Research via Royal Mail

I am starting my European research adventure at the British Postal Museum and Archive in London. The archive holds all British postal records in existence–from eighteenth-century postal mail routes in Jamaica to the very first instruction manual for British postal workers in 1660 to Victorian era stagecoach contracts for high speed delivery. As the archive can attest, post offices are notorious for their paperwork. Postal paperwork might be inconvenient for a patron in a rush, but this bureaucratic trail provides great insight for present day researchers. While it might seem like the cost of posting a letter from New York to Boston in 1692 is minutiae of little significance, I argue quite the opposite: these numbers give us a glimpse of who could access this emergent network of exchange. In a time where individuals were geographically isolated–before railroads and telephones and the internet–the post provided an institutionalized sense of interconnectivity. The post office linked (and continues to link) distant individuals in a web of regular exchange. As a scholar, I hope to investigate how the apparatus of the post office created a new set of practices and expectations, new forms of intimacy and alienation in the United States and abroad.

Thus far, I would like to share two exciting finds from the British Postal Archive:

1. I found evidence that at least one post office in New York formally accepted wampum as a form of currency. Wampum are traditional sacred shell beads of Native American tribes in the northeast United States. In colonial America, the beads were used as a form of currency between Native Americans and colonists.

While the presence of wampum in the New York postal record may simply evidence the irregularity of currency in colonial North America, it might suggest that the early post office had Native American patrons. My previous research has shown how the United States Postal Service, by policy, did not exclude patrons based on race, gender, or nationality. This wampum has led me to wonder if the cosmopolitanism of the USPS extends back to colonial postal practices.

2. The main purpose of my research this summer is to understand the impact of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) on international mail exchange in American Literature. While the majority of this information will be housed in the UPU Archive in Bern, Switzerland, I found an interesting effect of regularized international mail on the Royal Mail in Britain. Right around the time the UPU was established, Britain greatly increased the censorship of the mail. The new regulations targeted obscene and lewd materials. I was surprised by what I expected to be the most titillating box in the postal archive: the box containing lewd and obscene mail. Instead of finding nineteenth century pornography, I was leafing through political tracts and literature from Paris, South Africa, and India. The law that seemed to be targeting sexually explicit materials, was instead stifling revolutionary literature. It was this regulation that kept James Joyce’s Ulysses from being sent by mail.

I will continue scouring postal timetables, rate charts, and manuals in London and Bern in the hope of giving an account of the diverse and dizzying story of communication by mail.

The Footfalls of Memory

The Footfalls of Memory

I spent the day scouring the city of Freiburg, Germany for its Stolpersteine, the very city where I first discovered these magnificent stones. I’ll be sharing more photos soon but, for now, I thought I’d pass along this small part of the Stolpersteine’s constellation of memory…

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting more regularly as I gather my thoughts and writing from the past 14 days of intense research and the Levinas seminar in Tilburg. I’m happy to report that my presentation of a paper on die Stolpersteine was met with great success on Thursday–but there is still much more work to be done!

Wishing everyone all the good stuff from Freiburg, David

USAID Uganda

I’ve had a wonderful summer in Uganda thus far. My internship with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been both extremely beneficial and eye-opening. I have had the opportunity to learn about the tools, methods, and logistics of development from a top-down perceptive and have had exposure to the policies of the United States government concerning foreign aid and development. Overall, I feel that I will enter the job market with more vocational clarity.

In sub-Saharan Africa, USAID works to help African governments, institutions, and organizations advance good governance principles and innovative approaches to health, education, economic growth, and agriculture and the environment. In Uganda, USAID began its assistance immediately after independence in 1962. Although priorities have evolved over the past five decades, USAID’s commitment to Uganda continues to focus broadly on improving people’s livelihoods. The USAID office in Uganda has three program areas: Governance and Democracy; Health, HIV and Education; and Economic Growth. Each of the program areas are further broken down by additional areas of focus. I have been working in the Economic Growth office which is comprised of sections in Agriculture/Food Security; Natural Resource Management/Environment; and Vulnerable Populations. Overall, the specific technical areas advance broad-based growth by working comprehensively in (respectively): specific crops (maize, beans and coffee) and value-chain development, addressing the environmental aspects of the oil industry and ecotourism, and improving nutrition, especially among the most vulnerable people. I’ve been lucky to work on projects in all three areas and have found their collaboration and cross-cutting project design and implementation inspiring. Specifically I have worked closely with the Feed the Future (FtF) project- (the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative) started by President Obama back in 2008. The week I arrived I was able to participate in a FtF Partners’ conference where representatives from the US government, the Ugandan Government, the private and non-profit sectors were represented (around 90 participants). This jump-started my exposure to the various actors in development in Uganda. I was responsible for drafting the synthesis report from the event and now I have been responsible for the dissemination of information on USAID Feed the Future projects, activity procurements and baseline survey results to stakeholders. It’s allowed for a lot of valuable networking opportunities.

