Notional zebras and the big red bus: stories from an evaluation

Kilimanjaro from the air

Two months in Nairobi, though it seemed like more. It’s bad form to say so… but driving around Nairobi never put anyone in a good mood. Mostly it puts you at a standstill. And how come I was always on the side of the car with the hot sun streaming in?

This means that what I saw the most of was exhaust pipes, and people stuffed in small buses, just trying to get home. But when I go back and look at my pictures, they’re not of depressing traffic scenes at all. Instead, I see my fun and brilliant team members and buddies:

Mostly what I did was interview people: those who were connected to the project being evaluated, and those with an opinion about what the project has done. Our team did 250 interviews between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – and we’ll add South Sudan before it’s done. Another 200 or so interviews will also come from people who may not have known the project was even happening, but might have reaped a benefit: those who walk or bike across a border carrying two branches of bananas, or very small “export-ready” entrepreneurs who were helped to sell their coffee or dresses or shea butter creams to neighboring markets. Also IT start-ups, leather tanners and bean growers – the bulk of all of these being women.

Now I know what it’s like to be a flipped coin.

It is the biggest and most complex evaluation design I’ve ever taken part in – much less led. So I have moments of panic, and moments of triumph, almost every day. Now I know what it’s like to be a flipped coin. I worked every day, weekends included, and some workdays were 12, 13, 14 hours long. By the end I was in trouble – sleepy, short-tempered, mentally vacant.

The first report deadline is mid-April. Three more reports follow. Whenever we’re able to get all these reports in and finished, I think I will take whatever remains of the year off.

Still, by the look of my camera roll, most of what I’ve done in Nairobi has been eating:

I also “got my hair done.” I really didn’t think I was a “getting my hair done” type of woman, which sounds as foreign as someone who “does lunch” (though that foreignness is belied by the food porn above). But it appears a trip to the salon was a bit of an indulgence for me:

I look so cheerful!

Never interview when you are stale, tired, uninterested.

Things I’ve learned:

  1. If someone says there’s a zebra (by which they – adorably! – mean crosswalk), even if you can’t see the faintest lines painted on the road, go ahead and use it. Cars will stop. Not all of them, of course, you can’t be stupid. But even a notional zebra has social weight. Crossing the ever-bustling Waiyaki Way on foot is a lesson in the commune: when thirty people cross at once, there’s no reason you can’t be number 31.
  2. Don’t assume non-stop one-hour flights between East African capitals. You will get routed through Nairobi, Zanzibar or Bujumbura, even if you have to go up and come back down to the same city, inexplicably adding 9 hours to what is really a pond hop. Also, don’t assume flights will be offered at reasonable hours. Common departure times include 5 a.m. and 11:50 p.m., or, if you’d like to miss a day of work in both places, 2:00 p.m. If you don’t suffer for the time frame, you’ll hit traffic and suffer on behalf of the people stuffed in the back of a mutatu in front of you, as if it were some kind of cartoon clown car.
  3. Don’t assume your flight will leave on time. Sure, it might leave late, but what a pedestrian problem. Here they might also leave early. If everyone who has signed up to go to Kampala or Nairobi that day has checked in, you better not be charging your battery in the lounge and miss the boarding call. (Mentioning this for a friend. A friend who did this twice and was rescued both times by kind gate agents who knew there was one more mzungu out there with a boarding pass.)
  4. I always tell my students in evaluation courses NOT to interview when they’re stale, tired, uninterested. I went too far with work on this trip, staying up late each night to clean up my notes and to update the weekly report, shooting emails in every direction, delegating ineffectually (i.e., without delegating authority too), pushing – pushing – pushing to get everything done. You won’t get everything done. Getting your hair done is a fine break. Recuperate and forget responsibility for awhile, and get enough sleep.
  5. If a consultant takes a long time to turn in their work and always has an excuse (good or bad, no matter), AND if they are very expensive in your budget, (for good reason or not, no matter), CUT THEM OFF. You will need their leftover salary to pay the person you have to hire to come in and clean up what they never got around to finishing.
  6. For a big project, you have to budget days for consultants to “read in”. No one reads project reports for free. (Nor should they.) One consequence of not doing this is having to “onboard” people with long-winded and one-sided lectures about… everything. I did multiple such lectures and if you think it’s boring to be lectured to for two hours, remember it’s no better saying the same things over and over.
  7. When someone says their statistics results are “almost textbook!” with a bunch of enthusiasm, worry. Nothing is textbook here, because textbooks are written in places like Beaverton, Oregon. If the results are not completely confusing and at least partially contradictory, someone probably did something wrong.
  8. Roger and Christy – former and current and hopefully future colleagues – warn about the Big Red Bus. It’s too gruesome to talk about, but suffice it to say we all need backup.

I’m pretty sure more lessons will make themselves clear in the coming days as I decompress. In the meantime, Ramon and I are going to the market for some veggies to make a monster salad for lunch, then to play volleyball on the beach with my Valentine’s present. Hugs from Tunis!

He knows how to turn me on!
So glad to be home!

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