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Archive for November, 2009

People often ask me 2 questions.  How did I end up spending the 90s in El Salvador and how did I get into NGO work?  I usually give the 140 character verbal version. But the turning point was 20 years ago this week. So here is the longer story.

Back in 1989, I was in my senior year of college, studying anthropology at the University of Southern California (USC) and living in the mid-Wilshire district, home of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang and one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles.  The 5th floor window of my 1920s apartment building overlooked a mini-mall where the “underground economy” (as my anthropology teacher liked to call it) took place.  (I suppose today you’d call them “anti-social entrepreneurs”? J) Stolen credit cards were used at the public phone on the corner to call El Salvador and Guatemala.  Newly initiated teenaged gang members stole handbags and necklaces.  Older, tattooed MS smoked cigarettes and observed their territory, or took out bags of brown marijuana at the outside picnic tables, rolling joints and smoking them in public. Throwing up the 18th St. hand sign would get you in big trouble as this was MS territory.

On the other side of the mini mall parking lot, gunshots would go off now and then on Normandie between 7th and 8th, where the MS ran crack.  Dealers and buyers used the apartment buildings there, gorgeous old style art deco places that had lost the battle, to hide from police.  One morning I was awakened by a crazed, dreadlocked squatter leaning out a window singing Sly Stone at the top of his lungs.  I was fascinated and decided to do my senior anthropology project about this ‘underground economy’. I didn’t imagine it would be dangerous since I was part of the neighborhood and no one ever bothered me, aside from saying “hola mamacita” when I passed through on my way to the mini-mart.

I first needed an informant who wouldn’t harass me, and I decided on one of the guys that I would see often in the parking lot, hanging around chatting people up.  He worked in the local video store.  He wasn’t tattooed and didn’t seem like a gang member, but he seemed to know everyone.  He didn’t call me mamacita or make kissing noises when I walked past; he’d just flash me a dazzling smile and say ‘hey-lo’.  So I started asking him about the neighborhood, the structure of the MS. Who did what and why.  Where people came from.  What the graffiti meant.. Though he wasn’t a gang member, he knew everyone.  (“That’s how you stay safe here. You has to know them so they protect you.”) His cousin was ‘in the business’ so I got the lowdown on the structure and business strategies of the drug trade in the neighborhood. My Spanish was virtually non-existent and his English was only about 2 steps above that, but we managed to communicate.

Guillermo, “Memo” for short , was 24 at the time.  He had come into the US via Mexico when he was 18, during the peak of the civil war, because he felt trapped by parental disputes and the bleak situation in El Salvador. He feared being recruited into one or the other side of the conflict raging in his country.  Despite horrific human rights abuses — massacres, death squads, tortures and many disappeared, the US was pouring billions of dollars into supporting the rightwing military government.  US policy was that El Salvador was a ‘democracy’ thus it was virtually impossible for Salvadorans to seek entry to the US legally or be granted refugee status.  Nicaragua and Cuba?  Quite another story.

Memo had grown up in the room of a meson (a U-shaped one-story building made of adobe and tin, with 8-10  rooms surrounding a central courtyard and shared latrine/bathing area/washing area) in one of the oldest barrios in the heart of San Salvador. Some people in the barrio sold tortillas or juice.  Some sold fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, shined shoes, or dealt in metal pieces dredged up from the bottom of the Rio Acelhuate, the river-turned-sewer running alongside the barrio, or stolen side view mirrors at the hardware market. There were impromptu car repair shops and tiendas. Some women in the barrio went door-to-door selling freshly made snacks, and some were sex workers in the red light district a couple blocks away. The local economy was mostly informal, supplemented in large part by money sent home from relatives in the US or Australia.

Memo was a handful as a child. His upbringing was difficult but upright, notable from his good manners and clean-cut appearance.  As a boy, he’d studied up to 9th grade. He had passed his afternoons locked in the small room at the meson, kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother while his parents worked. They did their best to keep their sons out of trouble. Memo’s mother was a seamstress and his father a hired driver in the Central Market. Memo had begun working as an apprentice in a mechanic shop at age 12.

His journey to the US took place over a period of about 4 and a half months in 1983, most of it spent in Mexico working to save up for the rest of the trip.  He arrived to Los Angeles where his cousin and brother already lived, moving into a one-bedroom apartment with 7 other guys.  He struggled to find work, losing 4 jobs due to lack of papers but finally found a job through the Salvadoran owner of the video store (who was also involved in the drug trade).

I was fascinated by the world I was getting a look into, and by Memo himself …and the feeling was mutual.  We started going out and on Thanksgiving in 1989 we decided to get married. I was only 21, and life was getting more interesting every day. (Credit to my parents for being highly concerned but reasonably hands-off. I only wonder how I’d feel if it was my daughter!) In 1991, we decided to move down to El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the civil war was still going on.

It was my first time traveling out of the States.  My new in-laws greeted me at the meson with a stilted welcome and a brand new toilet seat that I was supposed to carry to the latrine with me to place on top of the ‘stone chimney.’  They were embarrassed at the conditions they could offer to their son’s gringuita.  We set up house in the meson for about a year, and all eventually moved a half block down the alley way into 2 side-by-side apartments. We used our total savings to purchase our place for around $3,000.  (Photo above is the Barrio in 2009).

Memo picked his job back up as a mechanic in the local car shop and we lived on around $3/day for our first 3 years.  Barrio Candelaria was an amazing place.  My neighbors welcomed me with open arms and I easily became part of barrio life. Eventually we bought a refrigerator and some furniture. On weekends we’d walk a few blocks to downtown get ice cream cones or pizza as a treat. I learned to be a Salvadoran housewife. Niña Alicia, my mother-in-law, taught me to cook, clean, go to the market and small talk with the other women at the Sunday soccer games.  She also found Niña Lita, a warm and gentle midwife, to ‘sovarme’ (give me monthly belly massages) and to deliver my son Daniel at home in April 1992. I didn’t trust the conditions at the public hospital. Niña Lita was 70 years old and had been delivering babies since age 15, including her own 15 children, so I felt safe with her. I read voraciously on pregnancy and birth in order to be as prepared as possible.

Three months before Daniel was born, the war ended in Peace Accords and a huge celebration in the plaza a few blocks from our house. Memo enrolled in and completed high school in the evenings and graduated as Valedictorian, moving on to also complete his university degree. I got a job as an English teacher at a private school.  I also started a class at the National University.  It was the first time that 20th century history had ever been taught in El Salvador due to the conflict and government prohibitions to discuss certain events during that time.  A classmate was a Finnish girl, around my age.  Her father was the head of an NGO and they were looking for a translator.  I gave up my teaching job to take this one, and eventually moved into programs and communications. I’ve been in NGO work ever since.

Niña Lita attended me again in 1996 when my daughter Clare was born.  At 10 and a half pounds, it was a difficult birth, and she was so purple that at first I imagined she was dead…. but either Niña Lita was an expert or I got lucky, and we both survived.  The post-war violence and crime continued to worsen. People said that post-war was worse than during the war because it was now randomized violence, and you never knew where it would find you.  I witnessed several incidents on the bus and saw people stabbed downtown in broad daylight for a watch or wallet, but somehow came out untouched.

With my NGO job, our conditions improved over time and we were able to buy a car and send the kids to an affordable nearby private school – the level of education at the public schools near the barrio was very low.  Memo had also gotten a job at an NGO, doing HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation work with inmates in the Salvadoran prison system.  We never considered moving out of the barrio since we felt safe there and Memo’s parents were next door. Every step outside the barrio though, and you knew you might not come home.  The very day I sat in my interview to start work with Plan, my second NGO job, Memo and his colleagues were assaulted on a rural road by 4 masked men with big guns and held for several hours on a plantation.  He came home stunned and depressed, missing his shoes and watch.  The elderly plantation guard, armed with only his machete, was killed in the incident.

Cultural differences and the fact that I worked and traveled a lot began to create friction. The palpable sense of random violence and crime everywhere outside the barrio added to the stress. I started to run up against limits on what I could do and achieve in El Salvador and felt trapped.  So for many of the same reasons that Memo fled from El Salvador in 1983, so did I in 2001. We parted ways and I moved back to the US with the kids. We have remained good friends and keep in touch, and we go to visit whenever we have enough money for tickets, which unfortunately is never often enough.

So, when people ask me what they should study in order to have a job like mine or how I ended up in El Salvador, I’m a bit hard pressed on what to answer. I usually give a short version that goes something like: “well, I got married to a Salvadoran and joined an NGO in El Salvador,” since the long one is pretty personal and my path to NGO work is not quite something you want to hear about at a job fair. What I do tell some people is that it’s really not what you study, it’s how you grab onto the opportunities that life offers to you and flow with them to see where you end up. It’s being willing to take risks, to follow your heart and do what you are passionate about. You don’t know where you may end up, in development or in something totally different.  But the trip will be well worth it.  20 years later… I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.

—————

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18 years

Beginnings

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Saturday, was the last day of the 2-week Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) workshop with the youth.  Each of the sub-groups had the task of prioritizing 2-3 areas that they wanted to focus on over the next 6 months and developing a basic plan. The plans included their focus issues, analysis of the causes of the issue, what they would do about it using their reinforced media and arts skills, when they would do it, and how they would know that they had achieved their short term goals (indicators). Photo: members of one of the media teams.

Nathalia, age 18, presented for the theater group. “We are going to work more on the issue of devaluation of girls by their parents.  This is caused by the belief that men were made to dominate and women to serve, the idea that girls don’t bring any benefit to their parents, but bring only trouble, and the idea that girls are physically and mentally weak.”

The other 4 groups’ topics are:

· Music/Dance group: children’s rights in general, education as the key to a successful future, the value of local culture and traditions.

· Media group:  disaster risk reduction and risks to youth in the community such as the discotheque, alcohol and drugs, and violence.

· Painting group: child rights in general, drug abuse and protecting children from violence/risk.

· Journalism group: sanitation and hygiene, education.

Mobile data gathering?

The groups will prepare work on these topics and extend their messages out to the school community and the surrounding villages.  To track their progress, they plan to survey audiences that have seen their work (eg., their films, paintings, songs, theater, newsletters, etc).  This made us think about the idea of using mobile phones to do the surveys (Nokia Data Gathering or Frontline SMS Forms, depending on which is more feasible and cost effective).

The youth could create surveys on a few devices, and then go around to survey people who have attended their events or viewed their work and heard their messages.  The youth could then have immediate results by exporting the survey results into excel for analysis.  In the process, the youth can learn about statistics, charts and graphs.  Eventually they could also take surveying to another level, such as looking at behaviors and practices, and use the information to inform the outreach work that they are doing.  Photo:  Thinking about mobiles for more than calls and SMS.

“The kids see charts and graphs sometimes in their books, but they never have a chance to learn what actually goes into making a chart or graph, or to cover anything about statistics.  This would be a fabulous hand-on way to see how data is collected and used for decision making and to measure results,” said Lauren, the Peace Corps volunteer teacher at the school. “It would be great for them to get to see immediate feedback on their own work!”

Feedback from youth

Photo: journalism group shows their newsletter.

