Archive for June, 2011

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From the 15th to the 18th of June 2011 the 4th European Conference of African Studies took place in Uppsala, Sweden. There was a cohort of staff, PhD Students and others associates of CAS in attendance at the Conference, some giving papers, other chairing panels and Paul was in attendance as the President of the African Studies Network-AEGIS.

We arrived with pop up stands, information sheets/booklets etc about the Centre, we had copies of the Critical African Studies Journal, which is edited by staff members at CAS and a bundle of information about ABORNE the African Borderlands Network that Wolfgang Co-ordinates. So we arrived (not quite on masse, but close enough) and set -up the table at the conference centre. The stall/information desk was (wo)manned by a combination of staff and students across the conference days, speaking to conference delegates and answering endless questions. I was also doing a bit of “corporate advertisement” by wearing my CAS T-shirt.

At the Conference there were around 1200 delegates from all around the world. It was busy but that didn’t mean we didn’t have time to socialise and have some fun. Sweden is generally quite expensive but we met up most evenings. The first day was the official opening of the conference followed by the dinner – free food and time to meet new people. The second evening was the CAS Wine Reception, which was really well attended, we ran out of wine and many people commented how much they enjoyed it. The wine reception launched the CAS@50 Conference which will take place in Edinburgh in June 2012. Lots of people enquired about the conference, I nearly lost my voice by the end of the night from talking to so many people. Later that evening there was a gathering with Wolfgang and some of the ABORNE group, we “partied” in the park!! Friday was then the CAS dinner and a time to wind down and relax (or in my case, start to panic about presenting my paper the next day). I was the last of the CAS cohort to present, which did mean I got to relax earlier in the week. Saturday went well for me in the morning; then there was the closing ceremony in the (pink) Castle. There were lots of stairs to climb and lots of speeches, though Paul kept his short!! – He did get us all to say “cheers” or something similar and I suspect half the room lost their champagne in their enthusiasm. It was officially announced at the Closing Ceremony that the next hosts for ECAS5 in 2013 would be Lisbon, Portugal.

It was my first time speaking at an international conference, so I was quite happy to come out of the panel in one piece. CAS was very well represented, the stall seemed to be well received and I’ve never been asked so many questions about the MSc and PhD programmes! In the course of the conference someone tried to sell me James’ book, I was mistaken for being Swedish (several times), I saw more bicycles than cars, I walked for miles, I met loads of news people and most of all I really enjoyed the experience of attending this event!

Alli Coyle, PhD Student, Centre of African Studies

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When I began my three-year stint as a financial consultant at a U.S. hospital, my boss told me that I could learn everything I needed to know about business by watching The Godfather. Much to my delight the movie was heavily quoted in our office, especially the line: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

I often joked that my job was a ‘necessary evil’, in that I sometimes had to suggest that the hospital turn down new programs, tests or procedures simply because they weren’t cost effective. I wasn’t hired to analyze what was best for the patients, I was hired to view the hospital as a highly sophisticated business; in doing so, I believed my department was making the hospital financially sustainable and ensuring that it could continue to provide the life-saving services people needed for the long term. As my boss would often say, our work ‘wasn’t personal, just business’.

When I left hospital finance to begin my master’s studies in Africa and International Development, I thought I was permanently exchanging suits, ties, and boardroom meetings for flip flops, mosquito nets and focus groups. In my mind development wasn’t fueled by profits and return on investment, but by philanthropy and people who bought TOMS shoes. At Edinburgh I began to learn about the richness and diversity of the development field, and I was intrigued by discussions about aid (in)effectiveness and the inability of many organizations to remain financially sustainable. I read books and listened to lectures from Africans suggesting that the continent didn’t need more donors, it needed more business. More business? Don’t mind if I do! Ready and willing to dive back into the world of finance, I began to investigate the banking sector and current debates surrounding financial inclusion. In an environment where microfinance organizations routinely fail or are designed to scam locals out of their money, sustainable and transparent banking services are especially in demand. I liked the idea that banks were investigating ways to provide services for low-income customers, but I also respected the fact that they would only do so when it made sense financially. In Africa, there is also a place for “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Today I am continuing to investigate and learn about banking and financial inclusion as a volunteer with the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab and Bankers Without Borders in Kampala, Uganda. Since arriving several weeks ago I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Uganda’s largest mobile phone operator, MTN, and learn about their mobile money service. Through a number of interviews, readings and observations I’m beginning to understand how the ability to save and transfer money through a phone influences the way people manage their incomes, as well as their interest in using commercial banks. I’ve also been tasked with mapping out the process through which customers register for mobile money and I’ve provided MTN with recommendations as to how it can be improved. A more efficient registration process will mean higher profits for MTN, but also happier customers with quicker access to a secure way of saving and transferring their money.

Extending my research to the western, rural part of the country has helped me reconsider ideas about the superiority of formal banks as a savings mechanism. For many of the people living outside of main towns, the monthly maintenance fees and travel expenses associated with using a bank make it almost nonsensical to put their small deposits into an account. Why would I deposit 50,000 shillings into a bank each month if it costs 12,000 to travel there and I’ll be charged another 5,000 in fees? A local farmer actually convinced me that it was more cost effective to invest his money in a cow.

Even so, there is a noticeable appetite for financial services among the rural poor, and the banks that want to remain competitive will have to find profitable ways to serve this demographic. Before I leave, I hope to talk with multiple bank representatives to find out how they are doing this, whether it is through mobile banking, banking vans, Internet banking, or other means. I’m excited to see – and in a small way be part of – the impact these businesses are having on the lives of their customers, communities, and the nation as a whole.

