Thursday, February 23, 2006

Viva os Pescadores!!

The second day with Ophavela was spent in the coastal city of Angoche about 250 km away from Nampula. One assumes that under normal road conditions such a trip should take just over two hours, but here in Northern Mozambique one has to hope for the best and expect the worst when it comes to rural highways. The trip ended up being a four hour roller coaster ride with our Land Cruiser often going no more than 5-10 kmh. When we finally got to Angoche I discovered that the old colonial port city had, like so many other Portuguese towns in Mozambique, been reduced to a dusty ghost town by years of civil war, capital flight and neglect. Here is a shot of the main street of Angoche at 2:00 in the afternoon. Kind of makes you want to lie under the shade and go to sleep, which is a popular way locals spend the afternoon.

We were able to meet with the Ophavela staff working in Angoche and visit some of local credit associations. Many of the clients working in Angoche are fishermen that desperately try to make a living for themselves and provide for their families by what is yielded to them by the sea. Unfortunately, many of the fishermen are too poor to afford nice boats and fishing equipments, making it very difficult to get to the deeper waters where the really big monsters live. As a result many skim the shallower waters for small fish and crabs or paddle out to sea on tiny dug out canoes. The ones that can afford larger boats are still hampered by government regulations against using certain sizes of nets or fishing in certain areas. The problem is that the waters close to shore have been extremely over fished, forcing the government to take immediate action in order to replenish the vital fish stacks. The local fisherman, however, have difficulty seeing the long term benefits of this strategy. Their families are hungry now and they only see the policy as increasing their suffering.

We met with some local fisherman (pescadores) under the shade of Angoche’s only beachfront restaurant (which by the looks of things had not seen visitors in many a moon.) There names were Moisa Muhammed and Osaf Saliman (There is a much greater Muslim population in Nampula than back in Maputo province so we were confronted not only by a different social culture but also by a completely different set of names). They were very grateful for Ophavela and the credit association but they continuously stressed how difficult it was for them to make a living as fisherman in Angoche. They were ashamed to admit that they often had to use loan money from the group to buy fish to feed their families or to sell in the market. They admitted that a big problem for the fisherman here is that they have no means of preserving their fish so their products often spoil before they are able to be sold in the market. Since many of the members are constantly living hand to mouth they do not have many long term business development plans aside from collectively purchasing a car for the group to transport their products to the markets in Nampula. A lofty dream indeed but encouraging to see them thinking collectively.

After our interview, we said goodbye to the fisherman and they returned home to their families with the days catch: five small fish no more than three inches in length and two crabs. They just shrugged their shoulders and admitted that the sea did not give them much today and that hopefully tomorrow would be better. We then returned to town to meet with some of the woman’s associations. Many of these women had husbands who also were fisherman but were engaged in some small businesses as a means to complement the family income. Some of their activities included the production and sale of traditional beer, cakes, charcoal and coconuts. The members saw the credit association not as a means to develop their business but as a safety net for them to get through the “days of hunger.” Many of the members were extremely thankful for the opportunity to use the loan money to purchase furniture and fridges for the house, organize traditional ceremonies for weddings and funerals and pay for their children’s school fees. In communities as destitute as this I’ve discovered that development is a luxury while survival is a reality.

After our long day of trekking around the streets and the beaches of Angoche, we piled back into our Land Cruiser for the long journey back to Nampula. We did one more sweep past the sleepy streets, observing the large port and three massive factories that now lay abandoned and in ruins. Looking over my notes and pictures from the day I could not help but marvel at the people that still managed to make some sort of a living for themselves in a town that history had all but forgotten.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Trabalhamos Juntos (We work together)

Sorry for the delay in the posting over the past few days. We’ve had a ton of visitors come through the office lately and it has caused me to neglect my blog. On Monday we had our big Project Steering Committee meeting where we had to present the work of MMF in front of the representatives from CIDA as well as the Bank of Mozambique and ministries of finance and rural planning and development. MMF will come to a close here by the end of November unless CIDA and the Mozambican government decided to renew the partnership commitment between them and MEDA. We put forth a good presentation I thought but now we have to play that proverbial waiting game as the bureaucratic wheels continue to turn and decide on our future here in Mozambique.

But for the time being I will write another report on the trip up north. After our two days with Caixa das Mulheres de Nampula, Cremildo and I met up with a microfinance institution by the name of Ophavela. Now Ophavela has a unique lending methodology that I had yet to see during my time in Mozambique. They facilitate what is know as rural savings and loan programs for poor, subsistence communities throughout the rural districts in Nampula. Unlike most other MFIs who receive funding for client loans from international donors and development organizations, Ophavela sets up self-sustaining associations of 15-30 members whose loan capital comes from the pool of savings that they are able to accumulate as a group. This methodology works extremely well in these rural areas where the communities are extremely poor and depend on each other as a means to survival.

