Thursday, October 22, 2015

Practicing Happiness

It has come to my attention recently that I don’t know how to “be” happy. I mean, what kind of Pollyanna simpleton walks around just being happy? Life is harder and more complicated than that, and accepting otherwise is just plain naïve. It’s much safer and easier (and socially acceptable) to sabotage our thoughts, expect the worst and hope for the best.

But what if this just isn’t the case? What if today is what happiness looks like and we just don’t know how to enjoy it? What if being happy takes…practice?

I have just made two major life changes: job and marriage. I’ve moved overseas and back again, and in the midst of all that found a person for whom I feel profound and deep love. Now I get the opportunity to try something new, to grow, to do something I’ve always wanted but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Not only that, I’ve found an organization that lets me keep my toe in development work and is flexible with me and themselves.

I shudder in writing the above, because I fear I may sound like a braggart, because I fear I may lose it. On bad days, the soundtrack playing in the back of my mind is: I’ve gone from being my own woman with steady benefits and paycheck and taking life by the tail - to a consultant with little or no job security, relying on a man I hardly know, almost exactly back where I started. Worse – dumped by my old employer, stuck in the suburbs, with an SUV. Next to Costco.


So which is it? Both are technically true, but why do I feel more comfortable sharing the more negative story?

Brene Brown calls the idea of downplaying our happiness as Forboding Joy. In essence, happiness means being vulnerable and in order to avoid that, we downplay it. In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes:  “It’s easier to live disappointed than it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.” So, while good things have happened, I focus on the down parts, in order to keep myself “grounded” or “not get ahead of myself” or [insert any other reason not to be happy]. That way, if it does work out, I’m supposed to be pleasantly surprised.

Moreover, let’s be honest, happy people are friggin’ obnoxious. When I was single, I hated being around what Bridget Jones called the ‘Smug Marrieds’. While I was happy for them, sometimes the jealousy, the loneliness, the wondering if it would ever happen for me - it physically hurt.  Their happiness literally made me miserable.

My husband and I have had long talks about how to be responsible in our love for each other and those in our lives, single or married. While not being held hostage to the naysayers, having been so long at the other end, we also don’t want to twist the knife. Those married folks with whom I could open up to were both genuine in their concern for me and made space in their lives for me.  We are committed to making space, committed to sharing, spreading around some of that love we took so long to find.

The thing about Forboding Joy is, I’m never as pleasantly surprised as I think I’m going to be. I end up just wandering around, picking at the scabs of old wounds or pushing at emotional bruises. I just ruin the experience by worrying my way through it.  And sometimes our happiness allows others to be happy themselves.

From here on out, I’m done not fully enjoying what I have the moment I have it. I’m going to practice being happy, and allow others to be happy (without judgement). I won’t always get it right. Perhaps this post is obnoxious, but that’ ok. I’m going to embrace good things right now, exactly because they might not come back.  I may look stupid but what if this is what happiness is? I’d be even dumber to miss it.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Have a Heart(land)

Last week I volunteered at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank which serves 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. September is National Hunger Action Month, and all throughout Bremer Bank is matching every volunteer hour at Second Harvest with a $5 donation. Having spent my last two years thinking about and seeing hunger and poverty in Malawi, I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the same issues closer to home. Plus, they made it super easy to do.

Second Harvest (@2Harvest) is part of Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that helps feed people across the country. According to their website 1 in 7 Americans struggles with food insecurity. One in seven!

I’ve learned a lot about “food insecurity” in developing countries, but it never really occurred to me that the same terminology would be applicable so close to home.  From what I remember in my grad school days, food insecurity revolves around three things: access, availability and uptake. That is: is there food nearby? Is it affordable? Is your body getting what it needs? 

In Malawi, our program explored this through periodic surveys covering the three aspects. How far do you need to walk to find food? What could you afford? Were there enough calories available? The local staple was nsima and relish with every meal, so we also asked if they were getting enough dietary diversity (a fancy way of saying “balanced diet”).

In the United States, the three aspects still hold. Getting enough calories is less of an issue, but given the overabundance of cheap, sugar-filled calories, finding a healthy and nutritional balance remains a struggle. According to the latest 2014 Food Hunger Survey, 81% of clients in the Second Harvest service area choose inexpensive, unhealthy food.

Hunger is at once an uncomplicated and complicated issue. It’s relatively easy to improve access and availability – that’s what food banks like Second Harvest try to do. It’s harder to teach about what to eat. Adding to that, it also impacts so many other things: if you are food insecure, how do you have enough energy to learn? To work? To borrow a development phrase, this is called poverty ratcheting. Not having one puts you at risk for the other, which knocks you down another step, and then another, etc.

I enjoyed my afternoon re-packaging excess tortillas and sorting through boxes of semi-expired goods from local grocery stores (it is seriously fascinating to see what things get donated. Easter Eggs! Gluten free matzo balls!). It also helped that I randomly ran into my friend Curt, who was also there to volunteer. It felt good to spend time thinking of others, learning something new and putting myself to service.

It’s sexy to think about helping others in far off places. It’s easy to think about a poor hungry Ethiopian child with flies about her nose, but that is not necessarily the reality. It has been somewhat difficult during my return to reconcile the image of this land of abundance with one that perhaps has more in common with Malawi than it would like to admit.  Returning home, I feel more strongly than ever that “making a difference” isn’t something that is done to Another in a Far Off Place, but to each other, as we live our lives, every single day.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Plight of the Intern

Recently, an intern from New Zealand caused an internet stir when he quit his unpaid UN internship in Geneva, Switzerland, after being outed for living in a tent outside of town. In his statement, he admitted he couldn’t afford to support himself for the six month stint. Despite being asked during interviews if he could, he wasn’t honest about it because he felt he’d be passed over for previous internships because of it.

Having lived in Geneva for six months on an unpaid internship myself, I’ve got some insights on this.

By whatever miracle, early in my development career, I found myself an unpaid internship in Geneva with a non-profit organization that followed the United Nations conventions. (I would’ve killed for an internship at the actual United Nations like this guy, but I digress.) I researched the crap out of places to stay, ending up the first two weeks in a hostel that I knew I couldn’t afford for more than a few weeks, waiting for space in another place that was so popular, it had a waiting list.

