Sunday, November 25, 2012

Transitions and Democracy

August 9th, 2012

Aroni.  Aroni. Chris. Mama Shalom. Providance. Chris. Aroni.  Aroni. Chris. Aroni…..

And so it continued at our final design team meeting. We read names out loud from ballots one by one to tabulate results for our governance committee elections. Over the weekend, the original six members of the design team had invited four new community members to join the cooperative, three of whom were men, and now the ten team members (plus Gilbert and me) were holding elections to determine the leadership of the cooperative after my departure.

Recognizing our team for their tremendous efforts this summer.
From L to R, Mama Marie, me, Mama Shalom, Donata, Juliette, and Angelique (Denyse, not pictured)
I knew who I wanted to win. Denyse should be the president. She attended every meeting with a smile on her face and participated actively throughout the Innovation Institute. Or it could be Mama Shalom, unarguably the “chief of the house” who we all know would be able to get things done. Angelique would be VP or Treasurer; she knows everyone in the village from her health care work. Mama Marie would be elected secretary, as she already helps with land registration and can read and write well. It never occurred to me that the elections would turn out any other way. Yet as we counted the votes the new members and the men were clearly winning. I could feel my blood pressure rising.

As it became clear that either Chris or Aroni had the most votes for President, I pulled Gilbert (my translator) aside, away from the group. “Gilbert, this is not good. Is it too late to make a new rule? Shouldn’t the president have to be a member of our original team?” Gilbert, also rather surprised at the results of the election, stood there for a minute thinking. Looking at the rest of the team sitting in the grass and staring at inquisitively, he finally said, “We can’t change the rules now, it’s too late. They know what they are doing. It will be ok.” I hesitated before going back to the group to proceed.

The election continued in this fashion. President: Aroni. Vice President: Chris. Treasurer: Providence, also new. At the end three of the five members of the governance committee were not from our original design team, and both the president and vice president were men. I was gutted.

Our team with new members at our final meeting/election
It will not be ok, I whispered to Gilbert! How could this happen? The election wasn’t supposed to go this way! I had very intentionally picked a group of strong women for my design team, and now in an instant my team was turning over the reins to men who had just joined the project. While feeling defeated inside, I tried to hide my disappointment as we shared mundazi (donut like pastries)and Fantas, a special treat, to celebrate our accomplishments this summer.

I came home after the meeting to a swarm of my favorite neighborhood children, and we had one more backyard concert as dark settled in. Neighbors stopped by and laughed one more time at our song and dance before the long line of hard, teary-eyed goodbyes began. As Mama Shalom was putting the finishing touches on dinner, Aroni, the newly-elected cooperative president and schoolteacher who is also Papa Shalom’s cousin, came through the gate to the backyard.

Evening song and dance in the back yard 
In that moment, I felt my anxiety start to slowly melt away. I remembered my first night in Nyarubuye when Aroni walked me home with Papa Shalom from the football field. I remembered the next night when he taught me to count to 10 in Kinyarwanda. And I remembered the evenings that we sat in the backyard practicing conjugating verbs by the light of my headlamp. Aroni was a life-long educator with a decent command of English and a strong commitment to Nyarubuye and my family. I hated to admit it, but maybe my team was right in electing him president after all?

Falling asleep under my mosquito net that night, I flashed back to our first few days in Kigali in June. When we arrived in Rwanda, our goal was to leave having cultivated unique projects that our teams could own and continue themselves. The elections didn’t go as I had planned, but in the voting process, my team expressed their own knowledge of village politics and cultural dynamics that I was perhaps unable to see. They overwhelmingly believed that Aroni was the one who could help the project to succeed, and who was I to question that? The election was democracy in all its glory. As I handed over our materials, budget, and ledger to our new leaders, I felt like many pieces of our work were incomplete, like the real work was only just beginning. I didn’t want to let go not knowing what would happen next, but the influx of new members and their enthusiasm for our project showed that the team was indeed committed to forging ahead.  With that, our time in Nyarubuye came to a close in the blink of an eye.  The story of my summer in Rwanda ends here, but I’m hoping that the election shows that that of the Abashyizehamwe Muburezi cooperative is only just beginning. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Living Locavore in Rwanda

August 2, 2012

Before living on the farm in Virginia, I did not spend much time thinking about where my food comes from. Yet in the years ate fresh blackberries from right outside my back door, watched the squash grow slowly by slowly and, yes, fed our cows every day all summer, I became increasingly curious about the myriad of foods we grow, transport, and consume both locally and around the world.

