Friday, July 19, 2013

Ramadan in the Dark

It’s been three weeks and counting with no electricity or running water in the capital city. The utility company employees have not been paid in 39 months, so they stole all the gasoline that they use to run the cities power generator as compensation for their salaries.   I assume they realized gas isn’t necessarily the best replacement for money because now they are on strike!
            So no gas means there is no electricity, no electricity means no energy to run the pump that moves the water through the city, thus leaving us with no water. It’s a cruel, cruel cycle. The situation is expected to last until through the end of the month. Fortunately the UN came to the rescue and provided funding for gas for several days, but that ended quickly and the lights are out again
            At first the lights were just going out for days at a time. It was rough but manageable. But weeks on end with no electricity is really difficult!  You can’t flush the toilet, you have to go get water to cook and shower, you have no refrigerator which means food spoils quickly, there no lights at night so you can see what you are doing, you have to find a place to charge your cell phone and electronics, etc.., etc…, etc… Now this might not sound like that big of a deal, but when you add up all these little things it becomes a lot more work in the day then you would usually have to do.  
            It has been especially intense as well because we are getting into the most intense part of the rainy season. The rainy season started in May, but July through September is the most intense, especially August.
            There are two types of rain, hard rain and what people call ‘white rain’. Hard rain is exactly that; heavy drops coming down like rocks. When it rains a hard rain it last anywhere from 5- 40 minutes, but it rains hard. After that, it might rain with in the next 30 minutes or in a couple of hours. It comes and goes, interchanging with sunshine.  “White rain” is a lighter rain; the drops are smaller and it comes down in sheets. When it rains like this, it means it won’t be stopping for a while.
            The rain here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Maybe if you live on the east coast or the south this weather would seem normal, but I grew up in sunny California! Nothing there could prepare me for this. The rain comes down as if the ocean was above us and suddenly remembered gravity exists. Roads are always flooding so people walk around in water up to their shins. Using an umbrella is almost pointless.  Because the roads are covered in potholes, they get filled with water and you will often find a car stopped in the middle of the street nose and front tired down in a huge puddle. But on a positive note I will say this, the lightning shows are beautiful to watch.
            As if this situation needed more complexity, all of this is happening during Ramadan!  It has been both the easiest and hardest Ramadan of my life!
            It has been easy because Guinea-Bissau is a 50% Muslim country so most people are fasting. That means there is a lot of community support and non-Muslims are very respectful of the fact the Muslims are fasting. You don’t really see any food out during the hours of fasting.  
            On the other hand, I honestly don’t know how people in Bissau can fast while it’s raining intensely and they have no electricity. Even if people are unemployed, and spend the day just hanging out there’s nothing to do to kill the time. You can’t leave because of the rain and if you stay there’s no electricity (Personally this would be a perfect “lets read a book.” situation, but there is not necessarily a reading culture here. Guinea Bissau has about a 40% literacy rate.). At least workdays are cut short so people can get home in time to break fast.  
            This month has by far been the hardest month for me here. Many international folks take their vacation during this month to avoid the rain  (go figure), so many of the friends I’ve made are out of the country as well. But I do have my sisters visit to look forward too!
            My elder step-sister, Cecelia Ramos, is my step-dad’s second child from his 1st marriage. She is 34 and has 2 kids, Matthew, who is 5 and Emma, who is 2. She is coming with her children and partner, Remy, who is a jazz pianist.  They will be here for the entire month of August ( It’ll be great company for me but a rainy vacation for them)!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Land Documents

