MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Time Flies By!

I realized just the other day that I only have three months left of my just over a year term in Nicaragua. I have no idea where the time has gone! It amazes me that this can happen but it happens every time I am abroad – the time flies!Projects have slowed down a bit here in the MiCrédito office, as internal transition has put a hold on some of my projects while I wait for information to be gathered and pass along to me to work with. This slow-down has given me some time to think and reflect on my time here and my upcoming trip home to visit friends and family, which will be in a month.People here keep asking me what I miss the most about Canada or what is the first thing I am going to eat, for example. So, in honour of Canada Day this Monday, I thought I would reflect this post on Canada and what it is that I miss the most from the motherland... And the answer? Bubble tea. Bubble tea is a delicious drink with a cold tea or juice base liquid and tapioca bubble-balls that float around at the bottom. It is served with an enormous straw you can use to sip up the bubbles! It is DELICIOUS. Every Sunday when I lived in Ottawa for school I would make my way down to the Korean area with some of my friends and we would indulge in Vietnamese pho and bubble tea for dessert. Afterwards, my Chinese friends would educate me about all of the different things you can find at the local Chinese grocery store. I loved a Sunday afternoon in Korea Town.I realized that the thing I missed most from home was not exactly bubble tea, itself, but the multiculturalism and diversity that can be found in Canada and in particular, cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. On any given night of the week, my friends could be faced with the tough decision of which restaurant to visit. Here in Managua, we do have several options: the local fritanga stand, the more “upscale” Nicaraguan food, a Peruvian restaurant (which I am in love with), various American food chains, French, Mexican, and a few others. Managua does offer a varying amount and therefore, I cannot complain. However, I still can’t quick that longing desire to debate with my friends the classic “sushi” or “pho”. Italian? Thai?What I also look forward to seeing is a sea of faces from hundreds of countries living together in one city; enjoying the hot Toronto sun, partaking in one another’s culture and appreciating the unique cultural aspects each person can bring to the community.

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Meghan's Most Significant Change Story

Meghan's Most Significant Change Story

As part of her internship, Meghan interviewed over 20 clients of the UHDP project to learn what impact MEDA's work was having on them, their business and their families. The method they used to measure their life changes is called Most Significant Change (MSC). At the end of her internship, Meghan decided to complete the exercise herself to see what she was able to achieve, how has she changed and what she has learned most from the experience. To read her MSC story, click here or on the photo.

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Ola's Most Significant Change Story

Ola's Most Significant Change Story

As part of her internship, Ola interviewed over 20 clients of the UHDP project to learn what impact MEDA's work was having on them, their business and their families. The method they used to measure their life changes is called Most Significant Change (MSC). At the end of her internship, Ola decided to complete the exercise herself to see what she was able to achieve, how has she changed and what she has learned most from the experience. To read her MSC story, click here or on the photo.

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Walking the talk in impact investing

Walking the talk in impact investing

My first visit to the Centre for Social Innovation at Regent Park was uplifting. I’d arrived at the first community Impact Investing Fair, a room brimming with smiling faces and glowing with slight perspiration, thanks to Toronto’s infamous humidity.The evening began with a presentation from the charismatic “Sustainable Economist,” Tim Nash, who dispelled the mysteries behind impact investing. Swiftly cutting through clunky terms like portfolio, market risk and liquidity, Nash boiled down the essence of impact investing. Afterwards, a number of entrepreneurial investment funds pitched their cause and expected returns to the crowd.There were many conversations that night that I would have loved to continue for lengthy coffee breaks. Though from different backgrounds, the people present spoke a common language, one that understood the value of putting their money into something worth investing for. Sure, your own financial security is important – but at what economic benefit are you willing to allocate your funds to blue chips or off to mutual funds? I feel that it is much like the clothes we buy, never once contemplating the supply chains of our jeans and jackets. Where is our money going?Ignorance is bliss, but meaningful investment is better.The term impact investing started to gain traction in 2009, with the establishment of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). Since then, leading publications and groups have jumped in.Dipping my toes in the waterWith all this discourse on the glorious frontier of Impact Investing, I craved a reduction in talk and uptake in action. And this started with myself. Several months ago I finally stumbled upon an impact investment opportunity that met my investment needs. It happened serendipitously through a conversation with the CFO of MEDA (my previous employer) that they had a Risk Capital Fund. With a low minimum investment of $1000, returns of 2 – 4%, and high social-environmental investment standards, I had found my match.Agro Capital Management (ACM), one of MEDA’s investments. ACM sells and finances agricultural equipment to small farmers to help create more profitable operations in the Ukraine.My relationship with impact investing has mostly been rocky, a lot of talk and little action. I’ve learned that I need to be thorough and patient in my search. Impact investments do exist, and there is no shortage of places where money is needed. Investing safely and wisely means due diligence plays a serious role at this stage. Until impact investing becomes a staple in mutual funds, us investors will have to take a more active stance, and spend more time and resources understanding, supporting and promoting the industry. As difficult as my impact investment pursuits are, I’m in it for the long haul. Are you?

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Those who can't post...link to other people's blogs?

Those who can't post...link to other people's blogs?

Ok so I know that my next blog is long overdue, but it is definitely a testament to how much I have been enjoying myself in Zambia!  Since you heard from me last I have been to Chobe National Park in Botswana for a camping trip/safari, Livingstone twice (still without mustering up the courage to do the bungee jump), the Harare International Festival of Arts in Zimbabwe for music/arts and horseracing, and to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia to see the Mzungu All Stars football team take on the local Zambian team, raise money for conservation projects and not see any leopard upclose.  All in all, not too shabby. I have had the opportunity to see more of the amazing countryside in this part of the world. 

On my non-weekends, I have been working on training materials and editing videos while are nearly done. Stay tuned as I will share a bit more about the process of editing and developing training materials next.  But to wet the appetites, I thought I would share a post from Michelle, our visiting Kiva fellow, documenting one of the amazing success stories of Zoona.

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One Door Closes and Another Door Opens!

One Door Closes and Another Door Opens!
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It is hard to believe I am writing this post from my new desk, in my new office in my new home!  I cannot believe my internship is over and that I am back on Canadian soil!  I think my last month in Crimea was probably the best of them all, which made it hard to leave, but none-the-less I am happy to be back in my home and native land!Everything at the UHDP wrapped up wonderfully.  Olya and I went full throttle finishing up our MSC stories.  In the last month we conducted 8 interviews and wrote 8 stories bringing us to our goal of 20!  Each story was as heartwarming as the last.  Each person we interviewed, no matter their age, gender, background, crop, or size of their farm, has had great results from working with the UHDP.  It just goes to show how great the Ukraine Horticulture Project is to be able to produce such great results for such a variety of different clients.As a small parting gift for the UHDP offices, Olya and I wrote Most Significant change stories about ourselves to share with everyone how the Project impacted us as interns. You can find mine here: Meghan Denega MSC StoryNot only was work the busiest in the last month, but I also travelled the most too!  Although I had been taking advantage of the interesting and beautiful natural and historic sights of Crimea the whole time I was there, in the last month I managed to squeeze in a bunch of great trips with great friends! I have so many great memories from hiking in the mountains, exploring ancient Byzantine settlements, visiting residencies of the tsars and other nobles of the Russian empire, and meeting and getting to know so many great people along the way!  I was even able to meet and spend some magical times by the sea and at the top of Crimea’s highest mountain, Ai Petri, with my now colleague Susan and a volunteer auditor Dale! On my last full day in Ukraine I climbed the mountain Djimerji, had dinner in a lovley cottage restaurant in the forest and enjoyed another Russian sauna- complete with oak branch beatings!  Here are a few photos from my last few adventures including the UHDP Simferopol Staff (left), Ai Petri (middle), Rock City (right):

Although my time at the UHDP has come to an end, my time with MEDA is just beginning.  I am now located in Waterloo at MEDA’s headquarters, working as the new Project Coordinator/Junior Consult in the Financial Services department.  It is true what they say that when one door closes, another door opens! Al though I will miss the staff in Simferopol, my first week at the Waterloo office has been wonderful.  The staff is friendly and very welcoming.  I can tell that this next leg of my journey with MEDA will prove to be as impactful as my last and I look forward to all that is to come my way!

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A Clipboard, a Nissan Pickup, and a Very Bumpy Road

A Clipboard, a Nissan Pickup, and a Very Bumpy Road
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These three essential components describe well the first week of my most recent field work, through the east-coast's rugged region of Nicaragua's RAAS (Region Autonoma de Atlantico Sur). The RAAS region of Nicaragua is very unique from the middle and western parts of Nicaragua, which are primarily inhabited by the Spanish-speaking population of the country, and many more of the country's larger urban centres. RAAS is one of the two autonomous regions of Nicaragua, with distinct cultures and populations from the rest of the country. One of the major distinctions is the rich cultural mix and backgrounds present within this region, ranging from native groups of the Miskito and the Mayangna, to the Creole African population, speaking a heavy creole Afro-Caribbean English. The degree of influence and presence of the Afro-Caribbean culture and language becomes stronger as one approaches the east coast of the nation, with the Corn Islands (60 kilometres into the Caribbean sea; and highly recommended) exhibiting the extremes of this culture, with the absence of Spanish speakers a regular occurrence. The field work did not take us to the islands however, but it did bring us right to the coast, and to many hidden, small communities along the way, granting us glimpses into peoples' highly isolated lifestyles.The purpose of the trip was to follow up on some of Techno-Links' end clients; users of the technologies that the grant-winning businesses produce and distribute. The first week was working with clients of Tecnosol, the first round winner that is working to distribute bio-digesters to small rural cattle farmers in order to improve their sustainability and independence from commercial suppliers of fertilizers and propane kitchen gas. By use of the bio-digesters the farmer is able to utilize the manure from the cattle to produce bio-gas, a sustainable alternative to propane. The gas is produced from manure, water, and nothing more. After the gas exits the bio-digester and is piped to the kitchen for kitchen use, the bi-product produced ("biol") is deposited at the opposite end, leaving a potent fertilizer.Juan Humberto is one of the project's very successful farmers, who has worked with the bio-digester for some time now and has employed the use of the biol effectively as well, creating his own compost and fertilizer uses for other plants around his farm. Juan no longer needs to purchase propane gas from town and has cut down his costs greatly.The calm and collected participants of Tecnosol's initiative continue to look onward, to the future of sustainable farming and alternative agricultural energy methods. These brilliant bovine have little idea as to the difference they are making for the farmers of Nicaragua and other proponents of bio-digesters around the world.The first of the two weeks in the field was no easy feat, as many of the roads to access the farmers were barely roads at all. The pathways were merely washed out dirt/rock pathways that have faced the severe climate alternations of the rainy season, switching with the desert-like dry seasons of the country's summer months. This back and forth pattern leaves a not-so-pleasant trail of scattered rocks, semi-submerged in the hardened soils, at times resembling the shape of sharp and bloated footballs. Travelling for hours across these roads lends chance the truck may glide across the broadside of the football with relative ease and smoothness, but also brings the probable passing that the nearly completely exposed football could have one pointed end highly exposed from the earth, waiting to send the passengers of the truck flying into the ceiling of the cab. The challenge for the driver is to cross the 20 km stretch of road within the allotted 3 hours, as to not fall behind and arrive home late at night (returning on the same quality road), while the passengers' goal is to find a position and manner to sit throughout the journey that leaves the least bodily damage. Riding without a safety belt poses the risk of launching one's self into the ceiling, and enduring a good blow to the head/neck, while fastening the safety belt eventually leaves bruises and lacerations across the shoulders and chest, where the "said" safety belt has repeatedly attempted to keep you "safe", every 10 seconds, for the past 3 hours of being launched around the cabin of the truck like a can of paint in the motorized shaker at home depot. Needless to say, after a few days on these roads, my upper torso felt like I had undergone some sort of military training with intensive workouts and all-day fitness drills. The following is a quick screen capture of the map where we traveled, with the original Google Map accessible in the link to follow:The journey was extremely enduring but full of adventure. Working the long days and crossing hundreds of kilometres on back-country roads really summons feelings of unique opportunity and the gift of experience. Meeting and talking with the farmers that MEDA works with in the small communities of Kukra Hill, and Laguna de Perla (both communities within the RAAS region of Nicaragua), helps one to understand the extreme disparities between how some families live in Nicaragua, and how families live in Canada. Although these differences are acknowledged and common fact to most, even those not working in development work or overseas, seeing the lives of those living in Managua and other urban centres of Nicaragua still appear significantly different than those in the remote communities of RAAS on the east coast, often in deeper levels of poverty due to remote locales. These individuals are exceptionally isolated and bringing in the technology of bio-digesters to create a cooking fuel from on site natural resources (besides burning firewood), presents a superior alternative to purchasing propane gas tanks from the nearest towns and villages. Passing 6 months with MEDA as an Impact Assessment Intern with the Techno-Links project was an excellent opportunity to become increasingly exposed to developing-world conditions, but in addition to this, proved to be a pivotal learning stage in my life to witness business connections made between local businesses and the small rural farmers of Nicaragua. Given the gift to work and live abroad is a pivotal time in one's life, to learn about culture, language, mannerisms, and all things different, that invigorate and awaken one to the vibrancy and reality of life outside of North America. It was a pleasure to work with MEDA and serve in the monitoring and evaluation of the Tecno-Links program. I would recommend this internship with MEDA to anyone interested and would love to tell you more and answer questions if you would like to contact me (arifriesen@gmail.com). God Bless, and continue serving and exploring the wonders of the World.

