Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Code Academy: Week 12

Code Academy Demo Day practice:

We're presenting in front of 200 movers and shakers from the Chicago tech scene tonight, and I'm about to get up there and tell 'em to connect me with Detroit's biggest mover and shaker - Dan Gilbert.

Code Academy Demo Day 
TechNexus 200 S Wacker
Chicago, IL

Friday, December 16, 2011

Code Academy: Week 11

Until this week, I haven't felt comfortable saying this:
I'm a software developer.
Despite being a part of Code Academy and learning the skills of a developer, to call myself one always felt wrong, like I was a poser faking it in a field I knew very little about. And though I'm no where close to where I want to be in terms of my ability as a developer, a couple of things happened this past week that gave me enough confidence where it finally feels natural to call myself what I've become over the last 11 weeks: a developer.
  • On Wednesday I went to a Chicago meetup put on by a company called Heroku. I've been using Heroku to deploy the applications I'm building and they organized an evening session to talk more about their product and to show off some demonstrations on how to use it. About 30 developers were in attendance (maybe half of them Rubyists) and there wasn't any moment that I felt out of place or in over my head. In fact, they had a live coding demonstration of an email/signup app that they deployed to Heroku and as a few of the audience members watched in amazement at the speed with which he was able to code and deploy, my thoughts were generally something like - "that's easy." I could have gotten up in front of a room full of Chicago developers and offered some of them new skills related to the software craft. A poser developer couldn't do that.
  • A fellow Code Academy student sent me an email this week about stripe.com, a payment processing service similar to Paypal. He had just implemented it on his site, found it to be very easy and seamless, and knew I had been struggling with Paypal. He recommended I check it out. If you go to the homepage the first thing you'll see is "Payments for Developers." 11 weeks ago this service wouldn't have been for me, I wasn't a developer, but I'm happy to report that after spending about 2 hours this week working on implementation, I got Stripe hooked up to my site without too much trouble. I was able to follow along with their code tutorials, make a few customizations needed for my site, and perhaps most tellingly, appreciate their product from a developer's point of view. Their homepage headline made sense...because I'm a developer.

Learn how to code!

This internet thing might be around for a while.

The Rise of Developer Economics
The one absolutely solid place to store your capital today — if you know how to do it –  is in software developers’ wallets. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Code Academy: Week 10

I've found a lot of success in failure this week. I've spent the better part of 3 days struggling to get PayPal integrated to a site I'm working on and still haven't managed to get it set up properly. Digging through PayPal's endless and poorly organized API docs, researching how to handle the params I'm receiving from PayPal, understanding that redirect_to is a HTTP GET request while I need a POST, and reading production log files to troubleshoot hasn't solve my problem. I'm still forced to disable auto-return (forcing the user to click on a link after payment to get back to my site) in order to finish the transaction. Frustrating but not a completely lost battle.

API, params, GET, POST, production logs. What?!!? Exactly. There was a moment yesterday while knee deep in my investigation where I took a quick step back and realized how far I've come in the past ten weeks. I've picked up a whole new skill set (and the vocabulary to go with it!) and am writing code to handle a custom PayPal integration to accept credit card payments on a site built from scratch. Awesome!

I'm close to solving this PayPal riddle and after talking to a lot of folks this week about what I was working on, the general consensus was that PayPal is terrible and that its API and documentation is some of the most confusing out there. I'm hoping they're right because if I get this hooked up, everything else I tackle should be easier.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Make a Gift to KickStart

As most of you know, I spent the majority of the year in Kenya working for KickStart International. My project was related to the foot powered irrigation pumps we sell throughout Africa, and I spent more than a month in Zambia and Malawi getting a first hand look at how our MoneyMaker pumps are used and the impact they are making on the lives of African farmers and their families.

There are plenty of positive statistics I could share as a result of our Malawi/Zambia survey where we interviewed over 500 farmers using our pumps, but I'd rather share one simple quote we captured while interviewing Dancen Kazimbi, a Malawian farmer using our MoneyMaker pump:
I'm planning on getting more land because what I currently have is not enough. With the MoneyMaker, anything is possible.
Anything is possible. Beyond providing extra income that helps feed their families, pay for their children's education, and improve their living situations, the MoneyMaker pump allows farmers and their families to think about the future. For the first time in their lives, these farmers can look past today's concerns. They no longer have to worry about what their family will eat today and how they'll pay for their daughter's school fees this semester. They can finally look to and plan for the future with a sense of dignity that everyone deserves and yet so few in the developing world experience. They can finally look to the future and dream. Anything is possible.

This past week, I got an email from my former boss asking me to pass along to anyone who might be interested in KickStart's annual appeal for donations. I didn't have a chance to meet Mama Edna, the farmer featured in KickStart's email (below), but I met plenty of farmers just like her and know first hand that KickStart's work makes sense. The organization has the tools, the passion, the talent, and the model to rapidly scale this solution to reach the millions of African farmers that are in need. These farmers don't want a handout, they want a way to make money and a means by which they can plan for the their and their family's futures. KickStart provides just that and you should help them achieve this by donating.

If you're interested in donating visit KickStart's donate page. And feel free to send me any questions about  the organization, their work, or my specific project. Would love to help.


Meet Mama Edna

Mama Edna sells her fruits and vegetables from a kiosk in Sotik town, 125 miles from Nairobi. She says that buying a MoneyMaker pump changed everything for her family in a very short time – she proudly describes herself as a prosperous, serious farmer with a hired farmhand.

The year before, Edna was dependent on rainfall and a bucket for irrigation. Her crops often failed in the drought. Even when she could bring something to market, everyone else was selling the same produce and much of her harvest went to waste because there was little demand.

Mama Edna knew about the MoneyMaker pump but didn’t think she could buy it outright because she had to pay school fees for three children. She bought her pump with KickStart’s unique mobile phone layaway program “Tone kwa Tone” or “Drop by Drop.” Edna’s farmhand generates even more income from the pump with a car wash business next to the river.

The first thing Mama Edna says when asked about her pump is, “Kama siyo hii ningekwama” or “If it weren’t for this, I’d be stuck.” She sees a future where she will be a model farmer who supplies her produce to rural schools and hospitals. She says, “I am now the envy of the village, thanks to this amazing pump!”

KickStart uses your funds to build awareness of the value of pump ownership through radio advertising, Farmer Field Days and other events. KickStart also tracks the impact of pump ownership to measure nutrition, education, electrification, and other lifestyle improvements.

Your funds help Mama Edna and hundreds of thousands of farmers like her provide better nutrition, better education and a better future for their families, as well as provide additional jobs for dealers, distributors and farmhands.

Los Angeles Thanksgiving

A view from atop Runyon Canyon, Los Angeles:

A view from inside Galco's, featuring Detroit's own:

Monday, December 05, 2011

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Code Academy: Week 7

A couple of weeks ago I came across a site out of Detroit that allowed anyone to enter in an idea for the redevelopment of Michigan Central Station. I liked the idea and decided it'd be a good exercise to try to build a similar site as practice for what I've been learning in class. Detroit Pays Off was born (more on the idea at some other point).

The actual rails coding was really easy. There isn't much to the site, just a model for the posts that includes the idea, the posted on date, and the number of votes, but because I wanted to share the site here, I spent a lot of time last week taking my first stab at the frontend coding of a site - mainly CSS and a few cool effects written with javascript/jquery.

I basically just stole Tumblr's colors and layout as a model for the CSS coding and messed around with different divs and options until I managed to get things where I wanted them. Much easier said than done but it was a worthwhile endeavor. I have a much greater grasp of what CSS is and how to hack something together that looks somewhat presentable. As for the javascript/jquery, I spent just about all weekend working on getting three very small effects working. You'll notice the first one when you click on "Submit Your Idea". Oh yeah! You saw that animation slide? Took me all day Sunday to figure that out. The other two were somewhat less difficult, you can click on the hand and it counts a vote without refreshing the page, and when you enter in a new idea it fades in as the newest idea submitted. You'll have to submit an idea to see that last one so don't be shy...submit!

I'm pretty critical of how things have turned out and what still needs to be done on the site (for starters, I hate how the submitted ideas section is laid out in a table, and I'd like to add comments and the ability to sign in with Facebook), but being able to do this on my own has been awesome. Just a few weeks ago I would have seen the Talk to The Station site and been frustrated that I couldn't build a similar site without resorting to a pre-built WordPress theme. Now when I come across any site or idea, I can just create it myself.

Have any ideas for a website/web app? Send 'em over...I'll build it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Code Academy: Week 6

We're half way through the very first Code Academy program. It's surprising how quickly the weeks are passing and even more surprising how far we've all come along since that first week. Our progress has never been clearer than last night at 5pm when we presented the result of our work during the Startup Weekend we had just completed.

