Wondering what a “bad week” in the Peace Corps looks like? Look no further.
I had a bad week. It didn’t suck. I’m not miserable. It was just blah. Things didn’t go my way. I went into this week hoping to make strides towards my final work goals. Unfortunately, I had a bunch of setbacks. In some respects I feel further away from them today than I did at the beginning of the week.
Last week I had a lot of goals as well, and for the most part, I met them. On Monday I had an excellent meeting with the Telica tourism cooperative, and we decided to have weekly financial review meetings starting the following week. Later in the week I also had a teacher and principals training with 38 participants. Usually there are around 15 teachers in my trainings, but I managed the size very well and I am very pleased with the outcome. I did fall ill early in the week and was off of my feet all of Tuesday, but luckily I fought through that and was back up and running for the teacher training on Wednesday. The only important thing that I missed was a breakfast meeting that I had scheduled for Wednesday morning. I rescheduled it for Sunday.
On Sunday morning I met with the founder of ETCA to discuss the pizza project. The founder is an American woman who had the vision and initiative to build ETCA in El Tránsito. She also is the part-owner of a boutique hotel and restaurant here in León. She lives part-time in Nicaragua.
I had good news for ETCA. The ladies had been awarded a $500 capital infusion grant to launch the pizzeria. We had come up with a budget that included pizza boxes, wooden tables, a stove and cooking gas, a blender, and some other necessary items. I was going to meet with the founder to share with her the good news and ask her a few quick questions that the grantors had asked me.
Unfortunately, things were not going well in El Tránsito. The ladies were unsure about the profit distribution plan, and there were also rumors that the founder and the project administrator were going to split the grant money and run. That is of course ludicrous, but perception is reality, and we had a perception problem in El Tránsito. I was extremely disappointed. I didn’t see these problems brewing. I thought that I had done a nice job making the budgeting process transparent, and the ladies had also received a talk on cooperatives and how profits are most fairly shared.
Nevertheless, the founder and project administrator felt that this in-fighting could get out of hand, and it was best to set aside the pizza project, lest everything that ETCA has accomplished be ruined. I couldn’t argue with their reasoning, but I was disappointed with the outcome.
First day of classes all around the country!
Tuesday was my last ever site visit. A site visit is when someone from the Peace Corps Entrepreneurial Education programming staff comes and visits a Volunteer for a day. During our service we get five site visits: one at the beginning of our service and subsequent visits at the beginning of every school semester. During site visits we visits schools and counterparts and go over progress made towards goals. We also organize an activity to have observed and we received feedback.
On this occasion Anita, the newest member of our programming staff, was making the visit to León, and I was happy to host her. In addition to the visits to the schools I was going to bring her along to my first weekly financial review meeting with the Telica tourism coop. When we got to the coop’s tour office in León they were closed. That really pissed me off. I had confirmed the meeting the day before, plus a day when they are closed is a day less of income. I knocked on the door. One member of the cooperative was inside, along with the man that they rent the space from.
Anita and I went in to see what was going on. It turns out that relations between the coop and the landlord had turned sour the day before and the president of the coop took everything out of the office and is not planning on renting the location any longer. In the hubbub he did not even remember to notify the member of the cooperative on shift the next day, so he schlepped down from the volcano that morning only to find an empty office. We stuck around and chatted for a little while, but I was very displeased with the situation. First of all, I was embarrassed that Anita was seeing this. Ironically, I actually think she loved the experience since she got to see raw footage of what Volunteers have to deal with from time to time.
Furthermore, I was concerned for the cooperative. Revenue generation is extremely important for them, and not having a store front in León is a near-death sentence. I decided that I needed to contact the president during the week and set up a meeting with them up at Telica, on their own turf, not in the city. Unfortunately, since then I have not been able to get a ride up the volcano, plus I have called the president multiple times but his phone has been turned off.
In the afternoon on Thursday I got a text message from my supervising counterpart at the Ministry of Education. He needed me to hand in a comprehensive report of all of my volunteer activities, along with evidence of activities undertaken, by the next morning. He called it urgent. I asked him who the audience was, and he said that the departmental ministry had requested it from him.
The request had me livid on a number of levels. First, the time given was ridiculously little. Second, this was clearly his responsibility. He is my supervising counterpart. He should be able to report to his superiors on my activities. And lastly, I hand in a report on my activities every semester. My counterpart and the departmental ministry had received all of these. Why would they request an additional one?
In the end, I got everything together on Thursday night. I could have fought Luis, but he would have played the opaque bureaucracy card and I would have just been burning bridges and making things I want to accomplish with the ministries more difficult in my last few months. However, I do feel that this episode goes to show the professional development that the ministries still need to make in order to provide the highest quality education possible for Nicaragua. It also is a cautionary anecdote for Volunteers embarking on the relationship building process with their counterparts. Counterparts are counterparts. We need to work together and help each other, mutually. In hindsight, I may have been too subservient with Luis from the beginning of my service, which puts me in this situation now as I am closing my service.
With the asinine report turned in, I had few goals left for the week. I never did get in touch with the president of the Telica tourism cooperative, and the pizza project was still in limbo. The setbacks and frustrations of the week actually had me motivated to push forward and do what I could do in the time that I had. The only cooperative that I still worked with that was left standing on two feet was the fish processing coop at Poneloya. I had been calling them since Wednesday, but that president’s phone was off too. So I decided to just head down to Poneloya and pop in. The president, Don Juan, was there, and we chatted for about 20 minutes. It was good that I got to talk to him, because I now know exactly what my next step needs to be with regards to that cooperative.
I’m very glad that I went down to Poneloya this afternoon. I could have just stayed at home and dilly dallied, but instead I laced up and took advantage of my precious-little time here. Despite the setbacks of the week, that makes me feel good looking into the week ahead, which I’m sure will be filled with its own challenges. Untangling interpersonal conflicts is daunting, no matter in what context you are trying to undertake. I have to do it while speaking in Spanish!
Working with cooperatives and collectives here in Nicaragua has been the most challenging job of my life. Managing a 90 person staff at a sleep away camp is less multi-faceted. I even think it is easier to manage a financial modeling project at a complicated international bank, complete with all of the trappings and challenges of a consulting project, than consulting a rural cooperative on their commercial development. Nevertheless, I am glad that I have undertaken the endeavor, and I do think that all of the clients that I have worked with are better off than they were before, regardless of whether or not we meet our final goals. I am personally certainly better off for the effort, at least. Onward to next week!