Eventually, I moved to Mandat International Rappard House, a beautiful old house on the outskirts of town that had room rates based on the economic situation of your country. Nationals from developed countries paid more, those from developing countries paid less. While I would’ve loved the lower rate, overall it seemed fair. I got to mix and mingle with folks from all over the world, building a vibrant communal support system. And what a community! We had debated over breakfast every morning, and discussed our days while cooking pasta in the evenings. I loved it there, and am even still in touch with a few.

Then, my supervisor travelled to the Gambia for a month and offered to let me house-sit. All of a sudden, I had my own flat in downtown Geneva for free! That single gesture of trust and understanding saved me a ton of cash. My friends and I subsisted on UN happy hour fare, partied in squatter housing, nursed drinks at the Alahambar and made pasta dishes on tiny hot plates across the city. In the end, I was able to live in Geneva for less than I thought.

I don’t know this guy’s situation. However, I do know a few things:
  • It takes time to get where you want to be. If I had quit in the first two weeks, I would’ve missed some wonderful opportunities both to meet new people and work on my career. I couldn’t have foreseen that my boss would travel and like me enough to let me house-sit, but I took a leap of faith anyway and toughed it out.
  • Geneva is well-known to be an expensive place. Within the UN community, I believe that nearly everyone knows (or has been!) an unpaid intern. Sympathy was on his side! Resources abound for those coming in to do short or long term stints.
  • Interns aren’t the only ones who have it rough. I feel like not only did he gave up too quickly, but for a bourgeois cause. If interns have it rough, what about the number of other immigrants who fight for the right to live and work in Switzerland on a daily basis?
  • From most accounts, it appeared he made conscious a choice to go it alone, refusing family and other support to live in a tent. Yes, not everyone has the luxury of being able to rely on family, but what a wonderful gift when you do. It was his choice to refuse those gifts.
  • No matter where you go, you retain the capacity to network and problem-solve. The best thing I did while in Geneva was as let go of certainty and learned to rely on my community. It led me down some amazing paths I would’ve never seen. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

All the Small Things

It's been awhile - and for good reason: my husband and I moved back to America at the end of June. We left behind so many wonderful people and experiences, I'm having a hard time processing, believing it was even real. Such are the throes of culture shock, I guess. 

This is also the exact best time to keep writing. 

One of the things I love asking people is what they miss - either where there coming from or going to. There are big ones of course (friends! family!) but today I find myself ruminating on the small things:

The small things I enjoy about returning to America:
  • Being able to wear high-heeled shoes, and not wonder a) how I’m going to navigate a rocky (or gravel) road or b) if my heels are going to sink into the grass at any point during the day.
  • Ice cream, Dairy Queen or otherwise, and the subsequent takeover of the Caramel and Sea Salt flavor. 
  • Caribou coffee shops – being able to get coffee to go and/or just sit in a cozy coffee shop and chill out with the free, fast, wi-fi.
  • Free, fast, wi-fi.
  • Hot water, anytime.
  • Being able to call anyone in the US at any time. Including my sister and my best friend, whom I missed texting.
  • My beautiful Raleigh road bike. Love. Swoon. Love, love, love.
  • Showing my legs in public. Legs! Everywhere! And mine aren’t even the worst.
  • Target. This could also go on the worst list, but I’m still only three weeks out.
  • The softest bedsheets I have ever felt in my life.

The small things I miss about Malawi;
  • WhatsApp. Man, that thing was amazing.
  • Having a routine. This will change, as I get more into a routine here, but I wow. I do miss that structure right now. 
  • Running into the same great people at the same events/places all over town. I felt like I had a handle on all the activities that were going on in a given weekend.
  • Community.
  • Getting excited about finding asparagus (or insert other hard to get item) in the grocery store.
  • The hustle and the open air awesomeness of the used clothing market.
  • My Rav4.
  • Game night.
  • Dare I admit it, Porcupine Ridge.

I know that many of the small things from Malawi will eventually find there way here. We've already talked about instituting a game night, for example. However, one of the neat things about blogging is capturing the in-between times. I am in the tweeniest of in-between times right now, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other until things feel "normal" again. 

Until then, I'm writing a lot of lists. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Billboards of Lilongwe

One of the things I'll miss about Lilongwe are the random billboards. I know good money went into putting these up. However, until someone shows me a direct link between seeing a billboard and behavior change, I'm going to find them inadvertently amusing...

Stop your cars! Have responsible mining! Also, check out the token woman in the business room. Why does she look like the maid?

This one is not so bad, really. It's true, young girls need to speak up. But I would've preferred the message to be one about stopping abuse, rather than stopping the silence around abuse. It just makes it seem more like their problem because they are not speaking out.

My absolute favorite, on my way to work. It helped, because otherwise I would've engaged in money laundering and terrorist financing that could've tarnished my image. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Adventures in Road Traffic

Early on, I bypassed some bureaucracy by dropping my quest to get a Malawian driver’s license and choosing to drive on an AAA approved International one. I figured I had successfully escaped having to spend time at the Road Traffic Authority (aka, the DMV).  Alas, I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Turns out, the bureaucracy gods are a fickle bunch. As of June 1, anyone wanting to conduct business regarding their vehicle first must get a Traffic Registration card. As I am leaving June 30th, I wanted to sell my car. Luckily, the purchaser clued me into this little debacle, and readily prepped me: Five lines, three hours. She even helpfully got the application form for me, taking care of line #1.

I arrived at Road Traffic early (though not as early as I wanted because - guess what? - There are two road traffic offices. *facepalm*). From that moment on, it was as if the universe swallowed me up and I was required to spend all the time I would’ve spent at the DMV over the past two years in the course of two days. Arg.

The first line, Biometrics, took me 2.5 hours. Not so bad; I finished my book. The clinical label turned out to be nothing more than a glamour shot and a finger print session. This was important, as they took your fingerprint at every other subsequent queue.  I heard that one devout 85 year old Muslim man was convinced the finger print machine didn’t work on him because he’d spent his whole life washing his hands before and after prayers five times a day.  Turns out, the system was just down.

