Friday, June 29, 2007


As I'd hoped, I found an internet cafe in Cape Coast that is fast and still pretty cheap. It is cooler here and there are some neat castles from the colonial period (mostly built by the Dutch, I think), and of course it is great to be by the water. Cape Coast is west of Accra and southwest of Kumasi. It took us about 4 hours to get here, which isn't bad for Ghana.

Unfortunately, I'm feeling truly awful at the moment, so all I have the energy for is posting a bunch of pictures.Here is your monkey, J.J. Sorry it's not closer-up. I have some better ones (and this one is better when you zoom in), but this is a monkey grooming a smaller monkey on the roof of someone's house.

When the monkies die, they bury them and do a ceremony that involves pouring a bottle of schnapps on the grave. There was a whole graveyard.

This is outside of Techiman, on the way to the monkey place. Ghana is very green.

I tried very hard to memorize the name of this lake, and I think I've forgotten it already. It is near one of the borrowing communities I visited. It is very large and very beautiful, and lots of people fish there. I haven't seen much fishing here on the coast so far (but I'm sure there is some around here somewhere).

Okay, so at the lake, they sold fish in baskets. Whole fish, apparently deep-fried. I was with a driver and a loan officer from OI, and they were all about eating these fish. You eat the whole damn thing: head, tail, bones, everything. Here is the head of a fish that I was eating. I ate this head right after I took the picture. Then I thought I was going to throw up, but the feeling passed, fortunately.

This is in Kumasi, near where I will be surveying. This is sort of what Africa looks like.

If I feel better tomorrow, I will post more. For now it's back to the guesthouse.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


One day soon I will write a serious, economics-related post about how the research is going. The short answer is pretty well but not without several annoying issues. I know that once I am surveying things will be routine and somewhat easier, but there are quite a few steps before I get to that point, and every other step seems to be "panic".

In general, things are going well, though. I like Kumasi and am slowly learning my way around. Mel and Al are great to have around, and Al is a fun roommate. I tried some goat the other day and it was pretty good. Mostly I eat chicken, rice, bits of salad, and random street food (my favorites include a hardboiled egg, fried pastry filled with egg, baked pastry filled with a thin layer of mystery meat, some weird but good half-frozen vanilla yogurt that comes in a bag, or an ear of boiled corn). They have something called jollof rice that is a bit like spanish rice and is pretty yummy. I've learned a few words of Twe (pronounced kind of like "tree") and people seem to always crack up when I say "medasi" (thank you) as thought it is incomprehensible that an obruni would know that word ("obruni" means white person, and we get it quite a bit).

For some reason I miss people a lot this trip: family, friends, dwe, etc. I don't miss the comforts or modernity of the US very much (especially since the heat here is very bearable), but I miss the US insofar as it is my home. I suppose that's a good thing. Anyway, I have many pictures, and will try to upload them this weekend while I'm in Cape Coast with a (hopefully) faster connection.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

everybody loves monkeys

We're in a town called Techiman right now, which is three hours north of Kumasi and near a monkey sanctuary and also some waterfalls. We saw the monkeys today (as well as a lot of really cool trees) and will possibly go to the waterfalls tomorrow (although I might stay here and work; the internet cafe here actually has a faster connection than the one in Kumasi). I will post pictures when I get a chance to do some uploading, and who knows when that will be.

Things are going well, but I'm a bit behind on work. I didn't do much on Thursday (other than a very productive meeting with OI's marketing people in the morning) because I wasn't feeling well, and Friday I spent the morning with Mel and Al (the two female IDEC students who are also here; obviously those aren't their full names) while they went out and surveyed a borrower group in a rural area outside Kumasi, then the afternoon we were in transit to Techiman. JP has made a bunch of revisions to the survey that I need to look at, and then I have some more revisions of my own to make (things specific to Ghana, mostly). Next week I'm scheduled to visit several different areas where OI gives loans to choose one in which to do my surveying. I've been feeling very stressed out about how everything is going to work out, but I'm starting to envision how the process will work a little more clearly, and I'm feeling a bit better. More details in a later post.

