Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Five

Thursday, March 17th

My boss left this morning, on his way back to Lilongwe for a meeting before returning to Nairobi. He elected to fly back to Lilongwe which makes me feel better about the bus ride we shared to Blantyre. I like knowing that he hated it as much as I did. You ride one of those buses and everyone else on board seems to be taking it all in stride, like it’s enjoyable. Your first thought is something like “these people are crazy,” but with each smile you see and normal conversation you hear, a very different thought starts to creep into your conscious, “maybe I’m insane for thinking this is bad.” My boss choosing to fly back proves that he hated it as much as I did and it makes me feel like I might still be normal, not just some whiny bitch. I’ll be here for one more week to continue meeting with distributors and NGOs that buy our pumps. Today, I’m on my way to a small town about 25km from Blantyre where I want to meet with a guy that works directly with farmers as an extension agent for an NGO. But first, I’m on my way to a meeting with Amin, one of Nikhil’s employees who is taking me over to another NGO within Blantyre.

The meeting is pretty short because this NGO just happens to be funding the projects that are using the pumps. There are two other NGOs that are responsible for implementation, and it’s those two organizations I’ll have to talk with to get anything close to what I’m looking for. I write down the names and phone numbers of a couple of additional contacts that I plan on calling this afternoon. The means by which these pumps actually reach farmers continues to get increasingly complicated, but I’ve found that I like the work involved in trying to understand the process. It’s like an unsolved mystery with an outcome that includes a hard to find farmer and a blue pump.

I decided to check out of the hotel I was staying in the past two nights because the only room they have available is more than I’m willing to pay. After the meeting, I have Amin drive me to Hostellerie de France which I found on Trip Advisor, listed as the second best option for hotels in Blantyre. Most of the reviews on Trip Advisor were pretty good, but there was this doozy which was either intriguing or scary depending on your personality:

Salvador-Dali lookalike proprietor has not heard of personal space and insists on touching his guests, photographing them (without permission) and imagining that all guests are captivated by his charisma. I wasn't. The room was depressing if clean, fan fell to pieces, nylon cover circa 1970 on the bed, and towels of same vintage. Fierce and intimidating dogs in the car park. Long trip to airport. OK for one night if you can avoid Monsieur's clutches.

I decide to take my chances. The hotel is a five minute drive outside of town, set on a large hill with nice views of the valley and city. The French woman that greets us speaks halting English, but we’re able to pretty easily negotiate that I’m looking for a room and would like to see it before deciding whether or not to stay. Hotels around here aren’t anything like their cookie cutter cousins in the states. You’re never really sure what you’re going to get and the rooms can vary to a great degree even within the same hotel. It’s best to see and check everything before committing. She waddles over to the room and shows me inside. I’m an easy customer and am quickly sold. The room is completely adequate, even if it features a shower wand device like Lusaka Hotel’s rather than a full shower. We agree with head nods and before I can say any different, she sends for someone to carry my small bag, explaining with a phrase that makes me laugh. “Me call boy.” Monsieur is currently no where to be found.

After settling in and wishing a good day to Amin, I head out, finally on my way to Llunzu to meet with a field worker. Right outside the hotel, I’m able to flag down a mini-bus that takes me into the Blantyre bus market which is quite a bit nicer than Lilongwe’s but as equally confusing. Situated on both sides of a busy street, there are hundreds of mini-buses all parked or moving in an unorganized snarl. I ask someone for help and he very easily points me in the right direction. I board a white mini-bus that’s nearly full with passengers, has a sticker on the front windshield that says “Fear God,” a wooden sign with the name “Llunzu” by the steering wheel, and looks like it’s held together by two staples and three paper clips. My bus companions shoot me frightened and suspicious stares while the bus driver revs the engine and slowly exits the market, yelling out the window “Llunzu, Llunzu, Llunzu!” We’re off.

The bus trip feels longer than 25km should, but I make it easily and safely. Llunzu is about 1km long with concrete shops on either side of the highway. There are wooden shacks selling tomatoes and onions and forty or fifty “shops” that are more or less plastic tarps laid on the ground with second hand shoes, shirts, and pants displayed on top. I go into a restaurant and call Victor, the field worker I’m meeting. He knows exactly where I am and says he’s riding into town on his motorbike now.

