Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Biggest Challenge(s)

One motto for Peace Corps is “The hardest job you’ll ever love”. From mental stress (organizing and running meetings in Spanish) to emotional stress (being yelled at, facing lack of cooperation) to physical stress (moving 1,200 bricks), this improved stoves project has been the ultimate test of patience and the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Since Day 1, I was unsure how this project would all work out and I wrote earlier that I knew no matter what I did, I was going to run into challenges that I would have to take as they came up. But if I had known how much stress and worry would come from this project, I don’t know if I would have had enough guts to continue with it. If I were to start this project again (which actually may happen), I would do a lot different. But naturally we all learn from our mistakes and what I knew when I started this project (two months in-site) is a lot different than what I know now. So I want this blog entry to keep my family and friends posted but also hope that other Peace Corps volunteers or development workers interested in starting their own project can learn from what worked and did not work for me and hopefully can run their project a little bit smoother than I did.

The kinds of stoves we are replacing

Challenge #1: Culture Differences and Unawareness of How to Run Community Projects
The first mistake I made was to assume that the people who came to the first interest meeting for the stove project had a need for an improved stove. I figured that those who attended the meeting had a need and their signing of the contract meant they were aware of the requirements and were motivated and willing to work hard for this project. But really some of the women that came already had a stove and were just trying to take advantage of whatever I brought while others that couldn’t attend and had nothing were left out. (When I start this project again (I have extra funding to make a few more stoves), I am going to start out by getting names of those who are interested and then doing a diagnostic in their home to see the actual need.) We formed a board of directors which was a lot harder than I anticipated as no one wanted to take a leadership position. But even still, because I called the first meeting and knew the design of the stove, everyone still saw me as the leader. Also, this was the first woman’s group project to be formed in Nueva Esperanza and for some of the members of the group this was their first meeting they had ever attended. So to ask them to take a leadership role in a group of 37 was a little overwhelming.

From there, we waited almost a year to get funding. The women and I wrote and submitted a grant proposal to an NGO that claimed they were more than eager to support us even before we had the proposal done. But 7 months later, we were still waiting for their reply. I started having people ask me when the stoves were coming and soon after I started dealing with people who thought I was lying and that this project wasn’t actually going to happen. It was frustrating dealing with people who were basically asking me, “So when are we gonna get that free stuff you promised us? We don’t think you’re actually going to give it to us.” However, I can’t blame them because I am the first Peace Corps volunteer here and thus the people didn’t know what to expect. Plus, this wouldn’t be the first time that some organization has come in and not followed through with a promise. So if this was the attitude after the first month, imagine month 7!

Mistake #2 was believing that whatever anyone told me to be true was true. In the states, if we don’t know an answer, we are okay with saying we don’t know. But here, some people just tell you what you want to hear. The NGO we were waiting on told me they had submitted our proposal to their office in Tegucigalpa and were just waiting for confirmation. But the truth was that after seven months, our proposal didn’t move from a stack of hundreds of other proposals from their desk in Gracias! It basically had sat in this pile for over half a year! Well, time to start over. . . that was fun to report at our next meeting. (There’s also no such thing here as “Don’t kill the messenger”).

Challenge #3: Transportation and Distribution of Materials . . . With What Car?
We found funding through a Peace Corps SPA grant which came within 3 weeks of submission. Getting funding was supposed to be the easy part! Now we had to worry about buying the materials in Gracias and figuring out how to get them transported up the mountain to the community. We had huge sheets of metal and rebar that we needed to buy and get cut. And the 37 chimneys alone took up the whole back of a pick-up. Luckily, my counterpart from the NGO, a woman named Mideibis Lopez, still wanted to continue helping me out and so together we walked all over Gracias buying what we needed, sending purchased materials to places where they could get cut, and storing materials for until we could get a car. I guess one benefit to waiting for seven months is that I knew people in my community a lot better and had the trust and friendship with them to have those with a car be willing to help me move the materials. It took three different trips with three different cars. Mideibis and I bought, transported, and distributed 30 bricks, 7 pieces of rebar, 4 tiles, a 20’’x 20’’ sheet of metal and a chimney to each of the 37 women in the project. If I worked for an NGO, this might not have seemed like such an impossible task because NGO’s usually have engineers, connections in the metal workshops or warehouses to get good deals, multiple people working on the same projects, and transportation. But in this project, there was just my counterpart and I with no car, recently received money, no experience whatsoever of buying the type of materials required, and for me, under a year of living in the area.

36 chimneys bought in Gracias ready to be taken up the mountain

What 1,200 bricks looks like. All moved by hand.

Women at my house picking up their 30 bricks

Packed and ready to go

How it's done without a horse
Challenge #4: Dealing With the Changed Times
Finally, we got all the materials turned in including what the mayor said he would contribute. Although that is a different story in itself (see ¨Finding Friends¨ entry). But since so much time passed since the first meeting I had with the women, a lot had changed which meant I had a few more problems. In the seven months that we waited, another NGO came through with a housing mission. Basically, 13 families in my community were given a new house that . . . you guessed it . . . came with a new stove. And of course four of the women that were in my group were the beneficiaries of the housing mission. There were others who thought the stoves project wasn’t coming and had gone ahead and built their own stove which I congratulated them on for taking control and making a new stove without outside help. But they saw it as missing out and the lesson they learned was that they were better off waiting and not building their own stove because now they were out of that money while others were going to benefit from a free stove. So even though this was going to be their second new stove, I let them stay in the project because they did attend the meetings and I didn’t want them to feel that it’s not worth it to take matters into their own hands. Others just stopped bothering to show up to our new meetings and when we started turning in materials, they wanted back in. I had one lady who had only gone to one meeting out of the 6 come to my house when I wasn’t home and told my neighbor that she wanted a plancha (the most expensive part, a thick sheet of metal that is used to cook on, what the mayor provided for the project) from me or she wanted to be paid for the time lost for going to ALL of the meetings. Poverty isn’t in the wallet, it’s in the mind. And it’s attitudes like what this lady had that keeps Honduras from developing the way that it can.

Challenge #5: Dealing With Gender Issues
In the first couple of months when this project was initializing, a lot of the women who were interested in the project were reluctant to tell me if they were for sure in or out because they had to ask their husbands what they thought since construction was “man’s work”. It was also hard to get through to the women that THEY were going to build the stoves and they couldn’t send a man to represent them during construction.

Women doing "man's work"

The most trouble, however, came from one man who always seems to bring trouble to projects in Nueva Esperanza. His mom’s stove was the very first one we were going to construct and he showed up representing his wife to build the stove. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to build that day for a number of reasons (again, see ¨Finding Friends¨ entry). When I told him we weren’t going to build, he told me that I should just show him how to do it because he’s a bricklayer and could build it alone in two hours. I told him that this wasn’t the point of the project and that his wife needed to be present to build because this was a woman’s project. When I told him that he couldn’t come representing his wife, he stormed out and hasn’t spoken to me since. When we finally made the stove at his mom’s house, he was present but didn’t talk to any of us at all. The final step was to put the chimney through the roof and for this we needed someone with lots of upper body strength because our ladder broke and so whoever went up had to pull themselves up. When this guys’ mom asked him to go up he said, “This is a woman’s project and so you women have to do it yourselves.”

And that wasn’t the end! Now, his wife has helped build 5 stoves, two more than the required three and so all we have to do is build hers and her group will be done. But I have heard through the grapevine that he is not going to let her build the stove and is not going to give the materials back to me. I have yet to go over to talk to the two of them but it’s a conversation I’m not looking forward to. Truthfully, it’s his wife’s stove and she has the right to make it if she wants or not. Yeah, if only it could be that easy.

Summing up
I felt like this project formed as a shot in the dark and after starting the project, I could only keep moving forward even though every step I took was a proclamation of my faith in an intangible idea that I just hoped would work out in the end. Basically, I felt that I was either going to somehow come out with a successful project or I was going to mess something up and let down a whole community. This project took so long to get up off the ground that I even forgot how to make the stoves! I bought the materials according to the measurements written on a handout we got during training and nothing ever really became completely clear to me until the first stove was built. But now I’m happy to say that things did work out and even though the challenges were/are many, we now have 29 out of 37 stoves built. In October, I had one or two stoves a day to make. But after more and more of the women were trained and had practice making the stoves, a lot of the stoves were built without me being there or without me even knowing! I went on vacation for two weeks to Guatemala and when I got back in mid-October, five stoves had been made! The record number in one day is three and our first stove took four hours to make but the fastest one that was made was in one hour. And even more good news, there’s extra funds left over and so using what I learned from my mistakes, I’m going to open the project again for those who were left out and maybe even those in neighboring communities. After all, there’s 37 qualified women who know how to make the stoves, so to start over again should be a breeze. Truthfully, I feel like anything I do after this ever again will be a breeze.

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