects we are involved in different from those that I criticize so openly?

Some days I find myself horribly cynical with regard to this whole thing. I feel like Africa and her people are destined to be poor and sick and dependent forever. I see greedy companies, and market-distorting subsidies, and endless corruption, and failed project after failed project after failed project. It seems like a major downhill battle, one that will only be won in the end by the same people that already have the money and power in Africa. It’s tempting to blame the misery here on the Western world, but I see many, many problems stemming from and complicated by Africans themselves. A culture of dependency is widespread in Mozambique; after hundreds of years looking to someone else to fill your pockets and structure your life – first to colonial regime, then the communist-inspired state government, then the international aid pouring in from every which way – people are not entrepreneurial, not market-oriented, and in general wait for a handout to fix all their problems. There is widespread corruption on the part of the African officials that complain so much about how they are victims of history. If they weren’t so intent on filling their coffers illegally, there would be much more money to go to the people in their countries that actually need it. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but this is how I see the world on my cynical days.

Other days I am filled with hope and excitement. It is amazing to work in a place where you can make a real contribution to the development of an entire country. Because of our efforts, Mozambique will likely become a major player in the African tea market (it was the continent’s third-largest tea producer before the civil war from 1975 – 1992). Literally thousands of small-scale farmers will have better incomes and access to technical support thanks to Agrolink’s business development activities in the agricultural sector. If our current proposals go well, Mozambique may well become the largest exporter of bananas to both South Africa and Pakistan, and a major timber operation will be established that will launch Mozambique in the international tropical wood furniture industry. These are real projects with real, measurable benefits…

Today has been an optimistic day for me in terms of our business efforts. Ricardo and I attended a trade conference this morning that brought together players in the financial services and fundraising sectors. Ricardo made a presentation about Agrolink and the recent partnership we established with an American NGO called TechoServe (finding business solutions to rural poverty – We networked with the movers and the shakers in the industry, and made lots of great contacts with banks, development organizations, and even a venture capital fund that is wholly devoted to Mozambican projects. The coolest part is that all of these senior executives and government officials looked at Agrolink – and by extension me and Ricardo – as their peers.

A funny part of the conference networking was that at least seven people flat-out asked if Ricardo and I were married! Maybe it was the fact that we were both wearing gray power suits…maybe it was our matching carioca accents…maybe I had “I’m Sleeping with My Boss” stamped in red on my forehead and somehow missed it in the mirror when I was putting on my makeup. Who knows. Whatever the reason it was amusing, especially since nobody has explicitly asked either of us if we are a couple since we started working together/dating back in May.

Speaking of work, I should get back to it. We have an antsy client that Ricardo has been “managing” for the last several weeks, and the only part of his US$ 20 million project proposal that is not yet finished is the narrative – ou seja, my responsibility…

Rico and I arrived safely in São Paulo yesterday evening. I met his dad, brother, and their respective wives and family. We had a fabulous gourmet Christmas dinner that his dad cooked and exchanged gifts. To my surprise, there were a couple under the fake tree for me, too!

We are driving to Rio this afternoon with Rico's brother and wife, then it's on to a good night's sleep in the casa rosa!!

Monday, December 12, 2005

What More Could I Want for Christmas?

Ricardo and I are leaving Chimoio this afternoon and won't be back for at least a month. That in itself is a fabulous holiday present, as my patience and sanity are wearing thin from being here and I really, really need a break. I need a break from being cooped up at home with no car and nowhere to walk to. I need a break from having a home office that consists of a vinyl sofa, a fan, and my laptop. I need to breathe the air of a real city, watch the traffic, go to shops, eat at a 24-hour deli. Most of all I need some time to myself. Living with people stresses me out like nothing else, especially when many of my housemates do not share my ideas about what constitutes respectful, harmonious community living.

We are flying to Maputo this afternoon, where we will spend the week working with Agrolink's two largest clients at the moment. I will be really busy, as the projects are both in the final stage which means they are my responsibility. Lots of writing ahead of me this holiday season as I try and finish the two proposals and get them up to par to submit to the IFC and other funding entities.

After a week in Maputo, Ricardo and I will fly to Johannesburg on Friday, spend the night, then fly to São Paulo on Saturday morning. Ricardo's dad will meet us at the airport (I get to meet the fam!!!!!), then after a night's rest we will drive to Rio along with Ricardo's brother. In Rio, I will meet the other half of his fam (mom and grandma). Ricardo and I are going to split our time in Rio between the casa rosa in Santa Teresa, and the new apartment he and his mom just bought in a beachfront area called Recreio. I can't wait to be in a clean, beautiful, peaceful house where I can get rid of some of this stress!!! Also, I imagine that New Year's Eve brazilian style will help that as well - drinking on the beach, jumping over waves for good luck, eating great food, and wearing all white for peace in the coming year.

I will have internet access throughout our travels, so keep commenting and e-mailing. We should be back in Africa around January 13th... Much love to you all!!!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Happy Friday!

This is my Friday...

I woke up around 8:30 after oversleeping an hour because my cell phone doesn't have a snooze feature and my alarm clock requires AAA batteries that I can't seem to find here. I took a quick shower and, when getting dressed, noticed that the clothes hamper in our room has been slowly accumulating over the week and is now full to the brim. I am almost out of clean underwear, and Ricardo and I are traveling on Monday to Maputo and then on to Brasil for a 3 week getaway.

I asked Dona Margarida to be sure and wash the clothes in our hamper today and she told me it wouldn't be possible to do any laundry because there was a water shortage again in the house. I went outside and looked at the tank and, sure enough, there was only a splash of water left. It's been a week now that water from the city system hasn't come into our tank. We had to call the firefighters out here with their hose on Wednesday, and they put in about 1,000 liters. We ran through that quickly, and now are left with no water once again.

Even for Chimoio, a week with no city water is strange, so I asked Dona Margarida to go to the utility company and see if our water had been cut off due to a late bill or something. The more I thought about it, the more I was certain that my lazy, unorganized roommates had failed to pay the water bill on time while Ricardo and I were in Maputo last week. Turns out I was wrong. The water company told Dona Margarida that the shortage was a city wide problem and - paciência - there should be water in no time.

Really that means that we might go another week with no city water. Mozambicans love to use this phrase - D'aqui a nada - no time from now. When you hear that, you know that the person is just giving you false hope. D'aqui a nada means that you will wait hours, days, even weeks for whatever it is you need NOW.

So now water...I'm already thinking about what my suitcase will be like. Full of dirty, dirty clothes. Hopefully we'll be able to call the fire truck out to the house again, although I have my doubts because it is a weekend. Otherwise, our first stop in Maputo will likely be a laundromat.

I ate some cheese and a granola bar for lunch, washed down with a Diet Coke (!) from the case Rico and I purchased in Maputo last week and put in the back of the jeep to bring to Chimoio. I am wholly unsatisfied with my lunch. What I'm really craving is some meat - a big steak, some picanha, lamb chops, whatever. Point is we don't have it here at home and I am not about to walk to Shoprite in the insane heat. Fortunately, in less than 10 days I'll be back in the land of the carnivorous, aka Brasil.

I've been working most of the day writing my latest project proposal. This time around it's a timber project to establish a factory near the Zambezi river and produce furniture and other wooden articles for both the Mozambican market and for export. It's a huge, huge project. Definitely the largest Agrolink has worked with to date. It has me stressed out, but not yet to that desperate state that comes in the last week before deadline. I still have most of December to write, so I'm relatively on track...

Ricardo has been in Malawi all week meeting with potential clients (I was supposed to go as well, but stayed behind to work on the timber project). He is on his way back to Chimoio and should arrive within the hour.