I have also actively sought out opportunities to build skill-sets in Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E), a critical need in development. Monitoring and Evaluation is the process that is used to measure the effectiveness of project/activity interventions. In USAID M&E serves as a reporting tool to communicate back to Washington (Congress) on the use of funds, project outcomes and effectiveness. I have been fortunate to support (and learn from) USAID Uganda’s Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) specialists in the processing of survey data, the creation of appropriate Feed the Future indicators, and Data Quality Assessments (DQAs) with Implementing Partners. I have also been fortunate to work in projects involving gender and female empowerment- which is an area that I have much interest. I have monitored a project funded by USAID in collaboration with Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA) involving a Randomized Controlled

Trail (RCT) on gender and nutrition. This monitoring has allowed me to leave Kampala and see how the management and support that USAID gives, manifests in the field. The best part of my summer this far has been getting out of the capital. My time in Kampala is reminiscent of my time in Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Though there are many differences in the culture, climate, etc. between the two countries- being in Kampala makes me miss Togo, my friends there and the work I was doing. I think the titles for former Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) is telling- we are called Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). This acronym is reflective of the fact that part of us remains a PCV forever. The cultural competency that I learned in Togo was easily transferable here. Specifically, humility and observation; I find these are power tools in learning things about a country that go beyond the surface level. I feel fortunate to have had such a positive experience. Even though the majority of my work has been in an office, my “Peace Corps nature” has made me culturally curious and confident to go and explore the country outside what can sometimes be an “expat bubble.

visit to IPA's pilot village for the RCT on gender in Nutrition

visit to IPA’s pilot village for the RCT on gender in Nutritionmarket kampala

Pretoria: Where “The Past Isn’t Dead. It Isn’t Even Past.” (Apologies to Faulkner)



“Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid’s symbols–the Union building, the seat of apartheid’s parliament, the statues of Afrikaner heroes, prison cells, and buildings of torture where many opponents of apartheid, black and white, had died or disappeared or mysteriously committed suicide. Pretoria was the heart and soul of apartheid, and I had no desire to set foot there. But now, as I returned to the prison eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa.”

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night

Writing about her prison interviews with apartheid agent Eugene de Kock (aka ‘Prime Evil’), Gobodo-Madikizela reflects upon the city of Pretoria and its troubled past. As a black South African who not only endured apartheid, but then went to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Gobodo-Madikizela’s relation to the city of Pretoria is, to say the least, complex. As she notes, Mandela’s post-apartheid administration reappropriated the city in order to transform the Union buildings, and, by extension, Pretoria itself from a site of painful memories to one of a hopeful future. As one of the three capitals of South Africa, then, Pretoria holds for Gobodo-Madikizela a symbolic meaning in the black South African imaginary.

While walking around Pretoria this past week, I admit that the city’s monuments to the past in juxtaposition with the omnipresent image of Nelson Mandela plastered along streets and billboards served as a constant reminder of my tourist position. This is not my history, and, as such, what am I capitalizing upon when I visit these monuments? Is it responsible to appreciate the aesthetics while ignoring the political? Obviously not. For me, the aesthetic appreciation derives from the discomfort in knowing what these monuments, what this capital stood for in the not so distant past and, more importantly, how this is changing.

Change, however, takes time, and while it has been nearly twenty years since Mandela was elected, Pretoria faces severe problems with crime as a result of a staggering 40% unemployment rate. As one walks back from the Union buildings–or, for that matter, walks anywhere in the city–the fact that nearly every building is fenced with electric barbed wire reminds the pedestrian of present realities stemming from past atrocities.

