Archive Page 2

Along the road

Roadside advertisements here are of a kind that I don’t think you’d see in the US anymore. I think they may have been common in the 60s and 70s, but advertisers probably wouldn’t get away with them nowadays, at least not in the US or Europe. But here all is up for grabs. Advertising that alcohol consumption makes you smart and successful (la bière de la réussite), or that sugar is good for you. One billboard for a line of sugary sodas shows a young boy kid picking up the front end of a small truck with one hand while holding the sugary drink in his other; or there is the one billboard that encourages people to ‘find the lion inside you’ advertising a line of candy. Of course now, because of Ramadan, many billboards wish people a blessed Ramadan showing happy beautiful people drinking or eating specific products, including one of a family eating in front of a Shell station (Shell wishes you…). And women empowerment is not forgotten either: Maggi reminding people that every woman who uses Maggi in her cooking is a Star.

This morning during my morning jog on the treadmill I listened to an NPRs Hidden Brain podcast (This Is Your Brain On Ads) about how ads to which one was exposed at an early age hold sway over anything that the intelligent grown up now knows is nonsense or plain wrong, like nutritious breakfast that consist for 80% of sugar. But those were advertised to the innocent and credulous young mind, with the help of cartoon characters. The message got engraved somewhere deep in our brain and trumps everything we know to be true.

Large electronic billboards are also starting to emerge. They are quite common in the big cities in Asia and I had seen them in Kenya (not always working properly), but last night I saw the best one ever. It is permanently displayed on the main drag near my hotel. It says (most visible at night) in English, in large white on black letters:

  • Mouse not found
  • Keyboard not found
  • Fatal error
  • System suspended

It is a frightening message if you don’t know what these words mean.

But the best thing I saw today was the man with a plastic bag that has the picture and name of our previous president on it. He is still on people’s screen. The plastic bag is also, unfortunately, made with chemicals that don’t dissolve in a hundred years, so his picture will be around a bit until the bag starts to fray as it flaps in the wind from trees or fences, along with the millions of black plastic bags that dot the landscape. This way even our honorable last president will eventually contribute to clogged drains. The Rwandan president did well to ban plastic bags (you are told upon landing in Kigali to leave all plastic bags on the plane). But here it looks like such political will is not on the horizon yet, especially if the current president gets his way and stays on beyond his mandate. Malians are protesting many other things the current administration is not doing, and maybe plastic bags are not quite up there with things like the economy, security and transparency.

Waiting for our daily bread

Every morning it’s the same ritual. Breakfast is at 7, but the bread arrives usually at 7:30, so I learn and go to the refectory at 7:30. But this morning the bread was late because of a big rainstorm that hung over us for most of the night. Rain is badly wanted here but it also disrupts things, especially where roads are not paved and/or the drainage system can’t manage the abundance of water.

And so we sit with the handful of people who are not fasting waiting for bread. It sounds nearly biblical. They are not fasting because they are too old to fast or they are Christians or have some other reason. One of our staff has just returned from maternity leave. She is breastfeeding. I was surprised to see her fast. Apparently she has tested whether she can fast, and she decided she can. It’s hard to imagine in this hot weather to deprive oneself not just of food but of water. I wonder whether the baby is getting condensed milk.

This morning the contents for the bread were eggs, pre-fried. It’s better than spam. But now there is also every morning butter and jam for me, because I asked for it on spam day.

One of the ladies (it’s mostly women who are not fasting) starts to speak in English and the topic turn to language, one of my favorite topics. English is now taught as early as Kindergarten. Still, French remains problematic because most parents speak the local language with their children and it is only in school that they speak French. I proudly brag of my Chinese speaking grandson. Soon the intention to speak English disappears, it is too difficult and one cannot have the conversation I would like to have over breakfast. We return to French and many return to Bambara.

One of the women has a bag full of the menthol throat lozenges that I remember from my childhood; they are grey candies in red celophane wrappers, disguised as medicine. The bag is handed around and the women drop a couple of the lozenges in their tea – sugar and mint, all in one, while we contiue waiting for our daily bread.

