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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cleaning up O´Leary

          Sine the tragic death of my computer last month updating the blog on a consistent basis has been a challenge, but thanks to my friend Julia I will now be once again able to give regular updates on a slow but functional computer until a more permanent solution can be found. A lot has happened since my last update mainly revolving around the $1,000 Disney trash reduction project. I wish I could say that things have been going smoothly, but that would be a lie for a number of reasons that I think provide keen insight to how small businesses function in many Paraguayan communities.
            As I had explained in previous entries, my former site mate, Mike, and I along with the members of his youth group wrote an application to receive $1,000 from Disney Latino America’s Amigos por el Mundo program in late April. The parameters of the project were pretty straight forward in that the project simply had to be a youth environmental initiative. We were supposed to find out whether or not we won at the beginning of June and receive the money by the beginning of July. Well it didn’t quite happen that way. We found out we were one of the projects selected at the end of June, and didn’t receive the money until the beginning of August. Mike and I worked really hard to get as much done as possible before he left on August 19th, but a lot still remains to be completed despite our best efforts. The good news is that Mike received a follow-up volunteer named Robert who has quite literally walked into the middle of a project three months in the making at its most hectic time.
            The grant stated that the kids would spend the $1,000 on the construction of 21 garbage cans, 5 recycling containers, 100 reusable cloth bags, 35 t-shirts, and 4 cloth banners to be hung around the community to promote the project. Additionally, the group would do radio programming to inform the community about the project, raise about $200 independently through their local sponsors, and do several community clean up projects with the two schools in the center of town. Mike and I knew when we finished writing the proposal with the kids that if we somehow managed to win that the project would be a very challenging to complete not because any one thing is particularly difficult to accomplish, but more because of the number of people we would have to depend on to get the project completed by the September 30th deadline. For the rest of this entry I will breakdown step by step each component of the project and how it was implemented.
            The first thing we wanted to get done was the t-shirts. There are no places in O’Leary where t-shirts can be made. We knew this before hand, so our plan was to get them made by a place in Asuncion that has worked with countless volunteers needing t-shirts. This part of the project required the contributions of the group’s sponsors because only a certain percentage of the money was allowed to go towards things like shirts. After getting a design figured out we brought it to the kids in the group for their approval and color suggestions. That proved to be a mistake mainly because nobody could agree on the colors. I am pretty sure every member of the group that day expressed some opinion about the shirt, but nobody was willing to say what specifically what they wanted. Easily the most frustrating part of working with kids in my time in Paraguay is the indecisiveness regardless of how important the decision is. A classic dialogue goes something like this, “What do you guys think about the t-shirt design?” unanimously the response is, “It looks wonderful” followed by me asking if everyone is sure? Then I’ll get individual responses that go something like this, “I think the shirts are really nice, and I like everything about them, but I think that it might look better if they were in grey instead of white, but this is just an idea I really don’t know what would be better?” At that point several other people will respond expressing similar statements before I would prompt a question like, “So you guys want to change the color?” their response is normally “no, I think it is good, whatever you think is best.” At this point I am pulling my hair out because for one it is not my project, and the decisions for how the group wants to do things should be based on what they want, but nobody has the balls to flat out say something because they don’t want to offend anyone in the group, so what ends up happening is an hour long dialogue amongst the members where because nobody wants to make a decision we end up with the original design unchanged. A decision that could have taken 5-minutes takes an hour. We ended up getting the shirts from Asuncion the following week with minimal problems, but the process to get to that point wasn’t easy. I realize that a lot of that is because I am working with young kids who regardless of country have a hard time making up their minds, but that sentiment is magnified in Paraguay not just with kids, but with everyone. It is important to understand that pretext as I continue to tell explain the other facets of the project.
            The next thing we did was the cloth bags. O’Leary has several places that sell cheap fabric to make the reusable bags that have from what I remember, become commonplace in American grocery stores. The process of finding someone who could make the bags was easy, the process of getting someone to give us the answers we needed regarding price and how long it would take wasn’t. It took 4 meetings with the owner of O’Leary’s largest textile producer to get the bags done. Every time we went we asked how much the bags would cost, how long it would take, and whether they had enough of the material to make 100. Every single time the answers we got warranted another trip back the next day to get some partial answers to our questions. Eventually, we were able to determine that we could get the bags made for $1.50 each, and that it would take 4 days to do so. We also asked if we could put on a logo that reflected the name and idea of the project “O’Leary Verde”. She said no problem, and that we should come back the next day to get the bags. As luck would have it we ended up coming back a bit earlier the next day to check on the logo. What we saw imprinted on the bag was a green, 3 leafed plant that said O’Leary Verde. At this point Robert had moved to O’Leary and Mike was in his last week. We all thought to ourselves that this bag looks like we are promoting the use of marijuana throughout the community rather than the reduction of trash. Mike mentioned this to the lady who got a giant laugh out of it, and while I admit that I was laughing too, it was more of a panic laugh knowing that we caught the problem in time before we wasted our money on 100 bags that looked like something that someone would by at a medicinal marijuana store in the States. We definitely dodged a bullet on that one, and the next day picked up the revised bags with a much more appropriate recycling logo on the front in place of a drug leaf.