There are startup weekend events throughout the country and they all function pretty much the same. You start on Friday at 6pm. Those who are interested, pitch various ideas for businesses or web applications and after all the pitches, the attendees vote on their favorites. Through either one or two rounds of voting and questions, the list of ideas is whittled down to the winners and then teams are formed around each idea. At that point, once the teams are created, you have until Sunday at 5pm to work on the idea and try to get it launched over the course of the weekend. Our Code Academy startup weekend worked in this fashion, and since we're all at least novice developers at this point, our projects were very much functioning web applications by Sunday.

A Code Academy startup weekend in week one of the program would have looked something like this - 
  • Powerpoint presentations with slides on the market potential, a SWAT analysis on the idea, and a summary of competition.
  • Wireframes of the web application
There's certainly nothing wrong with this work and, in fact, it'd be smart to do that for any idea, but a Code Academy startup weekend after week six looks a lot different. It looks real. We can build shit. Real, functioning applications. To see the ideas that were decided upon on Friday come to life through the weekend and result in fully featured websites by Sunday was really special. Very motivating for the next half of the program and a very good reminder of how far we've come in the first half.  See for yourself at two of the sites that were built in just 46 hours:

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Code Academy: Week Five

I can't specifically pin point what finally became clear this week, but by Monday afternoon while still working on the application we had built the week before, a lightbulb went off and things started to click. During the first four weeks, I understood each individual concept on a fairly superficial level, but it turns out that a somewhat superficial understanding isn't all that useful in programming. Trying to orchestrate your web pages, controllers, data models, and browser requests with code requires an understanding that allows a programmer to see how everything works together, and looking back on where I was last week versus where I am now, I think it was this deeper understanding that was missing. I understood the various parts in isolation rather than in the context of how everything was working together, and it wasn't until the lightbulb went off on Monday that those same isolated parts became one - a beautiful application with several moving pieces working together to output exactly what I was telling it to do.

The lightbulb continued to burn bright this week and I've surprised even myself with what I've been able to accomplish on my own. In thirty minutes I was able to rebuild the same application that took me two days last week, and after conquering that, filled with confidence, I started to tackle two of my own projects - an application for learning about and exploring city neighborhoods and an application to submit and vote on ideas. This new ability to turn a vague idea and a blank screen into a functioning application is empowering and exciting. The whole world opens up with possibility. New apps, new ideas, new things that I CAN BUILD.  The work involved is creative, satisfying, frustrating, simple, complex, beautiful, and fun. I've found myself not wanting to do much else this past week but build. The lightbulb came on this week. I don't think it's turning off anytime soon.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Code Academy: Week Four

I've finally taken off on my own. During the first three weeks of the course, I was "coding" during class time with the help of classmates and the instructor or with the hand holding of web tutorials. This safety net was necessary at first but after three weeks under my belt, I decided I'd give everything a try on my own during week four.

During class this week, we worked on our first full scale Rails app. Whereas during the first three weeks we worked on small examples to put concepts into practice, this week we were presented with a more complete picture of a business/site and spent the entire week building out the web application, an airline site that allows users to sign-up/sign-in/out, view flights available, and book reservations. As usual, we were paired up in class and built the application after watching the instructor implement each feature. Working with someone and coding immediately after watching the instructor makes everything a lot easier than it should be and can dangerously lead one to believe he knows what he's doing. This weekend I worked alone to try to build the site from scratch. To find out if I actually knew what I was doing.

The answer - somewhat. I didn't get all the way through and spent a lot of time stuck at various points while writing the code. It took me way too long to get things working but regardless, I feel pretty good with what I was able to accomplish. What I was able to build on my own isn't too far off from what we built in class, and I've found that I understand the concepts we've learned in class much more deeply after having to troubleshoot my errors by reading the Rails guides. The most exciting part is that the site I built has a lot of the functionality that any web application requires; additional features would be nice but as for a basic site that includes just about everything you need, I built it on my own this weekend! Pretty sweet considering I didn't know anything but the name Ruby on Rails four weeks ago and that it was my first time working on my own.

On to week five.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Code Academy: Week Three

I felt more in control during week three than at any other point during the program. Some of the basic steps that we had learned during the first two weeks finally felt like they sunk in a little more, and I noticed that by the end of last week I was able to use those steps without much thought. And those were steps I knew nothing about just three weeks ago, so to put them into practice and every once in a while reflect on how far I've come felt pretty good. Unfortunately, as I feel a little more comfortable with the basics, the more advanced stuff continues to approach and present itself, leaving me feel about as overwhelmed as I did when I started.

A big portion of the difficulty in learning Ruby on Rails (or any type of web development) is that you aren't just learning one thing. Within the first three weeks, I've spent more than a few hours trying to learn the basics of Rails, Ruby, HTML, CSS, TextMate Editor, GitHub, Heroku, and the command line, and each of these aspects alone is the subject of hundreds of tutorials and guides. Rails actually makes it all a bit easier because you can learn all of these things within the context of the framework rather than tackling each of them. For example, you don't really need to know a lot of Ruby when you're first learning Rails and the Ruby that you do indeed need to know, you'll likely pick up while learning Rails. But for me, a process orientated learner, having all of these new subjects and topics thrown at me all at once has been overwhelming. I don't want to learn a new topic when I haven't even conquered the topic that the new one is built upon.

Code Academy has done a good job of feeding us digestable portions of content that limit our exposure to "too much, too soon," and I've found that the Michael Hartl Ruby on Rails tutorial has been equally helpful in providing a very practical and easy to follow guide to learning not just Rails but a lot of the other aspects I mentioned above. So far, the combination of the CA coursework and the tutorial have been a great way to rather quickly learn the basics in a structured and logical manner. I've also spent a lot of time going through the Learning to Program book to learn the basics of Ruby which has helped me better understand Rails. This approach has worked for me up to this point, and I'm starting to feel just about in a position to start building my own projects. They won't be pretty but they'll exist, and that's a lot more than I could have said three weeks ago.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Code Academy: Week Two

I haven't really done any useful computer programming or website development. I took some programming courses in college and have messed around with HTML, but I've never actually coded an application or anything (until last week!). So, you can take my opinion with a grain of salt, that of a beginner who doesn't really know any better, but after spending two weeks learning the beginnings of Ruby on Rails, I must insist that it is the coolest thing around if you're at all interested in web application coding. And maybe even just the coolest thing around.

Why? My sexy answer is that as a complete beginner to the framework and the Ruby language, I had a working web application up and running by the end of last week (sexy!). It was a simple bank account site that showed the bank's accounts and each account's balance and allowed you to add, edit, and delete accounts. Each of those functions (add, edit, delete) could be done by a user on the site and his/her actions on the site were completely mapped to a database that kept track of all of the accounts and the accounts' information. Sure, the site looked a little like 1996, but I was able to add all that site functionality with just a few steps. 

Of course, we learned about the unsexy answer too. Admittedly, I'm still trying to grasp all of this, but as I understand it now, Rails is cool because of its slick use of restful routing and its scaffold generator.  Unsexy - 
  • Restful routing - Rails has a way in which it can handle requests and map them to seven different actions and this is all done with one simple line of code
  • Scaffold generate - This generates a database resource based on convention (what you'd initially want 80% of the time)

Actually seeing these two portions of Rails in action is sweet (and much more convincing than my above explanation) and since learning these little bits of Rails, I've started to think of every webpage I visit in a new way, one in which I try to figure out how someone may have built the initial site, and I've started to think of my own ideas within the context of "how would I go about building that using Rails." It's inspiring and yet completely overwhelming. In week two, I grasped the power that Rails can give me but my skills at using that power are still so frustratingly weak that I'm left just slowly chipping away at the overwhelming amount of material to learn so that one day I may enjoy the fruits of that power. I'm not there yet but at least I now know how I might get there - Ruby on Rails.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hello Code Academy!

I'm back! In the States, that is, and although I plan on writing a few more posts about the final weeks in Kenya and just generally about my experience, this post is about what's next: Code Academy.

I've done some work on the Urban Worm this year and have actually learned quite a bit about setting up a basic ecommerce site, but I've always been very frustrated by my limitations in customizing the design of the Urban Worm and in adding functionality to the site, and that frustration goes way beyond just the Urban Worm. There are plenty of new sites and web applications I've wanted to build but have never had the knowledge required. Enter Code Academy - a beginner focused, 12 week course that will give me all the skills required to not only blow up the Urban Worm into something way cooler but to also build any new site I dream up (check out Look About You for one idea in particular). Last week was the first week of the course, and as a part of the program my classmates and I have been asked to blog at least once weekly about our experience in the program and our paths to becoming coders. Here it goes.

Week one was awesome. We'll primarily learn the Ruby on Rails framework, and I learned more in eight hours of instructed class time than I would have in months of self teaching. I've found that the practical, hands-on Code Academy approach to learning is much more enjoyable (and probably more useful) than what I'd likely pick up in a community college type course focused more on theory. The program is filled with a bunch of very interesting and motivated folks with whom I'm particularly excited to learn, and each of us has been paired up with a local mentor - a Ruby on Rails developer who works within the Chicago tech scene. So far, the learning environment and program has been top notch, and I can't wait to see what the Code Academy community accomplishes by the end of the twelve weeks.

More thoughts to come on week two and with any luck, I'll be able to chronicle more than just thoughts in these posts...I'm hoping to show off some new applications soon (that I build!)!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Work that network

The UM Alumni network is one of the biggest in the world, so it’s not too surprising that you’ll find a lot of us in Nairobi. Even before I arrived, I knew one – my boss is a UM MBA alum – and on the first weekend I ran into two more, a girl that had studied the same program I studied during undergrad and another UM MBA who also happened to live and work for a year in Flint (what?!!?). I went out to dinner with some friends not too long ago and sat next to a guy who had just finished his MBA at UM, and I even ran into a girl that lived in Alice Lloyd, my freshmen year dorm, and is now married to another guy I was fairly close with during freshmen year. We’re everywhere (and we’re cool, good looking, and smart, I might add). But I haven’t quite had to rely on this network until this past week when it turned out to be the handiest thing around.

Next week, I’m launching a test in Tanzania that involves 1000 credit card sized mobile registration cards that will be placed in our pumps’ packaging. The cards offer free mobile talk time (98% of the phones here are pre-pay) to any pump owner that sends an SMS with the code he finds underneath the scratch off box on the back of the card. New pump owners send us an SMS and get free talk time, and we get their mobile number to give them a call at any point to do follow up work – offer additional services, answer any questions they have, learn about where and how they’re using the pump, and better understand if the pumps are improving their livelihood. Because we’re not as much interested in the sales of the pumps as we are interested in confirming that our pumps are increasing the incomes of small scale farmers, it’s critical that we can locate, find, visit, and converse with the farmers that are using our pumps. The mobile registration card, if it works, will be a very cheap and effective way for us to do just that. I’m really excited to test this to see what happens, but since I did all of the design and printing work of the cards in Nairobi, I first have to get the 1000 cards down to Dar es Salaam, Tazania.

 Yes, there is DHL here and I could spend the $110 to ship the cards through their reliable network, but I find their price to be annoyingly expensive and there’s rarely any fun in convenience. So, why not look for a different option? Regular post is, not surprisingly, dangerously unreliable and though danger is usually a lot more fun than convenience, I don't like placing bets on something that's 90% stacked against me. So instead I sent out a few emails and a couple of texts to some friends, and sure enough the UM alumni network came through. Laura, the girl that lived in the same freshmen dorm as I, happens to be heading down to Dar es Salaam this weekend and is happy to carry the package in her bag. She’ll be leaving the package at her hotel’s front desk, and I’ve arranged with the Tanzanian team to pick it up on Monday morning. Cheap, reliable, fast and personal – DHL cannot compete with the East African UM alumni network.

Now if I could only figure out a way this alumni network can help me actually convince these farmers to send me a text.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lusaka's Finest

I had the pleasure of visiting Lusaka’s finest last week while working in Zambia. One of the shining stars I had hired to do data collection work in the country managed to lose, within just a few hours, the $300 phone I had given her to collect and submit survey data during her field work. An excellent way to start, indeed. I didn’t have any hope of actually finding the phone with the help of the police, but in what has turned out to be 2011’s best decision, I had gotten insurance on the phone, and I figured a police report would help my case in reclaiming some of the phone’s value. Damn, you’re smart, David.

So on Saturday morning, I was off to the police station to report the phone as lost/stolen. If I had to rank top places to avoid while travelling in a developing country, a police station would surely make the list. It wouldn’t beat out a market bus station which I’d consider the worst –something along the rating of “I’d rather give my eyeball 15 paper cuts” – but it’d score very well, maybe one paper cut. Not so much because of the actual locations of these stations, but because there aren’t any positive reasons why you’d have to visit a police station and, well, you’ll probably leave the station with a stronger feeling of hopelessness and hatred than when you arrived (maybe this isn’t unique to the developing world?). I have to say, though, my recent visit wasn’t all that bad, probably because I didn’t really go in with a desperate feeling of “please help me!!” which would have surely led to very painful disappointment, and because I found the detective and the entire process to be pretty humorous.

I walked in to the small cement house, painted police blue, that sat in the shadow of Manda Hill, Lusaka’s upscale shopping mall, and found four people behind a large reception desk, all looking at me like I was some criminal. But after briefly explaining what had happened and what I was hoping to do, I was pleasantly ushered back into a bare office that offered a school desk, two desk chairs that had seen better days roughly fifteen years ago, and three remarkably huge case books with dusty black leather covers and pages upon pages of handwritten, unorganized notes of Lusaka’s previous crimes. Detective Nathan was in charge and told me to sit in one of the chairs as he flipped through one case book to find the next free page. He was a big boy wearing a shirt one size too small that had two cigarette burn like holes in the front, each of them just large enough to distractingly reveal bare skin. Apparently no uniform is required for detectives. Or maybe it’s casual Saturday.

He finds his page and asks me a series of basic questions, referring to me as “Americano.” Americano, when did you lose the phone? Where? What was the phone number? Do you have the serial number of the phone, Americano? He copies my answers into the book with, in my opinion, rather sloppy handwriting and as he’s writing my answers down, he continues to ask completely unrelated and absurd questions.

How does Lusaka compare to Texas? Hmmm...that’s a pretty tough one. Texas is very big and its major cities have huge populations. He sees me struggling to answer and gives me an easy out “so you can’t compare Lusaka with Texas?” No, you cannot, detective. Americano, you know Mike Tyson? He doesn’t have any money now? I would have laughed out loud at this one. Mike Tyson!!!?? But he asks me with a very concerned and troubled tone, like he’s pained by Mike’s reckless fall from grace and riches, and so I keep my straight face and very gently confirm to him that yes, Mike Tyson basically lost all his money at one point, but then reassure him that he’s slowly getting back on two feet. I ask if he’s seen Tyson’s starring and comeback role in The Hangover. Detective Nathan has not seen it, but he jots down the title of the movie so that he may remember and see it soon.

After jotting down all relevant notes about the phone, Texas, and Mike Tyson, Detective Nathan tells me he will do his best to recover the phone but will require a payment to “move around the city while investigating.” Excellent. I ask him how much he requires, and after a very long and considered pause, he says the equivalent of $35. I let out a small laugh and ask him if he’s planning on “moving around the city” in a limo. He smiles at this but doesn’t come down in his offer. I tell him I’ll pay him his amount if he can also provide some sort of report or paper that says that I have legitimately filed a case with the Zambian police, which is really all I need for the insurance (I have no hope after seeing the scribbled case notes that the phone will be pursued at all, much less recovered). He agrees and after payment (which turns out to be closer to $40 because surprisingly, Detective Nathan can’t come up with the change I need) has Officer Banda fill out a photocopied form that’s about as professional looking as what you could expect from a group of third graders playing cops and robbers. But it does provide the official Zambian police stamp, which just may do the trick for the insurance company.

I bid farewell to Detective Nathan and his comrades, still hopeless for the recovery of the phone and $40 poorer, yet feeling pretty good about what I purchased with that $40 – a form I can turn into the insurance company, a lunch or two for the entire station, possibly a new shirt for Detective Nathan, and with any luck two hours of laughter for Detective Nathan as he watches The Hangover. Not a bad purchase, and certainly enough to move “police station” down a few rungs on the top places to avoid when travelling list. Thank you, Detective.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Zambian Spiderman Is A Big UM Fan!

Spotted this little guy strutting around the Zambian Agricultural Show. I'm guessing the UM shirt that fits his 7 year old frame was at one time worn by a Tri Delt sorority girl.

Selling Pumps

My project is unrelated to selling our pumps, but I happened to be in Lusaka during the Zambian agricultural show this past weekend and was happy to lend a hand to my boss, our Zambian sales rep, and our distributors to help present our pumps. I actually wasn't too excited about it at first - there were a lot of things I'd rather do than sit in the hot sun, in the middle of a very large and dusty showgrounds with a carnival like atmosphere and shoulder to shoulder people - but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. My boss and I made up a good team, selling three pumps in one afternoon, and it felt good to do something that seemed so helpful, easily answering farmer questions about the pump and how it works. Of course not so easy at first, but within fifteen minutes I had it down. 4,000 liters of water in one hour, 10 meters of inlet pipe, 25 meters of outlet pipe, 4 spare piston cups, 1 year guarantee, irrigate up to 2 hectares in one day, 5 distributors and several dealers throughout the country. Any readers interested in becoming a small scale farmer?