Smart, safe and subordination

A smartly dressed young man joined us yesterday. He recognized me, though I did not recognize him. He was at the lunch seminar I gave last September about the neuroscience of coaching and amygdala hijacks. We re-introduced ourselves. He is in charge of security and came to check out whether we were secure. When a security chief shows up it worries me. I asked him whether there was any reason for concern – we are after all in Mali with its many groups of angry unhappy people who have easy access to money, drugs and arms, items that are circulating unencumbered in the vast ungoverned space of the Sahara. “No,” he said, “there are no concerns. It’s a routine mission.” He sat at the back of the room fiddling with cell phone and then left. His report will say, “the people are safe.”

The cellphone business is maddening. Some people check their phones (most now have two) frequently (“has anyone sent me a message or text since he last time I checked a minute ago?”). I have come to believe that there is a vast number of bored people – one half sends messages or text to anyone on their list, while the other half are the ones checking to see if anyone is talking with them. I can only surmise that they are bored; or, the one I am supposed to work with don’t understand what the task is, or who have enthusiastic colleagues who are doing the work for them. It can all be linked to confidence: they don’t dare to ask when they don’t understand, and they don’t want to risk exposing themselves by contributing the wrong things to a group task; alternatively, it’s us that don’t engage them enough, don’t create a safe space. The latter we can act on, the former we cannot.  The challenge is both infuriating and exciting at the same time. We have succeeded at least in getting everyone to open their mouth at least a few times – something my colleagues here were not sure would happen.

We have a few women in the room who were sent by their superiors – I suspect it was their turn to get per diem and a nice little vacation out of town, some sort of reward for something. We actually have completely the wrong people in the room, which confirms my suspicion. It’s a workshop on improving the effectiveness of governing boards but of the 26 people in the room less than a handful are actually board members, I believe there is only one executive director. The rest are mid-level staff. Hmmm. The people who write critical books about development (and are right) would say pull the plug. And then I feel just as underpowered as everyone else, when I say, “I can’t,” or “it’s not my call.” I did express my wonderment, but that is easy.

There is one group of 8 people from a semi-governmental structure who are several layers removed from their non-functional board. They didn’t know that there is a draft board handbook. I told them I had it on my computer and transferred it per flash drive. It’s a draft I reviewed two years ago. Nothing has happened with it since. It can’t be finalized until it is validated – a critical process required for just about any document produced in francophone organizations, state or non-state. A draft in limbo for so long is, in my view, missing an owner. It was created by a consultant we hired. So there you go.

The group (not a team although we call them that) also didn’t know that my terms of reference say I will be working with them a half day next Friday (Fridays during Ramadan are essentially half days). The information sent to the chief had apparently stayed in his inbox. It was a bit awkward when I told them enthusiastically that I was going to work with them next week and received 8 blank stares. The problem here is that people don’t feel they can simply go to the chief and say, “hey, why didn’t you tell us.” The idea itself is frightful judging from the response.

I am also supposed to work with another of the groups here next week (four whole days). This group includes its CEO and two board members. It is an NGO that is not dependent on any higher structure, other than its Board. Still, once again my mentioning of next week got me blank stares – the CEO had just stepped out of the room. He too had not passed the message; when he came back in they did dare to mention what I had said and he looked worried, asking me about the dates (these were communicated). He frowned and said that tying up his staff for four whole days might be problematic. I could imagine it would. For a brief moment I thought I could go home earlier, but our team leader stepped in and sorted things out. I am not going home earlier.

Too much of not a good thing

With my long run at MSH ending my thinking about the kind of development assistance we provide is also changing, I am not sure what is cause and what is effect. I am acutely aware this time of what is wrong with the prevailing workshop-based and capacity-building approach of development. The many development projects do provide employment, even if it is often the elite that benefits most, aside from a few cleaners, guards and drivers. Development Business as an employment strategy – one astute Nepali observer wrote about this some years ago in an interesting article called Fancy Footwork – a Chris Argyris term.

