Monday, June 30, 2008

Saly, visas, getting down to work

Amsterdam was a nice break from things since it was about 20 degrees cooler. And there was great Indian food! Julie and I spent the rest of the week planning the workshop. We found out that Rwanda staff would be able to attend the workshop, but then there was confusion over who was processing their visas. We worked against time, but Julie found a way. She had to scan a visa letter and send it to Chrystel and Eugene (the Rwanda staff) by email for them to download/ print at the airport in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) before boarding their flight. A bit crazy but technology is just as useful as the government connections at these times and they made it – though without their luggage….

I was supposed to meet up with my friend Jessica’s Senegalese friend Laye on Saturday night and to see one of the youth that had attended a US conference in 2004 during the day, but Mie had gotten back from Benin and Togo and made plans for us to go to Saly – a resort type town about an hour and a half outside of Dakar so I postponed things till next week. Saly was gorgeous. We stayed at a really really cool hotel (Hotel Teranga) next to the beach for about $60 a night. Apparently Saly is known for older white women being able to ‘find’ young Senegalese men, but I didn’t see much of that myself. Photo: Hotel Teranga in Saly.

It took us about 3 hours to get there due to some really intense traffic, but it was worth it. We got to see a little bit of the countryside, though not much. At least some nice landscape with Baobab trees. Didn’t get out to the pool till about 3 p.m. and still got burned! Photo: baobab trees on route to Saly.

We went home on Sunday morning because Joa had to catch a flight to Ghana for some meetings that evening. (Though we later found out his flight was delayed and he had all kinds of trouble getting to Ghana and spent about 10 hours in the airport in Abidjan) because he didn’t have a visa to leave and get a hotel room. Photo: Beach at Saly.

The workshop got off to a slow start, but by around 11 the group was moving together and getting down to discussions about the project idea and where we hope to take things. We started off by giving people the little Flip cameras and having each participant film the person next to them introducing themselves and saying what their expectations were for the workshop. Photo: (left-right) Me, Bedo, Yaro, Papesidy, Anthony, Julie, Chrystel, Eugene.

Then we went onto presenting the project concept and showing the virtual visit we did in Togo so people would have an idea of what could be done in their own country. We had people from Senegal (Papesidy), Mali (Bedo and Yaro) and Rwanda (Chrystel and Eugene) and the Regional Office for Southern and East Africa (Anthony) – and some good questions and discussions. After going through the project outline, goals, results expected, budget, etc. so everyone would be on the same page, we spent the afternoon talking about the kind of attitudes necessary for the project and ways to ensure that we were creating an environment in the community that would allow for open expression and participation of the kids who are going to be involved. I’m really confident that the people involved will do a good job because everyone’s questions and input were really good and insightful.

Monday, June 23, 2008

laptop's back!

Today’s meetings at Plan Netherlands went quite well. Lots of interest in moving forward with media and technology. They are meeting with people at headquarters tomorrow and hopefully after that we will have a green light for a small group of people to move forward on a concept for using new media and the web for better outreach in several aspects. More later on that when things get going more. I will be involved through the US office and 2 of the African offices that are part of the YETAM project I’m working on with Julie will also be involved.

I just got handed my laptop! I'll add the photos and stuff to the blogs I wrote.... :-).


Amsterdam trip

I got to Amsterdam about 7 p.m. yesterday after quite a long trip. It started at midnight when my “luxury limo”as Joa calls it picked me up to go to the airport. The limo is a really really old taxi that you are surprised still runs. The driver is Abdoulaye who is on a contract with Plan to drive people around when they need it. It was funny when Julie asked me a couple days ago if I could please try to take public taxis because they were cheaper. If anyone in the US saw Abdoulaye’s taxi they wouldn’t think cheaper existed.

Our flight left about 2.45 a.m. and arrived in Lisbon at 6 a.m. where we waited a 3 FULL HOURS in the immigration line. Lisbon is now my top worst airport in all my travels. The place was packed and not enough people working. Two guys got in a heated argument when someone tried to cut. Luckily for me I had my ipod and could listen to the perfect soundtrack to the situation: Radiohead’s National Anthem. The quiet part at the end was where I walked through after getting my passport stamped. Ahhh.

At one point when I was almost to the front of the immigration line a Senegalese guy in a yellow and black traditional type pants and long shirt outfit asked if I spoke English. I said yes. He asked me if I could direct him to a hotel in Lisbon. I said well, I’m actually not from Lisbon but going to Belgium. He asked if I could get there by train. I said well, no I was flying. He asked if train was possible and I said I didn’t know, but that I was actually taking the train from Belgium to Amsterdam. So then he said that the hotel address he had was fake and he wanted to know where to go in Lisbon. I said I didn’t know what to tell him. He waited awhile and then came back to ask “Can I have a room in your village?” So I had to explain that I wasn’t from Lisbon, or Senegal or Amsterdam or Belgium but on travel and couldn’t help him. Illegal immigration if I ever smelled it – and wondered why out of that whole room teeming with people he would ask me.

After the immigration, I stopped for a coffee but now my debit card is not working. I was able to call the bank and they said nothing is wrong. Tried to take out cash with my Visa but I forget the pin since I never use it for cash…. Texted my brother Alex to ask about my laptop. Getting desperate. He got back to me with some advice, but said it’s hard to know what’s wrong when you can’t be in front of the computer.

Amsterdam is a lovely place if you like bicycles, hippy kids and the consistent smell of smoke. My hotel is in walking distance from Central Station and the weather was beautiful so it was nice to walk a little after the 3 hours from Senegal to Lisbon, 3 hours in the immigration line, 2 hours waiting for the flight, 2 hours from Lisbon to Belgium and 3 hours on the train from there to here. I had some Indian food and tried to call Joa to see how Clare was doing. BUT of course my phone only calls to the US, and the phone I borrowed from Joa only works in Senegal, and back at the hotel, the phones in the rooms are just for show – all disconnected! Finally I was able to purchase a phone card and call from the hotel lobby. Clare seemed to be doing fine – but Joa said that Ben had a meltdown the night before which triggered Clare and she started crying. I felt bad for Joa having to deal with that!

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Saturday was an easy day. We slept in late and then we ran errands with Ben and Joa. I called and was told my laptop was ready for me at the office so we went there first. Well, it wasn’t ready or at the office. Hmmm. Sigh.

So then we went to the trampoline. Very cool concept. (See videos). It’s this square on the beach with 8 mini rectangular trampolines put together and you pay 500 cfas (about $1) to jump for 15 minutes. The kids adore it.

We went to eat at a place by the water for lunch and then stopped for fruit, veggies, and some amazing French style pastries. We took a swim and a shower to cool off. Clare is sooo brown now. She looks even more beautiful with all that color and the pink cheeks. Joa took us to the French Cultural Center for a Festival of Music around 5. It was in downtown Dakar which has some nice character and some older colonial homes, etc. The music – some was great and some not so great. Ben fell asleep in Clare’s arms which was totally sweet.

We had dinner and then picked up the unrepaired laptop and my hard drive…. Just hoping Plan Netherlands can fix it!

On Friday afternoon I took my first public taxi and was actually able to tell the guy where I wanted to go. Well, sort of – Clare mainly directed him as she has a better sense of direction and I did the talking. He asked if I liked “simple. .I got very confused as we went back and forth about whether I liked simple or not. Finally he said “you know, Sim Ple the ragga singer”and I realized he was saying “Sean Paul” who was playing in Dakar on Friday night!

I called Daniel to see how he was doing and he told me everything is fine. He got Clare’s grades and she also got straight A’s!

Friday, June 20, 2008

laptop withdrawal

So the first week is over.  I feel like I spent so much time getting settled, with technical difficulties, and in meetings and conversations that I didn't get as much done as I would have liked.  The conversation is really important though.  

My laptop is going to be erased and repopulated with the contents of my hard drive -- that's the plan anyway.  Hopefully it will be ready tomorrow morning....  and hopefully it will work!

We got the workshop designed today, so that's good.  There is still so much to do though.  I leave for Amsterdam late Saturday/early Sunday to meet with Plan Netherlands about the project and ways that it can link with some of the things they are developing on-line to better engage people in 'Northern' countries in what is happening in the communities where we are working, the issues people are facing, and how local people want to resolve them.

Really hoping my laptop is back soon!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


First let me apologize for the 3 posts in one -- I had written them but couldn't get on line to post them.  I will try to caption any photos.  And if you see a photo with an arrow below it, it's actually a video!

So I decided also to transfer all my emails from when I last backed up my computer to my hard drive so I could work on them even without internet.  They cut the power here most days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then the generator kicks in, but it makes the internet go on and off too.

So after doing that, I come in after lunch yesterday, boot up the computer and get the blue sceeen of death -- fatal system error.... trying not to think about it.  And feeling really lonely without it -- I've become quite attached to my laptop!  Not to mention I don't want to have to deal with getting all my email, files and software back!  My phone hasn't worked since I got here, so I'm a bit out of touch.  I borrowed a phone from Joa and got a sim card today, so hopefully I will soon be connected. 

I did get a chance to skype with Daniel, and today when I finally got on a computer just now, he'd written to say Mom!  I got straight A's.  So that's super good news.  I will call him later if the sim card and phone card combo works.

Things aren't so great with me given the laptop deal, but Clare's doing alright at least -- settling in super well and made a new friend at camp.  We moved in to Mie's house night before last and have been eating well ever since. Lots of fruits and bread, cheese, etc.  We ate really good Ethiopian food last night.  And today Julie brought us a hair brush to borrow since Clare forgot hers and we couldn't find any here.

Rwanda postponed their training, so we're trying to figure out how we can keep on track.  We had a great meeting with the Plan Senegal team yesterday to plan for their part of the project.I also handed their equipment over to them. Seems like it will be pretty neat.  Today Julie and I have been working the whole day to develop the training workshop that starts on the 30th.  We want to be sure everyone in all the participating countries has a shared vision of the project. People are really liking the Flip Cameras and I have requests to purchase a dozen already!  

OK off to have a small coffee.  Been so exhausted since I got here....

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ile de Goree

Took a boat to the Isle of Goree yesterday. It has the famous 'Door of no return' where slaves were held and then marched onto ships for the Americas. The small colonial town is gorgeous and quite laid back, nice beach. Hard to believe all the sadness that must have happened there along with the other African ports where slaves were traded. (photo of the famous door, and video of Goree below!)

We had some food (our vegetarian meals at restaurants appear to be a consistent rice and french fries) and spent a bit of time on the beach, and then walked around until our ferry back at 4.30.

We had dinner at Mie's house (she's a fabulous cook!). Since Villa 1223 has no kitchen service, I think we're going to move into Mie's house. She's got lots of space and is going to be gone for 10 days to Benin and Togo, and we'll be able to cook and it's closer to the office.

Clare started camp this morning. She was a bit teary and quite nervous about language and not knowing anyone. She will come to the office around 1 so we'll see how she did. We had our first big rain of the season here today and it's really humid.

Started work about 9 at the office with a quick tour around and some chats with Julie and Stefanie, my main point person at the West Africa Regional Office (WARO). We launched the West Africa child media website today:, where the project I'm working on will most likely reside.

Julie and I called Plan Rwanda to coordinate a few things. Clare called right after that saying she would stay at Stefanie's house for the afternoon and go to the Trampoline on the beach where kids go to bounce around. This morning she said she wanted to come into the office, so the fact that she's staying with Stefanie's kids is a good sign that she's feeling more comfortable!

Pesky Mosquito

Had a good first day in Dakar. Lunch was nice – crepes and veggies on the beach. It’s always a challenge to find vegetarian stuff in certain parts of the world, but the peanuts here are amazingly good, and Mie took us to a quickmart owned by an Indian man and there was tons of Indian quick-to-prepare food, and of course the mangoes and other fruit is perfect, so we’ll be fine.  (Photo is Ben, Mie and Joa)

We spent the afternoon at Mie’s house with her son Ben, and a few other people stopped over including Julie and her baby Noe. He’s adorable, really chubby and just turning 2 months old. Mie’s partner Joaquim who works at UNICEF came home from a meeting in Hungary and they drove us home – and realized why I couldn’t explain where I live now! It took us about 30 minutes driving around the neighborhood to find Villa 1223.

Clare and I took cold showers, goofed around a little and read a couple chapters of On the Shores of Silver Lake (part of the Little House on the Prairie series) and then crashed. She woke up about 4.30 covered in giant mosquito bites (hoping Mie was right that the ones that carry malaria are the ones that buzz in your ears, because these were silent…. And really hard to find so we couldn’t even kill them because they disappeared once the lights were on) and stressing about going to camp here on Monday since she won’t know anyone and will have to go in a taxi by herself with Abdoulaye the Plan driver and she doesn’t speak French.

Today we are going to Goree Island, which was one of the largest ports where slaves were housed before going onto the ships for the Americas.

Villa 1223

We’re finally here in Dakar at Villa 1223, our home for the next 3 weeks. I had the week leading into today off for vacation but really only took Thursday and Friday because I had so much work to finish up. I decided on Thursday to paint Clare’s room which left us with one day less to pack, but luckily we got everything done on time. My colleague Kate gave Clare a bed she didn’t need, and I dropped the wood frame on my toe while putting it together. The smashed toe is still pulsing and purple and I’m hoping it’s not too serious.