So Ophavela will go out into these rural districts (where not many NGOs dare travel!!) and train local communities on how to run these credit associations. The members receive basic training in money management, record keeping and, recently, some basic information on HIV/AIDS. After a two month intensive training period the groups are reviewed by Ophavela officers and approved for the next “maturation phase.” This involves less monitoring by the Ophavela officers and community activists and more sovereignty transferred to the association members. The groups each have some flexibility in designing the conditions of the savings and loans as well as the terms of membership in the association. They will meet once a week to collect the savings contributions, provide credit to willing members, collect loan payments and discuss any emergencies or general issues of the day, all in addition to some good hearted singing, laughing and socializing with their friends from the community. Each member knows that their contribution is important to the overall wealth of the group, working together to foster greater prosperity for the community.

We spent the first half of the day with Ophavela interviewing their staff at their head office in Nampula. The staff were incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their operations as well as their HIV/AIDS program that was currently being developed. They have done a lot of work already and clearly highlighted areas where they would need further technical assistance. After the meetings in the morning we headed out to see some of the associations that operated just outside of Nampula. Being the visitors from the “big city,” Cremildo and I received a royal welcome from the association members complete with singing, dancing and refreshments (coke and egg sandwiches!!). For communities whose members often survive on less than a dollar a day, such an outpouring of hospitality was very touching.

After we conducted our group interviews, the members would proudly present “the box” containing their savings and social security contributions. Each member would then present their weekly savings, often no more than 10,000 MZM (50 cents). While these savings seem quite insignificant by our western standards, they are a considerable sacrifice for families with little to no income. And members know that if they continue to make these savings they can apply for a small loan (no more than three times their accumulated savings) or receive the group payout that happens every eight months. This payout comes from the accumulated interest on loans (10% per month) as well as any financial penalties assessed for late payments and is distributed accordingly amongst the joyous members. The happiness that the members share for being a part of the association is remarkable as it provides them with the added financial security to get through what they call the “hunger times.” The spirit that they show, despite the hardships the surround them everyday, is truly an inspiration.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Girl Power!

Well the time out in the field was certainly an incredible experience for Cremildo and I. We were able to pack a lot of work into our five days in Nampula before we parted ways and I took off for some holiday time on the coast. I’ve decided that the best way to share with you all what we saw and did would be for me to split up the trip into three sections: our time in Nampula with Caixa das Mulheres, our time “in the bush” with Ophavela and finally my awesome three days on the Ilha de Mozambique.

We began our adventure at the Maputo International Airport where Cremildo bravely boarded a plane for the first time in his life and we both stared out the window like little kids as the beaches and palm trees shrank beneath our eyes. Landing in Nampula, we were greeted at the airport by a five woman welcoming committee, dressed in their flamboyant finest and whisked off in the back of a pick up truck to our hotel. These women were from Caixa das Mulheres de Nampula (CMN), an association that offers savings and small enterprise loans exclusively to female members. These women are given the opportunity to gather in small groups to learn about healthy lifestyles, money management and basic business development skills. The central objective of CMN is woman's empowerment through microfinance, allowing these women to take greater control over their economic lives.

While their hearts are in the right place, and their staff and clients are both optimistic and energetic, the institution suffers from a lack of direction and low operational capacity. Both Cremildo and I were disappointed to discover that no progress had been made on their HIV/AIDS action plan since the workshop we held last September. The few pamphlets that were strewn about the front office were the meager leftovers from what the participants took back from Maputo. They had not made any effort to make their own contacts with HIV/AIDS service providers or further design any policy or product refinements. There is clearly a lot of work that still needs to be done.

That being said, Caixa das Mulheres did have some very interesting clients that we were able to meet over the two days with them. One success story I should share is of Malika Sawcha, a real Mozambican entrepreneur. She is a woman that has been with CMN since 1998 and is currently on her eighth loan cycle worth 25 Million MZM ($1100 CDN). Malika started from scratch back in 1998 and is now running a sewing business with six machines and a small auto parts store, employing altogether five people in the operation. She is planning on using her next loan to open up a baraca next to here shop to serve lunch and cold drinks to all of her customers in the neighbourhood. Despite her success, Malika has not been spared by the impacts of HIV/AIDS. She has already lost one employee to the disease and has taken in her sick cousin whose husband died of AIDS last year.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the stunning Catholic Cathedral in downtown Nampula, the site of Pope John Paul’s visit in 1988 (or Papa Joao Paulo as they say here). I’ll write more about the trip and post more pictures in the next couple of days. Tchau!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I'm very excited because tomorrow I am embarking on my greatest work related trip during my time in Mozambique so far. Myself and my new co-worker, Cremildo Carlos, are heading up to Nampula Province in Northern Mozambique to spend a week working with two microfinance operators in the region. We're going to be visiting many of the rural projects as well which should prove to be fascinating. I enjoy my job here in Maputo but I cherish every moment I get to work out in the field and I beleive that this one should be very rewarding.

