Monday, November 28, 2005

Highs and Lows on the Microphone

Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the GIPA conference held here in Mozambique. GIPA is a UN initiative for the greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the worldwide fight against the disease. This was Mozambique’s third GIPA conference since 1994 and gathered all of the country’s associations of PLWHA for a four day workshop here in Maputo. The event was sponsored by UNICEF, UNDP, CIDA, the Mozambican Ministry of Heath and the National Department of HIV/AIDS Programming. It was organized by RENSIDA, an organization that I’ve been in communication with that coordinates the numerous associations of PLWHA working throughout the country. The previous week that had asked me to make a presentation on getting PLWHA more involved in microfinance and I jumped at the opportunity. It was an honour for me to be slated in on the forth day of the conference between NGO directors and government ministers.

I prepared a presentation that highlighted the work of MMF, described the challenges of HIV/AIDS in microfinance operations, recommended future courses of action for MFIs and associations of PLWHA and gave the participants of list of MFIs to speak with about microfinancing. The crux of the my presentation was that microfinance could provide the capital needed to help PLWHA develop the income generating activities that would provide them with a longer, healthier and more satisfying life. Unfortunately, the type of presentation I gave was not entirely what the participants wanted to hear. They were attending this conference, in large part, to find out how they could best apply and receive government grants, or outside donations, for their operations. They did not want to hear about microloans and the impacts of HIV/AIDS on MFIs. Also, while I had translated my power point slides into Portuguese, I still delivered my presentation through a translator in English. As a result, some important information was lost in the translation. The participants kept thinking that MMF provided direct financing to associations despite my repeated efforts to explain that MMF only provided technical assistance to MFIs. Some of the participants became rather frustrated with my lack of ability to tell them how they could be approved for financing. I even had one of the association directors stand up and say that unless I could provide them with this information I should kindly get off the stage. Ouch.

So, all in all, the conference was both a good and a bad experience for me. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to present my case and meet the people at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS in this country. It also was gave MMF some beneficial publicity within the HIV/AIDS community in Mozambique. I can definitely say that the communication between RENSIDA and myself should have been a lot better in terms of what I was expected to present on and what I participants would be expecting to hear. I also probably made the mistake of delivering a presentation geared towards a North American audience to an African audience that has heard about the negative impacts of HIV/AIDS about a thousand and one times. Ultimately, our organization was not the right fit for this conference as so much of the HIV/AIDS work in this country remains dependant on government handouts and international donations. It seems as if these HIV/AIDS associations have a long way to go before they are ready for the conditions attached to microfinance. I find this unfortunate as I believe that their businesses can and should work with MFIs like any other microenterprise in a developing community. Development assistance provides much needed relief in certain situations but it’s the culture of dependence on this assistance that is often the unfortunate side effect. My experience this last week gave me some real insight into this matter.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Hard Rain a goina Fall

There’s a drought in Mozambique this year. It’s really bad up in Gaza and Inhambane Province. Their crops won’t grow. They can’t sustain life up there. People are starving each and every day. Nothing to see but brown fields and dead trees. When I think of that suffering, I think about the comforts that I rest upon each day here in Maputo. I ate something tasty this morning that I did not grow myself. I ate something at lunch today that I did not cook myself. Every night I go to sleep with a full stomach. Every single night. And yet somehow I find the audacity at times to complain that I am hungry. There are many here that can only dream of the luxuries that I take for granted on a daily basis. Their tummy’s scream and their lips are parched as they call out,

“Feel my hands
as they rise from the soil
and touch this land
on fire
without the water
to cool the sting
and soften the grip
of starvation”

Then this weekend the prayers of a nation were answered. The skies roared and the heaven’s poured out their baptism upon a people who had been thirsting for such a blessing for months on end. This was the beginning of the rainy season and the beginning of new life in southern Mozambique. Already sprouts have shot up overnight and the flowering trees are putting on their coats of many splendid colours. This is a pattern of life that people in this part of the world have risen and fallen alongside for thousands of years. Such long periods of suffering and then such sudden changes in fortune. And now I hear that Winnipeg’s fortunes have turned as well. 30 centimeters of snow in one day! Whew have fun digging yourselves out of that one you guys!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Motorcycle Inquiries

This week I spent a whole day in the field with the fine folks from MALE YERU. This was going to be my first experience interviewing clients without Narciso or Henriquita translating for me so I was quite nervous. I had spent a great deal of time translating my questions and practicing the pronunciation, all in an effort to come across as calm, cool and collected in the eyes of the clients. It didn’t really work though as I bumbled through my feeble Portuguese and nodded absently as the clients unleashed torrents of rapid responses. Luckily I had Rungo by my side to save the day. Rungo is a credit officer with MALE YERU and speaks English well enough to step in and help with the translation. He would be about my age and has the job of monitoring and evaluating his long list of clients. Credit officers work extremely hard and need to have exceptional people skills, especially when dealing with clients who fall behind in their loan payments. They also act as counsellors, helping their clients make smart lifestyle and business decisions.

