Reflections


The job search of a young, still-not-sure-exactly-what-I-want-to-do twenty something can lead to many interesting places. Over the course of my RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) career search, I’ve come across a number of interesting news wires, about 26 different careers I could pursue, and quite a few remarkable people. One of those remarkable people was Melissa Lamson, the founder and president of Lamson Consulting, LLC. Melissa is an award-winning global cross cultural consultant, specializing in cultural transformation. She has worked with everyone from Cisco to MTV to the embassy of South Africa (to name a few).

When I came across Melissa’s site, my first thought was “This is a career?! Awesome.” The second, after about an hour of research and devouring Melissa’s website, was “How do I become her?” I researched more and became a bit disheartened at my finding another career path to obsess over that seemed to be one of the smaller niche enterprises (read: difficult to break into). Discouraged, I emailed Melissa asking for more information on her background, her career path, and any organizations she admired. Amazingly, she wrote me back and a week later we chatted on the phone for about 45 minutes.

Our conversation left me smiling – this was really a career I could see myself in, and with Melissa’s guidance, I now had a solid place to start. To make things better, at the end of the phone call, she asked me to write a post for her blog “The Globalist Blog” on my experience working with Stomp Out Malaria this past year. After a week of many drafts, below is the final result. Enjoy!

 

Lessons on International Project Management in Developing Countries

Or, How to be an Effective Program Coordinator for 17 Countries, 3 International Organizations, 60 Field Representatives, and 3,000 Volunteers Across Africa

When I accepted a position as the Communications Manager & Field Representative Coordinator for Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, I had no idea what I was doing. It was one of those jobs where my boss gave me a two-line position summary, a 50-page initiative project plan, and a week to write up a job description complete with a timeline and indicators of success.

Looking back, that vague of a start seems a bit sparse given the magnitude of our initiative, but it also illustrates how projects tend to operate in the developing world. If your organization wants to do well, flexibility and patience are the name of the game when generating your program and coordinating your employees.

My inaugural year operated on a steep learning curve strewn with missteps, but by the end of that time I developed a foundation of principles to follow when coordinating such an initiative. Here are three things that will set your international program off on the right foot, especially when working in developing nations:

 

1) Prepare for failure. The training that our field representatives (or employees for the purpose of this article) received was arguably the most thorough of any program in Peace Corps. We flew them into Dakar for an intensive 10-day training led by top professionals in international malaria prevention; we covered everything from malaria science to behavior change to program management; we gave them endless online resources and access to experts in the field and in the states. What we didn’t do (for our first training groups at least) was talk about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Instead, our employees left ready to dive into their work the moment they touched down at post. For some, this approach generated good results, but for those who were met with continuous roadblocks, the frustration was enormously de-motivating after such a fervent build-up at training.

Though discussing aspects of projects that could go wrong can be intimidating, it is essential to the durability of any program. Indeed, if someone had not told me to “plan for projects to not go as planned” in the beginning of my time as a field volunteer in Senegal, I would have assumed that I had done something abnormally wrong to have failed. But failure can be imperative: it often reveals insights to our programs that we would have otherwise missed.

There was a noticeable change in our employees’ resiliency once we talked about failure. Their attitudes during troubleshooting conversations went from disheartened to resolute, knowing now that their projects not going smoothly was to be expected. This attitude was crucial when it came to our organization meeting its goals – undoubtedly teams that are irrepressible in their drive to overcome can propel a project towards its desired outcomes at an extraordinary rate.

 

2) Cultivate a team, even if you have to don virtual pom poms. International programs do not lend themselves to a tight-knit “office culture.” Employees often work alone, at posts that are separated not only by international borders but also logistical obstacles such as power outages, dial-up internet, and transportation strikes. If open and continuous communication is the backbone of an effective team, developing countries seem to be built to incessantly thwart employee bonding and therefore the success of a program.

Having our employees consistently talk to each other about what they were doing and how things were going seemed like an easy part of their job to me, but my employees soon taught me otherwise. I realized that if I was going to get my team to exchange information, it was going to take daily coaching before it became a habit.

My strategy for cultivating this routine was through daily Google chat check-ins and monthly phone calls. During these conversations, I encouraged our employees to share their ups and downs: if people told me about things that were going well, I asked them to proclaim it on our private Facebook group; if I was approached with a problem, I’d connect that employee with one in a different post that was dealing or had dealt with the same issue; if someone had developed a great project, I asked him or her to upload and share the plans though our Google docs folder.

The pom  poms came out when I would emphasize employees’ efforts in order to build momentum towards a group conversation. For example: “Hey look at this great project Team Ethiopia is doing – I bet a few of you could adapt this for your own initiatives,” and so on. At times I felt silly with my relentless “sunshine” cheerleading, but eventually the group began uploading their project reports and discussing frustrations on their own. Result: a cohesive team that sustained their international conversations even after I had left the initiative.

 

3) You are a guest, so build some clout before you implement something new. After arriving at their posts, some of my employees were constantly frustrated when their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers wouldn’t take heed of their calls to action. This was especially true for those implementing our program in countries that had never focused on our goal (malaria eradication) before. It didn’t matter that my employees were also Peace Corps Volunteers – it mattered that they were coming in trying to start something new, and the local crew was not having it. 

Why should the established local groups do as my newly installed employees said? My team may have been experts in their field, but the local working crews were experts in their environment. Sure, we could have relied on their boss ordering them to do as we said, but in terms of sustaining the change we were brought in to initiate, that plan did not have much longevity.

This is especially true in developing nations. When you are starting a project in a new country – even if it’s through the same company you worked for elsewhere on the globe – you are still entering the work culture of a different group, and that makes you an outsider. Western styles of business will not bode well in, for example, many African countries. If you were to walk into a boardroom and jump directly into your meeting (as one might do in America so as not to waste anyone’s time), the local population would consider you rude for not greeting them and engaging in small talk before you began the meeting.

Obviously, the principle here goes beyond small talk: if you, as a guest in a country, want people to care about what you’re trying to do and say, you need to first make the effort to show them that you care about how they operate and exist. This means spending your first few days (or week) of business getting to know people, learning how their officer operates, even gaining a few business proverbs in the local language. After that, you will enter your project not as an outsider who acts as he or she knows better than the local workforce, but as a new business partner who will build something with the established crew. This approach gives local work teams the opportunity to take ownership in your initiative, which means employees who care and thus will work harder towards your desired outcome.

 

Successfully managing projects that operate internationally requires a profound approach. Companies that work in developing nations are often in some way trying to better a population’s wellness while they meet their own goals. In these situations, it is important to keep the adage in mind that it is not enough to be well intended in your efforts to do good – organizations must be critical of their own work and constantly adapt in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome for all parties involved.

These are principles that worked for me, but as each country and culture is different, so will be the avenue organizations need to take in order to get their job done. If these ideas do not work for your project, then let me then suggest empathy. As our initiative was trying to figure out the best way to function, what led me to the above foundation was constantly putting myself in the shoes of my employees, my managing team, and those we worked for. Coordinating international projects means coordinating a wide spectrum of people, and when you can align their needs with the goals of your company’s, you will not only realize your goals, but also enable their results to last.

“The Real Peace Corps”

The link above is to a blog entry from a volunteer in Ethiopia, Michael Waidmann. It’s a post on “The Peace Corps experience,” true to form and better written that what I could ever hope to do when it comes to summing up PC life. An Amanda “highly recommended” for anyone interested in what the whole PC thing is actually like.