Until then, it's e-mail and blogging for me... Happy Friday to everyone, and I miss you dearly!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On the Road - Part Two

What's that on the back end of this beat up 24-wheeler filling up with leaded gasoline at one of the precious few service stations along the EN-1? Why I can't quite make it out...

Ah, but of course. Six goats tied to the back of the trailer, surely getting the ride of their short little lives as the truck navigates the mud fields of Mozambique's national highway.

Just another normal day, folks...nothing unusual here. Carry on, then.

Humble Living

Six months in Chimoio has opened my eyes to the fact that, despite always thinking of myself as a person who tries to reuse and recycle, I was very, very wasteful before I moved here. I only realize it now that my habits have changed and I find myself quite naturally using the last drop of ketchup in the bottle instead of opening a new one, or giving nine incarnations to the same manila envelope, taking great care not to crush the edges or spill tea on whatever documents might be inside at a given point.

In the shower I now use even the smallest scraps of soap, smashing them together to make a lump large enough that it won’t slip through my fingers as I scrub. Toilet paper is a sacred commodity and we use every sheet on the roll, even the ones that get sort of torn up because they are glued to the roll. I use lotion and shampoo until the very last bit is gone, adding water and storing the containers upside-down to make them last just that tiny squeeze longer. Back in Austin, I would throw out lotion before the bottle was empty because getting that last dollop out that the pump could no longer reach and easily deposit in my hand was way too much work. Sheer laziness, or simply becoming bored with a particular product, would lead me to junk the whole thing in favour of a new scent or a full container.

Things have changed in the kitchen, too. Before moving to Africa, if I was making a dish and used only ¾ of an onion, I would either throw away the remaining part or store it in a Tupperware only to grab a new onion the next time I cooked because I wanted the freshest ingredients possible. I remember making a meal with my friend Kyle and his girlfriend Juleah after they served with the Peace Corp in Turkmenistan and lived in a dirt-floored home with an outhouse. I remember noticing how careful they were to take advantage of every part of a potato, or save even the smallest bits of lettuce. It was strange to me in the sense that they were much more conscientious about recycling than I was and it stood out. Now I understand. Here, every last ring leftover from using an onion gets stored in the fridge to be incorporated into the next dish requiring onion. Every spoonful of rice or pasta salad gets saved, no matter how small the quantity. If nobody gets around to eating or cooking with the leftovers, they become dinner for our 3 Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

Even our dog food is non-wasteful. We don’t usually buy commercial chow for them because it is expensive and can only be found at Shoprite. Unless someone with access to a car is available to go to the store and actually has money on them, the dogs don’t get Purina. Usually, we make our own dog food from rice, bones, and the lower quality cuts of meat that the butcher doesn’t use. We also throw in whatever vegetables are about to turn, an egg or two that nobody is quite sure how long they’ve been in the fridge, or leftovers from our meals.

The definition of when clothes are really dirty has become much more flexible. Whereas in Austin I used to wash nearly everything after one wear, here I only put clothes in the hamper that smell bad or have large stains on them. Not only does washing clothes here totally tear them up and fade the colors, it requires water. We don’t always have water in our house, so we only wash what is truly necessary.

For example, for two days now we have had no water in the house. We have a 2,000 liter tank in our backyard that is where the water provided by the city system flows in and is stored. Then we have another, smaller tank where water is pumped and actually gets connected to our faucets here in the house. The only problem is that the city water supply is quite irregular. Water usually flows into the tank around 6pm, with an average of 500 liters coming through every day. Sometimes, though, no water comes at all. Or maybe it comes in at 4am with only 100 liters, not much for a house with 6 people living in it. We've learned that there is a conspiracy between the water company and the fire department where the city turns off the water so that everyone has to call the fire truck to come around and fill cisterns and tanks with the fire hose. The fire department charges about $20 for this service - totally inflated - and a cut goes, of course, to the city utility company.

Rationing water has become a way of life. On days like today, we only flush the toilet for number two. Everyone fills a bucket to bathe instead of using the shower, trying to limit 3 bucket-fulls per person. We buy bottled water from the bar down the street instead of filtering the tap water through our new Brita pitchers. The maid doesn’t wash any clothes and leaves the dishes for one big scrub at the end of the day using large basins instead of the kitchen sink.

Having to worry about having enough water is terrible. I can only imagine what it must be like for families that have no running water and depend on rivers and community wells that fluctuate with the seasons for any water at all. We don’t really realize how much of everything we do is dependent on an abundant, easily accessible water supply until the well is dry, so to speak.

It has been unbelievably humbling to realize how much I wasted in my previous life – how much everyone wastes – back in the US or even in Brazil. It is deeply troubling to me to think about this now because I thought I was doing a pretty good job of conserving resources. I had no reason to believe otherwise. So many people around me were much more wasteful that me, the typical members of a society obsessed with consumption and super-sized quantities of everything, that my behaviour seemed excellent in comparison. Also, I had never gone without – without food, without office supplies, without water, without a car, without Kinko’s or Costco or Whole Foods – so how would I know if my efforts to conserve were working or not?

You really have no motive to change your behaviour until its damage becomes apparent…

Monday, December 05, 2005

On the Road - Part 1

This is EN-1, Mozambique's main national highway. Yep, this treacherous stretch of mud and pothole-ridden asphalt is the country's principal thoroughfare, connecting Maputo in the south to Pemba in the north. Ricardo and I braved EN-1 for over 17 hours on our way back to Chimoio on a trip that we split over 2 days.

How did we end up on this highway? Our housemate Patrícia bought a car in Maputo and asked us to drive it up for her. Up for an adventure, we agreed. I don't think we bargained for how much of an adventure it would actually be. Thankfully, Patrícia bought a Suzuki jeep called an Escudo that has 4-wheel drive and is quite a valiant little vehicle. That, combined with Ricardo's excellent driving skills, is the only reason we were able to make it through the mud.

Under any circumstances, EN-1 is terrible. But when it is raining and the road is under construction, it is even worse. Now don't be fooled into thinking that the muddy parts in the photo are because of construction in process. Nope. That's about as good as it gets.

Construction means that at some point there was funding for improvements so all the asphalt was torn off certain stretches of the highway and detours were put in place onto other, worse muddy expanses that pass as roads. The problem is that this is Mozambique. The road was horrible to start out. Funds are deviated and poorly distributed. There is no organization. For 6 months of the year there are incessant rains, putting a halt to any progress that might have been made in terms of resurfacing. The result is pathes of EN-1 are mud, others are a mix of dirt and leftover asphalt, others still retain most of their tar but are full of potholes a foot deep that are guaranteed to bust an axle if you land in them, and other stretches are all gravel.

The good thing, though, is that there are signs to point you in the right direction.

And to tell you when to proceed ahead...

Unfortuately, though, this is all you see for hours on end...

We were one of the few vehicles to actually make it through the mud without getting totally stuck...

Friday, December 02, 2005

1200km to Chimoio

Ricardo and I are leaving Maputo tomorrow to take a super road trip back home to Chimoio. Our housemate Patricia recently bought a car here in Maputo and asked us to drive it back for her. Of course, we said yes. We will be driving a Suzuki Escuna (not sure what it is in the US), a mid-size jeep-like vehicle. The trip should take a total of 12 hours, and we are going to split it up between 2 days of driving. Tomorrow we will do 8 hours to the beachside resort of Vilankulos, then the next day we will head inland to Chimoio.

I'm sad to be leaving Maputo, but all signs point to me and Ricardo moving here in March next year to operate a branch of Agrolink in the capital...

Happy driving to me, and I promise to enjoy the white sands, endless coconut palms, warm waters of the indian ocean (no sharks, mom, don't worry - I won't go in past my knees), and the excitement that goes along with any road trip, much less on in AFRICA!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Black and White

I saw a documentary the other day on SABC Africa, the South African broadcasting channel that is distributed throughout the continent on cable tv, about a British man that traveled to Kenya to get a taste of the country. When he arrived in Nairobi, he asked his taxi driver to take him to see some of the local culture. The driver dropped him off at a five star hotel where every night there was a buffet dinner with gazelle and antelope meat roasted on skewers, and a dance and drums show called Black Jambo. The dancers and musicians were quite talented - fabulous really - and the meat was exotic. Exactly as planned for the 100% white, affluent crowd. The tab came out to over $150 dollars. The british host of the program was somewhat disgusted and felt like just another white tool in the machine wanting a taste of Authentic Africa.

The next day he asked the cab driver to take him to see something more realistic. The driver took him to his own neighborhood, the shantytown where he had grown up and where, coincidentally, all the members of the Black Jambo dance and drum troupe lived as well. The dancers had established an informal charitable foundation and were teaching local kids how to juggle, do handsprings, play the drums, and so forth. The British host spent a day with everyone in the shantytown, feeling finally a taste of what he perceived to be Authentic Africa, and at the end of it all coming down with a big case of GUILT for being white, priviledged, etc.

The following scene in the documentary was an interview with the host of the program and a man originally from the US but who had been in Kenya since he was 5 years old. The American man had founded a giraffe sanctuary and had dedicated his life to caring for and raising awareness about the gentle animals. The host of the program asked him some questions about being white in Africa, about how he felt about his position in life seeing that he was surrounded by slums and children begging on the streets.

The giraffe man responded with an answer that really intrigued me -

The richest people in Africa, by far, are black Africans. They have the real power on the continent and enjoy wealth and luxury far beyond what the western world imagines.

Indians come after the black Africans in terms of affluence, benefiting from years as the dominant players in commerce and trade, entrepreneurial to the bone and sound financial investors in many areas.

Next come the Europeans and whites in general. Perhaps because they are a minority, their wealth is more noticeable...

Then came the statement I wish more people would understand -

All the whites in Africa are well off comparitively speaking. There are no poor Europeans on the continent. And although the blacks represent the few individuals that control the wealth and power in African society, they also represent the most destitute, hopeless majority that inhabit the urban streets and rural expanses of the continent.

Race relations in Africa has been on my mind a lot these days...Lots of paradigms being broken, admitting to myself that I bought into several stereotypes along with the rest of the world...

We have a client that is a very wealthy, white South African and one of the most staunch supporters of black economic and social empowerment that I have encontered here...

Another client is a European that, despite his cultured background and world-class education, is one of the most closed-minded bigots I´ve ever encountered...

Yet another example is an associate of ours in Chimoio that is Mozambican, born of a white Portuguese father and a black African mother. He is the worst discriminator of the lot, calling his darker compatriots uncivilized fools, convinced that because of his mixed blood he is somehow better...

This kind of attitude turns my stomach but, at the same time, I can´t help but feel sorry for our mestizo Mozambican friend or the racist Italian...

Human beings are truly pitiful, in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Back in the Land of Diet Coke and Traffic

Not to mention being back in a place where, contrary to Chimoio, four goats on a sidewalk is stranger than a Mercedes in the street. From the internet cafe with a high speed connection, I can see four restaurants out the window - Japanese, Portuguese, Macao-ian (what is the adjective for something from Macao?), and Pakistani. This morning Rico and I had a croissant, cappucino, and fresh pineapple juice for breakfast at a lovely little open-air cafe. There are tons of people in the streets - black, white, brown, and every mix inbetween - all speaking different languages with different accents.

I´ll say it again - I LOVE MAPUTO!!

Ricardo and I arrived last night and will be in the big city for another 10 days. Since I finally formalized a work contract with Agrolink, I am now an official member of the team with a permanent position (not just a consultant), so I will be helping put together all of the projects the company is working on. Rico and I are here mainly to work on a timber\reforestation project and with a client that wants to expand his banana plantation and export out of Mozambique. We had a meeting this morning with the banan client and I was reminded yet again of how much happier I am when I have responsibilities, a schedule, and am forced to be accountable for the timely and quality delivery of my work.

The plan for this afternoon is to do some editing on a business plan Rico has put together, then hopefully pay a 4 dollar fee to use the lovely pool at the Hotel Cardoso just next to the flat we are staying in. The weather is hot and sunny, and I am in desperate need of some color on my body. In my current state, after 6 months of being cooped up our house in Chimoio, I am scarily white!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Feels Like Seven Again

Today I almost peed on the couch in the living room. I'm not kidding. I woke up with my bladder about to burst and ran to the bathroom. But, of course, one of my housemates was using the toilet. I banged on the door and pleaded with him to finish quickly. Unfortuately, though, he had just sat down to take care of some intestinal difficulties. (We got a huge box last week of beautiful yellow mangoes from a friend's plantation...suffice to say that some of us exaggerated how many mangoes we ate and later paid the price.) So unable to get into the bathroom, I sat on the couch next to Ricardo, crossed my legs, and tried to distract myself. But the situation was urgent. I could feel my bladder giving out and sat desperately deciding what to do. I couldn't run outside to pee because the yard was full of workmen and dogs. I considered getting a pot from the kitchen, but was too embarrassed to act on that thought. I sat and wiggled and felt like I was seven years old again, laughing too hard during recess and realizing that I was about to pee in front of my friends on the playground.

Blessedly, my housemate finished up his business quickly and I raced into the bathroom, oblivious to the smell left behind, making it to the toilet just in time to pee and pee and pee.

Ninguém merece isso. I hate sharing a bathroom with five other people. Thank God Ricardo and I are going to Maputo later on this afternoon...10 full days with a clean, always-available loo.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Last Day of Chimoio (for a while, at least)

So I ended up not contacting any of my potential new friends... It was blisteringly hot yesterday, and I settled in front of the fan around noon and didn't really move much after that until bedtime. My body hurts from being so sedentary, but it's a horrible cycle - the more bored you are and the less options for leisure that you have, the lazier you get. I have, without a doubt, never been this lazy in my entire life. It's a bit embarrassing, really, if I sit and honestly thing about how many opportunities and activites I pass up to remain sitting in front of the fan watching our new cable TV.

In addition to my laziness, I decided that it would be best to contact everyone once I actually have a more consistent schedule. Ricardo and I are going to be on the road pretty much the entire time for the next month. Tomorrow we are going to Maputo for 10 days to work with a banana client. Then we will fly to Tete, the hot province I was talking about in an earlier post, and from there rent a car and go to Blantyre, Malawi. One of our associates is working on a microcredit and HIV/AIDS project there and we are going to work with him as consultants for about a week. Then we come back to Chimoio for a few days and in the middle of December will go to Maputo once again to catch a flight to Johannesburg and then São Paulo. So basically I have only about a week left of time to hang out in Chimoio, so I decided to put off being social until after the new year.

I can't wait to travel tomorrow. I've decided that I can successfully take Chimoio in one-month doses before the boredom, heat, and community living make me DEPRESSED!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

White Hot!

Ali and Rico, trying to keep cool in the middle of Mozambique's summer.

The White Party

Last night we went to a party at the house of one of Agrolink’s shareholders. Supposedly, the party was to celebrate this person’s departure from his current job with a tobacco company where he has worked for several years. Really, though, it was just an excuse to gather what could be considered the socialites of Chimoio for a little see-and-be-seen. All of the guests had to wear white (I wondered all night whether the theme was imitating New Year’s in Brazil or P. Diddy’s annual party in the Hamptons) and, coincidentally, most of the guests were also…white. To be fair, there were several black Mozambicans at the party as well, but I was shocked to see how many young, white people came out of the woodwork for a get-together where they didn’t even really know the host. I think everyone here is simply hungry for new friends, stimulating conversation, something – anything – to take away the monotony of life in Chimoio.