The next line, Enrollment, was another hour.  By this time, I was noticing a curious event. Prints were scanned, but only at the window.  Those of us waiting in line were just that: waiters. Many of these patient folks next to me were just place holders for the more affluent! (and better prepared) who were called in at the last minute to take their place in line and swipe their prints. How naïve I was, waiting in line for my own self! I had failed the most basic line-hack.

Finally stepping to the window, I watched in agony as the registrar glanced out at me and then turned to help two MP’s who were next to her behind the glass. When she was finished, she stepped away into the back room, only to return 10 minutes later.


Too far in to abandon my quest, I moved to the third line: Payment. By this point, I was a little batty. After two years in Malawi, I thought I’d finally learned to stop asking why, but at this point I was near hollering:  WHY COULDN’T WE HAVE DONE THIS ALL IN ONE LINE? Credit card kiosks are still new here, so cash payments had to be made at the approved government bank teller window…around the corner. Then you had to take the evidence of payment to the final line to collect your card.

After a little over four hours total, I had received a receipt stating I had paid. Unfortunately, having little fortitude to handle any more lines or human contact, I conceded defeat. I vowed to return the next day for the fourth and final queue: pick up.

Day two was the absolute worst. The queue itself didn’t seem so long. However, I failed to discount cultural differences in personal space. Meaning, the distance of the line is not necessarily directly correlated with the amount of people. Place said line in a 10x15 foot room with no air conditioning with only two of the five windows processing cards and you have my idea of hell. I had thought of sending someone to stand in my place, but by this time I figured I might as well have the whole horrible experience. It’s a wonder I never learn.

I stood in line behind a nice lady with a red dress (Martha) and a young man (Marcus). The process was going like this: one had to show their receipt at the window, get your prints verified, and then go wait outside while they printed your card. When it was ready, they yelled out your name and handed it back through the queue, effectively negating the point of taking your finger prints. Hilarious.  

Two hours later, when there was twenty-five people ahead of me, the system went down. Then they ran out of cards.  After a while it was tough to know what exactly the problem was, as everything being shouted was in Chichewa.  The one thing I did know was I was hungry, thirsty and had to go to the bathroom all at once. My tongue began to feel thick and my head ached.

Around hour three, a savior emerged. A new window opened right in front of me, Martha and Marcus. Upon a few words from Martha, he quietly processed our fingerprints and we shoved our way back out the door to the sidewalk. Triumphant, exhausted, dehydrated, we split some tangerines from a roadside vendor and waited for our names to be called. Two days, 6.5 hours later, I had my card.

I’m still not sure if I accomplished anything, but as it turns out, there is a direct correlation between the degree of difficulty and feeling pride. Many people decry African bureaucracy and claim that standing in line is a Malawian past-time. But Malawians aren’t any different than Americans when it comes to queueing and let’s face it, DMV’s are suck holes anywhere on earth. Some people were angry, some were patient. Some cheated the system, others waited for their appointed turn. In the end, I think it ws a fitting way to leave Malawi: on its own terms. I sold my car, transferred the title, and feel like I have paid my bureaucratic dues. 

Time to go home.  

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Honor Among Thieves: A Review

Third in a series (including one prequel) by blogger and development professional, J., Honor Among Thieves, more than any of the others, delves into the day to day life of the development industry. The protagonist, Mary-Anne, has found her way from the horn of Africa to World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington DC, as director of global programs. She’s left to the wolves of political whimsy as WAC fights to distinguish itself from a sea of bigger development organizations.

The Shangri-La of funding, $500,000 of unrestricted, private money waltzes through their door in the form of Gary, outdoor clothing entrepreneur, with a desire to “do good in Cambodia”. As a result, Mary-Anne gets told by her boss Jillian to hop on a plane and work with the curmudgeonly Cambodian country manager, Patty, to come up with something. But, midway through program design, the donor decides that all the money should go only to water projects. Marie-Anne and Patty have, of course, designed a livelihoods program. Cue drama.  

This might not come off as a nail-biter for non-development readers, but as far as a true-to-life telling of the development rat race, this book nails it. J. does a great job wiggling his finger in the soft grey middle where we most live. Which is better – create a program that speaks to people’s needs, or get the funding that keeps the organization going that can do other impactful programs? Design a water program, but have other initiatives around it? Fight the battle or win the war? There are no simple answers. Explaining this book to a few friends over dinner one night, one of them exploded “That exact same thing happened to me!” So clearly, J. knows his material.

J. does excellent work portraying everyone as rounded out human beings, with families and decisions and motivations far beyond the work of the work. Each character brings with them a new conundrum, a new avenue of exploration into what ‘doing good’ actually means. My favorite is Trevor, fresh out of undergrad and ready to save the world. J., uses him as a vehicle to answer some of the more basic questions about the development industrial machine. (But there’s so much need! Why doesn’t someone just do something?). Starting his own non-profit, he finds, it isn’t as easy as it seems.

While more true to life, this book also loses some of the tittering decadence from the pre-quel (Marie-Ahhne, Jean-Philippe whispered) that made it such an entertaining read.  I wanted someone to hate. I wanted a place to hang my hat and yell with moral superiority: YOU HAVE CHLAMYDIA YOU IDIOT! Mary Anne should’ve told that crappy Todd that if he’d done his job in the beginning, he could’ve wooed the donor away from water, and this story could’ve been written entirely from the arms of Jean-Philippe.

In the end, I’m not sure if the true-to-life mundaneness overshadows the bones of what makes a good story. This first novel was entertaining in a dashing, bold, even corny kind of way. To be a true homerun, this third novel needs bolder statements, darker lines, bigger dichotomies and a stronger narrative arc than just “Mary-Anne grows up in development”.

