Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Back! And notes from Oaxaca...

It’s been eight months since I disappeared. This unplanned, unannounced sabbatical – after more than five years of posting regularly – happened because work took over, and other reasons too difficult to elaborate here. Let’s see if I can get back. I probably won’t be as prolific as before but I do hope to write once in three weeks or so. I also promise to write about some new themes.

It has been an interesting and intensely busy year. I taught two classes last semester and organized a conference in Amherst. That meant that a very tight weekly schedule, and the lazy days of lounging and doing nothing – one of the perks of academia, and also why I chose it – did not present themselves with the same regularity. It summer right now and I don’t have to teach until September, even though there are still students to mentor, grants and publications to write, collaborations to develop, and the associated stresses to handle.

Meanwhile, a long overdue travel update. Last December, I went to Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico. Mexico again? You might well ask. Well, my options for travel abroad were limited to Canada and Mexico, because my work visa had expired (and still remains expired). They say Canada in the winter isn’t the place to be, so it was to be that other North American country again.

***

Food

This time, I wasn’t as curious about history or archaeology or Mesoamerican cultures. I had exhausted that sort of intensity during my prior visits to Chihuahua, Mexico City and Chiapas. I took it easy this time. I walked the streets of Oaxaca, enjoyed the warm weather and the food. I went to a gourmet tortilleria, Itanoni, in a residential part of the city. In fact, ridiculous as it may sound, of all locations in Mexico, I chose Oaxaca simply so I could sample the food at Itanoni. I had read about it in 1491, Charles Mann’s eye-opening book on the cultures of the Americas. Mann had written of authenticity of the tortillas at Itanoni and how ancient varieties of corn and preparation methods were being preserved. But what matters is whether the food tastes good and Itanoni did not disappoint. I went there three times, despite the relatively stiff taxi fare from my hotel to the restaurant. I had freshly made tortillas with a variety of fillings – aguacate (avocado), papa con chile (potatoes with chilies), queso (cheese), and frijoles (beans) with a special local herb.

The street food was a riot. The regional Oaxacan fare, run by small families, was great of course, but what I’ll remember most is the elaborate pushcart selling freshly made potato chips, two blocks from the main square. On the night of Dec 25th, the city’s churches paraded different costumes (fairies, angels, versions of Nativity) in the backs of trucks in the main square, accompanied by loud music. Festive though this was, I was more captivated by the assembly-line style production of chips in the pushcart: the sweating man slicing potatoes non-stop, another deftly releasing them into the oil, yet another straining the oil, and the cashier spraying varieties of dangerously spicy salsas on request. There were small portions, there were large portions and then there were massive portions. The Christmas crowd – me included – queued up and had its fill.

***

Microfinance tourism

I happened also, by chance, to interact with a two microfinance organizations. The first, Fundacion El Via, has its headquarters in the Oaxaca Language Institute. Oaxaca is generally thought of as a poor state (the label of poverty is bandied about freely and there are numbers and statistics to support that label, but what it actually means is less clear). The Fundacion El Via idea is this: A visitor would get to see new family business ventures started by women in a nearby village, Teotitlan del Valle. Examples might be small scale sales of textiles woven in-house in the indigenous style, a smoothie stall in the village market, a new tortilleria. These business ventures are financed from the money visitors give for an afternoon tour. Once the tour is done, the visitor is emailed updates (with pictures) on how the families that directly benefitted from the loan are handling their lives and businesses.

This, I felt, was a clever way of appealing to the bleeding hearts of rich tourists. It was based on the premise that the conscientious tourist is not simply a voyeur of poverty, but genuinely cares. Even if this was a delusion, Fundacion El Via’s marketing of the idea was attractive. I met four women in Teotitlan del Valle during my afternoon visit. All the women had apparently benefitted from the microfinance loans. I was invited into their houses. They seemed cheerful and seemed to balance having children, and husbands who might have been doubtful of their new entrepreneurial role, very well.

Carlos, the founder of Fundacion El Via, was privileged. He had grown up in Oaxaca. His parents ran the language institute. His pale complexion and height set him apart from the short and dark skinned indigenous Oaxacan women he was trying to help in Teotitlan del Valle. Carlos had an MBA degree from Boston University and had returned to start Fundacion El Via. He was smart and knew the microfinance landscape well. He was grappling with bureaucratic difficulties: for the Mexican government, his organization was in the business of tourism, not a not-for-profit organization.

“A recent survey identified that there are 625 microfinance organizations in the state of Oaxaca,” Carlos told me. “There have been microfinance scams because of the financial crisis, since some of these organizations had money in stocks. And microfinance in Mexico is not the same as in Bangladesh or in India. In Bangladesh, poverty is concentrated, so it is easier to set up an infrastructure. In Mexico, poverty is scattered and remote, requires more coordination, transportation resources and set up.”

***

Grameen and Shamsuddin

It was Carlos who told me about Grameen in Oaxaca. This wasn’t a surprise given the presence Grameen has in the microfinance world. Carlos Slim, a Mexican billionaire, had met with Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen, and had agreed to finance and set up Grameen branches in Mexico.

Grameen, Oaxaca was managed by a Bangladeshi man, Shamsuddin, who had arrived in Mexico the in July 2009. Shamsuddin knew no Spanish. In the beginning, he would stand with a Mexican interpreter at the corner of streets to ask passersby if they needed a loan; or he would knock on doors. This was an irresistible image: a Bangladeshi man with little local knowledge working to solve problems of poverty in Mexico. And it was something new. For it’s usually Western organizations who have (at least in the last century) claimed to carry the burden of for developing and poor countries.

It was that image that drew me to the Grameen office in a residential part of Oaxaca City on my last day. I spent nearly two hours talking with Shamsuddin. We got along well. He was in his fifties. He wore a blazer but his demeanor reminded me of the authority of government officials India – even the manner in which he had coffee ordered for me. The office room was painted blue. There were framed photographs on the walls of Mohammad Yousuf and his family in Mexico City, with Obama, and on his walk to accept the Nobel Prize. Shamsuddin knew Yunus well and considered him a teacher and mentor. He worked with Yunus since the early inception years of Grameen in the eighties.

His work had taken him to Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. From 2003 to until 2009, he had worked for Grameen, Turkey. Turkey had even offered him a citizenship for his service, but for some reason, instead of spending the latter part of his career with his family, either in Turkey or Bangladesh – which he seemed to want – he had ended up in Mexico, to start a new operation. He had now acquired a basic working knowledge of Spanish and was assisted by Mexican helpers. This included a cook, an assistant and a driver. The cook, woman in her late twenties, came to serve coffee; she said there was no milk. The driver, a jovial man with a mustache, took me back to the main square in Oaxaca City.

During my conversation with Shamsuddin, several women came in to discuss their loans or validate their checks with Shamsuddin. His Spanish though awkward seemed effective. Grameen Oaxaca now has given 7000 loans in Oaxaca. That seemed like considerable progress in less than two years.

“Grameen is a job with a steady salary, but it requires constant commitment,” Shamsuddin said.

But he didn’t seem entirely happy. Somehow, he kept going back to his days in Turkey. The people of Mexico were friendly, punctual and did their work well. But he felt they were impenetrable. There didn’t seem to be a warmth and general sense of friendliness that he’d experienced in Turkey. Perhaps it was the language, which he hadn’t able to fully grasp.

Grameen’s goal in Mexico is to set up 30 branches. There are already a few outlying offices in Oaxaca. Shamsuddin also wanted to start something in neighboring Chiapas – a state more remote and poor than Oaxaca – but the strong presence of armed movements of the left seemed a threat. Extortion there, he had been told, was inevitable.

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