I have been here for six months and I can’t say that I have made any new friends outside my household. Living with five friends is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was great to land in a town in rural Africa and already have a support structure in place. I have built-in entertainment with a group of people that I know and trust. Given the absolute lack of things to do in Chimoio, we have little motivation to leave home. Why bother, when you already have a group of drinking buddies, DVDs to watch, music to dance to, and shit to talk? The problem is, my built-in social group has severely limited my forays into the outside world here. Other than a handful of Mozambican work associates, I literally don’t know anybody other than my housemates. I don’t call anybody on the phone. I have nobody to invite for a coffee and a chat.

Last night I realized just how nice it is to talk with people outside my housemates that have interesting stories to tell and could potentially become friends. I ended up meeting a group of people around my age that are here in Chimoio from different parts of the world, each brought here by a different, sequally compelling motive. A girl from Seattle who has great spiky, short blonde hair, suggested that we all invent three different scenarios that had brought us to Chimoio for the others in the group to decide which version was true. It was a fun game, and I turned out to be surprisingly good at it. In fact, I was the only person in the group that successfully guessed everyone’s true occupation on the first try. I correctly guessed that in my company there was a guy from Mississippi studying community water-use rights in a village near here, a girl from San Francisco who is here as a Peace Corps volunteer and works in an HIV/AIDS program with a local NGO, and a guy from South Africa that works with a commercial de-mining company. I stumped everyone with my three scenarios except the water rights researcher. They all already knew each other, and we were mutually shocked that in my time here I had never met them. It made me realize just how isolated I have been thanks to my work and my living situation.

We hung out for a while, getting to know each other a bit better, then Ricardo and I decided to head home. Poor Rico is still not fully recovered from his Hepatits A, and can’t drink any alcohol. So at parties, he drinks as much Sprite as he can stomach, then hangs out with the rest of our tipsy group until his patience runs thin. We said our goodbyes, then drove off the farm and back to the big city to watch some TV and eat fresh mangoes before hitting the sack.

I have been deliberating all day as to whether or not I should make an effort to find my new friends today and invite them for a beer of something… I’m pretty sure I will. The excitement at the possibility of having a great group of friends here – as has happened to me just about everywhere else I’ve lived – is fabulous.

Ah – I nearly forgot the coolest part of the evening. On the way out to the party, which was in a beautiful house on a farm some 15km outside Chimoio – we had to cross the railroad tracks that run along the so-called Beira Corridor (the route that connects landlocked Zimbabwe with the busy port of Beira). We were in the ’92 Land Cruiser that a friend periodically lends us, and the back of the vehicle, that had been converted to hold several people and a stretcher when in the service of the Mozambican Red Cross, was packed full of housemates and crates of beer. When we approached the railroad crossing, I noticed a man running back and forth along the length of tracks near the road holding an old, reflective lantern with a red light inside. He swung the lantern wildly, creating the effect of a flashing red light. On the opposite side of the tracks, the man had already lowered an old wooden barrier to prevent cars from entering the crossing. On our side, however, there was no barrier and the dark man with the lantern was our only warning not to go onto the tracks. Rico stopped the car and we looked to the right just in time to see a huge white headlight on the front of an old, rusted train, bearing down towards us at breakneck speed.

It was an incredible experience, one of the few since I have arrived in Africa that have totally broken my sense of time and place. Watching the old train whiz past, precariously rattling in its squeaky tracks, with no other cars or lights around, I closed my eyes and felt the wind, perfumed by a recent monsoon rain, swept over my face. This place is indescribable, completely caught between the perils and blessings of modernization, left behind, disputed, impoverished, and yet wiser in many ways than we will ever be.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


November is litchi season in Chimoio, and for a limited number of weeks these exotic fruits can be found in local markets. A bag full of 30 or so litchis costs under a dollar.

Juicy, grape-like interior of the litchi. The taste is like the sourness of a strawberry mixed with grape taste.

Big, shiny litchi seeds that I'm just dying to turn into a necklace.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Joys of Communal Living

Today has been a day of grossness. The first offense came early in the day when I went to take a shower and found two used Q-tips discarded on top of the stack of clean towels in the bathroom. I sat and debated for quite a while whether or not I should obey my initial instinct of common hygiene and throw the waxy swabs in the trash. In the end, my resentment towards my sloppy housemates won out and I decided to leave the Q-tips exactly where I’d found them, most likely for Dona Margarida the maid to pick up later in the afternoon.

After my shower I went to the kitchen to prepare lunch. I decided to make a pasta salad with tuna, celery, and spring onions with fresh-baked rolls on the side. I chopped all the vegetables, mixed and rolled out some dough, and boiled water for the pasta. I was excited about using a new, seemingly superior brand of pasta that showed up at Shoprite the other day – Moni’s & Fatti’s, imported from South Africa, with nice-looking packaging and recipe suggestions on the back. My anticipation quickly turned to disgust when I opened a new bag of pasta, dumped it in the boiling water, and watched dozens of small brown weevils float to the top of the pot. At first I thought the dark specks in the water might be stray pieces of oregano, but upon closer inspection they were definitely insects. Disgusting, dried-up bugs polluting my lunch plans. My stomach flip-flopped and I cursed Shoprite and whoever Moni & Fatti are for a complete lack of quality control. I ended up giving the contaminated pasta to the dogs and boiled a fresh pot of water for another try at a bug-free meal.

The true cherry on the sundae of nastiness came this evening when my housemates came home from their respective jobs (Ricardo and I are still working from home, thus my excess of domestic tasks as of late). One of my housemates, who shall remain nameless, walked in carrying a take-away styrofoam box from “Elo 4”, one of the two local restaurants here in Chimoio. My housemate, obviously quite excited about his food, announced to us that he’d purchased a Big Elo (pronounced, of course, Bigg-ie Elo), a monster of a sandwich that is composed of ham, cheese, a hamburger patty, and a fried egg all wedged in a white bun with fries on the side. Box in hand, this person sauntered into the bathroom proudly letting us know that he was going to take a cagadinha, a little shit. The rest of us, not quite believing that our otherwise sane housemate was going to enjoy his sandwich while taking a poo, looked at each other in shock. About 20 minutes later, we heard a flush and our friend in question emerged from the bathroom, nearly empty take-away box in hand, polishing off the last of his French fries and licking his fingers as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Days like this remind me what a joy it is to live with 5 other people in the cú do mundo na África.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Let there be Tea

Yesterday we got the big news. I was in the kitchen making a chocolate pound cake in our new oven (!) when Ricardo got a call from our contact at the EVD, the International Business and Cooperation Agency of the Dutch Government. I was so nervous I couldn’t bear to eavesdrop on the conversation, so I headed out to the backyard to distract myself until the call was over.

Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then fifteen. Why was it taking so long? My initial reaction was that a lengthy conversation was a good sign. After all, if the proposal had been rejected there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Or would there? Maybe the guy from the EVD was explaining to Ricardo exactly why the project hadn’t passed the external committee evaluation. Then again, maybe he was explaining what the next steps would be now that the project had been approved…I tried to prepare myself for either scenario, repeating in my head that what was meant to be would be, that I couldn’t afford to be depressed if it was rejected, not to be cocky if it was approved, etc., etc., etc.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ricardo hung up the phone and ran outside.

Parabéns!!!!” Congratulations!!! He picked me up and swung me around in circles. “The proposal was approved!