I began reading widely, including books from Michael Polan, Mark Bittman, and the like. I was particularly fascinated with Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which her husband and kids move to the old, rural family farm to live exclusively off their land for one year in an effort to embody the true locavore experience. When I left for Rwanda, I did not know that it was here that I would have a taste of just what that means.

The day before I left Minnesota, my Dad came home with a variety of freeze dried foods, the kind used for camping and astronauts. I too was worried that I might be hungry here, but I was scared of offending my host family and left the packages at home. Little did I know then that having enough good food would never be a problem here. In fact we scholars spend much more time devising strategies for how to communicate to our families that we need to eat less, not more.

Food is of central importance in Rwandan culture. When you see the amount of time that people spend cultivating their fields and preparing their meals, it is not hard to see why. We are eating a true locavore diet, with the corn, cabbage, potatoes, cassava, plantains, bananas, beans, and ground nuts we eat coming directly from our family's plot of land. I read an article that reported that Rwandans eat 550 pounds of bananas per person each year, and I believe it! Some fruit like mangoes, pineapple, and oranges might come from the weekly local market or neighbors, but the only things purchased at the corner store are chai tea, salt, sugar, vegetable oil, and the occasional can of tomatoe sauce or bottle of Fanta soda. When was the last time you knew the source of everything on your plate?

We are all starting to crave things like cheese, broccoli, and ice cream, but for the most part, it is refreshing to eat so simply and so well. There are basically no preservatives, and our diet is essentially vegan except for the milk from our cow. Surprisingly I do not really miss the meat. Combined with the daily running and walking and all of the Vitamin D from the sun, we feel amazingly healthy. I can't say that I will continue to eat 5 or 8 bananas per day, but one of the most wonderful parts of living in a different place is finding new habits andy lifestyles to bring home. My family here has given me a new arsenal of culinary tools to continue to experiment with at home.

Here are some of the specialities from Mama Shalom's kitchen:

1. Cassava, plantains, vegetable sauce and beans.

2. Daily staple of plantains, beans, and sauce.

3. My personal favorite, ubugali (cassava bread, or really a warm, doughy substance) and peanut sauce with tomatoes.

4. Akahunga (made from corn flour, water and milk, the consistency of mashed potatoes) and cabbage and bean sauce.

Progress Report

August 4, 2012

One week from today, I will be leaving to return to the States, so our team is in a sprint to the finish line this week. We have made good progress in devising a solution to the challenge of prohibitively high secondary school fees. The team has decided to found a cooperative appropriately named "United for Education" or "Abashyizehamwe Muburezi" to save and invest funds to pay tuition. It will be governed by a six year, renewable contract that the team has written over the last week.

Funds will be raised with two investment projects. One will be buying and selling crops, namely sorghum, in different seasons simply for the purpose of providing cash. The second investment will be opening the first library in Nyarubuye. In addition to generating revenue from book rentals and subscription memberships, the library is important because it will provide the community with adult education workshops and a lighted space to work at night, which will be especially helpful for students who need to study. Moreover, the project gives the team the flexibility to grow and evolve over the years. The process of arriving at this combination of projects was filled with many highs and lows, some of which I will share here:


Commitment of the team. I was nervous last week to ask the team to take four afternoons to work on our project, so I was thrilled when they insisted that we really needed to meet everyday. One of the women on my team exhorted that women are the "chiefs of the house," and if development happens, it will come from them. Our team of women all seem to believe this, and I love when I find them meeting or talking around town in addition to out meetings. These ladies make me smile every day.

