Personal Update: Projects at work and a weekend adventure

I’m about to write a post about the ongoing protest movement in Brazil, but I want to tell family and friends what I’m doing before trying to explain what the country is doing.

DukeEngage has sponsored me to come here and engage in immersive, relational, and effective service/civic engagement.  My mentor reminded me that while I won’t change anyone’s life in two months, I can help an organization that does change lives; I am here to help an NGO whose mission is to help small and often poor entrepreneurs advance their own businesses.  I don’t have a lot of expertise, but I have time and energy to offer.  It’s definitely indirect service but I feel like Duke’s investment was worth it as long as I provide some value to the organization.

I’m working on projects that my boss and I decided on.  First, he had me research ways to earn new clients and enter new markets for microfinance.  It felt like business consulting that I’m entirely unqualified for, but I came up with a few ideas that he seemed to like (leveraging word-of-mouth, using social media, using behavioral economics to design incentives for new borrowers).  This week I created a massive spreadsheet that compares my microfinance organization with regional benchmarks and  other Brazilian agencies of similar size, drawing data from http://www.mixmarket.org.  Next I am supposed to create some video client testimonials; I’ll pick some long-term clients whose stories show how the organization can help people, interview them on camera, and use my as-yet-nonexistent video editing skills to create some promotional videos that might attract new clients through social media.  Through my work I’m learning a TON about microfinance and about business in general.  I’ve also picked up some very specialized vocabulary like “working capital,”
merchandise in stock,” and the various government agencies who regulate credit… if you ever need to negotiate a loan in Portuguese, just call me up.

My boss is the overall director of the 27-person agency; he’s patient with my spoken Portuguese (and impressed by my written Portuguese, miraculously) and seems to enjoy talking about big-picture things with me. My program coordinator explained that he values the cultural exchange aspect and the chance to engage with someone intellectually.  My coworkers are super friendly.  They love to ask whether I’ve been dancing the typical forró and trying Bahian foods like acarajé, a shrimp and bean fritter that is kind of like a giant hush puppy with shrimp.  (The answer is yes to both, although I wish I didn’t have two left feet for dancing.)

This past weekend I had a great adventure.  My homestay friend and two Germans I recently met went to Lençóis, a beautiful and touristy town just outside of an amazing national park, the Chapada Diamantina.  The town was PACKED because of the festival of São João.  Everyone who lives in the big coastal cities of Bahia heads to the interior of the state for a weekend full of parties and dancing.  It’s kind of a get-back-to-your-rurual-roots party: everyone wears jeans, plaid shirts, and straw hats, throws back a few traditional genipapo drinks, and dances forró.  The parties in the plaza were fun, but the highlight for me was the hikes and adventures we had in the national park.  I’ll sign off with a few pictures from those sights: a 300-foot-long natural waterslide and the view from the beautiful Pai do Inacio mountain.

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