This may be exactly the point: development is one big grey area. It’s still a great book, but the big reveal comes in such a non-exciting way that it feels buried, ambiguous, almost after-the-fact. Even if it might not ever happen in real life, I wanted Patty and Mary-Anne to gloat, for Jillian to get her public come-uppance and for Todd to become addicted to opium and fall into a river of crocodiles. 

That is, perhaps, for next time. 

 Views are my own and I was not compensated for this review.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tit for Tat

Last week, for one day – and one day only - the Government of Malawi charged $160 to American citizens for visitor visas on arrival. Normally, a 30-day visa is free and a 60-day extension the equivalent of $10. It supposedly was meant to mirror the amount that Malawians have to pay to get into America, but it appeared literally overnight. All the flights arriving that day were met with this new requirement and, finding no provisions to help them fulfill it (stocked ATMs, cashboxes, change), were left to deal with painfully long queues, confusion and frustration. Welcome to Malawi!

It was rescinded the next day.

Not speaking much Chichewa and never listening to the Malawi Broadcast Company station, if there was an announcement, it’s not surprising that I didn’t hear it. When I asked at the American consulate, I was told it came as a surprise to them as well, and they were not consulted on the amount.  Even if they had been, the roll out seemed unnecessarily speedy and confusing.  The only thing I saw in the news was a few days later.

Bizarre roll out aside, a few other countries structure their visa fees in this tit-for-tat manner. Certainly it’s very politically popular, and given the amount of development folk that jet in and out, seems to be a viable revenue stream. I do think Malawi ought to have a (minimal) visa fee, like its neighbors. But what point is really being made here: is this visa fee meant to change US policy towards Malawi? Elevate their status as a country worth paying to get to?

All it appears to do is make getting to this corner of the world even harder, a further dis-incentive to well paying tourists. It seems unlikely to change the way Americans view Malawi, and if they exempt everyone on government travel (as stated in the news link) they’re not even going to get that much money. Worst of all, the madcap way it was implemented does nothing to dispel the stereotype of the disorganized African nation. Status: denied.

As sympathetic as I am towards high visa fees for Africans to America, this kind of retaliatory policy-makes siding with Malawi here really hard. I’m only left shaking my head, like I have on so many other things here I just don’t understand. I’m glad I wasn’t traveling last week!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Talk About Africa Without Sounding Like a Jerk

“Oh, you’re moving to Africa?,” mused the hairdresser, pronouncing it ‘Eh-free-ka,’ “Where are you going to live?” she snapped her gum thoughtfully, comb dangling mid-weave, “I mean, are you, like, gonna hafta live in a mud hut?”

Talkin' 'Bout Africa
I peered at her from under my tinfoil, keeping my tone as even as I could. “Um…I’m going to live in a house.” I was embarrassed by my obvious response. She seemed like a nice lady, here in the middle of the upper Midwest, making conversation on a normal, sunny Saturday morning. Sure, it was a silly question, but I could see she was just making conversation. I didn’t feel like cracking her mind wide open and pouring in my panoply of African facts.

I just wanted a touch up on my highlights.

“Oh.” The hairdresser blushed, realizing her underlying assumption. The conversation dropped.

The ignorance of Americans in regards to all things Africa is well documented. Ms. Hairdresser didn’t know a thing about Africa because, quite simply, she doesn’t need to. I’m not excusing wanton ignorance, but if you have no context or previous thought to a subject, it’s easy to say something that sounds ignorant, especially when just making small talk.

I’d love for this to change. I’d love for Africa to matter to Americans the way it does at the end the John Cusack disaster movie, 2012, where they land their arc in South Africa after the entire world is flooded. I’d love for our schools to teach the richness of African geography, history, art and literature. I’d love for Americans to stop being unnecessarily afraid of what G.W Bush called it “a nation that suffers incredible diseases.” (pssst – 54 nations actually and not that many diseases).

They only way this is going to change is if we find a way to share personal experiences, spark interest, and make Africa come alive for Americans outside of news stories and savior complexes. Sometimes there are openings for this, sometimes there are not. I don’t want to be that smug party bore who stands on her soapbox, lecturing about how the Tuaregs are a Berber people in Mali and not some Volkswagon SUV (because really, it’s a cool name regardless). But, I do want to help people stop sound so ridiculously ignorant.

The way that I see it is that talking about Africa has two parts. It starts with curiosity, and involves right-sized information.

On curiosity, I find it a little like fishing. You cannot capture the imagination of someone that isn’t interested in the first place; you must wait for them to approach the boat. So, that’s a big NO starting off a story by hiking up your khaki pants, throwing your scarf around your shoulder, adjusting your pith helmet and puffing “Well when I was in Africa…”

If it’s not central to the topic at hand, the idea of being in Africa can sometimes be distracting and off-putting. It looms large in the American psyche as a horrific Terra Incognito, and therefore, why would anyone go there? No matter if you were there by your shoestrings, it sounds exotic. Proceed with caution, warm up the audience first, and use this phrase sparingly (and for goddsakes, put the pith helmet away...)

On the other hand, if people are interested, right-sizing the information for the moment is crucial.  Small talk with my hairdresser? Not the place to launch into a mud hut discussion, but I might mention that hairdressing is a wildly popular career. I once saw a barbershop called Tupac’s Alive! and the Princess Diana Everything Is in Order Salon.

More open ended questions with close friends, I might press the envelope. Before moving here, I invited a bunch of friends at a dinner party to come visit. One of them told me that she was interested, but probably wouldn’t come. “Why’s that?” I probed. “Oh, well,” she flustered, “You know, diseases and all that.” Then she paused, “Actually, I don’t really know. It’s just a feeling I have, from all the things I’ve heard.”

That. That right there is an invitation.

The African continent needs to be removed from the Pity Pedestal, and normalized in American conversation. The only way for this to happen is to share stories and experiences, become that person who has travelled there and lived, and isn’t a bore to talk to about it. Once, a guy I’d met online said to me: “You’re much more party fun than I thought you’d be. I kind of thought you’d stand around talking about AIDs orphans all evening.”

That’s one of my favorite compliments (perhaps to the detriment of AIDs orphans).