Writing the contract. This should have been the most tedious and boring part of the project, but our team flew through negotiations of the structure of their group. I was particularly impressed with the governance committee they outlined to organize the cooperative and manage its investments. In Haiti, it was hard to know if and how any legal agreement would be enforced, and I was surprised by how much my team respected the idea of a contract. My favorite part? A clause that includes a steep pentaly fee for any member that tries to use their portion of the savings for anything other than the payment of school fees.

Willingness to borrow and save. I cannot overstate how important this is. During the Immersion phase of the Innovation Institute, many of the community members we met expressed anxiety about using banks and hesitation about their own abilities to take and pay back loans. The fact that my team so quickly decided that both saving and borrowing must be a part of their solution is exciting (note: this was their idea, not mine), and it further demonstrates the degree to which they believe in one another and the team.


Defining profit. My team has had many creative ideas for businesses they can open to generate profits to save for school, but I worry that many of them will not actually make any money. I have built a simple budget and a very basic financial model outlining expected revenues and costs for the next six years, and this concept seems novel to the team. For example, my team is considering renting an expensive house for the library space rather than sharing with another group, and I have tried to show how the rental expense will affect out savings account balance each year. There are limits to how many times I can say that revenues must be greater than costs, but I am hoping that some of these conversations will encourage the team to ask different questions of one anothr in the future.

Financing. It is not as simple as it sounds to open and use a bank account. The local SACCO (lending institution run by the government) promises an easy process to apply for loans with a low interest rate of 2% annually, but the college educated scholars is finding it confusing to figure out exactly which papers and business plans to prepare with our teams. What exactly qualifies as a sufficient project also remains unclear. Our goal is to have all of the paperwork sorted so that our teams are ready to apply for loans before we leave.

Outlining next steps. The objective of our work here is to have projects that our design teams can and will continue themselves after we leave. There are a hundred details I want to sort out this week, and it is hard to know where to focus my attention. I am trying to prepare a basic list of next steps, especially in terms of formally registering the cooperative and opening all necessary bank accounts, in addition to outlining some targets for the longer-term, but I want the team to be setting the pace and direction and running our meetings. Its is hard to know when to push and when to step back and let the group make its own decisions.

We are learning from these highs and lows as well as from the feedback of others in the community. For the next few days, we will continue to refine and tweak our ideas, and then we will present our project at the Innovation Exhibition this coming Wednesday. We are expecting tapproximately 1,000 attendees, including people from surrounding communities, local government leaders, and representatives of local banks and financial institutions. I look forward to watching team present all of their work!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Story of Unity

July 31, 2012

In February, two Darden teams traveled to the University of Colorado in Boulder for the finals of a Net Impact case competition on hydraulic fracking. Delirious from a near all-nighter of presentation prep, my team, Bennett Graham, Jonathan Harris, Michael Barnett and I, invented a team handshake in the final moments before delivering out presentations to the judges. We coined it the "collaborative handshake," and we have been waiting for Power Point Clip Art to contact us for the copyright contract ever since.

Microsoft still hasn't called, but the collaborative handshake has already crossed an ocean to a new continent. During Think Impact University in June in Kigali, our scholar team from Nyarubuye adopted the handshake as part of our team mantra. When we made it to the villages, our translators renamed it "Unity," but the story does not end here.

A few weeks later, I met up with a scholar from the next community overof Nkomomangwa. James said, "You have to see this cool Rwandan thing our translator taught us called Unity." I had to tell him that that was in fact a symbol of American origin, but I was secretly so excited that the collaborative handshake was spreading.

My design team has also adopted the handshake, and we start and end every meeting with Unity. The team was a little leery in our first meeting, but now they remind me if I forget it. It seems silly and inconsequential, but there is something wonderful about the laughter and team spirit that come along with sharing something together. I'm pretty sure that Microsoftwill agree as soon as they find it!

