Friday, December 9, 2011

La gardienne

About a month ago, I got a new office.   I have a wonderful workspace at IAGU, complete with a real desk, an overhead fan, windows, and wi-fi.  Several days a week, I leave this luxurious space for my less-functional, but preferred, office. 

One afternoon, I was in a meeting with Ousseynou and Bamba, the two head honchos at the pépinière.  We were sitting under a tree and I had my computer precariously balanced on my lap.  We were talking about improvements that could be made to the pépinière and Bamba declared that he was going to build me a table so that I could have an office at the pép.  He went straight to work and built me a sturdy, Eileen-height surface out of recycled wood from shipping crates.  My office is mobile, but is most often set-up under a shade tent made of grass mats, surrounded by tropical plants and stray cats.  The nursery staff regularly bring me tea as I type away on my computer.  Life’s tough.

This office has drastically increased the amount of time that I spend working on-site.  As a result, I have even more face time with the staff and women that participate in the microgardening project.  I have also increased my productivity.  Often, when I loosely arrange a meeting with someone at the pépinière, I can spend a few hours waiting for them to show up.  Instead of twiddling my thumbs or leaving in frustration, I can now work away on my computer while I’m waiting.  And, I am able to better work with Ousseynou and Bamba throughout the day and I can get immediate answers to my questions.  (And, I’m also able to give them constant reminders when they owe me feedback or piece of work.  They have joked that building the table was, in fact, not a good idea at all!) 

But, one of the unpredicted benefits of this field office is that it brings about one of my favourite reoccurring moments in my job: the 15 minutes each Friday that I am left in charge of the pépinière.  Friday is the most important Muslim prayer day, and all my coworkers briefly trade their dirt-stained t-shirts for glistening traditional robes.  One-by-one my eight boys – my brothers, fathers, buddies, and co-workers – tell me that they’re going to go pray at the mosque, but that they’ll be right back.  I respond with the affirmation that I’ll look after the pépinière.  

And for 15 minutes each week, I get to be la gardienne.  This job is pretty easy – even though my boys have complete confidence in me, they don’t necessarily trust the rest of the world, and they lock the gate behind them.  That’s fine with me.  I do enjoy the false sense of responsibility that comes along with the transient title of “la gardienne” but, more importantly, I profit from 15 minutes of solitude in a rare green oasis in the middle of the chaotic and dusty city.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Short-Term Missions

I recently reread The Cost of Short-Term Missions by JoAnn Van Engen*.  It spurred me to re-visit  some questions that I’ve already asked myself many, many times:  What am I actually doing in Senegal?  What is the real purpose of my mission?

Coming from Canada, I cringed the first time I heard people talk of overseas missions.  To me, the term either oozes pomp and arrogance or evokes images of war and famine.  When I first arrived in Gambia in August 2010, the border guard asked of my mission in her country.  Surprised by her choice of terminology, I said that I didn't have a mission per se, I was just here to work, to contribute to her country.  Knowing what I now know about Gambian police, I am lucky that this fluttery, half-hearted response even got me into the country.  "Mission" seems to be well-ingrained in the vocabulary of both French- and English-speaking professionals that travel  for work in Gambia and Senegal, even those that are traveling within their own country: "I'm sorry I didn't call you back last week.  I was on a mission in Podor."  And so, I have come to adopt this terminology.

I digress – Why am I here?  What purpose does my mission carry?  I am gaining so much from this experience – am I benefiting others as much as I am benefitting from this experience?  Could my job be done equally as effectively (or even better) by a local?  And, the stinker, could the money used to fly me here and pay my salary be better spent? 

In other words, are we getting maximum “development benefit” – as it that is something that can even be measured! – by sending young Canadians overseas on six-month internships?

Probably not.

These questions have been constantly rolling around in my head for the better part of the last year, and rereading Van Engen’s article was the impetus I’ve needed to get some of my thoughts on paper.

I’ve been back in West Africa since the beginning of August, and working here for a second time confirmed my previously-formed beliefs that there are two ways to make all of this – working overseas at great cost to Canadian taxpayers, and often to the project – worthwhile:

(1) Short-term, focused missions.  Let's say that I possess a specific skill that is lacking in a host country, for example GIS.  And let’s pretend that I am an expert in my field and also adept at working cross-culturally and with limited resources.  If then, some local organization needs a short-term consultant to fill a  gap in their GIS programming, they could bring me in for 3-6 weeks to fill a very specific need.  In my eyes, this is money well spent and a good use of foreign knowledge and experience – an international development success story!

(2) Long-term on-the-ground staff:  Spending two years or more “in the field” allows an international development worker to really get to know the partners and the project and the local problems, and eventually work in an effective manner.  In particular, if the projects are related to agriculture or based in a village, an outsider needs at least a year to begin to understand the annual rhythm and how strongly daily life can be tied to the seasons.