So Rungo and I set out on his dirk bike for the day, bouncing along the dusty roads of the city of Catembe. Catembe is situated across the bay from Maputo but couldn’t be further from the capital city in terms of income, facilities and pace of life. The town has a real mix of old Portuguese colonial villas and rural Mozambican homesteads. The beach is quite impressive and the view of Maputo from the other side of the Bay is spectacular. It actually looks like a thriving coastal city one might find in Europe or North America…too bad it couldn’t maintain that sparkling splendor once you get off the ferry on the other side!!

We met a bunch of fantastic clients that day who all seemed to be making very good use out of their loans from MALE YERU. Many had used the loans to build or repair their houses, build new fishing boats or nets, expand their stores, construct chicken coups or start up new businesses such as bakeries or courier services. Since this was my first day working with Rungo, I couldn’t help but get the feeling the he was showing off his best clients to me. One of the clients we visited was Judige Solude. Judige began fishing around Catembe back in 1964 but fell into some hard times around 1999-2000 when much of his equipment was destroyed by a tropical storm. MALE YERU was able to provide the capital for him to build two new boats and hire up to 8 employees. Now he has plans to use future loans from MALE YERU to start a transport service from Maputo to Inhaca Island about 200 km off the coast. This is breathtaking view from his simple home overlooking the Maputo Bay.

I also thought I’d throw in this shot I took from the ferry heading over to Catembe. The boat on the right is called a dhow and it’s a model of sailboat that has been used along the coast of Africa for over 500 years. I love the simplicity of the dhow contrasted against the big powerful ocean liner. It’s that struggle between tradition and modernity that really encapsulates Africa.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Kingdom of Swaziland

One of the inconvenient things that interns have to deal with over here in Mozambique is periodically renewing our tourist visas. It’s a hassle, but it can be good time if you use the obligatory trek to the border to explore another country. This past weekend I took the opportunity to check out the beautiful Kingdom of Swaziland. I had never travelled outside of Maputo on public transportation before either so getting there was an experience in and of itself. I kicked off from work a little early on Friday and hopped on a chapa bound for Mbanane, the country’s capital and largest city. As we were waiting at the border for all of the passengers to go through customs I ran into a friend that works for CIDA here in Mozambique. She offered to take me the rest of the way to Mbanane which was fantastic as it was looking like we were in for the long haul at the border.

I was referred by many good folks to Grifter’s Lodge in Mbanane, which I must say has found a new place in Jared’s top three hostels of all time. It was never my intention for this blog to become a travel review site but, if you ever find yourself in the Mbanane area, seriously check this place out. Great people, great vibes, great accommodation. Within minutes I was hooked up with a tour guide for the next day and offered a cold beer to complete the day’s travels. I spent the night shooting the breeze and shooting stick inside the office/bar with the British owners of the joint and bunch of American Peace Corps Volunteers. These volunteers were savouring their one weekend off a month that they get from their rural assignments.

The next morning I met up with my tour guide, Mbuso, and we set off for our cultural tour of Swaziland. No matter what you do with Mbuso, whether it’s camping, hiking, fishing or exploring, he promises that you will do it “Swazi Style.” Unfortunately, the day that I choose to explore Swaziland was also the day that the clouds decided to sit right down on the mountains and refused to move all day long. Here I was in the most picturesque valleys in the country and, at times, I couldn’t even see fifty yards in front of me. No worries though, Mbuso just spent more time showing me the subtle beauties of the country’s people while the fog created a rather eerie atmosphere in the homesteads.

We actually started out by being unexpectedly invited to a Swazi funeral. They had buried the dead relative the day before and since had been partying all night and all morning long. Similar concept to the Irish wake I gather. They had all been drinking gallons of umcombotsi, which is the Swazi traditional home brew, and many were still passing around the container when we arrived. It’s extremely strong and leaves a very peculiar aftertaste. To be quite honest, I would have a lot of difficulty putting back an entire pint of the stuff if I were ever handed one at a bar. However, I gladly put it back in turn, much to the delight and the amusement of the others around the circle. Unfortunately, the weight of the loss to the household hung in the air and created a strange atmosphere of revelry and mourning. I didn’t want to feel like a tourist there anymore.