I thought this would be easier

It felt good to get to Lusaka. Malawi had been a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, but I made it through and was sure Zambia would be easier. It’s much more developed, as evidenced by the Samsung Galaxy advertisements that dot the highway into town and the skinny jeans wearing teenagers that hangout at the shopping mall, which would make things, I presumed, a little easier and more comfortable. And most significantly, I had already done everything that had to be done. I had made a lot of mistakes on the first go of this work in Malawi, but I had learned a lot from that initial set up and was sure Zambia would go fairly smoothly. Sweet Lord, David, you foolish and naive piece of crap, have you learned anything in your three years working in developing countries?

Things started out innocently enough, but really took a turn for the worst on Monday when I started to feel pretty sick. It was a beautifully sunny 80 degrees and I had the chills. The only good thing about having a fever here is that the stupidly hot taxi rides, which usually leave you with a nasty ring of back sweat that creeps through your shirt, actually offered some relief as the baking inside of a 1980s Corolla felt pretty good when I was finding the outside temp to be too chilly for my depleting health. But at least you can self medicate in developing countries. And by self medicate, I mean take your medical advice from the Indian kid that looks about half your age standing behind the counter of the walk in pharmacy. Yes sir, I will take this alka seltzer/vitamin C combo that you have suggested and sold to me for $5.

So that’s what I did for the next three days, chug alka seltzer just to get through the busy work days before I could make it back to a shitty hotel room and collapse into bed at 6pm to try to sleep it off before the following morning. They were fitful nights, spent either shivering cold or sweltering hot, and as my physical health deteriorated by the day, my mental well being was shot by Tuesday. I won’t go into the details as to why (there’s just too much pain to relive), I’ll just say that feeling as if you’re constantly being misled or lied to is very, very hard to emotionally deal with. In any case, by Friday, I was at least physically feeling a little bit better, around 70%. At that point, with two data collectors hired and trained, I was nearing the home stretch. Just had to get the phones hooked up and send them to the wild.

Just get the phones hooked up. Shamie (one of the enumerators I hired who sports purplish hair and smacks her chewing gum during the interview), can you please give me the phone I gave you this morning, so that we may finish things up? Shamie? Where’s the $300 phone? How the f’ have you lost the phone within two hours of me giving it to you? You’ve got to be kidding me. Daggers fly out of my eyes and straight into her heart. I picture myself picking her up and lifting her above my head, spinning her around a few times before throwing her as hard as I can to the pavement, a quick kick to her midsection before leaving here there helpless. Instead, I just tell Shamie and Cuthbert, the other enumerator I hired, to go home while I figure out what next. My immediate next, after getting rid of both of them, was to find a bar. Two beers in, nursing my fever and emotional distress, boarding the next flight out of Lusaka and back to the US sounded like the best option for everyone involved.

But the following morning was a new day. I had decided that it was unlikely that Shamie stole the phone. I’ll never be 100% confident that that’s true, but I give her the benefit of the doubt for a lot of reasons, and though buying another phone in Lusaka wasn’t an option, I could leave her with my phone to get the job done. I called her and Cuthbert to meet up again in the afternoon for the final send-off. I spent the better part of the first 15 minutes of the meeting with Shamie lecturing about the seriousness of losing that phone, about making a sizeable deduction from her pay, about how disappointing it is to get started like this, and about how if something like this were to happen again, she’d be gone. And I spent the better part of the first 10 minutes of the meeting with Cuthbert lecturing about responsibility and timeliness after he showed up an hour and twenty minutes late. Not exactly the smooth start in Lusaka I had envisioned when I had arrived. Then I finished as quickly as I could, wishing them luck in the field, and getting rid of them as quickly as possible. I had better things to do with the afternoon.

I checked myself into the Southern Sun and spent the rest of the weekend reminding myself, with the help of the top notch staff, what it felt like to be in a place where things just work. No hassle, mental breakdowns, or frustration required. Checking into the hotel was me waving the white flag. Zambia wins. You are not easier than Malawi...not by a long shot. You are equally tough, maddening, and humbling. And as good as I thought it felt to arrive in your capital city, it’ll feel better to leave.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When to lose your temper and how to regain your composure

Remarkably, I’ve only lost my temper twice this whole trip and in my defense, I didn’t lose it until two weeks into my stay. If you’re attempting to be productive here (or any developing country, for that matter), I’d suggest at least a semester long course in patience and anger management. At least once a day you will be tested, put to your wits end, and it will require every ounce of effort you can muster to not breakdown in tears or lash out at innocent bystanders with a profanity laced diatribe. 

You might, for example, really need to keep your cool at 8am when you call the driver of a van you’ve rented for eight people for the day that was supposed to pick you up fifteen minutes ago and learn that he’s just not coming. No explanation, he’s just not coming and couldn’t call to tell you because he didn’t have any cellphone minutes. It’s best to just hang up the phone at that point and take a deep breath. You should count to ten when you go to the Airtel mobile phone office for three consecutive days to activate sim cards to access the internet and are always, always told to just try again tomorrow, the network is down. These annoyances and frustrations will happen every day. They are not isolated incidents but rather a part of life and more often than not will pepper your entire work day. Understand that there are forces working against you that really, very truly, do not want you to get anything done.

You are allowed to lose your temper, however, when you visit and spend three hours at the only other mobile service provider’s office, TNM. Before spending any money you will be assured that the phones you want to activate for internet access will certainly work on the network. That you just have to buy a sim card, dial 100 to register, buy airtime and purchase a data bundle. Keep your cool when you can’t get the phones to work after spending over 100 dollars and following all the instructions given to you. You are not quite at meltdown temperature yet. Calmly explain to the most helpful agent that you cannot seem to get the phone to work and allow her to take the phone to give it a try. When she tells you then that the phones aren’t working because they are 2G phones and the 2G network is down, laugh at your misfortune. 

Continue to ask questions though, always ask more questions. When will the network be back? Soon. How often does this happen? Not so much. How long does it take normally to repair the network? Not long. How long has the network been down today? Three weeks. You are allowed to start losing your temper at this point, but before making a scene you should call your co-worker in Kenya that bought the phones and confirm that they are actually 2G and not 3G. They will be 3G so go back to this agent and tell her that the phones are not 2G and therefore they should work on the 3G network. Do not ask why she said they were 2G because that will only raise your blood pressure to a dangerous level. Ignore the fact that she’s just making shit up to get rid of your problem which has become her problem. 

Be thankful that she sends you to a new person, someone who works in the back office and you think will offer more solutions. Alfeo will fiddle with your phone for ten minutes and then disappear for 30 minutes “looking for a test sim card”, at which point, you should step outside the office you’re in and ask again for Alfeo. Commence meltdown when Alfeo returns after 40 minutes and explains that the phone is still not working and that there is only one test sim card in the whole f’ing city of Lilongwe and it happens to be in a different TNM office, that there isn’t any other f’ing phone in the TNM office that can be used to test the sim card that isn’t working in your phone, and that the best way forward is to return tomorrow to see if the test sim card is back. 

At this point, meltdown. Make a stink, raise your voice, make others feel embarrassed for you. Wait for Jared, the general manager who is the only one that can authorize the refund you want on the $100 you spent. Though you’ll feel a little better after raising your voice, you will not succeed in getting that refund. Jared is out of the office and the only answer you get when asking about his return is “he’s coming.” Throw in the towel at this point.

After you’ve calmed down a bit, you’ll be allowed to lose your temper again when the taxi that takes you back to the hotel from the TNM office decides to triple the charge you agreed upon because of his “waiting fee” even though, as you try to reason with him, you had explained to him while negotiating the original fare that you’d be at the office for some time. Raise your voice to a level that attracts all of the hotel employees out of the lobby and have them ask you if everything is okay. Tell the taxi driver that you’ll pay X but not what he demands, Y. When he says that he’ll show you the rate form that explains the waiting charge, call his bluff. He has no form and you know it. He’ll offer to park the car at the hotel and run back to where his boss is to retrieve the form (his boss is not far and there is a fuel shortage in the country so he doesn’t want to waste gas). Feel bold and empowered at this point, call his bluff again. If you can show me the form, I’ll gladly pay whatever fee it says!! After he parks the car, starts out in a soft jog and gets to the end of the hotel parking lot, realize he is indeed going to reach his boss and return with some form, that you are arguing over less than $5, and that you should probably just tell the guy to get back in his taxi. Pay whatever charge he wants, it really doesn’t matter.