Matt Wilson, MSc student from Kampala


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A girl, maybe 12 years old, appears at the door of the office. She knocks tentatively and takes a timid step forward each of the four times she is encouraged to come in. It is my first day as an intern at Link Community Development in Mulanje, a small town in the south of Malawi. The girl is wearing an oversized pink satin dress. She kneels down and speaks quietly in conversation with Michael Mulenga, LCD Mulanje’s project manager. He hesitantly gives her some money, she turns to me and waves, and then she leaves.

“That girl, she was saying she’s looking for employment. I asked her why she was not in school and told her that dress, the one she was wearing, it costs more than a school uniform. You see, her parents are divorced and she lives with her mum. I said, does your mother endorse you going around like this and not at school? She was saying she has no food, that’s why I gave her the MKW50. But she’ll go around and some man, he will give her MKW200 and she will end up impregnated. You see what we deal with? It’s lack of parental guidance.”

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The focus of my research, here in Malawi, is on the type and range of mental health and well-being provision for children and young people. By focusing on this I am not disregarding the many factors that contribute to a vulnerable child’s well-being- such as food, clothing and shelter. Rather, my aim is to examine the extent to which emotional needs are met and perceived alongside these basic, material needs.

Through my research so far, I have come across a variety of interpretations and understandings of emotional well-being. In many areas I have been assured that it is extremely important to meet the emotional needs of, for example, orphans and, more specifically, those in foster families who have little time or resources to offer their newly acquired sons and daughters.

When probing further into the type of support or activities they consider suitable to meet such needs, the answers range from prayers and reading the Bible to games and dance. Those who have received training talk of ‘memory books’ and the ‘Tree of Life’. These activities encourage children to look back over their life and the troubles they have faced. The focus is then on the positive, highlighting the ways in which they have dealt with these difficulties, to become aware of their inner strength and to share these experiences for other children to learn from. In the ‘Tree of Life’ children are encouraged to think about what they would like to achieve in the future and plan ways in which they can accomplish this.

The future is a strong feature of these activities. As one woman told me, it is the future that is often the biggest cause of stress for these children. They worry about how they will provide for themselves and for their siblings; the future to them can look very bleak and this in turn leads to mental health issues, such as suicidal thoughts or substance abuse.

Travelling through the country I have also discovered a movement of mental health professionals. In particular, there are more and more people training to support and advocate for those with learning disabilities. In the north of Malawi, in a town called Mzuzu, there is a centre called St John of God. Here they have a service for children with learning disabilities. Not only do they provide specialist education for them, they also work in the local community raising awareness on these issues and offer extensive support and advice for the families of such children.

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This is my third day at Link Community Development and so far I have learnt a lot about the work of Mother’s Groups in providing counselling and encouragement to vulnerable children. Tomorrow I will be visiting a local Special Needs resource centre and will meet a specialist teacher there. Although capacity is low, the will to instil change is high. I look forward to assisting this movement in the future.

Rosie Bacon, MSc student in Malawi

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From the Margins

Two kilometres North of lake Kivu, a pedestrian checkpoint connects the twin cities of Goma and Gisenyi. For two states that have so recently been in conflict, it doesn’t look much like how I envisioned the Rwanda-D.R.C border. It’s six in the morning – early enough that the smoke of Mount Nyiragongo still glows red on the horizon. Even now, the petite barrière is alive with activity. By nine, over ten thousand people will have passed here, carrying an assortment of small goods and agricultural products to the Congolese markets. The atmosphere has that relaxed feel that comes with everyday activity. People chat and laugh as they sidestep the puddles from the night’s rain and jump down off the paved road into Goma.

I’m very careful around the Rwandan officials, making sure to get proper clearance and taking no pictures. Thankfully by this point, initial suspicion has pretty much given way to passing curiosity. One soldier approaches me and asks me what I think is the difference across the frontier. I don’t know where to start. The border itself takes the form of a single dirt track running down the hill towards the lake. The two cities merge here completely, without even a small neutral zone dividing them.

In Gisenyi’s Makoro district, most houses are compounds, with walled gardens and brightly coloured roofing. You know you’re in Goma when these buildings give way to the impromptu, wood and corrugated iron constructs ubiquitous to townships across the continent. It is this stark asymmetry in built environment that makes the place tick. Imbalances across the boundary, be they economic, geographic, or demographic, generate opportunities for the proximate populations. An intricate and dynamic web of loopholes sees people here thriving off what is otherwise an arbitrary line in the sand.

With just five weeks this time, and four months total in the country, Kinyarwanda has been an absolute non-starter (it’s a tonal language with sixteen noun classes). Still it’s important my response is neither political nor misunderstood. I raise two fingers to my eyes, then gesture towards the buildings on either side. He laughs, shakes his head, and points to two Congolese police officers counting money in full view. Then he walks off.

Just across the border, a gauntlet of officials and opportunists stands ready to demand small payments, or else to simply grab the odd cabbage, egg, or pineapple from the sea of baskets as they pass.

It’s been long enough out here on the border to miss hot showers. Sadly it would take years to do anything near justice to the complexity – the absolute ingenuity – of the processes at play. What I have is a snapshot, but one that has me totally absorbed with the place. Next Thursday I will be sorry to leave!

Hugh Lamarque, MSc student from the field

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