Monday, December 9, 2013

More Observations from Yamoussoukro

More Observations from the Atelier National de réflexions sur une Strategie Nationale de Financement Basé sur la Performance en Cote d'Ivoire in Yamoussoukro. 
  • On Friday, the last full day of the workshop in Yamoussoukro, I was nominated “president” of my workshop group.  For context, at the beginning of every daily workshop, each group nominates a president.  The president's job is to call on people to speak and to keep the discussion moving and the work on schedule.  My nomination was out of politeness, not out of any sense of Africans deferring to Americans; I had been pretty quiet the previous day, and I believe they were trying to be inclusive. 
  • Being president was a very stressful, very memorable experience.  Everyone is quite formal; they call you "president" or "monsieur/madame le/la president" throughout the time that one is president.  Things quickly descended into chaos though.  At the best of times, it takes a very strong leader to keep control of these group-writing sessions, and my linguistic and cultural ignorance were huge obstacles.  Even if I spoke perfect French, the cultural unknowns made effective leadership very tricky (Should everyone be allowed to express their viewpoint on every issue? Am I allowed to interrupt government officials 30 years my elder?).  And my lack of Ivorian institutional expertise left me completely unable to contribute on several important points (there was a long debate about exactly which Ministry of Health offices should be involved in regulating the “purchasing agent”).  And my French is far from perfect.  The upshot was that I completely lost control of the meeting.  Everyone ended up arguing about tiny, esoteric points for the first four hours.  The senior group member kept on giving me reproachful looks and he publicly "exhorted" me to take better control of the meeting, but it was not to be.  I implored the group to move forward, but was completely powerless to move things forward as I might have been able to do in English.  Finally, with 45 minutes until we were expected to present to the wider conference, the group seemed to confront the reality of our time constraints.  We threw together the final 75% of the work in broad, panicked brushstrokes during that last half hour and presented an adequate enough final product in the restitution session. 
  •  In fairness to my Ivorian colleagues, this was about the same as most group work projects I’ve experienced.  At Booz Allen, we spent the first week writing scripts via group and it followed the exact same pattern.  We would spend an entire morning arguing about comma placement in Script #1, and then write the last four scripts in an hour.  The work group in Yamoussoukro was a bit panicked at the end, but probably not memorably so for most of the group members. 
  • Participating in workshops in a different language is fun because it allows you to zoom out and appreciate the quirks of human nature.  When you can’t fully follow the semantic thread of the conversation, you pick up on body language: adults roll their eyes or refuse to make eye contact with a person who is disagreeing with them.  They spend 90 minutes on facebook, completely oblivious of the conversation, but then their laptop battery runs out, so they join the conversation and then immediately get so fixated on a point that they won’t let the group move past it for half an hour. 
  • The drive home from Yamoussoukro was a fascinating cultural experience.  I rode back with four of my colleagues at DPPS.  Our driver, Touré, was the most junior member of the team.  He was very offended when I tried to put on a seatbelt, assuring me that he was a terrific driver. 
  • The freeway is one-lane, so passing other cars is a necessity.  Our driver was a decent enough driver, and not overly aggressive, or at least not overly aggressive compared to the Abidjanais cab drivers.  We passed cars regularly, and for the most part without great danger.  But I dozed off after a couple of hours, and I woke up to screams and found our car accelerating towards an oncoming pickup truck while another pickup truck blocked our path back to the safety of our lane.  We survived that, but then, half an hour from Abidjan, the driver lost concentration for a bit and almost swerved off the road.  My supervisor, woke up with a start, and immediately yelled at the driver for his reckless driving.  The rest of the car chimed in, and the driver got so offended that he pulled off the side of the freeway and stormed off to smoke a cigarette to calm himself down.  He eventually returned, having apparently resolved to enact some revenge.  We spent the next 90 minutes behind a semi-truck that was traveling 15 miles per hour and spewing horrible black smoke.  As further punishment, the driver turned off the car radio and we sat in silence (although he did put in earphones for himself to listen to music from his smart phone).  The driver’s tantrum didn’t even have the desired effect, as my supervisor had lapsed into a deep slumber in the passenger seat.    
  • After the long journey crammed into the middle of the back seat, I was pretty eager to get home, and I even offered to take a cab so that the driver wouldn’t have to drive me all the way back.  He wouldn’t hear of it though and insisted on taking everyone back to their own houses.  We started by dropping off a coworker whose house was situated on a dirt road on the outskirts of the far opposite side of our sprawling capital.  He insisted that we all come in for a beer, and the group, somehow warmly reconciled by now, happily accepted, and we chattered happily about the tranquility of the remote location.  We then headed to my place on the other side of Abidjan, where I couldn’t help but invite everyone in for a second beer. 
  • It was a very long day and a long week, but very good for my French and for my understanding of the Ivorian health sector.  So long as I concentrate, I now have little trouble following the lectures or group discussions at the workshop.  I learned a good amount about both the structure and implementation of our Performance-Based Financing program, as well as institutional insights that are never written into formal government documents.  I’m still not at a place where I can understand my Ivorian colleagues when they laugh and banter in a personal setting, but I’m improving and, on good days, I feel optimistic that I will get there.