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mHealth Meeting in Dar

Describing MEDA Tanzania’s transition to the eVoucher channel from a paper voucher for subsidized bednet distribution, never fails to interest an audience. As MEDA’s eVoucher uses a USSD platform, the simplest of feature phones, allow vouchers to be issued and redeemed by beneficiaries. It also makes it a lot easier for MEDA to track and measure trends to inform future decisions about the program.

Using ICTs and mobile phones in particular as part of health and development solutions are not new, and their applications are countless: SMS scratch codes are used to verify the authenticity of certain drugs, mobile phones are used to monitor and record data on teacher attendance etc.

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Fighting GIGOOS Syndrome one train ride at a time

Fighting GIGOOS Syndrome one train ride at a time
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Grass-Is-Greener-On-the-Other-Side Syndrome.  Many, if not most, have had a case of it -- dreadful, pesky thing it is. And hard to get rid of too—some struggle with it for life.My time riding the rails here in Ukraine has taken on a special purpose. While I’ve always enjoyed sharing a couple of hours of uninhibited conversation with captive strangers, my approach in these encounters in Ukraine has been somewhat more calculated.While I personally think I do a decent job of looking and sounding like a local, it eventually comes out (whether through the natural questioning period or a grammatical blunder) that I am not exactly from this neck of the woods. I can’t help but feel a slight disappointment when I’m ‘found out’, as a foreigner. Don’t get me wrong—I am a proud Canadian, but there is something special about going unnoticed as one of the locals.Whenever I mention I’m from Canada, there is a distinct shift in the energy of our train cabin. Sometimes I sense envy, or a feeling of ‘I should be on my best behaviour’, or ‘ this foreigner has it so cushy she has no idea what real life is like’. Still, many default to filling this foreign ear with reasons why they have problems in their life, government and country, and will always have those problems . They can’t find the money to bribe a university for a diploma, they can’t find good work, those that are in power lie and steal and kill, corruption is so much a part of everyday life that it won’t ever go away…In the beginning, these rants were a hard blow. I used to think about each train character for days after our meeting; it was exhausting. As someone with a generally sunny outlook on life, I didn’t want to believe that things were bad, getting worse, and there was no way out… except for moving to Canada. (As many suggested… “won’t you invite grandpa/auntie (insert name here) back to Canada with you?”)While I tolerated these bumpy rides at first, soon enough the optimist in me came alive and piped in. I would meet every complaint with something positive that I had noticed during my time here; with a question about how such problems can be solved; by sharing some of the challenges that we face in the West.  I don’t blame these people for becoming blind to the good things that surround them, the general population really does face a lot of hardships, with much of it coming from the government that is supposed to be protecting them.As a representative of “the other side”, and a seeker of green grass wherever I go, my remedy for these sufferers became my list of favourite things about Ukraine:1. The quality of food – The amazing soil quality (Ukraine has 25% of the world’s black topsoil) makes the produce delicious, a noticeable difference from the West (except Ontario peaches, those can’t be beat!!)2. The amazing nature and history– This one is usually administered in multiple treatments. Ukraine is definitely an underdog on the North American radar of cool tourist spots. I have found, and been introduced to, gem after gem. From the amazing mountains along the Black Sea coast, to the Greek ruins near Sevastopol, to the cliff-dwelling monk community, to the soul-shatteringly beautiful churches in Lviv, to the 2000 year old cemetery in the Tatar capital.3. The talent and drive! Ukrainians are very driven and capable people. Like one of the farmers that the Project supports once joked in an interview “ Ukrainians like to work. You help us get a tractor, and soon we’ll be working your fields in Canada, and for a good price, too!” Besides the entrepreneurial, “survivor” spirit, many are talented, especially in sports and dance. Many world-class athletes and dancers (especially ballroom!) come from Ukraine, definitely a reason to love and feel proud of your country.4. Relationships: One thing that my patients were especially responsive to was my highlighting of the quality of communication between people, especially strangers. People here are open with each other – they talk to each other like we would talk to our family in Canada. Not overly polite or careful, but direct, open, soulful. People here skip the small talk, and go straight to what matters. This is something people really reacted to actually, when they realized it was one of the few good things left over from the Soviet rule --- the brother and sisterhoods between the people.5. Approach to health – everyone has a knowledge of which herbs, teas, oils help which ailment. There is a culture of folk wisdom that has survived and thrived, and chemical treatments are secondary options for many. Also, there are opportunities for those on their pensions to vacation annually at one of the many health resorts along the sea side as a preventative approach—brilliant!6. The amount of celebrations! People here are constantly celebrating – “Day of the Rail Worker, Day of the agricultural worker, Youth day, Forgiveness Day”...the list goes on! It was amusing and endearing to me how often there were fireworks in my small industrial town of Melitopol (we’re talking once a week, sometimes more!) Below is a picture at the Melitopol's 228th birthday (which I'm gets changed at the whim of the latest mayor)7. Opportunities- This is when I would do a shameless plug for the UHDP. People were really skeptical to hear about a project without an ulterior motive, but once I convinced them that there is no catch to the work we do—they were floored. Below is a picture from a recent field day about grape cultivation, which was put on by the Ukrainian Women Farmers Council. I also helped clarify some of the over-glorified myths about Canada and the West – University education isn’t free, democracy isn’t perfect, and the business environment is still its own unruly ‘feeding time at the zoo.’The result of the treatment is hard to track. I can only hope that the jolly musings of a half-foreigner will have a contagious quality of their own. And for those of you daydreaming of an escape – I would advise against it. The best thing, the only thing, is the present moment. So make it the greenest it can be!On another note, I leave Ukraine in just two weeks. If you’re not yet exhausted by puns -- yes, the grass has been very green here, but I know that at home in Canada, and wherever my next adventure takes me, there will be green to discover too. Stay tuned for my next and final soul search (read: blog post), where purpose, pleasure, and personal discovery will take the stage together for the last time here in Ukraine.

