Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fairly Crazy

Through a combination of enthusiasm, sweat, and creativity of necessity (and maybe a few tears and hysterical laughs), a team of four people including myself managed to pull together this year’s Kolda Regional Fair. I have never planned and coordinated an event of this size before. It was a massive undertaking, from the planning and budgeting to the weekend of the 3-day event itself. Countless things went wrong (pretty much inevitable with projects here), but somehow it all came together! I can tell this event means a lot to the community, so even though we all went a little crazy making it happen… I’m happy we did it.

Despite the fact that Kolda is one of the most fertile and agriculturally rich regions of Senegal, the poverty and malnutrition rates here are some of the highest in the country. To help combat this and show off the true potential of this region, the Kolda Agricultural Fair has been an annual event since 2011 – an ongoing collaboration between PCVs and local partners. The Fair promotes the development of the Kolda region by providing an opportunity for artisans, entrepreneurs, agricultural producers, NGOs, financial institutions, and small business owners to get together and share best practices, demonstrate new techniques and technologies, promote and sell their products, and have discussions about community development issues.

This year, an estimated 400+ members of the public attended the Fair over the course of the 3 days. 43 participating groups (over 140 individuals total) had stands in the Fair, displaying their products and offering demonstrations. Products and technologies on display included: solar pumps, moringa powder, packets of dried mangos (yum), mango jam, moringa soap, fonio (a kind of grain), beans, rice, shea butter (known as “karite” here), curd (called “kossam” – sour milk frozen into a yogurt-like treat), hibiscus (“bissap”) juice and tea leaves, fruits and vegetables, beautifully embroidered clothing, batik, artwork, herbs, baobab fruit powder, cashews, tomato paste, juices and syrups, cheese, and more.

Packets of local herbs
Batik clothing. I love the elephants!

Astou Mballo, tailor (Endam Couture), and her beautiful clothes!
Local produce
Ma Baldé and her women's group selling honey!

Baobab fruit, bissap (hibiscus), and more ground into powder form. Just add water, and presto: you have tea/juice!

Solar water pump
Locally made jams. Banana, Papaya, Mango... yum. 

I had to run around like a madwoman most of the time making sure everything was going smoothly, but when I had some time to browse the stands, I found some exciting stuff. In particular, I fell under the spell of everything mango – mango jam, dried mango. Kolda produces so many mangos each season, but so many of them go to waste due to poor transportation and export systems. You find yourself craving them months before they’re ripe, especially in this heat. Now I could taste mango before the season even arrived! Score.

Fair co-coordinator Mountaga Baldé with a bag of dried mangos 
Me with Mountaga, trying to get things organized!

Another reason to be happy: we had expanded the Fair this year beyond agriculture and into health (I am a Health PCV after all!) and the arts (throwing a youth talent show). In the health domain, we had free HIV testing and booths / discussions on family planning.

The booth raising awareness on Family Planning

The talent show was held in three parts each night of the Fair, with four middle school groups and one youth association competing. We had a dance competition the first night, theatre the second night, and singing/rap/poetry on the last night (slightly a smorgasbord of categories, I realize). Watching these kids do their thing was both hilarious and inspiring (depending on the performance!). Over 80 youth total competed, with more than 200 people attending the performances. During the theatre night, the kids actually performed skits on family planning and early marriage – with no prodding from me! I was surprised, but proud of them for their initiative.

Theatre competition
Theatre - a sketch on early marriage and how young girls refuse to let this be their future!
Dance competition - boys team doing breakdance
Dance competition - girls doing traditional style. It was great! (this team won)

Double Horizon members (local youth association) who competed in the talent show
PCVs at the judging panel!
Theatre sketch (on Family Planning). Yes, they painted white beards onto their faces. Love it!

Singing/rap competition

While a huge undertaking for one PCV to take on (in the past it has been a team of 4 or 5 PCVs), one of the Fair’s successes, in my opinion, is that we’ve begun to pass over ownership of the Fair to the community. Each year the initiative has relied heavily on PCVs to fund the project and provide much of the leadership. This year, there were no other PCVs available to lead the project except me. (Ahh!) However, since the community members really valued this initiative and wanted it to continue, I agreed to help make it happen.

As my caveat, though, I chopped the bloated Peace Corps grant budget in half from what it was in previous years and insisted that the community members find other sources of funding... and they did!

The burglary that occurred (when my house was broken into and 300,000 CFA - about $600 - worth of this grant was stolen) was a big problem for the project, and as a result we had to shift around a lot of the expenses in the budget. However, with local organizations (PADEC and World Vision) stepping up to become partners in the Fair, we were able to meet all the expenses of the original budget. This means much more of the responsibility went into local hands, and we are now in a transition period into handing over the Fair into local ownership.

In addition, the Senegalese members of the Fair organizational team each took on extreme amounts of work to make this event happen, because they really believed in it. Mountaga Baldé, one of our coordinators, took up a post at the Conseil Regional and was there all day, every day for two weeks leading up to the Fair in order to oversee construction of the stands and register participants. This was all without being paid. Basically, he put in over 80 hours of office time for free!

The other members as well went out of their way to bike all over town, following up with partners and participants, making purchases, printing documents, promoting the fair (radio, fliers, posters, and word of mouth), and getting as many people involved as possible. Just think... if this event were happening in the States, all we'd have to do is post it on Facebook, make some calls and emails, and half the publicity work would be done! What a different world.

Fair organizational partner Tidiane Diallo in front of his NGO's stands (PADEC) 

I'm really excited that the Fair has become a continuing Kolda tradition and source of pride for the community. Strolling around visiting people’s stands and asking about their work, it became clear to me that each individual vendor really believed in their products and in the potential of the Kolda region. From the vendors to the sponsors to the talent show contestants, the Fair highlighted to me just how much the people of Kolda – both young and old – really care about their future.

Traditional music

Advice for PCVs planning a Fair like this:

  • Plan ahead (start 6 months in advance – we did this and it was just enough time), and don’t cram most of the activity into the month before the Fair (we also did this, by necessity, but avoid it if you can).
  • Get local organizations involved (especially as sponsors). We couldn’t have accomplished the Fair this year without local sponsors!
  • Organizations who offer to contribute financially should make their decision and sign a contract much further in advance. We were waiting until only weeks before the event to hear back from people! 
  • Add a contingency of minimum 10% of the total budget for a project of this size and scope, to cover all the last-minute expenses.
  • Be wary of cutting out expenses just because you think they’re silly – often they’ll end up being thrown in at the last minute anyway. (For example, “motivations” to public officials to come and grace the Fair with their presence. I did not budget for what I viewed as a bribe, but other team members ended up paying it anyway, because that’s just how things are done here. If you want officials to show up at your event, you have to pay them.) 
  • Start more than 1 month in advance if you plan to have a talent show, to give the teams time to practice so nobody panics. Have something to give every participant in the talent show, not just the winners (they will be disappointed otherwise). 
  • It’s better to hold an activity like this in the center of town to attract more visitors. People don’t like going out of their way, even if it’s just a 15 minute walk.
  • The Fair Organizational Team should consist of more than 4 people taking on most of the work. 6-7 people sharing responsibilities would be preferable.
  • Maintain a running list of participants in all parts of the Fair (service providers, CBOs and individual vendors, organizations, financial institutions) with their contact information. 
  • Keep paperwork and records of everything!
  • Laugh at anything and everything to keep your spirits up and keep the planning team on friendly terms. Don’t worry about appearing crazy – if you’re taking this on, you already are! (In the best way.)
PCV friends who showed up to check out the Fair... and have some kossam!