Tag Archives: research

“Useless” Day

Tuesday illustrated to me why we’re here, and for once I am excited about what we will be doing.  I think a lot of my

The women de-shell peanuts after they've been heated over an open fire, making the job easier.

group misunderstood the situation, which was unfortunate, because learning was lost there.

There have been days where we mostly sit and watch the women work, or play with the kids while the women work.  This was not one of those days.  Today, the majority of the women went to the market to sell products, while a smaller group and ourselves sat in the shade.  All day long.

We were sitting there because the women only own three large metal bowls, which are used for work, storage, transportation and sales.  When the women go to the market, they bring all the product they have to make it worth their while, meaning that there are no bowls back at the ranch to be used in production.

Today we literally lived through a lack of capacity, which left me completely convinced that our plan is the way to go.

Rolling the peanut paste (after the oil has been extracted) into sticks that will be fried in peanut oil.

The Request

The women have made it clear that they want machines to grind their raw materials so they can be made into products.  Buying one of these machines is costly, but would save them time and money, as well as bring in profit from those who live nearby and would pay for the use of the machine, they way they pay to use someone else’s now.

Buying the machine for the peanuts is the most logical because it also works with the soy.  Also, the machine they currently pay to use instead is significantly farther away.  Furthermore, peanuts are very cheap to buy and yield two products, one of which is rather lucrative.

The Reality

While it may be great to start with the flashy machine that would bring in the big bucks (2,000 CFA per batch of peanut or soy that someone pays them to have processed, plus a savings of two hours and 1,000 CFA a week to transport themselves via motorbike to the location of the machine they currently use), I don’t think it’s a sound decision.

You need to start from the ground up, and right now the women waste many hours and several days every week waiting for their equipment.  With very little money, we can double the number of bowls and tables they have, allowing for more production and storage.  We can also buy a proper storage container for the corn, freeing up the bowls to be used for work more often than storage.

Drying the galletas (peanut sticks) into a delicious frenzy.

The Linchpin

The piece of this plan that makes me actually proud is the last bit: financial planning.  We cannot give them the machine because we can’t afford it.  But honestly, their current business model cannot accommodate it right now, either.  Instead, we’re going to increase their production and productivity, capitalizing on the workforce that is often unused.  This will in turn build up their revenues, and allow them to continue to work while others make trips to the market and to use the machines.

For the long-term, we are going to work with the women on a better savings plan.  Right now they don’t have an accounting system.  While they do have a group savings, much of that goes to a party at the end of the year.  We plan to separate the party fund from the longterm savings fund, which will be available for the purpose of buying the machine for the peanuts and soy someday.  Additionally, an emergency fund would be beneficial.  We intend to divert the additional money they make from the additional equipment we’re giving them.  That money will go towards buying the machine—they didn’t have it before, so they won’t miss it, and reinvesting their capital will help far more in the long run.

The end result, which we happily munched on. All this could be accomplished quicker and on a grander scale, which is our aim with a few slight tweaks to the model.

Our Accidental Advantage

Sometimes we underestimate the consequential knowledge of which we are the unwitting beneficiaries.  The idea of long-term savings is something we were raised with, as well as the value of a surplus and reinvesting in yourself and your business.  Between our greater years of education and growing up in homes that save for retirement, college funds, vacations and small business, we have been exposed to much more sound financial advice than we realize, and much more than the average Beninoise.  We intend to pass along these ideas, as well as the basic materials that in the end, make a large long-term difference, so that the women don’t have more days like today: waiting in the hot sun for something to happen.

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?

Ignorant Traveler

That’s me right now. I feel strange going to Benin.  I’m not even sure how to pronounce it.

Here I am, researching oh so much about Ewan and Nicole...I mean, Benin.

We went to the embassy today, and it was great to meet the ambassador, but I was embarrassed.  I didn’t know the square footage or population size.  I already spoke French well, so I look and sound more prepared than I am.  I knew about some of the languages, but only because of Benin’s ties to Cuba and my mind’s sponge-like properties.

I feel very unprepared for this trip.  Part of that is great; I’m laid back and go with the flow.  I don’t need to know everything, to schedule everything, to be in charge of everything.  But part of that disgusts me. Some travellers discuss the virtues of going with a totally open mind, of being sure “not to over-research.”

Over research?  Is that even possible?  To me it just sounds like an excuse not to do your homework.

I’ve never been somewhere I knew so little about before.  And yet I remember saying that about Cuba.  I was rather prepared for the French exchange in high school, and I deifnitely know more about Egypt than is expected for an American.  But that doesn’t mean I was prepared enough.  In-country I was embarassed and frustrated by my poor Arabic skills, by the fact that I’d only taken one semester of formal Arabic.  I’m not used to not being the best at things like languages, to not knowing all the answers and to not always being right.