He’s a few years older than I and has a real hard time understanding my accent. I try to talk more slowly but usually have to repeat myself and notice a few times that he’s just nodding yes, not really understanding me. He suggests we go to his “office” which also serves as his home. I get on the back of his motorcycle (looks like a dirtbike) and hold tight while he drives away from the highway, down several different dirt paths/roads that are surrounded by corn fields and a few crudely constructed houses with either tin or thatch roofs. Just a few turns off the highway and it feels very, very rural. Everyone we pass does a very clear double take to get a look at the white guy riding on the back of Victor’s motorcycle, holding on for dear life. His house is a very modest concrete rectangle, painted white, with what appears to be a new tin roof. He has three kids and his brother, who lives next door, has three of his own. All six of them are playing in front of the house when we arrive and they follow us into the front room which for its size, holds too many pieces of furniture. There are two couches that you might find on an Ann Arbor curb, a large side table in the middle of the room, a dining table and three chairs pushed against the wall, a larger than expected TV in the corner, a bookcase with a stereo and speakers, and some sort of wardrobe next to the front “window.” I make myself at home on one of the couches while Victor makes each kid come up to me to shake my hand. None of them dare utter a word to me and I’m tempted to yell “boo” a couple of times but hold my tongue and just smile.

It’s been almost three weeks since my trip began and only now am I meeting with someone that works directly with the farmers that are using our pumps. Victor, and the many other NGO field workers, are the keepers of all the data and information I need, and I’m excited to finally talk to someone who knows where the pumps are and who is using them. Victor has distributed around 80 pumps in the past two years, so I start by asking how he keeps track of the farmers’ names and locations. Easy enough, he writes them down. When I ask them if he can show me how/where he captures all this info, he heads over to his bookcase, shuffles around a few piles of paper, grabs two plastic shopping bags full of loose paper and notebooks, and brings them both back over to the couch. Five minutes later, with papers thrown about the couch and floor, he finds what I’m looking for – a small notebook with a bunch of chicken scratch and farmer names scribbled throughout. So this is what I’m trying to track down! A crumpled notebook that sits at the bottom of a plastic shopping bag, resting on a bookcase amid other loose paper, in a concrete house with no running water that’s owned by a worker who has trouble understanding my English and is an hour away from the nearest city and four hours away from the capital, in one of the poorest countries in the world. I don’t like my odds, but I like the challenge.

I also like Victor and have learned a lot of valuable info for my project, so we spend the rest of the afternoon at his house celebrating by watching Malawian music videos. They are something like watching the homemade Spanish music videos made in 1997 for Senora Jackson’s class assignment...except the Malawian versions are lower quality. Victor translates for me and writes down a number of Chichewa phrases that are either useful or come up during the music, so by the time we leave his house I can say “how are you” “do not cry” “problems” “I love you” “don’t fool me” and “feeling sweet/crazy” in Chichewa. We take off on his motorcycle, back through the village, and he drops me off right at the mini-bus that returns me to Blantyre. I know it’s the right bus by the “Fear God” sticker, the same sticker I saw on my bus out of town.

I get back to the hotel and am greeted by a French man who I suspect is “Monsieur.” He speaks slightly better English than the woman who greeted me earlier and though it’s unclear whether or not they are a husband and wife team, it’s quite clear that they both use the same color of hair dye – something between black and purple and looks a little goofy on his Rolly Fingers mustache. After he gets my business card and uses my shoulder to support himself while stepping up on a chair to tack the card next to all the other cards wallpapering the reception room, he generally lets me be. I head back to my room, happy to have successfully avoided the assault on personal space and unwanted pictures I was warned about on Trip Advisor. Safe in my room, I feel pretty good about what I learned today despite discovering the long odds at tracking down the necessary data. I go to sleep practicing my Chichewa. Tseketseke. "I’m feeling sweet/crazy."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Four

Wednesday, March 16

On our way to the distributor we’re meeting with today, I get a quick tour of Blantyre and am really impressed after being underwhelmed (and even disgusted in some cases) by Lilongwe. The town feels like a real city with a well laid out downtown and a sense of organization that didn’t exist in Lilongwe and I haven’t experienced in any of the other cities I’ve visited. The streets are hilly and green valleys and mountains surround the city, offering nice views on our short trip from the hotel to the distributor. This distributor is our largest customer and hasn’t replied to any of the 8 or so emails we’ve sent him over the last few months. I’m not sure what to expect.