Per Diem (called “Prise en Charge” here, or sometimes more blatantly “motivation”) is producing a perverse incentive for participating in development activities. And often because of that we are working with the wrong people. A workshop on Board governance with whole teams consisting of underlings? Of course there is fear in such cases – because the courageous change that is needed cannot be done by fearful underlings.

And so we keep on giving those who come, aside from their per diem, concepts and tools. They love these, they always ask for more. I think it is because they give the illusion of action and that is after all what the donors want: actions and results. People come up with indicators that suggest progress (‘document exists, document is validated’). But such things don’t transform. People simply check the boxes and stay in their comfort zone. They’ll go ‘till here but no further.’

This is not to say that people are not learning. I know they are. They are furiously writing down definitions (and get upset when no definition is given) as well as the quotes I insert here and there about transformation – it’s the Promised Land, a place they want to go but feel they can’t.

One participant has studied in Holland for a year, an agronomist. He can’t stop talking about the paradise he encountered in Holland – the food (‘we ate five times per day!’), the abundance in the stores, the way agriculture is done – the phrases tumble out of his mouth how great everything was. As he talks he looks for signs of awe or confirmation from the others at our table. I am sure they don’t like such stories, especially if they have never been sent on such an awesome trip. Most keep talking with each other or check their cell phones. He rattles of the names of the towns he visited: Deventer, Kampenoord, Middelburg, Wageningen and many more places that most American have never heard of.

But when I ask him what, of all the things he learned and saw that year, he could use in Mali, his face fell. “We can’t use any of that here.” I am sure his study was funded by an organization or church who put his trip in their Book of Good Deeds. He had a fabulous time and now has something that makes it easy for him to relate to foreigners, especially a Dutch one. He also perfected his English and I am sure he is a hero in his own town.  But maybe he is not also a bit more dissatisfied with life in Mali.

More beasts

There were two animals I had overlooked, a big one and a tiny one. The big one is a turtle even bigger than the one who greeted me upon arrival, about two feet in length and nearly a foot high when standing high on its legs. The tiny one is a fawn, Bambi, who at lunch time comes to the door of the kitchen and awaits his (or her?) surrogate mother – a young man belonging to the kitchen staff who comes out with a baby bottle and fills it with milk. The fawn knows where its food comes from and is patiently waiting before guzzling down the bottle. The kitchen staff doesn’t speak much French but one didn’t need language to figure out that the fawn was an orphan and a few months old.

The animals are having a field day with the mangoes and oranges that plop down from the trees everywhere. There are half eaten mangoes strewn all over. I am not sure who nibbles the mangoes and who picks the mangoes clean down to the stones. I watched the turtle for a while as it was working on a mango. It’s a slow process especially when the mango is a bit slippery. But the turtle seems infinitely patient. Whatever is left behind is eaten by another animal and after that a smaller animal and so forth all the way down to the ants and flies who do the final clean up.

The pool is clean now. A few men spent the day scrubbing the bottom and cleaning the filters. But it’s too late now – I am not convinced it’s swimmable; and besides, the Peking ducks are lurking on the side. They seem to like chlorine or whatever chemical is used to clean the pool. The bottom color, which I thought was blue enough has become bright blue (aqua) – the same color as the geese pool which has also been cleaned. The gate to the geese pool was closed and I could tell the geese wanted to swim – it was very hot. I swear I saw them panting. All the animals are acrually quite sad looking, only the turtles and Bambi look happy. But the peacocks and geese and porcupines and ostriches all look unhealthy and sad – with missing plumes and quills, and panting.

Even though sad looking, the ostriches greet me every morning. They are very curious. They walk over to the fence to say hello, and look me straight in the eye. They have huge bulging eyes and must have quite a field of vision, seeing me coming when I can barely see them.  I talk with, existential talk but they don’t respond. I imagine they must be frustrated that they can’t walk free. Apparently when the guests are gone they are let out and have the run of the place; though it’s not much of a run on the cobbled and twisted paths and the low trees they would get tangled up in.