Calm down again in the hotel. Your frustration helps nothing. Deep breaths will allow you to return your attention to the phones you were trying to activate and a calm, relaxed attitude (or perhaps more likely, an act of God) will allow you to get the phones working within twenty minutes, just as I did. Believe in God more strongly than ever.

Notes from Malawi

  • Malawi has thrown everything at me. Really, everything. There were demonstrations for two days throughout the country that turned violent in some spots and left 18 dead. The whole country was shut down and I spent both days locked up in the hotel hanging out with the hotel staff. Losing two productive days made it a bit tricky getting everything done that we needed to. I was sitting on a wing and prayer just a day ago trying to still get things up and running before my departure tomorrow, and somehow, it all seemed to happen. I can’t often easily answer the questions that friends pose to me about why I’m in Africa, why I do things like the Peace Corps, or why I seek out work that seems shitty, frustrating, and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.  All I can say is that when I go through something as hard and as challenging as the past two weeks in Malawi and still manage to find some semblance of success, it feels much more worthwhile and meaningful than writing emails in Lotus Notes all day for an easy desk job. I’d rather go through blood, sweat, and tears and suffer through the lowest of lows than experience the dry monotony  of an office job routine that I’ve so far found in the office jobs I’ve worked. I could do without the civil unrest and riots though.
  • Malawi is a desperately poor country and is noticeably worse off than any other country I’ve travelled to. The poverty is much more apparent and the state is very close to completely dysfunctional. And quite frankly, there isn’t anything remarkable about the country that you can’t get in better and more magnificent portions in other countries. Yet there’s something special about the country that makes me really, really like it, maybe more than any other country I’ve visited. I really can’t put my finger on it and actually find the feeling a little perplexing given all of the shit and frustrations the country has put me through during my visits, but the feeling is definitely there. I truly like the country. “The people are so nice!” I find it to be a pretty meaningless description because I hear it too much from folks who have just returned from a visit to some foreign country, particularly developing countries, but in Malawi’s case I have to insist you believe me. They are the warmest and friendliest culture I’ve come across in all of my travels, and maybe it’s something as simple as that that makes the country seem so special.   

Hiring People in Africa

I was here in Malawi for two main reasons. The first one was easy – I had to visit our three largest distributors and introduce a distributor incentive program that we created to help us gather data on customers. The second and larger reason was to kick off an assessment of how farmers are using our pumps in Malawi. Are they using them, how did they procure the pump, what price did they pay, did they get the pump for free, do they use the pump with a group of farmers, what crops do they grow, has their income increased because of the pump? We answer these questions very well in Kenya where we have a field staff that tracks and visits farmers on a scheduled basis, but since we distribute our pumps through the private supply chain and do not have any employees in Malawi, we’ve never actually quantified or measured the impacts of our pumps here. And that’s what we intend to do over the next month and what I was setting up the past two weeks. 

We interviewed 10 people on Tuesday and hired three data collectors who will travel around the country interviewing farmers that are using the pumps. The resumes we collected were comic gold. Skills such as "knowledge of the internet" and hobbies like "making friends" and "watching TV" were listed. The interviews were pretty fun too. Though we didn’t hire him, Kenasi, was the most entertaining. He looked like he was fifteen and wearing his dad’s suit, but he spoke like he was a 50 year old politician. I’d hire him in a second as a sales agent or spokesperson, and probably would have hired him for this project if he didn’t have to go back to South Africa for school before our project is scheduled to be done. It was also fun having my co-worker in the interviews. His questions included “you seem a bit dull...have you had breakfast?” and “you’re always like saying ‘Iike’ a lot, is that like some sort of like bad like habit?” I was actually impressed with most of the candidates and it was hard turning down  a few of them. We ended up deciding on Andrew, Gifton (a bit dull), and Michael Mike (like). And yes, that is his real name. We confirmed that in the interview. It reminded me of my Nicaraguan friend, Victor Victor. When he arrived for training he was wearing a shirt with a picture of a horse on the front and said "hung like a..." We just finished everything up and they will release to the wild on Monday, travelling to the far corners of the country looking for pumps, working with NGOs, and collecting data on an Android smart phone. Wish them luck.

Lilongwe Hotel

I’ve stayed at the Bridgeview Hotel the last two weeks and for at least half of those nights, I was the only guest. I’d walk downstairs for breakfast and there’d be a staff of eight to wish me good morning, two or three of whom would be dedicated to fanning over me during breakfast. A little overwhelming and unnecessary but it made it pretty easy to get to know everyone, and at this point, after two weeks, they feel like family. 

David is one of the breakfast servers. If he weren’t so terribly nice, I’d get annoyed that it takes him thirty minutes to make toast in the conveyor belt toaster (he insists he do this for me). It’s unclear what Victor does, but I think he’d serve as a bellhop if there were any guests to escort to the room. Because I’m the only one here, he just hangs out in the reception and smiles. Oswald runs the reception and is quiet, unamused, and not terribly helpful, but he’s better than Salima, who sits behind the reception desk, plays solitaire and doesn’t even offer the redeeming smiles of Victor or David. My favourite character is Nigi, the cook, who’s from Northern India. My co-worker who was with me during a portion of the past two weeks is also from India and initially befriended Nigi by speaking Hindi to him. Nigi was happy to have an audience to cook for and personally brought out each of our homemade Indian lunches and dinners the past week.  He very proudly gave me a tour of his kitchen last night which because we couldn’t really speak each other’s language was more of him smiling broadly, holding my hand, showing me where he makes naan (“very hot, very hot!”) and guiding me into the store room, around the burners, and into the dish room. He seemed sincerely sad when I wished him goodbye. "You leave?!? Now?!? Don't come back??!" 

Last time I stayed at a hotel for an extended period of time, Amon, one of the waiters told me that he would miss me. It was cute, but I can’t say I shared the same feeling. The Bridgeview Hotel staff, yes, I’ll miss you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Heaven on Earth

"Heaven on Earth" is a pretty lofty goal for a luxury spa in NYC. And for a bus company? Yep, when I think Greyhound, I think heaven. So how could I turn down a chance to take National Bus Company's four hour trip from Blantyre to Lilongwe? I couldn't.

Turns out, heaven on earth doesn't hold itself to much of a formal schedule. You can expect heaven to be around 40 minutes late and to arrive at your destination about an hour later than scheduled. The seats are comfy and heaven's hostess will serve you an apple, peanuts, and your choice of one Coke, one Fanta, a cup of instant coffee, or a bottle of water. Not bad! You will also be shown two DVDs worth of gloriously eclectic music videos during your four hour journey. A couple of Malawian songs will giveway to Beyonce which will introduce Lionel Richie who will hand it back to Malawi's own. About two hours into the videos, you'll be treated to a roughly 45 minute video of the taping of a mid 1990s religious celebration of song in a nondescript, completely full US arena. Inexplicably, your seatmate, if you're lucky, will know every single word to all the songs and will sing along at an embarrassingly loud level. And just as heaven is pulling into Lilongwe, as if God really does have a hand in National Bus Company's operation, the last video you see will be 1985's We Are The World which is, dare I say, damn near close to, yes, heaven on earth (if you haven't seen this video recently, watch it now. It is awesome. So much PASSION from The Boss).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Malawi's Priorities

There are only about 8-9 countries in the world that are poorer than Malawi. Its per capita GDP stands at $800 per year, about how much I spent on my flat screen TV, and its total GDP in 2009 was about $4.3 billion, or about the same as Twitter's January 2011 estimated market cap. So it seems a bit weird to find a billboard in Lilongwe enticing you to join the Airtel network in order to "tweet faster." If I'm the average Malawian, I think I'd be more concerned with finding my next meal and avoiding malaria and dysentery than with tweeting about my new mosquito net and making sure I got Lady Gaga's tweets more quickly.  

I'm back! Malawi

I was scheduled to arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi on Monday afternoon, but due to some prior flight’s problems, they ended up rebooking me onto a flight for Tuesday and put me up in Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel. Yeah, I could have just as easily stayed at my apartment for the night, but why go back to an apartment with no food, when I was offered three free meals and a room at Nairobi’s most historical hotel, where men in top hats fetch your bags and Ernest Hemingway used to rest his head? Don’t mind if I do hole up for the day here:

Especially when what I was escaping is as chaotic as the street right below my hotel room:

The luxury was short-lived, however. I was back into the thick of that chaos by 6am Tuesday morning, fighting through airport security and check-in lines before finally boarding my flight to Lilongwe. It was a long trip, touching down in Lusaka for one hour and arriving in Lilongwe in the late afternoon. Lilongwe, with its relatively empty streets and small town feel was a welcome change of pace to Nairobi, and I actually felt pretty good (maybe arrogant?) getting into the city center – like I had come a long way since the last time I was here and am no longer just some amateur. I now know what I’m doing, how to navigate the country, who I need to work with, how much I should be spending. I’ve got the phone numbers of taxi drivers in both major cities and know exactly where to stay. I even know how to drive a hard bargain – cash is king here and USD is God...my offer for $60/night paid in USD cash was accepted at a hotel with $85/night rooms!