The building looks more like an office than a store and there’s a receptionist sitting at a desk to our right. Her desk is computerless which I’ve seen a lot the past few weeks but still leaves me wondering what these people do all day besides sit and answer two or three phone calls. Like all the receptionists I’ve met, she whispers when she talks and barely makes eye contact. It annoys me, but being annoyed makes me feel bad and 100% American. We’re confident, loud and direct, and I want the same out of this poor girl that’s likely never spoken to a white American. After a couple of inaudible mumblings she leads us down a dirty tiled hallway and into the office of the man we’re meeting.

Nikhil is younger than I expected, probably in his late thirties, born in Malawi but of Indian descent. He studied in South Africa and Australia before returning to the company his father started thirty years ago in Blantyre. The company sells seeds, fertilizers, and farming equipment and since Nikhil started in 2004, they’ve been growing quickly. Next to the office we’re currently in they are building a large, formal showroom and a warehouse for their inventory, hoping the expansion will significantly improve their store foot traffic and sales. He has two phones on his desk and a cellphone next to his computer. While he’s explaining the new warehouse and how they’re growing, all three phones ring at least once. He picks each call up and speaks quickly in some mixture of English and Chichewa, and then returns to our conversation as if there was no interruption. He’s definitely a businessman.

After introductions but before we start our meeting he offers my boss and me coffee or tea. We both elect for coffee and Nikhil is happy to make it for us. He gets up from behind his desk and walks over to the file cabinet that is directly to our left and rusting at the corners. On top, a can of instant Nestle coffee sits with powdered milk, four mugs that may or may not be cleaned, and a box of tea bags. Before he goes for the mugs, he bends down to the ground where an electric kettle is sitting next to a dusty black shoe box with a white rubber rain shoe that sits on top. The right shoe is nowhere to be found so the left shoe just waits alone and the cobweb between the wall and shoe suggests it’s been waiting for some time. Nikhil leaves to fill the kettle and returns, placing it right back where he found it, on the ground. While he’s down there, he fumbles with three cell phone chargers that are plugged in before finding the kettle plug and plugging it into the wall. I find it really funny that he keeps the kettle on the ground, next to this suspicious shoe, but his whole office is kind of like this. In the right hand corner, between a bookcase and wall, is a pile of newspapers and thrown about receipts. The whole place looks like it was recently ransacked. The left hand corner features more newspapers and two empty boxes of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. The box says how many bottles it holds (or at one time held), and I do the math quickly in my head: 12 x 750ml bottles in each box, about $200 per bottle. The guy spent something around $4800 on scotch yet keeps his kettle on the floor next to a lone white rain shoe. Very suspicious, and based on what he starts explaining to us, I start thinking that maybe his office looks like it was ransacked because it actually was.

Over the instant coffee that tastes more like chemicals than real coffee, we’re talking about the order they’re planning on placing with us. More than 700 pumps that we’ll manufacture in China and ship to Lilongwe and will cost somewhere north of $150,000. In every meeting we’ve had, we’ve heard about Malawi’s “forex problem.” I don’t fully understand the entire problem but from what I can gather, the country doesn’t have enough American dollars within the economy. So, any business or payments that require American dollars is currently not easily happening. For example, we shipped 300 pumps to a distributor in Lilongwe in January and are still waiting for payment because the distributor’s bank won’t release the necessary American dollars to our bank account. Similarly, the order Nikhil wants to make will require payment in American dollars but his bank won’t make the payment because they don’t actually have the invoice amount in American dollars. His solution to this inconvenience is to assure us that he’ll have his “guy in Hong Kong” pay the invoice, but because he has to use him, Nikhil explains he’ll need 120 days after shipment to make the payment, not the standard 30 days. He’s quite comfortable talking numbers, costs, and payment terms. I get the sense that he’s making a lot of these deals, milking out every dollar and benefit he can with a pretty quick and smooth style. A "guy in Hong Kong" sounds like a guy who might loot an office if Nikhil milked out one too many dollars in a recent deal, and I start to wonder if that same guy in Hong Kong is currently wearing a white rain shoe while sipping on a glass of Blue Label scotch.