Of KWFT, Women and Savings

Last week was quite eventful for me. On Thursday, 18th I visited Kayole Estate, an upgraded slum area in the Eastlands of Nairobi where I met nine women registered in a savings group by the name ‘Mukaki’ under the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT). KWFT is a micro-finance institution established by Kenyan women which offers services to low-income Kenyan women only. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in partnership with the Belgian Survival Fund, has been KWFT’s major donor since 1992. Other donors include UNDP and the Ford Foundation.

Set with their constitution and designated officials (chairlady and treasurer), groups such as Mukaki can now access loans that are five times their total saving. In every monthly meeting, the ladies service their loans and save an extra Ksh. 1,100 (about $18).

What I found most intriguing about this particular savings group was their use of m-pesa (mobile-phone based money transfer and micro-financing service) to service loans and make deposits directly into their KWFT accounts citing insecurity issues as their main motivator for using the mode of payment. In addition, the treasurer of the group pointed out that tracing the trail of the amounts deposited and their auditing was made much easier through m-pesa as opposed to transacting with cash.

Some of members of KWFT have advanced through many loan cycles, created bigger businesses and have taken out much larger loans. However, most of the trust’s borrowers are poor women. For instance, for the Mukaki group, the highest loan taken was about $500 while the least was for about $50.

It is said that one of the keys to KWFT’s success is its very clear message that all loans must be repaid on time. If any group member has an overdue balance, all new disbursements to the group are stopped immediately. With this kind of group responsibility or liability, it’s no wonder that KWFT boasts a financial self-sufficiency ratio of over 105 per cent since 2006 – meaning that the trust is no longer overly dependent on grants to cover its financial and operating expenses.

Groups such as Mukaki enforce the group responsibility concept by using each member’s house assets as security and by all members acting as guarantors to the group loan. Each member is allowed to take an individual loan but the amount has to be vetted by the entire group and is in most cases granted on a pro-rata basis with regards to the level of savings held by the borrower.   

The ability to access savings through ATMs and do mobile banking at will, has not only empowered women in places like Kayole but has also boosted their self-esteem. Women savings groups also bolster their welfare especially during tragic times such as the death of family members/bread winners or during hospitalization of their members, given that women living in poverty can barely raise the premiums required to take health insurance.

On Friday, I also attended an International Development Research Center (IDRC) Partners’ Meeting that was hosted by Akiba Mashinani Trust and got to meet with lawyers from a group known as Katiba Kenya (translated Constitution of Kenya) which is currently researching on land tenure issues in Kenya’s informal settlements. I also met with fellow researchers and professors from Nairobi University.

The highlight of my week howeverImage was the visit to Faraja Childrens’ Home – an orphanage which houses twenty seven children situated in Murang’a, Central Kenya on Saturday. I learnt and played the monopoly game and had lots of fun with the children. Although the change of scenery and the very fresh air with lots of trees was definitely welcome, I had to travel back to Nairobi the next day.

“Families and the Church Should Work Together”

It’s been an incredible two and a half weeks here in Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve managed to complete my research here in excess of my goal of twenty interviews with twenty-three. During this time, I’ve seen my interview skills improve in the quality of data I’ve been able to collect from these incredible women I’ve been privileged to interview.

Life here in South Africa, and especially in the neighborhoods in which I’ve been working, is a difficult and complex one. Many of my interviewees have referred to “the situation we live in here” or “reality as it is for us”–explaining the difficulty of high unemployment, the overwhelming prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the struggle of HIV education to meet the needs of the people, of rape and kidnapping, the poverty, the struggle to provide for their own families, the challenges presented by African family and gender dynamics, and the vulnerability of women in society. These women are clear about the fact that the church is a powerful teacher and as such has a responsibility to educate people, especially the youth, about HIV, STDs and STIs because the “church is not only a place where they can teach about Jesus or God but where they can teach us about how to live our lives.” Amen, sisters, amen.

My final interviewee, a former debt collector and married mother of three who was laid off two years ago, put it best when she said that “the church needs to learn what the families are teaching their children so that families and the church can work together”–and she was very clear that it was the church who had something to learn from these women and what it is they choose to teach their children about how to prevent the spread of disease.

Most importantly, many women spoke of the necessity of the church to teach about HIV and its prevention, to encourage conversation about it, to make it less taboo so that HIV-positive persons can learn to accept themselves and their diagnoses and so that their communities to learn to become more accepting of them. Some suggested a day of voluntary HIV testing when church members could all join together for HIV education, counseling and testing and floated the idea of instituting an age for mandatory HIV testing, like mandatory ages for mammograms or other regular medical exams. These are all suggestive of a desire for a church in greater solidarity with HIV-positive persons.

