Finetastic Adventures

Monday, March 03, 2008

Dave's Objective One

For those familiar with Peace Corps, it should come as no surprise that nearly all Volunteers go through a frustrating period when it comes to their jobs and/or living situation.  In fact, there seems to be someone moving to a new site at least every other week. Our living situation has been terrific.  As you know from previous blog postings, we have a nice little house which we do not share with a host family, electricity most of the time, a flush toilet, and a bathtub.  Since I put up screens (cut apart a mosquito net and got real creative with the frame), we have had few flying bugs in the house.   We are still washing dishes in plastic tubs placed in the bathtub which forces us on our hands and knees.  We also wash our laundry by hand in the plastic tubs in the bathtub.  (Most of the time we wash the dishes and clothes separately).  The hot water tank, known here as a geyser, has not worked for months.  We boil water before bathing and dish-washing.  But given that we like our location, these minor inconveniences are a small price to pay.  Plus, from a South African Peace Corps perspective, we have many conveniences.  So, we feel fortunate.

Work however has been a challenge.  While our supervisor is a lovely woman and a very successful entrepreneur, she prefers to manage without much support.   I was able to develop an accounts receivable program which has been very successful for collecting fees from our clients.  However, after trying several times to gain her attention on many other efforts, I finally gave up.  I spoke to her and said that I will be available to the organization but given my (lack of) work load, I want to search for more things to do.  She agreed, which was a nice relief.  We have heard about supervisors who do not allow their PCV to do other work during operating hours.

So, I went on a search for "secondary projects".  This is Peace Corps speak for finding work to do when your primary project assignment does not fill an entire day, it does not work out, or you simply can find time to do more work.  My assignment does not fill an entire day.

My 'job hunt' turned into some frustrating situations and some great  projects.  And, as I will come back to later, work at my primary assignment appears to have come full circle - sweet.  

I'll start with the more frustrating efforts so I can end this blog entry on a high note.  My initial secondary project goal was to become the Volunteer Bicycle Coordinator of Polokwane.  I spent around four months working my way through local government, bike clubs, bike stores,  and others.  I put together proposed bike routes, got the bicycle co-coordinator of Madison, WI, Arthur Ross, to offer his support if/when I needed it, and received help from the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation.  But finally, it came down to a meeting with the Mayor.  Unfortunately I have not heard back from him even though his secretary has assured me that he is interested.  Even if he should call back now, it might be too late.  

At the same time, I was working on a program to sell bicycles with no-interest loans through payroll deduction.  I got hooked up with a USA NGO and a guy who was a former PCV working for this NGO in South Africa.  Well, after cold-calling various businesses and lining up my first big 'sale', my contact returns from the USA and tells me he is leaving his position.  Then, he tells me the bikes that I had been 'selling' and showing, to my prospective customers were no longer available. Plus the shipping program was too complex. My first prospective customer was a builder and cyclist who had actually taken my sample bike for a ride as did one of his employees during the sales process.  When I got back to him and told him the   bike he sampled was no longer available, he simply did not return my calls.  I was at least able to salvage a sale to my co-workers and told my bicycle supplier contact that I am not planning on paying for the sample bike he provided.  Consequently, I passed the savings of the free bike on to my co-workers who ended up with a great deal.  That felt good!

Just a brief note so you understand why I feel these programs are so important. Marti and I are paid about R2000 per month which is similar to the pay received by the lowest paid workers.  In our case, if we were able to get the least expensive form of transport to work (not the most convenient), it would cost R18 per day per person.  Assuming 21 working days per month, my transport would be R378 or about 20% of my pay.  To provide  another perspective, it would be about a week's worth of groceries or a month of school fees for a child.  This is one reason we are infrequent riders of public transport.  Unfortunately, most S. Africans feel bicycling is not safe and they do not have enough money saved to buy a bike even if they feel it is safe.  The bicycle credit program would have allowed people to divert their transport money to pay for their bike.  As Volunteer Bicycle Coordinator I was planning to design safer routes and help people feel comfortable in using a bike for commuting.  

So while all this craziness was going on, some good to great things were happening.  After failing with one micro-economic support agency, I approached another and was welcomed with open arms.  As of late, I am mentoring two fairly new and small businesses.  One is a bakery and offers luncheon  meals delivered to offices.  The other, believe it or not, sells cleaning chemicals.  This has been a great deal of fun.  In the meantime, I am waiting for a call to mentor a few more co-operative businesses and /or help them write their business plans so they can receive financing.  