We finish up our meeting, not really agreeing to anything but with an understanding that an order will indeed be placed. He takes us out for lunch at a surprisingly good Italian restaurant which plays only Motown music (I proudly point this out to my companions) while we’re there. In every developing country I’ve visited, I’ve found at least two or three places that feel like they should be in the states. It might be a coffee shop that offers wireless internet and comfortable chairs or just a restaurant with really good food and first class service. I’ve seen these places come in many forms, but you know the moment you walk in if you’ve found one. It feels so satisfying and relaxing (and decadent and indulgent!) to step into a place like this and for a moment forget about the developing world chaos and absurdity that exists outside its doors. This restaurant is very clearly one of these places, Blantyre’s oasis. I have fettuccini with a mushroom and tomato sauce and happily oblige when Nikhil asks if someone will order a beer with him. The pasta tastes great after a two week diet heavy on fried chicken, French fries, and Coke, and the environment is just what the doctor ordered after yesterday’s long journey. On our way out, I feel reenergized and motivated. Nikhil feels like how I suspect he always feels - ready to make a deal. “David, do you need to exchange any American Dollars for Malawian Kwacha? I’ll give you a real good rate.” He slips me a business card before we depart.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Three

Tuesday, March 15th

After breakfast, we head on over to an NGO that uses our pumps in the irrigation programs they run throughout the country. I’ve been corresponding with this group from Nairobi via email and phone and it’s nice to meet some of the people I’ve already worked with. They’ve been remarkably helpful and are much better organized than the NGOs I met with in Zambia.

As a first step in my project, I’m trying to gather the names and locations of all the farmers that are using our pumps in Zambia and Malawi. I figured that the NGOs would definitely have this information readily available and thought it might be as easy as asking them to email me the Excel file. It has proved much more difficult. In Zambia, I found that I’d meet with someone in the capital who would tell me that the info exists but that I’d have to contact the regional office. I’d contact the regional office and they’d say that the info exists but it’s in the hands of the field workers. I’d contact a field worker who would confirm he does have the information but it isn’t compiled in an Excel file or easy to quickly send along to my email. Worse, the names and locations of farmers isn’t sent to the regional or national offices at any point, so getting my hands on this information would mean contacting the hundreds of individual field workers working in remote parts of the country.

The NGO we’re meeting with now has a similar situation – the names and locations of farmers they work with reside in the hands of their field workers. Hearing this news this morning, in a second floor, horribly hot office, makes me want to bang my head against the office wall. I’m deflated, but before I can do anything rash, Olivia, the woman we’re meeting with, gives us some great news. They like the idea of gathering this detailed information and have started to require their field staff to send in the required data. She opens an Excel file where they’ve already organized the names and locations of 900 farmers, a far cry from the 3000 or so pumps they’ve bought in the past two years but a great start. Better yet, they’re using the exact data collection template I created, meaning everything that I’ll need is included, and they’ve hired someone who will compile this information on a quarterly basis. I feel like giving Olivia a high five and a giant bear hug. Instead, we simply finish up the meeting and say goodbye. Once out of the office, my boss describes the meeting as “very fruitful” which makes me silently laugh. I find it a funny adjective to use to describe a meeting but don’t disagree with the assessment.

I like travelling with my boss. We spent a week in Zambia together and now will spend this first week in Malawi together. He’s Kenyan, in his early fifties, and has a tendency to follow up any sentence with a very audible and somewhat long “mmmm.” He’s the director of the export program so most of his job is sales related, trying to secure orders from private distributors, governments, and NGOs that are in countries where we don’t have staff. He travels a lot throughout Africa, and in our first week in Zambia, I could quickly tell he’s used to being on the road, making friends with everyone we come into contact with and expertly negotiating all of our taxi fares. I love letting him handle the taxi fares as I find the negotiation it requires awkward and stressful. I’ve picked up that his favourite tactic is starting with “I have my price and you have your price, so we’ll start at your price.” The price given is always scoffed at and my boss replies that we’ll pay half the stated fare, but we usually pay about 60% of the initial quote. Besides being a good negotiator and an outgoing salesman, he also strikes me as a little clumsy, though I’m beginning to think that it might just be the ridiculously pointy dress shoes he wears. I’ve watched him trip over stairs on two different occasions and had to grab him once after he slipped in the hotel hallway. After saving him from a fall, my hand still snugly in his armpit, he says “Ohhh, thank you! Mmmmmmmmm.”

Today we’re headed to Blantyre, Malawi’s large commercial city in the southern portion of the country. I’m told it’s a four hour bus ride which doesn’t seem too bad, and I’m actually looking forward to a trip into the country. Before we leave for the bus stop, we stop by the distributor we visited yesterday to try to get the additional information they said they would gather. Not surprisingly, the information isn’t waiting for us and we spend thirty minutes waiting while they do what they said they would. Yesterday after explaining what we’re looking for and presenting a few examples of how me might go about working with them to get the data we require, the man in charge reminds us that they’re very busy and doesn’t seem too keen on doing anything more than what they’re currently doing. The “we’re too busy” is a response we’ve gotten a lot over the last two weeks and though I appreciate that we’re asking them to do extra work, I find “busy” a generous way to describe their day. Today, the same man that described his business as “very busy” is busy reading two newspapers while his staff of two handles the heavy foot traffic in the store - one person in the 45 minutes we’re there. Nonetheless, we get the info we were looking for and head over to the Lilongwe bus station.