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Kamikaze Video Shooting in Zambia

Kamikaze Video Shooting in Zambia
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What do you get when you mix a rural microfinance intern, a Canadian multimedia specialist and adventure travel/documentary videographer  from Livingstone?The answer – hopefully, some wonderful training videos.Pictured left: Mike Q, Zoona CEO, Tony & I, on locationSo, for the past two weeks I have been running around the Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces trying to collect video footage of agents transacting, agent and client testimonials, branding in action, and good and bad business practices.  I have been interviewing, storyboarding, scouting locations, hiring actors, playing chauffeur, helping set up dollys, holding bounce cards, getting multiple waivers signed, and playing producer/director/screenwriter for a tiny production that will later become Zoona’s new agent training videos. Needless to say it has been quite an adventure. Here is a little run down of the process. The Process…Prior to mapping out the video process, the MEDA and Zoona teams worked on looking at what types of  content we could deliver via video, what the overall content for the agent training program should be and how receptive our prospective and current Zambian agents would be towards a video as the first touch point of joining Zoona.  Since I thought it was key to get feedback from the current Zoona agents, I traveled around a bit of Zambia interviewing agents and tellers. The questions I asked them primarily focused on: (1) how they had received training in the past, (2) what they thought the key components of a training should be, (2) what they thought about video as a mode of delivery, (3) what types of technology would be useful in making their Zoona businesses more efficient and profitable, (4) which customer care issues they deal with most often, (5) what the drivers of growth in their business are, and (6) how they manage their account in a given day and set targets for growth.Having sat through a week of the formal training program when I first arrived in Zambia, I had an idea of what the feedback might look like. Surprisingly, though, most of the agents and tellers I interviewed had not even gone through any kind of training and had instead been introduced to the platform by either an agent or a predecessor.  It therefore became clear that video would be a great supplement to the hands on training that most Zoona agents/tellers were receiving in the field.One of the other items that I learned during my research trip was that most agents or tellers were very clear on the type of technology that would help them process transactions faster.  Now since tablets are all of the rage in the development world, one would naturally assume that these would also be very popular with agents. BUT because the internet/network on a tablet is slower than on a laptop, the agents and tellers had a preference for the latter.   Agents and tellers were also quick to point out that the number pad attachment was also one of the key pieces of equipment that helped them transact faster because of the need for a customer to enter in a pin code for most transactions. Finally, I was also excited to get a chance to do some reconnaissance about the common customer care issues that agents and tellers deal with since I have used the feedback to script the customer care role plays for the agent training.Pictured right: Agents in action in NdolaApart from training content, it was really rewarding to hear first hand how becoming part of Zoona has changed many of the lives of the agents/tellers.  It was also a great opportunity to learn more about the Zoona business and see how many of Zoona's successful agents have developed regular customer bases and utilize word of mouth to gain new customers. Finally, as a side project, I took what I now know as B-roll, or footage of agents, tellers and customers transacting to include some variety in our video content. Based on the feedback I received from interviewees, I was able to work with another MEDA colleague, to draft an outline of the training content, associated goals for each training module, and determine the areas where video would be a value add.  Ultimately, there will be four training videos, including one focused on marketing and introducing the company and its products, one focused on customer service, troubleshooting and customer care, one focused on marketing, and one on managing your Zoona business and tellers.  These will be supplemented by two screen cast modules that show users how to use the Zoona mobile platform to transact and manage their accounts.Challenges...There are of course a number of challenges associated with doing my first ever training video production. The first being – planning.  During this process it has come to light that I am a “plan b” person….that is to say that I like to make sure that if something goes wrong we have an alternative in place to accomplish the same goals. Maybe this is a holdover from the Bear, Stearns days, but nonetheless, it is something I have taken with me.  It probably won’t come as a shock to most of you to know that that is not always possible here in Zambia. Luckily, I was able to have some amazing support from my MEDA colleague, Steve, to guide me through the shooting. We definitely developed some creative work-arounds when things were not going our way during shooting...most notably rain on a tin roofed booth interrupting sound quality, intermittent sunshine changing the look of video, and actors showing up late, various stray people wanting to interrupt filming. For the last one, it is amazing what an ambassador a free t-shirt can be as long as you don't give it out until the end. Pictured above: Actors hard at workBased on the advice of Steve and Rachel, I knew that having a comprehensive storyboard and shot list was key to getting the project off on the right foot and ensuring that we had enough footage for the final video product.  For those of my more video minded friends, I now have an even greater appreciation of all of the things that go into making a video possible. Part of the storyboarding process included scripting good and bad customer service scenarios and common customer care issues. For these items, we did live role plays with Zambian actors and our kamikaze film crew of 4 – me, Memory from Zoona, Steve from MEDA, and Tony, our videographer/cameraman on hire from Livingstone.  We tried to get as wide a range in ages and appearance as we could, but unfortunately the casting director did not come through at the last minute. Still, we managed to get some very professional actors that took their jobs seriously and succeeded in recreating the transaction process. It was definitely a different experience having actors come up to me and ask me about how they should be playing the role of agent or customer and asking about changing dialogue. While I had initially thought that filming in and around Zambia and getting various permissions would be the greatest of my challenges, I was pleasantly surprised when people were bending over backwards to make shooting possible. We were even able to film in the busiest bus station in Lusaka.  That's not to say that we didn't have our fair share of traffic, horns honking,  parade practices shutting down streets, and locals who wanted to run into shots....we even had a man ask us to film him while he was doing some Michael Jackson choreography.I am so grateful to all of the agents I interviewed for being so patient and open with me. I hope to use most if not all of their amazing feedback to make the case for the benefits of being a Zoona agent and show people how joining the team can impact their lives.Next Steps…Now that the shooting is complete, I am working on going through all of the footage and making selections for the first round of edits to be done by Steve. After that I will be working on the screencast portion of the training to be followed by putting together the user guide which will accompany all of the training materials.