I was so excited. All the hard work I had done in July while Ricardo was in Brazil had paid off. The hours of research and revision, the trips to Zimbabwe to meet with our project partner, the sleepless nights worrying that I wouldn’t get it all done in time – it was all worth it.

After dancing around the living room in celebration, Ricardo and I each set off to make a series of phone calls to notify the other shareholders in the project about the good news. I also called my mom, who whooped with joy and sent congratulatory hugs and kisses to all of us who had worked so hard to make this happen.

Then a strange thing happened. About an hour after the phone call from EVD, I became noticeably depressed. I didn’t want to drink the beer my housemates had brought from Shoprite to celebrate. I wasn’t interested in the movie we had all sat down to watch. I thought back about the afternoon’s phone calls, the excitement, the feeling of success – it all felt so far away.

I excused myself and went to the bathroom, the only place I could be alone and pensive without anybody worrying or coming to join me. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and rested my elbows on my knees, trying to figure out what was wrong.

I was irritated with BL, who earlier in the day had failed to properly screw on the lid of the pickle jar, almost causing me to drop the damn thing when I went to put it back in the refrigerator. How many times had I told him to put the lid on things? How much food had he managed to spoil by lazily leaving it out of the fridge? Does nobody listen to me in this household?? I was annoyed, but BL’s sloppy habits weren’t enough to spoil the good news about the proposal. I kept thinking…

I felt frustrated with myself for having blown off my exercise routine, making excuses instead that I was busy with work, had eaten too recently to get on the treadmill, or that it was a day for celebration and relaxation. But that wasn’t it either…

I should be excited, I told myself. It was because of my proposal that the EVD approved a project worth US$ 1 million and agreed to give us a US$ 600,000 grant to cover part of our costs for the first 2 years of operation. Because of our project, a tea processing factory will be established in an impoverished region of Mozambique. Jobs will be created for construction workers, factory managers, mechanics, and line workers, not to mention some 1,000 family-sector tea farmers that will receive technical assistance and sell their leaves to the factory for a fair wage. We will obtain FairTrade certification for the factory and its growers, promoting sustainable development in the agricultural sector. Mozambique will once again be in a position to be competitive in the international tea market (prior to the country’s civil war, it was Africa’s 3rd largest tea producer after Kenya and Malawi).

Our project will provide hope for a secure future for our Zimbabwean partner, Buzi Tea, a family-run tea plantation and processing plant that is at risk for expropriation under President Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies. And it will set the stage for me, Ricardo, BL, and our other partners to become successful investors in Mozambique, a concrete example that the private sector, when properly managed, can be a socially responsible answer to the woes of the developing world.

Then it hit me…The seriousness of it all, the real potential that this project has to change lives – ours as investors and consultants, our Zimbabwean partner’s, those of the destitute tea farmers in the highlands – that was the cause of my sombre mood.

The real work is only about to begin, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to make this project a success.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

All Eyes on Thursday

Keep your fingers crossed and good luck machines on for me. We will find out on Thursday whether the proposal I wrote for the tea processing project has been approved or not. We got a bit of promising news last week that the proposal passed an evaluation by an internal review committee in Holland; now we are waiting for the results from an external review committee that includes representatives from Mozambican and Zimbabwean officials as well as officers from the Dutch Embassy in Maputo. If the external committee gives the project a thumbs up, come January we would start construction of a factory in Mozambique and the formalization of an outgrower scheme to support family-sector tea farmers.

In other news, the weather has taken a merciful turn and provided Central Mozambique with cloudy skies, cooler temperatures, and constant rainshowers. It has been an unbelievably welcome change from the past week where temperatures soared past 100F (40C) every day. In Tete, the capital of our neighboring province to the north, it got up to about 115F (45C)! Tete is regularly cited as the hottest city in the world on those maps that show ridiculously high and low temperatures that make you pity the poor suckers in Siberia or Chad (or, as the case may be, Mozambique).

Today I am happier than usual for two reasons:

1. I finally got my ass off the couch and hopped on the treadmill for a 45-minute walk. I also got out the green yoga mat I took such pains to stuff in my suitcase when I moved here and did 100 sit-ups. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a month-long trend leading up to my trip to Rio, land of the bikini-clad gorgeous, in December.

2. I ate fresh coconut for the first time since I was about 10. My mom and I used to buy the brown, dried coconuts at the supermarket in Albuquerque and, with the help of an ice pick and a hammer, drain the milk and crack open the tough exterior to get to the white flesh inside. I love coconuts! Here in Mozambique (as well as in Brazil), it's common to see green coconuts that vendors will split open for you to drink the water inside. Água de coco is refreshing, balances your electrolytes, and is a fabulous cure for a hangover. I have green coconuts as often as possible. But it had been ages since I'd taken the time to hunt down a mature brown coconut, but there they were at Shoprite last week, right next to the giant cucumbers. Last night my housemates and I cracked open the brown shell by slamming the coconut on the countertop, then ate the sweet flesh right out of the shell. Yum!!! Definitely worth the time on the treadmill.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005

Purple and Dry for the Drips

Today has been a miserable, weezy day. I have a walloping case of allergies brought on, I am convinced, by the dust that reigns king in our house and leaves your feet a lovely reddish-brown if you forget to put on your chinelos while walking around. I seem to get an allergy attack about once a week here in Mozambique, the relentless sneezing and sniffling rendering me completely useless for at least 24 hours.

As if that weren’t enough, allergies make me hot. Not the kind of hot that would make the boys of Chimoio line up in front of our house for a glimpse of the goddess that lives behind the wall of bougainvillea and hibiscus. I mean temperature hot. The hundreds of unrealized sneezes and constant sinus pressure make my head throb and pulse rise. It’s almost the same feeling I get after a good half hour on the treadmill, only with no effort required beyond stuffing wads of toilet paper in my nostrils and occasionally going to the kitchen for a glass of water to wash down a pill or two. The only problem is that the pills bring no relief and, now that summer has hit central Mozambique with full humid force, I don’t even have the silver lining I enjoyed back in July that my allergies chase away the cold of winter.

So basically my day has consisted of sitting in front of the small fan in the living room wondering how on earth the body can produce so much mucus in such a short amount of time. Yesterday I was fine. Clear nose, non-itchy eyes, no pseudo-menopausal hot flashes. Tomorrow I will be fine again, as it goes week after week. But today…that’s another story altogether. I tried to translate a budget from Italian to English for this timber project Ricardo is putting together, but gave up after my nose dripped onto the mouse pad of my laptop. In the course of the afternoon, I managed to go through an entire roll of toilet paper!

Speaking of such things, nose-blowing became the cause for a fight amongst my housemates last week. I haven’t mentioned it yet on the blog, but we now have a 6th member in our domestic community, Rogério. Yet another one of the boys from the business school back in Rio, Rogério came to Chimoio about 2 weeks ago for a short-term volunteer assignment with ACDI/VOCA, a local organization that works with smallholder farmers’ associations (and where I did a brief stint as a volunteer during my first month here). Before coming to Mozambique, Rogério worked as an investment banker and lived with his parents in a flat in Leblon, one of Rio’s most upscale neighbourhoods. The culture shock that has come about after Rogério joining our modest household has been both amusing and supremely frustrating.

As I mentioned in an entry soon after arriving in Chimoio, one of the things sorely lacking here is the convenience of a well-stocked grocery store where you can find the same quality items week after week. Here we rely on Shoprite, a sad excuse for a supermarket where a good portion of the food is expired and you will almost never find the same selection of items from one shopping trip to the next. Shoprite can’t even be counted on for staple items like paper towels or ground beef or juice. So when something good appears, the strategy is to buy as much of it as possible and create a stockpile in our pantry, hoping that we won’t run out of whatever the item is until the next lot has been delivered to Chimoio.