Oh, and here's another charming anecdote about the fascinating cultural differences between the US and Ghana: I was with Mel, Al, and Mel's boyfriend at the monkey sanctuary today, and our tour guide asked me if I was their mother (they are 23, 23, and 27). I was shocked and said no, and asked the guide how old he thought I was. He said in my 40s. When I told him my actual age, he explained that I look older because I am fat. The reason for this is not entirely clear to me: although here, as in the US, many older people tend to carry a bit of extra weight, there are some chubby young people, too (not as many as in the US, I suppose). And I know that it's sometimes hard to tell how old people of other, unfamiliar races are. But I don't so much love being called old and fat in the same sentence (I don't really hate it, either; I guess it just comes with the territory).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

off to kumasi

I'm in the OI office again today, partly to take care of a few last details but mostly for free internet and AC. This afternoon I will leave for Kumasi. Yay! I'm not sure why I'm so convinced that everything will be better once I get to Kumasi. I'm really looking forward to seeing my fellow IDECers. I also very much want to start getting "settled in" and start some kind of a routine, and it doesn't make much sense to start one here when I'm going to be spending the summer in Kumasi.

Because I know you're just dying to know: Kumasi is the second largest city in Ghana (after Accra, of course) with a population of approximately 1 million. It is inland, so it's probably a bit warmer (which is okay because the heat here in Accra really hasn't been that bad, compared to what I'd imagined). Kumasi is the old capital of the Ashanti region; the Ashanti (or Asante) are the largest native group in Ghana and fought several wars with the British until they were incorporated into the Gold Coast colony in the late 1800s (I hope I'm remembering these details correctly...the history of Ghana that I'm reading is informative but not exactly scintillating). The Ashanti language is called Twe, and I believe it is the most commonly spoken language after English. (Random side note...Ghana is approximately the same size, but a bit smaller than, Oregon.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

the fussy details of survey formatting

I've been in the OI office most of the day, and while I'm waiting for various people to finish meetings so that they can meet with me, I've passed my time by rewriting our survey from it's rough draft in Word into something more formal in Excel. After my experience last year, I'm much more aware of the differences between how something looks on the screen and on the page, not to mention the importance of the order in which questions are organized or how close together they are to one another. I'm trying to make this survey far more user-friendly and easily-read than the one that we used last year in India. For the most part the changes are straightforward (I'm increasing font sizes and leaving larger spaces for answers), but it's sometimes tricky to decide whether or not to create a chart or to break a question up into parts or to just restate it more than once (and I should say that JP, who co-wrote the survey and will be using it in Chennai, has been very good at figuring out ways to state things clearly). Questions that involve a second and third "if yes, then blah blah blah..." question are particularly annoying to me. It's important that the initial question is answered clearly yes or no, because sometimes the enumerator will fill out the answers to subsequent questions even when they aren't applicable, which then can present a whole mess of confusion.

You might be wondering if there isn't some professional standard that I could be following in this situation. Well, sort of. Our survey questions themselves are loosely based on the LSMS, which is the World Bank's Living Standards Measurement Study. This is an exhaustive series of survey modules asking about pretty much everything you can ever imagine wanting to ask a household in a developing country. The thing about the LSMS, however, is that it is insanely long and complicated, and the questionnaires themselves are designed to be administered and filled out by professionals. Also, the LSMS does pretty much all of the coding within the survey (i.e. if the person gives this answer, you put a 1, if they give this answer, you put a 2, etc), which, while making the answers shorter, adds to the complexity of the layout (and the length of the explanatory text). (My survey won't involve very much complicated coding, because it's mostly quantifiables and yes or no questions, and all of the coding will be done by me when I enter the data.) The bottom line is that the LSMS is not even remotely user-friendly, so it's not much of a model for me in that respect.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

it's not the 3rd world unless someone calls me fat

I admit that I'm not doing so well with the jet lag. I slept quite late this afternoon again, which doesn't matter much because it's Sunday, but is unhelpful nonetheless. Still no cell phone, but after I'm done here I'm going to go see about one that I looked at yesterday. I told the guy that was trying to sell it to me that I needed to go eat, and he gestured to my stomach and said that Americans already eat enough, that we have too much food and are too fat, no? I agreed with him, but said that I hadn't eaten all day, and therefore I was going to have dinner regardless of the state of my own stomach or the stomach of collective Americans.

Earlier I was walking with a gentleman who had befriended me (okay, accosted me) on the street, and he was saying that it was hard for white people to walk around because everyone wants to talk to them or sell them something. I told him I was used to it because it was the exact same way in India. Something about that statement felt inappropriate to me, as though I were saying, "yeah, you know, poor countries where the people have darker skintones...they're all the same...they all harass me because I'm so rich and white, but gee, I've learned to deal with it." As much as I like travelling, I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with the inherent social dynamics.

