Learning to be an expat, part 2

Exhibit A:
2002. I’m in Turkmenistan, my first job that requires ongoing negotiation with government officials. I am in the anteroom at the Ministry of Health, for my introductory meeting. I am very, very nervous. Natasha, our project manager and my translator for this meeting watches me fidget. She tells me, “I will translate what you say, and if I don’t understand something, I’ll just stop and ask you.” I calm down. She’s literally not going to let me say anything stupid.

Exhibit B:
Rural Turkmenistan, beginning a long gauntlet of meetings with doctors, hospital directors, and local health officials. They are good, friendly meetings that build our rapport and help our programs succeed, sometimes catch a small problem before it gets big, but they get tiring after a while. I sigh a little as I get out of the car. My colleague Zulfia hears me. “Alanna,” she says, “just keep smiling that American smile.”

Things I believe in #17 – recognizing and learning from failure

There are a whole lot of ways you can screw up a development program. I’ve talked about some of them in the past. You can make bad choices with the best of intentions, you can discover your every choice has unintended consequences, and you can just be flat out stupid. Luckily, we’re not houseflies. We have the capacity for learning. And if we’re willing to genuinely examine our failures, we can avoid making the same mistake twice. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Determining what went wrong is actually the easy part. There are so many moving parts in any development project that many, or most of them will not turn out how you expected. Making a list of what could have gone better will be distressingly easy.

The hard part comes next. You have to sort through your list to figure out which factors were actually the deal-breakers, and which were annoyances. Then you identify what you can actually avoid or compensate for next time. You have to figure out the right lesson to learn.

For example, if your agriculture program failed because of insufficient rainfall, you need to design a program flexible enough to adapt to multiple weather projections. Knowing that you need rain is not a useful lesson to learn. Knowing you need to have different options for different weather conditions is a useful lesson. Vasco Pyjama has a great entry about learning from something her organization failed at.

Being able to recognize and accept our failures is what makes future success possible.
To take this discussion from the theoretical to the concrete, here are two of my own programmatic failures, and what I learned from them:

1. Nutrition pamphlet for women in Turkmenistan. Literacy is high in Turkmenistan, and people seem to genuinely love brochures and pamphlets. When we focus-group tested health pamphlets, we got responses like “this should be longer.” When a Peace Corps volunteer applied for a small grant to produce a brochure with nutrition information and healthy recipes, it seemed like a good fit.

This is what I learned: Turkmen women don’t cook from recipes. They think the whole idea is weird. They feed their families by buying what’s cheap and in season from the bazaar, and then cooking it using traditional techniques. The nutrition information was useful, but women had no way to act on it. Our next attempt at nutrition education focused on cooking methods to make Turkmen dishes higher in nutritional value. That one was much more successful.

2. Community website for Baghdad. This was a proposal I helped to design and write. We were going to set up a community website for Baghdad, kind of combination between Craigslist and Yelp. It would allow for violence mapping, to help people avoid dangerous areas, and offer ways to discuss things like whether a particular doctor or lawyer would take clients across sectarian lines. We were going to combine that with increased wifi access using repeaters, and providing cheap laptops to large households. In an environment too dangerous for community-building in person, it was meant to help give people a unified identity as Baghdadis once again. Just about everyone who heard about the idea loved it, but I never found a donor that would pay for it.

This is what I learned: no donor will fund a program that gives people to the chance to say anything they want. As one person told me, “The first time the New York Times runs an article about Islamic militants posting to a US/UN/UK (insert donor here)-funded website, we’re all screwed.” I still love the idea of the Baghdad site, but it’s going to take some very innovative funding to make it happen.

Failure feels really, really bad. It’s a blow to your ego and you feel like you’ve let down the people who rely on your organization. If you can get past that, though, it’s the best teacher you’ll find.

(photo credit: Quod)
Chosen because I think that tiny apple on the right represents hope.

Humbling Hospitality Experiences

1) I once did a focus group with women in rural Tajikistan, talking about increasing hunger and food insecurity. The women told terrible, desperate stories, of burning fruit trees for warmth and watching their kitchen gardens wash away in heavy spring rains. At the end of our discussion, three different women invited me to come home with them for a meal. They did realize the irony; one woman said, shyly, “I don’t have any fruit or sweets, but I have bread and tea.”

2) In 1997, I went to Jerusalem for Thanksgiving. My wallet was stolen. I told a Palestinian shopkeeper in the old city what had happened to me, and he took me into my shop and made me a cup of tea. Then he told the managers of the shops around me what had happened. Shop employees came, and brought me money. Small amounts – 5 or 6 shekels (about $2) each, but these were not people who had a lot of money. They brought me, a rich American by any standard, money, because I was alone in their country and needed help.

3) When my husband and I lived in Turkmenistan, we had a good friend, Katrina, who was a Peace Corps volunteer. Her host family treated her as a true daughter, and she reciprocated their affection. When the government marked their house for demolition, she helped them as they packed their things and got ready to move to the apartment they were being given in return. In the same period, I was re-posted to Tashkent. Katrina’s host family was determined to have us over for a meal before we left, since we’d never eaten there. We would be leaving before they moved into their new place, so they had us over to their house.

They had us over for dinner as their house was being torn down. The house had been two stories, but was down to one. It was raining that night, and the roof in the living room leaked, since it wasn’t really a roof; it was just the floor to the second story. Katrina’s host mom moved us to the kitchen, and sat us at the kitchen table while she made lamb pilaf and salad for us. We ate, all together, in the corner of the warm damp kitchen.

You can always find a way to give, if you want to.

Photo Credit: Turkmen soda pop, taken by me

Things I believe in #44 – Camels

Once upon a time, I was at a dinner in rural Turkmenistan. I’d been invited home by a local health official, after an award ceremony for the visiting health nurses in the district who did the best job of educating parents of young children about diarrhea. The meal was huge, and multi-course, in keeping with Turkmen tradition. Towards the end, as we were all starting to list a bit on our floor pillows, the official began to talk about camels.

You see them everywhere in Turkmenistan, camels. They’re as common as cows in American farm country. You get used to them quickly. Once I’d gotten over the novelty, I hadn’t thought twice about camels until that dinner. The official had grown up in the rural district which he now served as head doctor. As a young boy, he’d been in charge of his family’s camels. They had 15, which he swore were easier to care for than just two cows. He spent a good 30 minutes telling us about the special and wonderful characteristics of camels.

Once I started learning about camels, though, I realized I should have been paying attention all along. Camels can handle changes in body temperature and levels of dehydration that would kill any other mammal. Camel milk has better nutritional value than cow’s milk – more milk and more fat. It makes fabulous yogurt. Camel meat is flavorful and lean, if a bit tough.(1) Contrary to commonly-held beliefs, camels are patient, good-tempered, and placid by nature.(2) They’re intelligent enough to be trained like horses, and can carry up to 990 pounds.

During the 1984-85 African drought, cows, sheep, and goats died but the camels made it through. Their owners, in turn, were more likely to live through the famine. Camels are good livestock. They’re hardy, long-lived, cheap to feed and easy to care for. They are the kind of livestock that can lift a family out of poverty.

(1) I’ve never tried camel dairy, but I’ve eaten camel meat. It’s chewy and spicy.

(2) Though I have been told they are puppy killers.

(no photo credit – I took this one with my own hands)