The problem started when Rogério, a chronic, honking nose-blower, grabbed a handful of napkins on his way out the door to play basketball with some guys from ACDI/VOCA. Ricardo noticed the wad of napkins and yelled out after Rogério,

Que porra é essa, cara? Você pegou metade do pacote de guardanapos!” What the hell, man? You took half the package of napkins!

Rogério, already past the porch, illustrated his intentions with a loud, snotty honk into one of the napkins. “I’m going to play basketball, bro. My nose runs when I get out of breath.”

Porra, meu irmão, usa papel higiênico então!” Damnit, use toilet paper instead!

Rogério looked back at Ricardo as if he were crazy. “O que? Toilet paper? You’ve gotta be kidding. That stuff in the bathroom is like sandpaper. No way I’m going to make my nose raw with that shit.”

Granted, Rogério had a point. For the last month, the only toilet paper available at Shoprite has been this single-ply, perfumed, bright purple stuff, certainly a reject from the South African market. Whatever chemicals they use for scent and color have the unfortunate effect of drying out the toilet paper to the point that it feels like an industrial file on your tender parts.

Nonetheless, napkins are an especially scarce commodity at Shoprite and, in the total absence of Kleenex in Chimoio, we have all adapted to using toilet paper for blowing our noses – even if it is purple and rough. We all agree that chapped noses and bums are much less painful than the embarrassment of running out of napkins and having to provide guests with neatly folded triangles of purple toilet paper next to their dinner plates.

Not quite willing to believe that toilet paper was the only option, and suspecting that his friends were screwing with him like they often do, Rogério continued on with his stack of napkins to the basketball game. Two hours later he came back red-faced, sweaty, and wiping his nose with the back of his hand. I was sitting on the couch watching Mythbusters on our newly-fixed TV and, my attention totally fixed on the bridge about to be blown up by the scientists, barely registered Rogério walking past me. That is, until I heard the distinctive honk and snort of someone blowing their nose in the kitchen.

Blowing one’s nose in public is one of the major cultural taboos in Brazilian society. Unlike Americans – who generally feel right at home ridding themselves of snot in restaurants, in line at the bank, and in meetings – Brazilians are quite private about nose-blowing and consider an activity that should be strictly confined to the bathroom. Before Rogério’s arrival this was the practice for nose-blowing in our house, as 4 of the 5 residents were either Brazilian or, in my case, had lived in the country long enough to adopt its customs. But good old Rogério proved that, as is the case for most rules, there is always an exception.

And, as if the prospect of snot in the kitchen weren’t offensive enough, I nearly keeled over when I found Rogério using – you guessed it – NAPKINS to clean his nose. With my hands on my hips, mouth slightly agape, I just stared at him for about a minute. He wadded up the freshly-used napkins and threw them in the trash, then grabbed another handful from the package and started to walk away. I gave an exasperated sigh and threw my hands up in the air.

“Didn’t you hear what Ricardo said about using toilet paper?”

“Yeah, but I thought he was just messing around.”

Não, Rogério. You’ll see. The next time we go to Shoprite there probably won’t be any more napkins. How’s that going to look if a client comes over for tea and there is a big roll of toilet paper in the middle of the table?.”

Fique tranqüila, Ali.” Rogério shot me the kind of look that is generally reserved for mothers when they chide their kids about putting the cap on the toothpaste and not leaving clothes on the floor.

Whatever. I was frustrated, but decided to cut Rogério a little slack. After all, he’d only been in Chimoio for a couple of weeks and didn’t really understand yet how this place works…

The next morning I went into the kitchen to start preparing lunch for everyone. Cooking has become an integral part of my daily routine, and I actually enjoy the challenge of making a meal for 6 given the lack of ingredients and the fact that we have no oven. I was especially proud of my creation that day. I pan-fried some pork chops with spicy mustard sauce, made perfectly fluffy white rice, and prepared homemade applesauce as an accompaniment.

The food turned out so nicely that I decided to actually set the table instead of letting everyone serve themselves directly from the pot as we usually do. I organized everything on our new dining table, set out plates and silverware, and prepared a pitcher of water. Outside I heard the gate open, the heavy chain clanking against the metal, and I ran back to the kitchen to get the final touches for the meal – napkins and serving spoons. Only there were no napkins, just the empty plastic wrapper left on the pantry shelf, testament to one of my housemates who was too lazy to throw away the packaging. Just then everyone walked in the house, ready for lunch.

“Rogério!!!!” I gave him dagger eyes as I yelled, “There are no more napkins!!!!”

Foi mal, bro. Sorry, man. I used them all yesterday.”

“Used them for what?”

“Ah, you know, I had to blow my nose. The heat here makes my snot run.”

Seu filho da puta!!! Son of a bitch! We told you yesterday to use toilet paper instead!!”

I was furious. Letting my ego get the best of me, I stormed out of the kitchen and plopped down in front of the TV, turning on the Style Channel, something I knew was bound to irritate my male housemates. Ricardo took over the conversation in my place.

Porra, Rogério. You know what this is? It’s something that a momma’s boy does. Someone who has lived in the lap of luxury their entire life and has never gone without. Someone who’s always had a nanny or a mom to go out and buy more napkins. This is a community, man. You don’t know how it is around here.”

Just to prove his point, Ricardo went to the bathroom and brought back a roll of the gaudy purple toilet paper. “See? This is what we have to use now.” He plunked the roll next to the pork chops and sat down at the table, tearing off an exaggeratedly large section of tissue to use in place of a napkin.

Rogério shook his head and walked away, cursing Ricardo the whole way back to his room. I gloated silently from my position on the couch, happy in an immature way that Rogério had gotten that humiliating lecture…

After an entire evening of receiving the silent treatment, Ricardo and I decided that it was time to talk things out and start behaving like adults. We asked Rogério to come to the dirt lot that doubles as our backyard, and had a long discussion about what it really means to live in a house with 6 people. At the end of it, we had all apologized and vowed to be more tolerant, more understanding. As not to be too sensitive, the boys parted by telling each other vai tomar no cú, the true sign that things are okay between guys – they tell each other to piss off.

The trick to making a community like ours truly work is that everyone must be willing to give up his or her ego, the part inside us that insists on being “right”, that latches onto feelings of jealousy and irritation and perfection, that enables a life concentrated on and fueled by the self.

We are definitely not there yet. I am definitely not there yet – be it in my role as a housemate, as a professional trying to negotiate with difficult colleagues, or as a girlfriend. But each petty fight I am able to recognize as a symptom of my ego getting the best of me, the closer I come…

The final component necessary to make a multi-cultural, multi-person household run smoothly is humor, especially since Gemelli, Rico, and Rogério would dismiss concepts such as ego and self as new agey babble. Laughing at a difficult, frustrating situation is a less abstract way of letting go of the self, rising above the situation. By finding the humor that underlies all of our daily interactions, I am able to tolerate them much better…

Rogério now goes through an entire roll of toilet paper every two days, his incessant nose-blowing echoing through our poorly-insulated walls. I managed to consume an entire roll myself today thanks to my allergies. There is still no white toilet paper (or napkins, for that matter) at Shoprite.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Long Road Home

E-mail response to my friend Mark who I went to college with back in New Mexico. He is a fellow traveler at heart, and wrote a message to me recently about how difficult it is when life gets boring and slow... Not originally meant to be a blog entry, but I got inspired along the way and decided to post the end result...

Ah, Mark. Kindred spirits we are.