So maybe I’m never as prepared as I think.  There are always excuses: Arabic is hard, Cuba is soon, no one does research on Benin. But there are also millions of people who travel every year without studying the language, religion, geography, culture and economic situation of the destination before packing their bags.

Perhaps, its just time I let travel teach me that I don’t always have to be the best, and that being unsure (or heaven forbid: wrong!) is acceptable and even kind of interesting.

Learn from Experience pt. 2: Packing Edition

Now that I’m packing for Cuba, and considering my last post, my brain naturally made the leap to my packing successes and pitfalls from this past summer.

Things I Wish I had brought to Egypt:

Look at me, all wearing long pants and not even sweating. Oh and pyramids.
  • Jeans. We were told they’d be too scandalous and hot, but I found them to be neither.  Also, most of the Egyptians and Americans were wearing them, so those who followed this dictate simply bought awesome ones in country.
  • A hooded sweatshirt. Again, I was under the impression that Egypt would be a sweltering heat-death, but it was fine.  And on many occasions, the AC was overwhelming.  Most of all though, hoodies are comfy.  When you’re traveling and tired, comfy is key
  • Cute going out clothes. I pretty much wore the same purple shirt every time we went out, or else looked awkward.
  • Plain black sweatpants. Comfort, yes, but the lovely Janine had some that were more clean than grungy, so she was able to wear them a little dressier when she wanted.  Comfy but deceptively dressy is my goal in pretty much all things.

Things I’m Pumped I brought:

  • My travel pillow and sleep sack. They are the bomb, and considering how much travel there was during our six weeks, both were great ideas.
  • Wipes. My feet were disgusting approximately 99% of the time.  That 1%?  Due entirely to some kind of handi-wipe.
  • An extra (empty) duffel bag. This was for in-country travel as well as for bringing souvenirs home.  Unfortunately, mine self-destructed
  • Nutella. Hands-down my best decision.  It’s wicked expensive in Egypt (and many other places) and amps up any snack, which came in handy on a daily basis on our trip.
  • Tupperware and ziploc bags. So versatile, but especially useful when sneaking food from the complimentary breakfast every day.

What I shouldn’t have brought:

  • Hiking boots. They were gigantic and heavy and I didn’t use them all that much.  Sneakers would’ve been fine pretty much every time.

Penelope Trunk had a great post about how you should be yourself when traveling, and I couldn’t agree more.  If museums bore you here, they’ll bore you somewhere else too.  If a hooded sweatshirt means home, that’ll be true anywhere.

I read a great book before going to France, about a girl sent on a European adventure by her aunt’s letters, which were sent posthumously.  The aunt has a few rules, though, and one of her most stringent is that he niece should not read any travel books.  While this may sound ridiculous, she has a point.  The girl cheats a little and reads that when traveling, sturdy, plain white sneakers are the best.  She complies, and finds that the sneakers out her constantly as a tourist, while other travelers look cool and comfy.

Sometimes, you just have to ignore the advice and look like you.

Learn from Experience

I think it’s important to pause and reflect before, during and after every adventure.  While I did some of that because it was mandated for Egypt, I also did a decent amount of that for this blog.  More often, though, I tried to make this a way of reflecting in a sort of “together” academic sort of way.  Post-Egypt I hit the ground running, so here is a look back at what I’ve learned, whether it be for my next trip to Egypt, travel in general or writing this blog.

When I go back to Egypt:

  • Cairo Jazz. I tried often, but never made it, and I hear it was a blast.
  • Alexandria. We were the definition of gilded cage while there, and I barely got to see any of the great Euro-Arab hybrid city.
  • Speak  more with locals. I’ve got a lot more confidence about my ability to intimidate/tell off strange men or hustlers, so I should stop whining about how the boys get extra practice and just get some myself.
  • Take more pictures. This gets into a bit about traveling as well, but there’s a lot of my experience that I didn’t capture, whether that be Egyptian friends or the khan el-khalily market.  I have a million pictures of ancient things, and I think it kind of burnt me out.
  • Sinai Peninsula. This place is wicked important historically, politically and scuba-ically.  We all wanted to go but weren’t allowed to because of our security detail, and I’ve heard from many that it’s must-see.


  • Pictures again. I want to take more pictures of people, and less of stuff, as well as to try to avoid picture burnout.  It should be neither an obligation nor a chore.
  • Pack lighter. I will always and forever say this.
  • Wander around more. We were so busy in Egypt that I didn’t explore nearly enough.  Luckily, with Havana being much safer and my time frame much longer, this should be easy.
  • Plan ahead. I didn’t realize how little time I would have once I was there.  This meant that I didn’t know how much I wanted to do something until my time was almost over.
  • Collect local music. Every day in our vans we listened to some great music, but unfortunately only Wa wa wa made it back.  Cuba is world renowned for its music, and is in fact one of the aspects of Cuban culture I’ve researched before, so I plan to pick up some great CDs.
  • Plan souvenirs ahead. Buy throughout, instead of mostly at the end (so stressful!)
  • Think in the local currency. After all, that’s where you are.  If you don’t heed Miss Asha Fierce’s wise words, you’ll go broke.
  • Carry pen and paper always, and don’t be afraid to take notes. In fact, I want to go one better and bring a voice recorder too for when my thoughts get going too fast for my pen.
  • Buy smart. This applies to everything, but I thought of it when it comes to myself.  The Egyptian skinny jeans and the handmade mirror I bought are among my favorite souvenirs, and they aren’t silly knick-knacks, they are things I will wear and decorate with for a long time.