There is also a third successful approach to working in development that I’ve seen, but it involves the Canadian development worker doing most of their work from Canada.  Such people have built very strong relationships with exceptionally competent overseas organizations and staff.  They may still travel frequently to their project countries, but really the projects are left in the hands of the partners and the Canadian organization doesn’t try to micromanage the project from afar.

After I returned from my first internship in Senegal, I already believed the above points to be true.  And yet, here I am again in Senegal, working for six months – once again, taking much more from this experience than I am able to give my host organization and the people that I work with.  And, two months in, I find myself firmly believing what I already thought to be true: if I want to continue to work overseas, the most effective way to do so is to either come for a short time as a consultant or to put down roots in my host country, integrate, and build strong on-the-ground partnerships and relationships.

And so, that brings me back to my previous question.  Are we getting maximum "development benefit" from my overseas presence?  (Ugh, there's that unmeasurable, undefinable term again, forgive me.) 


I am proud of the work that I do and believe that I am already much more effective the second time around.  After a mere six weeks I already felt as professionally competent as I did at the end of my last posting.  I started this position with greater professional, cultural, and linguistic knowledge than I did the first time, and that will take me a long way. 

I am here to take a second pass at development work in a country and a culture that I already know and love.  I don't come from a development or an international background, so I really need this second opportunity to work overseas before deciding if I want to further push my career along this trajectory.  This is also an opportunity to see the extent to which six months of experience can increase my professional effectiveness.  How I can transfer the knowledge that I gained in my first six months in West Africa into this new professional and urban context? 

There are lots of opportunities for me to learn about how I fit in the international development world and to what extent I can transfer knowledge from one project to the next, but both of these objectives are ultimately selfish.  They’re focused on me, and what I can learn about myself and my career.   I do, of course, want to benefit the people that I am working with, but I misplaced my rose-coloured glasses a while ago and am aware that (a) my motivations for working internationally are not entirely selfless, (b) my assignment is too short to have a significant impact, and (c) I'm still not 100% convinced that, cumulatively, all these development efforts from the West actually do more good than harm.

So, given all this, what is the role of six-month international internships?  What, really, is their benefit and how does this align with Canadian values and public spending?  

BENEFIT 1: Cross-cultural learning and deepened self awareness.  These are fantastic benefits…for the intern.

AN ASIDE: I spent six-months in Canada between postings, and spent a lot of time telling people that I thought *everyone* should go live in a different country for six months.  I certainly didn't mean any arrogance by it, and I am aware of how privileged I am to have the financial means, freedom, and political ability (i.e. visa) to do so, but I really think that the world would be a much better place if everyone had the opportunity (or was forced) to experience a reality very different from their own.  It would bring about such cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.  And much more global compassion too, I think.  So, we can argue that Benefit 1 extends beyond the intern, but the long term impacts of an individual’s cross-cultural learning are not, in my opinion, sufficient to justify the internships.

BENEFIT 2: Cross-cultural sharing of knowledge and experiences.  My dear friend Leanne once said "We can learn so much from each other, if only we are open enough to receive this knowledge."  I agree wholeheartedly. 

BENEFIT 3: The beginnings of deeper and persistent international relationships.  Interns that continue to work internationally and in the same country can benefit a lot from the professional relationships they build early on.  I am experiencing that already, and I’m simply drawing on networks that I built in my first six-month internship to facilitate the work in my second six-month stint.  Even if interns don’t continue their on-the-ground international career, they can still make connections between overseas contacts and suitable organizations back home.

BENEFIT 4: Bringing international, cross-cultural, and foreign knowledge back to Canada -- opening others' eyes, broadening horizons, and challenging what people think about the world. 

Living in Senegal for six months has challenged so much about the way I see the world and my role as a global citizen and I can only dream that everyone takes the time to contemplate foreign realities.  The reality that we live in the West -- material comfort, secular society, gender equality, and fiscal values, to make a few generalizations -- is something experienced by a minority of the world's population.   One of the objectives of the CIDA IYIP program is to create employable skills in young Canadians and for them to bring their overseas experiences back to Canada to promote international learning.  Public engagement is one tool to achieve this but, from my experiences and from talking to many interns from other organizations, the post-internship public engagement feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is understandable.  I remember what it felt like to come home the first time, excited to be back, bewildered by Canadian life, reeling from reverse culture shock, eager to tie up loose ends, lost in the love of friends and family, and half-heartedly trying to find a job and figure out my career.   On top of all that, I realized that I had changed and didn’t know how to reconcile my Canadian reality with the new me.  With all of this, public engagement for a past project in a country on the other side of the world seems like the last thing that a returning intern might want to do.  At that point, I think it often feels like just an obligation to CIDA, not something that interns are actually motivated to do.

