Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Special witchcraft edition

One of my favorite things about Lobito is the packs of goats that roam the streets, looking for garbage to eat. The packs total up to 15 and there is always one clear leader that the others run after. My other experience with goats was in Honduras. In Honduras, there was no way you could let your goats roam free; your neighbors would see them and think, “Vamos a almorzar cabrita!” ("We're having goat for lunch!") I thought Lobitanos were very respectful of private property- until I learned the REAL reason that no one takes the goats: bruxeria (witchcraft)! Yes, if you take a goat that is not yours, you will fall prey to witches. Those little baby goats running around look innocent, but now I know better.

Witches don’t limit their spells to goats. If you lend someone money and later ask for it to be repaid, that money will be hexed and only bad things will befall you: bruxeria! So be very careful when lending out money.

Monday, October 30, 2006

TV or not TV?

I spent around 20 hours this weekend with colleagues working on a grant proposal to secure funding from the US State Department. We are desperately in need of funding. NGOs in general are having a hard time getting funding for projects in Angola because donors know that the Angolan government is filthy rich (at least compared to other developing countries) and can afford to fund the majority of development initiatives in this country. The US and European governments think, “Why should we give Angola more money? They have plenty in their oil coffers.” Understandable, but what you see on paper does not reflect the reality in Angola. Yes, the Angolan state is rich; but no, they do not share that money with the Angolan people in the form of development projects.

We as an organization have an added burden because we have an institutional policy that prevents us from taking money from oil companies. Other international NGOs admire our position- there is a lot of conflict surrounding oil money and many NGOs have a guilty conscious about taking it. Since we do economic justice and advocacy work regarding oil and other extractive industries (diamonds, for example), it would be a conflict of interest for us to take money from those companies. This is great in principle; but not so great when it comes to the practicality of US government grants. The US government currently offers many grants through public-private partnerships. In Angola this means you can get, for example, a USAID grant with money from the US government and Chevron. As a result, we cannot apply for a lot of grants.

So this State Department grant is a big deal; we really need the money and expand our programming areas. This is all a very long explanation for the current internal debate I am having. We did most of the work at the country director’s (Juan) house. He has satellite cable with English language channels. I was with Juan a few weeks ago when he signed the contract for the cable and asked him how much it cost per month. He answered, “US$400” which I thought was a bit much; I quickly got rid of any desire to have cable and give up my two fuzzy Angolan options.

As we were working this weekend, we would take breaks to catch up on regional news: the airplane crash outside of Abuja, Nigeria and the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sergey, another colleague friend asked how much Juan paid for the cable. Suddenly the answer was $60! I was shocked! Apparently the $400 was the initial cost for the dish and the set up fee, and included 3 free months of service.

Now, my dilemma is the following: do I get digital cable? Tell me what you think.
Here are the pros/cons:
· Something to kill the boredom, which is prevalent at nights and on weekends
· English language news (CNN, SKY, BBC)
· Entertainment (Brazilian telenovelas)
· Still have access to Angolan networks
· American movies and television series (The Daily Show!)
· Missing the $60/month wouldn’t be a problem since there’s nothing else for me to spend my money on
· The $400 set-up fee
· $60/month means $60 less for vacation
· I would be watching TV ALL THE TIME, and probably read less

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Angola's poor progress on Millenium Development Goals

I came across an intersting report about Angola's progress on reaching the Millenium Development Goals. The article mentions the widening gap between rich and poor in Angola- notice the employer of the seven richest Angolans.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I Stand Corrected...

An Angolan friend has brought it to my attention that Jay-Z is only one in a long line of stars that has played Luanda. Missy Elliot, DMX, and Busta Rhymes among others have played here. So I ammend my statement to say that Jay-Z is the biggest star to play Angola since I've been here. Which of course means nothing since I've been here only 2 months! Either way, it was briefly exciting.