Maybe after all this, you think I still sound like a jerk. That’s ok. Sharing news and information is not about being smug, or preachy, or keeping information from people because they are too ignorant to understand. It’s about being authentic, right-sized, and approachable. It’s about sharing something you love. It’s about changing perceptions in others that were once - blessedly, luckily - changed in yourself.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Head, Heart, Hands, Health

Logo courtesy of
Growing up on the farm, I couldn’t wait to escape. Our house was situated in the middle of an endless gravel road, stretching from one end of the earth to the other - no stops. I was adrift in flat sea of wheat, corn and soybean fields, broken only by the occasional shelterbelt. It seemed to me that everything interesting happened “out there” – off the farm, in the city, in another state, across the world. I used to gaze at the world map in our basement, wondering when (and if) I’d get to see it all.

As a club for farm kids, 4-H was part of the fabric of our lives. Like our parents before us, my siblings and I attended meetings, worked on our projects, went to the county fair and wrote records. It was just something we did; I never dreamed it would be the vehicle of my first trip abroad.

Traditionally, most people think of 4-H as a youth group that focused on showing livestock and learning about agriculture in rural America. Those aspects are still there, but it has evolved into so much more - including internationally. Where my parents showed cattle, my siblings and I focused on collecting insects, practicing demonstrations, fashion revue (sewing and modeling our own clothes) and public speaking.

Thanks to my parents encouragement and lots of practice, when I was seventeen I won a statewide 
4-H public speaking contest. Due to a generous co-sponsorship by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Twin Cities, the grand prize was a 10-day study tour of Israel. I don’t remember the topic of my speech, but I do remember driving home across the prairie, feeling elated. I finally got a peek at the rest of that map.

4-H is so much more than an agricultural organization for farm kids; it is a vehicle for learning valuable life skills.  Every time I go on a job interview, I channel all those years being grilled by State fair judges. In my work and civic life, I draw upon years of running 4-H meetings (and my mom forcing us to use Roberts Rules of Order). But most importantly, 4-H gave me that first glimpse across the shelterbelt, that first step off the middle of the gravel road and into the direction of my career helping farmers overseas.  Thanks to 4-H, I’m not looking at the map anymore; I’m on it.

For more information about 4-H overseas, check out:

Sunday, May 03, 2015

This Week I'm Thinking About...

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Douchey Douchebagitarianism

This week, the Guardian did a piece on the End Humanitarian Douchbaggery campaign. It’s a couple of guys who wanted point out the inherent hypocrisy of going to another country and volunteering, when you’re not remotely qualified to do such activities at home. They’ve got a clever video.

On the surface, it’s funny. They have some really great points and offer some good advice. I’ve often thought along the same lines: what if Malawians came to America and started telling us how to plant our fields? What if we started talking about North America as one homogenous place the way we talk about Africa?

However, the message here is so pitch-perfectly snarky that it kind of hurts. I’ve got mixed feelings about voluntourism, but the fact that these guys choose to make their very valid point about doing research and approaching service with a Humble Heart in the snarkiest, eyeballing-rolling-ist ironic way possible invalidates their point. It’s just so…off-putting.

As an added bonus, their video makes us all feel better about ourselves because it pokes fun at an easily hate-able Other:  hipster wannabees/trustafarians taking selfies with little non-white kids for many Facebook likes. 
We hate those.

Except…… I’ve never met any of those people. Further, I’m not sure anyone is going to look at this campaign and think “Gee, that’s me!” I’m sure they exist, but I want to say: hold up a minute with the judgement. Let’s not assume that everyone is an asshole.

I pick on this not as an apologist to voluntourism, but to make a point. After ten years in development, I’ve learned to drop the assumptions. Not only is it unnecessarily divisive, but life is way messier than you anticipated. Yes, development work should be done by those qualified to do it. Yes, foreigners can and do displace local labor pools. Yes, you should educate yourself as best you can before traipsing into an unknown situation. 

But here’s what really annoys me about this campaign: being so cool as to point out how others have got it wrong infers that you’ve got it right.

And that, I certainly don’t believe.

The thing is – you could do all the right things, do all the Fair Trade Learning you want, but you will never definitively know what kind of impact you’re having on another human. You can do all the research in the world, read all the organizational philosophies you want – you will just never know. I'm not saying you shouldn't do those things; just get used to ambiguity, too.

Organizations are made up of humans, who are inherently imperfect. We all make assumptions. For example: Organization A swears that everything is reciprocal, community-driven. Well guess what? Ideas about community development are not homogenous, even among the “locals”. But…but…we did a community mapping program! Well, guess who goes to those meetings? It’s the same people that do here: the ones that have the time, the status, the gumption.  Community-driven approaches are great, but let’s not kid ourselves. They aren’t what everybody wants. They’re what the majority wants. (And usually, the majority wants whatever will bring them the most money...but I digress…)

This campaign, in all its slick jingo-ism misses the mark. It’s cute, but I’m tired of being cynically cool. I want sincerity, I want thoughtfulness, I want to believe in something that doesn’t catch my eye because it’s a funny made-up word about a vaginal cleanser. Community engagement for social change either at home or abroad takes work. Sometimes it takes volunteers. It takes unbridled stupid optimism, guarded wisdom, time, careful collaboration and a whole lot of open-mindedness.  It takes all of that and so much more.

So, yeah, I get their very valid points about being humble, making educated decisions, putting others first and taming unbridled bravado. I just wish they would’ve taken that same advice in their messaging.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fast Facts About African Agriculture

Today I spent learning this new program, Picktochart (
Wish I'd had this program when I was in 4-H!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A New Job, Part Deux

An appropriate question, tucked behind the door of a
truckstop bathroom in Zambia.
I thought that buying a house would be fun (all those HGTV shows couldn’t be wrong, could they?). Imagine my surprise when the process was much more emotional and fraught with fear than I anticipated. Where do I find a plumber? What happens when my wash machine breaks? What the heck is escrow?

Job hunting is much the same way. It sounds like fun to start a new job, turn a new page, but it is fraught with more emotional pitfalls than a Nicholas Sparks novel. I’ve already written about a good way to start. But, somewhere in this process you have to figure out more or less where you want to go, and what skills you have to get there.