I'm also excited to begin this first field assignment with Cremildo. MMF just hired him this month to work as the HIV/AIDS technical advisor and already I am regretting not having him here since the begining of my internship. He brings a lot of experience and insight to the team and possesses an uncany ability to always say the right things and get the right things done. He's my age and already we've developed a pretty good working vibe. I'm also excited because Cremildo has never flown in a plane before and I can't wait to see his reaction to seeing Mozambique through the eyes of a bird. He's eagerly looking forward to the trip but I can also tell that he is a little nervous to go up into the sky for the first time!!

Then after this week I'm going to spend a few extra days up in Nampula checking out the sights in that part of the country. I'm definitely going to check out Ilha de Mozambique, a 500 year old Portuguese colonial settlement that is a UNESCO world heritage site. I'm a pretty big history buff and I've wanted to see this colonial relic ever since I began researching the country of Mozambiue. I don't imagine I'll have much internet access up there but I'll definitely take as many pictures as I can and tell you about the whole experience.

Blessings to you all,


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Festival Esperança

Try to imagine for a second an entire stadium full of people, all shouting loudly and dancing to the lively beats of energetic musicians late into the evening. Many of us have probably been to a concert like this and many of us have probably been to so many we’ve lost count. But now try to imagine being in this same crowd amidst a sea of people who have never witnessed anything close to this kind of spectacle. This is Mozambique and this was the Festival Esperança (the festival of hope).

As I mentioned once before, large scale concerts in Mozambique are about as common as a gay pride parade in Alberta. African musicians rarely have the resources to stage such events and locals rarely have enough finances to afford the high ticket prices. As a result, when a big concert does happen it is BIG news, especially if the headliner is a major international superstar. The last time the international music industry descended upon Mozambique was back in 1995 when Eric Clapton thrilled a capacity crowd of 60,000 at the Stadium de Machava (Mozambique’s national sporting complex). This past Saturday, I joined at least 65,000 others at the same venue to be a part of what was being billed as the “concert of the decade.” Headlined by UB40, the concert also included the fabulous and timeless Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe and the classic reggae hero from South Africa Lucky Dube.

The concert was organized in support of people living with HIV/AIDS and the ubiquitous red ribbons were to be found all around the stadium. In between musical acts, Mozambican celebrities and government officials made emotional pledges to the crowd to be strong in the fight against HIV/AIDS, their pleas often generating the same level of applause from the crowd as the musicians. The number of sponsors for the event was staggering, including everything from government departments to multinational corporations to major international NGOs. Everything from flyers to pamphlets to free condoms were distributed throughout the crowd or dropped from airplanes above. Seeing the hundreds of inflated condoms being batted around by the boisterous crowd just added to the surreal picture of the event, although much to the chagrin of the HIV/AIDS activists on stage.

We headed down to the concert in a group of 14, holding close to the belief that there is always safety in numbers. Such precautions were justified as the whole event was absolutely chaotic. The line up getting into the stadium alone was about a kilometer and a half long with nearly every street vendor within a 50 kilometer radius of Maputo franticly running up and down the line trying desperately to sell the impatient crowd anything from cold beer to cashew nuts to mysterious “street meat.” We almost spent as much time outside the stadium as we did inside but all realized that this was simply a golden opportunity for people watching. I was all prepared to bring my camera and guard it with my life at the concert but decided against it at the last minute. It was probably a wise decision as some friends of ours were pick pocketed and had their purses slashed. Still, the pictures I could have had would have been priceless.

By the time we finally got into the stadium and meandered our way up close to the stage, the strength of the crowd was really starting to build. The group Kapa Dech was on stage, an all percussion group from Mozambique that quickly worked the whole crowd into a frenzy. This group was quickly followed by the hugely popular Lucky Dube whose singing, dancing and preaching too everyone to a higher place. Looking around me, I had never in my life seen so much energy and “positive vibrations” pulsating through a crowd of people. Simply spectacular. Oliver Mtukudzi then came out and beautifully continued the musical celebration. I think My Zimbabwean friend Mondli can best describe Oliver’s music, “Ah he is great. He makes the young ones jump. He makes the old ones jump and he even makes the white ones jump!!” In all honesty, UB40’s set was rather anti-climatic following the amazing performances by the African musicians, although they did bring down the house when they pulled out “Red Red Wine.” Who doesn’t love that song?

Altogether it was an amazing concert and an unforgettable experience, made all the more special by the fact that such events only occur once every ten years in this country.

Hey everyone! Some of the comments I got on the blog last week were great, especially after the election. I have to say though, for some real insightful (and often hilarious) commentary on the state of Canadian politics, sports and entertainment in the world, I would suggest you check out my good friend Jarret Boon's blog here. Jarret was one of my classmates at Carleton and is perhaps single handedly responsible for me not drowning in the Rideau Canal back in the summer of '04. Our "baseball" pilgrimage to Boston that year was a dream I'll never forget. Keep fighting the good fight out there in Ottawa brother!