I’ve found that bus stations in developing countries are terribly vile things and would recommend, if you’re visiting one, that you wear closed shoes and jeans. Anything to distance yourself from the filth. Lilongwe’s “station” certainly falls into this category. It’s a disgusting mud filled lot with around 50 beat up buses waiting in an unorganized fashion and hundreds of people aimlessly wandering about looking like they might steal your bag. The moment we exit the taxi is the moment I want to leave. Predictably, there are 8-10 dudes surrounding us right when we get out of the taxi, each yelling, asking, directing. “Where are you going? Yes, boss! Going to Blantyre. This bus, this bus, this bus, this bus. We’re leaving now!” We’re more or less pulled to a bus where a guy quickly starts to scribble a ticket. I know better than to believe this guy who keeps telling us that they’re leaving now and will be in Blantyre in three hours. I’ve learned from very hard experience that these guys will tell you anything you want to hear to just get you on their bus. The bus isn’t leaving now, it leaves when it fills up, and the trip will take double the amount of time he’s telling you. But you’re easily overwhelmed with everyone screaming at you and always think that the easiest way to get everyone away from you is to just buy a ticket. This is exactly what we do, and I regret it for the rest of the day.

We get on the bus. There are 4 or 5 other people who have already boarded, meaning we’ll be waiting for a long, long time. 2 hours, in fact, sitting in the worst bus station/market I’ve come across in my travels. By the time we leave, it’s 2pm, I’m crammed into a window seat with a 200 hundred pounder nestled in next to me, and the sun is at its peak intensity, sending its piercing heat onto my side of the bus. I put in my iPod and try to forget where I am.

It’s really no use. Every fifteen minutes we stop to pick people up and let people off. Each stop has an army of street hawkers, 20-30 strong, that swarm the bus selling everything imaginable, screaming their prices and products. Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, water, soda, peanuts, bags of French fries, cabbage, cookies, cell phone air time, fried chicken, eggs, raw chicken. The stops are about five minutes in length, enough time to thoroughly bake in the sun and for my fellow passengers to buy all the shit that the street hawkers are trying to push through each window. An hour into my trip, the woman in front of me buys a plastic bag of potatoes which are shoved through my window. The bag is too small for the potatoes and at least 10 of them fall into my lap. I begrudgingly gather them and hand them to the woman, disgusted that anyone would buy any of this crap. She rewards my good deed by buying a small bag of strongly smelling onions, adding a new note to the bus’ current cologne which as best as I can tell is two parts halitosis and one part decaying organic matter marinated in stagnant swamp water. The only saving grace is that I know that this portion of the highway forms the border between Malawi and Mozambique and the views into Mozambique are a nice diversion from the otherwise horrifying trip.

We reach Blantyre at 7pm, five hours after the bus started the trip and seven hours after we arrived at the Lilongwe station. In tourism brochures, Malawi is described as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” and after this trip I can agree with the warm part. I’ve got a sweat drenched tshirt to prove it. I think, however, that I might have trouble finding the heart. The man that first convinced us onto this nightmarish bus is as close to a heartless man as I’ve ever met. No one with a beating heart would wish that trip on another fellow human. I get to the hotel and take a shower, scrubbing myself with soap three times before losing the soiled and violated feeling I’ve had since noon. I hope for a better day tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Two

Monday, March 14th

I wake up around 7am and on my way downstairs for breakfast I notice that Lilongwe has somewhat awakened as well. There are people and cars moving about on the street outside the hotel, a big change from Sunday’s laziness, but it still pales in comparison to Lusaka and Nairobi.

I’ve been paying about $50-60/night at the hotels and this price includes a breakfast. Kiboko Town Hotel is no different, so I start my day with a bowl of cereal, fruit salad, orange juice, toast, two eggs, and coffee. My boss is getting in from Nairobi around noon, so I have a few hours and decide to venture out into Old Town.