What skills have I picked up during the last ten years in International Development? Some days, it feels like just showing up. Other days, it feels like something useful. Here’s a run down of some of the more useful aspects:
  1. Experience dealing with being totally overwhelmed and under-prepared: In International Development, this seems to be concentrated in two- three week stints where you asked to do the impossible. My first four months on the job in my first job ever, I got sent to set up an office in Azerbaijan (negotiating the lease, buying furniture, finding and setting up the phone system). I’d never even done this stateside, let alone in a foreign land where I didn’t speak the language. How this was a good idea, I don’t know, but I learned a ton. Somehow, in spite of myself (and more likely, because of better local staff) it got done.
  2. Flexibility: Every year I am asked by my current employer to rate myself on how my work flexibility. Every year, I laugh. This is the same firm that once asked me to fly to East Timor on three day’s notice.
  3. Ability to “Learn on the Fly”: No one on staff that knows how to use pivot tables, or create maps from GPS data? No problem. It only takes time, and electricity (and likely, a fair bit of You Tube). I actually love this part of my job.
  4. Writing/Copy-Editing: Reports. Reports, reports, reports. No longer a dirty word, learning to write well (especially technical writing, translating M&E data into digestible results) is extraordinarily important. So is scanning the previously created field document for typos, or mis-captioned photos of cattle going to the bathroom.*
Many of these are “soft skills”, transferrable anywhere, which gives me hope. I have managed get experience in something, however non-technical.  I doubt my new office environment will really be curious about the going price of copy machines in Baku however, so I must still rephrase my experience and retool my resume.

After covering this ground, I’m now left with the darker, more existential part of the job hunt experience: actually applying. Which leads me to my next hurdle: geography and phase of life has means that for wider options, I may have to look outside the field international development. If not entirely, then at least cutting down on the 30% travel I did before moving to Malawi. But what do to? Where to start? It’s scary. It’s liberating. 

Perhaps it’s not my skills set that’s limiting my exploration. It could also be lack of my own imagination, willingness to give up my frequent flyer mileage status (Platinum, FTW!) and my professional (and somewhat personal) identity.

I suspect that last step – personal identity – is the doozy. But I'm hoping that, much becoming a first-time home owner, once you get over the initial hump everything seems to work out ok.

*really happened

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Happy Easter!

Good Friday and Easter Monday are still public holidays here in Malawi, so I am off, exploring this lovely country. See you next week!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal

All About the Banda's
Per diem is meant to defray the daily cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner and “incidentals” (defined mostly as tips by the US Federal Travel Regulations) incurred when traveling for work. It is typically a flat rate, prorated by percent for each meal. The US government international amount seems to be set by assuming the traveler would eat all meals at the most expensive hotel restaurant in town.

Because it’s usually so ridiculously high, it ends up being closer to a salary supplement. When I was traveling abroad from the US, I considered it a small consolation prize for sitting 18 hours cramped in aisle 48H next to the bathrooms. It was a nice bonus, but it wasn’t why I worked.

Thing is, when people live closer to the margin, the collection of per diem gets elevated into an art form. It moves beyond supplement to an incentive, and for some, a second salary. For a few more, it becomes a right. Thus, its provision in your project becomes more urgent, more pressing…

…and more of a barrier to actual work.

For example: Because drivers travel frequently, they need this benefit the most often. We spend a lot of time carefully managing their schedules to avoid complaints that one may be getting more than others. As such, between all the last minute changes, time off schedules  and jockeying amongst seniority, setting the monthly schedule can sometimes feel like giving birth to a pound of razor wire. 

When I first arrived, a group of sub-partners actually threatened to walk away from an all-inclusive training in Nigeria, because they’d only take home a nominal incidental fee. Forget learning, they wanted the money.

Local governments also seem to be in on the take. To get community buy in, development organizations work hard to meet with and work through existing channels (such as local district executive committees).  Unfortunately, some committees refuse to convene unless they receive per diem! I recently discovered that one such committee charged three different organizations for the same meeting. Coordination and communication being what it is (fairly informal) this was only discovered after the fact.)

Imagine if you were just an average constituent; how would you afford democracy this way?

If I let it, the Per Diem Issue feels like being hijacked by the people we want to help, off the backs of people we want to help. Aside from wasting resources, it expends a ton of organizational and emotional energy. Policies upon policies are created. Schedules are scrutinized. Meetings turn tense. At the end of it all, precious, valuable work undone. Even now, as I write, I feel the bile rise. If donors really wanted to see where their time and money were going, my bet is on this.

The solution here isn’t easy. How do you move someone from considering per diem as a right to a nice supplement? From beating the system to doing your job? The answer lies in the rat’s nest of macroeconomics, global inequality, choices and personality.

There’s nothing wrong for having the costs of your job be covered. However, how does this translate when everything has a cost? 

I contextually understand, but it’s a culture shock every time I run into it. This is consistently where my Midwestern no-nonsense work ethic rams like a sledgehammer into my carefully constructed attempts at cultural sensitivity. Why are you even here?! I want to scream. Do you care so little about helping others that you’d kidnap the entire program over a measly $8?  We more than likely end up paying, because we have indicators to hit, targets to achieve. But I hate every conversation about it.

I try to have compassion. I try to remember being squished in 48H, dreaming of what I would do with that extra money. But mostly, every day I’m reminded: Per Diem is a Big Hairy* Deal.

*Not the original adjective.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Five Things that Have Surprised Me About Life In “The Field”

Bean field, feeling misunderstood
1) Every work place has “a field” – whether a country office, district office, or literally, a field of beans. Headquarters is, likewise, relative. They all equally feel misunderstood by the others. 

2) The importance of having a back-up for the back-up. To get a simple phone call through to headquarters, I keep two internet connections, one dongle, a cell phone and a landline on hand. For a local call, most folks use two phone numbers on two different networks, text, or even WhatsApp to get through. Constant problem-solving, creative thinking, bobbing-and-weaving is a must.

