Sunday, October 02, 2005


Before and upon arriving in Cairo, our Egypt office asked several times if I could work on Saturday night, and told me over and over again to meet the driver at 5pm sharp outside the hotel for a trip to meet a local partner and see a project site. No problem, I said each time. So I meet up with my colleague and the driver (wondering why my colleague needed to leave her suitcases in my room and was carrying such a large backpack with her) outside the hotel, and hop in the car for what I thought was going to be a car ride to somewhere in the city, but ended up being a ride to the train station. My mind was clicking and buzzing trying to figure out what was going on, but nothing popped into place until I asked my colleague why she had a big backpack, and she mentioned that I was a light packer. Aha, grr, argh, we were SPENDING THE NIGHT AND NO ONE TOLD ME? Ok, I’m a pretty flexible person, but they could have told me – that would have been the nice, normal, thoughtful, and responsible thing to do. So we ran out to get me a toothbrush and toothpaste, hoping that the hotel would have the normal stash of toiletries and hopped on the train for El Minya.

The train ride was relatively uneventful and normal, full of stimulating conversation among my colleague and I. We arrived at the cute town of Minia and the Hotel Aton just in time to crash into our beds, dreaming of the Nile.

Minia, or El Minya, is a beautiful town on the Nile, built of curlicued old decorated-cake buildings, now fallen into disrepair, and the standard concrete third-world architecture that makes globalization ugly. There is much less traffic and pollution there than Cairo, and the pace is more manageable. Our hotel is located just on the Nile, overlooking which we ate our breakfast and watched the relentless sun rise above the escarpment in the distance. It was out of a book, really. Maybe out of this book.

One thing that I didn’t mention was that when the guards at the train station realized that we were three women traveling alone (my colleague and I were accompanied by another, Egyptian, colleague who worked on the project we were about to see), he insisted on sending one of his men along with us on the three-hour train ride as our bodyguard. We insisted that it was unnecessary, but the guy came along anyway, following us doggedly to the hotel. This bodyguard thing was a sort of theme on the Minia trip, as we will see.

After our breakfast, we met up with a fourth woman colleague and headed off to pick up the partner staff and go meet some clients of the project. Again, we were beset by a bodyguard, this time in the form of four guys from the partner organization staff, complete with HF radios. Just in case what? Anyway, we went to a village just outside of Minia, and met four women who have loans out with our microfinance program.

I want you to understand that these are normal women. Two were in their forties, two in their late thirties (although all four of them looked younger than me – are they on to something?), and they were just trying to get by, any way they could. They took the risk of getting a small loan and starting a small business because the risk was worthwhile – if they didn’t take it, they would remain nearly desperately poor, and if they did, even if it didn’t work out, how much worse could things really get? That’s not to say that this project is perfect, or even really that good (although as microfinance projects go, it isn’t a bad one), but just that there are normal women, just like me, just like some of you. They may or may not be natural entrepreneurs, but they’re making a go of it anyhow. They used the money to invest in their microbusinesses, which included small livestock-raising and dairy production. We wondered what their husbands thought, and the only one we met said that he was proud of his wife, and glad to help her out, but we still wondered.

I emphasize their normality really to make my point that development assistance frequently treats the poor as guinea pigs, cavalierly testing methodologies and complicated “solutions” on them. Oops – that didn’t work, and now you’re being beaten by your husband and you’re worse off? Sorry ‘bout that. We’ll try something else next time. And there they are, increasingly dependent on our intervention, their human dignity stripped from them as we pooh pooh their inherent smarts as not being as good as ours. Give me a break. I watched one of the women as she rhythmically shook an inflated sheepskin full of buffalo milk back and forth from where it was tethered, making cheese and butter. Can you make cheese and butter that way? Neither can I. I hated the idea that she or anyone else like her, anyone else like me, would be forced to live grasping at a dollar-bill lifeline that could be pulled up at any time. Oops – sorry, we had to end that program because They cut our funding. Better luck next time!

After our pleasant/weird visit to the clients, we and our entourage of bodyguards went up to Beni Hassan, a Pharaonic archeological site. Up on the escarpment, just beyond the sharp end of the oasis around the river, there are a series of caves, some man-made and some natural. The natural ones are hideouts for bandits, but the man-made ones are burial sites for wealthy Egyptians from the 11th and 12th dynasties, or some 3,000 years ago or more.

The tourism ministry has set up a nice little welcome center that was empty when we arrived. To get onto the path up the hill to the caves, we had to walk through a rickety, dusty, and, given the fact that there was no electricity at the moment, completely useless metal detector, and have our bags inspected. Whatever. If they had put up a wooden arbor covered in flowering vines, it would have been equally useful but much prettier.

The caretaker allowed us into two of the tombs. It was really overwhelming to stand there in a site older than anything that I had ever experienced, looking at vivid wall paintings that the caretaker’s completely fictional explanations could not have obscured.
He told us that Egyptians were doing yoga in this picture (yoga was formalized thousands of years after the Egyptian pharaonic period), and hockey in that picture (yeah, right). We did see the hairdressing that he spoke about, and the monkeys in the fig tree.

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