Monday, July 25, 2011

When to lose your temper and how to regain your composure

Remarkably, I’ve only lost my temper twice this whole trip and in my defense, I didn’t lose it until two weeks into my stay. If you’re attempting to be productive here (or any developing country, for that matter), I’d suggest at least a semester long course in patience and anger management. At least once a day you will be tested, put to your wits end, and it will require every ounce of effort you can muster to not breakdown in tears or lash out at innocent bystanders with a profanity laced diatribe. 

You might, for example, really need to keep your cool at 8am when you call the driver of a van you’ve rented for eight people for the day that was supposed to pick you up fifteen minutes ago and learn that he’s just not coming. No explanation, he’s just not coming and couldn’t call to tell you because he didn’t have any cellphone minutes. It’s best to just hang up the phone at that point and take a deep breath. You should count to ten when you go to the Airtel mobile phone office for three consecutive days to activate sim cards to access the internet and are always, always told to just try again tomorrow, the network is down. These annoyances and frustrations will happen every day. They are not isolated incidents but rather a part of life and more often than not will pepper your entire work day. Understand that there are forces working against you that really, very truly, do not want you to get anything done.

You are allowed to lose your temper, however, when you visit and spend three hours at the only other mobile service provider’s office, TNM. Before spending any money you will be assured that the phones you want to activate for internet access will certainly work on the network. That you just have to buy a sim card, dial 100 to register, buy airtime and purchase a data bundle. Keep your cool when you can’t get the phones to work after spending over 100 dollars and following all the instructions given to you. You are not quite at meltdown temperature yet. Calmly explain to the most helpful agent that you cannot seem to get the phone to work and allow her to take the phone to give it a try. When she tells you then that the phones aren’t working because they are 2G phones and the 2G network is down, laugh at your misfortune. 

Continue to ask questions though, always ask more questions. When will the network be back? Soon. How often does this happen? Not so much. How long does it take normally to repair the network? Not long. How long has the network been down today? Three weeks. You are allowed to start losing your temper at this point, but before making a scene you should call your co-worker in Kenya that bought the phones and confirm that they are actually 2G and not 3G. They will be 3G so go back to this agent and tell her that the phones are not 2G and therefore they should work on the 3G network. Do not ask why she said they were 2G because that will only raise your blood pressure to a dangerous level. Ignore the fact that she’s just making shit up to get rid of your problem which has become her problem. 

Be thankful that she sends you to a new person, someone who works in the back office and you think will offer more solutions. Alfeo will fiddle with your phone for ten minutes and then disappear for 30 minutes “looking for a test sim card”, at which point, you should step outside the office you’re in and ask again for Alfeo. Commence meltdown when Alfeo returns after 40 minutes and explains that the phone is still not working and that there is only one test sim card in the whole f’ing city of Lilongwe and it happens to be in a different TNM office, that there isn’t any other f’ing phone in the TNM office that can be used to test the sim card that isn’t working in your phone, and that the best way forward is to return tomorrow to see if the test sim card is back. 

At this point, meltdown. Make a stink, raise your voice, make others feel embarrassed for you. Wait for Jared, the general manager who is the only one that can authorize the refund you want on the $100 you spent. Though you’ll feel a little better after raising your voice, you will not succeed in getting that refund. Jared is out of the office and the only answer you get when asking about his return is “he’s coming.” Throw in the towel at this point.

After you’ve calmed down a bit, you’ll be allowed to lose your temper again when the taxi that takes you back to the hotel from the TNM office decides to triple the charge you agreed upon because of his “waiting fee” even though, as you try to reason with him, you had explained to him while negotiating the original fare that you’d be at the office for some time. Raise your voice to a level that attracts all of the hotel employees out of the lobby and have them ask you if everything is okay. Tell the taxi driver that you’ll pay X but not what he demands, Y. When he says that he’ll show you the rate form that explains the waiting charge, call his bluff. He has no form and you know it. He’ll offer to park the car at the hotel and run back to where his boss is to retrieve the form (his boss is not far and there is a fuel shortage in the country so he doesn’t want to waste gas). Feel bold and empowered at this point, call his bluff again. If you can show me the form, I’ll gladly pay whatever fee it says!! After he parks the car, starts out in a soft jog and gets to the end of the hotel parking lot, realize he is indeed going to reach his boss and return with some form, that you are arguing over less than $5, and that you should probably just tell the guy to get back in his taxi. Pay whatever charge he wants, it really doesn’t matter.

Calm down again in the hotel. Your frustration helps nothing. Deep breaths will allow you to return your attention to the phones you were trying to activate and a calm, relaxed attitude (or perhaps more likely, an act of God) will allow you to get the phones working within twenty minutes, just as I did. Believe in God more strongly than ever.

Notes from Malawi

  • Malawi has thrown everything at me. Really, everything. There were demonstrations for two days throughout the country that turned violent in some spots and left 18 dead. The whole country was shut down and I spent both days locked up in the hotel hanging out with the hotel staff. Losing two productive days made it a bit tricky getting everything done that we needed to. I was sitting on a wing and prayer just a day ago trying to still get things up and running before my departure tomorrow, and somehow, it all seemed to happen. I can’t often easily answer the questions that friends pose to me about why I’m in Africa, why I do things like the Peace Corps, or why I seek out work that seems shitty, frustrating, and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting.  All I can say is that when I go through something as hard and as challenging as the past two weeks in Malawi and still manage to find some semblance of success, it feels much more worthwhile and meaningful than writing emails in Lotus Notes all day for an easy desk job. I’d rather go through blood, sweat, and tears and suffer through the lowest of lows than experience the dry monotony  of an office job routine that I’ve so far found in the office jobs I’ve worked. I could do without the civil unrest and riots though.
  • Malawi is a desperately poor country and is noticeably worse off than any other country I’ve travelled to. The poverty is much more apparent and the state is very close to completely dysfunctional. And quite frankly, there isn’t anything remarkable about the country that you can’t get in better and more magnificent portions in other countries. Yet there’s something special about the country that makes me really, really like it, maybe more than any other country I’ve visited. I really can’t put my finger on it and actually find the feeling a little perplexing given all of the shit and frustrations the country has put me through during my visits, but the feeling is definitely there. I truly like the country. “The people are so nice!” I find it to be a pretty meaningless description because I hear it too much from folks who have just returned from a visit to some foreign country, particularly developing countries, but in Malawi’s case I have to insist you believe me. They are the warmest and friendliest culture I’ve come across in all of my travels, and maybe it’s something as simple as that that makes the country seem so special.   

Hiring People in Africa

I was here in Malawi for two main reasons. The first one was easy – I had to visit our three largest distributors and introduce a distributor incentive program that we created to help us gather data on customers. The second and larger reason was to kick off an assessment of how farmers are using our pumps in Malawi. Are they using them, how did they procure the pump, what price did they pay, did they get the pump for free, do they use the pump with a group of farmers, what crops do they grow, has their income increased because of the pump? We answer these questions very well in Kenya where we have a field staff that tracks and visits farmers on a scheduled basis, but since we distribute our pumps through the private supply chain and do not have any employees in Malawi, we’ve never actually quantified or measured the impacts of our pumps here. And that’s what we intend to do over the next month and what I was setting up the past two weeks. 

We interviewed 10 people on Tuesday and hired three data collectors who will travel around the country interviewing farmers that are using the pumps. The resumes we collected were comic gold. Skills such as "knowledge of the internet" and hobbies like "making friends" and "watching TV" were listed. The interviews were pretty fun too. Though we didn’t hire him, Kenasi, was the most entertaining. He looked like he was fifteen and wearing his dad’s suit, but he spoke like he was a 50 year old politician. I’d hire him in a second as a sales agent or spokesperson, and probably would have hired him for this project if he didn’t have to go back to South Africa for school before our project is scheduled to be done. It was also fun having my co-worker in the interviews. His questions included “you seem a bit dull...have you had breakfast?” and “you’re always like saying ‘Iike’ a lot, is that like some sort of like bad like habit?” I was actually impressed with most of the candidates and it was hard turning down  a few of them. We ended up deciding on Andrew, Gifton (a bit dull), and Michael Mike (like). And yes, that is his real name. We confirmed that in the interview. It reminded me of my Nicaraguan friend, Victor Victor. When he arrived for training he was wearing a shirt with a picture of a horse on the front and said "hung like a..." We just finished everything up and they will release to the wild on Monday, travelling to the far corners of the country looking for pumps, working with NGOs, and collecting data on an Android smart phone. Wish them luck.

Lilongwe Hotel

I’ve stayed at the Bridgeview Hotel the last two weeks and for at least half of those nights, I was the only guest. I’d walk downstairs for breakfast and there’d be a staff of eight to wish me good morning, two or three of whom would be dedicated to fanning over me during breakfast. A little overwhelming and unnecessary but it made it pretty easy to get to know everyone, and at this point, after two weeks, they feel like family. 

David is one of the breakfast servers. If he weren’t so terribly nice, I’d get annoyed that it takes him thirty minutes to make toast in the conveyor belt toaster (he insists he do this for me). It’s unclear what Victor does, but I think he’d serve as a bellhop if there were any guests to escort to the room. Because I’m the only one here, he just hangs out in the reception and smiles. Oswald runs the reception and is quiet, unamused, and not terribly helpful, but he’s better than Salima, who sits behind the reception desk, plays solitaire and doesn’t even offer the redeeming smiles of Victor or David. My favourite character is Nigi, the cook, who’s from Northern India. My co-worker who was with me during a portion of the past two weeks is also from India and initially befriended Nigi by speaking Hindi to him. Nigi was happy to have an audience to cook for and personally brought out each of our homemade Indian lunches and dinners the past week.  He very proudly gave me a tour of his kitchen last night which because we couldn’t really speak each other’s language was more of him smiling broadly, holding my hand, showing me where he makes naan (“very hot, very hot!”) and guiding me into the store room, around the burners, and into the dish room. He seemed sincerely sad when I wished him goodbye. "You leave?!? Now?!? Don't come back??!" 

Last time I stayed at a hotel for an extended period of time, Amon, one of the waiters told me that he would miss me. It was cute, but I can’t say I shared the same feeling. The Bridgeview Hotel staff, yes, I’ll miss you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Heaven on Earth

"Heaven on Earth" is a pretty lofty goal for a luxury spa in NYC. And for a bus company? Yep, when I think Greyhound, I think heaven. So how could I turn down a chance to take National Bus Company's four hour trip from Blantyre to Lilongwe? I couldn't.

Turns out, heaven on earth doesn't hold itself to much of a formal schedule. You can expect heaven to be around 40 minutes late and to arrive at your destination about an hour later than scheduled. The seats are comfy and heaven's hostess will serve you an apple, peanuts, and your choice of one Coke, one Fanta, a cup of instant coffee, or a bottle of water. Not bad! You will also be shown two DVDs worth of gloriously eclectic music videos during your four hour journey. A couple of Malawian songs will giveway to Beyonce which will introduce Lionel Richie who will hand it back to Malawi's own. About two hours into the videos, you'll be treated to a roughly 45 minute video of the taping of a mid 1990s religious celebration of song in a nondescript, completely full US arena. Inexplicably, your seatmate, if you're lucky, will know every single word to all the songs and will sing along at an embarrassingly loud level. And just as heaven is pulling into Lilongwe, as if God really does have a hand in National Bus Company's operation, the last video you see will be 1985's We Are The World which is, dare I say, damn near close to, yes, heaven on earth (if you haven't seen this video recently, watch it now. It is awesome. So much PASSION from The Boss).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Malawi's Priorities

There are only about 8-9 countries in the world that are poorer than Malawi. Its per capita GDP stands at $800 per year, about how much I spent on my flat screen TV, and its total GDP in 2009 was about $4.3 billion, or about the same as Twitter's January 2011 estimated market cap. So it seems a bit weird to find a billboard in Lilongwe enticing you to join the Airtel network in order to "tweet faster." If I'm the average Malawian, I think I'd be more concerned with finding my next meal and avoiding malaria and dysentery than with tweeting about my new mosquito net and making sure I got Lady Gaga's tweets more quickly.  

I'm back! Malawi

I was scheduled to arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi on Monday afternoon, but due to some prior flight’s problems, they ended up rebooking me onto a flight for Tuesday and put me up in Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel. Yeah, I could have just as easily stayed at my apartment for the night, but why go back to an apartment with no food, when I was offered three free meals and a room at Nairobi’s most historical hotel, where men in top hats fetch your bags and Ernest Hemingway used to rest his head? Don’t mind if I do hole up for the day here:

Especially when what I was escaping is as chaotic as the street right below my hotel room:

The luxury was short-lived, however. I was back into the thick of that chaos by 6am Tuesday morning, fighting through airport security and check-in lines before finally boarding my flight to Lilongwe. It was a long trip, touching down in Lusaka for one hour and arriving in Lilongwe in the late afternoon. Lilongwe, with its relatively empty streets and small town feel was a welcome change of pace to Nairobi, and I actually felt pretty good (maybe arrogant?) getting into the city center – like I had come a long way since the last time I was here and am no longer just some amateur. I now know what I’m doing, how to navigate the country, who I need to work with, how much I should be spending. I’ve got the phone numbers of taxi drivers in both major cities and know exactly where to stay. I even know how to drive a hard bargain – cash is king here and USD is offer for $60/night paid in USD cash was accepted at a hotel with $85/night rooms!

I’ll be here for the next two weeks. Whereas the last visit to Malawi was about research and learning, this visit is all about implementing and should be a lot of fun, even if all that has to be done is a bit daunting. I’ll be interviewing and hiring for two data collectors, setting up field work for the data collectors so that they can interview close to 400 farmers using our pumps, and starting a distributor incentive program to encourage better pump sale tracking. And of course I’ll be strutting around like it’s nobody’s business with a gangsta’ roll of Malawian Kwacha. Wish me luck.