Monday, May 25, 2009

Obruni, part 1

Accra is awesome despite itself. It wasn't designed to be particularly pedestrian friendly but it can be walked, it isn't particularly well organised, and the roads and sidewalks are beginning to crumble. Heat boils up from the concrete baking under the sun in the middle of the day.

What make Accra a surprisingly comfortable, liveable city are the people. Ghanaians seem friendly by definition, sometimes hospitable to a fault. The first night I arrived, two Ghanaian boys insisted on helping me find my way to the sketchiest hostel in Ghana. The first thing I did the next day was to check out and walk into the city.

Since then, I've assimilated well, eating at food stands, talking to the nice ladies who run them, and grinning at their children as they play. One little girl actually asked me to buy her chocolate and started to cry when her mother tried to take her away. I've given my number to too many people -- it's one of the first things kids ask for. Next is usually "where do you live?"

Communication culture here is to "flash" the other party on mobile: to call them but cancel before they pick up, as a way to say hi or to ask to be called back. So, rather than give out fake numbers, I've saved a bunch of numbers in my phone as "Don't pick up 1", "Don't pick up 2", "Ok kid 1", and so on.

Accra isn't a particularly tourist friendly place, and doesn't have a lot of things to do. It bustles and moves, and is itself a spectacle.

Alas, I'm leaving the city. My next destination is a village called Osino where I'll be working with an organisation called Innovations for Poverty Action, which is the face of Jameel Poverty Action Lab away from MIT. It's pretty exciting stuff. Already I'm learning little facts that I hadn't thought about before. For example, there's a lot more to microfinance than I understand. There are so many lending methods, subtly different to suit people from different economic and geographical situations -- and I'm only just getting to know them as simplified models.

Another lesser known fact is that farmers have traditionally got the short end of things with banks. Because their income is often unreliable and very heavily dependent, in size and timing, on the harvest, they make poor customers even for the microfinance institutions aimed at alleviating poverty. Most farmers can't pay back a fixed sum regularly through the whole year, but do need sizeable sums of money every now and then just like everyone else, whether it's to pay for a hospital visit or the childrens' school fees.

One idea IPA is exploring is products to help farmers take loans they can repay, often involving some bet against the weather and crop prices. IPA is also running studies to look at products to help organise their stream of income to allow them to accumulate substantial savings. In a country that is over 50% small, subsistence farmers, this is pretty significant.


It has become very clear to me these days how little I walked in Boston -- only between my bicycle and anywhere else I had to be. I can feel my legs growing and adapting to how I transport myself these days, walking what feels like a long way between places. My calves and shins hurt.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nor Easter

Time really stretches out as I fall, even though it's just a twenty foot drop from the creaky, rotting train bridge.

And then the world is suddenly deep rust-red brown and frigid cold, rushing up around me. My head breaks the surface and I look up to a blue sky, green hills. Oatbran is on my left, shaking water from his golden locks. It's an amazing day.

In fact, today approached perfection. It might be the day this year with the single highest density of awesome people that I managed to see / run into. Stars are aligning in small worlds. People are headed off to a host of different coasts, states, countries to do a wide range of awesome research, life, study, work that they are excited about. When I think about all the people I know, here now, I'm amazed it didn't hit me like a ton of bricks (or socks, you know) that I've been hanging with the coolest cats this side of the Amazon. I'm so happy I got to spend any time at all with them.

I'm struggling with myself these years in college, and I'm glad that the gods conspired to hint to me that I shouldn't. I'm starting to feel pretty happy about the people, projects and things of this last year.

-worked on projects such as Global Cycle Solutions (congratulations on winning the 100k development track prize! and the audience choice at the final!) with Don Gwyn, Lisa Taco, and other amazing people
-got hands dirty, enjoyed the warm hospitality of an organic community-farm
-raced in an alleycat with greasy greasy bike hipsters
-met the most incredible developingworld engineers/mechanics whilst volunteering at D-Lab
-found professors who I like and who are excited about what I want to do and who (seem to want to) guide and encourage me

The list goes on. I almost don't want to leave just yet, I wish I could stretch out this state for just a little longer. But it's time to go.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

pow wow

I just spent an hour listening to the Habeas Schmabeas episode of This American Life. It's superbly well done (won a Peabody Award) and incredibly moving.

I must require that if you have not already, you must listen to it, here.

Habeas Schmabeas tells of the unbelievable atrocities committed by the US government on the premise of national security in places like Kandahar and Guantanamo, from extensive research and firsthand from detainees and volunteer attorneys.


A few weeks ago, I also saw Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund speak, and she was super awesome. She's a hero I don't have time to worship.

Acumen Fund is doing really awesome stuff supporting innovators and entrepreneurs in developing country, both by investing in them and by providing them with top notch advice and consultation. And I haven't even begun to describe how effective and amazing what they're doing really is.

If you have time, you should watch all of her TED talks.