Also, the friend says that Unitel, the cell phone company, paid Jay-Z $500,000 to play here. I haven't been able to find any info on this, but it would not seem too out of the ordinary for this to happen. Oh well- there go all my hopes for celebrities saving the world!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jay-Z in Angola

Last week Jay-Z played a concert in Luanda- at the Karl Marx performance space, no less. In and of itself, this is amazing. As far as I know, no big name entertainer has played here. Rap is extremely popular among the Angolan kids, so this was a very big deal. At first I was a little surprised that Jay-Z would come to Angola. No one comes to Angola! (With the exception of Chris Tucker, the actor/comedian who came here to film part of the PBS series African American Lives, which is worth putting on your Netflix List.) It’s no longer a cause celebre, now that the war is over; it’s not as commercially powerful as other places, like South Africa; and it’s certainly not comfortable, even for the people rich enough to pay for the very best.

Then my friend Jade sent me a UNICEF release on Jay-Z’s work as a UNICEF ambassador. Jay-Z is making a tour of African nations and filming his travels as part of a MTV special on water access. I think this is great; he is a celebrity using his fame and abilities to bring attention to a development issue but not acting like a savior… and he didn’t even have to adopt an orphan!

(You can follow Jay-Z's MTV work in Angola here.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Radical Thoughts on "Jovemania"

Sunday night I was sitting at home watching TPA-2; my choices were “Luanda da sorte” (literally, “Luanda Gives Good Luck”) the televised lottery and gift give-away program, or “Jovemania” (“Youthmania,” a variety hour for teens). I chose Jovemania because I need to stay hip while in Angola. Jovemania usually follows the same format of an Angolan music star lip-syncing to his or her latest hit and info sessions on topics that might be important to youth; past topics have included “The Internet,” “Sign Language,” and “Art in Angola.” Youth from high schools in Luanda fill two small bleachers and serve as the audience.

Sunday’s episode was interesting because the topic of corruption came up two separate times. Corruption is rampant in Angola. (Here is what Human Rights Watch has to say about corruption in Angola and here is what the Economist says.) Of the places where I have lived, Angola is by far the worst; it is expected and unchallenged. The first lip-syncing artist was Teta Lágrimas. He “sang” two songs, the last of which was called “Eu quero ser politico” (“I Want to Be a Politician”). Basically the song was about how his girl left him and he wishes that he was a politician because that way he could get whatever money, car, or power he needed to keep her. The song was pretty bold on its own; corruption is something people are frustrated with but have accepted and just deal with, so to hear an underhanded swipe at the government was a change. It was especially bold given that he was “singing” this song on a state-run television station.

The second thing to catch my attention came up during the info session. Today’s topic was “Youth Employment” and they had two men speaking, one from the government’s youth department and the other from a computer company that has a youth employment program. Both men were just generally talking about how high school student can go and find jobs. (These youth programs are only in Luanda; the other kids in the country are on their own!) After the government guy praised his program, the computer guy started talking about his company’s program. I didn’t catch how it came up, but he started talking about transparency and that none of the job applicants would have to worry about having to pay the gasosa. (Gasosa literally means soft-drink, but is more popularly known as a bribe. It took me a while to catch onto this usage; I didn’t understand why policemen would want soft-drinks when they could get money out of people!) The guy asked the audience, “How many of you know of anyone who got a job without a gasosa?” The teens, who are usually pretty quiet and bored stiff during these info sessions, suddenly perked up and shouted “No one!” and began chatting animatedly amongst each other. The computer guy said, “That’s illegal! You shouldn’t have to pay that! We need to start reporting these things so things can change in Angola!” The teens burst into applause. The government guy looked bored.

I’m not expecting any youth protests or changes in the corruption system, but it was nice to see, on public state-run TV, some complaints about the way things work here.

Finally, those familiar with my inexplicable aversion to all fish and seafood will be surprised to learn that I ate fish on Saturday night- and not just a bite or two! My coworker friend Mark is out agriculture program manager by day and a fisherman by night (really- he goes out any time of day, sometimes until 9 pm). When he heard about my dislike, he said, “If I catch you a fish, will you eat it?” I agreed and was safe for several weeks- the fish in the bay next to his house weren’t biting. Saturday, however, he invited several of us over for a fresh fish dinner. He made some chicken on the side, just in case, but I didn’t touch the chicken. The fish was coa- no one knew the English name- and it was quite tasty. I’m still not totally convinced that I like fish now, but I learned I can at least get through it without keeling over, which as a child is something I truly believed would happen.

[This is the view from Mark's front porch of Mark (yellow shirt)and Juan going out in the kayaks for some late afternoon fishing. Yes, this place could be worse!]

