Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What do you do again?

My business class students at the local high school.

I realized that most people have no idea what I do in Cameroon, besides hosting visitors, downing whiskey sachets, and unsuccessfully dodging motos. When my sister visited, we weren’t even out of the taxi from the airport when she asked me, “So you know, I don’t even really have any idea what you do…”

So, allow me to enlighten you. :) (If you are not my immediate family, feel free to stop reading now for fear of boredom. Job descriptions: woopee.)

Yesterday was the most alarmingly productive day I’ve had in ages, so I can use it as a bit of an example… a day in the life!

I was out the door by 7:45 to stop at my favorite roadside mama for my breakfast beans, mmm.

From there I headed to a meeting with a women’s group. They’ve asked me to come so I can present to them the idea of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA). It’s a great project for those who aren’t quite ready for formal financial services—a place to safely save their money, and then they take loans from their pooled savings. Astonishingly, all the women were there when I arrived. (This is rare, and it is probably because I’d threatened not to have the meeting if they did not have at least 10 participants. Any less than that and it’s too difficult to mobilize sufficient amounts of savings from which to take loans.) Even better, the women decided to go ahead with the proposed VSLA project, so we “fixed” the dates for the required five training sessions. After downing the tea and beignets they offered me, I was on my way.

I stopped next at the Delegate of the Ministry for Small and Medium Enterprises, with whom my Peace Corps Program works most closely. I chatted briefly with the delegate—the government is always a little curious as to what we nassaras are doing wandering around their country! Another success: he relinquished to me his sole copy of a book recently published by his Ministry—a how-to guide for setting up businesses in Cameroon—fun!

I stopped by Thea’s, incredulous at how much I had already accomplished in one day. It was hardly 10am! From there to the MC2, my microfinance institution. I found my counterpart Bouba surprisingly available; he rarely has free time for me, which is my main frustration in working there. (Ahhh, but he wanted something from me.) We reviewed a presentation I had previously written and set a schedule to give the presentation to several women’s groups who are looking to take loans from the MC2. The presentation is basic: why you have to repay loans, what interest is, how to use an income statement, and specifically, using it to estimate and decide which projects will be the most profitable.

Still at the MC2, Bouba gave me the go-ahead to move forward with a pilot program we’re hoping to launch in Makala. I’d made a trip to the Northwest province last June to study some profitable programs they have in an MC2 there. One program is the Daily Savings Collection, in which an MC2 employee makes a tour of the main market everyday to collect people’s savings. The minimum one can contribute, if he’s going to contribute on a given day, is 200 F (or about 40 cents—enough for a hearty breakfast of beans and beignets.) It allows the MC2 to better get out of the office and into the community. (What microfinance is supposed to be all about, right?) It’s also great marketing and a way to reach clients who are otherwise too intimidated to come to the bank. My fingers are crossed that this project will go somewhere! I printed up some materials I’d created to make the booklets that each participant will use to note his savings. It’s all a little homemade-ghetto-fab for now, but we have to start somewhere!

As I walked home at about 1pm, I realized just how much my work affects my mood—it’s astronomically correlated. I was so happy from having gotten so much done already in one day! Why? Well, the project with the VSLA is something I have been pushing around town since October (4 months ago). Next, getting a document from a government employee on the first try is nearly unheard of. The project at the MC2, as I mentioned, is something I have been trying to instigate since summer of last year (7 months). That afternoon, I still had to head to Lycee Bilangue, one of the government high schools to teach the 7th in a series of 12 business classes. I began organizing those classes in September of last year (5 months ago). So you can see that Cameroon is not a land of instant gratification, but rather the perfect training/punishment for the twitchy and the impatient! I so often feel I have terribly little control of my work here… because I don’t. If it were up to me, I’d like to think I could have implemented the Daily Savings Collection program within no more than 2 weeks—tops—once the original research was done. We are going on 7 months. Maybe it will happen before I leave. I hate the idea of minimizing my expectations, but I feel it’s what I have to do to stay sane here, and I’ve learned to take pride in and be grateful for small steps. I’ve also learned some stuff about myself. I’d never considered myself that “Type A” personality, (that’s for some other members of my family, ahem! :) but just to counter the seeming chaos that I find around me here, I think I’ve drifted in that direction. I realize how much I hate not being in control. I think one of my favorite projects is my business classes because for once I do feel in control—they start on time, they end on time, and basically, I’m the boss. :)

So in sum: here’s what I do:

1. Work at the MC2—helping the staff learn how to use Excel to facilitate their reports, meeting with clients to ask questions about their loans and offering my observations to the committee that grants loans, putting together analysis of our defaulted loans and clients, or generally attempting to be useful and facilitate the employees’ work without taking over their role or responsibilities.

2. Teach Business classes! I started with a couple rounds at a local church, and am currently on a second round at the high school, and hope to do one or two more rounds through the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises before I leave. A friend was visiting me and caught this fun picture.

3. Start-up the VSLA programs. This is just starting to take off, but it’s very gratifying and something that I hope can be sustainable after I leave. I like how the women debate and set their own rules and really take ownership of the project—I’m only there to train and facilitate.

4. Offer independent advising to small businesses or GICs (Common Interest Groups). This usually consists of helping them create budgets, understand whether they are making a profit or not, and set up basic accounting systems. I like the one-on-one contact because you can really follow up on your work. I’m really enjoying working with the Union of soy-producing GICs of the Extreme North to set up their accounting systems. They’re a main supplier of soy to one of the biggest producers, Camlait. But they are farmers, not accountants. I’m learning as much from them as I hope they might gain from me. Just you wait—I’ll soon be conversant on all things soyyyyy! This will really woo the guys.

So it’s not all peaches. Like I said, I’ve realized how wildly my mood is connected to my work. Why? Because I came to Africa, yes, for the cultural experience, but also to work. In an American office, you can know what to expect, and work is less of a huge question mark. Just from village to village, our work as Peace Corps Volunteers varies drastically. It most often comes down to just a few local individuals—if you can find those individuals in your town who are connected and have initiative, they can make things happen for you. If those people don’t exist or are hard to find, it’s a whole other story, and your initiative will be tested in entirely new ways.

As for those moods, I was at business class yesterday afternoon, talking about customer service and marketing. Of course I was annoyed when one of my favorite students said that good customer service was “pretty girls.” I did wait a bit… before throwing my chalk at him. Sadly, he was entirely serious. I had been going for a response more along the lines of, “welcoming, polite, prompt service, knowledgeable about products sold…” Then we went on to talk about how good customer service is always treating the customer right, even when they annoy you, and knowing how to apologize when necessary… woops! So I don’t always practice what I preach! Still working on some of those finer points… maybe I’ll have it down by the time I go in five months. :)

No comments: