Africa calling . . .

And the phone call in the middle of the night is from . . . Sierra Leone!

For the past 5 years I have worked as an independent international development consultant.  That ‘definition’ isn’t terribly descriptive, but after working for various for-profit and non-profit agricultural development organizations for over a decade, I hung out my shingle and continued to work with those same organizations and a few others on short-term assignments as needed and contracted.  These have included ones that most people will have heard of including CARE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and a few that you may not have heard of, including ACDI/VOCA, TechnoServe (both former direct employers), Carana, and Fintrac (my current employer.)  These short-term consulting assignments were each unique, working on a different objective, often in different countries (though almost exclusively in Africa), and with a different team of people and unique client requirements.  It has been an amazing professional experience and I met, and collaborated with, some extremely competent professionals and business people.

Most of my assignments have somehow been related to my private sector-led development and market-focused bias.  I’ve mapped industry value chains, reviewed agribusiness investment enabling environments, recommended extension and origination strategies for supply chains, and even helped to draft staple grain policy.  What all of this work has had in common is my heavy reliance on consultation with a wide range of people who actually live, work, employ, and govern in each market and country.  Each assignment begins with a range of meetings with key individuals including large processors, informal traders, government officials of all levels (I’ve had Permanent Secretaries on speed dial), farmers, and so many, many others.  The vast majority are gracious and generous with their time and their perspectives.  At times, we encounter a bit of ‘donor’ fatigue.  I’ve personally experienced this a few times – a large, key business whose perspective was important for my understanding that particularly commodity market I was looking at had received a handful of consultants in the previous 3 months, all sent by the same donor; providing useful insights can actually increase the requests for meetings.  This past summer two other consulting groups had been through within 2 weeks of us from another organization.  We each had different mandates and areas of focus; our timing came after the others and I struggled to make a few meetings because of fatigue.

Sometimes we (consultants in international development) can take the extreme generosity from those consulted for granted.  Sometimes we realize that we are prone to the same negative biases and perceptions as those less traveled and with less professional experience in these foreign cultures.  Not only do we receive the same anonymous fraud emails as everyone else, but sometimes people that we have actually met and who may even be very senior government officials have their emails hacked.  More than once I’ve had some fraud solicitation come from a government official that I met a couple of times and have had legitimate email exchange with.  I ignore the message and a couple of days later comes the apologetic email stating the originator’s email had been hacked.  Also, surrounding the donor community are many who actually do try to get something for nothing and take advantage of the system.

So yesterday, my phone rang from Sierra Leone.  In 2009, I did a short-term assignment there looking at the table egg industry.  I hadn’t heard from that work since.  As I was saying, so yesterday I get a phone call from Sierra Leone.  The connection wasn’t the best and the gentleman had a very strong accent.  He finally communicated his name, that he had sent me a proposal via mail, though he wasn’t sure if I had received it, and would I please phone him the following day as he was running out of phone credit.  I honestly wasn’t sure if I would or not.  It sounded rather sketchy.  While I was in Sierra Leone 3 years ago, I couldn’t really understand this gentleman over the phone.  And let’s face it, after that long . . . he wanted something.

I missed the call that came at 3:30am (I don’t typically answer the phone at that hour regardless – I can sleep through just about anything.)  I saw the call when I checked my phone in the morning, and just went about my day.  Another call came while I was walking the dogs later that morning.  I didn’t pick it up.  It rang again.  I picked it up.  The gentleman again asked if I could call him back as he really would like to speak with me.  I assured him that I would once I returned to the house.  At this point I actually meant it and I did phone him back.  Somewhere along the morning, and actually in that moment of answering the second call, I remembered the incredible generosity of time and attention that I’ve received over the years as a consultant and recognized that I owe it to the gentleman.  I did phone him back, though the conversation was a bit labored (honestly, I do better with strong accents in person.)  I committed to giving him some of my time and attention for a proposal he has been working on and would like some of my input.  It was a fantastic reminder of how much I have enjoyed these rather successful 5 years of consulting and how much of that depended on the generosity of others.

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Washington DC Inspiration

I’ve been in Washington, DC a few days for work.  It is rather different after nearly 13 years of living in the suburbs of DC (first Maryland and then Virginia) to be staying right downtown, walking distance to so much.

There are many wonderful places in the city; and many of the ones that immediately come to mind as interesting or unique are actually places best reached by car.  These include the view from the Frederick Douglass House, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the many county owned historic properties in Prince George’s County . . .

This past weekend, I did visit a favorite place on the National Mall – the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution.  These museums of asian art are often less crowded, quiet, and always with interesting and calming exhibits.  The exhibit ‘Nomads and Networks: the Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan’ displayed beautiful and refined ornaments from horse tack (and other cultural relics) dating to the hundreds of years BCE.  I’m looking forward to an upcoming exhibit entitled: ‘Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ which opens November 17th.  The photo above is of one of the lifesize Japanese wood statues gracing opposing ends of a main hallway in the Freer Gallery – now if only they had replicas of those in the gift shop . . .  I would definitely want to take one of him home in my suitcase!


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Half the Sky – a PBS special

I’m going to do a post about what I actually do for a living; BUT this isn’t that post.  In the broadest sense I work in the field of international development.  I have had the pleasure of traveling and working in many diverse developing countries, though the past decade has largely been Africa.

My friends and colleagues that I’ve worked closely with know that I often jokingly say that “I don’t really care about women and children.”  The development community over the period of my professional career has correctly focused increasing resources and rhetoric towards empowering women in the varied facets of their lives – including governance, economics and livelihoods, health, education, and sanitation.  My joking (read: inappropriate sarcasm) comments about comes from my experiences with many misguided programs or ‘gender specialists’ that have forgotten that there are actually two genders.  Specialized professionals with deep expertise in understanding gender dynamics and implications for development, and whom I respect greatly, agree that a nuanced understanding of the gender context with complimentary interventions for the diverse individuals within a community, agricultural value chain, or whatever target underprivileged population are necessary for successful outcomes.

This is probably all ‘development insider speak’ for people not in development – but this is all to say that while I can be a bit negative and sarcastic about ‘gender in development’ because of all of the abuses I’ve seen perpetrated in the guise of empowerment . . . I actually do subscribe to the need to really analyze and understand the social dynamics and cultural context for development programs to deliver on their objectives – everyone, regardless of gender, should have the right to improve their standard of living and opportunities . . .sort of my free market/libertarian tendencies!

So – I’m looking forward to watching the upcoming PBS special – Half the Sky.  It is a four hour program premiering October 1 & 2.  From the website:

Filmed in 10 countries, the series follows Nicholas Kristof and celebrity activists America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde on a journey to tell the stories of inspiring, courageous individuals. Across the globe oppression is being confronted, and real meaningful solutions are being fashioned through health care, education, and economic empowerment for women and girls.

I’m hoping that the film also recognizes and celebrates the role men have to play in empowering women (and women’s role as societal partners with the other gender.)  I do know good work is happening and will try to be slightly less sarcastic about gender in the future . . . (okay, that might be a stretch!)

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Long overdue update – Westward, Ho!

Long time coming, an update is due.

Since the last post (with the cute elephant orphanage photos), I’ve been back to Africa (even going by road 1500 miles from Nampula, Mozambique to Lusaka, Zambia via Chimoio and Chipata.)  And then August was largely taken up with a big move from the greater Washington, DC area, where we have lived since 1999, to the greater Seattle area, over 3,000 miles away.

It took a bit longer than expected to pack up the house and get some contracting work done around the house to prepare it for the rental market.  (I put in a new mailbox post!)

The figs at the house were in season, so I snacked on figs while getting all of the last minute details attended to.  Goodbye house (AND, just 4 weeks later, we have it rented out!  Fantastic!)

As a side note, Alexandria, VA was our fourth residence in the greater Washington, DC area.  We had rented our first apartment in Columbia, MD sight unseen before we had even left Waukee, IA.  After moving there, I ended up with a job in downtown DC, so moved to an apartment in Greenbelt, as soon as it was convenient and the rental agreement was up for renewal.  We bought our first townhouse in Greenbelt, MD and really enjoyed that neighborhood with Greenbelt National Park, the many walking paths into old town, the $5 matinee movie theatre, and Buddy Attick Park, to name just a few of the favorite features.  We moved to our Alexandria home in 2008.

I was lucky to not have a set schedule in August and was able to get everything finished and on the road the afternoon of August 26th; driving a 26’ UHAUL truck with our Jeep Wrangler on a trailer behind.

The drive across the country was a breeze after the packing ordeal.  We stopped immediately upon departure to allow the girls (our two dogs) to say a final goodbye to the boarding kennel owner where they spent a great deal of time while I was traveling around with work.  She had packed them bandanas to look smart, and snacks for the road; she also wrote a note for any subsequent boarding we find here in our new home to introduce the girls and their personalities.  We will definitely miss Ellee and her operation – Cassiopeia’s Golden Legacy Kennel & Boarding.

AH (the husband) has a new job in Washington State, which is the main reason for the move; though the search for a new job was influenced in part by a desire to be a bit closer to our Oregon place for more frequent visits.  My job (or should I say work) for the last 5 years has been so flexible that I can do it pretty much from anywhere, though more on that in a subsequent post.

We are settling into a small (rather small and old – we are a bit spoiled now) rental house in Federal Way, in a very quiet neighborhood on Dumas Bay.  We have a very large lawn, with a view of Puget Sound and beach access (at least at low tide.)


I’ve already been out foraging a bit – picking blackberries around our yard as well as along the BPA trail, a frequent destination for walking the dogs; blueberries both in Tacoma and at a less well kept public park here in Federal Way, and apples from the yard and neighborhood.

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Orphan elephants

My last weekend of the recent 4-week work trip around Africa a friend and her sons took me to see orphan elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  They had recently sponsored the smallest of the elephants (though not the youngest.)

The public can view the elephants every day at 11am for one hour.  The orphans come into the main area to have their bottles.

Adolescents coming in for their bottles

The little guy that my friend’s sons sponsor was so cute.  He wasn’t always able to figure out forward and reverse – but he enjoyed attempting to play soccer.

Kithaka playing soccer

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Orchard roundup

For the curious – we have a roundup of the unidentified tree posts.  The orchard contains

  • 5 apples,
  • 2 aronia berry bushes,
  • 9 blueberries,
  • 4 cherries,
  • 2 cornelian cherries (edible dogwood),
  • a few native elderberries,
  • 4 fig trees,
  • 1 peach,
  • 3 pears,
  • 3 plums,
  • 1 red currant,
  • 1 gooseberry, and
  • a wolfberry bush.

One bush identified must come out – autumn olive or goumi.  There are also invasive (though now heavily pruned, area significantly reduced, and under control) blackberries, thornless blackberries, and marionberries.  There are wild black raspberries, huckleberries, and manzanita.  A couple of Shuksan strawberries (I found the label) have survived beneath a layer of bracken fern.  A year ago, on my very first visit, I purchased a rhubarb plant at the local grocery store.  That has survived it’s first year of relative neglect.  We are planting two olive trees (purchased from a nursery a couple of weeks ago) and a walnut tree (from my grandmother.)

There are two trees/rootstock still unidentified.  We have 7 trees blooming this year (largely the cherry trees), so we can watch to see what fruits come.  The lonely blooming apple tree will probably not set fruit this year, as we didn’t identify it as an apple tree in time to borrow a couple of blooming branches from a neighbor for pollination (the closest apple tree is about 2 miles down the road.)  We might try to ‘stool’ or mound layer the peach rootstock this coming dormant season in order to get rootstock for at least 3 or 4 peach trees.

Still lots more cleaning and work to do, but definitely a valuable baseline has now been established.  Thanks, everyone, for your help with the identifications!

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Name that tree – here we go again (final chapter)

Almost there!  The final unidentified fruit trees in the Oregon orchard:

Tree 17

Tree 18 – buried in the back under brush; alive above the graft!

Tree 19 – buried in the back under brush; alive above the graft!  VERY leggy and desperately in need of shaping/pruning – suggestions?

Tree 20 – buried in the back under brush; alive above the graft!

Posted in food: seed to fork, woodland homestead | 1 Comment