Visibly limped the whole way, dragging the suitcases from the bus to the subway to the Air train and through the JFK airport, changing band aids in the bathroom…

Aside from the inevitably shady moment upon arriving at the airport, when the men hustle you for a taxi and everyone wants to help you carry your suitcases, we arrived perfectly. Slept the whole way while Clare watched 3 movies. Met a very nice man named Assan who noticed my Plan environmental bag. Turns out he had just come from a meeting in Toronto with one of my very best old friends, Laura del Valle, who worked with me at Plan in El Salvador and now works for WV with him in the same department. Such a small world.

The room at Villa 1223 is very sweet. It’s painted lavender and has a double bed, closet, sofa, dressing table and bathroom with a toilet, shower, sink and pail for collecting water in case it gets shut off and we need some saved up to bathe. The only problem is that we don’t have access to the kitchen so I’m not sure how that’s going to work…. (see video for a quick tour!)It’s in a dusty neighborhood somewhere near the district where the non-profits have their offices – we passed by them on the ride from the airport. The taxi driver said that Mie, another old friend from El Salvador who now works with Plan’s West Africa Regional Office would come to get us at treize heures – which I thought was 3 (Spanish kicking in) but then realized is thirteen, so 1.00. So we unpacked, showered and slept till 12.30. Julie, the project coordinator and I will meet at 6 for a beer and to get acquainted for our work together. We’ve been ‘skyping’ for a few months so it will be nice to finally talk in person.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

One week to go....

Things are coming along really well for the project so far, with just a week before we leave for Senegal. All the equipment is here now except the carrying case for the laptop and a mouse. The laptop is kind of giant and heavy, but I got it with a wider screen for editing video and a bigger battery so it will last as long as possible. At least the cameras are tiny.... I'm not sure how much electricity is available where they'll be working in Senegal. I'm not going there for the actual youth and community training in Senegal, it will be Julie the Project Director from the West African Regional office, so just hoping the equipment will work out for them.

The Senegal youth training will be the same week as the Rwanda training in July, so we're each attending/supporting one country. Julie is on maternity leave right now after having her son Noe. She comes back to work on the 16th, the day that we start the plannning meetings in Dakar. She's got some really cool ideas on linking the project with some other projects that they've done. They'll work with a group of urban youth who have some training on film already and a rural group. They're going to incorporate rap and theater into the arts portion of the project, using all these different art forms to analyze and speak out about the situations the youth are facing. Working with the urban and rural groups is a way also of working out differences between those two groups and helping them connect and understand each other.

In Rwanda I will be present for the training. I'm working with Amity there. She seems very cool and works like crazy. She's found partners for every aspect of the project and they will all let the youth borrow equipment so the costs have gone way down. They are building the training together to make sure it's as valid and sustainable for them to continue on with making arts and videos after the training with the least amount of support from Plan as possible. Given the history in Rwanda and the way radio was used in the past (there is an effort to democratize radio again) and the lack of access to internet, radio will be a big part of the project. There's also a "community work day" called Umuganda where the communities get together and do just that. It coincides with the arts training in the community, so Amity's organized someone to work with the youth and community to do a mural. I'm excited about being there for all that.

The first part of the training with the communities is always really cool, so wondering what it will be like in Rwanda. It was pretty striking in Togo (see below)

Alex is here and Clare didn't get her room all the way cleaned, but oh well. He did give us that painting advice. We went to her dance recital last night and she was amazing. Then we went out to a place where they play live West African drums laid over house music. Great for dancing and getting in the spirit of things to come. We'll go to New York on Sunday. I have a meeting with someone from the 6th World Summit on Media for Children to discuss how Plan is going to be involved in the 2010 Summit in Sweden.

Next week will be busy but good. I'm supposed to be on vacation but that's probably not happening. I have to finish up a lot of things to get the Dominican Republic and El Salvador Virtual Visits posted. And we had a meeting on Thursday where Plan USA decided that we are going to move forward seriously on incorporating social media into our work. I'll be on a team that is looking into it, and I'm really happy about that. First step is meeting with our office in Amsterdam (I'll go there from Dakar on June 23) who's working on a draft plan for it, and now the US office is pledging to be very involved. Will be exciting.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Right, so after all that I never explained what a 'secondment' is. It basically means that I'm on loan for a year to our West Africa Regional office to support the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media project. It's kind of like a sabbatical. After the year, I'll come back to my existing position (working with the Youth Engagement and Action program at Plan in the US).

BTW -- I'm not actually MOVING to Africa (though the emails about how much you'll all miss me are very sweet, hehe)-- I'm working from the US, mostly from home, but traveling a lot to support the different countries. Coming up this summer: 3 weeks in Senegal in June for project planning with the teams from the participating countries, 1 day in Amsterdam in June to work with our office there on project ideas and potential funding, 3 weeks in Rwanda in July and 3 in Mali in September to support arts and media training. Possibly Kenya in December for a week-long de-brief/planning workshop with the teams including 3 days of discussion on social media and the use of mobile phone technology in the project.

And I know, I know. The last post was way too long. I promise the next ones will be short and sweet.

With photos! Here's one of Clare. She's busy cleaning her room this week so we can paint it before we leave. I've been promising for about a year. We'll get some advice on that from Alex (my youngest brother, pro-painter turned tech guru) who's coming to visit this weekend.

And videos! Once I figure out how to get them to load without errors. Is it me or is it blogspot? Only time will tell. I tried 3 times now to post one of Daniel playing capoeira in 3 different formats but it didn't work. I used this really cool Flip camera that I'm testing out for the project. It's the size of a Snickers bar, totally simple to use, and costs only $130.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Wait... what?

June 1. :-)

The official start of my secondment. And no one knows what a secondment is, and I haven't figured out how to explain in a nutshell what I'm going to be doing. But 2 wise people (thank you DK and Lisa) have convinced me I should blog about it. Maybe someone will be interested, and if not, well, at least I have more space than a nutshell to try to explain.

The equipment for Senegal's portion of the project is in my dining room. Amazing how small everything is. Mini cameras, mini tripods. Simple. Tiny instruction booklets with 6 pages instead of 30 like they used to be. I'm liking new media technology and today's short attention span.

e-tickets for Clare and me are folded up and paperclipped to the inside of my trusty planner. Printed 2 pages per sheet and double sided so even they seem small and compact. Fitting.

My arm muscles are still aching from Thursday, reminding me that we're leaving soon. Tetanus. Yellow Fever. Typhoid. Joke was on me - mine were outdated so the vaccine list expanded to include me as well as Clare.

We leave June 14, but work on this started a way long time ago. Finally it's taking off.

I'm on secondment starting today. Wait, what's a secondment? Basically I'm loaned out to Plan's Africa offices to help a new project get going building on work that's been happening for the last few years. Wait, what's Plan? Oh, well it's a global development organization working in some 66 countries to support child centered community development.

You've never heard of it you say?! No worries, pretty much no one has. It's been around since 1937 but in the US it's a very well kept secret -- unfortunately. It's actually more known as a sponsorship organization, but the work on the ground in communities is what hooked me since I started working there in '98 when I lived in El Salvador. (and that could be a blog all of its own!)

The project: Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (or "YETAM" as we like to say. Which sounds like some kind of hybrid creature to me, a cross between a yak and some kind of herd animal from the Lion King). YETAM is funded by Nokia. It's being implemented by Plan's Africa offices in Senegal, Rwanda and Mali together with local partners and communities and youth. Five more African countries will participate in the next 2 years if the funding is approved. The first virtual visit was to Uganda (and it was quite a learning experience -- the videos are difficult to load which really distracts from the experience...), the next 3 were to Togo, Dominican Republic and El Salvador, all done though Plan USA (see the link to the right). Now with this project we're looking at doing more of them and improving on the idea from start to finish.

The challenge: Creating multimedia virtual community profiles in 3 countries in Africa. Making sure the process of media creation is valuable for the participating youth and communities -- as in how does making media build critical skills and awareness? How does it involve and benefit local people? How can it be a sustainable process? And then using that that media in the right ways to engage people in other parts of the world who may not really care about what's happening in Africa. Or who have a skewed view of Africa. How to support a direct conversation between youth in different parts of Africa. And how to bring that conversation also to youth in other parts of the world. And how to do it in places where media is not readily accessible yet is impacting in a multitude of ways. What does social media mean for Africa anyway? I hope we'll find out and something really cool is going to happen in the process.

It's going to be a journey on so many different levels.

Personal. The people and places you meet when traveling and working on innovative projects impact on you in ways you don't comprehend for years to come.

Professional. It's finally a chance to focus on an area I've been doing on the side for a long time. A way to pull together a bunch of stuff that's been floating around. A way to learn and grow in an area I'm totally energized and fascinated by.

Familial. The never-ending dilemma of how to raise 2 children (11 and 16) as a single parent who travels constantly. At least Clare gets to go with me on the Senegal trip (on my dollar of course - which is why Daniel is staying home this time!).

Organizational. Plan is going to really find a way through new media and technology for people to talk directly to each other instead of us being an intermediary. That poses lots of challenges and means things have to change within Plan too. That will be interesting to watch and participate in. How does an organization move into a new way of doing things without alienating those who have been involved for years in the old way? How do we make things work for everyone?