Friday, October 13, 2006

Two minutes of fame down, 13 left to go

Yesterday I attended a forum in Catumbela, a small comuna about 15 mintues away from Lobito. As a Fellow, I am usually sent to conferences, trainings, etc. because as an organization it's politically useful and usually I am the only one who has time to go to them. Either that or no one wants to go. Sometimes I have a hard time telling which one it is! Unfortunately, yesterday’s forum was one where I was checking my watch ½ into the event.

I had high hopes. The forum was organized by the Department of Family, under the Women’s, Demibolized Soldiers, Former Combantants’ and Veteran’s Program; apparently one office is enough to cover all groups. Its title was “Rural Women’s Provincial Forum: Investing in Women Guarantees Stability in Our Communities.” It was supposed to start at 9, but there was no action and around 10 am everyone started to get anxious. The governor of Benguela (the province where Lobito and Catumbel are located; also the name of a city 45 minutes away from Lobito) was supposed to come and open the session. It was a good example of the political sensitivity and respect for higher-ups that exist in Angola: there was no way the forum could start without this guy, but it was soon clear that the forum was not number one on the governor’s list of things to do for the day. At 10:30 the governor and his entourage rolled in- among them was my buddy from the last training I went to, the mayor of Lobito, who happens to be a huge professional wrestling fan (Hulk Hogan is his favorite). With his arrival, the forum officially started. A group of women and men from a nearby village paraded in with local products: fruits, vegetables, sugar cane, collard greens, a goat and a case of pineapple Fanta. (Not sure why the Fanta was thrown in there...) Then they performed some traditional dances, which was awesome because the elderly men and women were the most enthusiastic and really got into it. The governor gave a little speech and then was immediately on his way out the door.

Then the forum started. The schedule had listed all these topics regarding women’s issues: women and microcredit, women and the environment, women and health, and women and community development. Sounded great… except the people they invited didn’t speak about women, with the exception of the microcredit lady and a woman from Oxfam. At one point the man speaking about commercial leaders in rural areas said emphatically, “We need MEN to step up and act like MEN! We need entrepreneurial MEN!” Then he sort of caught himself and said, “Uh, and women, too.” Also frustrating was the complete lack of control over the speakers and those people questioning them. They collected all the questions to be answered, then read them and then every single panelist answered them regardless of the fact that the panelist before them had said the exact same thing! The questions posed were done in an open mic way; given that no one from the government ever really listens to anyone, local leaders and NGOs took the opportunity to voice their complaints vociferously. The result of all of this was that the lunch break, which was supposed to be at 1:00, did not happen until 3:00. I should have taken this as a sign that lunch was to be missed, but like everyone else I was ready for it when it came. Ready, that is, until I picked up my plate and saw chunks of hair (fur, really) on the several piece of pork that were in my stew. I just ate the rice. Luckily, a meeting to discuss a funding opportunity for a new project with one of our partners has come up for tomorrow morning, so I will have to miss the end of the forum.

The good to come out of the forum? A lot of the attendees from surrounding villages spoke in Umbundu, which I enjoy listening to- it's a very melodic language- despite not understanding a single word. I talked quite a bit with the microcredit lady, who had some interesting things to say about the future of microfinance in Angola. We exchanged phone numbers and she invited me to come visit some clients with her. And, continuing the trend I set in Honduras by appearing briefly on “X-0 Da Dinero” and my two friends’ commercials on Lencavision, I made it onto Angolan TV! The local news was at the event, and came up to me and stuck the camera right in my face. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to look deep in thought and fascinated by the panelists, so out of sheer embarrassment I turned red, smiled, and kept looking at the camera as if to say, “hi, how are you?” (It was no more than two feet away from me and blocking my view of the speaker, so I really couldn’t do much else.) Sure enough, on the Benguela Province news hour, there I was. Today, Benguela local news; tomorrow, the world! (Or at least Angola...)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Armenia in Angola

