Thursday, March 25, 2010


I'm feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment. I think the week back to school after spring break is a hard one, especially if the weather outside is nice and you have about 100,000 unfinished things on your to-do list.

I have a big project for my jewelry/metals class due on Monday, so I'll be putting in some serious hours in the studio this weekend. I also have to start preparing for my core studio review, which is essentially when each student at CCA must present their work from Drawing I, 2D, 3D and 4D visual studies classes to a panel of professors for evaluation. Not to mention the giant woodworking project we are about to start in my 3D class, which will take up a lot of time.

It's funny, one of the main differences I see in art school vs. "regular" university is that you must approach time management in an entirely new manner. Rather, *I* must approach it in a different way - maybe some students can knock out an art project in a couple of hours the way I used to write 10-page essays the night before they were due and be certain I'd get an A.

Basically in art school, I can't procrastinate. I have to put in my work gradually - brainstorming an idea, models and materials samples, studio hours, finishing and refinement - otherwise a project simply won't come together the way I want it to (according to my admittedly very, very high standards). With reading- and writing-based classes, I could always put the hard work off for most of the semester, then condense it into a couple of days or even an all-nighter right before an exam or essay. Not anymore...

On the one hand, my stress level has significantly decreased compared to other times I was in school. That's obviously thanks to the diminished procrastination - I tend to be more prepared, less pressured. However, working bit-by-bit on a project has also magnified exactly how long things take to come together, how many hours and pieces of metal and broken charcoal pencils and blistered fingertips are required for a vision to materialize.

So I suppose it's very accurate to say I am overwhelmed - I understand exactly what's ahead of me, and appreciate the massive amounts of work I will need to put in. That's always a bit daunting to realize...especially when life goes on - a garden that needs tending, cats that need petting, a website that needs updating, food that needs cooking, photos that need taking, muscles that need exercising, an inbox that needs purging - and there is never quite enough time for it all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Our US census forms arrived a few days ago and I found filling them out to be quite the interesting experience, not just because I love to do paperwork. Yes, the race/ethnicity* part of the survey could generate endless debate and offers a unique view into the (disfunctional) perspective our government and many citizens have about the topic...but it's not what fascinated me about the census. Rather, it's what the census didn't ask that got me.

Back in 2007 when I filled out the Mozambican census, in addition to the requisite name/age/race information, they wanted to know:
  • Did we own a car, tractor or bicycle?
  • Did we own any farm implements (e.g. hoe, shovel, trowel)?
  • How many rooms were in our house?
  • Did we own a TV or radio?
  • Did we have a computer or internet access?
  • Where was I born?
  • What was my mother tongue and what language did we speak currently speak at home?
  • What was my profession?
  • What level of schooling had I completed?
They even sent a nice uniformed census worker over to the house to sit with me and fill out the form on my behalf (a necessity in a country where there are over 21 languages spoken and illiteracy rates are high).

Clearly the census in Mozambique has a much broader socio-developmental application as compared to here in the US, where it seems to be much more about a cut-and-dry tallying-up of the population.

I find it fascinating to think about the myriad reasons why the Mozambican-style census would never fly here in the US...

*The old race/ethnicity categorization is a challenge for many people, but notoriously for Brazilians who tend to be shoved into the "Latino/Hispanic" ethnicity despite not self-identifying as such, and have a terribly difficult time picking only one race to describe their generally mixed heritage. After some reflection, Rico chose the "Other" subcategory of "Latino/Hispanic" and wrote in Brazilian, then chose "White" for race, as his family is predominately Portuguese.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Currently on My Playlist

I've really gotten into music again after a prolonged period of enjoying silence while working, writing and creating. I think my mind just needed a break in the midst of all the stimulation and new experiences that came with our move to Casa Cali and me starting school.

Now I'm loving having a soundtrack again, especially during my early-morning drawing sessions (I've found that 5:30am is my golden hour for doing elaborate, hours-long drawing assignments for class).


Another Reason to Call Me 'La Loca'

I love doing my taxes.

Regardless of whether I am entitled to a refund or have to fork over some of my hard-earned money, I take great pleasure in the process of filling out my tax return. I like all the calculations, the challenge of having to understand the word-problem-esque nature of some of the line items, the satisfaction of having everything nice and tidy and accounted for at the end of the day.

