Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Snakes in the Road

Looking back on our experiences in Mozambique, there was so much I wanted to capture in writing but didn't - either because the topic was too sensitive and required the invaluable perspective of time, or because life got in the way and I spent my writing energy on things like business plans and grant proposals for clients. Bit by bit I hope to put these myriad recollections and opinions on paper, so to speak, so that they don't fall victim to the funny tricks memory inevitably plays on us.

Below are a few memories from a trip to Nampula and Zambézia Provinces I took with my colleague A. back in May 2009. We were there to interview community-level maize millers in order to better understand their businesses and, eventually, develop a program proposal through which the organization we were consulting for could do an "intervention" to raise the millers' incomes and link them to the larger meal-processing industry in Mozambique. A classic example of a concept and proposal that seem stellar in theory and on paper, but that made my stomach sink with cynicism and my head hurt from all the BS and international development buzzwords.

------------ -------- ------------

"If we're lucky and the road is good, we can make it to Guruè in time for you to interview some millers," says Sulemane, our driver. We bump along a road whose asphalt is pocked with craters, signs every dozen kilometers or so announcing which donor is next in the endless cycle of support to highway repairs.

All I can think is that I hope the road gets worse, that we arrive in Guruè far too late to feasibly do anything other than find the Catholic mission where we are to stay the night, eat a quick meal and go to bed. I don't want to interview any millers - not now, not tomorrow, not ever. And yet it is my job to interview millers - at least for this particular assignment - so I give myself a silent pep talk and try to put on an enthusiastic front for the benefit of my colleague A., who is new to the development world and seems eager to carry out our field work.

We bump along past clusters of mud-and-straw huts, past women carting water in giant yellow containers, past the occasional abandoned colonial structure. The land is visibly fertile, full of lush trees and countless small-scale agricultural plots, a significant contrast to the grays and browns that dominate the countryside around Maputo.

After a few hours we stop for a rest in Alto Molócuè, a small town that has the reputation for being a promising player in grains and soya production in Mozambique. My colleagues talk about Alto Molócuè as if it were Eden waiting to be discovered as far as agriculture is concerned; I find it immediately depressing.

The central part of town seems like one big truck stop, full of seedy-looking men, begging children, and girls who are clearly out to make a buck. Alto Molócue is located at the intersection of two main highways and is also the only place with minimal infrastructure for miles around, making it a logical location for travelers to overnight, stock up on supplies or seek out some "entertainment". I try to convince myself that things get better a couple streets over, on the other side of the bridge, away from the influx of trucks and men and money.

We order three roast chickens with xima at the only place in town our driver says is decent. I pay for the meal and invite Sulemane to sit with me and A. He refuses, which I find odd given that we've been having such nice conversations in the truck. As we pick at the chicken with our hands, a crippled man stares at me from outside the window, rubbing his belly and pleading with me to give him the leftovers from my meal. "Estou a pedir-e, amiga." I selfishly wish he would go away.

I seem to flip-flop from day to day on how I feel about begging. If I give food, am I perpetuating a problem and encouraging dependency? On the other hand, how can one possibly eat in front of a starving man and not feel compelled to share? I feel conspicuously overfed and white and rich and foreign.

I eat half the chicken, then ask the shopkeeper if it's okay to give the leftovers to the man outside - not because I particularly want his opinion, rather to ensure the beggar won't be yelled at (or worse) for disturbing the paying customers who want to eat in peace. The man devours the rest of my meal, hotly refusing to share with the dozen or so kids who have come out of the woodwork to beg for their own mouthful.

A small, hand-written sign next to the door catches my eye. In scrawled script it says "Duá para a barraca" followed by what I imagine to be the same message in Arabic. A prayer to bless the small shop. Amen, I think. Amen.

We return to the truck and A. and I discuss our field work strategy. We will be interviewing as many maize millers as possible over the next five days. We plan to start in the mountains near the border with Malawi, then make our way back towards Nampula. We go over our interview guide, and think of how to introduce ourselves and the work we are doing. I make A. promise not to use the word "programa", for fear of implying some sort of support or inadvertently raising the hopes of these millers that an NGO will be coming in to save the day. Rather we decide to say we are doing an "estudo", that we are simply gathering data to better understand the milling business in the region.

Although we are, in reality, preparing a program proposal with the end goal of supporting the millers - at least with technical assistance if not with actual funds - I am incredibly reluctant to say anything. Why? Because I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that nothing will ever be done. Nothing will change. Even if the organization where A. and I are consultants manages to get the program funded, I doubt it will be properly implemented. Perhaps there will be one or two "star" millers involved in the program (convenient characters for the donor reports), and some nice statistics to go along with them - but I can't fathom there being sustainable, widespread change for the millers we will interview, despite the fact that's exactly what is being argued in the grant proposal.

It's not that the organization where we work is corrupt, or ill-intentioned, or staffed with incapable fools. On the contrary - the majority of the people employed at the NGO are quite skilled and truly want to make a difference in the lives of the rural poor. Somehow, however, between the good intentions and the actual results, something breaks down. People get burned out, there is disconnect between the donors and the reality on the ground, there is a lack of training and proper program management (despite endless attempts to address these issues), programs continue to be top-down in their conception and implementation (again, despite purported focus on community-driven or demand-driven interventions), etc. These are not problems specific to any one organization - they are widespread throughout the development industry...and they are completely clouding my vision.

I try to convince myself that doing the best job I can, even within a flawed system, is the right thing to do and really my only option. I must put on a smile, find the silver lining in the work and try to believe something good will come out of it for the millers, their families, their communities.

A bright green snake slithers across the road in front of our vehicle. While Sulemane could have easily swerved to the right and avoided it, he aims for the middle of its body and guns the accelerator. I feel a slight bump, but nobody looks back.

------------ ------ ----------------

Edited to add: I am always a bit reluctant to write posts like these because I hate the idea that I might propagate, in any way, the idea that Africa is one giant place full of poor people who live in a rural context and somehow or other need to be "saved". Those of you who know me and have taken the time to read my past entries know my view is vastly different. This post is much more about my mindset and experiences as a private-sector development consultant on a particular assignment, and the rural poverty and the people we encountered while doing field work are unavoidably a part of the story.

For a post that hits the nail on the head 110% when it comes to the diversity and "un-classifiable-ness" of what it means to be African (or Angolan, or Mozambican, or Zambian), please read this excellent text entitled "Sou Africana e não como mandioca" by my friend Jessica.


Teej said...

I so appreciate your honesty and understand your concerns about being so honest. I sometimes remind readers that blogging is an of-the-moment exercise. It's too big of a burden to expect every post to accurately reflect the sum of one's feelings on a subject. What I most like to read is honest writing, and the most honest writing happens when people admit their misgivings and second guesses.

So thanks for this.

Border Jumpers said...

Just an FYI, wanted to share a blog we did today (please feel free to cross-post) about our travels in Lilongwe, Malawi. We blog everyday from all over Africa at a website call Border Jumpers (http://www.borderjumpers.org) and for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet (http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/).

Here is the link: "1,000 Words About Malawi"

All OUR best, Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg

Jody said...

I feel you.