I think perhaps half of my time is devoted to trying to escape boredom. No matter how exciting the situation I am in may seem at the start, it always gets old, much faster for me than I think for the majority of the population. As exemplified by my track record of moving to a different state/country every 1.5 years for nearly a decade now, I am always seeking out a new situation that will bring me the next lesson, show me next step on the path of enlightenment I insist on pursuing.

Sometimes this drive to continually find the new and exciting is a blessing. I end up doing things that most people would never have the courage to do. I have lived on four continents now, have worked in multiple fields, and have friends all over the world.

It is an amazing way to live, but it has major downsides. I get bored with work and want to move on, usually after about a year. I have to put my resume together with all the care in the world to avoid coming across as a professional flake. I have had more relationships than I care to think about, all wonderful in the beginning, but then not so much as I get sick of it all and realize that the person I am with is limiting me and my dreams (until now, but that's another story). I hop around feeling like an adventurous little nomad until I realize that I have no community, am far from my friends, and haven't seen my family in nearly a year. I get lonely, but somehow the drive to keep moving on, seeking out new things, widening my always wins out in the end.

I am the point now with my African experience where restlessness is starting to rear its head once again. I find myself perusing job listings in the back of The Economist, even though I have no plans at this time to leave my present consulting gig. I think about schemes to save money so that I can take off and travel aimlessly until I am ready for something else. I imagine going back to school, moving to India, dropping everything and isolating myself for a year to finally write a book. The urge to reinvent myself once again is strong.

Sometimes, though, I get hit with a wave of reality and start to think about pursuing a career "for real", making an attempt to consolidate all of my belongings onto one continent, much less into one house. I remember my love affair with the Casa Rosa in Santa Teresa, my desire to spend some significant time in Rio, put down some roots.

And now I have a new twist to add to the equation...a boyfriend that, if things continue the way the have been, I am quite certain I will be with for a long, long time. Thoughts of family flit through my mind even though I am light years away from wanting to have kids. Nonetheless, an image has formed that becomes clearer each day...a life together in Rio raising a couple of beautiful bilingual children, a new generation of 21st century nomads that will almost certainly struggle with the same issues.

So what do I do to fight away the boredom now that I've finally found a situation I think is worth sticking with? That, my friend, is my biggest struggle nowadays, especially since I live in the middle of nowhere. When I am working on a proposal it's not an issue. Grant writing keeps me super busy, and then I have to deal with the flip side of a schedule full of tasks - Procrastination.

When I'm in between projects, though, that's when it gets tough. I try and write, both for my blog and for myself, but most days I get lazy and put it off. I try and pursue artsy projects like knitting scarves and making jewellery, but crafts are more like therapy for me, not actual pursuits that will keep me occupied year after year. I cook lunch for 6 every day, invent recipes, walk on the treadmill, hand wash my delicate clothes...but still my days are long and, for the most part, slow. It takes a tremendous effort to be productive and purposeful when you have nobody enforcing deadlines or giving you a lecture for being a sloth. Worse yet, as I've found out in the last few months, I am quite prone to depression when I have nothing serious to which I can devote my time and efforts.

It's strange that I feel so bored at a time when my life is filled with excitement. I'm in Africa, for God's sake. I live with 5 nutcases, 2 of which are also my work associates and 1 of which is my boyfriend. I am experiencing first-hand the struggle of making your own business feasible, writing proposals for worthwhile projects, imagining myself as a modern Karen Blixen managing her coffee estate in the Ngong Hills of Kenya.

You asked how I am feeling lately. I guess the most honest answer is that I am inspired and alive 80% of the time, depressed and frustrated the other 20%. This experience is a challenge, the kind that I know I will look back on 20 years from now as the period of my life in which I grew the most as a person.

I hope you are well. Hang in there, even when times are boring and the pace of life in general is slow. If it is any solace, know that I am trying to follow my own advice half a world away.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

For you portuguese speakers out there...

From the site of a real estate broker in Rio de Janeiro, who offers in bold letters with animated American and British flags, customer service in native english for its customers.

We speak English!

We offer personal attendance in the English language for customers to whom desire to buy or sell immovable in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Our real estate mainly works with the quarters of Barra da Tijuca, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, Vargem Grande, Vargem Pequena and Angra dos Reis. We have a gamma of preoperty of high quality: mansions, houses, penthouses, apartments, stores and commercial room.

Do not leave of consulting us when negotiating your property in our city.Only purchase and sell. We do not work with rent.

Fabulous, just fabulous.

Another great one I heard the other day was about a brazilian guy from Santos that attended an exchange course in Cambridge with Ricardo several years ago. The young student came into the classroom (which was full of brazilians as well as other people from around the world studying english) and proudly announced that he had, "Passed machine two on my head."

I guess when you think about it, compared to other languages it is somewhat complicated to say that you've gotten a haircut in english!!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Aid that Hurts

This is from an interview I read recently onboard a flight from Maputo to Chimoio. Controversial, without a doubt. But I also see a large amount of truth in what Mr. Shikwati says...For what it's worth, the proposals we are trying to obtain would subsidize African-owned and operated organizations during the first 2 years of operations, giving them a chance to compete in an unequal market before going it on their own after the grant period terminates...

"For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!"

The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good. The avid proponent of globalization spoke with SPIEGEL about the disastrous effects of Western development policy in Africa, corrupt rulers, and the tendency to overstate the AIDS problem.

Economist James Shikwati: "Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...

Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.

SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...

SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...

Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.

Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?

Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrial nations, there's a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn't do all that poorly either.

SPIEGEL: But AIDS didn't exist at that time.

Shikwati: If one were to believe all the horrorifying reports, then all Kenyans should actually be dead by now. But now, tests are being carried out everywhere, and it turns out that the figures were vastly exaggerated. It's not three million Kenyans that are infected. All of the sudden, it's only about one million. Malaria is just as much of a problem, but people rarely talk about that.

SPIEGEL: And why's that?

Shikwati: AIDS is big business, maybe Africa's biggest business. There's nothing else that can generate as much aid money as shocking figures on AIDS. AIDS is a political disease here, and we should be very skeptical.

SPIEGEL: The Americans and Europeans have frozen funds previously pledged to Kenya. The country is too corrupt, they say.

Shikwati: I am afraid, though, that the money will still be transfered before long. After all, it has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, the Europeans' devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason. It makes no sense whatsoever that directly after the new Kenyan government was elected -- a leadership change that ended the dictatorship of Daniel arap Mois -- the faucets were suddenly opened and streams of money poured into the country.

SPIEGEL: Such aid is usually earmarked for a specific objective, though.

Shikwati: That doesn't change anything. Millions of dollars earmarked for the fight against AIDS are still stashed away in Kenyan bank accounts and have not been spent. Our politicians were overwhelmed with money, and they try to siphon off as much as possible. The late tyrant of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, cynically summed it up by saying: "The French government pays for everything in our country. We ask the French for money. We get it, and then we waste it."

SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags ...

Shikwati: ... and they flood our markets with that stuff. We can buy these donated clothes cheaply at our so-called Mitumba markets. There are Germans who spend a few dollars to get used Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen jerseys, in other words, clothes that that some German kids sent to Africa for a good cause. After buying these jerseys, they auction them off at Ebay and send them back to Germany -- for three times the price. That's insanity ...

SPIEGEL: ... and hopefully an exception.

Shikwati: Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

SPIEGEL: Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into the country through the Marshall Plan. Wouldn't that qualify as successful development aid?

Shikwati: In Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly- industrialized country before the war. The damages created by the tsunami in Thailand can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars. These days, Africans only perceive themselves as victims. On the other hand, no one can really picture an African as a businessman. In order to change the current situation, it would be helpful if the aid organizations were to pull out.