Taking a break from catching up on the past seven months, let’s talk about what’s happening right now. Dakar is all over the media at the moment because of Senegal’s upcoming elections, and because of this I have been getting a steady flow of “WTF IS HAPPENING OVER THERE?! Are you ok? You should get out of there” emails and texts. These texts and emails are the reason that I’ve avoided joining the expat chorus encouraging the dramatic banter by blogging about or posting photos of local riots on Facebook. But in light of some more steady-minded opinions, I shall offer my un-opinionated (see Peace Corps blog disclaimer, check!) observations on what’s happening.

For the past few weeks, headlines about the upcoming (well, tomorrow’s) presidential election in Dakar have read: “Violence Continues in Senegal,” “Is Senegal Falling Into Chaos?” and “Senegal Faces Turmoil.” Couple that with what even casual observers of world events jump to upon hearing about political troubles in Africa given the past year, those headlines lead to some pretty big assumptions about what’s going on here. Especially when they are paired with photos like these:

Yes, big things are happening in politics here in Senegal, especially in a country that has the longest history of peace and democracy in West Africa. In recent riots, protestors, police, and innocent bystanders have been killed. Tear gas has been shot, tires burned. Demonstrations have broken out in regional capitols around the country. What’s important to remember is that no – the entire country is not a rampant fire-pit of chaos. The entire city of Dakar isn’t either. If you stayed in my end of Dakar, you would not know that the images above were occurring 15 kilometers away unless your turned on the TV or the radio. Besides a constant flow of Gendarme trucks entering and leaving the post near our apartment a some shiny new political billboards, life has continued as normal. (Ok, there was one political rally that happened in Ngor Village a few nights ago that we watched from our roof. The rally didn’t venture past loud music, big crowds, cheering, and banging on cars though.)

True, we do not know what’s going to happen during voting tomorrow or when results start to roll in over the next few days, and because of this people are on edge. I’ve not once had any fear for my personal safety based on what I can see and hear happening around me; I have gotten nervous upon receiving four text messages in one evening saying “Do not leave your apartment! There are demonstrations down town! Vigilance!” Downtown is over 15 kilometers away from me. The ancy messages that I’ve heard from the western population in Dakar and outside media have made me more nervous than anything I’ve seen or heard around me, to the point where I actually followed fervent advice to empty my bank account and stock up on food and water. Good to be prepared, sure, but I really don’t think it was 100% necessary. Now we’re just getting fat in our apartment because of the unusual abundance of good food.

Two days ago, I was driving with one of my Senegalese friends who explained that he is nervous for the election results because he thinks Wade will try to take the presidency regardless of whether he wins or not, and if that happens, people will react. This seems to be the general understanding among most Senegalese people I’ve spoken with – that Wade will somehow try claim victory and that people will not respond well. The other resounding sentiment I’ve noticed among  my Senegalese neighbors is that people do not want unrest, they do not want their country to “explode” as some headlines claim they are about to do. They are proud to live in a peaceful country and would like to keep it that way.

If you want a well-written, accurate description of what is going on here, I highly suggest this New York Times article by Adam Nossiter: An Atypical Unrest Troubles Senegal’s Election Season. Otherwise, I’ll leave you with the last paragraph of my friend Rachael’s blog (Rachael and her husband Josh live near me, yay new friends in Dakar!):

We don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday, but I have no fears about our personal safety. But it’s not really about us, not at all. It’s about Senegal and what the Senegalese want and need – or push back against. I hope for the sake of the country I’ve fallen a little bit in love with that all stays relatively calm and no one gets hurt.

Could not agree more. And yes mom, I promise to Tweet if anything crazy does in fact go down around me.

5 May, 2011

6:59am, sitting in Dabo.  Definitely the earliest I’ve ever seen this town.

My last ride out was not ferocious, more a slow rotation that began before dawn.  Maneuvering down the bush path, my mind drifted between fuzzy scenes dense with the feelings of leaving my family of two years that morning and my favorite memories from the FB.  Hollywood tells us that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. Well, I most certainly am not dying, and even though it was just a week over two years of my life, my time in Fodé Bayo was in ways a life of its own. A life that as of this morning I will never be able to return to in the same way.  (Sorry for the clichés and the drama, communicating how this all went down is a bit beyond my english skills at the time.)

Many of the ethnic groups in Senegal have a tradition of bidding farewell via a left-handed shake. Seasoned readers of this blog will remember from my cultural integration training way back when, that to give something, receive something, or gesture with your left hand is considered very rude in Senegal. The idea of the left-handed shake then, is that when you leave someone who you are not sure if or when you will see again, you bid them farewell by shaking with the wrong hand. Shaking hands with the left is awkward and uncomfortable. It goes against years of social training. As hands clasp and move in up and down in their familiar gesture, the urge to squirm away and correct it is overwhelming. This, is exactly what the left hand shake is intended to do – it’s a manifestation of the feelings people are experiencing as they give someone the love of an uncertain farewell.

 

18 July, 2011

Above is my attempt to sort through my emotions while I sat in my road town the morning I left Fodé Bayo.  In line with village tradition, I woke to leave before the first call to prayer at 5am. Whenever people leave village, they leave before anyone in the village wakes up so that a new day can began without having to say goodbye. Instead, everyone wakes up and you are gone and life is supposed to continue as if it was always this way, without the dramas of in-person farewells.

In Mandinka, when you know you are going to be sad, you say that you will be sick. There is a word for sadness, and there is a word for missing someone or something, but when the sadness is the type that will be overwhelming, it becomes not just saddness but a bed-ridden sickness as well.

My last night in village, we cooked a whole sack of rice and had a drum circle until two in the morning. While everyone knew this was for my goodbye, no one mentioned it. We all just ate and danced and said goodnight as normal. It was my counterpart who stopped me before I went into my hut and said that he would be sick all day the next day, because I would not be there. I didn’t know how to respond.

That morning when I wheeled my bike out of my hut at 4:45, I was supposed to just leave. I sat on the floor of my hut with Nacho, giving him a last few scratches behind his ears (Nacho was thrilled at this 4am wake up – more hours in the day to pay right? That definitely could be the only explanation for waking up this early). As he zoomed off into the bush and I started to leave the compound, I couldn’t keep up the tradition of leaving the village before dawn on my own. So, I woke up my counterpart, who woke up my brother Malan, who woke up my two favorite moms, Diara and Aminta. Together, they wheeled my bike and walked me to the edge of the village. It was clear when we got to this point that no one was sure what to do, considering I was as usual breaking all normal protocol for the situation. My counterpart started to cry, then my brother, and as I turned to my moms, Aminta just walked away.

We exchanged blessings, and promises of seeing each other soon. I awkwardly climbed on my bike and slowly wobbled down the path (no moon, very difficult at 5am with 50lbs of junk on your bike). The ride and car into Kolda was uneventful, which is good since my head was in a cloud.

And just like that, my two years in the village were over.

Note: Reading these journal entries outside of the mindset in which they were written, I’m realizing that they seem a bit dramatic. But trying to be true to form with trying to keep this blog as an honest representation of my time in the FB, because they are a clear description of how I felt and what was happening my last month, I’ll post them even though I’m slightly embarrassed. Right. Anyway.

22 March, 2011

Today was the first day that discussing my leaving village with my mom became a comment that weighed more than just a logistical talk.  Apparently, “five weeks” is a span of time that is graspable, whereas “three months” was still a “I’m going to be mad at you if you leave!” amount of time. It was Diara, my favorite mom, who took a sharp inhale and gave me that look when we talked about “five weeks” today.

We spent a long movie moment staring at each other before I broke it. “Don’t you say it!” I said forcing out a laugh, and walked away. Normally this is where she’d throw in a “WAI yoooooo Ñamoo!” but I heard nothing I as made my way towards my hut.