I’ll be here for the next two weeks. Whereas the last visit to Malawi was about research and learning, this visit is all about implementing and should be a lot of fun, even if all that has to be done is a bit daunting. I’ll be interviewing and hiring for two data collectors, setting up field work for the data collectors so that they can interview close to 400 farmers using our pumps, and starting a distributor incentive program to encourage better pump sale tracking. And of course I’ll be strutting around like it’s nobody’s business with a gangsta’ roll of Malawian Kwacha. Wish me luck. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Detroit Themed Gifts

Looking for a Detroit themed gift? Look no further. I present you Allied Fabrication System's newest print, the Metro Detroit Map:

The word "Detroit" means many things to different people, but we can agree that its definition stretches beyond the borders of the city proper. Featuring the cities and towns that form the Detroit Metro area, the map is our attempt to give each town its separate identity, while sewing them all together into the patchwork quilt that forms the region. Locals from all over the region will be able to find their own cities and towns on the map, and see that each is a unique part of a greater whole. Hand-printed on paper cut to 16" x 20" from French Paper from Niles, Michigan.

You can find them at a number of stores throughout Metro Detroit or visit their Etsy Shop to buy online (Allied Fabrication Etsy shop). Take a loot at their site too to learn more (Detroit themed gifts). Nice work, boys!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Urban Worm Blowing Up

Okay, so not really but I picked up a good number of orders March-May and had enough money in profits to completely upgrade the site over the last few weeks (check out the new Urban Worm). Originally, as I described last year, I built the site with Jimdo and though there were a lot of great things about that platform and I’d still have no problem recommending it to anyone, there were also a number of pretty big disadvantages to it.

Besides the site designs that Jimdo offers being pretty limiting, my main gripes were related to shipping, website tracking, and the blog feature. The shipping in Jimdo is set at the product level and will always charge a customer the shipping associated with each product in his shopping cart. For example, if a customer orders two t-shirts and the shipping amount set for that t-shirt is $5, then the shopping cart would charge that customer $10 for shipping (2 t-shirts x 5 shipping per t-shirt) even though the shipping charge for two t-shirts should be just $5. In other words, there was no way to intelligently make shipping calculations based on the products in the shopping cart (if total shopping cart weight is less than x, then charge y for shipping; if shopping cart total greater than x, then don’t charge for shipping). This was especially frustrating in the Urban Worm case because most of the products I sell offer a high enough margin to absorb shipping charges and therefore, allow me to come up with and run creative shipping promotions if the ecommerce platform has the functionality. Jimdo doesn’t, unfortunately.

My second gripe, and maybe the most important one, was related to tracking the behaviour of visitors to the site. Although you can easily install Google Analytics to any Jimdo site, unless you put each product on its own page, you will never have much insight into the products that your customers are clicking on, an obviously valuable piece of information, and you can’t track site conversions, meaning you’ll never automatically know how the customers that ultimately make a purchase reached the site and can’t make any informed decisions about how to best divide up your marketing dollars if your interest is in driving sales. Corny but true, information is power and though a Jimdo site set up with Google Analytics still reveals quite a bit of important data, you’re often left asking a lot of questions that are easily answered with a more robust website.

And finally, the Jimdo blogging tool is not very user friendly or capable. If you’re not posting very much or don’t intend to use your blog as a way to attract site visitors, this doesn’t matter too much, but based on my Google Analytics account, I knew that a better blog could generate a good amount of traffic (visitors would land on my site after searching on topics related to my blog posts – composting in the classroom, for example). So, in February, I set up the blog portion of the site on WordPress, a good way to test what kind of traffic I could get to the blog, but bad in that the Urban Worm was split into two different sites.

Ultimately, all of these small annoyances made me wish for something better. If I hadn’t gotten too many orders during March-May, I probably would have left the site on Jimdo, but the number of orders that came through gave me enough confidence and motivation to try something new and more powerful. So, I decided to transfer the site hosting to BlueHost and use WordPress as the main tool to build the site and the WP Ecommerce plugin as my shopping cart/store. BlueHost and Wordpress are used by a lot of major websites and offer all the capability you could ask for in a site. So far, I’d say it’s definitely been a big improvement. The site design is major upgrade in both looks and ease of navigation, I have the ability to run promotions, the blog is now integrated with the site, and the tracking is fully set up to give me all the information available. But, I’ve also spent a lot more time and effort and had to learn a lot to get it all up and running. I’ve actually really enjoyed learning about the tools but it certainly hasn’t been without its frustrations, and for anyone without the time, motivation, or interest in learning, it’s definitely best to either stick with Jimdo or simply hire someone to just do it for you (I’ll give you a good rate ;) ). Then again, the time and effort has already paid off – 3 orders this week alone, a significant improvement in conversion rate over the Jimdo version of the site, and enough profit to have already recouped my investment in the site upgrade!

Next up, search engine optimization. I want the Urban Worm to be the first link you see on Google when you search for “worm bins,” a keyword that is searched for on Google 14,800 times/month in the US. If I can convert just 0.05% of those searches to orders, I’ll be one happy Urban Worm.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pure Michigan

I like this one a lot and really like seeing the Faygo factory.

The newest Michigan business ads now featuring the Pure Michigan theme. I like them but think the feel of these ads have a much better fit for tourist marketing. And why do so many business type commercials, especially those trumpeting universities, have a shot with a glass "whiteboard" with someone writing a bunch of chemistry crap on it while eager eyed dorks look on from a conference table? That's not inspiring at all. I've never even seen one of those glass whiteboards (and I studied engineering with those dorks at the conference table!).

And because you just can't get enough.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Inspiring Calendar

I have a travel agency calendar on my desk at work and each month usually offers me 4-5 nice travel pictures related to a certain theme. Cultural safaris, ocean cruises, beach adventures. The usual trips you might have in mind when thinking about what a travel agency can offer. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I flipped the calendar to May, a Spring month I normally associate with upbeat feelings of better days ahead, and found that the pictures I'd be greeted with every morning for the next 31 days were themed around "medical travel" and had a particularly depressing shot in the upper left corner.

May can't end soon enough.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Stroll Through Uhuru Park

Nairobi's downtown park, Uhuru Park, sits just outside the central business district and as I found it last week, is a pretty pleasant place to kill some time. It was packed with families and had some sort of carnival type feel to it with photographers, balloon artists, and face painters all doing quick business with the largely under 12 year old crowd.

But the park hasn't always had such a festive existence. It's open space and key location has made the park the central gathering place for many protests during its history. And maybe because of the parks propensity to attract protesters and the government's desire to rid themselves of this annoyingly convenient gathering point, in late 1989 there was a plan to construct a 60 story building in Uhuru Park. In fact, ground had been broken on the project but foreign investment pulled out after the protests of Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. By defending the park and seeking to block the construction of the building, she was labeled "a crazy woman" by Kenya's then-president, arap Moi, while suggesting that she be a proper woman in the African tradition.

The park today, free of 60 story buildings, continues to be a central gathering place for Kenyan civic life. As recently as this past June, during a rally against a constitutional referendum, a bomb exploded in the park and killed 6 people while injuring hundreds of others.

My visit, thankfully, didn't offer any protests or any danger, but if you were brave enough to ride the human powered ferris wheel, all bets were off.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Pictures

Finally posted my pictures from the past few months to my Flickr page. Highlights include:

A senior picture:

Africa's pay phones:

A traveling Urban Worm:

An elephant's butt:

And a shot that captures what traveling actually is:

Flickr has a really annoying feature (or lack thereof) that doesn't allow you to change the order of photos in your photostream. So, since the order of photos in the photostream is based on the time of upload there are a few pictures that aren't in the appropriate sequence if you're browsing from the main page. This is killing me (but probably something you really don't care about). Rest assured, if you browse by clicking on the sets, those photos should be in the correct (date taken) order.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Oil Libya

Forget the gas tax. America could quickly ween itself off of foreign oil if gas stations were named like this chain of stations I've seen in Nairobi.

Imagine every time you went to the pump you were greeted with a big sign that said "Oil" followed by the origin of the gas. Oil Libya, Oil Venezuela, Oil Iraq. I'd probably think twice. Better yet, we should not only require all gas stations to change their name to state the origin country of the gas but to also include a picture of the country's ruling leader. Especially when that ruler looks as crazy as this wax doll.