            Once the bags were completed we talked on several occasions to the owners of the largest supermarket in town to see if they would be willing to distribute the bags to customers who bought more than 50,000 Gs. (roughly $12) worth of goods. The owners said that would be fine, and even contributed 100,000 Gs. to the project. We told them that we would promote the event on the local radio over the next 2 Saturday’s given that our theme for each program would be trash. The kids organized themselves on the day of the big event. I explained on several occasions what we were going to do, and told them to make sure that they came out in force. We were supposed to do the presentation of the bags at 2:30 on a Saturday; it didn’t happen until 3:30. The kids were supposed to give the owners the bags and explain to them, for the 3rd time, what the purpose of the bags were for, and let the checkout employees distribute the bags. What ended up happening is we got to the store and the kids looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Not only were the people in the grocery store not expecting them, despite telling them on several occasions, but they also kept looking at me and Robert to tell them what to do. I was livid because of how much time I had explained and gone over what they were supposed to do previously. Thankfully Robert calmly explained the idea of behind the project, got them to tell the owners, and had them give the bags to the checkout ladies. Naturally nobody brought a good camera, so the few pictures that do exist don’t give a great perspective about what is happening. At the end of the day they did do what they said they would do, but it was anything but smooth. I wish that I had better pictures to chronicle the event, but I resign myself to the fact that it did get done even if it wasn’t in the fashion I expected.
            Easily the most difficult aspect of the project has been the building of 21 trash cans and 5 recycling containers. When we were planning the project we got into contact with a blacksmith who had previously made the recycling containers for the elementary school in town. He quoted us a reasonable price with the agreement that they would be done within a week given we provided all the necessary materials. We thought everything was in order, and obliged the request of the blacksmith to provide all necessary materials. That was over a month ago. The first sign of trouble was 3 days after we had given him the metal barrels that he planned to cut in 2 to make 2 trash cans. He was supposed to of had the majority of the barrels cut and ready. When I went to talk to the blacksmith that day about his progress he was nowhere to be found, and his wife gave a flurry of excuses ranging from his sister having a baby to the fact that it was the weekend. To be honest, I didn’t care that he hadn’t done it. It was still early in the project and we had plenty of time. What frustrated me were the excuses. I am not saying they weren’t true, but I am saying that I didn’t care to hear them. If he told me straight up that he was really busy and couldn’t get it done I would’ve have been understanding. Instead his wife sat there telling me all the reasons why he couldn’t do the job we hired him to do in the timeframe he told us. It ended up taking him a month to get everything done he promised. Not only was he several weeks behind what he originally said today Robert received a message from him asking why he wasn’t paid yet because he had just finished that morning. It wasn’t a message informing us that it the cans were finally done, but an inquiry as to why he hadn’t been paid when he expected to be paid even though he did not once mention when he would be done.
            Having lived in O’Leary for 9 months, and Paraguay for a bit over 11 I am still amazed at the culture of commerce. The method in which a job gets done is like playing a giant game of chess. Even if you state directly what you want and when you want it done the odds that it will happen are highly unlikely. There are many reasons for this, but the one I keep coming back to is the fact that most business in smaller Paraguayan communities are family run trade businesses that operate outside their homes. Family life and professional life are therefore combined more intimately than they are back home. If you have a problem with the good or service you buying if you choose to confront the issue you are not just dealing with one person but rather an entire family. It is not like a major company that has customer service representative. The amount of options if you need something specific is extremely limited, so if you burn too many bridges tough luck you’re out of options. If there is a family emergency the business is closed, if the family goes on a trip your order gets completed after they get back, if it rained twice that week everything get pushed back. This culture forces one to set more time aside to complete tasks that under a different context could be done in half the time. In many ways the culture of family owned business being the primary source of commerce creates a stronger sense community, but it also a lead to more personal grudges if someone is unreliable or bad at what they do.

            What makes this culture all the more challenging is that we are foreigners who clearly don’t know how this system works upon our arrival. I am still unaccustomed to this way of doing business, and while I am slowly adapting to it I still cannot believe how long it takes to get the simplest tasks done regardless of the amount of preparation. In America work life and family life are frequently interconnected in a variety of ways, but rarely does someone have a trade that they do independently outside their house where people independently seek their specific services. If I wanted to go buy trash cans in America I wouldn’t have to find the local blacksmith, discuss how much it would cost, and wait for him to get it done. I would go to major hardware store and buy it that day with out having to negotiate price or anything. It could be done in a day. This project could be done in 2 days in America, but it would not an impact because litter and waste management isn’t the same problem as it is here. We are working within the confines of a developing community with limited resources and a deeply rooted society of family owned and operated businesses. Work and family life are intertwined unlike anything I was used to before my arrival here. To wrap up all I’ll say is that the project is slowly coming along. It will get done. I am not sure when exactly, or how for that matter. All I know is that by September 30th I won’t be working on this anymore, and I’ll be very happy when that day arrives.

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