Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Along with the weather, today marks the end of a chapter in my professional life. I have accepted a full-time job (gasp!) with an organization whose tag-line is something like "Business solutions to rural poverty." Technically they are an NGO, which has me a bit wary given my general opinion of aid, however they *are* heavily private sector focused, and their mission is to strengthen business operating environments and develop specific sectors, cooperatives and entrepreneurs. One thing that has me cautiously optimistic is that they use quantitative, business-inspired indicators to measure their activities and successes - or lack thereof.
If nothing else, it is always good to understand both sides of an argument. Leaving the private sector for the time being will give me valuable insight to the day-to-day workings and strategies of a business-oriented NGO in Mozambique. I continue to believe there is some model out there that provides a positive impact, though on my more cynical days all I can think about is how all donors and capacity-builders and long-term sustainable developers should just get the hell out and leave Mozambique and the Mozambicans to sort themselves out - same thing for all "developing" nations.
Anyhow, it will be an experience, that is for sure. I hope to take something good out of it, as well as contribute something valuable in the process. One thing sem dúvida is that I am ready to leave Big International Corporation. For all the private sector, bottom-line-focused, small-business-enabling rhetoric around here, my end evaluation after working as a consultant here for 8 months is that it is one of the more supremely, maddeningly, absurdly inefficient institutions I've ever encountered, both internally and externally. So much for the "private sector is more efficient" argument, although BIC is more like an aid organization in that their funding for this particular fund comes from donors, and therefore heads don't roll in the face of non-performance like they do in traditional financial institutions.
So what will I be doing in my new job? A lot of different things, but I hope that keeps me interested. My title is Director of Stakeholder Relations, which I am trying to ignore because I hate the wishy-washy sound of it. Essentially I will be responsible for: 1) ensuring the quality and timeliness of all written proposals to funding sources; 2) ensuring the quality and timeliness of all reporting to funding sources and other stakeholders; 3) managing the volunteer consultant program; and 4) developing and implementing knowledge management practices, including trainings and mentorships for staff.
The part of the job that I am most looking forward to is working with the volunteer consultants. This particular organization brings very high-caliber individuals to work on specific projects in each of the countries where they operate. For example, an executive from Shell Oil might come to Mozambique to work for 2 months helping a group of coconut producers develop a biodiesel business plan. Or a consultant from McKinsey might come for 6 months to create a marketing plan for the country's cashew industry. I am hoping that the interaction with all of the volunteer consultants keeps me inspired, on my toes, and interested in my job.
I'm counting down the hours until I say goodbye to BIC. More than anything, the bureaucracy drove me crazy. I already knew that I'm not cut out to work in an environment that doesn't embrace innovation and flexibility, but this experience confirmed it 100%. The saddest part is that BIC is staffed with some of the most intelligent, committed people you could hope to come across, both Mozambican and expats. The cumbersome, ineffective system, however, almost negates that fact...
Adeus, senhores. It's been a good ride, but it's even better to get out when the time is right.
Monday, September 29, 2008
- eating ridiculous amounts of perfectly ripe figs - both purple and green - from the trees in my grandmother's orchard
- nightly fires in the giant elevated platform fireplace in the dining room
- finding the same Pro Secco we served at our wedding for the maddeningly cheap price of 4 Euros per bottle
- drinking said Pro Secco every night
- apple strudel (using fruit from our orchard) made by our family friend Breda, who is one of the best cooks I know
- realizing that all I need is a couple weeks in Italy for my Italian to come roaring back
- gelato from the local dairy
- admiring all of the antiques and paintings from the family collection
- catching up with Marino and Breda
- getting on Rico's shoulders to pick grapes
- wandering around Grado and looking at all the sailboats
A Few of My Favorite Things about Austria
- using my neglected cold-weather clothes every day
- new pair of Hugo Boss high heels, 50% off regular price
- visit to wineries near border with Slovenia
- eating a Whopper with chili sauce at Burger King at a rest stop (I know!)
- flavored mustards and vinegars
- the old town in Graz
- the modern architecture of my sister-in-law's remodeled apartment
- picking raspberries and plums
- Rico's face when he realized the "medalhão" he'd ordered was horse and not beef
- talking to Rico and Andrea's dad via Skype video while all piled together on the sofa
- nephews (as Rico puts it, you enjoy them until you are tired, then hand them over to their parents again)
A Few of My Favorite Things about Being Home
- purring cats
- cooking and baking sprees
- no more suitcases
- being able to make jewelry
- no more communication barriers or being exhausted by the effort to speak another language
- all of the jacarandas are in bloom
- being able to stay in pajamas all day without feeling guilty
- catching up with friends
- no children (except the furry, 4-legged ones)
- feeling the shift in the weather - summer is almost here!
Monday, September 22, 2008
My friend Kelly told me that she suffered a low period after she got married a couple years ago, and not to be surprised if I went through something similar. The way she described it, though, it was much more a withdrawal from all the attention, the family, the friends, essentially having all the people in your little world focused on you and your special union as a couple.
For me, it´s ending up being much more superficial, though I realize that it´s not productive or even possible to play the "Whose depression is worse/more legitimate?" game. I´m feeling like quite the ugly duckling these days, down from a high point of fitness and natural glow in the weeks surrounding our wedding. I´ve gained weight thanks to the honeymoon and 10 days of unrestrained eating on this European trip, and I´ve not been disciplined with working out. The weight has been creeping up on me, but now I´ve reached that point where there is no pretending it´s not happening, and I must take a good look in the mirror and get on track again. Also, my hair is in this supremely awkward phase and has no shine, and I´m feeling like none of my clothes are fashionable or fit properly. Basically, I´ve got a case of the woman-blues.
The other day we were showing our professional wedding photos (finally got them!) to the equivalent of my Italian godparents, a very nice couple in their 40´s. When they opened the first album, they were like, "Who is this woman?". Ummmmm...it was me. Thus ensued a torturous discussion (for me) about how I don´t look anything like myself in the wedding photos and, concurrently, how the person in the photos looks so incredibly beautiful, thin, etc. They decided that it must have been the makeup (pointing out the sculpted cheeks that made me look much slimmer than in person), and that we had hired a fabulous photographer.
In my mind, the conclusion was that I obviously look fat and dumpy in real life, the "confirmation" I´d been dreading after weeks of having that exact thought going through my mind. I know they weren´t trying to be offensive, and that large parts of the world´s population must be pardoned for their unsolicited not-necessarily-positive commentary about one´s physical appearance (i.e. Brazilians, Mozambicans, Italians, etc.) because we all have different definitions of what is insensitive, but still, all I could hear was the fact that I have let myself go, or that I was artifically pretty at the wedding.
I recognize that most of this is a commentary on my mental state and self image, but that´s the part that really sucks. If it were just some insensitive people commenting, I could blow them off and continue with my happy life. The problem is that this perception is self-fabricated, and I don´t know how to make it go away.
I bought some beautiful Hugo Boss black high heels today. That helped somewhat. But I am in search of a longer-term solution, and unfortunately those don´t come with the swipe of a Visa.
Crossing the street as a pedestrian, as you might imagine, was one of the most insane experiences of my life. You basically step out into heavy traffic, slowly follow a straight line, and watch in amazement as everyone swerves around you like the Red Sea of motor vehicles parting. In several of our hotels, they gave little information cards to tourists that included the cardinal rule for crossing the street in Vietnam: DON´T RUN!
We´re currently in Graz, Austria visiting my sister-in-law and her family, but we have some down time and I figured I might as well get caught up on blogging.
Still on our second day of honeymoon, after the ceramics factory, Rico and I visited a beautiful little village that is a UNESCO world heritage site and renowned for their traditional paper and print-making crafts.
Apparently every family in the village used to participate in the traditional art, but now only 2 artisan families remain because more money can be made in other occupations. To Vietnam´s real credit, there is a significant and visible effort being made to save these dying artforms, including a strong linkage with the tourism sector.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
My Italian is thankfully coming back full-force, though I realize I am mixing it incessantly with Portuguese and Spanish. Imperfect communication is better than no communication at all, however, so I am trying to be content with my efforts.
Rico and I have been enjoying cheap, delicious bottles of Pro Secco (we found the Valdo we had at our wedding at the Euro Spar for a maddening 3 Euros per bottle), prosciutto San Daniele, figs (just me, in excess), hazelnuts, fresh milk, calamari fritti, pizza and wine. Not all at once, but certainly all delicious. I am already planning a gym regimine for when we return to Maputo!
Our family friend Marino took me, Rico and my Grammy on a car ride today through the Collio wine country, into Slovenia, stopping along the way for viewpoints and short tours of medieval churches and castles. We had a divine seafood lunch in Santa Croce, a small fishing village on the Adriatic coast just down from Trieste.
Tomorrow morning Rico and I are driving to Austria to visit his sister and her family. We will spend the weekend in Graz, then go to Vienna for a day trip on Monday. We are back in Italy on Tuesday, then heading home via Venice and Dubai on Thursday.
Until then, baci da Italia.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Italy for me - at least this particular pre-alpine, cultural and national mish-mash, sometimes painfully provincial part of the country - is about family. It is about childhood memories of sunbathing at Grado, riding my pink bicycle Dino around the public gardens of Gorizia, collecting cherries and figs by the basketfull in the bosco behind my grandmother's house, and exploring every nook and cranny of the property that is filled with antiques and family history.
Italy is about the very real challenge that this magnificent home that has been in my family for hundreds of years must either be turned into some sort of self-sustainable enterprise, or we risk losing it to God knows what fate. My grandmother is in excellent health, but she is 86 years old and nobody is on this earth forever. Rico and I have been enjoying this mini-holiday immensely, but each night as we sit by the open fireplace and sip on a glass of wine, we engage in endless brainstorming about how to save the house(s) in Peci - there are three of them, after all: the old house, the new house, and a garden-less property across the street. We consider all the aspects that maintaining this family legacy would entail, slowly chewing over the possibilities and starting to ask ourselves if we are up to the task of taking on this challenge.
The other day my grandmother announced that she had a present, collectively, for us grandchildren, that is if we were at all remotely interested in what she had to offer. Rico nearly fell out of his chair when she said she'd like to give us my great-great-grandmother's old 1938 convertible Fiat! It is in remarkably good condition, still with the original white convertible top and shiny black exterior. For having sit for decades in such a humid climate, there is surprisingly little rust on the body. We opened up the car and had a look at the engine and then the dusty interior, and Rico and I knew that we were certainly interested in this gift. I don't know about my cousins Jeff and Lauren - we will have to consult them - but I imagine they might be interested in this restoration project as well.
Today Rico and I are going to hike the Sentiero Rilke, a beautiful coast-hugging path that connects the towns of Sistiana and Duino. We will have a mixed salad and fresh eggs for lunch that a neighbor brought by, then some raspberries and blueberries for dessert that we purchased yesterday in the mercado in Gorizia. I've been gorging myself on figs since we arrived, and keep promising myself that "this will be the last one. Just one more perfect fig, then I'll stop eating them." Apparently my promises to self aren't as iron-clad as they once were, as I'm now realizing that I'll probably make myself sick before I voluntarily stop wolfing down the divine fruits.
Being here undeniably feels like home in many ways. I'd hate to lose all of the memories and possibilities, but it is no easy situation that my family and I face. Yet again I am overwhelmed by the desire to clone myself so that there can be 4 or 5 Ali's running around the world: one for Peci, one for the Casa Rosa, one for New Mexico, one to be near my parents and dear relatives, one to be wherever there is good money to be made, and one to be permanently on a tropical beach. Until then, it is back to the brainstorming, in the desperate hope that inspiration will strike in just the right combination with financial prosperity, and that we will find a solution for all of these magnificent homes that I can't imagine living without.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
So, other than mad jewelry-making and super-intense selling, what have I been up to lately?
- 7:15am private pilates classes in our living room with a trainer who is an ex-olympic athlete from Ecuador. She is brutal, but in the best possible way. I've learned that I am nearly incapable of sitting up straight. The position I swore had my spine like a plank is apparently still curved and lacking. I'm humbled each time we have our classes by how inflexible my body has become.
- Enjoying an unexpected but very welcome mid-term houseguest. She is a volunteer here in Maputo for the next 6 months, and her homestay experience didn't quite go as planned. There were some safety issues that came up, and Rico and I gladly took her in when it became apparent that the organization that runs her volunteership was not interested in really helping, aside from the fact that they failed to recognize the very serious and real nature of the situation at hand. It's nice to have company, especially since Rico and I are going out of town for a few weeks and are glad to have a housesitter.
- We leave on Friday for a trip to Europe to visit my grandmother in Italy and Rico's sister and her family in Austria. I'm super excited. Airfare from Maputo to Joburg is ridiculously expensive right now (think US$450 per person for a 45-minute flight), so we're driving to South Africa to catch our flight. It should be about 6 or 7 hours, including the border. We'll leave our car at long-term parking in Joburg, which is a fraction of the cost of flying, even including gasoline.
- I'm looking forward to leaving my current consulting assignment at Big International Company. It's time to do something I find challenging as opposed to pushing paper and harrassing other people to properly do their jobs so I can, in turn, do mine. Viva October 1st when I start my new position. More on that later, once I've actually signed the contract, so that I don't inadvertently jinx myself.
- I am tired. Haven't been sleeping so well lately, mostly because our mattress has slowly morphed into the same unfortunate crater-shape we had to contend with in Chimoio. Other contributing factors are cats and mosquitoes. I'm looking forward to good sleep in the European fall weather for a few weeks.
- And on that note, time for bed. I've just finished my celebratory snifter of Amarula to mark the end of a successful fair, and Rico is yawning across the room. Boa noite!
Saturday, September 06, 2008
I am happy to report that the fair has been going well. The first day was slow, as is the case in most long fairs, but sales yesterday and today were solid. Not quite on par with last year, but then again there is a long weekend in Mozambique for Victory Day, and many people have traveled to the beach or to South Africa. Nonetheless, I certainly have nothing to complain about, and my initial panic regarding pricing and the general insecurity described in my previous post have waned significantly. Things are going well, and I am happy.
There is something incredibly satisfying about making money by making something with your hands and then selling it yourself, face-to-face with the new owners who will enjoy a beautiful necklace or pair of earrings. I love telling people the stories behind my materials, my pieces, my inspiration.
If you are in or near Maputo, please stop by. The fair goes from 11am to 7pm through Tuesday. Hope to see some of you there!
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Participation in a relatively large fair is always a challenge, with many lessons to be learned. I think this is especially the case for me in regard to this particular fair, which is clearly branded and promoted as a "Made in Mozambique" fair. Granted, my jewelry is made in Mozambique and incorporates many local materials such as trade beads from Ilha de Moçambique, hardwoods from Nampula Province, horn and some stones. However, it is hard to look around at the fair participants and see that I am the only one who is not Mozambican (or at least born and raised here).
Last year I really struggled with being the only artesã estrangeira. I got a little bit of backlash from the other artisans, and the occasional snide comment, but looking back most of the pressure was self-imposed, and any "weirdness" I felt was a product of my own uncertainties and, to be honest, insecurities regarding culture, nationality and identity.
This year, my worries concentrate more around my product rather than who I am as an artist and a vendor. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful that inner critic can be - in particular when fueled by random outside commentary. My main concern is that my pieces are priced too high (very common among all artists, so I know I'm at least in good company here). Most of the participants in the fair go for the high volume x low price formula, and tend to fare quite well. However, while their raw materials and inputs may be cheaper than mine (wood vs. goldfilled wire; clay vs. turquoise), I also think their prices are very low because they are not adequately calculating their production costs and overheads.
Yes, I am the product of a business-minded family and an MBA. Yes, fundamentally, I look at the world through the lens of a businesswoman. It's almost funny applying this to an area like art, but it must be done. I calculate all my costs down to the penny, including labor, packaging, overhead and any anticipated fees or commission. I know my profit margins and have a reasonably effective formula for caluclating prices. I've been (semi-)seriously selling my jewelry now for just over 2 years, and it seems my little business is a sustainable one.
How-e-ver. Past successes, business-friendly formulas, and a rational approach to pricing do not, unfortunately, drive out the inner critic. That voice is ever-present in my mind. I compare my pieces to the other crafts at the fair and all I can see is how my booth is so much more expensive. I start to doubt the worth of my jewelry, and worry that ego is driving my pricing much more than any logical calculations of cost and markup. It gets worse when potential customers pass by and make comments like, "Is *that* the price?" Or, "It's nice, but too expensive."
I try to be a good saleswoman and tell people the stories behind my fusion jewelry. I talk about how the trade beads I use are over 300-years-old, how they originally came from Bohemia and Venice and were carried to Africa to be used as currency by traders, how now they wash ashore on Ilha de Moçambique after ships wrecked and spilled their cargos, and now boys sift through the sand on the island to find the tiny colored beads and string them together on fishing line. I tell people about the turquoise from New Mexico, the agate from Brazil, the silver that I hammer by hand, and the endless inches of wire that I form into knots to hold handmade glass beads.
If I am at the booth to tell the story of my jewelry, usually the prices aren't so much of an issue. People begin to understand the materials, the time, the love that go into making a particular piece.
The hard part is on days like today, where I am stuck at work and had to have my lovely friend A. do the fair on my behalf. She is great at selling, and used to be a fashion designer, however she doesn't know the full story of all the pieces and, perhaps most difficult, she doesn't speak Portuguese.
Rico and I just dropped by the fair to visit her and check in on my booth. It has been a slow one so far, though it is only halfway through Day 1. Still, it was difficult to see no sales, and to hear that a few ladies commented that my pieces were too expensive. All of this made my heart sink a bit, and the inner critic start singing out loudly, "I told you so!"
I know that worst-case scenario, the fair is a failure and I don't sell much (or even anything!). Life won't come screeching to a halt. I will still continue to create and make sales elsewhere. We all eventually find our audience. However, it's hard to sit with such insecurity, especially since I could give a friend in my exact shoes the mother of all pep talks and truly believe it. It's so hard sometimes to turn around and give that same support and positive thoughts to ourselves, but that's what I'm trying to do. After all, there are still 5 days to go!
UPDATE: I guess I needed to let these feelings out and name my insecurities. I just got a call from A. and she's just sold a nice big necklace set with turquoise and pearls! Yay!
I was supposed to lead a task group meeting this afternoon at the Big International Company where I have been consulting since February. We need to provide descriptions of all the SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in which BIC has invested in Mozambique. It's not a difficult task, but it requires coordination to get all the financial, technical assistance and other information together.
Anyhow, I was just informed that we won't be able to have the meeting because my colleague Ratinha didn't come to work today.
"Ela está incomodada," my colleague Tortoise told me.
This is one of the best Mozambican euphemisms of all time. 'Estar incomodada' literally means 'to be bothered', but in this instance it is code for 'she has her period'.
That's right - lovely Ratinha didn't come to work today because of the devastatingly serious reason that SHE HAS HER PERIOD. And the whole freaking office knows. She didn't just call in sick or say she was taking a personal day. Nope, miss Rata told her boss and the secretary quite openly that she was "bothered" and they all understood immediately that the poor dear wouldn't be in today. In fact, perhaps she wouldn't be recovered from her bothersome condition until early next week.
The worst part is that Ratinha is no exception to the rule, and it seems to be standard practice here for women to call in "bothered" to work and for employers to nary bat an eyelash!
I tried to reschedule the task meeting to no avail. "Epa," Tortoise said when I suggested we hold the meeting on Tuesday (Monday is a public holiday), "talvez ela ainda esteja incomodada até lá..." Yeah, no use trying to schedule something 4 days in the future because, depending on Rata's cycle, perhaps she will STILL BE ON HER PERIOD at that point and therefore out of the office!
I used to have really painful periods, and still do on occasion. I know what it is like to want to curl up in a ball and watch tv and eat chocolate all damn day. But I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that a woman having her period in Mozambique is license for 4 to 7 days out of the office, no questions asked!!! Granted, not all females pull this card here, but still - freaking insane, no?
Anyhow, I sure feel less guilty that I've been taking half-days off to work on my jewelry business and get ready for the Mozambican National Crafts Fair. At least my time out of the office is 1) used productively, and 2) UNPAID.