Note: After having this idea, I did some googling to see where the US gets its oil. Turns out, nearly 20% of our oil comes from Canada and 49% comes from the Western Hemisphere. Oil Canada doesn't sound too menacing, and Stephen Harper looks way too wholesome for this to work. Oil Venezuela might.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Six

Friday, March 18th

I’ve decided to hit the road again today. I’m not looking forward to another long trip, but I don’t have much interest in spending the weekend in Blantyre, I’d like to be able to see Lake Malawi, and there happens to be an NGO regional office on the way to the lake. So, after a short meeting at Nikhil’s office with another NGO, I head back over to the Blantyre bus market and hop on a mini-bus to Mangochi.

Based on the looks of the bus stations and the sheer chaos that exists surrounding them, it’s actually pretty surprising how quickly you become not only use to the environment but also able to navigate it and find the right bus. After being here yesterday to catch my “Fear God” bus to Llunzu, I’m able to easily find the Mangochi buses. You also learn quickly when mistakes made (like getting on the empty bus in Lliongwe and waiting at the station for two hours) result in dangerous spikes in blood pressure and acute cases of short term insanity, so I seek out the mini-bus that is nearly full and am on my way out of town within 10 minutes, patting myself on the back for my savvy veteran moves.

The trip to Mangochi is generally as uneventful as a four bus trip on public transportation can be in a developing country. It features all the standards of this type of travel – a terribly uncomfortable seat if you can call it a seat; a dangerous number of passengers; what feels like an infinite number of stops to pick up and drop off; freight that includes passenger bags, bamboo baskets, chickens, breast feeding babies, and some mysterious cooler type box that smells like rotting fish; and piercing sun that is, of course, shining through the bus window on my side. At one point I count 24 people and two babies (the bus is slightly bigger than a minivan). At another point the guy sitting to my right is trying to have a conversation with me, something I’m not at all interested in, though I must have engaged him enough because he gives me his phone number and email before he departs. At another point, there’s a baby resting its head against my arm which is actually pretty cute until I remember that most small children’s stomachs don’t handle the roads very well and am fearful that I may end up with this kid’s half digested lunch on my lap if I allow him to get too comfortable. Other than revelling in the nonsense surrounding me on the bus, I try to just let my mind wander to other thoughts and observations.

Observation 1 – I noticed this the moment I got into Lilongwe but it’s even more pronounced during the bus ride and in the more rural areas. Malawi is a lot poorer than Zambia and any other country I’ve visited. There are signs every where once you start thinking about it but the first thing that I noticed and connected to Malawi being “poorer” is the number of people walking around without shoes. There are A LOT. On my bus trip, I start to think that maybe the number of shoes in a country could be an indicator of the wealth of that country but after a few minutes of playing around with that idea in my head, I decide to throw it out since I suspect that poor countries in cold climates will have more shoes. Then I start to think of other unique indicators that may be able to measure a country’s wealth. I’ve noticed that very few of the people I am meeting in Malawi have business cards, something that surprises me after getting so many in Zambia. Maybe the number of business cards printed in a country is an indication of its wealth? Somewhere between Zomba and Mangochi I decide to make this my PhD dissertation.

Observation 2 – My right leg is starting to fall asleep and I’m not quite sure how much longer I can withstand the sharp metal point that is sticking out of this inhumanely hard seat I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on for the last three hours. But from desperation comes creativity and I manage to come up with a million dollar idea. I’ll be returning to Malawi next year to sell what in the states is used to shield and comfort our privileged asses from the cold, hard bleachers of high school stadiums while we cheer on Johnny Football Hero. I’d currently pay close to $100 for this type of cushion, and with proper marketing, I believe Malawi and its 1970s fleet of decommissioned buses and minivans would be a gold mine. I even consider taking a loan from these certain future earnings to pay the bus driver to immediately kick everyone else off the bus and just shuttle me the remaining distance.

I get to Mangochi around 4:15pm and call John, the NGO worker I’m trying to meet. He tells me to take a bicycle taxi to his office, so I blindly choose one of the 4 guys uncomfortably surrounding me all offering the back of their bike as a ride. I straddle the wire seat that sits above the back wheel, grab the conveniently placed handles coming out from the bike seat, and rest my feet up on the soldered pegs coming out from the bike frame. It’s a comfortable trip for me and from what I can tell a pretty exhausting trip for my driver. It’s about five minutes to the office on pretty loose dirt roads so he’s broken quite a sweat by the time we get to the office. After paying him the unkind fare of $0.25, I make a note to myself to not consider “bike-taxi driver in Malawi” for any future employment.

John is waiting in his office for me when I get there. He looks like he may have just gotten up from a nap and is wearing a look that I’ve seen a lot over the last few months – a neck tie that reaches just past the second button of a dress shirt but no longer than the third and features a Windsor knot the size of a new born baby’s head. The short tie and big knot always remind me of some cartoon character and I have a hard time taking John seriously. He also seems to be on the verge of falling asleep, straining to get out every word while he’s answering my questions and keeping his eyes open just enough for me to notice that his pupils are completely clouded over with cataracts. I’d guess that he’d choose to be anywhere in the world but in this meeting with me. We get through it nonetheless, but there are a number of follow ups I’d like to try to get from him and his field staff, so I ask for a business card. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t have one.

After another bike taxi ride, I’m back at the Mangochi bus market, boarding another bus. Mangochi is at the very southern end of Lake Malawi. If you travel north from Mangochi on the western side of the lake, you head up a small peninsula and reach Cape Maclear, the lake’s largest resort town and my final destination. This evening, though, I’ll only have time to get to Monkey Bay, a town just before you enter the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve and that has, I’ve been told, plenty of places to spend the night.

The trip is just like all the others, but I have the luxury of the front seat which is likely the most dangerous but at least offers leg room (if you don’t mind straddling the stick shift), a decent seat, and a little more personal space than what exists in the back. The road gets increasingly rural and narrow during our trip and by the time we’re an hour in, people, bikes, and goats far outnumber any cars on the road. In the last hour of the two hour trip, I relisten to the Malawian news radio’s hourly update (five 18 year olds in central Malawi have burned down their school after being suspended for discipline problems) and count the vehicles we pass – zero. The road feels more like a path through a corn field than a road and the evening’s darkness is making me a little nervous about where I’ll be able to spend the night. We keep passing signs for lodges and hotels but they’re pointing me down pitch black paths that I’d rather not explore at night, alone. I figure I’ll have better luck in town where I’ll be able to grab a taxi and just have him drive me to a nice hotel.

Unfortunately, Monkey Bay is more of a sleepy village than a town and the laughable thought of a taxi whisking you to a hotel is held only by a stupid, naive, and poorly prepared tourist that is now stranded in said village. There is absolutely nothing around and though the town looks completely harmless during the following morning, I’m more than a little scared when I realize we’ve reached Monkey Bay, I’m the last person on the bus, and I have no idea where to go or how to get there if there’s even a place to go to. Monkey Bay during a busy weekend day:

The bus driver and his helper ask me where I’m going, and they’re a little too willing to help when I tell them I need to find a hotel. They want to take me to Mofasa, a hotel they say is just up the road. Hmmm...yeah, it could be right up the road, yes, but so could a couple of ropes, hidden in the deserted corn field, they’ll use to tie me up before robbing me of everything I’m carrying. I’m scared at this point but don’t really feel like I have much choice other than to take their word. The driver’s helper opens the passenger side door to get in the front after I tell them to take me to Mofasa, and I tell him, probably more aggressively than needed, to get in the back. The last thing I want is to be in the front middle seat, surrounded by these two partners in crime, with nowhere to escape if things go sour.

They drive up the dark dirt path, which to me looks completely unpromising and more than a bit malicious, and make a right turn at the sign for Mofasa. The sign makes me feel much better but the right turn is onto something about as wide as a walking path and even darker than the path we were on before. It’s a cornfield with large boulders on my right and surely the dreaded ropes on my left. The driver’s helper keeps telling me to pay him 1000 kwacha, more than what I’ve spent to make the entire 7 hour trip from Blantyre, but I’m not in much a position to negotiate and will happily pay the fare if he actually gets me to a hotel, a task I’m still unsure he’ll complete as we’ve been driving now for five minutes and it doesn’t look like we’re close to anything but several ditches in which they’ll dump my body. At last, just past a very big boulder and a dip in the path that’s completely submerged in two feet of water, I see a fence with Mofasa painted on a sign. Sweet Lord, yes! My two would be assailants turned saviours deliver me right to the gate and assure that there’s a room before wishing me a very pleasant stay and returning to town, rich from a short little trip to Mofasa to drop off a stupid, vulnerable, and jumpy tourist.