I haven’t talked much about my job, mostly because I wasn’t really doing anything. I got hired as an environmental specialist, but there wasn’t any work for me to do yet because the project is still in its infancy. So I had been playing the role of an accountant and human resources and secretary. Besides the project director, the finance vice president and my self there was no one else in the company that was here in Bissau.
            Silly me, I figured if I’m working for an American company I’ll have other American co-workers. HA! 5 of my co-workers arrived at the beginning of the week from Pakistan. All are male, and all are Muslim. I was anxious to see what this would mean for the work environment. Having grown up half of the time in a Muslim community, I know that the dynamics between men and women are very different, especially so in Muslim countries.
            When they first walked through the door, I waited to see what they would do. I know in some Muslim countries men don’t shake women’s hands. Pakistan is one of those countries.   So when they all walked in, said hello, and shook everyone else’s hand except for mine, I wasn’t offended.  I’m just glad I knew what to expect.
            They are very nice people. Some of them have warmed up to me, while others keep a professional distance. One speaks English really well, one speaks decently, one speaks poorly but is always talking, and the other 2 do not speak English. 
It’s an interesting experience working with them. I learn a lot about Pakistan, they sometimes bring me food, and while I am crying about my cousins trying to marry me here, 3 of them are patiently waiting for their fathers to choose a cousin for them to marry.  The irony!
            Anyways, we have been waiting for land documents to begin working on the 30 hectares given for the solar power plant. For this meeting we went to the minister’s office and attending a publicized meeting where the Minister of Energy gave Suntrough an official document
            I took my camera, just so I’d get some shots to have on record. But after the meeting folks from the newspapers came running after me to get my contact info because they showed up without a photographer.  I didn’t think he’d actually follow up, so I wasn’t prepared when he did.  He almost left with my pictures when my friend’s words about getting credit for my photos ran through my head.
            He said photographers usually just ask for money, and since I didn’t, it seemed as if he was just going to walk out the door and not say anything. I caught him on the way out, and he offered me a dollar for each photo, and there were five. But I told him to keep the money, and to just give me photo credit in the paper, which they did.
            So the next week the newspaper came out with my picture on the cover stating “Construction of the Solar Power Plant: Company promises 6 months until the opening and jobs for 200 people.”   The article explained that the government is giving the Company 30 hectares of land to begin their construction of the 10 megawatt solar energy plant.
            The sad part is not many people read the newspaper, which comes out once a week. The most used source of news is the radio, because it’s a relatively cheap one time purchase and it doesn’t require you to have electricity. I remember being in Gabu when we went to see the Guru and we spent most of our evening listing to the radio, switching between stations in Portuguese, French, and Creole. It’s a popular pass time and a great way to practice your languages.
            The next most used source of media is the television news. But this requires  you have a TV or know some one who has one. More importantly it requires you to have electricity, which is harder to come by then the TV. 
            The newspaper is small, but it combines a weeks worth of local and international news. It occasionally has job postings and news about events, but the two are few and far between. The paper is in Portuguese and another obstacle for people purchasing the paper is the fact that you have to read it. Guinea Bissau has a national literacy rate of 42%.  It also cost 500xof, which is inaccessible to some people.
            After reading the headline, my first thought was realizing how many people will be running down to our office to put in a resume. We’ve already received lots of very qualified people asking for work who lost their jobs after many non-profits left the country after the 2012 coup.
            The situation is so bad that some of these folks, who have worked for the UN or in UNICEF projects, were even offering to be the janitor if nothing else was available. I have been the person receiving most work requests since I speak creole and Its always a sad story when I ask about the requesters life.  Having no job is so paralyzing! Especially if you have worked in relatively high level positions in the past and have a family to care for.
            The bigger news recently has been the change in government that has been approved by the UN and international community. The government now has 19 ministers and 15 secretaries of States.  There are now 20 people in government, and 4 of them are women. 
            But this change happened because of the unequal division of power by the other political parties in the government. The PAIGC and Social Renewal party are Bissau’s biggest parties and the switch up made the balance between the 2 parties a little bit more equal.
            Many people have little faith that this change will do anything. But for me, at this point, the governments ability to come to a consensus, act on it , and have it approved by the UN is nothing less then a step in the right direction.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

7 months and counting

June 23rd marked 7 months in Bissau.  It feels like its been forever. My life has become so routine that sometimes I forget about the states.  And then I have random days where I get hit with a hard case of home sickness.
But the coming and going of the 7 month mark is significant because my intention was to stay here for 7 months and then go back to the states. “We make plans and God laughs” right?
            There are a couple of reasons why I’m not going home, yet at least, because lord knows, as much as I’m enjoying my self, I’m ready for a break from this country.

The 1st  reason I’m not leaving is because of my job. I am leaving a lot, meeting a lot of people, and seeing what “development” really looks like.  It’s intimidating sometimes, because I’m working with high profile people and they don’t teach you how to work with high profile people in college. But I have been truly blessed with this opportunity and I want to see where it takes me.

The 2nd  reason is , even if I wanted to leave, I don’t have enough money to get out of here! Haha Can you believe that its 250,000xof (500 dollars) just to get to Dakar, Senegal. And its only a 45-minute plane ride! SF to LA is an hour plane ride and 100 bucks!  Anyways, a flight back to the states is about 1,500 dollars. One of these days I’ll be back.

The 3rd reason I’m staying is my step-dad. As I mentioned when I started my blog, he is here on a mission, which is getting his ranch up and running! He was also planning on staying until June, returning to the states for a couple months and coming back to Bissau in December. Unfortunately the truck took so long to get out of the port that it put a lot of our plans behind schedule.  He has to stay to work through these next couple of months so we can save up money to fix up the house he has in Bissau and start planning and organizing what we’ll start doing in terms of working on his ranch.

We are really starting from square one and the journey is, has been and continues to be a beautiful struggle.

 I think deep down I knew I wasn’t going home… or at least all my friends knew. When I told them I was leaving, they would ask if I was ever coming back. I had told them all 7 months, so it was amusing to me that they would ask anyways. But many of my friends told me I wasn’t coming back in 7 months. Haha! I guess they know me better then I know my self.
            But the good news is well be getting lots of visitors to keep these next couple of months to keep it interesting. My sister in France is coming with her family ( her husband and 2 small children) at the end of the month through the end of August. My Uncle Armindo is coming in September.  My dad will be in Mauritania for the next 4 months, so I’m thinking about a birthday present to myself to go and visit him. Lastly, My mom and siblings will be coming for a month in December!  
            So how long will I stay? I’m not sure.  I imagine a year from now I’ll revisit this question. It will give me a year to get some work experience and a year save money to travel some of West Africa.  I’ve been reading other “travel’ blogs and its truly inspiring reading what other people in the world and doing.  But I plan to keep writing about the ins and outs of Life in Bissau. There’s never a dull moment. Cheers!