This Blog:

  • Pictures! I know it makes a big difference when I’m reading the blogs of strangers.  Unfortunately, my internet and computer situation in Egypt made this basically impossible.  I hope to go back and update some old posts with pictures, as well as to post WAY more pictures from Cuba
  • Loosen up. Sometimes I need to just show the basic, emotional part where you’re processing a million things at once, instead of just the polished academic.  The downside?  It makes my mother nervous.
  • Be honest. There are some things I couldn’t be honest about in Egypt, and some things that just would’ve given my mother and Gram a heart attack.  But really, a lot of it wasn’t so bad.  I’d like to show people a more realistic picture, if I can.
  • Take video! I took one or two videos but they were awful and I never posted them.  I have the power, so I figure why not?  In the near future you may see a youtube account with some rough videos off of my canon still camera.
  • Encourage comments. I know how many people read this, and I have a vague idea of who.  At this point, it’s mostly me just saying whatever I want, or occasionally answering questions I’ve heard in person from friends and family or reacting to relevant news pieces.  For those of you family members who are not quite so into the internet, reading a blog without ever commenting/making your presence known is called lurking.  And yes, it’s meant to sound that creepy.  I KNOW you have questions and things to say–people email me or they ask my mom or, more often, they will tell me months after I return.  So comment!  an interactive blog is a fun blog!  I’ve been making an effort lately to encourage comments, which is something I never really did or thought about in Egypt.

What about you?  If you have been to Egypt, travelled or blogged then you should have some suggestions!  Also, since you’re here you read this blog, and doubtless have some suggestions for what I could improve.  For example, Eena requested captions for the pictures, since the few from Egypt don’t really have explanations.  So when I’m in Cuba and all my photos have great captions, you can thank her.  As for the rest of you, what are your suggestions?


Many people have asked me “Why Cuba?” 

Most often, my answer is, “because it’s illegal.”  I’ve been told that this sounds childish.  No Kidding. 

In part, I am joking.  There is a certain appeal to going somewhere you shouldn’t, but there are many logical, acceptable reasons for me to go to Cuba. 

Then there’s the part of me that’s not kidding.  I do want to go places that are illegal and/or unlikely.  Why?  Because that’s what I want my life to be about.  So many Americans will never go to Cuba or the Middle East or a whole bunch of other places.  A big part of why I blog is to educate those who will never have this opportunity. 

I mean really, how often do you get to read a first-hand account of an American in Cuba? 

So perhaps I’m not being childish after all.  Perhaps I think it’s childish to be afraid of a country because of a decades-long and decades-old grudge.

The F Word

I have a love/hate relationship with feminism.  Not the ideal, but the term, and some of the people who use or abuse it. 

Feminism has become a dirty word.  It was never all that popular to begin with, but the last decade of two have not been kind on feminism.  You may recall when a guy friend reassured a smart, female friend of mine that she wasn’t a feminist, with the same look and tone of pity reserved for telling people that they’re not stupid or fat.  I could have clocked him.  I have always been a feminist, of course, but unlike Janine I rarely use the word.  In certain company I have found that people often write me off and stop listening. 

Certain old acquantainces, and one in particular, soured me on the term.  They were rabid and illogical in their arguments, and focused in on nonsense like the use of gendered pronouns in text books.  This sort of behavior makes me want to yank my hair out and scream.  What about FGM?!  What about girls who can’t go to school?!  What is WRONG with you people?!

Often, though, if you react like this there will be backlash.  Naomi Wolf from the Huffington Post experienced this when she suggested that many Arabs believe western outrage should be focused on honor killings or civil and political rights, instead of just the hijab.  I’ve whined before about how western people fixate on the hijab, giving undue attention to something far less disturbing than rape, , terrible divorce laws and political inequality.  These are just a few of the issues facing modern Arab women. 

So-called feminists like the ones who railed against Wolf should be educating themselves or mobilising the public on topics like FGM and divorced women who aren’t allowed to see their children.  Instead, they only detract from the cause, like a fanatic from any group. 

It’s high time we make feminism, the belief that all people are equal regardless of gender, something to be proud of.  So ignore the use of the term chairman instead of chairperson, and focus on girls who lack access to education, or mothers who lack access to adequate and culturally senstive birthing facilities

‘Feminist’ is not a synonym for ‘bitter, illogical woman’ or ‘raving lunatic.’  So quit acting like it.