In the end, what has made the difference for these women has been the presence of accepting and unconditional support–whether from family members, friends, partners, social workers, clinicians, or vowed religious.  Some are fortunate enough to find genuine support groups that do not spread gossip and in which the women can discuss and process their feelings.  Others are sorely lacking support groups or have not reached out because they are not ready to disclose their status.  At the end of each interview, I would offer the women an opportunity to ask any questions they might have of me and I was genuinely surprised when on a number of occasions, the women would ask me for advice on how to cope with people who discriminate against them because of their HIV status or tell me how good it felt to talk about their experiences with HIV.  My unspoken hope for this research is that it brings about healing for these women and for the church and I’m grateful to recognize even the small ways in which this hope is taking flesh.

Paung Ku’s Preliminary Results

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges Paung Ku has is determining whether their methods are working and if they are achieving their goal of building the capacity of civil society organizations.  An evaluation of each group they worked with and their respective project can provide some insight.  In these evaluations, Paung Ku’s methods seem to be working well.  There are many stories of overwhelming success in both group strength and project accomplishment. Continue reading

Education and Economics in Bolivia: Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think

It’s my last day in Bolivia after 7 weeks of living in Cochabamba and La Paz. I’ve saved discussing my project until the last couple weeks as the majority of my time spent here was focused on my Spanish lessons. Today I met with the World Bank and interviewed a Bolivian project coordinator who was able to share with me some wonderful insight into the education and economic situation currently facing Bolivia.

Bolivia is the 4th largest country in South America, yet the second poorest. Although its economy has been growing at an annual rate of 4.7% over the past 7 years, it still greatly lags behind other countries in the region. I purposely chose Bolivia for my research because I wanted to understand why it was so underdeveloped and start to identify the root causes. I thought education would be a good place to start my first phase of research. Some think my topic is too broad, but I’m a big picture thinker and less concerned with minute details than the macroeconomic details. After living here for nearly 2 months, absorbing dozens of academic papers, sifting through country’s economic and education statistics, observing the country through my travels and daily interactions, and speaking with education experts and students, I’d like to briefly share what I think is happening in Bolivia.

The Morales administration has been implementing several new policies, including a conditional cash transfer program aimed at keeping students in school at the primary and secondary levels. Every year they battle with the public universities, which lead to month-long strikes, to gain more influence and control over the administration and spending of the autonomous universities. Currently, the public universities receive funding from the government (so that students may attend for free) but they do not need to disclose what they do with the money. This has led to theories of major corruption within the senior executives of the schools. There also exist issues of a lack of accountability, no public information provided by the public universities, outdated curricula, and a misuse of resources. The public universities argue that they have a right to their own autonomy and freedom from government intervention.

Furthermore, a major problem lies in the fact that there are few high-skilled jobs available. Yet, many Bolivian students pursue degrees in engineering, medicine, and law because they are considered prestigious careers. But there are very few job opportunities for them upon graduation. This has led to massive under-employment and frustration in the labor market. Bolivia has a massive informal economy with taxi drivers and street vendors, amongst others, littered throughout the country. From my observations, the workers in the informal economy do not pay taxes which greatly hinder the capacity of government spending.

However, my World Bank contact informed me of one of their programs that trains high school drop-outs in technical fields such as textiles, manufacturing, mining, and cosmetology. At least 90% of the students in the World Bank program graduate and almost all of them find work in their respective fields. What this shows is that there is a strong demand in Bolivia for qualified technical laborers. There are also abundant opportunities in the service sector, including banking and restaurants. Lastly, the country is experiencing a labor shortage in information technology and programming.

So what do I think? I think the Bolivian government needs to focus much more on job creation and create more incentives in the private sector. Its economy is growing steadily but the scarcity of opportunities in the fields of medicine, engineering, and law, I fear, will eventually create a human capital flight in important career fields. I have heard that many students who graduate degrees in foreign countries do not return to Bolivia because there are so few opportunities. Many go work for United Nations agencies and international organizations. I think the country needs to put more effort into attracting foreign capital that would create additional jobs. I don’t think the government is doing enough to tackle the educational problems in the rural parts of the country where nearly 40% of the population lives. Many youth in the rural areas never complete high school. And very few who attend university actually complete their degrees, despite the free education. There is also a lack of qualified teachers and very limited resources to give quality educations in the rural areas. This, I believe, will quickly lead to high levels of inequality. Lastly, I think that while Bolivia is growing economically it is soon to face major challenges in having an educated and qualified workforce that will propel the country into a developed status. It is a long way away from where from where it needs to be and it will probably many years before a large majority of the citizens find gainful employment and financial abundance.