Just outside the hotel, there’s a paved lot on the right hand side of the intersection where a craft market has sprung up. There are roughly 100 or so “stalls” where merchants are selling wood carvings, paintings, and a bunch of other souvenirs that I’ve noticed in all the African cities I’ve visited. I guess if you’re just visiting Malawi or just visiting Zambia you might buy a wood carving thinking its design is unique to that country. It’s not. I walk by the market and am approached by no less than three guys all greeting me with “Hello, friend, how are you? Where are you from?” I amuse them at first, but by the time the third guy comes to me and says “Hello, friend,” I’m annoyed enough to have a strong desire to reply, “First of all, I’m not your friend. ‘Hello, stranger,’ would be more accurate and second, I’m not interested in anything you’re selling.” They are all selling the same things and seem to use the same strategy. They show me some carvings. I’m not interested. They show me some paintings. I’m not interested. Okay, maybe something small, just a small souvenir for someone back home. I carve these key chains. You can tell me the name of the person, I’ll make a special one for him or her. No thank you. It makes me angry that they're all selling the same things. I want to ask each one how they differentiate from their competition. What’s your marketing strategy?

I make it across the street and away from the market. There are two large shopping plazas that look like they’d be at home in suburban US. I wander around each. There are several currency exchange bureaus, a few travel agents, a grocery store, two office supply stores, and a few clothing shops. I go into Game, a South African chain store that is similar to Wal-Mart, although much smaller. I walk the aisles and find the store to be well laid out with pretty good products. It wouldn’t be out of place in the US which is weird because it’s directly across the street from an informal market where hawkers sell goods from the muddy ground.

I get back to the hotel just in time to meet my boss who will be here for a week to introduce me to the distributors and NGOs we work with in Malawi. We have lunch at the hotel and then walk across the street to one of our distributors.

In Zambia the private distributors we sell to were much bigger companies than I expected. Two of them have agriculture/farming/hardware stores throughout the country and a large sales force that works in the more remote areas. In one case, the sales force alone totals 900 people. The other distributor has just one shop in Lusaka, but this shop has a huge showroom and warehouse. They sell mostly to large scale commercial farms and have everything you might expect: huge tractors, irrigation systems, and farming machines that are impressive in size even if I have no idea what they do. The biggest distributor we work with generates $10million/year in revenue, a far cry from the mom and pop shops I was envisioning (though even the largest distributor’s stores in the towns feel like mom and pop operations). The distributor we meet with in Lilongwe is much closer to what I had anticipated.

You wouldn’t even notice it was a store if you hadn’t already known. The name of the shop is painted above the door but it could use a touch up. Most of the letters are peeling away and the royal blue paint is deeply faded. When you enter the store, there’s a blue irrigation pump to your right, a hallway in the back right corner, and an office directly in front of the door. It’s a large rectangular room with nothing on the unpainted cement walls and a small wooden school desk in the middle of the room. It feels more like a classroom than a store. There aren’t any products displayed save for a large piece of cardboard that rests against the back wall, next to the desk, with little baggies of seed and fertilizer stapled to it in rows. The cardboard seed display looks like a 4th grade science fair project. We meet the two main guys that run the store and sit down in an office.

My project is to try to develop some sort of system for tracking the pumps we sell to distributors all the way to the farmers they are selling the pumps to, so I’m here in Malawi meeting with the distributors to find out what customer information they capture when they sell a pump. In Zambia, most of the distributors are big enough to use a fairly sophisticated computer system to track sales, inventory, and customers, making my job a little easier. I don’t have to ask too many questions of this distributor before figuring out that it’s going to be much more difficult here. All sales are tracked with paper receipt books, and from the look of this guy’s office, I don’t hold out much hope that all receipts and invoices are organized in any reasonable manner.

Even so, we get some good information and plan on coming back tomorrow morning so that they can pass along some additional data. My boss and I return to the hotel and have an hour to catch up with some emails before dinner. Kiboko Town Hotel has a nice second floor sitting area with a relaxing bar and a comfortable environment. I sip a Malawian beer called Kuche Kuche and while firing off a few emails, listen to the bartender’s soundtrack. KC and Jo-Jo, Eminem, and R.Kelly. Who can argue with that?

Week in Malawi: Part One

Sunday, March 13th

I’ve been in the Lusaka Hotel for the past two weeks. It describes its vision as “to restore the hotel to be the leading city centre hotel in Lusaka.” This statement is prominently written on the service directory that sits on the desk in my room, a dimly lit, pink painted rectangle with a rather lumpy twin bed and a mosquito net that once upon a time, before being covered in dust and dirt, was probably white. I keep reading it while I brush my teeth each night and after three days at the hotel, I put the service directory in the corner, flipped upside down so that I don’t have to continue reading the “vision.” It depresses me. The hotel is a long way from leading anything, and I consider telling the staff that a good place to start on their long journey to become a leading hotel would be to install a real shower. As it stands, I’ve been “showering” each morning by squatting down in a pink tub and holding a stupid hose above my head.

