Monday, August 24, 2009

3 Avocados a Day Keeps the Doctor... Where?

The rainy season is wrapping up here in Accra, and it's starting to get hot again. Another thing the dry season will bring is massive quantities of fresh vegetables with the harvest. That, I am certainly looking forward to. It's starting already: on the way back from Kumasi last week, a friend and I each bought 7 avocados and about 12,321 tomatoes (or 20, but it was still a lot!) for just $3.

Disposing of the vegetables proved somewhat more challenging than originally anticipated. For the tomatoes, I resorted to the old homage, "When life gives you tomatoes... make tomato sauce?" I now have enough frozen bolognaise sauce to feed every starving child in West Africa.

Despite eating avocado morning, noon, and night, I was left with two rapidly deteriorating specimens on Sunday. An avocado & tomato omelet for brunch was a no-brainer. Six down, one to go. For dinner, I made the mistake of going to the same friend's house where we had pizza with--you guessed it!--avocados and tomato sauce. Excellent pizza and even better company, but it used up precious avocado-eating capacity.

Returning home, a light bulb suddenly appeared above my head: Why not break out that blender gathering dust on the shelf and throw all my aging fruits and vegetables into a smoothie so I can drink, rather than eat, my last avocado? Thoroughly impressed by my own culinary brilliance, I chopped everything up, sliced open the avocado, threw it in the blender and.... nothing. Turns out, the blender doesn't work. D'oh.

(In hindsight, this was almost certainly a good thing -- an avocado-pineapple-paw paw smoothie doesn't sound very brilliant now that I’m over my fridge-full-of-over-ripe-fruit-and-vegetables delirium).

Salvaging what I could, I froze the fruit and made guacamole, bringing the total to three avocados eaten in one day. Never before has eating guacamole been such a struggle.

Tonight, I'm getting Chinese.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

RFAG #5: I'm a Celebrity

Everywhere I go, people will run after me yelling, "Obruni! Obruni!" At first, I thought it was quaint and my response was to smile and wave. Then I was a weirded out by it and my response turned into a scowl. But lately, I've started rolling with it, and respond with, "I love you too!" as if I were a celebrity and they were my adoring fans.

It does feel rather like being a celebrity to have throngs of people crowding around you, trying to touch you. I can appreciate how difficult the loss of anonymity must be -- if I go certain places, I will need to deal with my adoring fans, whether I want to or not. I feel like a one-hit wonder with a single famous catch phrase; when they shout, "Obruni! Wo ho te sen?!" I respond, "Me ho ye" and they go wild (It's not a very glamorous conversation: White man, how are you? I'm fine).

Just as there are areas in the US where enough celebrities hang out that people are too cool to be impressed by seeing a one hit wonder, there are places here with enough Obrunis that we get left alone. There is also an interesting age dynamic. Very young children act either shy or terrified, while small boys and small girls think it's the coolest thing ever when I throw out my one liner.

Adolescents, being so worldly, often act smug and indifferent, while the most confident ones will try to pound fists, call you homie, and be your friend. My other big fan base is old ladies, who are just as thrilled as the kids when I drop some Twi.

Finally, there's the random curious dude that will suddenly and completely unexpectedly start petting your hair, or touching a freckle and saying, "Look! You have small-small black man in you!"

Such is the life of a celebrity in Ghana.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Evidence of a Crusade

I'm back from a few days without internet at an IPA retreat near Kumasi. It was a great time, and despite two full days of meetings and two full days of travel, it felt like a good break.

Catching up on the news, I was pleased to see that Kriftof and his wife took on the plight of women in a special issue of the NY Times Magazine this weekend.

I spent the first few pages of the article thinking, "Gah! Enough anecdotes, let's see some evidence!" Then pages 4-6 are filled with IPA's work. I read Kristof's op-eds regularly, and I'd never noticed any interest in evaluations before. Maybe that part was written by his wife, Sheryl? (I like the idea of an analysis-anecdote partnership).

All in all, I thought it blended the storytelling and the evidence well, but I was a little disappointed his take-away recommendations weren't more solidly grounded. I liked my coworker's description: "he spent most of the article saying, 'this is what works' then ended by saying 'here are some cool-sounding ideas'."

The problem is, all failures fueling the aid skeptics started off as cool-sounding ideas.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"In the field"

I've been spending a lot of time "in the field" lately for the consulting project. I'm not accustomed to using this term -- I never had a "field" to be "in" before now -- and I still feel a little ridiculous saying it. But more mornings than not, I set out for my "field" -- the Greater Accra communities of Bubuashie, La Paz, Nima, Adenta, even Osu, the very same part of town where I live and work. When I randomly pass respondents in Osu on my way to lunch, I am not "in the field", but when I set out with the purpose of visiting them, Osu magically transforms into the "field". My coworkers managing agricultural projects at least have a little credibility when they use them term (they visit real farms, which presumably have fields...). I just feel silly.

Nomenclature aside, it has been an enjoyable, if tiring, experience. I enjoy spending time away from the computer, and you do learn a lot (trips to the field supply the fodder for my Random Facts About Ghana). The computer-work doesn't go away, though, so days in the field often mean nights at the desk.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Testing the Theories of Obama's Mama

A colleague of President Obama's mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, had an Op-Ed in the Times yesterday describing her work.

Her theories: Small business owners in the developing world are enterprising entrepreneurs whose primary constraint to growth is access to capital.

She developed her theories starting in the late '70s, and published them in a thesis in 1992. Radical at the time, they are now largely mainstream.

But how do we know that they are right? It's an appealing theory, but how do we test it?

Well, you could do something like give business training services to a random group of microenterprises, then give a capital grant to an overlapping random group of microenterprises and see whether it's only capital from preventing their growth, or also (or only) business know-how.

Guess what I'm doing in Ghana?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A far more eloquent description of Ghana...

This person writes better than me...

I really liked Cape Coast -- it has exactly the character that Accra lacks. My gut reaction to this type of puff piece is usually very negative, but I actually think this one is pretty good. The only correction that I would make is that people don't shout, "How are you Obruni?": they shout, "OOOOObruni -- How are you?"

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thoughts on Accra

I often try to place Accra within the context of Africa as I know it (from only a short trip to Kenya last year). I used to describe it as an African capital city, but also a coastal town. Or, "more similar to Mombasa than Nairobi". But the more time I spend here, the more I realize that it's not very similar at all to Kenya. Accra has neither the exoticism of Mombasa's mixed African and Arabic cultures nor furious extremity of Nairobi's vital urban center and equally vital shantytowns.

Accra is rather a sprawling suburb of mixed communities, each with its own micro-culture. There's no "bad part of town" and no city center. It's a place characterized most by its lack of extremes. It has never felt particularly unfamiliar or even very foreign.

I try with this blog to deliver unexpected and (I hope) intriguing nuggets of Ghana's culture as fodder for the imaginations of my readers (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) when they picture my life here. But the very fact that I find it more interesting to seek out and identify differences over similarities betrays the fact that Accra is not that strange. As often as it's the differences that make life interesting here, it's the similarities that make life easy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

RFAG #4: Ghanaians Make Good Nicknames

Random Fact About Ghana #4: Ghanaians are prolific nicknamers.

On ever survey we administer, one of the first questions is about their nicknames, as it's often impossible to find someone with knowing the "neighborhood name". I ran into some great ones today: "Papa Tailor" was one, and another was "Emperor" (his other name is Laud).

In addition to Obruni (which will be the subject of it's own RFAG), some of the common names I've been called are:
* Tallah (because I'm taller...)
* Long John
* Peter Crouch (Apparently I bear a resemblance)
* Obruni Coco (A favorite of the school children in La Paz, it translates to "Red White Man" - I'm not sunburned, so I don't really get it...)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I don't only read the NYT...

If I have more than 15 minutes available, I read my igoogle headlines. Today was a great day for my google reader feeds:

First, there's completely ridiculous marketing by ethanol makers. I remember writing a paper in 2004 for my Environmental Analysis class saying that ethanol was a bunch of subsidy-dependent hype that was, if not worse, at least not better for the environment. Public opinion is starting to catch up, and ethanol lobbyist are trying to reframe the debate: the claim is now, well we may not be better than conventional oil, but we're sure better than shale oil! Give me a break.

Next came an article in the Washington Post on email signatures that is surprisingly aware of good study design:
Brownstein asked his research team, StrategyOne, to catalogue the most common e-mail closing lines with an online poll. (The sample of about a thousand Internet users came from a nonrandom pool of respondents, so these numbers are rather more food for thought than hard data.)
Major credit to the Post writers/editors on that one.

Finally, the Freakonomics blog links to a time article on the 50 worst cars of all time. And Steven Levit shares an amazing anecdote:
In talking with an auto executive a few years back, I got some insight into how disasters like this happen. I asked this auto executive how his company decided between the 10 or 15 concept cars that the design teams proposed.
His answer: The five most senior executives at the company looked over the possible vehicles and picked the ones they liked best!
If that's true, it's completely out of this world, especially compared to how Google makes decisions.

The list of cars is impressive, and includes this gem. A 1986 version of the H2, which really got me thinking about the similarities between the eighties and aughts -- high oil prices, low growth, out of control financial markets, and a financial/real estate crisis at the end of the decade. Will the teens now be another period of low oil prices and high growth?

Monday, August 3, 2009

I read the New York Times (online)

If I only have 15 minutes to relax in a day (like today) I read the New York Times. Here are some articles I enjoyed over the past couple of days:

* It's a good time to invest in Africa (I am!)
* A rather different take on happiness
* I like M&E, and education, but also worry about tests