2 April, 2011

The typical after dinner routine consists of me, mom #1, mom #1’s baby, and my sister laying around on one of the family shade structures. This is one of the things I know I’ll miss most about village: laying in the middle of my women, letting my mind drift between their gossip and relaxing in evening breezes with flashlight moons. Consistently, it is one of my happiest times in village.  And it’ll never be a part of my life again after the beginning of May.

13 April, 2011

I love all of the new volunteers currently demisting in Kolda. Difficult to think about how I’ll be in Dakar and the Kolda family bonding will continue and I won’t be a part of it.

I’ve never considered my existence in Senegal not as part of the Kolda family.

And while yes, I’ll always be a part f Kolda, I will not be down here for the love and bonding, and they’ll all come to AllVol or WAIST and I just won’t know about the it that binds them together.  It makes me sad (for lack of remembering how to speak English well). It makes me not want to extend. I’m having trouble picturing “Amanda happy” in an office job for the first time in my life. Sitting still is not my thing.

Anyway, today brought a really special moment for me in village. On our second day of demiss with Cibyl in the village, for the first time during my life as a PCV, I was able to be in village with another volunteer and be sit in a crowd of people speaking ½ Mandinka ½ English and didn’t have to worry about translating. Really nice to have someone to share my village/Mandinka culture with without side explanations. Warm fuzzies, I know le sigh.

 

27 April, 2011

Without having counted, if I had to guess, I’d say I ate eleven mangoes today.  Successfully avoided all allergic reactions as well.

I did absolutely nothing today. Well, not entirely true. I speed-biked to Dabo and back to buy more candles since my headlamp is nowhere to be found in my hut. How fitting that the last week or so in my hut I have neither my headlamp nor my phone – two of my most coveted items in vil. Understatement; I more or less had these items surgically attached the past two years. Funny to not have them now in my final week when I wanted things to be uneventful and “perfect.”

It seems that last days are never perfect. Boxes are packed, days are full of awkward interactions where everyone knows that everyone is thinking about your leaving but everyone refuses to bring it up – life is hardly recognizable to the routine it had before the last few days in a place that has become home. Those quintessential last days seem to sneak up on us and float by before we have the right mind to bask in them. They come right before the comforting familiarities of routine are interrupted by the beginning of the moving out process. Last days of life in the IL house were spent meandering from room to hollow room, sitting on the back porch and eating take-out. Last days in Eleven were such a whirlwind of parties, long dinners, and early coffeed goodbyes, that driving out I realized that none of my last evenings included my favorite moments: each of the three roomies on a couch, DVR murmuring in the background as we munched on whatever random snack someone found and laughed at our lives and the world’s woes.

Transition to the next life chapter, better to take it and keep going.

“2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Amnesty International, which began with one person and an idea — to protect the basic dignity and human rights of those imprisoned for their beliefs.” – AI YouTube video caption

http://www.protectthehuman.com/videos/50-years-of-amnesty-international

Amnesty International is one organization that I have often imagined working for and am constantly humbled by when witnessing the scale of impact they’ve had on the world community. AI has rocked countries and changed lives through their relentless efforts to stand up and speak out when most people find it more convenient to continue on with their lives and be content with the status quo.

It is seeing people like the ones in the video above, and learning about the work of organizations such as AI that keep me focused towards my future (nomadic and scattered as it seems to be) because AI epitomizes the kind of work that I could devote my life to.

Feast your eyes on my second guest blog, brought to you by my recent demyster.  “Demysting” is what we call the five days trainees spend in or near their future villages, “demystifying” themselves on the realities of PCV life in Senegal.  My demyster, Cibyl, is fantastic (click on her name to check out her blog – it’s great!).  We had an enjoyable, eventful, and definitely memorable few days together… but I’ll let her tell you about it.


I became a “Being Ñamoo” reader sometime last fall, amid my own Peace Corps preparations. I was living with my parents, only sporadically employed and recently invited to serve as a health volunteer in Senegal. In an attempt to feel productive and visualize what this would mean I had taken to trolling YouTube for volunteers’ videos, which is precisely how I ended up here. Finding Amanda’s video of her village and this blog was like seeing into my future; I read a few entries and thought, “Okay, I could see my Peace Corps experience looking something like this.”

Staying with Amanda in Fodé Bayo was like stepping into a storybook. How often do you stumble upon a random blog about someone’s tiny Peace Corps village in the African bush and then a few months later get to stay there with the very person whose face you first saw peeking through a YouTube channel on the other side of the world? I mean, come on. It made my whole demyst experience that much more surreal – as if it wasn’t enough to be walking through a postcard image of an African village, listening to Amanda and her fellow villagers chirp away in this wonderfully silly song of a language they call Mandinka.

I arrived at Dave’s compound in Dabo after a good 10-hour bus ride from the training center in Thiès, tired, hungry and dehydrated. Amanda showed up a few minutes later, shouting Pulaar greetings to Dave’s host mom, and got me and my stuff on a bike and on the road in a matter of minutes. Now, I will admit it has been a while since I did any serious biking, but I’m not in such bad shape either. That being said, keeping up with Amanda in the Senegalese sun (even late afternoon sun) along sandy bush paths with a backpack, purse and pillow tied precariously to the back of my bike was no easy feat. She was a great host and made sure to check in and take water breaks (especially after I heaved into the bushes on that first afternoon – oops), but as she herself put it to another volunteer a few days later, she tends to bike the bush paths rather “ferociously.” Add that to my list of goals for my service: learn to bike ferociously.

When we got to Fodé Bayo we were greeted by a hoard of smiling Mandinkas (as far as I can tell there is no other kind) and everyone wanted to know who this new white girl was and why her Mandinka was so terrible (ironic that I understood when they remarked that I didn’t understand Mandinka). The rest of my visit I did a lot of listening and watching, trying to master the cadence of village greetings while Amanda defended my limited language skills (I think she was just excited to have another Mandinka around even if I only speak baby-Mandinka). I would sit and watch her jabber away with the locals, wondering how and when I’ll ever be able to communicate well enough to do this job.  It’s such an enormous part of being a Peace Corps volunteer and there’s so much pressure and expectation placed on language acquisition, when I think about it too much I get dizzy. But somehow people make it through. Somehow Amanda has made it through. She’s got the gestures, the affirming tongue click, the ability to explain herself and make jokes. It’s amazing to watch. I have to just keep reminding myself that the Mandinka will come and meanwhile I’m just glad that these people are so friendly and warm and patient.

We spent our days hanging out village style, lounging under mango trees, drinking tea, meeting my people and then would bike back to Fodé Bayo in the evenings. I enjoyed being a wallflower (which is good because I’m sure there is much more of that to come), and in between we had our moments of excitement: dehydrated puking in the bushes, tasting my first cashew apple, collecting honey in the moonlight, Amanda’s tire exploding on the road to Mampatim, our chicken dinner trying to escape before we got it back to Fodé Bayo, joining all of the Mandinkas in the area for an all day all night religious celebration known as a Gamou and parading around in matching outfits.

But I think some of my favorite demyst moments happened in the quiet moments when Amanda and I were able to escape in English and get to know each other a bit. There was an element of passing the torch as her service is coming to a close just as mine begins and it was nice to pick her brain, to get to know Amanda instead of just hearing about Ñamoo (because she is a popular figure in our Mandinka community and I have a feeling they’ll be talking about her for a long time).

I install May 17th, not long after Amanda leaves Fodé Bayo, and will take over as the lone Mandinka volunteer in Kolda until her replacement comes in October. Amanda, I want you to know how much I appreciate all the work you’ve done to prepare my beautiful site and get another Mandinka in Kolda and to thank you for showing me the ropes. A baraka!

[For those interested in reading more about my demyst with Amanda, I wrote about other aspects of my experience for my own blog, which you can get to by clicking here.]

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