I had a brief moment of uninterrupted, and fairly fast, internet access yesterday evening when I was given the router to take to my room so I could send the updated facilitator notes to my team. But this morning everyone in the workshop took advantage of the ‘free’ internet and we had soon exhausted the balance on the Orange data sim card inside the router. It was never recharged and I will have to wait till I am back in Bamako. I think the same happened to the Canal+ subscription as I was not able to watch any station of interest, not even Grey’s Anatomy.

More surprises

In the morning the handful of us non-fasters collect at the side of the pool for our breakfast.  At least that is what we did the first day but the next morning there was no action by the pool – breakfast was served someplace else. One more surprise. This trip is just too full of surprises.

I noticed that the wading pool was blue again thanks to a bucket full of chemicals that changed the color. I have decided I will forego swimming here. I simply don’t trust the chemicals or the filtering system. I also suspect a return of the ducks.

Breakfast on day one consisted of a piece of bread with (well) fried eggs and Lipton or Nescafe. On day two it was a piece of bread with a slice of fried spam. I asked whether there was an alternative, like jam, but no. And so I had my spam and ate it too.

The dinner arrangement last night was also a surprise. Participants had asked to be given their money to make up for the meals they are not taking or would not take at the conference center. I asked my two non-fasting colleagues about their dinner plans but they were a bit vague. Maybe they assume that the place they get their food from (outside the confines of the conference center) is not fit for a foreigner.  Or maybe their dinner consisted of the snacks provided in the afternoon. Later I discovered that they sent a driver to fetch a meal someplace.  I saw no restaurants on our way out here.

It was clear that I was on my own for dinner unless I wanted to join the fast breaking crowd but I was too hungry for that. I discovered there were leftovers from lunch (a vague resemblance to the famous Senegalese dish ‘Cieboudiene’) and when asked I about dinner I was instantly served a plate full in the refectory. The small room hadn’t been cleaned from our lunch, and was thus full of flies. I retired early to my fly-free hut and tinkered a bit with our plans for tomorrow while watching Grey’s Anatomy in French.

Inside the zoo

I am now installed in a ‘case’ a traditional round hut. In Southern Africa they call these ‘rondavels.’ It is a luxurious hut in that it has a shower and a bath (and hot water). It has an air conditioner that works quite well and is very welcome in this heat. There is a refrigerator with a bottle of red wine in it. It is not clear whether this is a welcoming gift or left behind by the previous occupant. The refrigerator door doesn’t close and soon there is water all over the floor. I also have a flat screen TV with a cable connection (Canal+), requiring two remotes. Some huts got a router to serve surrounding huts but the passwords don’t match the router name and even where it does, the internet doesn’t work. I have surrendered to not being connected.

The huts, as well as some two-story buildings are built close together in clusters on the grounds along winding paths. The style is ‘faux rustic,’ with cement logs along the paths and as hand railings that are made to look like fallen trees, tree branches or trunks. The paths are zigzagging around a beautiful and very large swimming pool that seems to be mostly used by the wild life – two Peking ducks were happily swimming in the cloudy green water of the children’s wading pool – making it even cloudier. I was discouraged from using the pool (which looked like it was swimmable) as the maintenance and filtering systems were not to be trusted. Too bad.

There are many animals here – it’s like a small private zoo. Some animals are in pens: five ostriches in a small enclosure seem to be, if not happy then at least curious about us, the new arrivals.  The porcupines stay mostly inside their faux grotto, understandable given how many of their quills are missing or broken, and raise their quills when they think there is a reason to go outside (food).  At least 20 snow white geese are clustered together in another enclosed area, making a mess and much noise. They have a blue bottomed pool that is rather dirty. There are a few animals roaming around loose: golden cranes, some peacocks and a very large turtle.  A teak-planked bridge, flanked by banana trees goes over another blue bottomed pull that may or may not have animals in it – I can’t see as the water is filled with algae.


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