Learning Meeting Management in Africa

July 30, 2012

Given that I spent the last two years a slave to my Outlook calendar, moving from class to meeting to meeting when my phone chimed to remind me of the appropriate time, it is ironic that it is in Africa that I am finding the opportunity to practice better meeting management. Many of those meetings I simply attended, and now leading a team of women through a rigorous, challenging process, I am gaining greater appreciation for the fine art of managing meeting time. Here are my most important takeaways:

"Respect the time." This is one of the most obvious cultural differences here. We Americans are obsessed with timeliness, and some of my team members do not have watches or phones. Having a meeting at 2:00 does not mean plus or minus an hour as the sun dictates, and it has been difficult knowing how strictly to enforce this. Our meetings are hugely more productive when we start and end together. Setting this standard is working, and yesterday a teammate even showed up a few minutes early and announced, "I learned, I respect the time."

Arrange the room carefully. We often meet in the local community government office, which doubles as a tailoring school. Furniture is limited, and it is sometimes a challenge to find enough chairs for the whole team. In early meetings, I often just sat on the edge of the table or stood in front of the group, thinking that reserving chairs for the team was the polite thing to do. After a few days however, I realized that the group was treating me like the teacher at the front of the room, waiting for my guidance or approval in their ever move. Since then I have made a more concerted effort to arrange the chairs in a circle with Gilbert and I mixed in the group whenever possible, and I feel like we are on more equal footing.

Have an agenda. Never in my life have I spent so much time preparing for meetings. Each day I make an agenda and a list of goals before meeting Gilbert, my translator, and we then review both together and adjust accordingly. We convene again about an hour before the team arrives to practice. This probably means at least two hours of preparing for every hour that the team is actually together. I don't know how exactly to adapt this practice to real time constraints at home, but I do know that meetings are infinitely more efficient and effective when I have an agenda and know all of the tools I want to use to cover pertinent information long before the real meeting time.

Share the pen. Gilbert and I prepare posters and headings before meetings to speed things up, and I often add things to our lists as we go. In talking to other scholars about their groups, I realized that I had developed an unintentional monopoly of the Sharpie. Since then I have been experimenting with passing the pen to different teammates at various points in the conversation to draw out their individual voices, and I like the results. Sharing the responsibility of writing seems to shift leadership roles throughout the meeting by putting different people in the driver's seat. It is my hope that cumulatively this will help my teammates to have greater ownership of the team and our project.

Vote. We have made a series of important decisions as a group in the last fee weeks, and I have used a voting process to do so many times. Sometimes I simply poll the group for quick results, but when I suspect that my members, many of whom are good friends, might be swayed by the opinions of their neighbors, I have used a secret ballot process instead. This accomplishes a few things. First, it gives members a few minutes to collect their thoughts before having to respond, and second, it allows everyone, even the quieter members, to have their opinions counted with equal weight.

Turn off the phone (and computer, iPad, or anything else electronic that you might be tempte to look at during a meeting). This weekend we had a scholar retreat (somewhere with, yes, electricity and running water), and in a group brainstorming session, I found myself reaching for my laptop to take some notes on my own project. In that moment, I happened to notice how carefully the entire group was listening. I set the computer back down and pledged to stay engaged in the conversation. I know you will say you can multi-task (and so do I), but I promise we can't. Just don't do it (I give you permission to remind me that I wrote this in a few weeks).

I have been lucky here to have the luxury of time to use each of these techniques, but I will be continuing to practice what I learned about meeting management in Africa when I return home and start a new job in a few short weeks.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Think Big

July 28, 2012

Every night 12 year old Olivier comes to visit. He walks around the house to where we are all congregated in the dark in the back and he says, "Teacher, I am ready." By headlamp we spend some time practicing English. We have studied African geography, Rwandan history, and the American states together. A few nights ago, he pointed up at the stars: "Teacher, how big is the solar system?" How am I supposed to answer a question like that?

As I counted the planets in my head (I forgot Saturn), deliberated the morality of telling him that Pluto is still a planet (I decided it was ok), and contemplated how to represent the scale of the solar system with pen and paper, I also thought of my design team. The theme of the week has been "Think Big," and I have been challenged to find creative ways to encourage my team to think of possibilities as expansive as the universe. We are continuing to build out a financial model to save sufficiently for secondary school fees. We debate the assumptions of the model, but the hardest part has been that I have become increasingly anxious that many of our solutionss seem simply to be different combinations of existing ideas. How can I dare my team to reach for the stars?