3) Streamlining does not always equal most efficient/effective (see #2). Why don't we just....? All that diversifying makes it tempting to cut through the red tape with simple solutions. Sure, it might make sense in one context to buy goats from all one vendor. One set of paperwork, one contract. But spreading the risk amongst three or four vendors ensures that if one overstates their capability there’s enough of a back up to keep the distribution on track. I call it the Not All in One Basket approach. It's exhausting, but not as exhausting as explaining why there are no goats.

Proudly displaying mango #11
4) I wouldn’t have interpreted it that way, but…it works. In an attempt to keep track of our office inventory, our gardener numbered each one of the ripening mangoes in the yard with a magic marker. I once also worked with an office manager who knew the project was underspending, so she stock piled over 100 bottles of toilet bowl cleaner, toilet paper and other cleaning supplies in an effort to increase the burn rate. I am constantly reminded that procedures need context, people need guidance, and it's ok to not take ourselves too seriously.

5) Waiting is the New Doing. When our car ran out of gas (because we didn't follow #2 and get gas when we were still at half tank and trying to streamline our stops) and the only station within 100 km hadn’t had electricity to pump in 14 hours, there was literally nothing we could do. So, we sat in the station with a coke and a samosa. Several solutions eventually revealed themselves (ending with the electricity magically turning on.) When in doubt, wait it out.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Development Myth

Here come the goats! Here come the goats!
When I first moved here, the realities of what I thought my job would be and what it actually turned out to be was a bit jarring. I imagined I’d be delivering of goats to women-farmers while they sang, danced and ululated around me in the sunshine of a bucolic farmyard. Instead, I’ve developed a hunchback and squint-eye compiling bid matrices and no-conflict-of-interest forms in triplicate that justify why Fatso Investments (name of real firm) has the best goats for the best price.

Complaining one night over beers, a good friend of mine (who works in the UN system) laughed and then advised. “Remember, your job is not to do your job. It’s to cut through all the bureaucracy to enable someone else to do their job.” I laughed, ruefully.

This perspective just doesn’t mesh with the humanitarian stereotype. You know, the one of a Westerner who has assimilated perfectly to their adopted homeland. S/he lives in a mud hut, happily without electricity, eating street food, and cheerfully taking public transportation. They speak the language, get all the formalities correct, never point their feet where they shouldn’t. As such, they are able to do really effective cool stuff. They hand out blankets to AIDs orphans, mobilize community health programs, and rehabilitate boreholes with a toothpick and a smile.

I will never be one of these people.

I used to feel so guilty about this. Sure, I’ve eaten street food and murdered “thank you” in eight languages, but I can never quite move from “clumsy outsider” to “effective local”. I like roadside samosas as much as the next person, but that doesn’t make me Indian. I can admire, adopt even, certain things out of respect and even, enjoyment. I can slow down when I talk. Share my food. Sit in the driver’s office and get the gossip. But I’ll never be Malawian. The best I can hope for is cultural competence, not fluency.

I’ve gone round the emotional mill on this (sad, angry, frustrated, guilty). The development stereotype tells me that I should be good at all these things - but I’m just not. I have spent the last ten years carrying residual guilt about this until, last week, something caught my eye on a recent post on AidSpeak. J., was expounding on the skills needed to be a good development professional:

The value that foreigners (us) bring to the table is less and less about our knowledge and understanding of the details of local culture (local staff usually know organically in a few seconds those things that take us months or years of study to get right), or our ability to endure harsh conditions (the fact that we might be able to live like refugees for a few days almost never impresses real refugees), and more and more about our ability to engage with the global humanitarian system.

Suddenly, I feel so much better. I've stopped beating myself up over this. 

The truth is, I don’t think these people actually exist the way we think they do. And even if they did, there’s an awful lot of tedium that you don’t hear about in the run up to becoming that effective. Never once do you hear about cleaning data sets or editing quarterly reports. No one ever spends hours waiting for the lights to turn back on, or the government official to show up or fixing crashed computers.   But those things need to be done.

This misconception has to change. We have to start being honest about what development work looks like. And sometimes, it's boring.

Our lead farmers and local staff know Chichewa and how to castrate a goat much better than I do. But I do know how to jump the hoops of procurement and the industry terms (allowable and allocable anybody?) to get those darn goats in the first place. I can practically quote 22 CFR 226 in my sleep. The thing is, I never valued these things as “skills” because that’s not what I thought a “good” development practitioner did. The mundane is always overlooked, undervalued.

That’s not to say understanding local context is unimportant for expats, or examining the intricacies of the global humanitarian system are impossible for locals. I’m just saying: Let’s each play to our comparative advantage. My comparative advantage will never be goat vaccinations and chatting away in Lao/Chichewa/Hausa. It is in understanding and following a donor system, their regulations, and smoothing the way for smart, creative local staff who understand their culture and their context to do their job.

My friend was right, it's not my job to do my job. It's to pave the way for someone else. That realization adds so much value, so much relief, it almost makes the paperwork...palatable.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Grit and Resiliency

This week I came across the podcast, Mission Creep. While still new (and not as slickly produced as say, NPR) Mission Creep is refreshing to listen to, as it brings mid-level aid professionals together to discuss “fresh and frank” development issues. I appreciated the non-Amero-centric views and diverse newspaper and website references (who loves the Guardian? I do).

In their January 2015 podcast, they discussed a recent article about grit. Specifically, how (and if?) grit is a good way to measure a successful development professional.

As they were discussing grit, it reminded me of a talk I listened to last year by Angela Lee Duckworth (link to a short video version here). Sure enough, they bring her up later on in the episode.

According to Ms. Duckworth, grit is “passion and perseverance for very long term goals, […] having stamina, […] sticking with your future day in day out […] and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”  

Everyone knows people in their lives who have grit, whether or not you call it that. They are the ones who stick with something long after it seemed prudent to stop. The ones who work harder than anyone else, hustle faster, show up earlier, stay longer, practice more.

My high school best friend has grit: she farms with her dad, owns her own business and fosters eleven puppies in the middle of winter when they were literally thrown away by someone else. When we played volleyball in high school, she hustled after every stray ball, even into the bleachers, even as her elbows and knees bled. I’ve never known someone to work as hard as she does.

