Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Interviews and Flight News!

The past two weeks have been just crazy for me- the awesome kind of crazy! Last Thursday I interviewed two mamas from Tukwamuane (TWG) kitchen (APYN's first and oldest yogurt kitchen), a street leader from Mabatini (where TWG is located), and Bernard Makachia, the a local economist and business consultant who facilitated workshops on entrepreneurship with the members in March. 

Mr. Makachia

I hadn’t originally planned to interview Mr. Makachia, but after watching him at the conference last month, I knew it would be a missed opportunity not to approach him for an interview. And I am so glad that I did! Our interview took place at his office in Mwanza, in English (thankfully). He had so much knowledge on the small businesses environment in the region, as well as loads of feedback from the workshops pertaining to the challenges and successes of the yogurt kitchen micro-enterprises. For instance, he informed me that there is a fairly equal distribution of population, income, HIV prevalence, accessible transport, and yogurt business competition among the areas in which the ten kitchens are located. In others words, generally speaking, the fact that some kitchens are doing better than others in terms of profit is indicative of internal as opposed to external factors. I won’t go into more detail about our conversation for here, except to say that I think this will be one of my most informative interviews with regard to understanding the criteria needed to make micro-enterprises successful in terms of profit (not necessarily gender impact) in this particular economic/consumer environment. 

The interviews with the TWG mamas and the Mabatini street leader were also incredibly interesting and informative. Each lasted approximately an hour and were conducted with the aid of a translator. 

Outside of TWG Kitchen in Mabatini, Mwanza

Inside TWG Kitchen

All four of these interviews were conducted in the same day, over the course of about 7 hours. This was hugely exhausting but also allowed me to pick up on themes and connections between each. For example, many of Makachia’s suggestions about what will make the kitchens successful and sustainable in the long term were reiterated by the TWG mamas when I asked them about what has allowed their business to be so successful the past ten years, namely: passion among the kitchen members for the work they are conducting; and cohesion among group members with regard to their understanding and aspirations for their business. The results of my questionnaire also point to the importance of cohesion among group members conceptualizations of their business, as members of those kitchens making the least amount of profit tended to have really inconsistent ideas about the biggest challenges facing their kitchen today, and where they envisioned their business in five or ten years. As Makachia rather eloquently put it: “Members of a business are always tied to one another, so if everyone is moving in different directions than no one can move forward”. Seriously, this man has such a beautiful way with words, I could listen to him talk all day.

Since last week I have conducted interviews at four more kitchens, and will finish up at the remaining five next week. My strategy for scheduling interviews has been to ride along with APYN in the van as they deliver the probiotic to the kitchens on Thursdays and Fridays each week. Once there, I ask Celestine or Abdallah (a new member of APYN staff) to speak with the kitchen members and identify a convenient time for me to return to conduct interviews the following Tuesday or Wednesday. Since it is impossible to schedule anything over the phone or further than a few days in advance, this system seems to be my best option and is working well so far. In order to ensure that the members remember when I am coming, I have been jotting down our interview date and time on Middlesex community calendars that my mom brought with her last month, and then giving them to the kitchens as gifts to hang on their walls. The calendars are also really fun since I have gotten to know the members personally at this point, and they love seeing pictures of where I come from. The calendars were created by my mom’s credit union as part of their United Way campaign, so there is a photo of her on the last page. As soon as I show the member’s her photo and explain that “this is my mom”, they automatically assume that everything else in the calendar is from my life as well- so now the Glencoe train station must be my house, and the small children eating ice cream must be my children. The conversation that ensues is pretty funny and occurs at literally every kitchen!

I have also been taking photos of the kitchens and the members when I go to conduct interviews. I have (what I think is) this really cool idea of creating an interactive map of Mwanza to link on the APYN and WHE websites. Here, users will be able to click on a kitchen location and see photos of the mamas, of the kitchen, stats on the members and the micro-enterprise garnered from my questionnaire (such as opening date, average age of members, average number of dependents, most common uses of income earned from the kitchen, quotes on personal/community impact, etc.). This would allow users (and potential donors) to understand that the kitchens are each unique enterprises, run by unique individuals, each with different stakes in ensuring the success of the yogurt program for themselves, their family and their community. I think it is also important for donors to be able to see exactly where and to whom their money is going. I also hope to include this map as reference within the electronic version of my dissertation. Kinda cool, right? 

Anyways, as you can tell, things are going really really well here. I feel like I am actually going to accomplish everything that I set out to do, and more! It is hard to believe. 