I realize I am in the minority on this one, for sure.

Doing my taxes falls into the same highly satisfying category as other (generally-hated) tasks such as filling out forms (census, doctor's office, school applications), maintaining a detailed spreadsheet of my business revenues and expenses, and balancing my checkbook (back in the day before internet banking when I actually still bothered to do that).

I also love jigsaw puzzles - the really hard kind, with a monochrome pattern and 1,000 tiny pieces. In my crazy head, all of these things are members of the same family.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Detail of gears on a gun mount at the old Fortaleza - Maputo, Mozambique

Ancient reef now exposed - near Cape Town, South Africa

Church gate with luminarias and snow - Las Trampas, New Mexico

The lone leopard (and only one we ever saw over the course of multiple safaris) - Moremi, Botswana

Elephant damage on a 1,000-year-old baobab tree - Seba Camp, Botswana

Kahlua, one of our three ridgebacks while living in Chimoio.

Antique door at K and Z's house - Ilha de Moçambique

Freshly roasted cashews purchased on the roadside - Nampula, Mozambique

Our bedroom in Maputo.

"A Artesã" painted by Mozambican artist Matine. He has incredible talent for capturing light in his paintings.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Pit Stop

I'm in the final stretch of exams, projects and critiques. I can see the light of spring break at the end of the tunnel. Thank God. I'm in need of a week off to renew my creative energy, for sure.

In the meantime, here's a great blog I discovered today about a Brazilian's experiences throughout Africa. It seems he is a reporter and based in Angola. I haven't had time to read through that much of the archives, but he writes quite well and writes about relevant topics in politics, economics and culture. All in Portuguese, by the way. Check out Diário da África here.

Friday, March 05, 2010

My Definition of Heaven Has Gotten Quite Cheap

Isn't this an incredible photo of Mano and Nina? My mother-in-law took it (she is visiting us here at Casa Cali right now) and I can't get over the silhouetted trees in the background and the way the cats - in particular Mano in all his whiteness - look as if they've been photoshopped in from a different image.

Nina looks grouchy, but we forgive her. My mother-in-law is quite trigger-happy with the camera these days, and there simply comes a moment when a girl has had enough candid photos, thank-you-very-much.

Unfortunately the weather has been pretty crap lately, which is never what you hope for when you have houseguests who are looking forward to Sunny California. There was a bout of sunshine yesterday - though it was bitterly cold - so I decided to ditch my drawing class and join Rico and his mom on a passeio in San Francisco, complete with lunch at the Embarcadero, shopping and a ferry ride.

We had lunch at THE PLANT Organic Café, which has some of the tastiest food ever, although our meal was slightly tarnished by the fact that I hit my elbow ridiculously hard on the corner of the table while sitting down and subsequently lost all feeling in my right hand for about an hour. Also, the hostesses have major attitude, a theme we observed on our last visit to the restaurant as well. The girl who was seating us totally saw me slam my elbow and proceed to cry and curl up in a little ball - I cried, people! - and she didn't even have the heart to ask if I was okay or even acknowledge that I'd hurt myself. She just watched me for a minute or so, raised her eyebrows, then left the menus with Rico and sauntered back to the hostess stand.

Anyhow, a plattter of delicious oysters full of fresh horseradish helped me feel better. Each time I eat oysters I like them more and more - it's sort of akin to what happened to me with sushi and sashimi. I now undeniably have oyster fever. Rico and I have plans to go to this place his uncle Marcelo discovered at the Embarcadero where they have a $1 oyster happy hour every weekday at 5pm. Currently that is pretty close to my definition of heaven.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Time for Some Housecleaning...

...the literal kind. My home-office has looked a bit as if a hurricane swept through for the last couple of weeks and it's driving me crazy. I feel the urge to clean and organize no matter what, especially because I have to study for midterms this weekend and I am incapable of really concentrating when my environment is messy.

I've got a cold beer open and salsa/afro-pop/carnaval music on shuffle, so I suppose that means it's time to get going.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Capulanas in Fashion - Victoria's Secret

Image from

First Beyonce, now Victoria's Secret. Perhaps this is the sign that the capulana is going mainstream this side of the Atlantic.

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.

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"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.

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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.