Needles in Quicksand

I knew qualitative research wasn’t easy.  I did not expect it to be this hard.

Certainly the greatest lesson in all this work is recognizing the value of community and of the individual person’s contribution (or lack thereof).  I would not be able to have accomplished as much as I have if not for the hard work and know-how of the Kheth’Impilo staff member, Frieda Kasper, who’s been helping me track down participants for my study.  Trying to find HIV-positive Catholic women in the areas of Cape Town where we are working is, in Frieda’s words, “like trying to find a needle in quicksand without a magnet.”

It’s just that bad.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, I have to balance my urgent need to meet my goals with the reality that the NGO I’m working with is really just doing me a favor.  Everyone has other jobs and responsibilities and so there are few people who can really take the time to assist me in reaching my target number of participants, except for Frieda, who was asked to clear her schedule this past week to help me and help me she has done in spades.  A former community organizer, she goes door to door, working waiting rooms, making phone calls and following leads with her contacts in the clinics and homes in the Wallacedene and Bloekombos neighborhoods to find women for my study.

Kheth’Impilo (“Choose Life”) is a support network that works with the municipal clinics.  As such, they do not keep records of their patients’ religious affiliations.  As if finding Catholics wasn’t hard enough, then comes the issue of HIV-status.  Often, even if we can track down women who meet the qualifications for my study (to be 18 years or older, raised or practicing Catholic, HIV-positive, and not pregnant at the time of interview), some are embarrassed to reveal their HIV-status to a stranger, even one who promises anonymity and the fact that their secrets are leaving the continent with me in a week.  I’ve had at least three women walk in for interviews having been cleared by Frieda as meeting the specifications and who either recant on their status or flat out deny their status to me personally even before the interview can begin.  It pains me to know that I can’t interview those who deny their status upfront, because then I can’t give them the R100 gift card I’ve been distributing as a thank you.  if women knew of these upfront, I’d have a line of women knocking on my door telling me they are Catholic just to get the gift card (and yes, I’ve already had a few of these as well).

It’s heartening to know that after the interviews, I can provide something for them in the form of a small thank you–a R100 ($10) gift card to Pick ‘n’ Pay, a local supermarket chain.  Most of the women in these neighborhoods of informal settlements go a week without a meal and they are often sent to a local soup kitchen by the clinic for a daily meal.  A $10 gift card can go a long way toward food for women who are looking for work and with families to feed at home.  Because I offer this as a thank you and not an incentive (so they do not know they will be receiving it beforehand), they are often overjoyed and a few have clapped their hands.  One called me on my local cell to thank me again after leaving the office.

As for the results of these interviews, let’s just say I’ve come to the right women.  Though they are largely women of few words, they have strong convictions and the overriding theme emerging in their voices is that the church has a responsibility to teach its children well or it may soon itself be searching for its children like needles in quicksand.

“Quiero escribir una historia de La Movida social y de la gente corriente”


Just thought I’d share this from an article that just came out in a local Madrid newspaper on me and my research this summer:


Escribir el primer libro en inglés sobre La Movida Madrileña. Ese es el propósito de Louie Dean Valencia, un joven historiador norteamericano al que bien podrías encontrarte por el barrio un día de estos, indagando, a la busca de aprehender el espíritu de aquellos frenéticos años de la Nueva Ola.

¿Qué tiene de diferente su libro a otros que se han escrito sobre aquellos años? A parte de ser una mirada foránea, el libro pretende ser un acercamiento más social al fenómeno, algo más global que la habitual nómina de nombres mayúsculos. “Me interesa hablar con la gente anónima que vivió aquellos momentos”.Quedamos con Louie en una cafetería del barrio para que nos contara su proyecto académico (el libro será el resultado de su tesis doctoral en la Fordham University de Nueva York). Es experto en Historia Contemporánea y conoce bien nuestro país, ha escrito, entre otras cosas, acerca de la cultura juvenil durante el franquismo o sobre los días del 15M.

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