In fact, things are progressing so quickly that I have decided to come home a little bit earlier than planned! Yay! As things currently stand, I will be finished all my work here by May 3rd, which according to my original flight schedule, means that I would basically be sitting on my hands for three weeks. Instead of paying rent and bills needlessly, I put the money towards changing my flight itinerary to leave Mwanza on May 14th. So in less than three weeks I will be home in bed, cuddling with Buster and eating Ketchup chips! I know, that’s THE dream. 

Mama's coming home, little man!

Kila la heri marafiki.


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Halfway Point: Looking Back and Moving Forward

It is hard to believe, but March 24th marked the halfway point in my internship with Western Heads East and APYN. That means that 64 of the 128 days that I will spend in this beautiful, enigmatic and chaotic city are behind me, and that I still have 64 more to go. Actually, as of today, April 10th, I have 48 more days to go- I am admittedly a little behind on blogging at the moment.

Ooooh, I'm just so reflective.

Today it is pouring rain in Mwanza. Fortunately for me, the only thing on my itinerary is drinking tea, analyzing questionnaire responses and writing this blog post. I just finished creating separate organizational profiles for each kitchen, which include: member demographics such as age, marital status, % of members who are the sole income earner in their household, % of members for whom this is their first job outside of the home; figures on income distribution and use among members; statements on programmatic impact; and so forth. Now I am compiling the information into one cohesive document for APYN. It is already 20 pages long but one of the main outcomes of my internship is to provide them with the preliminary results of my gender impact assessment, so it is important that I get this done before I leave. I also want to get everything that I can accomplished before I start conducting interviews with kitchen members, local leaders and APYN staff in the next two weeks.

I am still not sure exactly how said interviews are going to play out since most Tanzanians don't schedule things more than a day or two in advance, and I can't exactly just call up the members in order to arrange an interview... so basically I am going to show up at the kitchens as usual to help deliver the probiotic, and see who can sit and chat with me for ten or fifteen minutes. I realize this strategy might sound incredibly intrusive to an outsider, but it's totally just how things roll here. It has taken me a long time to "let go" of my own pre-conceived cultural notions of appropriate research methodology, and my personal inclination to over prepare every aspect of my life and work, and in doing so accept that things just don't happen the same way here as they do at home. People here plan one day at a time because that is all they have ever been able to do with certainty. And while I am still not fully comfortable leaving so many details of my project up in the air, it's the nature of the beast and I like to think it's forcing me to grow as a researcher and as a person. 

And speaking of personal growth…. As most if not all of you already know, a year and a half ago I called off my engagement to a man whom I loved very much. Despite all of the anger, self-doubt and disillusionment that invariably comes with calling off a wedding, and, indeed, an entire life with someone, I felt like I was coping really well with everything that had happened. It is only now that I am thousands of miles away from home and from any possibility of romantic distraction that I realize how important it was for me to leave the world of dating for a few months, and get some much-needed perspective. Looking back, I can't believe some of the ridiculously inappropriate (i.e. young, or long distance, or likewise recently disengaged, etc.) individuals that I ushered into my romantic life last year. I now know that of them were ever going to be capable of satisfying my needs, because what I needed, was time. I basically set myself up for one inevitable dating disaster after another- it was exhausting. My mom said she feels sorry for pretty much all of the men I've gone out with since Shmoli. Poor guys, we never stood a chance! But from where I sit today, I so far past the mindset of "I can't wait to get back to Canada and meet someone new!". No, I am so content with being on my own, and also proud of how much I have accomplished now that I am spending my time working with an organization that I believe in and conducting research that I feel passionately about, instead of relying on someone else to fulfill me. Not that I have ever been the type to lose myself or neglect my own ambitions for the sake of finding or being in a relationship. But it has been quite a winding, soul-searching journey that i've been on since the last time I returned home from Tanzania in November 2012. 

This trip to Tanzania has been equally as wonderful and yet so very different from my last. I feel blessed to have been afforded the opportunity for such extended retrospection, and in the context of working on a project that is so personally meaningful to me. But as much as I am relishing and thriving in my current Tanzanian lifestyle, I cannot wait to come home. I appreciate everything that I have going for me in life so much more now than ever before. I also feel more capable of distinguishing between things that are essential to my happiness (i.e. my family, my friends, Buster, my work and my health) and things that I could do without if need be (i.e. most of my material possessions, even my shoes- blasphemy, I know!). I can't wait to be back in Canada, spending time with the people that I love. I can picture us now, talking and laughing over wine, sharing some delicious meal composed of anything that isn’t salad or chapatti! It is the idea of these moments- sitting down to eat with family, catching up on a patio in the sun with friends, meeting my best friend Renee's baby for the very first time, or cuddling my adorable little angel, Buster- these moments that inspire me to push forward and stay productive when I am feeling particularly homesick. I am so ridiculously lucky to be surrounded by so much love, and I take that fact for granted far too often.