For all its shortcomings though, the hotel has been an alright place to spend the last two weeks while working in Lusaka. It’s a good location for business downtown, and the staff is exceptionally nice and most, at this point, greet me by name. Amon, one of the servers in the hotel restaurant where I’ve had breakfast each morning, knows it’s my last morning. When he brings the bill over, he wishes me a good journey, tells me to friend him on Facebook, and says, “I’ll miss you, David” which is actually kind of cute despite it coming from a 28 year old man.

All the taxi drivers outside of the hotel know me as well. I’ve scattered my business around through the two weeks, picking up rides here and there with a number of different drivers. Throughout the two weeks, they’ve all been vying for my eventual trip to the airport since they can make a better amount on the long trip than the short trips I’ve been making around town. I’ve decided to go with Richard who is about my age, exceptionally skinny, listens to decent music, and offers something none of the other drivers can: a twin brother. We’ve enjoyed this common characteristic the last two weeks, and this morning, he’s waiting for me outside the hotel. We leave for the airport around 9am.

The flight to Lilongwe, Malawi is about 2 hours, an easy trip on Kenya Airways. I get to Lilongwe around noon. Customs is very easy, not even requiring a visa, and I manage to change some American Dollars into Malawi Kwacha before grabbing a taxi into the city’s Old Town where I’ll be staying at the Kiboko Town Hotel. During the ride into the city I notice that the road feels more rural than urban. There are none of the giant billboards advertising cell phone networks, Coke, and Samgsung, that dot the highways into Nairobi and Lusaka. Instead the road offers giant rolling hills of corn and mountains in the distance, all of which make a really pretty drive into town. After a twenty minute drive, the driver says that we’ve entered Old Town, and I almost respond by asking “where?” There’s nothing really around besides a medium sized shopping complex and two or three banks. With little traffic and very few people out in the streets, a striking contrast from the crazy streets of Lusaka, Lilongwe strikes me as a very sleepy, small town rather than a capital city.

After checking into the hotel, I take off on foot to find some lunch and mostly find that everything is closed. I end up finding a place about a five minute walk from my hotel and after eating, I return to my hotel to do what everyone else seems to be doing on this lazy Sunday. Lilongwe has greeted me with a giant yawn, so I waste the afternoon with a long nap.

Week in Malawi

I've been out of Nairobi for the past three weeks, spending two weeks in Zambia and this past week in Malawi as part of the project I'm working on. It's been a great trip so far. I've seen a lot and definitely learned a lot to help with my project. The next few posts will be a summary of what's been going on during this past week. Where I've been, the work I'm doing, and the country I'm visiting. A Week in Malawi in several posts...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dolla's In My Pocket

Okay, so they aren't dollars, they're Malawian Kwacha and there are roughly 150 Kwacha in every dollar. But when you're strutting around with a gangsta roll like this in your pocket you still feel like the shit.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lusaka View From Above

After a long and miserably humid day yesterday, my coworker and I went looking for a bar to start the weekend with Zambia's thoroughly mediocre beer, Mosi. Just down the street from my hotel there's a 12 story Soviet style looking building that reportedly had a bar on top, so we walked on over and rode the elevator up to the 12th floor. Exiting the elevator, after a nearly five minute ride which felt less safe than I would have liked, we found ourselves at the entrance to the studios of Radio Phoenix, a local radio station on 89.5. We asked the older guy "guarding" the entrance if there was a bar somewhere. He mumbled something and either didn't hear us properly or was just dangerously indifferent to his job, sitting there as we ignored him and started climbing the stairs we found next to the elevator.

The stairs didn't go to a bar, they just went right up to the unprotected roof that we explored without anyone caring. And though we didn't get the beer we were looking for, we got some cool views and pictures of Lusaka.

Cairo Road, Lusaka's main drag, has a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard that cuts through the middle of the wide, always busy street. I've found the pedestrian walk to be one of the nicest features of downtown, which otherwise leaves a lot to be desired. My hotel is the red roofed small building in the middle of the picture, just beyond the second tallest building on the left hand side. I only wish it were as nice as a Red Roofed Inn in the states.