A credit office from SACCO, a government-run basic financial institution for savings and loans in the community, spoke with us this week, and I think this is exactly what he wants us to do. He mentioned the difference between entrepreneurship and innovation in passing, and he challenged Think Impact scholars to strive for the latter. We use these words all of the time, but I have been reflecting on the definitions of both terms ever since. What exactly is the difference? While my design team is eager to start a business, they are less certain of how to do so in a truly innovative way. In a culture that values order and an education system based on memorization, the notion that you can create something that does not exist rather than replicating what you see around you is hard to understand. Yet this is precisely where I believe we can find real opportunity.

I was thinking of these things in a prototyping workshop with my team yesterday when suddenly something clicked. The workshop was intended to push people to think of how to make new things out of materials we already have. When I first asked the team how we could keep food overnight using a tomato can, a Pringles container, a tissue, a rubber band, and markers, they looked at me (again) like I was crazy, and I asserted that they must build something without me. Fifteen minutes later though, they had rearranged the materials to hold a serving of cassava bread.

Even more impressively, when we returned to the discussion of our project, they came up with a handful of new viable options to generate revenue to to save for school fees. Beyond the ideas of raising goats and trading sorghum that we have already debated exensively, we began sharing ideas like growing flowers, selling gutters, raising chickens, and more. When we started to story board these ideas, they all claimed they could not draw, and yet 20 minutes later, our poster board was filled with visuals. Putting the materials and the crayons in their hands had unleashed a new wave of creativity.

I still do not know which option my team will choose for our model, but I left the meeting feeling re-energized by the group. It is easy to tell people to Think Big, and it is much harder to figure out how to make them (and myself) believe it is really possible. I still don't know that I have actually figured it put, but I am trying. It is hard to know or measure when that mind shift happens, but I know that my team is moving in a good direction. Also Olivier went home with a map of the solar system. Slowly the view of the world is changing for all of us.
Team brainstorming during a meeting this week
Preparing for a meeting with Gilbert (translator)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Moments of the Week

July 23, 2004

We are never short of things to do or meetings to plan here, but here are three highlights from our “free time” this week:
  • Beautification. The weekend before last, I had resolved to get all of the clay out of my nails and paint them. Mama and Donata, who lives with us, were quick to notice. The next night, the kitchen was transformed into a salon as we painted nails in the back yard by the light of head lamps while dinner was on the charcoal stove. Look carefully to see our cow hanging out in the background. It is hard not to laugh at this picture of manicures Rwandan style. 

  • Furry Friends. Last night at dinner, our neighbor Jean Paul said in Kinyarwanda, “Meriana, Audrey’s mom has baby goats… And their names are, um… Meriana and Audrey.” Audrey is my Think Impact adviser here. I replied, “I know, of course, I love baby goats!” I do not know if Jean Paul was more surprised at my affinity for goats or at the fact that they were named after us, but of course I love these soft, friendly little guys. The village is fascinated with our fondness of animals in general, but people are particularly perplexed with our obsession with picking up goats.

  • Bucket List. On Sunday I crossed another item off of my life bucket list: seeing a herd of zebras in the wild. Scholars took a day off from our design teams to travel to nearby Akagera National Park for a little safari, and we were surrounded by antelope, baboons, hippos, giraffes, water buffalo, and, yes, zebras. Dotted across the horizon, the zebras were every bit as majestic and regal in person as I always dreamed they would be! Now I will have to move on to trying to tame one…
  • Breakfast: Our cross-cultural exchange of the week was sharing breakfast. I had packed oatmeal and raisins as emergency rations for this trip, and we have certainly not been short of delicious food. I couldn't find the words in Kinyarwanda for raisins (they do not grow grapes here), and I think they thought oatmeal was very sweet. Still this was a huge success.