In the midst of a whirlwind effort to put on a large agricultural fair, my colleagues and I have been holding meetings with many government officials, heads of organizations, bank representatives, and community leaders. Our focus is giving voice to the numerous individuals and women’s groups who create products out of raw agricultural products in the Kolda region (e.g., vinegar from mangoes, butter from okra), but in order to do so, we must also speak to the gatekeepers of these initiatives, often people who have offices. We have initiated these meetings to ask for funding, to encourage participation in the fair, and, per Senegalese customs, to respectfully gain support for the event through the appropriate channels.
It feels strange to have worked so closely with ordinary people, spending most of my time outdoors and in an agrarian setting, only to be transported into the world of business-like pleasantries as a means of getting work done. Tucked away in the moldy buildings of Kolda are countless offices with secretaries’ antechambers, rickety air conditioners, and faux-ceremonious padded doors. Here, people have nameplates, land lines, and yellowing computer monitors. I feel oddly comforted by the cool air and the familiar sight of a trash bin or a printer, yet after a few minutes sitting in these offices I’m ready to re-emerge into the dusty chaos outside.
I have knocked on many doors, unsolicited, awkwardly sitting in front of officious government agents. They display their importance by making you wait a long time for a meeting, only to repeatedly interrupt you to answer their cell phones once they do grant you access to their time. I have learned to endure the Senegalese practice of performing monologues, time-consuming recaps of everything that was just said, as a way of showing agreement and supposed public-speaking skills. I have grown accustomed to scribbling furiously in my notebook during these meetings, trying to parse the business French I’m listening to, writing down new phrases I absorb, like “on fait avec,” and “mise en relation.”
For all my exposure to self-important officials in their shabby offices, though, much of the rest of the work in planning the fair involves impromptu meetings in informal settings. In inviting local artisans to participate in the fair, my site-mate Marcie, and our colleague Mamadou, biked up to a batik craftsman, striking up a conversation over fabrics and dyes. Many meetings happen this way, fresh off a bike, on the side of a road, in the heat of the day.
The project has taught me a lot about networking, about identifying key players in an area, and about pitching ideas to people I don’t know. Despite its obnoxious connotations involving cocktails and business cards, networking can be an interesting and necessary way to understand how a community works. If not for my ability to be outgoing on command–a behavior I have internalized from my Senegalese life–I would be nowhere in creating networks. Luckily, this West African culture of socializing has instilled in me a certain audacity in meeting people and asking them to be involved in my work, a skill sometimes best learned outside of the overachieving corridors of New York.
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The fair for which we are preparing will occur this week, April 6-7, 2011. The planning team consists of me, my sitemates Nathalie and Marcie, and our Senegalese counterparts Mamadou, Mamadou, Mountaga, and Thierno Yaya. The idea of having a fair came from our Senegalese partners, who are intimately aware of Kolda’s weak economic backbone, despite its strength in the agricultural sector. Over the course of a year, we have worked on planning the event, transforming it from an nebulous hope into a tangible, well-publicized affair.
The exposition will feature over 50 different organizations/small businesses representing themselves at 70 stands. These representatives will include those who apply value-adding techniques to agricultural products (e.g. packaging honey in a marketable, aesthetic way), NGOs both local and international, and financial institutions. It will run similar to a country fair or a farmer’s market would in the United States, with the public invited to mill about, buying things if they are for sale, and learning about different entrepreneurial activities in the Kolda region.
The fair will itself be a major networking opportunity for the organizations and individuals involved, many of whom do not have the chance to branch out of their small communities. We will also feature small financial institutions at the fair, which we hope will encourage formal banking. Since many small businesses in Kolda still use informal, less advantageous banking methods, the introduction of banks and credit unions is likely to boost economic activity.
I will post again with reflections on how the fair went. Wish me luck!