We then went to visit a Swazi traditional healer/medicine woman. She accepted us into her hut where she proceeded to tell me about her life and her role in the community. She told me about how she was both a Christian and a healer and how the missionaries had once used her to “minister” to the children of the village. She even showed me the difference between her traditional dress and the convent-style regalia that the missionaries brought to her. She wanted me to take a picture of her and her grandson because she had not had a picture of herself in many years so I eagerly obliged. She then proceeded to perform a traditional “reading of the bones.” This involved her taking a bag of bones, shells, coins and little pieces of wood, mixing in a bit of spit and mystery blue powder and pouring them out on the mat in front of us. From every one of the objects scattered around on the ground she was able to tell a story of the “ancestors”, which served as a mixture of Swazi folklore, proverbs and personal fortune telling.

Next came the party at the homestead where I was treated to some traditional Swazi cuisine, music and dancing. The women wore their colourful dancing attire and whistled, clapped and shrieked their way through their favourite Swazi songs. Even the girls as young as five and as old as seventy-five were out there putting on a show. I had lost track of Mbuso for a few minutes and then nearly fell on my butt from laughter as he came bounding out of the house in a full Swazi warrior get up to dance with the ladies. The girls then sang some of the AIDS awareness songs that they are taught in school. In the Swazi language, HIV/AIDS is called umbulalave, the world destroyer. Swaziland tragically suffers from the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world: 42% of the people in this country have the disease. Really think about that for a second. Of all the people you meet today, imagine if almost half of them had HIV/AIDS. That's the reality facing Swaziland today.

After exchanging many warm regards with my Swazi hosts, I returned to Grifter’s for a night of football, clubbing and a late night trek to a spectacular waterfall. My two days in this country convinced me that I need to return to see more of its natural beauty…and preferably not on the foggiest weekend of the year!! If anything it will provide me with another adventure the next time I need to have my passport stamped.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ramble On

Like sand through the hour glass, so is the Doxycyclin that tumbles out of my medicine bottle each morning. These little blue pills have defended me thus far against the wrath of the malaria bearing mosquitoes that buzz around my apartment in the wee hours of the night. They also present me with the constant reminder that my days in this beautiful country are limited. I am almost finished the first bottle, which means that I am rapidly approaching the halfway point of my internship in Mozambique. I approach this marker with some trepidation as there is still so much that I want and need to accomplish before my time here is up. I can look back at the past two months with mixed emotions. I know that I have learned many interesting things, met tons of fascinating people and have been a part of some very exciting work. But still there is this sinking feeling that I’m not doing enough.

I guess I am wondering what sort of an imprint my work will have here in Mozambique. I am not expecting monumental impacts here, but I certainly would like to leave some sort of imprint. Is my research just going to lead to one more report floating around cyberspace? Will my work leave any lasting impressions on the institutions and the people that I encounter? My time thus far in the field here in Mozambique has confirmed my desire to be a part of the development process on the ground. My soul is satisfied when I am associating with people, learning of their experiences and exchanging ideas. It is the sights, the sounds, the smells and the feel of development that I crave and I feel separated from these “real” aspects of Mozambique when I sit behind my desk at the MMF office.

Perhaps I am experiencing a bit of the blahs and a little confusion over the direction of my work here. I suppose this is common for all interns that head over seas. If I’m not making a strong enough connection with the environment around me then I really have nobody to blame but myself. I need to focus a little harder and be more willing to step out of the boat. I know that I have feel into familiar comforts within an expatriate community and the neighbourhood in which I live is a tiny microcosm of “the West” here in Mozambique. It could be very easy for me to live out my time here in this country safe within these secure communities. But like Peter, I believe the Lord is calling me to trust him further, really open up my eyes to my surroundings and take that critical step out of boat. There is much work for me to do here still and I want to be diligent and faithful to that calling.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Kanye Mambo

This means “thank you” in Shangan, one of the major tribal languages in Southern Mozambique. For many Maputans, Shangan is their first language and they are pleasantly surprised when foreigners can say even a simple thank you in their native tongue. I get many smiles when I say “Kanye Mambo” to the venders in the market and they have often have a heartfelt laugh as I try to continue with my broken Portuguese. Kanye Mambo is also the name of an organization here in Maputo that takes care of orphaned children. They provide lodging, basic education, job training and nutritious meals to nearly 200 children aged 5-18.

