Friday, October 11, 2013

Working at the Ivorian Ministry of Health

Notes from my first week of work at the Ministry of Health:
  • I arrived at work on Tuesday morning and the electricity was out.  They didn’t really know what to do with me, but one of the women in the office was about to leave for a week-long conference, so they sent me with her.  The conference was in Agboville, 90 minutes north of Abidjan.  I was told to go home and pack my bags and Noelle would pick me up in two hours. 
  • The conference was about how to improve human resources in the Ivorian health system.  There were officials there from several different branches of the Ministry of Health, as well as from the WHO and Abt Associates, who sponsored the meeting. 
  • The meetings were a bit stressful at first, as my French comprehension is still not totally up to par, and I had trouble following some of the more technical conversations.  Also, I’m the only non-African here.  It’s an odd feeling; I attract a lot of attention whenever I walk into a room.  Everyone is polite enough to pretend like it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s interesting to feel the vibe of the room change when I enter.  It’s a bit of a lonely feeling and I imagine it will increase my empathy for outsiders when I return to the U.S. 
  • It’s worth noting that Abidjan doesn’t feel like this.  White people are noticed, but there they are common enough that you usually don’t get more than a brief second glance.  This is supposedly rare for Africa.  Sheila says that even in Accra she attracted significantly more attention. 
  • By the end of the week, everyone had become much more comfortable with me.  I got invited out to dinner in town on our last night, and I had some nice conversations on Thursday and Friday. 
  • There was a refreshing and admirable level of honesty at these meetings  -- it is common for government officials at an official meeting to say something like “our system of financial motivation for health workers is completely worthless,” and everyone will nod in agreement.  U.S. government would function better if public officials were so honest.  
  • On Wednesday morning, we had a presentation on “Results-Based Management” (“Le Gestion Axée sur les Resultats”).  The presenter attributed the concept to Peter Drucker and his 1964 book “Managing for Results.”  The presentation cited the fact that the Canadian government adopted this concept in the early 1990s. 
  •  We seem to be writing the official 3-year plan for how to improve human resources in the health sector. 
  • In French, to make a text comprehensible to the population is to "vulgarize" it, which says everything.  
  • At lunch, I found a hair on my plate.  I spent a moment trying to decide if it was mine before realizing that I was the only person within 25 miles with hair like that. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Things I learned this week in Abidjan

Observations from last week in Abidjan:
  • Taxi drivers have been much more honest than I had been led to believe.  One negotiates their cab fare here, and to hear some tell it, they will skin you alive if you let them.  My experience has been that they usually start a dollar or two above the market rate, and negotiate down quite easily. 
  • On Wednesday night, my cab driver was listening to a country music CD.  The juxtaposition between Dan Williams' music and the drive across Abidjan at rush hour (we drove on the sidewalk for several blocks -- I know this must seem like an exaggeration but it isn't) was one of the cooler moments I've had here.  It would have made a great scene for a film.   
  • The climate is waaaay better than I had been expecting.  There hasn't been an oppressively hot day since my arrival and most days it's actually pretty pleasant.  Apparently, the dry season is much hotter, but I had expected every day to be unreasonably hot, and that is certainly not the case.   
  • I moved into my new house last weekend with the three other Fulbrighters.  It’s a spacious four-bedroom house, with a small yard on a pleasant residential street.  We’re in Deux Plateaux, a couple of blocks from Rue des Jardins, one of the more fun streets in Abidjan. 
  • Rue des Jardins is fun because it has restaurants (particularly Vietnamese and Lebanese), as well as cafes, an ice cream shop, a supermarket and a very decent French pastry shop. 
  • Rent is less than half of what one would pay for a similar place in DC, but still supposedly quite expensive by developing country standards.  
  • Moving in was complicated by the lack of social capital and the lack of trust in the legal system.  We didn’t want to pay anything until basically the moment we moved in and I felt stressed that perhaps it was all a scam and our money would be stolen.   For their part, they made us pay nine months of rent up-front -- six months of rent, along with three months of security deposit. 
  • Lots of lizards here, some with brilliant orange stripes along their backs. 
  • The ravens have white breasts. There are an extraordinary number of them here, particularly at sunset when they all take to the sky and downtown Abidjan looks like it’s in the middle of an apocalyptic bird uprising. 
  • Most streets here don’t have names, just numbers that nobody knows or bothers with. To get somewhere, you have to know a landmark nearby and direct your driver from there.  
  • The local furniture makers here don’t have stores or warehouses; they occupy patches of land in throughout the city where they display their wares.  We bought all our furniture for our house from one of these carpenters.  It was a mostly painless and effective process.  They built several beds, desks, chairs and desks for us, according to our specifications and delivered them; however, the one problem – and it is a significant problem – is that my bed smells like mold.  Trying to figure out how to get this fixed.