The article suggests that the concept of grit is better than resiliency to evaluate if a person will be a successful manager of development projects. Resiliency, woefully over-used yet still an industry favorite, basically means ‘the ability to bounce back after setbacks’ or ‘rolling with the punches’. Did half your staff just quit? Did you indicators just double? Did your donor reduce funding? Did the lights just go off?

The hosts were quick to define grit and resiliency at odds with one another. On the one hand, grit equalled ‘pushing through’ and ‘not adapting’. On the other, resiliency was a how one changed, or rolled with it. The problem is, these things are not mutually exclusive. You have to have grit to stay in the dark while you figure out an alternative way to get the lights back on.  You have to have grit to attend yet another meeting that has been co-opted by the grandstanding government official to eventually meet the right person who can push your project forward. You have to have grit to tell someone they are not getting any more grant funding unless they can show you where the previous funds went even if you have that money burning a hole in your budget and HQ keeps yammering on about NICRA.

Granted, it’s only a thirty minute podcast, but I felt like their framing of these two concepts was off. Grit doesn’t mean be a jerk, it just means “Do the hard things.” That doesn’t mean you’re not changed by them. It doesn’t mean you don’t roll with the punches. It doesn’t mean you don’t cry internally (and sometimes externally, alone, in your office, at 8:05 am). It simply means that you show up, time and time again, and again, even when stuff gets hard. Grit is what keeps you there, while Resiliency asks "What's Next?"

Does grit equal inflexibility? Inadaptability? I don’t think so. I think grit and resiliency are closer cousins than academics would have us believe. It’s easier to gravitate towards the term grit because it’s colloquial; we can all identify. If Ms. Duckworth had been talking about resiliency, I would’ve never remembered her podcast or identified my best friend in her description.

Do I have use grit all the time? No way. In fact, I think that’s a pretty good way to burn out. Same with being resilient – even the most flexible things can break. I recently came across a great quote by Nelson Mandela: “Quitting is leading, too”. As someone who doesn’t thinks she’s had much grit lately, I love this. Both quitting and hanging tight have their moments; it’s only the timing of when and how that we have to perfect. 

Grit and resiliency are both tools we need to survive or successful at, well, anything. Jobs. Earthquakes. Marriages. Children. Just the way we sometimes need to be supple and forgiving, thankful and proud, fun-loving and hard-nosed. I love the idea of grit, I love the idea of resiliency. Do we really need to pick?

What do you think? 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Letters Left Unsent: A Review

I’m a bit late on this – although I was given a beta copy to review, his book was launched on Amazon in November. Check it out here!

This collection of essays loosely drawn into a book by author and blogger J., depicts snapshots in the life and travels of a humanitarian aid worker.  Unsurprisingly, it’s not all parties on the Serengeti.  Like most jobs, it has ups and downs: long hours in dusty hotels, stuffy conference rooms, morally difficult decisions, poor coordination. Letters Left Unsent is the distillation of thoughts that come from twenty years of these experiences, for better and worse.

I’ve been following (rather, lurking) J’s blog Tales from the Hood and AidSpeak for a few years now. I check in when I need inspiration, provocation and a little moral outrage. Being mired in the day to day realities of life “in the field” (e.g. trying to get fuel into six cars and eighteen motorcycles on weekly basis while keeping rats from chewing up seed corn in storage and spilled generator diesel from starting the kitchen on fire), it feels so good to read about someone else’s thoughts, opinions and struggles with the Aid Industry writ large. Reading his words are like hitting a release valve. Throughout his book, I found myself nodding and laughing, relieved that someone finally understands, finally can advise. (I found his comments on having an exit strategy particularly useful...)

For those considering a career as an aid worker, this book gives a straight picture of what to expect. It even includes the Aid Work Suitability Self-Test, which is as snarky as it is real to life. Outsiders may bristle at some assertions throughout the book (development is for professionals, not volunteers) that may sound elitist and exclusionary on the surface, but I assure you it is not. I do wish there was more of a narrative arc, but I'm more a fiction person than I am an essayist, so it may be personal preference.

As it stands, Letters Left Unsent is a collection of essays, blog posts that represent a tome to development work, one that gives voice to a little acknowledged non-Hollywoodized perspective of humanitarian aid.

It is well worth the read.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

This is a blog post.

Actual elephant crap (half dried)
This is a blog post about writer’s block, because I have it. Sometimes there is nothing pithy to say. But sometimes, you just have to keep going. You know that saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all?” That’s elephant crap.  Keep going.

I made a commitment to myself that I would update this blog every Sunday in 2015. This is what that commitment looks like. I’m only mildly sorry that it sucks to read. FYI commitment is sometimes not pretty (also, like elephant crap).

It’s not like I haven’t been busy. This week was crazy with work, more electrical issues with the house, Robert Mugabe’s 91st birthday, my fiancé climbing Kilimanjaro and coming home safely. Friday night I think I had two nervous breakdowns 1) because I was exhausted and 2) because who changes the locks on the office door and then goes home for the weekend, leaving you inside, and doesn’t tell you? OMFG.

I am practicing patience. I am dreaming for the future. I am preparing for some terrific and terrifying life changes. I am getting married, interviewing for jobs, and getting ready to move (again) and I of course decided it all NEEDED TO BE DONE THIS WEEK. Life is dull, tedious, joyful and hilarious all at once. I am breathing in my nose and out my mouth and trying not to swallow another fly like I did in the backyard this morning while picking fresh lemons.
Three dung beetles, fighting over crap.

Some day (soon, I hope) my writing will be better. It will not be a pile of crap. If I keep at it, like the dung beetle, I might roll it in to a little ball over half my size and push it along until I can get it home and live off it for a long, long time. Until then, I will keep going. I will keep going until that pile of crap is something useful and beautiful and that causes a Land Rover of white people with enormous cameras to stop and peer at a pile of poop, literally, rolling away from them.

Because that's a story, too. 

Until then, this is a blog post.