But, that really is a shame, since I think that Benefit 4 is one of the most tangible and easily accessible ways that we interns can have a real impact.  I expect post-internship reentry to be easier this time, so perhaps my increased effectiveness can extend beyond my overseas experience and include my after-I-come-home public engagement.  Blogs and online articles are a common way to fill the public engagement requirement but, to me, they feel like a bit of a cop-out.  It's so easy to post something mediocre on a blog that no one is going to read (case in point).

So what can I do?  Here, right now, I commit to real public engagement -- not because of requirements for CIDA (which I'll likely fulfill by writing one or two articles for the Sustainable Cities blog), not because anyone's paying me to do it (because they won't), but because I actually do believe that sharing my experiences with Canadians that don't have the opportunity to live and work overseas, is one of the greatest justifications of my current professional existence.

* I just did an online search for the article and was surprised to learn that the paper copy I have is an abridged version of the actual article.  The version I read was completely secular, while the original is not.  The original focuses on religious missions, but I think the message still applies to all short-term overseas workers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Three Points

(1) Six weeks down, 23 to go.  Time moves way too quickly here.

(2) I now feel as competent in my job (professionally, socially, culturally, linguistically) as I did at the end of my last internship.  Go me!

(3) Downtown Dakar feels shiny and modern again.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Two Weeks

 afternoon, 18 August 2011

Finally -- rain, thunder, and cool winds.

I've been here nearly two weeks (left Vancouver two weeks ago yesterday, arrived here two weeks ago tomorrow) and this is the fist real rain that I've seen since my 'rainy season' arrival.  The sky has been periodically dark and menacing since I arrived, and I'm surprised it has taken this long to break.  People are saying that this summer, this rainy season, is particularly hot and dry.  I'd be interested to see some long term data on summer temperatures and precipitation in Dakar, and to know how this year compares.

The heat, of course, is especially harsh for those that are fasting.  Over 90% of the population is Muslim, which means that almost everyone is sweltering -- and napping -- through the heat of the day and the insatiable thirst that accompanies it.  (I wish I could tell you the actual reported percentage of Muslims, but I need internet access for that, and I am writing this in the middle of our daily power cut.)

Like last year, I've decided to fast for a few days in solidarity. Day 1 will be tomorrow, and we'll see how well I last.  I promise not to be too hard on myself if I cheat and sneak a few sips of water.  This year, fasting will be more than just an act of cultural empathy, and I will set an intention for the day -- something to meditate on -- and also dedicate my act to someone back home.  I haven't yet decided what or who that will be, but I'll spend the afternoon ruminating on it.

Two weeks in my new/old home, and I'm getting more settled every day.  I am comfortable in my Yoff apartment, which I share with Becca, my partner in crime.  (Though in our case, being settled doesn't yet mean being completely unpacked!)  We live just a few blocks away from the beach and are lucky to be able to go play in the waves after a hot day in the city.  Relative to my apartment in Kaolack, we live in a palace!  We have screens on (some of) the windows, furniture (including a dining room table, actual beds, and a living room set), a real stove, and a fridge!  We're on the third floor, which means that we're above most of the dust, and the ocean winds blow through the apartment and keep things relatively cool.

It turns out that Dakar isn't quite the modern city that I remember.  The first time I visited Dakar was Christmas 2010.  At that time, I hadn't been to a real city since leaving Montréal in August.  I was blown away by downtown Dakar, with its "tall" glass buildings, grand embassies, occasional public garbage cans, and patch of green public space.  This time, I went straight from Vancouver to Dakar, and all my illusions of modernity and cleanliness were shattered.  It is still a wonderful city, but my perceptions of it are much different this time around. It is indeed a grand and modern city by West African standards, but it is still a West African city.

It is wonderful to be back, to be in my African home country.  This time, I am privileged to live a relatively comfortable, Western lifestyle -- and thus open my eyes to a whole new reality of what it means to live in Sénégal.  Dakar is a beast, and the Dakarois sure 'aint Kaolackois or villagers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Take Two

4 :00 PM CMT, 05 August 2011

And so my Sénégalese adventure begins, again.

I’ve returned to West Africa, to the land of teranga (hospitality), the smiling coast, and my favourite Wolof-speaking countries.  By now, I think most of my friends and family knew that I was planning another trip.  If you didn’t already know  – surprise!  I’m back!

After three flights, a long layover in New York, not enough sleep, and over 30 hours of travel, I arrived at the Leopold Senghor airport around 6:00 this morning.  I received my tenth Sénégalese entrance stamp, was met by the caretaker of my apartment, and arrived home.

Fast forward ten hours and pretty much all I’ve done is slept!  Perhaps not the best plan to get me adjusted to Sénégalese time, but I’ll get used to both the time change and the heat, ndanka ndanka.

And now, I’m off to have a shower, buy phone credit, and connect with the world.  I’ll spend the rest of the day unpacking and puttering, I think, and shall begin my adventures tomorrow!

Love, Eileen