Last Friday was quite fun- my coworker, Sergey, and his wife, Stella, invited a few people over to their house to celebrate their son Aram’s first tooth. Stella, Segey and Aram are from Armenia. According to Armenian custom, when a baby starts teething, the family and friends hold a party to determine the future profession of the baby. They placed a white sheet on the floor and different objects that represent professions: a stethoscope, optical mouse, book, pen, soccer ball, etc. Stella then placed a white cloth on Aram’s head and put a mixture of grains, nuts, and chocolate on the cloth. This symbolizes the sustenance that he will need in order to become strong and healthy. Then Aram was free to choose his profession- as determined by the first thing that he picked up in his hands. At first he was distracted by all the nuts and grains, which he found to be quite tasty. However, he will follow in his father’s footsteps and become an IT specialist, since the first thing he grabbed was the optical mouse, and the second being the pen drive (Sergey loves technology and although it is not in his job description, is the go-to guy in the office for all things technical).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Working 8 to 6 (with an hour for lunch)

NOTE: Because this is a public forum, I won’t be naming my employer directly. You all know who I work for- if you want to ask me something specific, send me an email.

Several people have asked me to describe just what it is that I do. I’ve been here just over a month and I am finding my way in this fellowship, but I will give my general impressions so far. I’m finding that my responsibilities change as I finish one task or project, so this might all be different by the end of the month!

Basically, my job here is to learn as much as I can about the organization so that by the time my year is up (or before), I will slide right into a new job as a program manager. (Knock on wood.) I am not assigned to any one specific program, but am floating between all departments, including the finance department, to get a feel as to how they work. This is really a unique opportunity within the organization- project managers that don’t come through the fellowship program are forced to learn how the organization works while managing a project and its staff- I get to do this at my own pace and without having to supervise staff. My coworker Suzie manages the HIV/AIDS/TB prevention project and has really made clear to me how lucky I am to get to know the systems at my own pace. She was thrown into a several-thousand dollar project without more than a two week orientation; what is effectively my year-long orientation will give train me to be a better manager in the future.

So, what exactly am I learning? Currently I am working on a few projects. The most pressing is the task of closing the findings of our 2003 internal audit. Unless we as an organization address the findings, our “ranking” as a country program will slip. Many of the findings have been addressed already, but no one has had any time to report them back to headquarters. I am currently writing the memo that will be sent hopefully in the next two days.

Another project is writing a proposal to train our organization’s staff on HIV/AIDS issues. Addressing the world-wide HIV/ADIS pandemic is a top priority within the organization. The organization soon saw that the disease didn’t only hit the communities in which we ran projects, but that it hit staff as well- if not with staff members having the virus themselves, then by having family members and other loved ones die from it. (If you think of Botswana, for example, with its estimated 40% prevalence rate, then you can understand this realization.) They therefore developed a policy to reach all staff, teaching them about the disease, funding workshops, establishing a progressive insurance program for national staff, and other activities to raise awareness and fight stigmatization. As this is a new project, guaranteeing funding is a competitive process and I am writing the application to secure monies. We won it last year but had to forfeit funding because there were no qualified consultants available to give the trainings. I have been investigating the HIV/AIDS situation in Angola, local testing and treatment centers (VCTs) and helping formulate the project outcomes.

Another project I believe is the result of someone’s sick sense of humor- you might think so too if you read my previous posting. Today I was informed that I will now be the final signature on the vehicle logs. This is part of the financial learning process- double-checking mileage, making sure that the tanks of gas match the mileage and receipts, etc. I won’t have to compile any of this myself, just check all the reports once a month to make sure the assistant did them correctly, and sign off. Really- of all the finance projects to have me come in one, they picked the one thing that really makes my life difficult here: TRANSPORTATION!!!

Those are the projects I am currently working on. I will also be involved on some interesting projects in the next few weeks- participating in a “listening project” to gather lessons-learned from relief projects conducted during the war; helping to develop our strategic plan for the next five years (this is really interesting to me, because we are transitioning from post-conflict work to more traditional development projects; it will be interesting to see which direction this country programs goes into); assisting in the closure of our agricultural project (which involves selling off hundreds of yokes, hoes, and tractor tires); and others. Of course, there is the usual grunt work- last week my big project was making an organizational chart, and I have a stack of 35 agricultural manuals that I am punching holes into and making into binders. (The binders project is for my friend Mark, who has been really helpful to me, so I am doing this more as a favor than anything.)

Driving Me Crazy

As some of you may know, as a fellow I cannot drive due to liability issues. What you many not know, however, is that it is VERY difficult to get around without a car! I know in a previous post I talked about Angola driving- part of me is glad to not have to worry about crazy minivan taxis, wild motorcyclists, and children who dart across the street without even a look in either direction.