Pictured right: Me in Livingstone in front of Victoria FallsOther Updates…In other news after much debate and deliberation I have decided to stay on Lusaka for another 5 months. It was a really difficult decision since I am missing my family, friends and partner, but ultimately it didn’t seem like I was quite done with my stint living abroad or any of the training projects that we are currently embarking on. 

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Danakil Desert in Pictures

Danakil Desert in Pictures
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Happy International Women's Day - We are one woman

Today is March 8th so I will start by wishing you a happy International Women's Day.  One thing that I can definitely attribute to my internship experience is a stronger sense of feminism. Seeing the disparity and the double standards women face in Morocco - which on the whole is much better than many developing countries - but still not up to Western standards - has made me feel like I need to do something more. Here's a little description of street culture in the city: Casablanca is a very cosmopolitan city - it certainly doesn't have the traditional old city feel of Fes, or tourist-Mecca feel of Marrakech. But the men still rule the streets, whether it's groups of boys kicking a soccer ball, teenagers loitering, men sitting at sidewalk cafés, or old men playing cards, they are at home in public spaces. The errant (young) woman who proposes to go out alone, (imagine!), especially in the evening or at night (really!) must be inviting these men, aged 15-75, to comment on her appearance or repeatedly try to catch her attention by calling out variations on "bonjour/bonsoir," "Welcome to Morocco" (for foreigners), "Hola" and a variety of catcalling sounds: whistles, "oh-la-la," or my least favourite: kissing sounds. Why else would she try to run an errand or walk somewhere by herself? These catcalls can occur from across the street, but the eager man likes to whisper/shout these directly into the woman's ear or face, to make sure she hears them of course.  Even when the men she passes don't say something, they often stare for an uncomfortably long time, even turning and walking backwards for several paces after passing her. She is a piece of meat to the hungry wolves. The exceptions walk past without a word or a glance, but maybe they were staring too - it's hard for the woman to tell since she keeps her eyes fixed to the sidewalk or the street, avoiding looking at people walking by since that encourages more comments. Of course this doesn't happen to every woman, or women past a certain age, and my Moroccan coworkers tell me that it happens less to them, and that it used to be much worse 10 or 15 years ago. But that reminds me of a phrase from one of my sociology classes about it "getting better." We often do nothing because we argue that things are improving, they are better than they were before, but that rhetoric also implies that women are not yet equals. We don't seem to mind because the disparity isn't as blatant as it was in the past, but that doesn't mean there isn't more work to be done.  This might have sounded like you can't walk down the street in Casa, but that's not the case. You can, and you can go out and meet up with friends, get groceries, do anything you like, and for the most part you never feel unsafe. But you must always be wary, and you must also put on your mask of disinterest to try to curb unwanted attention. And most days you can walk deafly through streets, the comments sluicing off your mental armour. But some days you can't block them out, and you want to say something back, or hit someone particularly offensive.  These tactics help keep women where men think they should be - in the home, or at least not in public, not alone. It is a power thing, and it reflects the fact that these men think they have the right to say whatever they like to women, and that they shouldn't be in the public sphere. Definitely something that Moroccan families need to start teaching their children at an early age: respect for women, all women - not just their mothers. This monologue of sorts doesn't even address the fact that more women are illiterate, are less to be educated for as long as men, are less active in the economy, and are almost absent from positions of political or social importance. The country’s score under the Gender Inequality Index is 0.510 (104 out of 146 countries). And this is one of the better off countries in North Africa.  So, today, on International Women's Day, think about women in countries worse off than your own, and teach your own children/family what equality means. The only way changes will happen is if there is a behavioral shift worldwide. We are one woman, as the new UN Women song says, have a listen and share: http://song.unwomen.org/

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Go west…To Lviv!

Go west…To Lviv!
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Only a 24-hour train ride from Simferopol and I arrive in Lviv.  Lviv is the second biggest city in Ukraine.  It was founded in 1240 by Daniel, the leader of Galicia (an Austrian province), and named after his son Lev; which means Lion.  Having been a part of 4 different nations throughout history, Lviv is now part of Ukraine and is considered to be its cultural capital. Lviv has a population of approximately 1.5 million and the residents are predominantly Ukrainian (and very friendly!).  Finally, in Ukraine I heard Ukrainian, I saw embroidered blouses, Ukrainian dancing and heard my favorite Ukrainian song Chervonu Rutu (not sung by me)!What I found especially interesting about Lviv, as I mentioned, is that over the course of history, it has belonged to 4 different nations. Lviv belonged to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1349–1772, the Austrian Empire from 1772–1918 and the Second Polish Republic 1918–1945.  At the outbreak of World War II, the city of Lviv was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union and with the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Lviv became a part of Ukraine.  (This is especially interesting to me, because recently I saw that my great grandfather’s birthcertificat and in said he was born in Austria; for the longest time I was sure he was Ukrainian, but now that I know this about the history of the area, it all makes sense.  He was Ukraianian, but he was born in a part of Ukraine that at the time belonged to Austria!)Most of Lviv’s archtitecture is still intact, unlike many other Eastern European cities that have been damaged by both World Wars.  Lviv’s historic churches, buildings and relics date from the 13th century. As a result, Lviv’s historic centre is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage list. While I was in Lviv, I was fortunate to visit a number of Cathedrals, maybe too many to keep them all straight!  If I had to choose, I think my favorite would be St. George’s Cathedral (pictured right).  While its interior was not as extravagant as some of the others I visited, I liked it mostly because of it’s location; it is situated high on a hill that offers an impressive view of the city.