One of Lusaka's many confusing roundabouts clearly shows the Friday afternoon rush hour, complete with the blue minibuses you find throughout the city.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Read any travel guide about Victoria Falls and it will say something like “you WILL get wet,” which would have been a nice warning to heed before I set out for the falls dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and carrying a backpack with a laptop, a Kindle, and an iPod. I was in Livingstone, Zambia, after a 7 hour bus ride from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital and where I had just finished up my first week in the country. Besides knowing that you had to get to Livingstone to see the falls and that the park entrance would run $20, I didn’t know what to expect, what to see or do, or, most crucially, what to wear when going to the falls.

The hotel told me I could take a taxi or bus to the falls, and I elected for the bus which departed from a chaotic mud filled market about five minutes away from the hotel. Bruno, a guy about my age with a severe gap between his two front teeth, walked me to the market while aggressively trying to sell me the poorly made knickknacks he kept pulling out of the deep pockets of his baggy jean shorts. When I wasn’t interested in buying anything he suggested that we trade my Detroit Tigers hat for a crudely carved wooden elephant. No thanks. As we approached the market and waiting buses, he was desperate. How about your socks? I declined though had I known what waited at the falls, I likely would have taken him up on the offer. Anything to rid myself of the poorly chosen and ill suited outfit I was wearing.

The bus trip was about 10 minutes out of town and by the time we reached the bus’ final destination I had gained another friend, Taurai, a Zimbabwean on his way home from his field work just outside Livingstone. I’m glad he was there because there was no clear indication where to go to get to the falls. As far as I could tell, we were at the end of a small road with nothing but surrounding forest. He guided me from the bus to the park and during the five minute walk, he convinced me that the falls were better seen from the Zimbabwean side, so I followed him to the border crossing which sat just 50 yards from the Zambian park entrance. Unfortunately, my Zambian visa was only single entry and not wanting to pay for an additional visa upon my return, I chose to bid Taurai farewell (he was headed to his home which was just a few kilometers beyond the border), and returned to the Zambian entrance to the falls. Thanking him for helping me get to the park, Taurai did what anyone might do with a new found acquaintance: “I’ll friend you on Facebook. Are you on Twitter?”

The Zambian park entrance was nicely marked and after walking down a small paved road, past a number of souvenir shacks each with two to three beckoning hawkers, I got to the gate and was charged the $20 entrance fee. I read on my ticket after getting back to the hotel that park guests were not advised to pay any unofficial guides within the park, but since I didn’t read this upon entering the park, I did exactly that, “hiring” Joe because I didn’t know where to go and more importantly because he was wearing a royal blue Henry Ford Health System t-shirt.

Turns out, you really don’t need a guide. The park is pretty small and the walk-able paths are all very clearly defined. Joe led me down each and every path, something I could have done very easily alone, and really didn’t offer much more than what you’d read in a guide book: with width of 1.7 kilometers and a height of 108 meters, Victoria Falls is considered the largest sheet of falling water in the world. It’s traditional name, Mosi-a-tunya, means “the smoke that thunders.”

He, of course, also offered the novelty of being led through the park, gazing at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, by a Zambian man wearing a t-shirt whose first owner was a fellow Michigander. It wasn’t hard to convince myself that I had run into Joe’s t-shirt before, that its previous owner worked at a GM plant and shopped at Meijer. This little slice of home, stumbled upon just yards away from Victoria Falls, was well worth Joe’s tour charge of $15.

The falls themselves were awesome in the most traditional sense: extremely impressive and daunting, inspiring great admiration and fear. To describe them much further would be an injustice. Pictures too, as they often are, are underwhelming compared to experiencing it in person. Even when you end up leaving the park wearing jeans that may as well have just gotten out of the washing machine, shoes that won’t dry for two days, a water logged passport, a ruined leather wallet, and a firmer belief in God after finding your laptop, Kindle, iPod, and camera safely dry, shielded from the “smoke that thunders” by a trusty backpack worn underneath a fairly weak rain coat.

If you go, wear a swimsuit and flip flops and pack a poncho. Bruno may or may not be able to be found near the Jollyboys Hotel, though he’ll likely find you first. You can friend Taurai here, and feel free to hire any unofficial guide wearing a tshirt from home. Leave your electronics at home and it’s probably better to read a guide book first. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

We Intend 2 Cauze

Found this bus ticket shack on my way to Livinstone, Zambia. I wish I had chosen to ride Shalom Bus.

We Intend 2 Cauze:

Shalom Bus Services We Love All: