Monday, January 25, 2010

Proactive patience: Battlefield or laboratory

What is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.
-Jacqueline Novogratz

Over the past 6 months of working with the amazing women of WEEP, I've been fighting a war of paradox, with proactiveness attacking patience, initiative attacking listening, and perseverance attacking empowerment. Each woman face daunting challenges as they prepare to exit the program and start their own business ventures (read more about it here); and as we (the WEEP staff and I) attempt to prepare them for that exit (i.e., by developing their business acumen and experience), I've fought the strong desire to suggest or implement solutions that I strongly believe will work, constantly reminding myself of ideas such as the above from Jacqueline (our CEO at Acumen Fund).

And the war raged on Friday while sitting with WEEP's site coordinator, surrounded by the cold grey cement walls of our Kibera shack. Walls that quietly displayed items the women sell at the market, while separating us from the same women who were loudly producing those items on the other side. And as I restlessly shifted in my squeaky wooden chair, listening to reasons generously given for why each possible intervention wouldn't work -- without suggestions for other possibilities -- I began to question if patience was really the side that should win the battle.

Then later that afternoon, as the WEEP crew and I sat with 80 other 'friends of Acumen' listening to Jacqueline talk about her book and discuss her experiences at a bakery in Rwanda, I remembered how much she had to push the women outside of their comfort zone -- in a project startlingly similar to our effort at the Maasai market -- in order to increase their sales channels.

While remembering this story, I wondered if perhaps I'm approaching this dilemma the wrong way. Perhaps it's less of a battlefield, and more of a science lab, where both patience and proactiveness have the ability to mix together to create something new and brilliant. But if so, where does this harmonious equilibrium exist? What's the balance between the two? When is the right time to push an idea forward? When is the right time to listen and wait? And is there some equation where we can create the formula the easy way, or is it really just a matter of experimenting / trial and error?

My experience so far is that it's definitely the latter, but I suppose time will tell… Then again, time requires patience!


Sunday, January 17, 2010

The darkness of Haiti and the stars of (Kenya and) tomorrow

Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
-Dr. King

Every morning this past week, I came in to the office and opened my NY Times homepage to millions of words of destruction, death, despair, desolation, and hell materialized in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Unable to overcome my own depression as I began to read these articles, I regretfully opted to scroll through the daily images instead, and was confronted by pictures of lifeless men who had just found their 10 month old daughters in mounds of the deceased and breathless women whose entire families had just been crushed in their collapsed house.

A few hours after this unbearably overwhelming yet inescapable routine yesterday, I was watching a presentation by the CEO of Acumen Fund as she discussed the hope for the future for developing countries. While describing the impact that Acumen's investments have catalyzed and the overall change she's seen in these countries, she shared the following quote from a journalist named William White:

I'm not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen the past and I love today.

Almost immediately, I was struck by how true this quote was for my experiences in Kenya. That despite the past, and all the atrocities and injustices and unfathomable evil that has occurred, there is hope today and promise for tomorrow. Then I remembered the picture of a screaming woman whose mother was buried under a pile of rebel in Port-au-Prince, and questioned how a quote like that could ever be applicable to someone who no longer even desires to live.

As I was reflecting this afternoon on these thoughts and tomorrow's MLK day, I thought about one of my favorite quotes (above) from Dr. King (which I've shared before), and how it ironically applies even to the seemingly hopeless situation that Haiti faces today. I wondered if perhaps the very reason why we can celebrate another mouth feed in Kenya, another job created, another life spared from malaria, is because outside of that ray of light, there is death and darkness all around.

While that is an unsettling reality in itself, it sadly seems like reality nonetheless. We live in a very imperfect world -- not at all existing as I believe it was intended to be -- and as a result, we are surrounded by death. As Dr. King said though, only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. Although I question how much even a profound statement such as this can have in a situation such as Haiti's today, it's my prayer that -- just as the stars have begun to emerge in Kenya -- Haiti will soon be able to see a similar light, and that somehow/someway that daughter-less father and that family-less sister and that mother-less daughter will one day be able to say these deaths are of the past, and we are not afraid of tomorrow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Beauty overshadowed: the tragedy of Togo, and Africa

In anticipation of arguably the world's most popular sporting event, hundreds of publications are proclaiming that 2010 is the year for Africa. A year in which a predicted cumulative audience of some 30 billion people will learn to see South Africa, and by extension Africa, as a land of inviting arms, comforting smiles, incontestable talent/knowledge, undying perseverance, unparalleled economic opportunity, and much more. 
As the Economist says, South Africa will prove sceptics wrong. It will do Africa proud.

Tragically, Africa was anything but proud this past weekend, as terrorists' AK47 bullets pierced through the Togo national team's bus for over 15 minutes as the team travelled to Angola for the Africa Cup of Nations. 8 were injured. 3 were killed. Billions were left speechlessly in disbelief.

Being amongst the latter group, I won't write much, as I seem to be failing miserably at processing the unbelievability of the whole thing, let alone even collecting the facts. And words found in the papers certainly haven't helped much, with publications such as the NY Times surrendering hopeless realities such as: Sports are apart of life, and now death.

I will say this though, as a journaler and a big fan of everything beautiful: it's shockingly unsettling how simple it is to tarnish treasures, how quickly news of ugliness overshadows centuries of sacredness, and how -- despite all of the unspeakable beauty that Africa creates, and all the progress that it's made -- a tragedy (and it is a tragedy) such as this has the innate ability to destroy all of that beauty and progress, while resurrecting the stereotypes that too often enslave the continent.