In 1903 the Lviv National Opera House was built and remains one of the most beautiful in Europe- it actually emulates the Vienna State Opera house. I was fortunate enough to see two performances here- one opera and one ballet (pictured left).  Both were very impressive, and I was pleasantly surprised when in one scene of the opera Ukrainian folk dancers took the stage; reminding me of my past as a Ukrainian dancer and also making me think of many of my friends back home!Another beauty Lviv has to offer is the Lychesivsky Cemetary (pictured right).  Since its creation in 1787 Łyczakowski Cemetery has been the main necropolis of the city’s inteligentsia, middle and upper classes, and apparently it has the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis.  I spent a lot of time wandering here.  It was one of the highlights of my trip.My last day in Lviv was extremely cold (well extremely cold compared to Simferopol), so I decided to take a bus tour of the city and save myself from freezing!  The bus tour was very informational and I learned not only about the history of Lviv but also about the many influential people to have lived there.  One of the coolest things they pointed out was the former KGB head-quarters. There is a joke that the KGB- building is the highest point in Eastern Europe, because from its basements you can see all the way to Siberia!It was a quick trip, but well worth the two 24-hour train rides!  After the cold weather, I was definitely happy to get back to the mild temperatures and sunny skies of Simferopol.  Funny thing, this time when I returned to Simferopol, it really felt like I was coming home! Too bad it will only be home for one more month and then I head back to Canada!  Seriously, where has the time gone?

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Circling central Morocco: +1600km in 5 days

Circling central Morocco: +1600km in 5 days
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My friend Diana from Montreal spent two weeks visiting Morocco, and together we did a 1600+km tour of the country in 5 days. Here are some of the highlights.MarrakechThursday evening, Feb 14th, after I finished work, we headed to Casa Voyageurs and took the evening train to Marrakech. This was quite different than my last train journey there - which you can read about in my November post! We arrived late, and (of course) got ripped off by the train station taxis who over-charged us but also only dropped us off at Djema-el-Fnaa, the square, rather than the street we needed to get to our riad. After some wandering, and glancing confusedly at the map provided by the riad and the poor signage around the square, we were able to get the assistance of a very generous restauranteur, who walked us to our hotel out of the goodness of his heart, down a couple of very seedy-looking medina alleys. Alas we arrived at the hotel and checked in, sometime around 11:30 pm. We spent Friday shopping, touring the Bahia Palace (pictured left), appreciating the Koutoubia Mosque and gardens, and observing the entertainers, monkeys, snake charmers and dentists of Place Djema-el-Fnaa. The tourSaturday morning at 8 a.m. we met our driver, who would take us on a organized tour from Marrakech, through the High Atlas mountains, through to Ouarzazate, Skoura, Kelaat Mgouna, Todra Gorge, Arfoud and Merzouga, where we rode camels out into the Erg Chebbi dunes to spend Sunday night at an oasis camp, guided by a Sahrawi nomad. The tour through the High Atlases (pictured right) provided plenty of great views, although the roads were very winding. Ouarzazate is famous as being the location of film studios and is a popular region to film desert-themed scenes. We also stopped at Ait Ben Haddou, an old Kasbah on the edge of the High Atlases on the road to Ouarzazate, which was a stronghold of the ben haddou tribe for centuries. On our ride from Marrakech to Merzouga we stopped at a women's cooperative to see how Argan oil is made, at a rose distillery and coop in Kelaat Mgouna (in the Valley of the Roses), and went to the source of the river in the Todra Gorge, one of three gorges in the region.The Dar Panorama in Skoura was a great place to stop Saturday night, with excellent food and the guesthouse to ourselves. It had a view over the date palm groves of Skoura which was beautiful at sunset. The camel riding was a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We both had white camels, which is special. We stopped to watch the sunset over the dunes (pictured left), and left early enough to watch the sunrise from a good spot as well. What was more surprising was that there were tons of cats at the oasis camps. There is a Berber family who lives there permanently to watch the camp, so I guess cats are a part of the domestic patchwork, but it is weird to see them in the middle of dunes. Sunday morning we did the long trek from Merzouga to Fes via Ifrane and the Middle Atlases. I forgot to mention that we passed the Anti-Atlases on our way out to Merzouga, so we saw/drove through all three sets of Atlas mountains. We stopped briefly in Midelt, where I ended up buying a Sahrawi carpet of camel hair, in a multitude of colours. I really hadn't planned on getting such a big one, or of this style (described sometimes as painterly or zanafi style). I probably paid too much for it, but I bargained the man down by 3300 dirhams so I thought that was pretty good, and the Morrocans have a saying that the right price is the price you are willing to pay.FesWe got dropped off in Fes on the night of the 18th, and spent the night in a riad in the medina where we met some great fellow travelers. We did a walking tour of the medina the next day, and in the evening I headed back on the train to Casablanca, so I could work on the 20th.Diana stayed in Fes for 2 extra days with her new companions and arrived back in Casa in time for my birthday, which we celebrated by going to the  February Jeudi Casaouis event. All in all I think it was a good trip - although somehow Diana ended up going home with about 20 kgs of extra luggage and a new carry-on to accommodate all the pottery and breakables!

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Use the key to lock the door for the civet

Kutamie funguo kufunga mlango kwa fungo So determined this week to master some words that have been tripping me up lately!

Funga: Close, lock

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Training MFIs to improve financial access for youth

Training MFIs to improve financial access for youth
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For the past year our project, YouthInvest, has been working to shift strategies to its second phase - training Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs), commonly referred to as AMCs (Associations de micro-credit) here in Morocco, to improve their services and products to meet the needs of the sizeable youth market. In 2012 MEDA signed an agreement to train credit officers and branch managers for one of the larger MFIs - the Fondation Banque Populaire de Micro-Credit (FBPMC) in cooperation with another NGO that is funding the training on improved customer service for youth clients. MEDA Maroc has been training their staff in week long sessions across the country, With the goal being to train the staff from about 50 branches. The evaluations coming out of these sessions show how successful the program is, and the participants' satisfaction with the content and delivery.This past weekend, February 8-10, 2013, MEDA Maroc offered a short overview training on the "Financial Solutions for Youth" training suite we will be offering to all Moroccan MFIs. There were nearly 20 participants at this select workshop, representing MFIs large and small, as well as a few individuals interested in the sector. Training for Trainers (TOT), Better Customer Service for Youth Clients, Developing Financial Products for Youth, Risk Management for Youth Clients, and Technical Assistance for Product Development are the components of this new YouthInvest phase. MEDA will also be conducting a study of financial products and services currently available to youth, as well as current youth client satisfaction surveys before commencing the training suite for MFIs. A similar study is being conducted in Egypt, where YouthInvest is also active.While this phase has taken some time to get off the ground, partnership agreements are being signed with MFIs presently, and the materials and content for the three training topics are being finalized. A good deal of my time at work has been dedicated to supporting this phase in recent months (helping with customer service materials, translating partnership agreements, and taking photos at the FBPMC training in Khouribga in order to use some shots for upcoming publicity. Included are a few photos from our training on "Financial Solutions for Youth" in Casablanca and the FBPMC training on Improving Customer Service for Youth Clients in Khouribga the last week of January. 