At the closing ceremony the youth were sad to go. “This is an opportunity that we had to participate in something that has never happened here at Cumbana,” said one girl.  “I encourage my fellow students here to show through their behavior, actions and their studies this coming year that they are now different.  That they are changed.”  (theater group)

“I never imagined that I could be a painter, but now I have the dream that I can do it.  I am happy because I showed what I’m capable of and I expressed my feelings through art.” (painting group)

“My favorite thing was making the big mural. I feel very proud and I can show my friends what I’m capable of.” (painting group)

“This initiative allowed us to show light on our reality. I also know now that I have talent in my mind and in my hands to express myself now and to build my future.” (journalism group)

“I really thank Plan and Nokia because with this workshop I saw myself transforming my life. I will become an artist and I will make something out of my life” (painting group)

“I liked helping to raise awareness in people and to change things in our community and in ourselves.  I want to share the success we’ve had in this project and our work, and to involve more people. There are many things we can achieve.” (media group)

“The best thing about the workshop was the way that they listened to us, they gave us courage to believe in ourselves. They reminded us that nothing comes from nothing and that only through education can we prepare for our futures.” (theater group)

“I liked working with equipment that I had never seen.  Now I know how to use it. I feel able to learn without fear.” (media group)

And facilitators?

“It was great to see the youth increase their knowledge about their culture, history, rights and the role they can play in their community as agents of change.  I loved seeing the youth apply the things that they learned and then do the work by themselves.  I would like to see more adults in the community participating in a workshop like this. There are many things that we can benefit from as well.” (Facilitator)

“I thought the workshop was fantastic.  The kids gained so much experience and confidence and really took advantage of these new opportunities.” (Facilitator)

Related posts:
On Girls and ICTs
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Sometimes being a girl is no piece of cake.  For the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) workshop we hoped to have 50% girls participating, and we ended up with about 15 girls and 40 boys.  The boys raised this on the 3rd day of the workshop (through no prompting by the facilitators).  “Why aren’t there more girls here? And the girls who are here, they never talk, they just sit there.” “They don’t have the ambition or the drive to improve themselves so they don’t even come to workshops like this when they have the opportunity”. Photo: Painting the mural.

Most of the girls listened to this criticism without responding.  “Girls – what do you have to say about this?” asked one of the facilitators.  Silence.  “See, even now they just sit there and don’t defend themselves,” complained the boys. More silence.  Finally one girl spoke up “You don’t know what it’s like.  We can’t get permission to come. It’s very difficult for us. Our parents don’t trust us. They think we are just coming to play. They want us to stay at home to do work during our school break.”  “But you have the same letter from the school that we do! Why can’t you learn to negotiate with your parents like we do?”  More silence.  The discussion turned to effective negotiation skills to communicate with and convince parents to allow both girls and boys to participate. “Our parents and grandparents are not ignorant donkeys; they are just from another time. They have never had the opportunity to participate in projects and workshops or even to go to school. They don’t know why we think it’s important.  We need to become better at talking with them, to counsel them and help them to see what we are doing so that they will allow us to join in these efforts.”

Being a girl isn’t only an obstacle to participating in workshops.  In the community over the past 3 weeks, I saw and heard about the challenges girls face to achieve an education, avoid unwanted advances, including from teachers, and avoid early pregnancies.  Most of the time there is no space for these issues to be discussed openly among both boys and girls, and with adults.  Plan’s two campaigns, Learn without Fear and Because I am a Girl, seem extremely relevant to the context.

A Conquista

The hottest debate of the 2 weeks was not “poverty” or “lack of water” or anything typically thought of as a “development” issue.  It was “a conquista” or the process of getting a girl/being wooed by a boy.  It was nice to see the girls getting more vocal as we got further along into the workshop. “We try to talk to girls and they don’t respond.  They just ignore us! So it makes us angry,” said one of the guys.  A girl countered “We are afraid when someone approaches us, because if we don’t agree, a boy or a man may get angry and they can find us and take out their aggression on us, they can rape us.”  “Sometimes if girls talk to one of us, and then talk to another of us also, what boys do then is to join together and show her that she can’t play with us, show her she can’t act like that,” said one of the boys. “It’s true,” said a girl, “We are afraid because they get mad if we don’t talk to them.”  “You should talk to us then!” interrupted a boy.  “What, can I give myself to every single male in the village just because he wants me?” exclaimed one of the girls.  This forum was incredibly important for guys and girls to have a time and a place to hear each other out, see each others’ points of view and try to understand each other.  There is a lot of room for awareness building on gender violence.  I even heard one teenage girl in one of the nearby communities say “if it’s just one man, it’s not really a rape…. it has to be 3 or 4.”

So I was really happy that the theater group decided to do their play about the things that girls face, even more so because there were only about 4 girls in the theater group, and the 3 facilitators were male.  (There are not many female teachers and facilitators to work with). Now that we had divided into small group and we’d been working together for several days, the girls’ voices were much louder. Photo: the issues chosen by the theater group included early marriage, drug abuse, physical aggression in families, corrupt police, professors/student fights, lack of value placed on girls within families.

Community Showcase

The groups had their showcase on Nov. 20, coinciding with the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Some 300 people from nearby primary schools and communities attended the event.The painting group’s mural greeted people as they came into the school grounds. Under giant orange tarp (which pretty much ruined any chance of getting good photos/videos since everything had a very strange light) the music group sang 2 songs about education and HIV prevention and performed a traditional dance.  The media group showed 6 of their videos, on life in the community, the importance of the river, trash in the market, the discotheque, and the local cinemas.  The journalism group shared their community newspaper, and the theater group performed their play.

On being a girl…

The storyline in the play is of a girl whose father marries her off for money; she is taken off to her new husband’s place and becomes pregnant. Her husband is abusive, alcoholic and brings other women home. He beats her, but her mother finds out and they report it to the police.  The police come to take a report, admonishing the husband and telling him that he is going to jail.  No matter, nothing a little private conversation and bribe won’t solve.  So the tables turn with the policeman admonishing the girl that she should not treat her husband badly and she deserves what she got.  As soon as the police leave, he beats the girl again, shouting as her father had shouted at her mother “In this house it’s the man who’s in charge!” He throws her out on the street. A friend tries to convince her to prostitute herself and make good money and she refuses.  The play ends as she looks at the audience, carrying the small bundle of her child, and asks “Why will people say this is my fault?”  The other actors come out one by one, calling on governments, parents, friends, school, teachers to see the situation clearly and to take on their responsibilities to change this scenario.  I have to say it was one of the best theater pieces I’ve ever seen, and it was written entirely by this group of 9th and 10th graders. Photo: Theater group closing out after a day of rehearsing.

The best tools to get the message across

Each different art or media form carried the messages on issues that the youth want to raise and change in their communities.  Once more it was a reminder that it’s the communication objectives and impact on the audience that matter, and the choice of the tools should be secondary, based on the outcomes to achieve.  We are not “doing media projects”, but helping kids to use different tools, including media, to dig into their realities and then use those tools as effective means of communication to make change in their communities.  What may be a great topic for a video, may not work so well as theater, and vice versa. In the process of discussing the issues and the media forms that would be best to make change in the community, both boys and girls learn new personal skills and improve their self esteem as well as their own communication skills.  They also have an opportunity to openly and deeply discuss issues among themselves and to understand each other better.  The discussion around gender issues and how the same challenges may affect girls and boys differently is one of the most important that they can have.

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Stories that touch the heart

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We’ve completed our first week of arts and media training with around 55 youth in Cumbana, a coastal community some 450 kms north of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.  If you ever tried to Google Cumbana, you’d find information about a photographer with the same last name or links to tourist hotels at the nearby beaches in Maxixe or Inhambane, and not much else.  We actually did this as part of our Tuesday session on Internet with the youth.  Googling New York was another story.  But why?

We turned it around to the youth. Why is there no information on Cumbana?  The conclusion was you only find things on internet that someone puts there, and  no one had bothered, no one had ever really uploaded anything about Cumbana.  And that meant that this group of youth has a big responsibility, because they are going to be the ones to put Cumbana on the map. Photo:  After Cumbana, the top Google search among our small population was, of course, Michael Jackson.

What does that mean?  Aside from producing arts and media to raise issues that affect them and engage their communities in jointly finding solutions, the youth will be the ones to define Cumbana.  As Lauren (the Peace Corps volunteer who’s been teaching at the school for the past 2 years) said:  “Did we find anything about you all in Cumbana now on the internet?  No.  When will there be something about Cumbana?  When you make the effort to put it there.”  Photo: Mobile phone connections are much more likely than computers in the near future, so we trained on internet also using mobiles.

Access to internet whether by laptop using mobile internet or directly on a phone is a huge hit with the kids, 75% of whom had never been online before.  Our 2 hour session could have gone on all day for all they cared. The idea of putting yourself on the map seems to have appeal in the same way that having a Facebook page does.  It’s about self publishing and creating an identity. Photo left: Anthony the local Peace Corps Volunteer supported with the internet and is working with the theater group.  Photo below: Lauren, Peace Corps Volunteer, is working with the multimedia group.

But as we are seeing more and more, citizen journalism has its downfalls (think Fort Hood).  So it was great to see the debates about ethics in journalism that also happened last week.  Jeremias from Radio Mozambique facilitated a great session. He was excited to be part of the workshop because, as he said, “I’m a journalist.  I want to groom more young people from right here in the community where I came from to follow in my profession, and this is a great chance for all of us.”

During Jeremias’ session on ethics, the kids hotly debated the question of whether you should show the face of someone caught stealing.  Many felt that this would punish the thief as well as protect the community. Jeremias countered, “In Mozambique, whose job is it to determine guilt or punishment? Eh?  It’s not the role of the journalist. It’s the role of the judicial system. Like it or not, that’s how it is.”  He talked about the basic rules in journalism to protect people, about divulging information and objectivity. “When you leave here, to do work out there in the community, you need to be sure to hear all sides.  You need to protect the good name of people.  This is our responsibility.  This is ethics.  You cannot condemn someone until the judicial system has determined that they are guilty.”

I sat there wishing every self-appointed citizen journalist followed those rules, and self-examining whether I always do.  But it also got me thinking about how when you are not in a free state, your judicial system is totally non functional, or there is corruption within the journalism profession or media houses, things are not nearly so clear.  Sometimes things need to be filmed to get something to happen, whether they’ve been proven or not.  What are the rules and ethics then?  (I’m sure I can Google this and find a debate!)

The youth were cautioned to leave aside sensationalism.  “Often wanting to be the first to get the news out makes us less careful as journalists” Jeremias said.  If we drop the bomb, we’re likely to see the next day that we are the ones being processed, accused of not being ethical.” Photo: Jeremias and a youth participant share ideas.

“The ethics of a journalist come from within us,” he said.  Sometimes even a journalist’s own employers may ask him do things that are not ethical.  Or others want a certain story to come out and they try to bribe a journalist.  This makes it really difficult to be a journalist. A journalist needs to have high and strong ethics and maintain objectivity,” he told the kids.

“So you see, journalist is under constant pressure. It’s REALLY easy to get a recorder, to make a story.  It’s more difficult to think through what the consequences of publishing that story might be.  As a journalist, your goal is not to get famous; it’s to transmit information, so get the idea of fame right out of your head.”

Jeremias is a wise man and we are really lucky to have him training our group of journalists.

Cumbana is the only secondary school (it covers to 10th grade) in the entire district, with 3 sessions a day, serving some 4000 students (if the teacher I asked is correct). The opportunity to participate in a program like YETAM is huge for students and teachers alike.  In addition to the journalist group, there is theater, music and dance, multimedia, and painting.  For the kids, it’s like a 2 week summer camp where they strengthen leadership skills, improve their studies, get organized to address community challenges facing youth, and think about careers outside of the norm.  For the teachers, it’s an opportunity to engage with students in a different way, to strengthen their teaching methodologies and improve their ICT skills.  For the partners, it’s an opportunity to give back to the community and, of course, to discover new talent for their professions.

Related posts:
On Girls and ICTs
Being a Girl in Cumbana
Is this map better than that map?

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When I was at PopTech in October, I saw the solar FLAP (Flexible Light and Power) bag, a joint project of Portable Light, Timbuk2, and PopTech.  It seemed like something that could help make mobiles in program work more feasible for staff, community volunteers, or community health workers. One of the main challenges we find in our work is lack of electricity, to charge phones among other uses. Photo: FLAP bag looks nice next to a pink tablecloth. :-)

I already had a trip to Mozambique planned in November to facilitate a workshop with teachers, partners and youth as part of our youth empowerment through arts and social media (YETAM) project in Cumbana, a community about 30 minutes outside of Maxixe, and some 450 km north of Maputo, the capital.  So I decided to get a FLAP bag and take it for a spin to see what people thought about it. Electricity to charge phones is of course not only an issue in Mozambique.  Last year some of the kids we worked with in Senegal made a video specifically about the chore of charging their phones.

Trying it Out.

I brought the bag to the YETAM workshop one morning last week, removed the flap with the solar panels and laid it in the sun to charge. Jeremias, one of our project partners from Radio Mozambique in Maxixe, saw me setting it out in the sunniest spot and asked what it was.  I gave the 30 second explanation:  that it was a bag with solar panels, and it charges up a small light to use at night, and has a battery to charge phones. He quickly said – Oh! I can charge with my USB cable here, and showed me his phone. Then I had to rush inside to start the training.

At break time, I discovered a little crowd gathered around the flap.  Jeremias was crouched down, explaining to Badru (a journalist from Radio Progresso) and Joao (a journalist from Maxixe) how it functions.  Photo: Jeremias explaining how the Flap bag works to Badru.

So Jeremias and I did a short video interview of Badru, to see what he thought of the bag, how he would improve it, and if he thought it was something that could be sold locally (and for how much).  “This is really a good idea. It would facilitate the lives of people in the communities.  It has a light and a phone charger, that’s pretty essential,” he said.  I asked what he thought people would be willing to pay for it.  He stalled a bit, because he wanted to know first how much it cost to make and what the value in the US was.  I said I didn’t really remember (true). He finally said for the bag alone, about $5.  For the bag with the solar components, about $15.

Joao stepped in and said that this kind of thing would necessarily be expensive because the technology is not available in Mozambique, where most technology like this is imported.   In any case, I asked, how much would it be worth to someone to be able to have light in the evening and to charge a phone? How much do people spend normally to charge a phone?  “Well,” Badru explained, “you have to send your phone somewhere to get it charged, or you have to go pay 10 metacais a day (around $0.30), and then sit around and wait for it to charge up.”  So you end up spending about 300 metacais a month to keep a phone charged here.

Badru thought the idea of making the bag locally and incorporating imported solar panels would be a possibility, and that a bag like the Flap bag would be helpful for university students, government staff or NGO workers who spend time out in communities and need to charge their phones up.

Today Luisa, from the Casa de Cultura (Cultural Organization), Delcia and Eucidio (teachers at Cumbana school) asked about the bag, so I showed them the light and where the phone plugs in.  I asked them what value a bag like this would have, and what they thought people would pay for it if it was available in the local market.  Their first answer was that it would depend on how good the salesperson was, and that they would need to know what other similar products cost so they could barter.  “This is something we haven’t seen before, so we have no idea what it would cost,” Eucidio explained.  “But,” he encouraged Luisa and Delcia “look, it has light, it charges your phone, it’s a bag….”  “Ooooouu, then it must be really expensive!” they concluded. Photo:  Luisa, Delcia and Eucidio discussing the suggested price for a flexible solar panel.

Delcia doesn’t have electricity at her house and said a bag would be great because she would have everything at the home, and wouldn’t need to spend on candles or charge her phone outside of the house.

I mentioned that I haven’t seen anyone here carrying a bag.  People seem to use flimsy little plastic bags from the market or local store, or burlap sacks to carry vegetables, coconuts, etc., or they carry things on their heads.  So where would it be best to actually put a solar panel? They thought a little, and suggested incorporating solar panels on backpacks for school kids, or on a hat, a shirt, back of a skirt, on a parasol, or as something that could be set on top of or in the back window of a car.  Photo: Luisa showing us where she could carry her solar panels: na bunda!

Now as I’m sitting here in my little hotel room in Maxixe at the end of the day, across from the noisy gas station, slapping mosquitoes as I write this post up, I’m wondering if maybe the FLAP folks could add some kind of solar insect repellent to the bag….  That would be perfect.

Related posts:
FLAP power for the basics: illumination and communication
Pop! Tech:  Oh!

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Landing in Inhambane, Mozambique, the first thing you see is the blue Vodacom sign:  ‘Welcome to Inhambane – a land covered by palm trees and the best cellular network’.  I don’t usually believe ads and this time was no exception. But I have to say, it seems to be true. My sim card is actually on mCel, not Vodacom, but the coverage is still damn good.  And the two cell phone companies are everywhere. I’m not sure which I saw more of – yellow Frelimo t-shirts (elections were last week), yellow mCel kiosks or blue Vodacom kiosks.

Which reminds me that I saw a statistic last week saying that more people have mobile phones than latrines.  And I’m not sure how I feel about that….  And then I start thinking about the hierarchy of personal needs – which perhaps needs some revising.  So does communication rank higher now than toilets?  What about food? I was certainly more worried about getting online than about eating for the past 4 days (as a vegetarian, your choice is limited unless you really make an effort).  I mean, at least I got to complain about the 4 days of fried eggs on Twitter…. but what if it were access to food in general? Where would I put my effort? hmmm. I digress….

My travel diet (in addition to the eggs) has been around 5 hours of mobile internet on my laptop a day (skype, email, blogging, Twitter, maps, google translate, and a few doses of Facebook thrown in), and several mobile internet snacks from my phone itself in between. I’ve gone through about 600 credits in 5 days, or around $4/day.  I fully recognize that is expensive for someone who is not earning a US salary, but I love that I was able to just purchase a sim card, put it in my phone, hook up my phone as a modem, and ta-dah.

Yes I’m using a ‘smart phone’ (Nokia E-63), but my point is that it’s much easier to use your phone as a modem in Mozambique than it is in the US (seems the latest i-phone update disables that so I’m afraid to download the latest update) or in the other African countries that I’ve been in over the past year.  Compared to Cameroon, Senegal and Kenya where we had to purchase a special data package and get help/permission from the phone company (or were we just not doing it right? It does get easier to figure out the more you do this stuff). In any case, internet hardly worked once we finally got connected. So in that sense, Mozambique is an internet junkie’s dream.

I asked about internet as a precursor to the social media session of the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) training of trainers workshop yesterday.  We are working from a secondary school about 30 km outside of the town of Maxixe, where I expected internet would be nil (and it is, except by mobile phone modem).   Several teachers and partner organization members from the area are participating. Starting on Sunday, for two weeks they’ll work with youth to use arts and media as tools in the community development process. The same arts and media are a way for youth to put themselves, their community and their issues on the global map by uploading the photos, drawings and videos they will make to the web.

As an example during yesterday’s session, I Googled the name of the school.  All we found in the first couple of pages was Maxixe and nearby towns listed, with content related to tourist beaches. There was also a blog by Lauren, the Peace Corp Volunteer who is teaching there.  Several months back when we were planning the training, Lauren’s blog was the only information I was able to specifically find about the school and area.  Because of her blog, I was able to connect her and our local staff to work together on the whole training.  After the YETAM training, the ideas is that people will be able to find information created by the community and youth themselves, from their own perspective.

I’m really excited about the good internet, because maybe then the whole process can be done from the community – including the uploading and subtitling of the videos (usually is done from the Plan office in the US due to slow connections).  That will be huge in terms of community and youth ownership.  Im crossing my fingers that we can make this happen.  Or we’ll have to sue the land of palm trees and the best cellular network for false advertising :-).

Related posts:

It’s all part of the ICT Jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshops
Putting Cumbana on the Map


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