During the week, I get a ride with Tito, my coworker and neighbor. He is just a few yards away, so it is quite convenient- he usually takes me in the morning, at lunch, and at the end of the day. However, if Tito is out in the field, then I am out of luck. I can usually get a ride with another coworker who lives half a mile from me, but he rides a motorcycle home for lunch, so I can’t go with him then. And frankly, a lot of coworkers forget that I can’t drive or assume that someone else is taking me.

Going shopping is also difficult. Unlike other places where I have lived and work, there aren’t really any corner stores- bodegas or pulperias- that I can just run out to and buy something when I need it. (This is another result of the war- the mom and pop places were abandoned due to violence or had to close because there simply wasn’t any food to sell.) Again, I must rely on coworkers to take me to stores. For me, this is difficult for a variety of reasons. Although they have all insisted that I call them whenever I need a ride someplace, I still feel like it is an imposition to ask someone to drop what they are doing (on their days off, because that is the only time we have to go shopping, really) and take me places, especially because it is considered a personal expense that people pay out of their salary. (Not the biggest deal, given that gas is only US $0.50 a gallon here, but still...) Also, it is very difficult to go from completely independent to being completely dependent. It’s frustrating. There are rumors of a mountain bike in one of the warehouses, but it has yet to materialize. They do sell bikes here, but they are ridiculously expensive (around $350) and of horrible quality (no shocks!). Collective taxis- little minivans- are around, but I have been advised against taking them because of safety reasons. (For the usual poor-driver reasons, but also because some ex-pat women- wives of coworkers- have been harassed and robbed on them.) So basically I don’t go a lot of places other than the area where I live. This is okay, because I live in a nice neighborhood, but it does start to feel claustrophobic after a while.

Angolan Boob Tube

Angolan television is an interesting thing. There are two public Angolan stations, TPA-1 and TPA-2; both are run by the state. Several people have satellite cable, which carries several Brazilian and Potruguese channels, as well as CNN, Discovery, and others. If I were earning more I would pay for it, if nothing else because while at the hotel I got hooked on the Brazilian soaps currently showing on TV Globo. (If anyone knows what’s happening on Cobras e Largatos or Páginas da Vida, let me know!) However, I am receiving a fellowship salary, so I’ll stick to TPA. The first morning in my apartment I was looking forward to eating breakfast while watching TV, but there was nothing but static- no programs are broadcast until 8:30 am, and the program they show then is “As Seen on TV” which is an Angolan version of the Home Shopping Network. At night they show old soap operas (from the 80s) from Colombia or Mexico, or a couple of hours of music videos. Then of course there is the news, which is basically just an hour full of all the wonderful things the government is doing to help the people of Angola. The president's birthday was a few weeks ago, and they showed nothing but him blowing out the candles and programs about his life.

My favorite, however, is on the weekend when they show movies in English. These are not very good quality, but it is nice to hear English. For example, last weekend I watched an old TV miniseries based on Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The problem is that they only show these movies for ½ hour at a time. So now I have no idea what will happen once the explorers reach the volcano. They usually don’t show the other parts of the programs, so each week I get to start- not finish- another movie.

But not today! Today I had the pleasure of watching a full hour-and-a-half of a made-for-TV movie staring Country Music Legend Reba McIntyre. Reba played a brave housewife (in the South, of course) who first loses her mother to breast cancer, then takes in her younger sister to raise. The Younger Sister is a “real handful” and drops out of high school to go live with her gas station attendant boyfriend. Reba then finds a lump in her breast, but luckily it was benign and she is in the clear. All of this prompts her go to back to college at the age of 35. She becomes the best student in the class thanks to the tutelage of her TA, Joshua. She spends hours and hours in the library, making her family resent her new Fancy College Ways, but it doesn’t stop Reba. Even when her farmer father dies, she trudges on in spite of her sorrow. What does nearly stop her is Joshua, who invites her over to his apartment for a private tutoring session then tries to rape her. Luckily she gets away with only a few scratches. Joshua threatens to fail her unless she drops out, but Reba studies extra, extra hard and aces her exam. Her wayward little sister comes home and all is well.