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Mitumba and More

The streets of Dar are your shopping centre. Any traffic light will feature machinga selling peanuts, pirated DVDs and buckets of bottled drinks. A corner near where I stay features hats/ caps and inflatable beach toys on the regular and sometimes features cute bunnies. Very logical combination.

Wandering salesmen of mitumba are similarly ubiquitous, with loads of hangers carrying a specialized clothing type, perhaps men’s office trousers, or dresses appropriate for Sunday church. These definitely cost more to take into account the time of the sorter to pick out nicer items, the labour as they go around town, and of course, well-earned profit.

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С Новым Годом!

С Новым Годом!
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Happy New Year!Wow! Is it 2013?  Did we survive the 2012 doomsday fears? Looks like we did!  Well, from what I understood of the Mayan prophecy anyway, it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world, but rather the end of the world as we know it.  I heard December 21 corresponded with a shift to a new “world”; one characterized by a greater common consciousness.  I believe that we are experiencing such a shift, whether we realize it or not. I know that, I, personally, feel much more aware of my self and my body, the people around me and our connections to one another,  and also of our connections to what is greater.  Although this could be a result of me growing older and wiser, I like to think it has more to do with something grander!So how did I celebrate this New Year?  Introspectively, as per my tradition.  This year, I welcomed the new and said goodbye to the old at a Russian Banya.  And what is a Russian Banya you ask?  It is a Russian Suana.  And what can I tell you about a Russian Banya?  It is a Russian tradition that has been enjoyed by people in Eastern Europe and Russia for centuries.  For me, it was a little piece of heaven for my body and soul, and I am so grateful for such an amazing experience…..I started my day with an athletic massage, this is not really a part of the tradition, but it felt so good and it got all the knots out of my body before heading to the sauna floor.  The reason I say sauna floor, is because it was a whole level of different types of saunas.  There were dry saunas, and steam rooms, saunas with therapeutic herbs smouldering, different steam rooms with steam coming from all directions, different temperatures, and of course cold pools to jump into!  By far my favourite was the Russian Sauna.  I decided to pay extra and receive a treatment from the therapist, and I am so glad I did…..My ‘ritual’, as Edick (the therapist called it), involved lying on a large ceremonial/offering type bed of wood, in front of a wood-burning stove, inside a large oak sauna.  Edick, who was interestingly, a former military officer, put fresh oak logs into the stove and threw water over the stove.  The smell of the steam this created was woody and wonderful.  By my face, he placed a small towel of crushed ice; which made it nice to feel some coolness in the midst of the hot steamy room. Then came the ‘massage’.  This was done with large oak branches.  The massage involved various techniques, like beating, hitting and scratching my entire body with them.  In between the beating, he would let the braches hug my body, which felt so comforting- it was like being hugged by Mother Earth Herself! It was so hot and the branches stung, but then being embraced by the branches felt so comforting. Next, it was time to go into the freezing cold pool. This first time, I was allowed to ease myself in slowly. After a few moments in the freezing water, it was back in the sauna.  The branches came out again, and I got the beatings and the embraces from the oak branches. This time after the beatings, Edick threw crushed ice all over my body and scrubbed my skin with the ice.  It was amazing, it was like hot and cold and pain and pleasure all at once.  Once the ice melted, it was back into the cold pool, but this time I had to jump in!  Then, it was back to the sauna.  Another beating, more hugs from mother earth, another crushed ice exfoliation massage and a few minutes to relax in the heat.  I could have stayed in there all day, but obviously this is not possible and my prescription was to dry off and rehydrate with green tea with lemon and honey!  Like I said, absolutely heavenly!This was such a great New Year’s experience for me.  It felt good to do something so nice for my body.  After the banya, my body was begging for rest, and I gladly took it!  During the next couple days, I spent time to focus on my mind and my soul and I set the goals I would like to achieve in the coming years.  This year, however, I did my goal-setting in a very different way from what I am used to.  Based on the advice of a friend, I changed my goals from being mostly concrete, to being mostly abstract.  In the past, my goals have all been very definite attainable things ie) I want to do a master’s degree, I want to work in foreign affairs, I want to buy a house, I want to get married, ect, ect.  The problem with this is that now that I am close to achieving  of these concrete goals, I still felt unsatisfied.  My friend recommended that I change my goals to feelings rather than to accomplishments, which is pretty much the best advice I have ever received!  Now instead of saying: ‘I want to this kind of job’,  I say: ‘I want to feel successful, challenged and appreciated in my work’.  Not only have I applied this way of thinking to my career goals, but I have done it for physical, emotional, financial and spiritual goals as well.  So far it has proved to beneficial to my overall well-being and I look forward to a great year, professionally and personally!It has definitely been a learning experience here in Ukraine, both on the job and off.  It seems that I get very self-reflexive living in another place amongst a different culture. It is like you are given a different lens from which to view yourself.  My experience here in Ukraine has provided me with a very different lens from which to view myself and the society I grew up in.  I have come up with some interesting observations that I would like to share with you… but in the next post! I will leave with this for now, and some photos from Simferopol and around Crimea.  Wishing you all a very Happy New Year! С Новым Годом!

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From Oujda to Essaouira in 1 Week

From Oujda to Essaouira in 1 Week
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I've been a bit silent on here for the last few weeks because I've been travelling quite a bit. First, was a trip to Oujda Jan 2-6 for work, then a weekend road trip to Safi, Essaouira and Sidi Kaouki Jan 11-13. Here I'll paint a bit of a picture of what these regions are like, being found at opposite ends of the country. Oujda and Jerada (oriental Morocco)As I mentioned after my previous visit to Oujda in October, the region in which Oujda is found is referred to as the oriental region, because it is the northeasternmost region of the country, bordered by Algeria and the hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea. It is hilly and rough around much of the Oujda area - which is the easternmost city in Morocco, a scant few kms from the Algerian border, and home to roughly 800,000 people.Jerada is further South from Oujda, and closely surrounded by mountains and trees. It was a hour from Oujda by grand taxi, and is known for its coal production. Next to the youth centre where my colleagues and I sat in on a "100 hours to success" training session was a mountain of coal waste that overshadowed the surrounding buildings. Jerada is in the Beni Snassen mountains. This time visiting Oujda I had a chance to see more of the city. I went with local extension officers to 4 different centres where they provide training to youth, and although it is hilly and bare around most of the city. From about May to September or October is the driest period here, so when I landed in September everything was reddish-brown, the colour of the earth around Casablanca. When I returned from Berlin in December I was astonished by how green everything had become. SafiOn the 3 hour drive South to along the highway to Safi I noticed that the rolling hills surrounding Casa flattened out onto fertile plains, before approaching mountains and hills once again as we neared the coast of the Atlantic. Safi is set right on the ocean, and has been a popular port for hundreds of years. The red clay of the region makes Safi most well known for its ceramics, of which we bought plenty! Safi is also known for its phosphate production and sardines. The Portuguese held Safi for some time in the middle ages, when they had forts and settlements all down the coast. The Spanish had the North, along the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had the Atlantic coast. The French came later. EssaouiraThe route to Essaouira became a bit unnecessarily long, as we made an unplanned detour through the countryside in our search for the coastal road. It did give us a chance to see some really rural areas. We drove through mountains and woods, and saw some massive waves and dunes along the coast when we finally did get on the right road. The city itself is a popular tourist destination. We stayed in a riad in the old medina so we saw plenty of Euopeans wandering around as well. The sqala de la ville is the fort in the old medina, with great views of the ocean and the sunset. The sqala du port is a short walk away, and is still located at the mouth of the present fishing port. Sidi KaoukiThe length of coast between Essaouira and Agadir is famous for its waves ideal for surfing and windsailing. Sunday morning we went on a short drive through the Argan tree groves to the small community of Sidi Kaouki. We managed to photograph some of the goats that eat the argan fruit - the source of the oil that is so popular in Morocco for cosmetics and cooking. We also hiked up a gravel road to a hill overlooking the ocean and beach. We met some children who were watching their cows and camels when we went back to the car. The area was fairly quiet, but quite rocky. Stopping at the Sidi Kaouki beach for lunch and a chance to dip our feet in the ocean - swimming was not recommended with the 3 metre-high waves - was fantastic. There were some tourists about, but very few people at this time of year, even though it was above 20 degrees. ReflectionsThe abundance of agriculture from Sidi Kaouki all the way back to Casablanca was very evident. Verdant, lush fields hugged the highway once we left the mountainous area that was filled with argan trees, goats and sheep. Often we passed individuals walking along the road, or waiting for a grand taxi. It was difficult to figure out where they had come from, as most often they were far from buildings in any direction. Although I grew up in the country, I can't imagine the isolation that a rural youth would feel in one of the tiny communities we passed through. Illiteracy in rural areas, especially among women is quite high in Morocco - in 2010 only 57% of women (15 years old and over) were illiterate (source: UNESCO), with approximately 80-90% of rural women being illiterate. The related challenges would be staggering. You realize how much you have to be thankful for as a Canadian.   

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Fighting Fistula

Fighting Fistula
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Last month my roommate Katy persuaded me to join her on a visit to the most advanced Fistula Hospital in the world. Before meeting Katy, I had never heard of Fistula. Being well informed about maternal health issues, Katy knew this was an important visit, one that we could not pass up.First I had to understand what Fistula was. With a little googling, I discovered that 5% of childbirths result in obstructed labour around the globe. Obstructed labour occurs when the baby gets stuck, and can eventually cause Obstetric Fistula: a tear in the mother’s birth passage where urine and/or feces flow uncontrollably. The tragic result is a woman debilitated by her condition, emitting a repugnant odor. She eventually becomes ostracized from her husband, family and community and remains in a state of isolation. Some die.In many developing nations, pregnant women acquire Obstetric Fistula because of impoverished rural environments and the low status of women. Nine thousand women in Ethiopia develop fistula annually. The statistics are distressing but the reality is that the pioneering Hamlin Fistula Hospital offers hope and renewed futures for affected women. My visit, accompanied by the lovely and knowledgeable Sisay, revealed a calm facility in the heart of cacophonous Addis Ababa. The hospital grounds were decorated with flowers. Patients drifted down forested paths, an aura of tranquility surrounding them. During the tour, I observed the post-op ward, maternity room, craft shop, Oprah Centre, physiology unit, and patient classroom.As we wandered the spacious property, Sisay divulged nuggets of information. I learned how dedicated the hospital was to treating patients holistically. Some examples…

95% women return to their previous lives after fistula surgery; however, the remaining 5% are persuaded to undergo a second and much more life-altering surgery. The surgery changes them to excrete externally into a bag that they must carry with them at all times. As women cannot return to their villages, the hospital permanently hires them as nurses. I saw at least seven nurses working industriously, their bags discretely hidden beneath their neat red aprons.Surgery and treatment is entirely free for patients. This improves the likelihood of women traveling from extreme rural locations to Addis AbabaOccupational therapy and group discussions are used to lift the stigma and shame women are burdened with prior to surgery. At the craft shop, I purchased several hand woven baskets that pay directly to the patient who made the itemA midwifery education program is in its fourth year. The program trains rural midwives who will live in far-reaching communities to permanently strengthen maternal healthTo symbolize restored dignity, women that have completed recovery are given a new dress and paid transport home

One woman I saw on our walk hobbled past us with an awkward gait, aggressively swinging her left leg forward every second step. Sisay commented that she had been abandoned in a shed for three years before arriving at Hamlin, suffering severe physiological injuries to her legs and feet. She had occupied Hamlin for the past three years and would eventually move on to their long-term rehabilitation centre. Her story is included in the bestseller Half the Sky (Katy highly recommends it!)I guess one of the strangest and sobering realizations is the knowledge that if Katy or I ever bear a child and have complications, we will never have to suffer from fistula. Fistula can be prevented. Fistula was eradicated from the United States in 1880. It is a condition from history. If I have an obstructed labour, there will be doctors surrounding me and a c-section performed immediately. Fistula is a reality that I will never know. For this reason and the positively radiant tour of Hamlin, I contributed to their deserving hospital.You can learn more at their website hamlinfistula.org. Photos are courtesy of Hamlin website.

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