Back to the cheap cell phone hunt.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

in accra

Well, here I am. I've been in Accra for not quite 2 days now, but I have nothing terribly exciting to report yet. My bag didn't make it on my flight, so I had to spend several hours at the airport last night waiting for it to come in (which it did, thank goodness). The place I'm staying is expensive (there aren't really any cheap places to stay here, and the ones that are cheap are all booked), but it has AC and a TV that gets some kind of global version of CNN, so at least I'm being spoiled. I'm trying very unsuccessfully to get over my jet lag. I slept for much of yesterday afternoon, and then I went to bed for the night at 1 a.m., woke up at 4:30 a.m., finally got back to sleep and then accidentally slept until 3:30 p.m. today. Oh well. I've only eaten one meal since I got here (dinner last night...and I will eat again very soon, because I'm very hungry), but it was good. I was unadventurous and got fried rice at the restaurant next to my hotel, which was very good and not particularly exotic. I also drank two bottles of something called Sahara Dry Cider, which was very good. Yay, African hard cider!

Some initial observations/anecdotes about Ghana:
  • The heat is really bearable so far (and not just because I have AC in my room). I think it might be worse in Kumasi.
  • Accra is cleaner and less crowded than Chennai was, and fewer people randomly harass you on the street.
  • The people that do harass you, however, often say "hello" using the exact same tone and inflection as the Indians did, as though it's the only word of English they know, which in this country it certainly isn't.
  • Most people seem to speak English, but there are also other languages being spoken (often by the same people...presumably they are speaking the tribal languages I've read about) and I think maybe there's a modified version of English being spoken. People certainly have accents and aren't always readily understandable.
  • I have seen almost no overtly homeless people.
  • One of my cab drivers told me he wanted to marry a white woman. I told him that I was sorry, but that I'm spoken for, and he said, "no, I don't want to marry you." But he gave me his number and wanted me to hook him up with one of my American friends. All I know about him: he's 28, his name is Emmanuel, and he can drive.

Anyway, I need to go see about buying a cell phone before the stores close. More soon, of course. Internet is cheap and only sort of slow.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

imminent departure

I'm currently in LA, at Casa de Muffin (well, actually, Casa de Muffin's boyfriend, who is a truly lovely person that I'm very excited to have gotten to meet finally). As I mentioned, Muffin is leaving on the train with the rest of the Dreams Across America people tomorrow, so he is running around dealing with last minute stuff, much the way I had been until I left Bakersfield earlier today (except there's far more equipment and logistical pre-planning involved in filmmaking than in economics).

Of course I feel as though there should be something noteworthy about my last night in the U.S. for a bit. And there is, insofar as I haven't seen Muffin in forever, it's great to meet his boyfriend, I just drank a really good martini, etc. But leaving is, as usual, deceptively mundane. I don't know what Ghana will be like, but I can guess; I don't know what will change while I'm gone, but probably not much.

I don't think I'd do very well writing a travel memior. I don't seem to be able to imbue the proper moments with the proper meaning. Maybe the juices will start flowing once I get on the plane (not that I'm trying to write a travel memoir, but I feel that things should be mildly more interesting than this).

Unless LAX got free WiFi while I wasn't noticing, my next dispatch will be from Accra...


Okay, so my blog was ugly. Green and red and indigo don't go together. I want to get rid of the green because I'm sick of it, but I can't find something I like better, so right now we're all monochromatic with some purple. I'll keep playing with it to see what I like.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

dreams across america

Since I'm flying out of LAX on Wednesday afternoon, I'm having Ma drive me down to LA the night before so that I can have a quick but long-overdue visit with Muffin before I leave. He's been living in LA for over a year now, working in various capacities as an editor and documentary filmmaker. I wanted to give a little plug for the project he's working on right now because I think it's pretty interesting and I'm really proud of the work that he's doing.

He is currently doing short documentary films and interviews, as well as a bunch of other related logistical stuff, for a pro-immigration project called Dreams Across America. The same day I leave for Ghana, they are leaving on a cross-country train ride to raise awareness and dispell misinformation about immigration and its effects on American society (which is of course a really interesting and complex issue with a lot of economic implications, but that's beyond the scope of this particular post). Many of the videos on the website were done by Muffin and/or his film partner (I'm pretty sure he did most of the ones with white backgrounds--he also did the one of Cardinal Mahoney on page 14 of the video section). I think it's really cool that he's been able to work doing the thing that he wants to be doing (filmmaking) and I know that he is learning a great deal.