So for all of you who care about me enough to take time out of your day in order to read this blog (or even just to skim it, as I know I can digress with the best of them!), thank you. Your time, and your support and your thoughts mean more to me than you can know.

Tomorrow morning my roommates and I head off to the island of Zanzibar for the weekend! The girls are returning to Canada on April 20th so this is our final tourist-type adventure together, and my last vacation from work before I leave at the end of May. I think that my next blog post will feature all of the incredible places in Tanzania that I’ve been able to explore, and offer recommendations for anyone who is thinking about coming to check-out this amazing country for themselves!

Until then, kila la heri.


Monday, 1 April 2013

And Finally.... APYN Conference Outcomes!

Greetings Friends and Family!

I’m about a week behind on blogging, but still thrilled to report that the APYN conference went off without a hitch! A total of 60 (out of 66) kitchen members were able to attend both series of three-day workshops. This scale of member participation and interaction is unprecedented for APYN, and all of us here feel as though it made for an exceptionally valuable and memorable event! Yay!  

Conference Room at Kivulini Conference Center

Conference Registration Book

As I indicated in my last blog post, the first two days of workshops were facilitated by a local business consultant named Bernard Makachia, and focused on issues pertaining to business management, entrepreneurship and financial documentation. I now fully understand why APYN staff was so enthusiastic about hiring Mr. Makachia- he was captivating and inspiring beyond expectation, and even managed to hold my attention for six full days despite that he was speaking almost entirely in Swahili! 

Mr. Bernard Makachia

Mr. Makachia leading a discussion on how to set ambitious yet realistic goals for a business

A combination of network-wide and kitchen-specific issues were covered in the workshops facilitated by Mr. Makachia, which were also completely hands-on and participatory. For some of the group activities he had the members work with individuals from their own kitchen, before reconvening to discuss and compare responses as a group. 

Members from Buswelu Kitchen conducting a group exercise on calculating business expenses.

Members from Mahina Kitchen conducting the same exercise

Afterwards all the groups reconvened to discuss and compare their findings and ideas

For other activities he asked the members to move out of their comfort zone and interact with individuals whom they had never met before. It was great to see the kitchen members standing up and speaking in front of the rest of the group, getting excited about different issues, laughing and interacting with one another. 

Members from six different kitchens discussing the various interpersonal and technical challenges their kitchens face on a daily basis.

During the various discussions and group activities, members grew visibly more comfortable and engaged with one another. Being able to witness this growing sense of affection and solidarity among individuals from different kitchens was an unexpected joy for me.

Mr. Makachia leading the members in a memory recall energizer based on the topics covered in the previous day's workshops

At the end of the second day of each workshop (so the Wednesday of each week), I was given one hour to administer my questionnaire on the gender impact of the program. Since many of the kitchen members are only semi-literaite, I made the decision to read aloud my letter of information and consent to the members before administering the questionnaire. This document basically outlined the purpose and objectives of my study, invited the members to participate in the study by filling-out a questionnaire about their experience with the yogurt program, stressed that their participation was completely voluntary, and assured them that all of their responses would remain entirely confidential and anonymous, if it is their preference. This is all fairly standard ethical practice for research affiliated with the university; only I decided that my presentation would be delivered in Swahili!

Now, to be sure, I don’t speak Swahili fluently. I can certainly get myself from place to place, conduct basic conversations with others, and know enough words and verbs to put new sentences together every day. However, I would need to live here for at least two years before ever possessing the linguistic know-how required to write and present this complex a degree of information on my own and not look like a total idiot. But I felt that making the effort to write and deliver the presentation myself in Swahili (with the aid of a translator and constantly help with editing from friends) would be an important show of reciprocity and appreciation for the time and energy required of individuals participating in my study. So, I put my ego and my nerves aside and I went for it! For the sake of full disclosure, I was so nervous the entire afternoon before the presentation that I couldn’t sit still! I even sat alone and rehearsed my presentation all throughout lunch, forcing me to miss out on my favorite dessert here, ndizi (bananas) and honey. 

Turns out it was all worth it because after I finished my first presentation the kitchen members actually stood up and applauded my attempt to speak Swahili! Furthermore, all 60 kitchen members agreed to participate by filling-out a questionnaire on the spot, and 57 members indicated that they would like to participate in a face-to-face interview about their experience with the project! I was truly touched.