Mofasa isn’t really what I had in mind when I took off for the lake this morning. I wanted a nice hotel and had imagined all day during my journey that a warm shower and a beach bar serving a good meal were waiting to reward me for the long trip. What I get is more of a Robinson Crusoe hippie hangout with no electricity, three Israeli travelers that are waiting for their pot brownies to cool and a guy in dreads that looks like he has been at Mofasa for a LONG time and has certainly had his fair share of brownies. I have three beers to calm my nerves, sitting right on the beach, staring at the silvery lake and full moon (the biggest in 20 years!), both of which are beautiful but something I'd probably trade for electricity, a shower, and a Papa John’s pizza. I stumble around my candle lit room, tucking in the mosquito net and hiding my camera, computer, and money before falling asleep uncomfortable in the filth of a 7 hour journey on public transit and more than a little annoyed I have made this whole trip for a night not a a Hilton, but at Mofasa.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Five

Thursday, March 17th

My boss left this morning, on his way back to Lilongwe for a meeting before returning to Nairobi. He elected to fly back to Lilongwe which makes me feel better about the bus ride we shared to Blantyre. I like knowing that he hated it as much as I did. You ride one of those buses and everyone else on board seems to be taking it all in stride, like it’s enjoyable. Your first thought is something like “these people are crazy,” but with each smile you see and normal conversation you hear, a very different thought starts to creep into your conscious, “maybe I’m insane for thinking this is bad.” My boss choosing to fly back proves that he hated it as much as I did and it makes me feel like I might still be normal, not just some whiny bitch. I’ll be here for one more week to continue meeting with distributors and NGOs that buy our pumps. Today, I’m on my way to a small town about 25km from Blantyre where I want to meet with a guy that works directly with farmers as an extension agent for an NGO. But first, I’m on my way to a meeting with Amin, one of Nikhil’s employees who is taking me over to another NGO within Blantyre.

The meeting is pretty short because this NGO just happens to be funding the projects that are using the pumps. There are two other NGOs that are responsible for implementation, and it’s those two organizations I’ll have to talk with to get anything close to what I’m looking for. I write down the names and phone numbers of a couple of additional contacts that I plan on calling this afternoon. The means by which these pumps actually reach farmers continues to get increasingly complicated, but I’ve found that I like the work involved in trying to understand the process. It’s like an unsolved mystery with an outcome that includes a hard to find farmer and a blue pump.

I decided to check out of the hotel I was staying in the past two nights because the only room they have available is more than I’m willing to pay. After the meeting, I have Amin drive me to Hostellerie de France which I found on Trip Advisor, listed as the second best option for hotels in Blantyre. Most of the reviews on Trip Advisor were pretty good, but there was this doozy which was either intriguing or scary depending on your personality:

Salvador-Dali lookalike proprietor has not heard of personal space and insists on touching his guests, photographing them (without permission) and imagining that all guests are captivated by his charisma. I wasn't. The room was depressing if clean, fan fell to pieces, nylon cover circa 1970 on the bed, and towels of same vintage. Fierce and intimidating dogs in the car park. Long trip to airport. OK for one night if you can avoid Monsieur's clutches.

I decide to take my chances. The hotel is a five minute drive outside of town, set on a large hill with nice views of the valley and city. The French woman that greets us speaks halting English, but we’re able to pretty easily negotiate that I’m looking for a room and would like to see it before deciding whether or not to stay. Hotels around here aren’t anything like their cookie cutter cousins in the states. You’re never really sure what you’re going to get and the rooms can vary to a great degree even within the same hotel. It’s best to see and check everything before committing. She waddles over to the room and shows me inside. I’m an easy customer and am quickly sold. The room is completely adequate, even if it features a shower wand device like Lusaka Hotel’s rather than a full shower. We agree with head nods and before I can say any different, she sends for someone to carry my small bag, explaining with a phrase that makes me laugh. “Me call boy.” Monsieur is currently no where to be found.

After settling in and wishing a good day to Amin, I head out, finally on my way to Llunzu to meet with a field worker. Right outside the hotel, I’m able to flag down a mini-bus that takes me into the Blantyre bus market which is quite a bit nicer than Lilongwe’s but as equally confusing. Situated on both sides of a busy street, there are hundreds of mini-buses all parked or moving in an unorganized snarl. I ask someone for help and he very easily points me in the right direction. I board a white mini-bus that’s nearly full with passengers, has a sticker on the front windshield that says “Fear God,” a wooden sign with the name “Llunzu” by the steering wheel, and looks like it’s held together by two staples and three paper clips. My bus companions shoot me frightened and suspicious stares while the bus driver revs the engine and slowly exits the market, yelling out the window “Llunzu, Llunzu, Llunzu!” We’re off.

The bus trip feels longer than 25km should, but I make it easily and safely. Llunzu is about 1km long with concrete shops on either side of the highway. There are wooden shacks selling tomatoes and onions and forty or fifty “shops” that are more or less plastic tarps laid on the ground with second hand shoes, shirts, and pants displayed on top. I go into a restaurant and call Victor, the field worker I’m meeting. He knows exactly where I am and says he’s riding into town on his motorbike now.

He’s a few years older than I and has a real hard time understanding my accent. I try to talk more slowly but usually have to repeat myself and notice a few times that he’s just nodding yes, not really understanding me. He suggests we go to his “office” which also serves as his home. I get on the back of his motorcycle (looks like a dirtbike) and hold tight while he drives away from the highway, down several different dirt paths/roads that are surrounded by corn fields and a few crudely constructed houses with either tin or thatch roofs. Just a few turns off the highway and it feels very, very rural. Everyone we pass does a very clear double take to get a look at the white guy riding on the back of Victor’s motorcycle, holding on for dear life. His house is a very modest concrete rectangle, painted white, with what appears to be a new tin roof. He has three kids and his brother, who lives next door, has three of his own. All six of them are playing in front of the house when we arrive and they follow us into the front room which for its size, holds too many pieces of furniture. There are two couches that you might find on an Ann Arbor curb, a large side table in the middle of the room, a dining table and three chairs pushed against the wall, a larger than expected TV in the corner, a bookcase with a stereo and speakers, and some sort of wardrobe next to the front “window.” I make myself at home on one of the couches while Victor makes each kid come up to me to shake my hand. None of them dare utter a word to me and I’m tempted to yell “boo” a couple of times but hold my tongue and just smile.

It’s been almost three weeks since my trip began and only now am I meeting with someone that works directly with the farmers that are using our pumps. Victor, and the many other NGO field workers, are the keepers of all the data and information I need, and I’m excited to finally talk to someone who knows where the pumps are and who is using them. Victor has distributed around 80 pumps in the past two years, so I start by asking how he keeps track of the farmers’ names and locations. Easy enough, he writes them down. When I ask them if he can show me how/where he captures all this info, he heads over to his bookcase, shuffles around a few piles of paper, grabs two plastic shopping bags full of loose paper and notebooks, and brings them both back over to the couch. Five minutes later, with papers thrown about the couch and floor, he finds what I’m looking for – a small notebook with a bunch of chicken scratch and farmer names scribbled throughout. So this is what I’m trying to track down! A crumpled notebook that sits at the bottom of a plastic shopping bag, resting on a bookcase amid other loose paper, in a concrete house with no running water that’s owned by a worker who has trouble understanding my English and is an hour away from the nearest city and four hours away from the capital, in one of the poorest countries in the world. I don’t like my odds, but I like the challenge.

I also like Victor and have learned a lot of valuable info for my project, so we spend the rest of the afternoon at his house celebrating by watching Malawian music videos. They are something like watching the homemade Spanish music videos made in 1997 for Senora Jackson’s class assignment...except the Malawian versions are lower quality. Victor translates for me and writes down a number of Chichewa phrases that are either useful or come up during the music, so by the time we leave his house I can say “how are you” “do not cry” “problems” “I love you” “don’t fool me” and “feeling sweet/crazy” in Chichewa. We take off on his motorcycle, back through the village, and he drops me off right at the mini-bus that returns me to Blantyre. I know it’s the right bus by the “Fear God” sticker, the same sticker I saw on my bus out of town.

I get back to the hotel and am greeted by a French man who I suspect is “Monsieur.” He speaks slightly better English than the woman who greeted me earlier and though it’s unclear whether or not they are a husband and wife team, it’s quite clear that they both use the same color of hair dye – something between black and purple and looks a little goofy on his Rolly Fingers mustache. After he gets my business card and uses my shoulder to support himself while stepping up on a chair to tack the card next to all the other cards wallpapering the reception room, he generally lets me be. I head back to my room, happy to have successfully avoided the assault on personal space and unwanted pictures I was warned about on Trip Advisor. Safe in my room, I feel pretty good about what I learned today despite discovering the long odds at tracking down the necessary data. I go to sleep practicing my Chichewa. Tseketseke. "I’m feeling sweet/crazy."