Last Saturday I got to attend their 21st anniversary celebration held just north of the city by Costa da Sol. The whole event was organized by Lena Maguia, a woman whose name is synonymous with social development here in Mozambique, and she was gracious enough to invite us out to enjoy the festivities. We were treated to traditional songs and dances performed by the kids and a tour of the organization’s facilities. I’ve been kicking myself about million and one times for not bringing along my camera because the pictures were absolutely priceless. The kids were adorable and their songs just melted my heart. It was amazing to see the joy in these children’s eyes as they sang and laughed with their friends at the center. It was a beautiful scene but I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of other orphaned children in Maputo, not to mention the rest of the country, that were not fortunate enough to a part of a caring organization like Kanye Mambo. When you work in this field of development, you sometimes just can’t escape that helpless feeling of not being able to reach everyone in need.

We were then treated to an HIV/AIDS presentation by the high school kids in the organization, a humorous skit the cut to the core issues of HIV/AIDS prevention and the importance of discussing the disease openly with each other. Then the women who had been working in the kitchen all day had their turn to shine. These women, not one of them under the age of 40, came out strutting their stuff and singing traditional Shangan songs and each taking turns to perform traditional dances. I don’t know how to describe the dancing other than highly energetic, combining tons of jumping, kicking and stomping movements. I couldn’t believe how fast these women could move and the whole crowd was loving every minute of it, encouraging the dancers with their shouting and clapping. The dancing cooks then bounced and sang all the way back to the kitchen where they soon produced a bountiful feast of African delicacies. And of course, it just wouldn’t be a Mozambican party without the Laurentina flowing like water.

After dinner the party just kept getting better. A bunch of guys soon broke out the traditional Mozambican drums and marimbas, an instrument that looks like a huge xylophone, and got the whole crowd moving to the rhythms of Shangan tribal songs. A Shangan dance troup was even on hand to treat the crowd to a spectacular display of traditional dancing. I have to say, Shangan dancing is quite sexually suggestive, with the men and women going through the movements at an EXTREMELY fast pace. I couldn’t believe what happened next though. I was standing in the front row of the crowd with Ruth Dueck-Mbeba and we were both pulled into the middle of the circle to dance in front of the whole crowd. Now for all of those who know me, you’ll know that I’ve certainly not been blessed with any skills on the dance floor. In fact I’ve always said that I have three strikes against me before I even get out of my seat: I’m tall, white and Mennonite!! However, despite not having any serious rhythm in my hips, I enjoy dancing a ton and don’t mind making a fool of myself all in the name of a good time. So there I was, shaking my stuff and jumping around like a madman in front of hundreds of laughing and clapping Africans. Before I knew it, most of the crowd had joined the dancing festivities and I was getting down with 50 year old Shangan women who were getting a kick out of dancing with this Canadian stranger. Good times all around!

Oh and last night I checked out the Oliver Mtukudsi and the Black Stripes concert. For all of you who were at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this past year you’ll remember that Oliver played on the main stage on Saturday night. He’s absolutely incredible and is one of the biggest musical sensations in Southern Africa and is a national hero in his home country of Zimbabwe. I cannot recall many bands that I’ve seen that are as professionally refined and choreographed as these guys. They are currently on a continental tour of Africa and played two sold out nights here in Mozambique. Maputo gets about as many big name touring acts as Flin Flon, Manitoba, so it creates quite a buzz when a well know international performer comes to town. It was a real blessing for me to catch the show and be a part of the overwhelmingly appreciative crowd. Kanye Mambo, Muito Obrigado, Thank you Oliver!!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A note on housekeepers

Wow I did not expect this topic to cause such a stir. The comments have been great people, that is exactly what this blog is for!! I feel that I need to clarify from the beginning that I do not believe that having a housekeeper is a necessity, nor do I feel that I am “entitled” to such a service. If I were living in Canada right now I would not have hired a housekeeper. But when one lives in a different country, one must be aware of the cultural norms and practices and adjust their worldview accordingly. Two months ago I shared many of your objections to hiring a housekeeper but over the past two months I’ve become aware of how much domestic help is a part of African culture (as it is in many cultures south of the equator). It is widely believed here in Mozambique that if one has the means to support someone in this regard then they should do it willingly. It is considered selfish and narrow minded to do so other wise. This extends to all those living in Mozambique: black, white, red and blue. It is certainly not perceived here as something that is “keeping the poor in their place”

This is no doubt a luxury that I have been able to afford out of my affluence, and I can only be thankful that I am in such a position where I can give a little back. There are no doubt other ways in which I could contribute to the local economy but hiring Rebecca allows me to make a personal connection with a Mozambican family and I really like that. And yes, I admit, washing clothes by hand is not something I miss all that much!! Keep the comments coming people!!


Sun, Sand and Work

On Sunday, our rag tag MMF team set off for the town of Xai-Xai, 300 clicks up the coast north of Maputo, to work with the Fundo do Desenvolvimento da Mulher (FDM). They are one of MMF’s partners and work primarily with poor women in the Gaza province around Xai-Xai. I should first introduce the team. The lady in the back is Ruth Dueck-Mbeba, a microfinance and accounting specialist for MEDA. She is a lady with a true heart for Africa who has lived and worked in Tanzania and provides accounting seminars for microfinance institutions all over the world. The guy in front is Boaventura Huo, a trainer and economist with MMF. When he’s not working late hours at the office, Boa teaches economics at a local university. Finally, the guy on the right is Narcisso, the driver and logistics coordinator for MMF. Recently, however, Narcisso has expanded his job description to include Jared’s Portuguese-Shangan-English translator and African cultural instructor. I am extremely thankful for his help in these areas as I would be extremely lost without him.

When we got to Xai-Xai on Sunday we discovered that the villa that Pierre had arranged for us to stay at was directly on the beach!! We thoroughly enjoyed our relaxing afternoon sitting by the water, soaking in the atmosphere while munching on the fruits of the sea. This was truly the Mozambican beach paradise that I had heard so much about from both travelers and locals. There’s just something about a beach, palm trees, and the infinite expanse of the ocean that makes all your cares just drift way. It certainly allowed our team to charge up our batteries for what was going to be both a physically and emotionally draining two days in the field.

We started out on Monday by attending two of the FDM client group meetings in the towns of Macia and Chokwe. These meetings bring together clients and the credit officers to discuss the loan repayments, business developments and any other concerns that the clients may have about their accounts. The clients all sit on the ground and are each given a turn to express their thoughts and present the credit officer with their bank deposit slips proving that they made their deposits on time. I gained a real appreciation for the work of the credit officers, who possess an in depth knowledge of each client’s financial and family situation and a skillful ability to solve problems related to loan delinquency.

After the meetings we had the opportunity to interview many of the clients at work in the market. Some had only small wooden stands where they sold a few vegetables, cooking oil and rice while others owned large stores or restaurants with a full range of consumer goods. Over the two days in Xai-Xai, Chokwe and Macia we slugged through market after market talking to a ton of clients about their business, their families and how microfinance has impacted their lives. We were also able to discuss HIV/AIDS with a few of the clients but for the most part it was very difficult to breach the topic.

I want to share two stories though of clients that have been directly impacted by HIV/AIDS. The first is of Maria de Cousa. Maria owns a barraca (restaurant/bar) in Xai-Xai where she cooks meals and serves drinks to loyal patrons in her neighbourhood. Her most recent loan from FDM was for 30,000,000 MZM ($1300 CDN). She has used this money to develop a wider menu for her clients and to increase the seating capacity at her barraca. She has also taken some of the loan money to invest in a chicken coup beside her house (which is conveniently located behind the restaurant). This coup provides her with a constant supply for her house specialty: BBQ chicken and french fries!!

Maria is able to handle the workload from the restaurant along with one other employee from the neighbourhood named Nordina. Nordina is the one on the left in this picture. Nordina is HIV positive and comes from a family where her mother and her sister have already died from the disease. She has no husband and no children of her own but takes care of the four children orphaned by her sister. With her next loan from FDM, Maria is planning on opening up a second barraca in another part of Xai-Xai that Nordina will manage. In addition to this, Maria would like to organize a citizens committee that would work alongside other HIV/AIDS service providers to help orphaned children in Xai-Xai. Maria believes that FDM can help her transform these dreams into reality by providing her with the necessary start-up capital.

The second story is of Candida Masiwana. Candida is a client of FDM that is openly HIV positive. She is the woman seated in the middle in this picture. She has been a part of a loan group since 2003 and sells baby clothes and shoes in the central market in Xai-Xai. The members of the group are a very close circle of friends that provide a lot of personal support for Candida as she continues to operate her business despite her physical condition. The members of the group have their stalls side by side in the market and all go together to a warehouse in South Africa to pick up their clothing supplies. The group receives a total of 20,000,000 MZM each loan cycle of which each member gets 5,000,000 MZM ($250 CDN). Microfinance has helped her continue to live a productive life and while receiving basic medical treatment. She says that FDM allows her to “live well and help my children live a good life.”