Presenting my letter of information and consent to the kitchen members who attended the first workshop

Here is a small segment from an email that I wrote to a friend just hours after administering that first round of questionnaires:

Today went really well. In fact, I feel like I am coasting on a bit of a research high right now. Based on just a preliminary skim of some of the questionnaire responses, there are already so many ideas going through my mind about how to organize it and analyze it all, and what it can reveal about the real, lived impact that the project has been having for women and families and communities in Mwanza… My roommate Susan was laughing at me during the questionnaire session because every time that someone finished a filing theirs out and handed it back to me I exclaimed "Asante sana!" ("Thank you so much"), and apparently looked like an 8 year version of myself who had just been given a pair or rollerblades for her birthday! And in many regards that is exactly how it felt. I know the questionnaire was not the easiest task for members to take on at the end of a long day of other workshops, and I really appreciated their kindness towards me and their willingness to participate in the study. After I introduced the questionnaire, 100% of individuals stayed to participate, and the same number indicated that they would be interested in participating in an individual interview in April/May! Before today I was worried about not having enough interview participants, and now I need to figure out how to fit them all in! This is also a legitimate issue that I will need to sort out, but a much preferable “problem” to be dealing with.

It is evident how thrilled I was with how everything went! You know, I'm actually not sure which night I slept less: the night before I administered the questionnaire or the night afterwards. My mind was racing beyond control in both instances!

The third and final day of the workshops (so Thursday of each week) focused specifically on probiotic health benefits and production processes. The morning session was facilitated by APYN's Community Program Director, Esther, and focused on improving the members' knowledge of the health benefits of probiotics so that they could spread awareness within their own communities.

Esther leading a discussion on the health benefits of the probiotic yogurt

In the afternoon my roommate Shannon came in to demonstrate, in real-time, the correct way to produce the probiotic yogurt at the kitchens each day. A few individuals from each kitchen were able to participate in this activity by stirring, measuring and pouring ingredients into the pot that sat atop the flame from the gas burner. By the end of the day, all ten kitchens working together had produced a delicious batch of probiotic yogurt. I couldn’t help but feel like this creation was a symbol of the solidarity, affection and sense of unity that was fostered throughout the conference. It was a perfect way to cap-off the event. Fortunately for me, I was also then free to go to town devouring the leftovers on Friday morning! Mmmmmm….. symbolic unity yogurt.

Shannon and a member from Tumiani Kitchen during the workshop on probiotic yogurt production

Ultimately, what I enjoyed most about the conference was the experience of getting to know each of the kitchen members more personally, outside of the walls of the kitchens themselves. Spending two full days together participating in icebreakers and energizers, talking and laughing over chai, eating lunch and taking photos together, all of it, really provided an otherwise non-existent opportunity to bond as people, and not as researcher and participant. I realize this might sound like I am being naive, and that the relationship and various power-dynamics between myself and the kitchen members can never be fully removed from any of our minds. But for me there is no doubt that the level of comfort and fondness that I now share with the kitchen members is a direct result of the time that we all spent together participating in the conference workshops. Rather embarrassingly, the opportunity to get to know the kitchen members individually is not something that I planned for or looked forward to while fundraising and organizing the conference. In fact, I could not have planned for or anticipated a better outcome if I tried. Maybe the lack of trying and of planning is what allowed the experience of bonding with the members to occur and to be so genuine- it was in no way premeditated.

Me with two of the members from Tumaini Kitchen

I have been planning this project for over a year now, and this includes reading more than one hundred books and articles on the subject of women and microfinance, writing at least as many pages on my own project, and living and working in Tanzania for nearly two months prior to taking this trip. And now, finally, I have these 60 questionnaires stacked-up on my bed in front of me, containing the actual experiences and perspectives of 60 local women and youth involved in the project, and it's just so… surreal. I realize that sounds cliché but it's the only language I have to describe what I am feeling right now.

I have already coded the questionnaires, created separate word documents for each, and put them on a flash drive so that my translator, Janet, can easily input each individual's translated responses and in doing so create a soft copy of each respondent’s questionnaire. Janet will be working on this task while my mom is here in town visiting me this week. I am so excited to see her! And it’s actually perfect timing for a vacation with mama because I would just be sitting on my hands waiting to see the translated questionnaire responses anyways! It’s also the halfway point in my trip, so a small break to re-boot and gather my thoughts is likely in order. The plan is to revert back into a tourist for the week and do some travelling in the area. First on the list is a two-day safari in the Serengeti, followed by a hot-air balloon ride over the park at dawn! Yup, it’s pretty much the coolest thing I have ever done. Then we are off to Musoma Island to spend two nights relaxing on the beach at Lukuba Lodge. I will upload pictures from our trip in my next blog post!

Until then, I am sending love and hugs to Canada every single day!