Monday, January 28, 2013

Baking Days

The Finished Bread Oven - After Months of Baking
Do you know that story about the little engine that could?  Well, I am here to tell you that some days she was really not that optimistic.  The tortoise?  Yeah, she didn’t think she would actually BEAT the rabbit.  And there were plenty of days in my first 3 months (heck – first 9 months) as a Peace Corps Volunteer that I was sure I’d be leaving Fiji with nothing to say when people back home asked me what I’d done for the last 2 years.  But there’s this proverb we have that might as well be part of the American psyche.  You might have heard it, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I wouldn’t say it’s my personal motto, but perseverance in the face of adversity and uncertainty was the key to the success of my first tangible project as a PCV – the bread oven.
The Bread Oven is a Success!
This project was first suggested in the village by an uninformed new resident who knew nothing about the realities of doing development work (harsh), the profit margins of bakeries (slim), or the working culture of rural subsistence farmers in Fiji (decidedly non-Western).  Yes – it was suggested by me in the weeks following my arrival.  It immediately gained major traction.  And at the same time I quickly realized it was not really a sure fire money making scheme, with low profit margins and a poor track record in other nearby villages.  I tried to divert attention.  We discussed selling homemade jam (and had a jam tasting with papaya, pineapple, banana, and even pumpkin jams), we performed traditional dances for cruise ship passengers (and made a lot in donations), we talked about digging ponds to farm tilapia (responsible aquaculture reduces fishing pressure on the reef and provides healthy protein) and we investigated the costs associated with keeping chickens for eggs (eggs are about 50 cents apiece so are seen as too expensive for most people in the village).  By January the women were adamant that they wanted a bread oven.  And by that point I realized that ANY project that held a large group’s interest for that long was worth trying whether or not we were going to get rich.  I was in, but I still needed information on how to actually do it.

The Inner Drum and all the metal work that went into creating the oven door were donated by visitors.
Luckily I wasn’t the first PCV in Fiji to attempt a baking project with a women’s group.  About five years earlier another volunteer on my island had literally written the book on wood-fired drum ovens and an outgoing volunteer from the other island updated me on how the idea had gone over in his village (the women had made just enough money to start their next project and then effectively abandoned the oven).  Armed with the experiences of others I felt ready to take on the construction of the first actual tangible development project of my life.  The resourceful women of my community planned a fundraiser and we collected double the amount we had calculated we would need to build the oven.  A donation from overseas visitors to the village (my parents) provided the two drums we needed.  And in March we began construction.  We were on schedule to start baking in May.  But then something happened.  We didn’t end up starting baking until four months later than originally planned.
A lot of women helped in the construction process, especially tearing up coconut husks used as insulation.
The second layer of cement goes over the coconut husks.
Most of the construction was done by village youth.
This is the essence of development work – in Fiji at least – there is always something you don’t know.  Hopefully one understands this and can investigate what the hidden complications might be, but I was green.  I was inexperienced with the politics that made one head “carpenter” quit and other skilled workmen or any of the women unwilling to continue construction (even with detailed plans) until another was appointed.  Or, take for example, the un-communicated idea of the women that we were also building a baking shed around the oven and couldn’t begin using the area until a traditional opening ceremony had been performed.  And there was the problem of the women lacking the confidence to bake bread in the oven despite their cumulative decades of home baking experience.  But through it all I did the one thing I could – I asked what was wrong and what I could do to help.   

Our Baking Workshop was Attended by Nearly All the Women in the Village!
Eventually we found a carpenter related to the village that had built a drum oven in another village, we raised money for the baking shed and organized the “dolodolavi” or opening ceremony, and negotiated with a woman from a village on the other side of our district to hold a workshop to teach the women to bake in their new oven.    In September the women began filling orders for neighboring villages and by October were regularly baking (and selling out) two days a week.  In November we reviewed finances and logistics and decided to add a third baking day each week to raise funds for further supply purchases.  In December we discussed applying for grant funding to expand the working area of the bakery, adding shelves, storage, and work surfaces.  This month (January) we dealt with the problem of some people selling bread on credit and of missed baking days over the holidays.  With nearly half a year of baking and business management experience I could leave the women on their own NOW and they would adequately manage the bakery.  Hopefully when I leave in June they’ll be confident they can manage it well and realize that they have the skills to be successful in any project they really commit to.
The Women Bake every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and usually sell out!
Already we’re in the middle of what some of the women refer to as “Phase 2,”the building of a Women’s Resource Center (the first neutral meeting space in the village) funded by the Department of Women and in February we’re scheduled to begin “Phase 3,”the beekeeping operation which we’ll start with one hive donated by me and one purchased by the women’s group.  I feel like I have a lot of work ahead of me in the next five months with these and other projects – sometimes it feels as if I’ll never be able to do it all – and yet I try.  Maybe I’ll beat that rabbit after all – make it up the seemingly insurmountable hill like the little engine that kept saying, “I think I can,” despite her doubts.
Happy Bakers at the Bread Oven

No comments:

Post a Comment