Ma and I arrived back from Las Vegas earlier this evening. My ma got the trip as a gift from her company after working there for 20 years. We stayed in a really beautiful suite on the 25th floor of the Venetian. It had three flatscreen TVs, including one in the bathroom. We went for a gondala ride, went shopping, had massages, and ate yummy food. Not as exciting as actually being in Italy, like E is right now, but still pretty cool. We only explored the strip a little bit (The Venetian is huge, so we hardly felt the need to leave) and spent all of five minutes gambling (me: video blackjack, net winnings of negative 50 cents; Ma: video poker, net winnings of a whopping $8 resulting from a four of a kind). Our favorite place was the pool deck on the fourth floor, which was like a big garden with a couple of pools, grassy areas (well, fake grass, but it looked real) with chaise lounge chairs, a bar, and restaurant with patio seating.

The weekend was fun, despite my lingering backache from moving. Tomorrow I'll be doing laundry and running a couple last minute errands, and then we're going out to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's one-year wedding anniversary.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

moved out

I am officially no longer a resident of San Francisco. The majority of my stuff is stacked up in a 5' by 10' storage space in SoMa (and I have to say that N was right when he said that you'd be surprised how much fits in a storage unit--I had no problem fitting dozens and dozens of boxes, two bed frames, a full-size mattress, three book shelves, a futon frame, a papazan frame and cushion, my dining room table, and various other miscellaneous items). I also have some stuff both at DWE's house and my ma's house, mostly clothes and some other things that I didn't want to put in storage (poor DWE asked to borrow my Simpsons DVDs and managed to get saddled with all of my DVDs and the media shelf that they're stored in).

Moving was a somewhat stressful experience because, as usual, I had more stuff than I thought and I wasn't as well-packed as I thought. I rented an SUV (the Ford Edge--nice handling, but worst gas mileage ever) on Monday morning and took two loads of stuff to my storage space on my own, which was tiring but not too bad (carrying stuff down the stairs is definitely easier than the alternative). On Tuesday morning I took a second load to storage, then DWE helped me in the afternoon and we took all the big stuff over. The storage unit closes at 6 p.m., so I spent Tuesday evening frantically finishing packing all the random crap still left in my apartment (and there was quite a bit of it) so that I could do an early-morning storage unit run before I had to return my rental car. DWE was driving down to San Diego on Wednesday evening, so he drove me to Bakersfield with the last of my stuff. Although I did a lot of the moving myself, DWE was extremely helpful, especially at the end when I was panicking and sore and tired of going up and down stairs. In addition to being really patient with me, he worked really hard and tirelessly carried stuff while I finished packing and dealt with move-out paperwork and stuff. Of course, DWE is just one in a long line of helpful and tireless friends who have helped me move over the years (as many of you know because you are those helpful and tireless people).

My ma and I are in Vegas right now for the weekend, which I will tell you all about in a later post. For now I have to go shower because we're getting massages at 10:30. I'll also provide an update on Ghana stuff soon (just 4 days until I leave!).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

fabric softener

Intelligent as my mother is, she occasionally seems to be quite easily addled by what I consider to be simple tasks, like booking an airline flight online or differentiating between similar products in the grocery store. I've noticed this trait, to varying degrees, in many people who are older than I am, and I always privately snicker at it a bit.

So maybe the following anecdote is divine retribution for that snickering.

I was on the phone with DWE earlier today, and I was telling him that I was going to be giving him some stuff, like miscellaneous food products, dish soap, detergent, etc. As I was saying this I was standing at my counter, where my laundry detergent has been sitting for at least a week. It is Method brand detergent, which you may be familiar with if you shop at Target. I like that brand because it is ultra-concentrated, so the bottle is comparatively small and light. I actually bought the bottle I have now while I was with DWE; I remember because I consulted him on the scent ("It smells like yuppies"). Anyway, I was on the phone, and I was looking at the label of the bottle, and I noticed something that I had never noticed before. Right underneath where it says "Method" on the bottle, it says "Fabric Softener." Nowhere on the bottle does it say "Detergent" or "Laundry Soap." Do you know why? Because it's not soap! It's fabric softener! Yes, I have been washing my clothes for at least two months now using nothing but fabric softener (well, and water).

I admit that I freaked out a little bit. ("All my clothes are dirty! I've been wearing dirty clothes for months! Oh my God! All my underwear is dirty! I'm wearing dirty underwear!") DWE was helpful and showed admirable restraint in making fun of me (which is not to say that he didn't make fun of me, just to say that he could have made much more fun of me). He reassured me that my clothes don't smell bad and that a piece of fabric can get reasonably clean just by being agitated and rinsed for half an hour in a washing machine. He also reminded me that there are lots of people in the world that probably don't wash their clothes with soap (or at least not nearly as often as Americans do).

