You Cannot Eat Potential

So, after substantially correcting the disorganized questionnaire from the first round, our second round of data collection for the fish value chain research has started. We are hopeful that this time the data will be more accurate and meaningful. But we needed to be vigilant about how authentically and correctly the data is being collected. It is not that we are undermining the capacity and sincerity of our enumerators. But it is also true that when supervision is sloppy, the resulting work is almost always poor. From my limited experience, I have gathered strong doubts about the effectiveness of data management in the development sector. May be this is one of the reasons why we have many more unsuccessful or “pseudo-successful” projects than the really successful ones.

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The roads under construction from Mongu to Kalabo

Hence we hit the road. We are using the makeshift “so-called” road from Mongu to another district headquarter Kalabo. Kalabo is situated on the other side of Zambezi, beyond the floodplain. Making a road across the floodplain is extremely challenging. Previous two attempts actually failed. Currently the Chinese are executing a $250 million project. People in the floodplain villages and in Kalabo are crossing their fingers that this project will not have the same fate. The road will open up enormous trading opportunities for the fishers to trade their fish directly with the traders, avoiding the middlemen. These middlemen are locally known as casinos, who keep the fishers hostage to buy fish at a ridiculously low price and make an excessive profit.  The roads will enable fishers to bring their fish to any part of the road instead of a handful of docking points. This dispersion of the trading points will hopefully prevent these casinos from controlling the trade anymore.

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Fisher trying to sell the fish to passengers in the boats passing through their village

However, just after 10-15 miles from the Mongu harbor, I was surprised to see verdant and rich soil on both side of the road. I asked my Zambian companion how is it possible. Because I heard that Western Province is actually a part of the Kalahari Desert and thus full of sand. He told me that every year flood brings a lot of alluvia and make the soil fertile in many parts of the floodplain. Then I asked why it is not cultivated. He told me that most of the land belongs to the people who live upland and if a local farmer wants to cultivate it, the owner will create problems. It seems like the concept of sharecropping is absent in this region. As a result this vast fertile land is lying fallow. The land is full of potentials to produce all-types of winter vegetable to meet the nutritional demand in Barotseland. But virtually the only available vegetable here is rape, a kind of spinach. Well, you cannot eat potential. Can you?

We reached Kalabo at noon after a very jerky trip. It is a district headquarter, but there is almost nothing going on here and it has a certain kind of sleepy quality written all over on it. We checked some of the questionnaires collected by one of the data collectors. Despite indicating the mandatory questions in block letters, and despite a 4-day long training, she did not fill in some of those questions.  We explained to her again what to do and instructed her to go back and fill in those mandatory questions, with no idea if she would really do it. Later on we went to the fish market. Almost all the traders were women. When we asked how they preserved their fish, they replied that there is no way. Potentially they can make better profit if they use ice as the fish will remain fresh for much longer period. They said that they would definitely buy ice if it is available. The enthusiastic DoF secretary in Kalabo who accompanied us instantly decided to produce ice in her home and sell it to them. Let’s see what happens.

Next day, our destination was Senanga, another district headquarter. We were in a mission to find out what the data collector based there was up to. Our research coordinator tried to reach him over the phone for last two days with no luck. It was quite suspicious. We had to track him down in his home. He was not at all happy to see us on the Saturday morning. We had to wait for 10 minutes before he got on the car grumpily. We went to his office and checked the questionnaires. The quality of data was extremely disappointing. Again he did not fill in many of the mandatory fields. Our project coordinator was strongly suspecting that the data “have been cooked under the mango tree”. But I wanted to give him the benefit of doubt. Later we decided that we will randomly call some of the respondents who provided their cell phone numbers in the questionnaires to check if they have been really interviewed.

I hate to mistrust people. But as I said before, lack of supervision can make people lazy and often dishonest. But proper supervision in development sector faces several challenges including misalignment of incentives at different levels of a project implementation, lack of motivation of the supervisors themselves and physical challenges including remoteness of the project site. Lack of supervision and effective management are some of the reasons why potentials rarely become real.

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My field experience is increasingly making me think hard how we can overcome this obstacle, how we can make use of technology in supervision. If we can develop an online platforms where people can work offline with simple electronic devices and be constantly monitored and supervised by automated central systems, it may be possible. Online tools like Formhub (https://formhub.org/) offers some glimpse of how the future of automated and low-cost effective development might look like. I am hopeful. The little girl in Kalabo who gave me a heavenly smile before I left reminded me that we must remain hopeful.

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A Beauty Yet to be Discovered

I am not an adventure traveler. Adrenaline rush is never strong enough to persuade me to take up those crazy activities like Bungee jumping and white water rafting.  I like to take in the beauty of nature, the sight, sound and smell, to enjoy the local cuisine and culture and to befriend the local people. But in recent days I have sadly found that the wow factor is disappearing, particularly when I am visiting a touristy place. Now a days, before going somewhere, I do too much online research, read too many reviews, and see too many spectacular photos and videos. I guess it creates in me an unrealistic expectations about the place. And I get slightly disappointed when I actually go there.

Victoria Falls is, of course, an overwhelming experience, but not an unexpected one. It was high-water season and the sprays from the falls were so dense that it was impossible to see the details most of the times, which was a little disappointing.  Besides, nearby Livingstone town is quite developed and touristy, without any particular character or charm. It was definitely a memorable trip but I probably won’t get dreamy thinking about it.

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However, Ngonye falls may fit the bill. A friend suggested that we could stop by at these small falls on our way back from Livingstone to Mongu. It is a small community-managed park. And if you don’t know, you would most probably drive by the entrance without even noticing. When we arrived at the reception, we did not find anybody but a single person managing the park. He was our guide too. The falls were  situated at a good half an hour walk away. Just beyond the trees at the edge of the sandy backyard of the reception, we landed on a strange terrain made up of ancient chunks of hard rocks, with water flowing underneath. The stones were smooth like butter in many places, perhaps the work of water for thousands of years. It felt like walking on the moon! We jumped over a crystal-clear stream flowing through the rocks.

The little stream

The little stream, with big shadowy trees on both sides, in this exotic land gave a funny feeling in my stomach. And the sudden appearance of a Cobra completed the bizarre dreamy feeling. Our guide sprinted and shouted when he saw the Cobra crossing his path. We quickly scrambled up the taller rocks to be safe.  He tried to beat the Cobra away; and we crossed the place shaking with fear.

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The journey itself was exotic enough. But when we reached the edge of the river, I was speechless. Ngonye falls are not tall and wide like the Victoria. They are not even any close. But they are actually a combination of eight different small falls forming a huge half-circle, all of them joining the Zambezi  with grace. It was amazing to look at every direction to find a wild waterfall. The absolute absence of civilization, the wildness of the water and the strangeness of the rocks behind were truly mesmerizing. After a very long time, I had that ecstatic sensation. WOW, really!!! And I made a selfish plea to Ngonye. Please remain as you are, an undiscovered beauty.

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Experiencing the Rural Life in Barotse Floodplain

Though rural life is somewhat romanticized by townsfolk, in reality it can rather be nightmarish for them. In a few days they would start feeling empty to be away from all the hustle-bustle and glittering lifestyle of their cities. And if the concerned village is in an unfortunate corner of South Asia or Africa, the pain starts from the very first day. Either there’s no electricity or there are long and frequent power-cuts. Almost all amenities of modern life are absent. There’s no running water, let alone hot water. The best available toilet is a hole dug on the ground, surrounded by thatch, where people need to squat on. Forget about hygiene, squatting itself can be quite painful for a person not in good physical shape. If roads are non-existent and people have meager purchasing power, even the varieties of food available can be woefully boring.Image

Mapungu is a perfect example. When we arrived Mapungu by a boat, the sun was already setting. People standing at the docking point clapped their hands twice at each of us, a gesture of politeness, and murmured Muchwani, meaning “how are you”, with a broad smile. We replied “Hande” – I am fine, and clapped back.  We found a vacant government house to take shelter. There was no power.  The women teammates immediately started cooking in the dark; the men created a bonfire and started chatting while waiting for food. The women served food to the men first (and also to us, cause we were foreigners!) and ate whatever was left behind. Ironclad gender roles, with no hope of change in sight.

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President Obama!

In the morning, we met the President. He tried to run for US presidential election and he should have been at least the Zambian president. But unfortunately he lives in a 10 feet by 5 feet palace that he made from scrap metal and wood he found on the street. But he neatly decorated his statehouse with papers and books he collected, and there’s a little corner where he sits down to perform his stately affairs. He lives on piecework, guarding people’s house when they are out and washing their clothes. But he is an avid reader of newspapers and talks like a well-educated person. He has a childlike curiosity and an innocent smile. He kept us amused for the rest of our stay. Every time a kid passed by him, it would shout at him, OBAMA!!!

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Children playing football, the most popular game in Zambia

However, we were in Mapungu to conduct a meeting with the community on the progress they made on a set of “dreams” that they created a year ago. There are two volunteer community facilitators in the village to mobilize the community in working towards the dreams.  The meeting started at least one hour later than the scheduled time, a usual scenario here. When the facilitators started asking about their dreams, some villagers began protesting that they didn’t know anything about it! Most of the conversation was in Lozi, the language of the Western province. So I could not catch most of it. But I had a feeling that the community mobilization was not going very well. Later on, groups of villagers made presentation about their progress. They claimed that the came up with “bylaws” for fish conservation and at least 75% of the fishers in the village stopped illegal fishing. Sounds encouraging, but I tend not to take these verbal claim seriously. Because, without proper external evaluation, it is hard to say what really happened. Besides, I felt the level of community mobilization, mentoring support and supervision to the facilitators were not enough to have such a big change anyway. But it is a research project.  Perhaps the idea is to find out how such loose models actually work in the field.

I was already getting sad about the food. The tendency of the people in this region is to deep fry everything, fish, chicken, beef, you name it. Our menu was limited to a combination of fried fish, fried country chicken, rape (a kind of spinach, virtually the only variety of vegetable available here) and maize meal. I guess here people fry and add a lot of salt in their food out of boredom with the lack of variety. But I was alarmed to think about the potential consequences of such an unhealthy habit. May be development practitioners also need to focus on food habit. But who does not know that food habits are hard to die?

Next day we had a similar meeting in a nearby village named Muandi. The floodwater was receding. So the only means of communication was walking on the sand. It was an hour long walk but my feet were aching. Walking on the sand is not easy. I couldn’t imagine how people travel from that village on a daily basis. What happens if someone n Continue reading “Experiencing the Rural Life in Barotse Floodplain”