A final account of the activities and results of January-February 2017 in Bulozi
It has now been one month since my departure from Bulozi. I had fully intended to broadcast the story of how things finished in a timely fashion, but unfortunately, competing priorities got in the way. Some of those competing projects are interesting, but they distract from the more compelling update about activities and results during my time in Bulozi.
I returned to Bulozi to collaborate with two groups. One group was based on the outskirts of Bulozi’s largest town (i.e., the urban group); the other group was based in a rural area of an outlying district. Both are groups of persons with disabilities who have come together to improve their own situation. In both groups, the biggest concern was poverty and the proposed solution to that concern was help. Beyond this, however, the groups were very different.
When I was conducting my research in 2014, the urban group was clearly organized as a Disabled Persons’ Organization (DPO). The group had an effective leadership structure with a strong chair. There was a constitution, a defined list of members and regular meetings. Group members, or the leaders at very least, would speak in consistent ways about the group’s direction and activities. This group had secured a piece of machinery to use for income generation. Although the machine was missing parts, it seemed as if this small hurdle would be easily overcome. During my time in the community, the group was granted a plot of land from the traditional leadership; a place to store and operate the machinery. The urban group was facing some ongoing challenges, but on the whole, it seemed like they were on a successful trajectory.
In 2014, the rural group confused me. I had approached persons with disabilities in the rural community as if they were a DPO like the urban group. I was regularly surprised to learn that they did not operate in the way that I had expected. Eventually, I found out that group was more flexible than I could have imagined: they had neither a name, nor a membership list, nor regularly scheduled collective activities. One thing that the rural group did very well was to present itself as amenable to the aspects of my agenda that made sense to them.
From all signs, it made sense to community members that I wanted to connect with persons with disabilities; it did not make sense that I expected them to have already organized a group on their own terms. It made sense that I wanted to talk to them as part of “a student project”; it did not make sense that this project might directly impact their situation in any way. It seemed to make sense to them that the way to improve their situation was to provide money and food; which then made me seem like a contradiction when I said that I wanted to contribute to improving things, but I would not contribute the things that lead to improvement. These misunderstandings left me frustrated in 2014, and I have reason to believe that the community members were also frustrated by me.
The recent past
By 2017, some things had changed. In the urban group, three of the five prominent leaders had left. Also, the larger disability community in Mongu changed the way that it organized, reducing the importance of neighbourhood level groups. The urban group was no longer meeting. The machinery was still missing the same few pieces that it had three years earlier, and the plot of land upon which it was to operate was still a piece of bush.
With the rural group, we basically picked up where we had left off. During my first visit to the community in 2017 there was a large group of people requested and/or suggested that I provide help. I acknowledged the requests but replied that I had other interests. I returned for a second, third, and fourth meeting in this community. After the first meeting, the attendance dropped. Akufuna, my research assistant, figured that people were no longer interested in attending because unlike my focus groups in 2014, I no longer served food.
If the story ended here, it would feel like a sad one. Fortunately, things improved.
The things we did in 2017
Since the chair of the urban group was still around, I strategized directly with her. We made plans to follow up the government agency contacts who had pledged to provide spare parts for the machine, to clear the plot of land, and to discuss the possibility of a grant for starter capital. Since the chair had a full-time job during business hours, I offered to do the necessary tracking of the contact. It took me parts of three days of waiting outside government offices to meet all of the parties involved. But I found them, had good conversations, and acquired updated contact information. From there…actually…let’s cut to the rural group first.
The rural meeting dynamics were different when the participants were a small handful of individuals who willing to attend without a promise of lunch. We spoke about strategic relations with government offices; identifying key actors and issues for follow up. We spoke about income generating activities, which I found to be a refreshing change from always talking about help, but after a few meetings, we began to turn in circles; each of us would repeat our same divergent positions without making progress.
One other fun thing happened in 2017: the two groups began to intersect. Akufuna and I scheduled a visit out to the rural community for a Saturday, creating an opportunity to bring the chair of the urban group along. The presence of the chair of the urban group provided a one-time attendance boost to our meetings in the rural area, and led to some great discussion. On the whole, this interaction did not have a noticeable impact on the trajectory of either group. Not yet at least.
But I still have not yet told you how things ended up! Well, it’s now time.
I find that the conclusion with one group is straightforward, whereas I find it necessary to describe the other group in copious detail. For those wanting to skip the details, just see the table below for a summary.
Urban group: the chair made some phone calls during work breaks but never made any headway with the government contacts during my time in Bulozi. One way to understand the situation is to say that nothing happened. For the time being, that is the extent of my update for the urban group.
The conclusion with the rural group, the confusing and complicated rural group, was far more interesting.
Akufuna sprung open the income generating activity deadlock that I had with the group members with a brief intervention: “Shaun, you want to encourage the group to do a business, but they cannot do it because of lack of money. You have money. Explain to me why it is that you will not give the group money to let them try?”
I had a constellation of concerns, but Akufuna’s framing caused me to isolate these more clearly. When I thought about it more pointedly, I realized that my main issue was that a crowd of people in the community would claim a portion of the money, making it impossible to invest in an income generating activity and otherwise changing very little for the group members. I also saw the potential for conflict, as claimants disagreed about amounts and the way to distribute them.
Isolating the concern helped me identify a way forward. The proposed solution: providing the group with separate streams of funding. I offered one “envelope” of cash for the group to attempt an income generating activity. I did not have an opinion on their business idea, but the group shared it with me: they plan to buy foodstuffs in the nearest town and sell them in the village at a mark-up. I did impose a few conditions on the grant, specifically that when I next returned to the community I wanted to find out 1) how things went with the business venture, and 2) the names of all of the people involved.
I felt good about the arrangement above in that it felt as if there was a shared understanding and therefore a likelihood for accountability. The outstanding issue for me was the possibility of multiple community members demanding some of the money. To address this, I offered another “envelope,” this one with half the amount of money of the first. My instructions for this were that the group share it with persons with disabilities in the community as help. My conditions for this were similar, that 1) when I next returned I wanted to find out who received what, and that 2) the people receiving help not be the same that were participating in the income generating activity.
And thus, a grant of two envelopes – one twice as large as the other, each with specific instructions to be followed by the group – was likely the collaborative action that I am best remembered for in this community right now. The overall cost to me was minor: the equivalent of three day-long trips to this community from Mongu.
In addition to the grant, I gathered details for the group about an important but elusive policy and arranged a meeting between the group leaders and the District Commissioner, the Government of Zambia’s top administrator in the area. The group members seemed very pleased with these two developments.
Although the meetings with the rural group were spread out over the two months that I was in Bulozi, the final menu of strategies was not established my final week. For this reason, it is not yet possible to know the effectiveness of these plans. I will next be in Bulozi in July, at which time I will get the update about how things actually turned out.
As I stated at the start of this post, the past month has been busy. Since returning to Canada, I have been preparing for my next steps after the trip to Bulozi in July and August. Starting in September, I will be working with Matthew Hunt at McGill University. Matthew has agreed to provide supervision and guidance for me to continue working in Bulozi. Although the specific arrangements will depend on the funding that we are able to secure, the main task will be research.
So there you have it, that’s what happened. I am planning one more post to close out the experience of January and February 2017 in Bulozi: What I learned.
In other news, for those who do not already know it, today was a big day in Bulozi: for the first time in years, the Kuomboka was held. I will leave it to you to learn what that is. Suffice it to say, I wish I had been there!