Senegal


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.

Advertisements

This past December, I had an interview posted on my friend Mike’s website, Bushkids.org. We discussed my role in malaria prevention and awareness work throughout my Peace Corps service, what I’ve been doing in my 3rd year for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa, life as a 3rd year, GAD work, etc. It’s a lengthy interview so this post is simply to give you the link to the page: here. Enjoy!

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.

Two weeks ago was WAIST – the West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament, which was basically 4 nights and 3 days of non-stop chaos.  This led directly into my Close of Service Conference (COS conf) where I experienced the first panic attack I’ve ever had. We met all of these incredible people during a career panel, who work for the UN, and WHO etc.  – all things I would love to do – but as they spoke, it became more and more clear how unqualified I am to ever do their jobs.  Then I started thinking about any type of job I’d want once returning state-side and I freaked out a bit more because there is nothing (currently) that separates me from 10,000 other returned PCVs (RPCVs) who are applying for similar jobs, and I started seeing myself going home in May and having to settle for something I didn’t want to do for years just to begin paying off my student loans.… cue minor panic attack.  Shout-out to Chris Brown for sitting next to me and fielding the spazness.

After the last career-panel discussion, my country director and boss, Chris, came up to me and we started chatting about how I’ve enjoyed my second year here so much more than my first due to the fact that I enjoy being around the energy and motivation of all of the current volunteers.  He continued the conversation with, “Well, why don’t you extend?” And I explained (as I had already to a few people in the PC office that had already asked me about extension positions, or working as a 3rd year volunteer) that I would never consider extending unless there was: 1) a very specific job for me to do and one that only Amanda Wybolt could do – as in, not something they’re looking for any extender to fill, and 2) something that would help me career-wise in the long run.  This led to Chris telling me about a new malaria prevention program that is going to run via PC Senegal: teams of volunteers from 25 countries across Africa will be coming to Senegal for trainings on malaria prevention techniques based off of the model used by PCVs in Senegal.   This program will be the first of its kind in Peace Corps history.  “Do you want to be involved?” he asked.

Without thinking, my initial response was “No!”  When Chris and I had this conversation, mentally (though I had no idea what I was doing post-PC) I was already heading state-side for at least a bit.  So the idea of staying here for year?  Not so appealing.  Indeed, a total 180 of where I was going.

And then I realized I was being a bit childish and irrational. So, I agreed to have a meeting on Friday with the people already involved in the initiative (total of 5 including myself and Chris).  I left the meeting with a 30 second verbal blurb of how Chris saw me being involved and with all of the existing documents on the project to read over.  Over the weekend, I called 17 people – PCVs in country, friends and family from home – and the more I listened to myself describe the pros and the cons of the position to people over the phone, the more lucid my situation became.  This would be a huge opportunity – I could really gain a lot by working with this initiative.  By this past Sunday, the idea of taking the job was pretty much a no-brainer.

Skipping the details of the meeting and getting straight to the point – I took the job!  So what exactly will I be doing?  Strictly speaking, I am not allowed to tell you all too much because the program will not be officially announced in the end of April to coincide with the 50 year anniversary of the swearing-in of the first Peace Corps Volunteers, but, basically: I will be the communications coordinator for volunteer efforts in the 25 countries working through this initiative, involved in organizing and creating training manuals for PCVs across all sectors of the participating countries (including Senegal), and in charge of media bits for all of the above through social media and regular interweb information sharing.  I will also be working with multi-national NGOs and country organizations that will be partnering with Peace Corps on this initiative… in every country involved.  … AHH!  Exciting…  The other answer is “Who knows!” because I’m writing my job description as things go along and I have a feeling that this will be one of those things that as the initiative takes shape, my job will become into something totally different as we are seeing it now. Who knows where this initiative will be in 6 months? Right now there are 5 of us involved, apparently by 6 months there will be 30+. That could (should) change things. So boom, another cool thing about the job: growing with an organization.

Beyond working for an amazing program that is truly going to do good work all across Africa (and save lives! Progress is good!), there are two other points that made me decide to stay here: (1) that this position is really catered to my strengths and interests (communications, training facilitation, media work), and to have that at 24 years old, especially working on something that is this big of an initiative with this much responsibility – I realize is pretty rare; (2) that by staying in Dakar for a year, I can really put myself in a much more competitive place (career-wise) than I am right now. Especially as far as getting an international job is concerned. I can take this next year to learn actually learn French  (something I was never able to do in my Mandinka village), and make contacts outside of the Peace Corps world and among the international ExPat community that exists in Dakar.

Other details:
You may be thinking, “A year?! Do you get to come home at all?”  Yes, I get a bit over 6 weeks, which I will probably take July to mid-August.  I have been off of American soil for exactly two years as of February 28, 2011, so email me if you want to enjoy the first few days of “WTH is that?! I want some Mexican food.”

What about the extension? Where will I be living?  I will be living in Dakar with my friend Renée starting in about two months – ahh!  That means I can dress like a real person, can still bike around (and maybe get hit by cars like I used to do in Boston), and will be working in the PC office and have my own spiny chair. Yes!  Renee and I will also be speaking only in French on M/W/F, and are officially extending an open invitation to any visitors, as long as you come bearing gifts in the form of food, live performance, or pretty things.

What about the Fodé Bayo?  And Nacho??  I know, I know.  In true PC style, they need me in Dakar working on this ASAP, but I still have the garden/fencing project (of which the funding still has not appeared in my bank account), so as soon as that rolls through and rolls out, I’ll be up here.  I think that’ll be about two months… just enough time to enjoy mango and cashew apple season, yes!

Funny, this time last week I was still unsure about taking the position or not.  Now I’m planning what I will be doing this time next year – in Senegal.  Of all the people.  Who would have thought.   Life is funny sometimes.

Life in village these past few months has revolved around the peanut harvest.  Peanuts have been the buzz of village conversation: How many peanuts have you harvested? Did we get them all from the fields? Have the been brought in from the fields before the goats and cows got to them?  Does Nacho still eat peanuts from the shell? How much is one kilo of peanuts selling in Diaobe (the biggest outdoor market in west Africa that is about 50k from my road town) these days?

One of my favorite parts of the peanut harvest is the part that takes place right outside of my hut door.  Everyone keeps their peanuts in tall, bamboo, cylinder-like structures that sit right outside of their huts (my brothers’ is outside my hut door).  Here the peanuts will stay until they are captured by rogue squirrels or until people have decided they are ready to roast, eat, shell, or sell them.

The process of getting the peanuts into these holders is amusing to me because the bags they use to transport the peanuts from the fields to the huts are huge, awkward, and heavy, and the holding structures are of course then very tall.  Everyone has their own methods of putting the peanuts in their place, but my favorite  (illustrated below) was how my three brothers decided to tackle the job amidst much yelling, fighting, and laughing.

First, drive the donkey cart so that the donkey’s nose enters Amanda’s hut door.

Then, topple the five or six huge bags of peanuts from the charette onto the ground.

Attempt to lift the bag high enough to pour the peanuts into the bamboo holding container. Literally using your head helps.

Hop up to check on how the process is going.

Bag number two! Make the smallest guy jump in the bamboo container to assist in the peanut-dumping process.

POUR POUR POUR!

Shake the bag furiously to make sure that every last groundnut makes it out.

Bounce out of the peanut holidng bin just in time for lunch.

Watch closely – two RPCVs from Senegal are featured! Wicked cool. So happy to be where I am in my life right now.  Enjoy the video!

I am currently in the third and final day of my COS conference  (“Close of Service” conference ), and trust there is much for me to write for you about the swirls of emotional everything that has been going on (and of course this year’s West Africa Invitational Softball Tournament – WAIST!), but first let me share with you all a copy of a letter our medical office gave to us yesterday to carry around with us for a bit after we leave Senegal (ahh rambly run-on sentence I apologize).  Enjoy:  

Peace Corps Office of Medical Services

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Amanda Susan Wybolt has resided in Senegal, West Africa for the past _____ months.  Her immunizations have been kept up to date which included: Typhoid, Teatnus-Diptheria, Havrix A, Rabies pre-exposure, TOPV, Yellow Fever, MMR, Hepatitis B, and Meningitis A, C, Y, and 135.  At the time of departure from Senegal, this volunteer was found to be free of disease.  Any illness notes was subsequently treated.

In the event that the volunteer should present herself for treatment, please be aware that the following diseases are highly endemic in Senegal and that they have possibly been exposed to:

  • Malaria – falciparum, ovali, vivax
  • Tropical eosinophilia
  • Infectious hepatitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Yaws
  • Hansen’s disease
  • Scistosomiasis hematobium
  • Schistosomiasis Mansonii
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Poliomyelitis
  • Yellow Fever

Intestinal parasites including:

  • Hookworm
  • Strongyloidiasis
  • Ascariasis
  • Tapeworms
  • Entameoba Histolytica
  • Giardia Lamblia
  • Balantidium coli

Additionaly, she has been taking Mefloquine 250mg weekly.  She has been advised to take malaria prophylaxis for 4 weeks after leaving the malaria area and to commence a 14 day treatment with Primaquine beginning 2 weeks after departure from this area.

If you have any questions about her past medical history while being a Volunteer, please contact Peace Corps: Office of Medical Services: Post-Services Department.

Sincerely,

Peace Corps Medical Officer/Senegal

 

Amazing.  This would be part of why we like to play the “How many years do you think your Peace Corps experience has taken off of your life?” game.

Next Page »