I spent a few days at another PCV's NGO helping them develop a new project.  They may want to expand their charter to directly  support orphaned and vulnerable children.  I developed a next step outline for them which I hope gives them some guidance on their path forward.  

Almost a year ago, our organization had a desire to purchase a new bus or get our old one fixed.  I approached the local Mercedes dealer and asked if they could take a look at our ancient Mercedes bus, 1950 vintage, for no charge.  This led to building a relationship with the sales manager who had some awareness of our organization.  The dealership asked us if we wanted to participate in a fund raiser they wanted to organize.  Well, the event just occurred at the end of February and given our estimate of attendance, I expect several thousand rand will be raised and donated to our children's shelter.

In the meantime, I have been developing a tri-fold brochure for our organization that supports the intellectually-disabled.  When it is completed I'll send it out as an attachment to an email.

I am having a great time getting to know the owner of our health club.  Yes, he offers us free membership.  In return I told him we can discuss his business issues from time to time.  He has become a friend  and has been kind enough to change his schedule to give us a ride to Pretoria (3 hour ride, R100 by taxi) and taking us on a day hike to a beautiful area which is very difficult to get to on public transport.  The reason that I bring this up here is that I am raising his awareness of the poor black community that surrounds him and he employs.  In one of our conversations, he was not aware of the transport costs for one of his workers; a full 20% of this employee's pay was going to transport.  He instituted a pay raise for this employee right after our conversation.  And, his sensitivity to the issue seems to have increased.

Then in mid February, I had my best full Peace Corps week! Another PCV located near Richards Bay organized a meeting of rural people, mostly women,  who needed to learn how to start and make their businesses successful.  They were interested in sewing school uniforms (a big business here since all  children must wear uniforms), cater events, raise and sell live chickens/eggs, raise livestock for parties and bride price as well as sell fresh vegetables.  Their business skills were nearly non-existent and so was their English.  I prepared a three day business plan/development seminar and then we had 2 days of private consultation.  My translators were excellent and Marti provided great support.  Everyone attended ALL the sessions, which for RSA is incredible (said with an Israeli accent - inside Milwaukee joke).  I am hoping they will send their next version of their plans to me via email since it is a two day journey via public transport to the NGO.   

As you know from previous blog entries, Marti and I have been working on a site development program for Peace Corps. In a nutshell, Peace Corps' first objective is to help your site per the job description the site provided to Peace Corps or that Peace Corps developed prior to the Volunteer's arrival in-country.  (This blog is focused on Objective One, hence the name chosen for the blog.) It was our opinion from our own experience and from speaking to other PCVs that Peace Corps does not do a good job at site development.  While we did get an ear from our Country Director, it seems with all our staff turnover and differences in Peace Corps philosophy about site development, this project will not move much further.    We hope this will be one of those suggestions that will find a future life. There is some concern about this at the Washington level.  I have no doubt that site development is a major opportunity for Peace Corps to improve.

It's time to come back to our site.  Within the last year, I have provided several recommendations to our supervisor concerning setting up financial systems, better employee records, standardized menus/recipes across our three facilities, among other things, so that we can improve our service and costs.  As far as I could tell, these were all rejected.  It was one of the reasons I simply began to look for other work.

In the last couple of weeks, a former employee was asked to return to the organization.  Marti sees her at the office one day and ascertains that she is very excited about the new challenges that have been given to her.  Our supervisor has asked her to build a financial system for our four organizations.  While she is capable, excited and hard-working (don't see that everyday here), she really does not know how to proceed.  Nor does she have the computer skills to do the job properly.  (Little does she know, neither do I).  But she has asked for my support.  I am very excited to help her with the project as I know it will really help the organization.  She is also hoping that once we get our costs, allocations,  and cash flow under control, we will have more money for programing and food for our clients.  She is right.  I expect for the next few weeks, this could be a full-time job.  Oh, that is if we get our electricity hooked up (have not had any for 3 months), the one extra computer we have actually works, and my supervisor does not squash the project once it gets going.  

For now, I have a full plate.  I hope to go back to Richards Bay to help with the rural business development.  But, I will need to see about my work load here.  In the meantime, I am feeling good about the work I have accomplished - even the stuff I tried but failed to accomplish.  I know that I learned a lot and I am hoping through my various meetings that I have raised the awareness of people with whom I have been in contact.


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