First thing on my to do list in January was to find a puppy. Why? Purely selfish reasons, I did not enjoy living alone and I love dogs. Also selfish because dogs are generally not well-loved in Tanzania and the tribe in my area is particularly afraid of them because they are usually used for security. NGOs and nonprofits should definitely shift their focus from problems such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and gender equality, to the issue of spreading the love for dogs (just to be clear this 100% not actually how I feel).
The process of getting my pup was comical and I realized it became a weird analogy mirroring the challenges of implementing projects in developing countries. Any good project has a problem its trying to address, mine was unhappiness of living alone and not having a running partner. Solution: puppy.
I considered other solutions, such as spending so much time at my neighbors’ homes that I basically never felt I lived alone. Another, was inviting my sister from my home-stay family to come live with me. Or I could finally cave and marry the man at the market that calls me his fiance and always tries to persuade me to tie the knot. After considering financial feasibility, sustainability, and environmental factors I settled on a puppy being the best solution to my problem and to balance the desires of the different stakeholders that would be impacted by my getting a dog. All important steps to designing a solution to a problem.
After deciding a puppy was the best solution, I started casually mentioning it to people to see their reaction to the idea, to neighbors, teachers, students and so on. The reactions were mixed, but I was already very set on getting a puppy. So I ignored those opposed to the idea (mostly my students who whined that dogs are mean and I should just get a cat). This is not recommended in a development project setting. But the challenge lies in that even the most well thought out solution to a problem in a development context will not please everyone, one must consider who is benefiting, who is left out of the benefits, what might be the consequences of leaving out a certain group, what harm impacts will the project have, how will you mitigate those, and how can you best balance the needs of different stakeholder groups. For my situation, I was really concerned about what my neighbors felt about my getting a dog because they were going to inevitably interact with her and were who I was planning on asking to watch her when I had to travel for Peace Corps business. When one of my neighbors took it upon himself to help me find a student with puppies at their home, I took that as the sign of the support I needed.
Then came to the actual playing out of the solution, getting the puppy. I admittedly made some mistakes at the implementation phase of my ‘project’. First, one of my Form 1 students, Carolina said she had puppies for sale and kept telling me all week she would bring me one. 3 days passed and I was getting impatient, so to speed up the process I decided to walk home with her to get the puppy myself one day. In projects it may be tempting to do everything yourself, to force a project to go faster, but then the community will not have buy in and will not gain as much as they could have from fully participating in project planning and implementation. Also, it’s really arrogant, it insists that somehow you know better how to work in a context very unfamiliar to you. I like to think of myself as an idea presenter when working on projects with members of my community. A subtle disrupter of the norm, offering how I would think to do something, but try to make sure I am asking how they normally would go about it before presenting my perspective.
Anyways, so I arrived at Carolina’s home and am greeted by her aunts and Bibi and 10 small children. I was patient at this moment, getting to know them before revealing my true purpose for visiting their home and by the time I got around to it, they were delighted to show me the puppy, the one I would call Embe (Kiswahili for mango). I stuck around and chatted a bit more about their farm, one of the aunts has a clothes sewing business, and another wanted me to tutor her in physics while Embe sat on my lap, obviously terrified. I went to set Embe down on the ground for one second before getting up to leave and the Bibi warned me quckly not to because she would run off, and then she put her in a potato sack to carry home.
Once out of sight I brought Embe out of the potato sack and carried her in my arms glowing the entire way home. I ran into multiple teachers and neighbors who told me how happy I looked and to be sure to tie her up as soon as I reached home (like 6 people told me I better tie her up ASAP or she will run). I couldn’t imagine this small petrified pup being able to run off, didn’t she love me as much as I loved her? So naturally I did not listen, set her down in my fenced in back yard for 2 minutes while I ran inside to grab a rope and of course she found a hole in my fence and was gone (again don’t discount local knowledge, intentional listening is a skill that should not be discounted in development projects). I ran around looking for her, but it was maize season and my house was surrounded by 10 foot high stalks and it was getting dark out. Well all I could hope was if I put some food out maybe she would return. My new found happiness was shattered after an hour. I had given up hope and had to admit to teachers the following day that I already lost my new puppy.
It was a humbling moment where I felt very stupid, but teachers assured me she would turn up. Sure enough two days later a student ominously came up to me and said, “Your puppy has returned to the place from which you got her.” I tried not to get too excited, still in doubt and headed back to Carolina’s home that day, except I hadn’t realized that it was probably about 1.5 miles from mine through a maze of maize. So naturally I got lost. Again, I should have asked Carolina for help or another teacher, but I was determined to get Embe back myself. And I did, but it would have been a lot easier if I had asked for help (I feel this can be applied to projects as well). Now comes the monitoring and evaluation of my solution. Am I happy with little Embe? Yes, but I cannot just stop putting in care and attention for my pup. Just like how projects demand evaluation, monitoring and maintenance. While often it seems implementation and planning are the most important part, maybe to get the moneys and upfront support they are. M&E are often overlooked, but necessary for a sustainable long lasting solution to the problem you are trying to solve.
Thank you for letting me try to entertain you with two seemingly unrelated ideas I often think about, puppies and international development. Currently, I am in the grant application process and committee meetings to plan for a project to construct an incinerator to enable students to dispose of their means of menstrual hygiene management at school and holding an empowerment seminar for our students. More details to come about lessons learned, challenges, and wins. But, I hope to apply some of these lessons learned from my Embe narrative.