SPIEGEL: If they did that, many jobs would be immediately lost ...

Shikwati: ... jobs that were created artificially in the first place and that distort reality. Jobs with foreign aid organizations are, of course, quite popular, and they can be very selective in choosing the best people. When an aid organization needs a driver, dozens apply for the job. And because it's unacceptable that the aid worker's chauffeur only speaks his own tribal language, an applicant is needed who also speaks English fluently -- and, ideally, one who is also well mannered. So you end up with some African biochemist driving an aid worker around, distributing European food, and forcing local farmers out of their jobs. That's just crazy!

SPIEGEL: The German government takes pride in precisely monitoring the recipients of its funds.

Shikwati: And what's the result? A disaster. The German government threw money right at Rwanda's president Paul Kagame. This is a man who has the deaths of a million people on his conscience -- people that his army killed in the neighboring country of Congo.

SPIEGEL: What are the Germans supposed to do?

Shikwati: If they really want to fight poverty, they should completely halt development aid and give Africa the opportunity to ensure its own survival. Currently, Africa is like a child that immediately cries for its babysitter when something goes wrong. Africa should stand on its own two feet.

Interview conducted by Thilo ThielkeTranslated from the German by Patrick Kessler,1518,363663,00.html

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Perfect Proposal

I wish I could go back and write the microfinance proposal again, edit the parts I know are weak, supplement the parts I know are lacking. I would tell a much more compelling story that the one contained in the 1.5 kilos of documentation couriered to Belgium last week. I would better illustrate the hardships faced by Mozambique’s micro-entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers. Write about how these people, who are already achingly poor, are severely limited in their capacity to improve their lives because they have no access to credit, no access to safe savings facilities. The soil is rich, the demand for goods and services is tremendous, yet nothing moves forward. There is no money to help the poor help themselves.

Sure, there are ample pools of donor aid set apart for Mozambique each year. But the more time I spend here, the more I am convinced that handouts are not the solution. In fact, I am truly starting to believe that they are a huge part of the problem and an ever-growing impediment for the economic empowerment of the country as a whole, not to mention the poorest segments of its population.
But I digress…The problem of donor dependency will be a topic for another blog entry, as right now I am more inclined to vent about my perfectionistic tendencies and recent work-related adventures.

Our client for the microfinance proposal is a Mozambican owned and managed credit union with a mission of providing financial services to people that do not have access to banks, particularly women. Most of the credit union’s clients are micro-entrepreneurs (market vendors, carpenters, seamstresses, etc.) and teachers; the credit union has plans to expand its outreach to include agricultural credit and increasingly target small-scale tobacco and horticultural growers. The credit union has been able to provide small loans (between US$ 50 and $175) and savings facilities to people to help them meet household expenses, grow their businesses, and prepare for crises like drought and death in the family.

Access to credit is a huge problem in Mozambique because banks have no incentive to lend to risky clients (i.e. the poor, especially the rural poor dependent on agriculture). This is because the Mozambican government offers bonds with an annual return rate of 20%. Why would any financial institution decide to loan their money out to a market vendor or a cabbage farmer (likely a small sum with a high risk of loan default associated with it) when they could invest instead in a high-return investment guaranteed by the government?

If funded, the proposal I put together would solve a small part of this dilemma. The credit union is trying to secure funds to open a new branch, develop a rural microfinance program, and expand its current offering of credit and savings products. If funded, the institution would be in a position to serve some 7,000 additional clients, most of whom currently subsist on about US$ 2 per day.
The problem is, the proposal I sent in isn’t perfect. I worked for nearly two months reading case studies, meeting with the executive director of the credit union, analyzing income statements, and developing objectives to be met and a budget with which to accomplish everything. I definitely worked hard on the proposal. I spent a good time of what was supposed to be a vacation in San Francisco in front of my laptop, and worked for 18 hours straight the night before the proposal was due to wrap up all of the last remaining details. But it wasn’t enough. I was rushed at the end because I had procrastinated during the first month of my work on the proposal, and underestimated the time it would take to finish everything. I ended up completing the document 20 minutes before our delivery deadline at DHL, and didn’t have time to thoroughly revise the proposal. I got everything in on time, but felt sick as Ricardo and I addressed the envelope and sent the huge stack of documents on its way to the European Commission. I knew I would later revise the proposal and find a dozen errors or oversights.

I finally worked up the courage to reread the proposal last night and, in fact, I came to the conclusion that my work wasn’t good enough. I forgot to describe in detail the two new savings products that the credit union will launch, and put together a sloppy justification for the project. As I looked over the document, I started to cry. I felt embarrassed that the proposal wasn’t perfect. I was afraid that Ricardo or the director of the credit union would look at my work and be disappointed or chastise me for not having done a better job. I felt guilty about the whole thing, convinced that the proposal would not be accepted and that it would be entirely my fault for not having been more disciplined.

Being a perfectionist is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it drives me to produce excellent work when I put my mind to it. On the other, it sets me up to never be satisfied with myself, no matter how hard I work. If every last detail isn’t perfect, the whole thing was a failure. I am a failure. I know this is no way to go about life, but it is so hard to sit back and accept that you made a mistake, that you are not perfect, that you gave it your best and that is good enough.

Ricardo sat with me as I cried, reminding me of all the time and effort I’d put into the proposal. He complimented my work, telling me that in his opinion after working in Mozambique for nearly two years, there is nobody in the country that could put together a better proposal. It was nice to get his praise, but he gave me something even more valuable. He took my face in his hands and said softly, “Ali, I’m telling you this as your boss, not as your boyfriend. The proposal has already been delivered. You can’t make any more changes. Beating yourself up for something you have no power to control will only make you bitter and unhappy. You did your best and I accept that. Now you need to accept it as well and move on, otherwise you will only be feeding the part of you that is intent on self-hatred and that is a waste of your beautiful energy.”

I wish I had another week to work on the microfinance proposal. I wish I had used my time more wisely so that I’d have less regrets right now. But more than anything I wish I could take Ricardo’s advice to heart.

Letting go of the addiction to perfection is a frequent topic of conversation between me and my mom. The night I arrived in Chimoio after my pseudo-vacation in San Francisco, Ricardo and I watched the movie “Something’s Got to Give” with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton on the refurbished TV (it has since exploded again, but that is also a story for another blog entry). I called my mom the next day and told her how much Diane Keaton’s character reminded me of her – the perfectly furnished home, the vases full of perfect white stones from the beach, the perfectly developed career, and the realization that the rigidity of a perfect life is supremely unsatisfying. Over the years, my mom has become impressively less perfectionistic and, I belive, a much happier person as a result. I struggle with the same issues and, while I haven’t been able to fully let go of my need to be perfect in both my professional and personal lives, at least I am conscious of where I stand in that battle.

The day after my birthday, my mom sent me a lovely e-mail with the following advice (which I hope she won’t mind me sharing here):

“After we spoke yesterday I went to the Safeway and bought myself a slice of chocolate cake - yes, they sell cake by the slice, just like pizza - and celebrated with you all from afar.

Had I been with you, I would have told you the point of the Diane Keaton movie is the most important point of all. Love and relationship are life. Perfection is not. That is the something that has got to give. Yes, love and relationship, for better and worse, are fraught with pieces of Bob, Ricardo, Bruno, Patricia, Gina, Hugh, Unc, inside of us and outside of us. No matter. Love and relationship are alive and nourishing. Even if they feel sometimes like your blog on being an American. Being alone in the perfect house can be a sometime refuge, but fulltime it is empty and deadening. Black stones belong with white stones.

Live this truth and your life will be rich with meaning while being messily imperfect.”