Anyway, I can't believe I bought fabric softener instead of soap. Except I sort of can believe it, because the bottles are the exact same shape and were no doubt right next to each other on the shelf, and the words "fabric softener" are not huge, as you can see below:

On the other hand, the words aren't exactly tiny, either. I think part of the problem is that I wanted to get a different scent than I had gotten the last time, and in retrospect I'm not sure if they actually had a different scent in the detergent. I just saw a bottle next to what I'd gotten the last time that was the same size and shape but a different, more appealing-sounding scent. And then once I bought the bottle I didn't ever read it.

So now I'm fascinated by the fact that had I not happened to be looking at the bottle carefully today, I could have never known that I spent months washing my clothes without soap. My clothes smell fine (very good, in fact), and don't seem unclean in any way. Why should I even use soap? How do I know that "soap" is getting my clothes clean when I can't even tell when I stop using it?

That said, I will be purchasing laundry soap tomorrow so that I can wash my sheets and towels before I pack them.

Friday, June 01, 2007

packin' and stuff

DWE finally left town for a few days, so I've been a bit more productive on the packing front. I packed up a crapload of stuff last night. (Little-known fact: "crapload" is actually a technical packing term. One crapload equals approximately 8 medium-sized boxes, one piece of luggage and two large shopping bags full of unwanted items to be donated.) I looked up storage units online last night and will probably go rent one today. The actual moving of the stuff will begin on Monday. I'm mildly concerned about figuring out how to take apart my bed, especially since I didn't put it together, but they say it's easier to destroy than to create, right?

I also have some Ghana business that I've been shirking (looking over the revised survey draft, doing some more paperwork for the school, etc), so I suppose I should get to that stuff. For some reason I'm not doing so well with the multi-tasking these days. I guess you can't really multi-task while packing, unless you count watching a DVD. And I'm sort of looking around my disheveled apartment trying to decide what to pack next as I write this, so maybe that counts too.

measurement issues

Martin Ravallion, who is a senior researcher on anti-poverty policies at the World Bank, has (along with others) identified three major issues which can stymie anti-poverty program evaluation. Selection bias, which I discussed in my last post, is probably of greatest concern in the microfinance context, but there are also spillover effects and measurement problems. Spillover effects occur when the program being evaluated has a positive impact on not just its recipients but also, to some degree, on adjacent non-recipients. (Here's a trivial but hopefully intuitive example: there is a program targeted toward someone who owns a bar. The program results in the bar's business improving. The owner of the all-night pizza joint next door, who did not have access to the program, also sees an improvement in business as the result of all those drunk people next door. Now imagine that the bar owner is in your treatment group and the pizza-joint owner in your control group, and that you can't necessarily see the connection between the two, and try to figure out what, if any, the impact of your program is.)

And then there are measurement problems, which were brought up in the comments of my last post. One of the central issues here is that it is extremely common for the "businesses" run by microfinance clients to be very small and very, very informal. Not only is it unlikely that they keep records, it is unlikely that if you asked them you could get a consistently accurate answer to the question "what are your average weekly profits?" or even "what were your profits last week?" The finances of the business are often just too intermeshed with the finances of the household, and borrowers have no reason to keep track of profits because they don't necessarily pay taxes on business earning specifically (or perhaps on any earnings at all).

It is the case that some MFIs do trainings and counseling sessions to encourage microentrepreneurs to determine this type of information, which is logical insofar as you want to know something about the business prospects of the business you are lending to. In India I asked about weekly profits, and I also got information from IMED on profits, but the two almost never matched up very well for an individual borrower. Which leads me to another point, which is that the MFI's records may not even be that great, even if the organization is in general pretty well-run.

Some microfinance clients do have slightly larger business and keep better records, and there has been research done in which economists were able to gather the data necessary to estimate an actual profit function in order to look at how microfinance affects the microenterprise in a more formal way. But these borrowers tend, of course, to be a bit less poor, which is great for them, but doesn't yield information that is necessarily applicable to very poor people (this is actually a concern with all microfinance: many people argue that the loans just don't go to the "poorest of the poor" and that therefore microfinance isn't exactly the poverty cure-all that some people make it out to be).

Of course all of this says nothing about being able to study the effects of microfinance on something other than the borrower's business, such as nutrition or household wealth (both of which are covered in my survey). You can ask someone how long they've had a TV or running water, of course, but it's much harder to ask them about their eating habits or smaller-item spending patterns going back into the past.

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