The Shocking Story of the Snatched Socks

 

On a free Saturday in Mbeya, Tanzania I contracted with a guide to take me off the beaten path to Ngosi Crater Lake, second largest in Africa – – if you are interested.  And if you are still interested, the largest is in Ethiopia.  My guide’s name was James Bond.  I am pretty sure he was not the real James Bond…unless 007 hails from Africa.  Also, he did not look at all like Sean Connery.  Nor Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, not even Daniel Craig.  However we should never rule out anything with 007. In fact, I hear the next movie will feature a black female as the new 007.  So perhaps my James Bond guide was the real deal.

Anyway, his first name was really James but he had selected the notable surname to attract foreign visitors like me.  A very good marketing ploy.  Perhaps he should have come to my marketing class as a guest lecturer.  But I digress.

I have returned to Tanzania to reprise the business assistance I provided in two locations last year.  This time my NGO selected two different locations: Morogoro in the center of the country and Mbeya in the southern highlands.

In each location I conducted a series of one on one meetings with small professional service businesses (e.g. software providers and food distributors) and then led a two-day training program designed to give these professionals more business tools with which they could better serve their own clients. They were particularly taken with a four step classroom exercise we introduced to generate new business:

  • Brainstorm a list of prospective clients
  • Schedule a meeting with one of the prospects (via a role playing exercise)
  • Hold a mock visit to the prospect to determine his needs
  • Deliver an elevator pitch to introduce the prospect to the service company and its offerings

They learned so quickly I took the rest of the day off.

That afternoon while walking in the countryside outside of my work city I came across a group of women mixing clay earth with a bit of water. They rolled the damp clay into the size and shape of a cigar.  Since earth does not burn well I assumed they were not actually making cigars despite the shape.  Nearby was a group of high school boys.  I inquired as to the purpose of the clay cigars.  From one of the boys I learned that a pregnant woman will take bites of the clay in order to provide necessary minerals for her developing unborn.  This seemed unlikely to me, eating dirt to help the fetus?  Besides the boy, while extremely friendly, was a bit unworldly.

He asked me if, when on an airplane, day would click instantaneously into night. (We tend to assume that knowledge or experiences we have are recognized by everyone. They are not.)  The high schooler said he wanted to become a businessman.  I asked, “What sort of businessman?”  He replied, “a doctor.”  Hmm, not usually considered a businessman, but okay.  Since he wanted to become a doctor, perhaps the clay eating, mineral supplying explanation was correct.  I later checked with a knowledgeable grown-up female.  She confirmed the use of the clay cigars but said modern hospitals discourage their consumption.  Undesirable worms and other biota may be swallowed as well.

These high school boys, like many Tanzanians who speak English, have a charming habit of appending an “i” to the end of words.  Food becomes foodi.  The guy who assists the groom at a wedding is the besti mani.  Even my university educated client, Rashid, told me his name was Rashidi.

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I have refined packing for an assignment into a fine art.  I developed a comprehensive check list of clothes, electronics, business documents – – absolutely everything I will need to dress and to conduct my work.  Despite this preparation I always, always manage to forget something essential.  This time it was my socks.  I wore a pair to the airport but failed to pack additional socks.  And since I did not want to wear the same pair for 30 consecutive days, on my first day in country, I visited a mall where I purchased multiple pairs, enough for a robust sock rotation program.

Walking back to my hotel I got a bit geographically disoriented, so I consulted Google Maps on my iPhone.  In doing so I violated several common sense rules of walking in a poor country…or a rich country too, for that matter.

  • Never walk in public with your head buried in your phone. (Be aware of your surroundings)
  • Do not walk with your back to the flow of traffic (Always face the traffic)
  • Do not carry your newly purchased bag of socks on the street-side of your body (Better away from the street)

So, as I was consulting the map on my phone, back to traffic, oblivious to my surroundings, a motorcycle sped past me and the driver snatched the bag of socks from my street-side hand and sped away.  Fortunately, the much more valuable phone was in my opposite hand away from the road and out of his larcenous reach.

Oh well, lesson learned, and I figured he needed the socks more that I did.  Or perhaps not, he already could afford a motorcycle.

On a related note, I met a woman in a restaurant who suggested I purchase new tires for her car.  I declined.  I had previously donated socks to a motorcycle driver.

 

The Vanilla Thieves

I have recently returned from an assignment in Kasese, western Uganda. My client for this work was Rwenzori Farmers’ Cooperative Union, a collection of over 3,600 farmers growing coffee, cocoa, and vanilla.  They asked me to assist them in developing a marketing plan that will guide them to greater sales of their crops, especially coffee and cocoa.  And they are focusing on those two crops because they have grown frustrated with the perils producing vanilla.

Vanilla is highly labor-intensive, causing it to be the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It grows in pods, similar to oversized green beans.  Because it is high value and small, thieves have taken to sneaking into the vanilla fields and making off with the end product of the farmers’ eighteen months of cultivation (planting to harvest. ) In less than one hour, a croplifter can make off with nearly the entire crop.  Consequently, many of the farmers have shifted their efforts to coffee and cocoa.  Not nearly as valuable but also not readily susceptible to thievery.  For example, coffee picking requires the harvester to move bush to bush over several acres to pluck only the ripe red berries.  Then to return on a later day to pick the next round of ripening berries.  No thief wants to work that hard.

Vanilla hails originally from Mexico where the vanilla vines are pollinated by Melipona bees.  Once the vines were exported to and cultivated in Asia, Polynesia, and Africa, farmers discovered a problem: No Melipona bees to perform pollination.  Some ingenious guy – – reputed to be a young slave in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean – – figured out how to hand pollinate the plant.  The plant offers just a 24 hour window when the flowers are open for pollination.  So, the farmer must continuously roam his few acres to discover which flowers have just opened and are available for his deft fertilization touch. After his handiwork, the farmer must wait nine more months for the full 6- to 10-inch pod to develop.  Inside the pod are thousands of tiny spec-like vanilla seeds.  You have seen them in high quality vanilla ice cream. And outside the pods are any number of thieves roaming around ready to relieve the farmer of his hard work and valuable crop.

I met with a group of farmers to learn about their crops.  Since I came from America and also spoke nearly flawless English they assumed I was a crop expert.  I am not. They asked me which additional high value crops they should plant, making up for vanilla theft. I had no idea, but I didn’t want to disappoint them so I quickly ran through my mind all of the produce I like at Whole Foods that is even more expensive than everything else at Whole Foods.  With only a slight pause to think, I rattled off saffron, macadamia and cashew nuts, red and black pepper corns, cinnamon, passion fruit and mango.  Any of you agronomist readers might want to weigh in here on high value crops.  I also passed along the farmers’ query to the agricultural experts at my NGO since my answer was far from complete and farther yet from actionable.

At another session with farmers we brainstormed brand names for their coffee. We came up with some ideas that they will test with their customers and run by trademark lawyers. For example: Mountain Grown and Uplands Natural. They also wanted to consider some brand ideas in Lukonzo, their local language.  They particularly liked Enzururu and Abanya Kithwe.  The former means snow and the latter, native of the mountain.  I did my best to convince them that if they had aspirations of exporting their coffee brand to Europe or America, few westerners could remember or pronounce Enzururu and Abanya Kithwe.  This probably holds true for words from the other 40 languages spoken in Uganda.

Two nine-year-old boys overtook me on the street in Kasese, my assignment home base.  “Hello father. we are starting a football team.  Do you want to be our coach?”  Apparently they didn’t know that my football career peaked in 9th grade when I was the second string QB.  I averaged minus two yards per carry.  I threw one pass that season.  It was intercepted. The next year on the sophomore B team, I didn’t even rank second string.  Mercifully for the coach, and I guess for me too, I broke my ankle and did not complete the season.

But the boys were not curious about my American football experience.  Of course the football they were referring to was soccer, known everywhere in the world as football – – except in the U.S.  What these youngsters also didn’t realize was that I had never touched a soccer ball until college intramurals, never set foot on a soccer pitch until then, never saw a soccer match until college. I was woefully unprepared to be a soccer coach.  However, that didn’t stop me from writing a 9th grade essay comparing and contrasting football and soccer.  My major finding was teams in both sports field an 11-man squad. Profound.

Once I begged off the coaching invitation – – due to the fact I was scheduled to leave Kasese in two days – – they shifted their request from coaching to the purchase of a soccer ball.  In fact, I suspect this was their real goal all along. They just wanted to butter me up with the coaching request.

The Future of Travel

 

I have seen the future. At least the future of travel. Two weeks ago, on my way to Mozambique on assignment, I connected with Delta through Atlanta.  Boarding my overseas flight required no need to show an ID nor a passport, no need to show a boarding pass.  I just stood in front of the visual scanner and in a couple of seconds the screen read, “Welcome, Mr. Nichols to Delta flight 200 to Johannesburg.”  Facial recognition is here. I expect this secure and rapid passenger identification process will eventually be the way to board all flights.  Discussion about invasion of privacy we can save for another time.  I was blown away by the technology.

My assignment is anything but high tech.  My NGO for the southern tier of Africa, CNFA, asked me to help them formulate their development program for the upcoming five years in Mozambique.  I have concentrated on businesses serving small holder farmers.  Such businesses include seed suppliers, tractor services, irrigation providers, agricultural loan companies.  My job has been to interview a range of these service suppliers in three of Mozambique’s eleven provinces to determine what sort of development assistance they and their client farmers will benefit from.  We expect to offer 44 volunteer assignments in the service sector over the next five years.  Those of you interested in, say, tomato irrigation better get your bids in early.

We drove west from Nampula toward the tomatoes. We passed burnt corn fields.  Now is the dry season, the farmers have harvested their grain and they remove the now bare stalks and crop residue by burning…effective, but bad for the soil.  Fire kills micro organisms that are beneficial to soil fertility.  But without mechanization (a tractor, say) or even oxen, clearing the crop residue or plowing it back into the soil is not likely.  Fire is likely. And it burns not just field rubble, but also nearby trees.  Some agricultural NGOs are trying to convince the farmers to replant trees around the perimeter of their fields.  Trees provide a habitat for honeybees. And wild honey is an especially valuable commodity as it brings in needed cash to poor farmers. But meanwhile I mostly see charred fields.

I never tire of the rural scenes along the highway: kids in uniform on their way to school, mud brick homes with thatched grass roofs, wandering goats and chickens, and at this time of year, fruit and nut trees heavily laden with their produce. Mango and cashew trees were especially endowed. On this stretch of road I saw something new, striking rock formations called inselbergs. These are giant granite mounts jutting hundreds of feet out of the surrounding plain. (see photo above)

Beyond the tomatoes we came to the onion fields of Malema.  In this country Malema onions are famous for their flavor.  Some call these onions, the Vidalias of Mozambique. Actually, no one calls them that.  No one here has ever heard of Vidalia, Georgia. I only called them that because it sounded clever.

Some 500 miles south of the onions lies Chimoio, the capital of Manica Province.  In the countryside surrounding this small provincial city are many maize and soy bean farmers.  Both crops are used to produce poultry feed needed by Chimoio’s chicken growers.  We met with one organization that is assisting small farmers to improve their growing techniques and to band together in order to receive better prices for their crops.  This assistance comes in form of Village Based Agents. VBAs are local farmers with leadership talent.  They are trained in advanced agriculture skills and in marketing.  By improving their fellow farmers’ yields and by finding markets for the crops, they can improve the lot of these small holder farmers.  In reward for successful sales results, the VBAs receive a commission.  The most successful among them will bring in an extra $800 per year. Add that to earnings from farming and from honey, one should be able to replace his grass roof with a corrugated aluminum roof in short order.

One morning while in Chimoio, I went out for my (slow) morning jog.  I passed the Che Guevara Bar, complete with his famous image. Then a second with the same name and image, and soon, a third.  A couple of observations:  First: this guerrilla leader from the 60s was a folk hero in Mozambique.  Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s Mozambique was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, so Che Guevara became well known and loved. And apparently, he is still revered enough for three different and independent bars to claim his name. Second observation: trademark protection in Mozambique is not well developed. I also came across multiple Bamboo Bars. This morning’s jog took me down a gently sloping road.  However, on the return of my out-and-back route, someone had ratcheted up the incline.  The return was much steeper.  I’ll have to research the physics behind this phenomenon.

The changing climate is frequently a topic of discussion among farmers. Despite what some political leaders say, the farmers know that rainfall and temperature are changing.  We met with an American NGO that assists these farmers.  The NGO had started a program called Climate Smart Agriculture.  The director of this organization told us that the current US administration – – which seems to deny that humans play any significant role in climate change – – did not like that name containing the word, Climate.  Consequently, this NGO changed the program name to Resilient Agriculture.  They continue to do good work under the camouflaged name.

Bikes and Back Taxes

 

The last time I worked in Tanzania was five years ago. When recently offered another volunteer assignment in the country I gladly accepted.  I have spent nearly four weeks here working in two very different locations: Iringa, in the southern highlands near two big game parks, and Zanzibar, the country’s famous island just off the mainland in the Indian Ocean.  Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.

Starting in 1698 Zanzibar fell under control of the Sultan of Oman.  He eventually moved his capital to the island. But by 1890 the British had wrested control from the Omanis. For those of you who specialize in African place names, you will know that Zanzibar joined with Tanganyika shortly after the latter gained independence from Britain, its colonial overlord.  The amalgam of the current name, Tanzania, is derived from the two previously separate entities, Tanganyika and Zanzibar.  But more interesting than a blend of the names is the blend of cultures. Zanzibar is where Africa meets Arabia and India – – by sea, of course.  I would describe Zanzibar as a sort of poorer and more run-down Marrakech.  But fascinating.  Anyone visiting East Africa would be remiss to neglect Zanzibar.

The “Enabling Growth Through Investment and Enterprise” program or ENGINE is run jointly by an American and a Canadian NGO. I am here to offer training in basic marketing, promotion, marketing plans, and digital communication.  That last topic, digital communications, is better suited to my children’s generation than to mine.  But my children weren’t available for the assignment so I had to bone up on my knowledge and stay one day ahead of the class.

A local taxi driver asked the name of my (temporary) employer. When I answered, ENGINE, he thought I was an engineer.  Although years ago I did study civil engineering, I explained I was not an engineer, so he focused on the acronym, ENGINE.  He told me he was a great mechanic, and could I get him a job repairing engines? Communication across cultures and languages is often entertaining.

So is riding a bicycle in a poor country.  I had a free Sunday in Zanzibar and I signed on for a bike ride in a rural area complete with a visit to a spice farm.  Note: Zanzibar and nearby islands are sometimes called the Spice Islands…but, more commonly, so are the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.  But I digress.

My guide arrived at my hotel pedalling one bike while controlling a second bike by the handlebars.  Upon mounting the second bike I discovered the handlebars to be in good shape.  Not so, the height of the seat.  My knees were in my teeth and the seat frozen in the lowest position. Osman, the guide, said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get the engineer to look at it.” It turned out that he meant following the ride, after I no longer cared about the seat.  Two hours of up and downhill riding with knees in my teeth was really fatiguing.  My multi-hour ride turned out to be an extended extreme workout instead of an efficient way to tour the countryside – – and to visit a spice farm. Many other bicyclists passed me, especially on the uphill.  I actually overtook a few going downhill.  Reason: the average American, such as I, weighs about 20 pounds more than the average Zanzibari.  Gravity is a big assist on the down slope. I even passed a few donkey carts guided by drivers standing Ben Hur style.  I really hope you recall Charlton Heston in the Oscar winning 1959 movie.  But I digress again.

Eventually, covered in sweat, we reached the spice farm. The proprietors there gave me different leaves, roots, and barks and asked me to identify each by scent. But I do not have a strong sense of smell.  I had no idea what was held under my nose.  So I just kept guessing cumin.  Eventually I got one right.

Who knew cumin and curcumin were non-related spices?  Cumin comes from the ground seed of the cumin plant – – a parsley relative – – and curcumin from the dried root of the turmeric plant. Or that rubbing fresh lemon grass on your skin will repel mosquitos? Sort of. Another digression, sorry.

In addition to riding a bike and sniffing spices, I conducted a volunteer business assignment. My task: assist small professional services providers (accountants, auditors, tax consultants, financial planners) to develop more robust marketing programs to attract new customers and to better communicate with existing customers.

I learned that many of the professional services providers relied only on passive word of mouth to attract new customers. Passive word of mouth is not really marketing, it is hoping that a satisfied client will refer the provider to another prospect.  I suggested as a minimum to use active word of mouth:  Identify a target prospect, ask a satisfied client to introduce you to that target.

In both Zanzibar and Iringa, my other training site, I delivered a week-long program of classroom training, small focus groups, and one-on-one consultations.

One-on-one topics were selected by the service providers and generally covered subjects related to the marketing lessons I had presented. Some examples:

  • How to better promote the Zanzibari Chamber of Commerce to local businesses.
  • How to attract funders for a micro-loan program.
  • How to improve upon brochure design. – – I am not a designer, but when I saw three different renditions of logo and type face in the same brochure, I knew enough to tout the need for consistency.
  • How to solve a $10,000 back tax problem. – – This is not a marketing topic and certainly not my area of expertise and I most assuredly don’t know Tanzanian tax law. However, I led the worried debtor through a brainstorm of his options.
    • Borrow from the bank to pay off tax debt.
    • Negotiate with the tax authorities for a reduced debt.
    • Declare bankruptcy.
    • And of course, talk to a local tax advisor instead of an American volunteer.

I think that last bit of advice was the best I gave all week.

 

Fresh Chicken Tonight

One of my NGOs, Winrock International, sent me on a three week assignment in northern Mozambique.  Our effort has been to develop a market intelligence system that will inform small holder farmers the current price levels for their crops.  At present, the farmer has little access to such information and thus relies on hearsay regarding prices. Often a crop trader will show up at his farm gate to purchase the crops.  The trader knows that the farmer is poorly informed and thus will offer a lowball price. The farmer will not know if other prices in the market are higher than the offer at farmgate…so he will accept the lowball price.

Our idea is to set up a price gathering system that is accessible by mobile phone.  Surprisingly, most farmers – – even poor farmers – – have cell phones.  With this system the farmer will be able to check current prices in his region and at major trading centers. He will not be at the whim of the crop trader to learn the price. Living the life of a small holder farmer is difficult enough without also being subjected to unreasonably low prices.

We gathered opinions about what sort of market intelligence the farmers wanted so as to allow them to make more informed decisions. We set up a series of interviews with farmers, grain transporters, wholesalers, and exporters.  Interestingly, most of the people we spoke to in the agricultural trade did not initially address price information as their greatest need.  Almost universally they said they wanted a governmental authority to regulate crop prices. By this they mean they want the fixed prices once offered by the Soviet-leaning government of the 1980’s and the Portuguese colonizers (until 1975) before then.  We explained that fixed prices are not likely to be instituted. The world has changed.  We operate in a market economy, not a command economy. And we now live in a globally interconnected world where the price paid by large importers of crops, like India, will influence the price small farmers receive at farmgate.  And besides, the government is too poor to provide a price guarantee.

_ _ _ _

Imagine that you are driving down a country road in Iowa and decide to stop to talk to a corn farmer.  But in order that you may converse you must first visit the county seat to get approval to hold a discussion.  This happened to us in Mozambique.

Before we could wander the countryside to talk to farmers we were required to report to the County Agriculture Manager to get permission.  The agricultural manager was out of the office and neither of his two lieutenants was willing to grant us authorization.  So we waited for the manager to return.  Once he appeared we explained our quest – – merely talk to several individuals in the county.  He decided that we needed permission from his boss, the County Commissioner. So we piled into our vehicles and drove across town to another office.  Again after waiting, we were ushered into the Commissioner’s office.  He and I discovered that we both had served in the army: Mozambican and US, respectively. Consequently we bonded and our team received permission to talk to people.

Later we also had to seek authorization to talk to traders in a farmers’ market…from not one, but two individuals: the business manager and the security manager. It seems bureaucracy is alive and well in Mozambique.  Fun fact: the first official we met, the Agricultural Manager, is the son of the second official we met, the County Commissioner…and was appointed by his dad. So nepotism is thriving here too.

After braving all this bureaucracy and a splash of nepotism, I needed a break. So, I went for a late afternoon jog past a high school that was just letting out.  A stranger jogging through the ranks of the students seemed to interest them.  I was enthusiastically greeted by shouts of “Americano,” “Branco” (white man), and also, “Mexico.” The Mexico greeting befuddled me, but had they inserted the adjective New in front of Mexico they would have covered my nationality, ethnicity, and state heritage within just a few strides.

The next day we interviewed Stefano Justin, a small scale maize trader.  He transports 330 pounds of maize in three large bags on his bicycle: two bags behind the seat and one bag in the bike frame above the pedals.  How he is able to ride this way was not clear to me, but he makes two trips daily across the nearby border with Malawi to sell the product in that neighboring country.  The customs officials turn a blind eye to small scale businessmen like him crossing the border. Stefano can earn $5 each day through his trading activities.  Now $5 dollars per day may not sound like a lot of money, but he assured us that he is able to support his family on this income.  This is well above the rate of extreme poverty, pegged at $1.90 per day. But, by the worn state of his clothing and the rickety repair of his bicycle one would never guess that he was earning a robust living at a level twice that of extreme poverty.

Traveling in rural Mozambique is always a visual treat. Alongside the highway were homes of sun dried mud brick topped with grass roofs.  So picturesque. The highway itself had few cars, but many, many bicyclists and pedestrians: school kids in uniform, farmers hoisting hoes on their shoulders, and rural vendors flashing small offerings of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains.  Bags of charcoal and bundles of grass roofing thatch were displayed.   The most eye catching of all were the poultry sellers.  They stood beside the road holding a live chicken upside down by the legs.  As our car passed they would swing the bird right side up causing it to flap its wings vigorously.  Passersby could not miss this advertisement – – more eye catching than a neon sign – – Eat Fresh Chicken Tonight.

Lookin’ Like a Lady

Back for another assignment in fascinating Myanmar I am still having difficulty remembering Burmese names.  They just don’t look like American names. Take for example, Khun Kyaw Min Htike or how about Mya Zar Li Aye?   When I can, I write them down.  Otherwise I try to use memory tricks.  I remember that Soe Soe Aye is the way a seaman would say, “Yes, I’m feeling just OK.”  Got it?  The first reader with the correct interpretation of this memory device will receive a free soybean.  I am working with a variety of farmers in Myanmar and I can easily get access to a soybean.

Myo Min is my driver. He told me his name means King of the Family.  I think he is thrilled with his title. Not so sure about his wife and two teenaged sons though.

One of the farmer groups I am working with is the Myanmar Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Producers’ Export Association.  Their abbreviation is equally challenging: MFFVPEA.  My first observation was that the acronym was a bit unwieldy. But they had already shortened it to MFVP by the time I arrived so I had to seek out some other way to add value.  Consequently, I decided to teach them basic marketing lessons.

We conducted a brainstorming session to generate new product ideas.  One of the farmers volunteer the idea of yam noodles.  (Nearly all noodles here are made from rice.) I didn’t understand his accent and I wrote on the board, YUM noodles.  Made sense, it sounded tasty.  When it came time for the farmers to come up with a marketing slogan for their new yummy noodles, they offered, “slut slut.” I think this might cause English speakers to react with a smirking doubletake – – like my dear readers did just now. I kept a straight face and asked what they had in mind. Apparently, slut slut is the sound a Burmese makes when slurping delicious food.  So their slogan works well.

And speaking of slurping sounds, I came across two unusual flavors of snack nuts in a Yangon convenience store. Seaweed and wasabi cashew/macadamia mix. Also almonds and anchovies. Both were pretty good, but not necessarily slut slut.

The association chairman thanked me after the marketing lessons.  He said that in the 18 year history of the association they had never received marketing training.  They had learned how to irrigate their fields, rotate the crops, harvest and safely store their produce, but never how to market their output.  Of course marketing is essential for farmers wanting to move beyond growing and eating. That is mere subsistence farming. Woody Allen once observed that 80% of success in life is just showing up.  Seemingly, I showed up at the right time to end their 18 year marketing drought.

I am often asked if I get feedback about the impact of the assignments I have worked on.  Not all the time…however two years ago I teamed up with a craft soap maker to train eight village groups how to produce and how to market handmade soap.  Of the eight villages, four have developed an ongoing business that provides extra income to the residents.  So, there can be a report of some, but not total, success.  But to put this in rough perspective, a baseball player hitting .500 would be a superstar.  We got to work with superstar villages.

I enjoy wandering around the towns I serve in so that I can observe the way locals live.  In a crowded, older section of Yangon I witnessed cords dangling from upper floors down to nearly ground level.  Each cord had a butterfly clip attached to the bottom end and a bell affixed at the upper end. Food delivery services will attach an ordered bag of food to the butterfly clip, jiggle the cord so that the bell rings.  The resident will then haul up his booty – – and I assume – – send payment back down via the butterfly clip. This would be a great way to get your almonds and anchovies.

Last Tuesday was a national holiday and I had the day off.  I crossed the broad Yangon River by ferry to explore the more rural areas south of the crowded city center. On board the ferry was a special seating area for foreigners and monks. I appreciate that I am viewed with as much reverence as a monk in this strongly Buddhist nation, but I thought it too exclusive to sit in that reserved section.  I didn’t want to be the ugly American.

At the far side of my ferry trip, the rural side, I began to explore on foot.  The underemployed bicycle rickshaw wallahs saw me as a sure customer.  Walking in midday sun, 95 degree heat and 95% humidity, is not a common practice.  One after another pedaled up beside me to make his pitch.  Always polite, I turned them all down. I needed the exercise.

One persistent rickshaw driver struck up a conversation.  He asked, “How old are you?” “69” I replied.  He seemed confused.  Burmese cannot accurately assess the age of a Caucasian.  To be fair, I couldn’t guess his age either. I think he was indirectly complimenting me when he said, “My father is 52.  He looks old.”  But then he paid me the ultimate compliment.  “You have a face like a woman.”   I guess I will double down on the use of Estee Lauder blush and eye shadow.  They seem to be working.

Foodies’ Dream – Chyawanprash

Have you added chyawanprash to your diet?  Maybe you should…but more on that later.

I spent two weeks in the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala working with Yogi Superfoods. YS is a small social business that produces a variety of healthy food complements and snacks for the domestic market.

The name, Yogi Superfoods, was coined by its founder, an Italian living in Guatemala.  He teaches yoga and many of his customers are yoga students. Hence the “Yogi” name. He also leads guided meditation classes.  I attended one and finished up quite refreshed.  So did one of the other participants who had been bitten by a scorpion just one day previous. He reported that he felt the venom leave his body during his deep meditation.

YS seeks to offer nutritious food alternatives to consumers while providing jobs and training to local people.  My NGO for this assignment, Partners of the Americas, asked me to conduct market research so that YS could better understand the niche health food market in Guatemala.  I conducted desk research, interviews with shop and restaurant owners and industry experts, led one focus group, and visited a dozen retail stores.  Prior to this external activity (e.g. store visits) I was briefed on the product line by the staff. And then, after donning a surgical mask, hair net and sanitizing my hands, I was given a tour of YS’ small, but very clean, production facility.

YS sells its products mostly to retailers and a bit to restaurants for use in meal preparation. The end users of health food products are mid to upper social economic consumers; estimated at 60% Guatemalans, 40% Foreigners – –  predominately North American and European.  Most are urban living and are interested in a healthy lifestyle.  But in a poor country of just 17 million people and a level of wealth at 1/14th that of the U.S., there aren’t too many of these types. So, YS remains a small company: eight employees.

Prior to this assignment, YS had conducted little (if any) formal market research.  Most of the company’s decisions had been based on gut feel and intuition. They were only just now instituting a tracking system to measure revenue and profit from each product. This new tracking capability, combined with the results of our market research efforts, will allow YS to become a more successful competitor. (We hope.)

For the focus group discussion, we invited one dozen knowledgeable consumers of Yogi Superfoods products. These consumers shared with us several important recommendations:

  • Improve packaging consistency: different size and style fonts are being used and too much information appears on the package
  • Simplify the product line: YS offers 145 different products. 80% of revenues come from the top 25 items. The bottom 25 account for less than .3%. Thus, YS could lop off the bottom 25 products and still realize 99.7% of the revenue.
  • Rationalize product names: Some product names overlap in a confusing way – – for example, the company offers “Healthy Superfoods Treat” and “Healthy Snack”

The focus group also suggested that YS add more adaptogens to the product line, including ashwagandha and chyawanprash. These are real words by the way. I am a bit vague on the meaning of adaptogen and I certainly don’t recognize the two specifically mentioned, but I kept a poker face and made it through that part of the group discussion.

The products offered include all sorts of powdered food complements to blend into smoothies, soups, stews, and more.  If you have a hankering for powdered spirulina, turmeric, nutritional yeast, chlorophyll, and acai then Yogi Superfoods should be your provider of choice. Or you can select fermented, non-alcoholic drinks like kombucha and matcha tea. Coconut oil and apple cider vinegar are also on the menu.  And finally there is a range of snack foods –  various sorts of trail mix (with turmeric), raw chocolate bars, un- or very lightly sweetened.

When I was not sampling Yogi Superfood, I discovered that the street food in Guatemala is similar to that in big neighbor to the north, Mexico: tacos, tamales, guacamole.  The Guatemalan tortillas are a bit thicker though and the locals eat lots of plantains – – grilled, fried, mashed, boiled. In fact, the Garifuna load their tapado (fish and coconut stew) with the ubiquitous plantain.  Of course, that begs the question, who are the Garifuna? 54% of Guatemalans are indigenous, mostly Mayan. 45% are mestizo (Hispanic) and that leaves a tiny sliver of Garifuna. This ethnic group is descended from former African slaves who migrated from Caribbean islands to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast in the early 1800s. They speak their own language.  After completing my assignment, I traveled to the Caribbean coast where I listened to their music – drumming with call and response lyrics in the Garifuna language.  The music was accompanied by their dancing: hip shaking, body swinging, all rather suggestive – – but I’m not complaining.

Traveling north from Guatemala into Belize I met a taxi driver named Burrito.  This was a self-given name due to his belief that he was a superb burrito maker.  I didn’t try his famous dish.  Burrito encouraged me to sample Gibnut, a grilled field rat.  I didn’t get around to trying it either, just ran out of time – – bummer, I usually enjoy field rats.  He also described a delicacy he makes around Easter time: cooked iguana including the 40 – 80 eggs found inside the female.  Squeeze the soft leathery egg shell (not a hard shell) and one gets a mustard-like substance from it.  Only one problem: Burrito said the iguana species he hunts was endangered, so he ate just one or two a year. Usually at Easter. I am not too keen on consuming endangered species. But I must say, the last passenger pigeon sure tasted good, and so did the dodo bird.  But neither were as healthy as the Yogi Superfoods’ product line.

Matooke and G-nut Sauce

I spent nearly three weeks in November in Uganda working with Masindi Seed and Grain Growers, Limited. This is a maize (corn) farmers’ co-op owned by rather low income farmers.

First we need a primer on low income farmers. They are dirt poor.  In order to plant and grow their crop they must take agricultural loans to purchase seed, fertilizer, and pesticides.  After the growing season, farmers in the region bring their harvested maize to the co-op to be weighed, cleaned, dried, ground into corn flour, and warehoused in 220 pound bags.  The co-op then seeks buyers for the product. Once they sell the maize flour, a few weeks or months later, they pass on the proceeds to the farmers.

But there is a problem.  The farmers, being dirt poor, need to receive payment for their delivered crop immediately, not a few weeks or months later. They must pay off their agricultural loans soon after harvest or they will be hit with late payment penalties by their creditors.  One farmer told me, “My bank made me sell my crop too soon, at a low price, so that I could repay my loan to them. I was left with very little for my family.”

The co-op is struggling.  They do not have enough capital to pay farmers at time of delivery.  Instead they warehouse the farmers’ maize while seeking out buyers.  But quickly finding a paying customer is not easy.  So the farmers wait and wait for the co-op to sell their product and pay them.

Over the last couple of years many farmers have given up waiting.  Instead they sell their crop to independent traders who show up at the farmers’ fields and offer bottom dollar.  The farmers receive a much lower price from the traders – – in part because the maize in the field has not yet been cleaned, dried, ground, and bagged – – but the farmers need money so badly after harvest that they make the trade off: immediate cash now at a low price versus cash weeks or months later at a higher price.

So many are opting for immediate cash now that the co-op is losing its customer base and is in danger of collapse.  My job was to write a business plan to guide the co-op back to vitality.  The crux of the task will be for the organization to find a business partner, a joint venture partner, a donor, or a lender to help get it back on its feet.  The NGO that sent me to Uganda, Catholic Relief Services, will monitor the co-op and, with some luck, report success sometime in 2018.  Or perhaps not.

The country itself is struggling a bit.  Population growth is too high – – tenth fastest in the world – – at 3.27% annually over the past five years.  By comparison the U.S. has grown 0.75% in the same time frame. Uganda is already densely populated. The country is the size of Oregon and has 43 million people. Just 4 million live in Oregon. Governance is poor there with an autocratic president who has overstayed his constitutional limit in office.  President Museveni is now in the fifth term (of a two term presidency) that started in 1986.

Winston Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa and indeed, at one time it was.  In the 1970s Idi Amin made short shrift of that moniker. He expelled 60,000 Indian descent citizens who were a very successful merchant and administrative class. By the end of his eight year misrule Uganda sported the poorest growth rate in Africa. Idi Amin was followed by a series of not so great leaders up to the current long term president (too long term.)

But my sponsors seldom send me to smoothly functioning democracies where everything is going swimmingly.  In fact, going where everyday people need and appreciate the assistance I can provide is the reason I accept these assignments.

I generally don’t go for the food.  A typical Ugandan restaurant has a menu with two columns.  One lists “food,” meaning a staple like matooke (mashed plantain), posho (stiff corn porridge), muwogo (mashed cassava root), or rice. The other column lists the sauces that one may cover the food with: beans, beef stew, and my favorite, g- nut sauce. G-nut stands for groundnut.  We call them peanuts in the US. All in all, not bad, but then again not destination dining.  Fortunately however, some 15,000 Indians returned to Uganda after Amin’s downfall, bringing back with them a selection of Indian restaurants serving much more than just the basic food above.

I do go for the scenery. This time in Uganda I visited Murchison Falls and its eponymous national park.  These falls on the Nile River are Uganda’s highest at 141 feet.  (Niagara Falls are 167 feet.)  Worth noting is that the Nile runs through much of Uganda (and South Sudan and Sudan) well before it reaches the country it is most famously associated with, Egypt. Murchison Falls National Park has the usual assortment of large African animals: elephants, hippos, lions, giraffes, Cape buffalo, mosquitoes, and spiders.

I also visited the much debated source of the Nile.  The Ugandans claim it is the point where the river emerges from Lake Victoria.  Naturally this point is in Ugandan territory.  Other countries with rivers feeding into the world’s second largest lake claim that their feeder streams are actually the source.

So if you want to get into a heated debate, suggest to your Ugandan bartender that the real source of the Nile is in Burundi.

Mint Tea All Around

Marrakech. One of fascinating Morocco’s special fascinations. In fact this place is so special Crosby, Stills, and Nash wrote a song about it in 1969: The Marrakech Express.

Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express

Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express

They’re taking me to Marrakech

All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I did not arrive on the Marrakech Express but instead flew Boston to Madrid to Marrakech, which I suspect is faster than the circa 1969 train in this North African country.

I have spent three weeks here with the High Atlas Foundation. HAF is a United States and Moroccan NGO working in twelve of Morocco’s 62 provinces (equivalent to a county in the US.)  My assignment has been to address my client’s crop nursery business, conduct a strategic analysis, and write a business plan.  This business plan will help them focus on a manageable number of trees and plants to be offered to a targeted set of customers.

At present my client offers ten or so trees (e. g. almond, fig, cherry, walnut, pomegranate) and ten or so herbs (fennel, lavender, peppermint, etc.) – – all organic – – to an unwieldy collection of schools, municipalities, farmer co-ops, and government bodies.

It is tough to be successful and efficient while trying to offer all things to all people. Collectively we hope to hone the business to a laser-like focus on fewer products and customer types…or if not a laser focus, at least a better targeted flashlight beam. Anyway, we will need to select the trees most valuable to HAF nurseries and most practical to HAF’s beneficiaries.  These beneficiaries receive the trees as a donation, free of charge, from HAF.

In order to hone our laser-like focus we created eight selection criteria and evaluated the candidate trees and plants against the criteria which included:

  • Rapid growth to fruit production age (so that recipients can more quickly reap the benefit of their fruit and nut trees)
  • Modest water requirements (in this arid country)
  • Long orchard life (some walnut orchards can produce nuts for nearly a century)

What to plant? It takes one to two years for the fruit and nut trees cultivated by HAF to reach seedling stage – – a couple of feet tall – – so that they can be delivered to a farmer for replanting in his field.  HAF must make its tree planting selection well in advance of receiving an order from a farmer. The trees will have been growing in the nursery for six months to a year before customers place an order.  One can’t exactly unplant an incorrect decision six months into the tree’s growth, so HAF has relied on the art of crop selection…they really didn’t have a perfectly scientific technique to apply.  The evaluation criteria we introduced add a degree of scientific technique to HAF’s art.

In case you were wondering, olive, pomegranate, fig, carob, and walnut came out highly ranked. And if you are still wondering, I have been eating the fruit of those trees for the past three weeks here in Morocco.

On a separate note, date palms and olive trees, besides producing valued fruit, are used ornamentally and for shade here in Marrakech.  It just so happens that the fruit of both trees – – yes, olives are botanically a fruit – – are ripening now and dropping their fruit on the sidewalk.  It is sort of squishy underfoot. But that just adds to the charm of the place. However, truly defining the charm of the place is the old town or medina. Parts of this winding labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys are over five centuries old.  Perhaps the most charming slice of the medina is Jamaa el Fna, the old town’s medieval square. Every evening it is complete with snake charmers, monkey handlers, dozens of outdoor dining stalls, henna artists, and costumed water sellers treating customers as if they had just crossed the Sahara in camel caravan from Timbuktu to arrive parched in Jamaa el Fna. And then there are the hordes of touts all expecting a tip for trying to coax the tourist into an encounter with a snake charmer and his musically mesmerized cobra, a monkey man, the water sellers, and couscous laden food stalls. It really doesn’t get much more fascinating than this.

In Muslim countries such as Morocco not much alcohol is consumed, tea serves as a stand in. Mint tea is far and away the social beverage of choice.  It is nearly impossible to attend a meeting without being offered a glass of hot, sugary, mint tea.  In the souk, Marrakech’s giant marketplace, any vendor worth his snuff will coerce a passing tourist into his shop, ply him with mint tea, and pitch his handcrafted jewelry, carpets, leather bags, wood carvings, and countless other quality crafts.  I made it out of the carpet seller’s shop after just two glasses of tea. I was also $130 lighter and one small carpet heavier.

I visited two tree nurseries. Before talking business we drank sweet mint tea.  Every morning in the HAF office we break at 10:30 for sweet mint tea.  I recently read a book about healthy things to put into one’s body.  Sugar was not on the healthy list. In fact, this book convinced me that sugar is the devil, at least nutritionally speaking.  But in Morocco one must live with this devil (in the form of sweet mint tea.)  It would be socially awkward not to. I’ll cut back when I get home. I promise.

Finally, back to the labyrinth of Marrakech’s old medina:  One Sunday afternoon I got hopeless lost and couldn’t find my way out. So I contracted a 10 year old local kid to guide me back to a recognizable landmark.  I clearly said “Le Boulevard Mohammed V” in my American accented, mangled French.  And the young boy said “Oui,” so I knew I was being guided to my landmark. I trailed the kid for 15 minutes through alleyways, twists and turns, and narrow passages until he proudly delivered me, not to Le Boulevard Mohammed V, but instead to his school, L’ecole Mohammed V.

I knew I should have taken French and not Latin in high school.

 

 

 

 

 

Guaranteed 40% Return – – Monthly

In a very poor country one does not often find a functional olympic-size swimming pool.  Surprisingly I found one in Beira – – Mozambique’s third largest city. My NGO for the southern tier of Africa, CNFA, had sent me here to work with a women’s self-help cooperative.  I needed a break from work and some exercise so I paid the $1 fee to enter the pool.  Sunday mid afternoon is usually a crowded pool time in most places, but I found myself alone in the pool.  Even the ticket taker was absent.  (I paid the entrance fee to the custodian.)

The water was a refreshing milky color. Apparently neither the custodian nor the filtration system was up to snuff.  Post workout, I noticed that the restroom had a sign posted, “Nao xixi-xixi. Não drena.” Or roughly, “No pee pee.  Doesn’t flush.”  So I guess with the restroom inoperative, that leaves the pool as an option.  I wish I had read the sign pre-swim.

Swimming aside, my task here has been to train a group of 20 individuals in personal financial skills, including how to set up a uniquely poor country institution: a VSLA – – Village Saving and Loan Association.  The VSLA concept was pioneered in Niger in 1991 and is now in 73 countries worldwide including Mozambique. Variations of this approach reach more than 12 million people around the globe.

There is a strict organization to the methodology. It is designed specifically to benefit very poor people who are illiterate and even innumerate and who require simplicity and structure. For example:

  • Weekly meeting with mandatory attendance (accompanied by fines, about 10 cents, for unannounced absence and for late arrival)
  • Requirement to purchase at least one and no more than five savings shares each week. The shares are valued at around $1, based on local currency.
  • VSLA members present their savings passbook to be stamped with a symbol representing the shares purchased. The use of a symbol precludes any difficulty an illiterate/innumerate person would have understanding his savings account.
  • Members’ savings are pooled and placed in a wooden lock box secured with three padlocks. Three different association members each hold a key, thus always requiring the presence of three people to open the box.
  • Members borrow from their common savings pool and repay their loans back into the pool, thereby paying themselves the loan interest and thus increasing their personal savings.

This VSLA methodology is ideally suited for low income people whose savings would be far below the minimum account size required by a traditional bank.

I was vaguely familiar with this concept, having come across it a few years ago in Uganda.  But I was far from knowledgeable.  Fortunately, I found a VSLA field guide on line (thank you Mr. Google) and was able to stay one day ahead of the class.  I don’t think they noticed my narrow knowledge lead on them.

My class of low income women (and a few men) included a chicken grower, used tire proprietor; auto parts dealer, market vegetable seller, and owner of a sundries kiosk. Even a Catholic nun and a sprinkling of high school students in light blue shirts with dark blue ties showed up.

Before teaching them how to establish and manage a VSLA, I instructed them on personal financial management.  That is a topic I do know something about, having worked many years in the financial services industry. However, my attempt to teach them the time value of money spun out of control.  I asked them to choose between receiving $100 today or $150 one year from now.  Of course, $150 represents a 50% return on $100, so waiting one year is the wiser financial choice.

Everyone in the class opted for $100 today. I asked them why.  They variously reported that they could get a substantially higher return than 50% – – which by the way is an incredibly attractive return – – by putting the money into a business.  I asked about the level of risk they might face.  The best response was, “Everything we do in Mozambique takes risk, we must take risk to survive.”  The chicken grower stated that if he bought one hundred dollars worth of new chicks, raised them to maturity, and sold them, he would ,without doubt, earn 40% each month.  I have no idea how he came up with figure and I doubt he did either.  But I didn’t press the issue because my rich country perspective clearly did not jibe with very poor peoples’ perspectives.  They did agree that spending on expensive wants instead of needs was not a good idea and that making a budget was a good idea.  So, all in all, we did have mostly similar financial beliefs.

My interpreter was worried about his three month old baby daughter.  She was refusing to nurse and was crying way too much.  His wife took their baby to a traditional healer, not a trained pediatrician.  The daughter did not improve.  My interpreter and his wife surmised that the traditional healer had, instead of instituting a cure, had cast a bad spell over the baby.  That was the reason for crying and not nursing.  My interpreter said, “You must always be careful with African magic.”  The ironic part to this story is that my interpreter is studying to become an MD and yet patronizes an untrained traditional healer.

The happy part to this story is that his daughter recovered to full health one day later.  And the even happier part of the story is that he now knows how to save $1 – $5 dollars per week for his daughter’s future.

Curbside Service

 

Back in Myanmar for my fourth volunteer visit I figure it is time to tell you about which side of the road they drive on here: the right side – – just like in America.  Pretty mundane?  Not really, because the steering wheel is on the right side of the car.  This means that the driver is seated curbside as he drives.  In every other country in the world the motorist will be seated next to the center median allowing him vision of the road ahead. Sitting curbside does not allow such an essential perspective. Burma (as it was then named) was once a British colony (1824 -1948) and the Brits naturally introduced their driving system: drive on the left using a right handed steering wheel.

In 1970 the military dictator of Burma, General Ne Win, wanted to make a clean break from all things British.  He consulted his soothsayer.  The fortune teller advised Ne Win to switch the drive side of the road…but not the steering wheel configuration. So, now the driver is seated at the far right hand edge, the curbside of road.  When he attempts to pass a slower vehicle, he must pull out completely into oncoming traffic before he can determine if the road is clear to pass.

If not clear, in this country of narrow roads and heavy traffic, he must very quickly duck back into his correct lane…and sit along the curb again. It appears that General Ne Win knew more about military matters that about highway planning.

Now, as a passenger, I am seated next to the central median, and I am the first person exposed to a head-on collision as the driver attempts his essentially blind passing maneuver. I thought about wearing a bicycle helmet while in the passenger seat, but rejected that idea because I would rather risk a head-on than mess up my hair.  Instead I usually elect to close my eyes and sleep under the theory that if I don’t see bad things coming they won’t happen.

The challenge with sleeping in a car on the Myanmar road system is that all drivers toot the horn when starting their unseeing passing attempt.  And they honk a thank you to the vehicle once they have passed it.  They toot a heads-up-I-am-here to pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycles – – especially to the motorcycles carrying a family of four.  All the other vehicles on the road are, as well, beeping out a cacophony of warnings and thanks.  Consequently, I am at elevated risk for a head-on and I can’t get to sleep.

I survived the unique highway system and arrived at my work site, Ayadaw, in central Myanmar where I assisted the Ayadaw Township Thanakha Association (ATTA).  Ayadaw has the ideal climate for growing thanakha. This is a species of citrus tree found only in Myanmar.  The powdered bark of the tree is used as a uniquely Myanmar cosmetic and skin restorer.  An estimated 90% of Myanmar women and 30% of men apply thanakha to their cheeks as a beauty aid.

The farmers in the association plant a thanakha tree farm, wait five years for the trees to grow a three-inch diameter trunk, just the right size to harvest, and then sell in six inch lengths to the consumer.  We don’t grow thanakha trees in the US, but perhaps you could envision Christmas tree farming: plant, grow for a few years, harvest, sell to consumers.  Pretty much the same for thanakha farming.

Thanakha is deeply entwined in Myanmar culture, there are 1000-year-old references to its benefits in the country’s literature.  My interpreter told me his grandmother applied the cream to his face daily when he was a kid; then she had him open his mouth for a dab on the tongue as a general health tonic.  He said it tasted terrible.  He has very nice skin today and he was seldom sick as a child.

All families have a grindstone the size of a large dinner plate.  They purchase a six inch length of tree trunk, place some water on the grindstone, and grind the bark into a yellow creamy paste.  Then they apply it to at least their cheeks, but often to their entire face. It is quite thick and most noticeable, almost as pronounced as face painting.  It is common to see women, especially in rural areas, wearing the yellow paste throughout the day.  One lady told me she applied it every day except on her wedding day when she went thanakha-free.

Following are unedited passages from the ATTA marketing brochure:

  • By daily smearing on the surface of the cheek, become the smooth skin
  • In winter season, get warmly feeling and in summer, cold feeling would be occurred on the skin
  • Good protection of the sun rays and harsh wind, soothe and freshen own mind and body
  • Whitening the normal complexion by applying daily
  • To maintain the moisture for the body coolness. Every pretty damsel loves Myanma Thanakha. Please try to smear on your surface for your glorious and brightness. Living at Upper-Myanmar, girls like to use natural Thanakha-make-up. Thus, no need to afraid of the sun rays and hot weather.
  • Good for curing rash and body heat, gout, arthritis, and gynecological diseases, antidote action and good to use for poisonous Bacteria bites.
  • For high fever feeling patients and mumps, bruises, furuncles

You may note that marketing communication, at least in English, is not yet their forte. You may also note that they claim more benefits than one could rationally believe.

They even hope to market the seeds as a holistic medicine to cure heart problems.  I suggested they stay away from this application until they had third party research that showed it to be safe and effective.  Personally, I figure it is safe and ineffective – – but I have not seen third party research to support my belief either.

Despite the over-hyped benefits of the product, there is little doubt that when pulverized on a grindstone with a bit of water, it produces a cream that is cool and soothing to the skin, probably repels mosquitoes, and clears the complexion.  So, all in all, a fairly beneficial product…heart claims not withstanding.

I helped ATTA improve their management techniques and provided business training.  They quite enjoyed the lesson on negotiating and the advantage of not just listening to the other party’s words, but also reading his body language.  Arms folded across the chest and leaning away likely means the other party is not interested in your thanakha offer.

But the good news here is two-fold: they are learning a new negotiating skill and they sure do have beautiful skin.

 

 

 

$1.59 per Day

 

I recently wrapped up an assignment in Mozambique; my fourth assignment in this charming and oh so poor country.  Just how poor you might be wondering.  The average annual income in Mozambique is $580.  That is $1.59 per day.  You try living on that.  The country ranks 183 out of 196 tracked by the World Bank.  (By comparison the average annual per capita income in the United States is nearly 100 times higher: $54,960.)

In fact they are so poor that along one highway I saw 200 people collecting rocks by hand from the side of the road to sell to home builders and to small construction companies.  One doesn’t get much money for a basket of stones, but every little bit helps.

My mission was to help the members of Tadzera Kulima farmers’ co-op improve the business handling of their crops so that they would earn more than $1.59 per day.  Tadzera Kulima means, “We came for farming.”  And I came for teaching farmers.  They needed it too.  They even admitted, “We don’t know how much we sell, we don’t know how much we pay for inputs.”  Consequently, they did not know if they were making or losing money from their farming business.

The co-op has 28 members.  All came for training plus an additional eight of their neighbors, 36 in total. I suspect the members had told their neighbors about my side splitting farmer’s daughter jokes. Why else would they come?  Actually I know better than to tell that genre of joke to farmers.  In fact I seldom attempt to deliver a joke during my trainings.  One never knows if it might upset cultural sensitivities.  And any joke would need to be translated from English into another language.  Of course a joke which might rely on timing, inflection, or word play, would not carry those essential delivery characteristics though an interpreter’s mouth into that other language.

In this case my assigned interpreter, Mateus (Mathew to you gringos), translated English into occasional Portuguese and more frequently into Sena.  This is the tribal language understood by most in this rural part of Mozambique.  Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique – – due to Portuguese colonization – – but is not so widely understood by the less educated.  Countryside dwelling farmers are generally less educated.

I taught the farmers how to make a simple ledger so that they could track their income and their expenses.  For every sales transaction I demonstrated how to enter the date, customer, crop, price, and quantity…similarly for each expense like purchasing seeds or hiring a tractor owner to plow their fields in preparation for planting.  I told them to make an entry every day money changed hands.  They embraced the lesson in the classroom.  I just hope they apply the lesson.  This will be a challenge for the illiterate and innumerate ones.  In rural Mozambique women are more likely to fall into this category. Families tend to spend their very limited resources on education for their sons.   “Free” public education is not free.  One must pony up for school fees, books, uniforms, and materials.    Furthermore girls are more likely to get married underage, thus ending any schooling that was underway.

And speaking of non-free public education, my interpreter passed out cheap note pads and pens to our training class.  The next day one of the women returned to class without her pad and pen…and asked for a second.  The following day with neither pad nor pen, she made the same request.  Eventually we caught on to her scam: She was illiterate and had no use for such tools. She was collecting these materials for her school aged children. At the end of training I offered my few remaining note pads and pens to the farmers. There was a small riot over who got these 33 cent items.  All wanted them for their school children.

In addition to the 36 attendees mentioned above, 14 toddlers and nursing babies also attended training on the hip or breast of their mothers.  The good news is that not all were crying at the same time.  But at any given moment some of them were.  And others were learning to walk in my classroom. Really disruptive – – but I just taught through the clamor.  I couldn’t tell them not to bring their little ones, that would have been insensitively countercultural.  Besides, they take them everywhere: to work in the fields, to the market, to church.  And to training class.

The average mother in Mozambique has 5.15 kids. To bear so many the women must start at an early age. I visited one farm where the farmer, a mid 30’s woman, already had 7 kids.  Her 18 year old son was married himself and had a one year old child. My interpreter married his wife when she was 16. He was 25 at the time. They had their first child one year after their wedding.

Maybe next time I will teach family planning.

Taduka (Thank you in Sena)

 

 

 

 

Lots of Fruit

 

This time we start with a quiz.  Which fruit is consumed in the greatest quantity worldwide?  I guarantee the answer will surprise you.  Do not skip ahead or I will block you from receiving this blog.

Guatemala has 1.5 million artisans in a country of 15 million people. That’s one of every ten citizens who makes a living or contributes to their family via their hands and their artistic creativity.  Just walk through any market and tightly woven bright fabric, colorful needlework, artistic clay pots, striking wood carvings, and gold, silver, and jade jewelry will grab your eye.  I was particularly interested in such craftsmanship because my latest assignment, just now wrapping up, deals with budding artistic talent.

The artisans reside mostly in the countryside.  In the country’s capital, Guatemala City, few young children learn much about their country’s artistic heritage.  My client, DIDART, teaches children, ages 4 – 16, about the country’s craftsmanship.  DIDART does this by running school-based workshops for the students.  The youngsters are taught how to make crafts: for example, clay pots for the youngest and least dexterous fingers, painted gourds for the 8 – 10 year olds, and wooden earrings for the older, more sophisticated students.  My task was to make as many clay pots as possible during my three week assignment.

Actually my task was to help DIDART come up with a growth plan to reach as many schools and students as possible.  And also to draw in socially minded businesses willing to contribute to the cost of delivering the workshops to public schools in poor parts of the city – – schools that otherwise could not afford to pay the cost of materials and trainers to present the workshops.

In order for me to better understand the DIDART process I went on a day trip, a 90 minute twisting ride north of the capital to Chinautla to meet clay artisans.  As mentioned above, this is a great program for young kids, because fine motor skills are not essential for clay forming. In this particular town pottery dominates, there were a dozen or so pottery makers presenting their crafts on display shelves in front of their shops.

Two young women, 19 and 20, from this village later came to my client’s house in the capital to demonstrate how they run a crafts workshop for children.  They coached me through the construction, not of clay pottery because my fine motor skills were of a slightly higher caliber, but instead of a PULSERA de PINO – – a bracelet made of pine needles.  I was shown to form the pine needles in a circle, then wrap colorful string round and round the needles. Initially it seemed that my dexterity indeed matched that of a six year old, but I eventually caught on and now have a fine PULSERA de PINO to show for it.  Stop by my house sometime and I will take it out of the safe and show it to you.

As a thank you to my clients and to the young ladies giving me the pulsera lesson I prepared my signature dish: Enchiladas Maravillosas Hechas por Guillermo.  Look it up in Google translate if you can’t figure it out.

El Fuego was easily visible from my hotel room.  This live volcano was constantly smoking.  We even received an ash warning one day, my first, but the impact was miles away and didn’t affect us in the capital.  Sort of like a bogus winter storm warning in Boston.  Later, in the charming colonial capital, Antigua, we saw El Fuego erupt and spew fire into the sky and roll glowing lava down its slopes.  But again far enough away that the sight was a visual treat and not a personal threat…unless perhaps one had been climbing the volcano.

My good friend, Gregg Johnson, arrived at the end of my work period to join me in a bit of exploring the Guatemalan countryside.  This included a climb of Santa Maria volcano outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city.  We ascended about 1,500 feet (halfway up) then hiked 1.5 hours horizontally around the cone to a vantage point looking down on Santiaguito, a live volcano.  As luck would have it, Santiaguito was smoking when we arrived and honored us with an eruption of more smoke, ash, and rumblings just 15 minutes later.  Also, as luck would have it, the wind carried the ash and volcanic gasses in the direction opposite from our viewing point.  Consequently, you are now reading this blog instead of my obituary.

Another highlight of our exploration was a tour of a “finca de café” or coffee plantation to you gringos.  Coffee growing and processing is a labor intensive exercise.  Entire families participate in the harvest of the coffee bean.  The country’s school vacation has been set (December and January) to coincide with the harvest so that children can join their parents in the field.  A family can collectively pick enough coffee – – and get paid by weight – – to earn $10-15 per day.  This may not seem like a great wage, but in a poor country like Guatemala it is well above the extreme poverty cutoff of $1.90 per day. However, the $10-15 is only good for a few months during the harvest, then the kids go back to school and the parents must find other sources of income. Maybe handicrafts??

So now it’s time to reveal the most consumed fruit in the world.  It is not soursop, golden kiwis, cloudberries, Chinese gooseberries, or even pomegranates, although I suspect any of the preceding would have surprised you.  Nor is it apples or oranges.  Neither olives nor tomatoes, which botanically speaking are fruits, but we think of them as vegetables, not fruits.

When that poor Guatemalan family in the plantation picks the coffee berry they are picking the most consumed fruit in the world.  We just happen to drink the roasted seed not the surrounding fruit.  I think you can make money in the bar with this bit of trivia.  Or get beat up.

Civet Cats and Coffee

I am wrapping up five weeks in southeast Asia.  The bulk of that time I spent in Myanmar (Burma) where I conducted back to back assignments. The first was to give a series of marketing lessons to poultry farmers in Mandalay.  Some of you may know of this city by virtue of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Road to Mandalay.”

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Worth noting is that Kipling never visited Mandalay. The first stanza is the give-away. Mandalay is inland, 400 hundred miles from the sea.

Now back to the marketing lessons:  As is customary on the road to Mandalay, one removes his shoes when entering the classroom.  For the first time in my life I taught class barefoot. The feeling is one of great freedom and is quite a necessity in an unairconditioned classroom in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity.

After the chicken farmers I moved on to Nyaung Shwe which means Banyan Tree of Gold.  There is a village a few miles away named Shwe Nyaung (Golden Banyan Tree.) Nyaung Shwe, Shwe Nyaung: this is all very confusing – – unless you are dyslexic, then I assume it is quite helpful. Easier to grasp are many of the Burmese names.  They are two-part and repetitive.  Some of the people I worked with were Myint Myint, Hnin Hnin, Htut Htut, Su Su, Moe Moe, and Aung Aung.  I am not making this up.  Now the beauty of such a system is that if you forget one of the name parts all you need to do is recall the other part, then double it.

In March, I had conducted market research around Nyaung Shwe on the demand for handcrafted natural soap.  We concluded that there was indeed high demand among the tourist hotels, spas, and souvenir shops in that town. Consequently, my NGO (Winrock International) sent two craft soap makers here to train women’s self help groups in eight nearby villages.  After the soapmaking lessons they decided that I should return to provide lessons on how to market their new product.

Special note for my female readers: Soap is little more than oil, water, and lye, for hardening.  One can add fragrances and scented herbs as the soapmakers of Nyaung Shwe do.  While I was teaching marketing, parallel training on lotion making was taking place.  Lotion is similar to soap but eliminates the lye hardening agent and adds a thickening ingredient such as bee’s wax to yield a creamy consistency.  I attended several of the lotion making sessions and as a result my hands are now baby soft.

Special note for my male readers: Next blog post I will discuss power tools and NFL player trades.

After my work in Myanmar I chose to visit Hanoi, Vietnam.  Hanoi is a beautiful blend of Asian and French Colonial styles.  Sidewalk cafes abound.  I even found one selling coffee for $12 a (tiny) cup.  I suspect this price exceeds even Starbucks’ Salted Caramel Mocha latte double venti superioso.  Now I am a pretty cheap guy, but out of curiosity I decided to try the $12 cup.  It was not just any coffee, it was Civet Coffee.  The civet cat, native to tropical Asia, apparently eats coffee beans.  The beans pass through its alimentary tract undigested but altered in some way by the civet’s stomach acids.  So, picture this: the coffee grower feeds coffee beans to a civet, collects them at the other end, washes them very, VERY well, roasts the bean, brews a cup of coffee, and serves it to tourists with more money than sense.

I do not have a refined palate.  I could not taste the difference between a normal cup and the civet cup.  I imagined I was drinking a basic cup of coffee. But my wallet told me otherwise.  At least I did not select the Wild Civet Coffee option at $46 per cup.  Really.

To get to the civet coffee cafe, I took an Uber.  In Hanoi, with nearly four million motorbikes, my Uber that day was an Uber-moto.  Very inexpensive and quite agile at avoiding traffic jams; there were some scary moments however.  My driver began the journey consulting his iPhone map.  One handed motorcycle driving with eyes on a tiny screen is not a safe practice.  At least he gave me a helmet to wear.

He weaved through the traffic like a broken field runner on the gridiron.  I even imagined I was reliving my glory days as second string quarterback on my freshman high school football team.  If only I had gotten into a game.

We zigged and zagged and shucked and jived and passed a bus on the curb side and nearly got run out of bounds by the bus. While he was executing his zig zag driving the other four million moto drivers on the road were doing the same.

Imagine four million second string QBs all running for their moment of glory that day.

The Intricacies of Finger Ball

In northern Malawi the Mpamba Fruit Juice Producers Cooperative brings together 22 fruit growers, collects their fruit, and presses it into orange, pineapple, mango, and baobab juices.  The last, I am told, is healthful for pregnant women.  But for the time being pregnant women do not have access to Mpamba’s baobab juice.  Nor any other of its juices.  The Malawian Bureau of Standards has shut down their small production facility due to sanitation concerns.

A heavy rain rushed through cracks and plentiful holes in the roof and brought down part of the interior ceiling exposing the cracks and plentiful holes.  In addition, the window screens are torn and inviting to tropical insects.  And the lower portion of the interior walls is painted black which the Bureau of Standards says will make the insects that enter, mostly unnoticeable.

This is all very unfortunate because the fruit growers had created a small but semi-thriving business selling their refreshing juices to shops, hotels, and local open air markets.  It is also unfortunate because I am in Mpamba (village of the same name as the co-op) to give the co-op members lessons in marketing.  But since I am here and have a curriculum, I have proceeded with the lessons.  I only hope that they still remember the key points in several months’ time when they secure funding to make repairs to their facility and restart production.

Also unfortunate because I didn’t get to observe the juice making process which is a manual affair.  They explained to me that they load fruit into a cylindrical bin and then manually turn a crank which lowers a press to crush the fruit and extract the juice.  Quite slow going which explains a production capacity of just a few hundred bottles a day.

On the weekend we had no classes so I asked to be shown several of the orchards where the co-op members grow their fruit.  During the orchard tour I had the bonus experience of receiving a lesson in grafting a tangerine branch onto a lemon tree trunk.  Apparently the resulting tangerine fruit does not change its character, but instead benefits from the lemon tree’s greater resistance to pests.  Arborists among you please weigh in here.

One morning prior to marketing lessons I watch two young boys play finger ball outside the production facility.  For my dear readers who don’t know finger ball (probably 100% of you) I will explain.  And by the way, until a few days ago I too was among the 100% oblivious to finger ball. A football pitch (soccer field to you 100%-ers) is drawn in the dirt, roughly 3 feet by 2 feet.  The boys each field a team of eleven bottle caps, smooth side down so that they will slide across the dirt.  The eleven bottle caps represent the number of players on their respective soccer teams. They introduce a relatively round stone to serve as the ball.  Then, with their fingers they take turns “thunking” the bottle caps towards the round stone.  They are remarkably facile at sending the caps skittering toward the stone and thereby dribbling the stone toward their opponent’s goal…and eventually scoring a goal, lots of goals.  In fact there was more scoring in the few minutes of finger ball I viewed than in an entire World Cup championship match.  Finger ballers do not go in for these uninspiring 1-0 results.

I was not invited to play and I didn’t insinuate myself into the match.  I was satisfied enough to learn a new sport by observation.  Consequently I suspect I can beat most of my readers now.

Frequent readers of this space will recall that I have related on past assignments unusual requests for personal funding.  This trip was different only in that the number of requests was off the charts.  I was hit up for:

  • Fancy shoes to wear to hospitality school commencement
  • Three bottles of beer and taxi money
  • Funding to start a tourist campsite
  • A tankful of gasoline for a vehicle I would never ride in
  • An expensive gift to give to a relative at graduation
  • Capital in support of a clothing import business
  • A dress to wear to the tribal chief’s induction ceremony
  • Cash to buy a new smart phone – – accompanied by a photo of a dropped and broken Samsung hoping to be replaced. (The photo was likely prepared months ago and has been used multiple times for such requests.)
  • Twenty eight cents to make a phone call

I tactfully declined all request except for the last.  It was within my budget.

Playing with Gunpowder

 

Colombia is a middle income country and normally my NGOs send me only to poor countries. That is why I frequently work in Africa. Colombia is in the same income category as Brazil and Thailand and there are no programs in those two countries for my sort of business volunteer services.  Relatively speaking, too wealthy.  However, unlike Brazil and Thailand, Colombia has gone through a 30 year rough patch:  For much of the 80s, 90s, and 00s it became a dysfunctional and dangerous pariah state haunted by narcotics gangs, Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary death squads.

But now it is a vigorous and largely peaceful land that attracts growing numbers of foreign investors and around 2 million international tourists a year.  My ultimate funder, USAID, wishes to solidify these recent gains, so they are funding volunteer assistance, the type that I provide.

I was asked to work on a project directed jointly by a Colombian agricultural university, Unillanos, and a group of poor farmers.  My colleagues at Unillanos are collaborating with 30 small holder farmers to help them connect directly with consumers in the regional capital of Villavicencio. The business idea behind this effort is to link farmers and organic foodies directly to each other without an intermediary. Crop producers meeting strict quality and crop sustainability requirements will be selected to participate.  Customers will place orders and make payments online with the producers of their choice. The producers will deliver the ordered products to customers once each week.  My client wants to create a food culture that will provide fresher products at a fair price to consumers as well as at a better price to the producers.

To get their concept off the ground, the group will need funding.  And to successfully secure funding, they need a business plan.  I spent two weeks in and around Villavicencio meeting with farmers, university staff, prospective customers, and competitors.  Ultimately, my clients and I jointly produced a tightly honed, well crafted, thoroughly compelling, rationally explained, totally captivating business plan…along with the requisite financial back-up.  Now that I have returned home, my clients have the task of approaching potential funders to convince them of the benefit of backing this new venture.

One of the side benefits of this assignment was that I could gorge myself on tasty tropical fruits and not gain a pound.  That’s why fruits are better that deep fried onion rings. (Even though onion rings are still pretty delicious.)  I devoured many of my favorites – – mango, papaya, passion fruit, guava – – and several new favorites that I had never heard of before: lulo, badea, tomate de arbol, and guanabana.  The first two don’t have an English translation.  The latter two, even when translated, were unfamiliar to me. Tomate de arbol = tamarillo . Guanabana = soursop.

Fruit aside, let’s return to the Marxist rebel problem. FARC started as a Marxist-inspired army to defend landless peasants. Perhaps initially admirable (except for the Marxist part.) They later evolved into drug running, hostage taking, indiscriminant terrorists.  Somewhat less admirable.

My work area, Meta Province, has many forested areas; all the better to offer FARC hiding places from which to conduct their hit and run revolutionary war against the Colombian government.  Fortunately for the local residents, FARC and the government have been conducting peace talks in Havana for the past three years. While a peace treaty has not yet been concluded, a ceasefire has been in place for much of those three years. Prior to the ceasefire, FARC and the government fought a seemingly never ending war with 220,000 killed. Millions displaced.

Throughout my travels I saw signs of, and heard stories about, the former conflict.  In some town squares, the police still maintain fully sandbagged bunkers as protection against FARC raiders. In San Juan de Arama I was shown the site of a former police headquarters – – the building was blown up several years back by the rebels.  Some of the farmers I spoke with had been required by rebels to pay “revolutionary” taxes.  Extortion might be a more accurate term. One farmer in our group had a story about the kidnapping of his brother by FARC rebels.  The brother had serious health problems at the time, so the farmer passed word to FARC that he, the farmer, would like to exchange himself as hostage for his captured brother.  FARC refused, believing that the farmer was too poor to command sufficient ransom.  The unhealthy brother continued to be held captive.  Some months later, the government was able to negotiate a hostage release that included the farmer’s brother.  So, I guess this story has a happy ending.  A formal peace treaty would make for a happier ending.

I learned a new game, TEJO, a singularly Colombian game.  Tejo is similar to a bean bag toss combined with beer drinking.  From some distance away one tosses a heavy object sort of like a shot put cut in half.  So not totally like a bean bag toss.  And instead of tossing this object through a hole on a slanted board, one tosses this heavy object (called the tejo) onto a slanted board covered with clay.  Instead of a hole, there is a circular bull’s eye drawn into the clay.  So even less like a bean bag toss.  And surrounding the bull’s eye, are several gunpowder charges.  One scores by hitting the bull’s eye with the tejo or by crushing an adjacent gunpowder charge.  Crushing the gunpowder will result in a loud explosion. Quite a thrill actually.  Throwing a half shot put at explosive charges embedded in clay while drinking beer is officially recognized by the Colombian Senate as a national sport.  And not at all like a bean bag toss.

For the record, I never hit the bull’s eye.  Nor did I explode the gunpowder.  I must return to Colombia for more Tejo practice.  And to eat my new favorite fruits.

 

Spirit in the Trees

 

When our team arrived at Chock Check village we were advised that during the preceding evening a shocking event had unexpectedly occurred.  A perfectly healthy 37 year-old man and his wife had gone into the forest to cut firewood.  They spotted a large and attractive – – for firewood purposes – – tree.  They set to work with their two handed crosscut saw.  About halfway through the tree trunk they stopped to rest.  After resting they turned their attention back to the tree.  Surprisingly, the trunk appeared in its original state: uncut.  So they began sawing again, and once more they rested midway through the laborious task.  After this second break, they discovered that the tree was still in its pristine state: no cut marks.

By this time the man was feeling a bit ill so they gave up on their cutting job and returned to their village home.  Shortly after arriving home, the man got noticeably sicker and suddenly passed away.  The devout Buddhist villagers have interpreted this unfortunate turn of events to the fact that the deceased and his wife had disturbed a large tree which they should have known harbored spirits of their ancestors.  The would-be tree cutter apparently paid the ultimate price for disturbing the spirits.  As penance, the villagers apologized to the tree and left offerings of fruit and lighted candles at its base. So far, nothing else untoward has occurred.

I was invited to Burma to work with Shwe Inn Thu (SIT), a women’s self-help group.  SIT helps women form savings clubs.  Groups of around 20 or so women meet together every five days – – sort of an odd cycle, but one that matches the five day rotating market schedule in this area. The group members each commit to contributing 200 Burmese kyats, about 16 cents in US currency, every five days to their common fund.  With all group members contributing and with enough perseverance, the common fund will grow to a size large enough to loan one of its members sufficient money to start a small business, say, selling woven bamboo handicrafts at a nearby tourist market.  After six months that loan recipient must repay the principal to the fund along with 3% interest.  Then a second member will tap the common fund to start her own business.  After several years of group contributions and several successfully repaid business loans, some of the groups have nearly $10,000 in savings.  This is microfinance at its most basic grassroots level.

Several Inle Lake villages hope to tap their common funds to develop community-based businesses.  The women’s self-help group, SIT, has selected eight villages around the lake to train in soap making.  The idea is to provide a new craft to the poor women in these communities.  They will produce the soap and sell it to nearby hotels, spas, and souvenir shops.  My job has been to evaluate the training needs of the villagers and the market demand for this creamy lather, florally fragrant, gently exfoliating, hand crafted natural product.  Please place your orders now.

Thit Seint Pin was one of the first villages we visited.  Situated on the edge of the lake are 82 households; 61 of these are classified as poor or very poor by SIT.  Using their metrics, poor means the household has enough food for six months of the year.  Very poor: just four months of food availability, plus the family cannot afford housing.  The community ponies up supplemental food and housing for these desperate households.  Now if one could teach the poor women to hand craft and sell soap, more money for more food would come their way. For many of the individuals their only current source of income is from casual labor:  for example, a poor farmer will hire a very poor woman to harvest tomatoes from one of the lake’s floating gardens.

And this lake is not just any lake, it is one of Myanmar’s leading tourist sites and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Inle Lake is the center of tourism, trekking, and crafts in central Myanmar.  It draws well-heeled tourists who pass by poor villages not knowing that the scenic stilt homes actually house really poor people.  Two years ago, I came as a tourist and had no idea the depth of poverty floating on the lake’s surface.  Don’t scrimp on your tipping when visiting Inle Lake.

In addition to the lake’s floating gardens, Inle is famous for its stilt villages. Many, many line the shoreline and also sit out over the lake.  Several are among the villages we are targeting for training and business development.  I feel like I am in a movie set when I arrive through a maze of wetland canals to reach one.  Invariably one of the village women will gather her savings group members into her one room home on stilts as I pull up in a motorized canoe. I give a short pitch about the planned soap making program. Then I ask some business-oriented questions in order to assess the degree of training necessary to turn them from casual laborers into soap barons.  Questions like:

  • Have you ever made soap before? (Usually, “No”)
  • Does your association have other business experience? (Sometimes, “We sell vegetables in the market.”)
  • Are there members in your association who have bookkeeping and financial tracking skills? (Surprisingly there are always a handful with this expertise.)
  • Would your association be interested to participate in this new soap making business? (Always a resounding, “Yes.”)

Then I ask if they have any questions for me.  Unvaryingly the first question asked is not business related, it is, “How old are you?”  Apparently, there is no social reticence to ask this and it is difficult for Burmese to judge the age of Caucasians.  I have no idea how old they are either. The next set of questions tends to be: how big is your family, do you have children, and do you have grandchildren?

They are surprised that my 30 year-old daughter and 27 year-old son are not yet married – – the  local youth here get married by age 20, if not earlier.  At Inn Phyar village I was able to temper their surprise at my grand-childless status by reporting that my daughter was recently engaged.  What my daughter is not yet aware of is that she has now been invited to hold her wedding ceremony in some very sweet lady’s one room stilt house on scenic Inle Lake.  You are all invited.

 

Innumeracy and the business of farming

 

I returned to Tamale in northern Ghana to continue working with the Yemyoliya Farmers’ Cooperative.  Previously I had spent two weeks last August training the co-op leaders on the basics of management, leadership, and marketing.  This time my assignment was designed to cover the business aspects of farming as well as lessons on how to write a winning proposal.

Teaching illiterate farmers proposal writing – – or writing of any kind – – was, sad to say, beyond my capability.  Even the literate ones would need a business writing course in order to craft a winning proposal; there were no strong writers among them.  But all of them were capable of learning how to deliver a compelling proposal verbally.  Consequently, I focused the lesson on delivering a spoken proposal: concisely covering a limited number of categories essential to the proposal audience.

We identified a target audience, the Ministry of Agriculture. And we developed our request – – the loan of four tractors to the co-op to improve their plowing capability.   Our verbal proposal contained just six key topics: 1) background/problem, 2) proposed solution, 3) timing, 4) goals, 5) the co-op’s capabilities, and 6) cost benefit analysis.  Now they will approach the Ministry with their appeal.

Try it yourself.  Maybe you can convince your spouse to buy you that new car for Valentine’s Day. Or you might end up with four tractors – – but those can be useful too.

The farming season (plowing, planting, growing, and harvesting) runs from March to November and the farmers are busy sunrise to sunset.  But after harvest during the dry season, December to February, they have not much to do.  Perhaps they spend a bit of time patching the grass roof on their home, maybe tune up their bicycle…but not much else.  They are so busy during farming that funerals are often postponed until the dry season. So funeral attendance takes up some slack time, but still they feel they are too idle.

They asked if I would work with them on ways to productively fill the dry season.   I shared ideas I had picked up from my work with other co-ops: assist their villages to repair roads washed out by the wet season rains, repair community buildings, volunteer in schools, churches, mosques.  Collectively we identified a range of activities that could earn money (work on construction jobs), enhance personal development (take literacy classes), or provide social services (volunteer to help the elderly.)  I suppose I will find out how they filled their idle period the next time I return to northern Ghana.

The co-op members are all farmers…farmers who seek to be businessmen and businesswomen.  Farmers grow and harvest their crops.  Businesspeople sell their crops for a profit so that they can support their families.  Creating an income statement is a basic way to determine if one has earned a profit.

We created a farming income statement format for each participant to complete with his or her actual farming information.  Simply put, Revenue minus Costs = Profit.  This was a new concept for the aspiring businessmen.

Their revenue was driven by the number of acres planted, the yield per acre, and the price received for each crop.  Their costs resulted from what they paid to plow their fields, purchase seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. (Not everyone is organic….as much as we would like them to be.)  Costs also included the farm loan most of them need to take each year before plowing and to repay after harvest. The interest rate on such a loan is a whopping 30%.

The typical farmer in my group earned an annual profit of $500.  But this assumes they did the math correctly.  Illiteracy and innumeracy run had in hand.  One farmer used his cell phone to calculate 3 x 200 = 600.  I asked him the result of his calculation and he replied, “Six million.”  I suppose that is one way to turn a quick profit.

I arrived at my assignment site during the dry season.  This is the hottest time of year, approaching 100 degrees most days.  But the heat is not the main climatic challenge.  Winds from the north bring a fine grit of reddish tan sand from the Sahara 500 miles away, as the sand flies. These HARMATTAN winds stir up enough dust to play havoc with flight schedules.

The Tamale regional airport was closed due to airborne dust for nearly three weeks in December, but had reopened by my mid January arrival. On my scheduled departure day, another HARMATTAN wind shut it down again, necessitating a twelve hour road trip from the north of Ghana to the international airport in the far south: a forced, but enjoyable overland tour of much of the country.

Climate change skeptics should come here and ask the farmers how the seasons have changed: rains arrive later, stop earlier, are much more fickle and unpredictable.  Desertification in the north allows the Sahara to creep inexorably south, delivering more HARMATTAN-carried dust and grit over their villages and into their fields.

In the developed world climate change is a charged political topic.  In poor countries it is another life challenge to cope with. The farmers here won’t or don’t make the connection between human caused climate change and their situation, but they are living the change every day.

Don’t Forget What Has Happened

In Malawi shops and businesses often name themselves rather creatively, either in English or in Chichewa.  I am working with two agro inputs dealers – – sellers of seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and tools to farmers.  One of them is named “Tisaiwale”, meaning Don’t Forget.  Perhaps as in, don’t forget about the fine service we provide.  The other dealer, Pagwanji, means What Has Happened?  Possibly, what has happened to my profits?  But more about this later.

On the highway to Don’t Forget I passed two companies with memorable English names: Money Comes, Money Goes Investments and Big Brains Investments.  Now which one would you choose to invest with?  I would not likely associate Money Comes, Money Goes with a good home for my hard earned savings.  The funny thing is, neither has anything to do with investments.  Both are also agro-dealers and Investments is a popular category name for such businesses.

Later we saw Who’s Next Barbershop which is quite aptly titled. My driver’s name is Masauko: “here comes trouble.”Sort of a Malawian version of Dennis the Menace.Lots of fun names here in Malawi.

Mentioned above, I am assisting two suppliers to the farmers.  Both are private, profit seeking companies.  Now you might ask, why would an NGO send a volunteer to southeastern Africa to help a business owner increase his profits? Because, dear reader, in seeking improved profits, the business owner will assist farmers, many of them at subsistence level, to improve the productivity of their fields.  And thus food security in this poor country will be ever so slightly improved.  So we can create a virtuous circle: increased profits – -> improved yields – -> enhanced food security for those at subsistence level.

Both agro inputs dealers asked me to assist them with their financial tracking.  In both cases, they kept manual ledgers of daily sales, expenses, and inventories. And they did this rather diligently.  But they had no system to tally all this raw data into an income statement at the end of each month.  Consequently neither knew whether they were making money…or losing it.

I built a simple Excel spreadsheet for the one dealer who owned a computer and created an even simpler manual format for the other, the computer-less business.  It turned out that this latter business was actually running a loss in most months.  So, armed with this revelation, the owner will take corrective action. Nothing a little attention to expense control won’t solve.

On Saturday I attended my first Malawian wedding.  I wasn’t really invited and I didn’t actually attend.  And not the wedding itself, just the reception. The event took place in the hotel’s grassy courtyard just beneath my second floor window.  I spied intently.

The bride and groom walked a center red carpet toward the Master of Ceremonies.  So far, not unlike an American wedding reception.  Then things veered quite differently: The happy couple began to dance down the carpet as did the wedding party following closely behind. The MC started a commentary that was beyond my comprehension – – it was in Chichewa.

A DJ keyed up a deafening and cacophonous techno beat that would have been better suited to the Saturday night disco.  The wedding party and other close friends surrounded the bride and groom,then ululated and bounced down the carpet.  The newlyweds reached the end of the carpet and turned to face the guests. When the music stopped the dancers threw money into the air and retreated to their seats.   The Malawian Kwacha fluttered to the lawn.

An army of young bill pickers scoured the lawn for the landed bills and took them to the money counters. A team of money counters separated the bills before tallying.  The small 20 kwacha bill is worth 4 US cents.  The largest bill, 1000 kwacha, has a value of $2.

The MC talked non-stop, inviting different groups to approach the happy couple – – bride’s friends, groom’s friends, work mates, church colleagues, and so on – – and toss money into the air. Occasionally the Chichewa talking MC would speak a phrase in English.  Several times I heard him say, “1000 kwacha,” Clearly an exhortation for big bills.

Once all the affiliated groups had been invited to throw money into the air, the MC encouraged other attendees, independent of group affiliation, to bounce forward and toss their bills skyward. Apparently, if you invite enough groups with enough people enough times, even the 4 cent bills will add up.

The wedding guests were dressed to the nines in this poor country.  They all have a super fancy outfit for such occasions; at least those who get invited to a wedding at a nice hotel have a super fancy outfit.  The ones who especially liked to show off their fine clothes and throw money made multiple visits to the appreciative newlyweds where they contributed several times to the bride and groom’s future.

This went on for two hours and then the reception suddenly ended.  Sort of a single activity celebration with an abrupt finish…but lucrative.  Now if only my agro inputs dealers could make money this easily…

Multi-Linguisticy

Just before training began a clearly nursing mother with three little kids in tow walked into the classroom.  My NGO colleagues chased the goats out by throwing rocks at them.  Later I caught another goat eating a book.  And then training began.

Our classroom was an open sided carport that we shared with two very dirty non-operational motorcycles.  I taught the executive team of Yemyoliya Farmers’ Cooperative three topics: management, leadership, and marketing.  Yemyoliya means spreading knowledge and that is what I was trying to do.

I taught in English to 15 senior executives of the co-op. Many of them understood much of what I said. But of course the goal was for all of them to understand all of what I said.  To get closer to that goal, Mahama Alhassan, my co-op counterpart, translated into Dagbani, the local tongue and one of the 56 languages spoken in Ghana.  Just so you know, the G in Dagbani is silent but serves to make the subsequent B “plosive.”  Whatever that means.  Linguists please weigh in here.

This was my third trip to Ghana, each time has been to a different region and thus a different language.  This time to Tamale (Ta-ma-LAY), the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region.  Not to brag, but I am pretty much fluent in all three languages I have encountered here – – at least as far as good morning, please, and thank you are concerned.  Except for the first two languages which I have long since forgotten.

In order to learn and remember I suggested to my class that they take notes.  But not everyone took notes and I thought this was a bad sign, of say, indifference to learning or antipathy toward the instructor.  But later, on the daily sign in sheet, I noticed that several had signed in using a thumbprint not a signature.  They were illiterate and note taking was not in their repertoire of skills.

I offered one lesson bloc on problem solving.  (First ensure that the stated problem is the real problem.  For example, it would be foolish to try to solve lack of note taking when the real problem was illiteracy.)  At the end of this bloc many in the audience asked me to solve their problems.  I generally was able to turn the queries back to the assembled class for them to resolve.  Examples:

  • Q: What should I do when the treasurer refuses to collect dues? A: Get another treasurer.
  • Q: Can we exclude a troublesome person from meetings?  A: Not if his presence is essential.

I never walked in the street.  Tamale has a population approaching one million and its traffic is Africanesque, which is to say, the traffic is thick and fast and pedestrians have no rights. But I am not sure I was any safer on the sidewalk. Bicycles and motorcycles often chose the sidewalk because they too feared the cars. Anyway I never got hit – – which was a good thing because the doctors were on strike the entire time I was in Ghana.  Hospital emergency rooms were shuttered.

At the completion of my assignment I decided to visit a neighboring country. The bus to Cotonou, the commercial capital of the small West African country of Benin, took twelve hours.  Just as the bus started to move an itinerant preacher stood up in the aisle and, with a bus company supplied microphone, began to deliver a Christian sermon.  I am uncertain how the non-Christians on the bus – – and there were plenty of Muslims and a few Hindus on board – – felt about this. But such spontaneous sermonizing is relatively commonplace in Ghana.

Imagine in the US if someone took an over-amped mike on the Greyhound and spent the first twenty five minutes of the journey delivering a sermon to a truly captive audience?  But apparently many appreciated this unexpected Saturday morning sermon. “Hallelujahs” punctuated his presentation and I observed many willing contributions to the passed collection envelope. I doubt many knew which church he represented (if any) and who might benefit from their tithe (other than perhaps the preacher himself.)

My fellow travelers and I were also a captive audience for the blaring television which hung from the bus ceiling. We had several hours of Nigerian soap operas forced upon us, then over the last four hours of our journey we were entertained by a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown marathon.  Over four nonstop hours I witnessed every hold and throw known to the WWF: full nelson, airplane spin, double knee facebreaker, gorilla press gut buster, pump handle fallaway slam, dragon screw legwhip, chickenwing over the shoulder crossface, rope hung figure-four armlock.  I am not making this up.

There were body slam flips off the top rope.  Folding chairs were smashed into backs and heads.    Men fought men, wrestlers fought spectators, spectators fought referees, women fought women, and women even fought men. And thanks to four straight hours, I will never need to watch Smackdown again.

In retrospect the forced sermon wasn’t so bad.  It was shorter and a lot less violent.

Taa paya.  Thank you.

Antelopes on Bicycles

My Malawian taxi driver got going about the house he was building, brick by brick.  Sort of like Bubba telling Forrest Gump about the different ways one could cook shrimp, it was a long list.  I listened politely since I had a couple of hours to the Zambian border where I would cross into Zambia and spend eight days working with Nkosi (Senior Chief) Nzamane at the Mfumbeni Chiefdom.  Frequent readers of this space will recall that I have previously reported on my work with this chiefdom in eastern Zambia.  That work continues.

The Mfumbeni Development Association (MDA) is still on the search to fund their hoped-for animal feed mill.  They wish to use their local corn, soy, and peanuts to make feed for chickens. Here we call those three crops maize, soya, and groundnuts. But, same same. This time I helped them craft an application and business plan seeking funding from a World Bank program.  And, as in previous visits, I observed that the MDA is quite good at conceptualizing their desired new business.  Follow-up, including the pursuit of potential partners and funders, is not their strong suit however.  We will see how this latest round of effort plays out.

The daughter of the chief is a diplomat in the Zambian Foreign Ministry.  She is on her way to Moscow for a two year posting at the Zambian Embassy there.  I suspect she will find her surroundings in Russia shockingly different than her childhood surroundings in the Mfumbeni Chiefdom.  All in all the family is quite talented: diplomat daughter, businesswoman mother, senior chief father.  (The latter aided a bit by the custom of male primogeniture.)

As I cleared passport control at the land border between Malawi and Zambia I was reminded how important HIV suppression is in this part of Africa.  On the wall was one of the ABC posters frequently seen around Africa (practice Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom.)  Beneath the poster was a shoe box full of condoms free for the taking.  I just hope the active locals will take and use.

Finished with my work in Zambia, I engaged the same house building Malawian taxi driver on the return ride back into Malawi. He invited me to stop by his house-in-progress.  Since I had the afternoon free I agreed. It was typical construction in poor Malawi: locally made and fairly irregularly shaped bricks, cured by firewood in a hand built kiln, then mortared together in a rather slapdash way.  Fortunately they have no earthquakes or hurricanes in Malawi.

He is building a three bedroom house complete with bathroom and separate shower.  But because he will not be able to afford a piped water connection for several years, the shower will be a bucket and ladle affair and the toilet will – – for the time being – – be located in the outhouse. Likewise, no electricity supply from the grid is affordable to him now so kerosene lamps and charcoal cooking will be the norm.

This simple home will take about three years to construct because he can make progress only sporadically when he earns sufficient money from his taxi business to afford his next batch of bricks and, soon, corrugated metal roofing.  His wife contributes her earning from importing and selling bright CHITENGE fabric for the ubiquitous wrap around skirts worn here.

Nevertheless, their humble home will eventually be their pride and joy.  He estimates that the total cost when complete (sans water and electrical hook up) will be $3,000. At least the price is right.  I promised to visit again the next time I am in Malawi to view (we hope) the finished product.

Before I journeyed back to the US, I took a weekend of R&R in southern Malawi in verdant rolling hills covered carpet-like with endless tea plantations.  Emerald green in every direction and a perfect setting for long rambling walks.  My final day I stayed at Game Haven Lodge, set in the middle of a small private game reserve.  On view within the reserve were a few giraffes, zebras, and ten antelope species including Eland, the world’s largest antelope species – – weighing one ton, about the same as an American Bison. There were no hippos, rhinos, elephants, nor big cats, so this wasn’t the most spectacular game park I have visited, but a nice spot after hiking the tea plantations.

It is special, however in the way that one views the animals: by mountain bike led by a bike riding guide.  This is possible only because of the absence of big cats and charging bull elephants. In addition to humans only two other mammal species are known to ride bikes: trained monkeys and poodles at the circus.  We saw no monkeys and no circus poodles; all the animals in the park were on hoof.

In true poor country fashion several gears on my bike were inoperative and the handlebars came loose in my hands. Not ideal had I needed to outpedal an angry Eland.

Sweet Potato Juice

Early in the morning is when I like to take my occasional jog. Here in Chimoio the air is cooler…but, not necessarily fresher. Before 7 AM moms have fired up charcoal stoves to prepare breakfast for their families. Vendors are sweeping the dirty streets and sidewalks in front of their shops, stirring dust back into the air. Delivery trucks and swarms of minibuses have begun their daily runs, contributing diesel fumes to the dust and charcoal compote. Running is healthy; just don’t breathe here while you do it.

Chimoio is the capital of Manica province in western Mozambique – – itself lying in southeast Africa along the Indian Ocean. I have worked in this former Portuguese colony twice before, each time in or near Chimoio. I like it here, so when offered another assignment by CNFA, one of my NGO partners, I gladly accepted.

My client this time, Zebra Farms, grows soybeans and sweet potatoes on a 30 acre farm – – quite large by local standards. The owner, Lucas Mjuju, sells the crops to his own vertically integrated food production company. The production company intends to process the soybeans into soy milk and onward into drinkable soy yogurt. This is a rare beverage in Mozambique. They also plan to press the sweet potatoes to create sweet potato juice. This is unusual and unknown here…perhaps unknown anywhere. We’ll see how that goes.

My task: Help Lucas develop a business plan that will allow him to secure funding for irrigation equipment. With this equipment he can expand his growing fields and improve the quality of his crop. If Lucas is successful in securing funding – – and more challengingly, successful in making a go of selling drinkable soy yogurt and sweet potato juice – – not only will he and his family benefit, but so will the suppliers of inputs to his farm, as will nearby farmers who will have an outlet for their soybeans and sweet potatoes. And consumers will have additional healthy beverage choices. A lot of parties stand to gain if we get it right.

Besides the proposed beverages Lucas plans to make snack crackers from the pressed soy and sweet potato residue. So consumers could as well benefit from a high protein, high fiber, low fat snack choice. I sampled one: still needs some tweaking to the recipe. However the yogurt drink was perfectly fine. And now I am waiting to test the sweet potato juice. I did see cartons of maize (corn) drink on sale in Chimoio’s largest supermarket. So, curious plant-based beverages are not unprecedented here.

I met my client briefly the evening I arrived in Chimoio. He left town the next morning for unannounced meetings over the following five days. My laptop went on the blink so I took it in for a tune up. The local computer repair shop said they would have it “going good” within two hours. Four days later I was still waiting for the good going. Then, Francisco, my Portuguese and Shona interpreter contracted malaria. So there have been a few glitches in the initiation of my assignment. But they have a saying here: TIA. “This is Africa”. We roll with the punches. And I love the work here. However, it is difficult to make progress without access to the company owner, a laptop, and an interpreter.

Francisco has been my (talented) interpreter twice previously on assignments in Mozambique. And he has contracted malaria several times before. The strain of malaria here is illness inducing, a temporary misery, and an inconvenience, but is not lethal. So, while I am concerned about Francisco, I am not worried that he is facing a serious health threat. Without him however, I am facing a serious translation threat.

In poor countries the informal economy is a way for people with no other source of income to survive. The informal economy is widespread here in poor Chimoio. Vendors lay products out on the sidewalk – – directly on the dusty sidewalk. On offer: previously worn trousers, shirts, shoes, oranges, peanuts. For clarification, the oranges and peanuts have not been previously worn. Sometimes so dense are the displays that pedestrians must walk single file along an entire city block just to pass through the informal vendors.

Then there are the hordes of young girls with babies. It is difficult to determine if I am looking at a big-sis babysitter or a too-young-mother. In either case continuing with education is a challenge. And without education one’s career arc ends on the sidewalk in the informal economy. My hotel chambermaid told me she had her first baby at 18…at least after her schooling was completed. Hence she secured a regular, albeit low paying, job.

But enough about the informal economy, now I must get back to the task at hand: rounding up my client, collecting my computer, and wishing Francisco a speedy recovery. And by the way, let me know if I can bring you a glass of freshly pressed sweet potato juice.

Myanmar: A World of Difference

Over the past six years I have conducted thirty volunteer business assignments in nearly as many countries.  None of the one score and some previous assignments quite prepared me for Myanmar.  The former Burma is as different as any place I have ever visited, and as fascinating.  About the only thing similar to previous assignments was the work assignment itself.

My work: Assist two different cooperatives, one of farmers and one of fishermen. My mission was to improve the effectiveness of their organizations.  I taught both groups, about 30 participants each, three days of related topics: business, leadership, and organization.  My curriculum consisted of some lecture (including the story of the tortoise and the hare – – slow and steady wins the race), some full audience participation, and some small group exercises.  One of their favorites was a brainstorming session to come up with as many new product ideas as possible within five minutes.  Next each group selected their favorite new idea and created a brand name, pricing, slogan, and a 10 second product pitch.  If any of you needs some ground sesame, I can connect you with a team of farmers that has a creative product pitch to give you.  Likewise for fish paste.

I was impressed with the range of activities offered by the co-ops.  Most farmers’ coops provide help to farmers focusing on agricultural assistance.  However, the Burmese coops offered a range of social services well beyond agricultural assistance.  One co-op found seasonal construction jobs for the farmers after the harvest was in, thereby providing extra income to the poor farmers.  In a similar vein, another co-op purchased rope making materials so the farmers could make money by hand crafting and selling rope.  Yet another arranged for community assistance to the elderly in their farming village.  All laudable activities.

The dress in Myanmar is a bit different than in the western world.  Men wear a LONGYI, an ankle length skirt-like affair.  Picture a very wide bag, open at both the top and bottom. One steps into it, takes the wide sides, and folds the sides in front, tying with a knot. This knot is every bit an art form as a man’s Windsor knot in the west.  Every man in my training class wore a longyi; and every woman, an ankle length wrap around skirt.  I wore the pants in class – – the only person who wore pants in class.

Women, especially rural women, but even many of my business colleagues in the capital, wear THANAKHA paste on their face.  This is a yellow-hued paste made from the powdered bark and wood of the thanakha citrus tree.  Thanakha protects from the harsh tropical sun and nourishes the skin. The Burmese women do have quite beautiful smooth skin when the paste has been removed.  Only thing is, many women wear a thick layer of paste out in public all day long.  Sort of a yellow tinted coating of Clearasil or perhaps an exceptionally thick application of (yellow) rouge all over the checks.

My first night I ate at a restaurant in the capital, Yangon.  Apparently a Caucasian face was a novelty in this restaurant.  There was a polite intramural scramble to see who got to seat me and take my order.  Several wait-staff got in on the act: bringing food, changing table ware, rearranging items, standing by to help.  At one point five of them were lined up in a row just an arm’s length from my table watching me eat.  I now know how Lady Gaga feels when passing through a crowd of teenage fans.

Between my work stints with the two cooperatives I visited Bagan, Myanmar’s historical Buddhist jewel.  For two hundred years, starting in the 11th century, the devout Buddhists built 4000 pagodas on a flat plain alongside the Irrawaddy River. As far as the eye can see, one views red, white, and golden pagodas crowded together on this plain.  And all have names.

A quite new name is the memorable, “Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda.”  If the deal with Iran doesn’t eventually work out, I may convert to Buddhism and request this pagoda as my duty station.  Nearby was an equally unforgettable name, “Be Kind to Animals the Moon Restaurant.”  You have probably already deduced that they specialize in lunar vegan fusion.

In Magwe, one of my training sites, there was a perpetual haze from the hot dusty weather supplemented by the burning of field stubble following this, the harvest season. I hate to think what a lifetime of post-harvest breathing would do to one’s lungs.  But the upside is daily blood red spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  And speaking of blood red….

Betel, the nut from the areca palm, is a stimulant.  It is commonly chewed by rural men as a pick-me-up and as a social lubricant. In the horn of Africa one chooses qat, it’s kola nut in West Africa, coca leaves in the Andean highlands, and caffeine in the developed world.  Every culture has its mild stimulant of choice.  But betel is not so mild: six time the impact of a cup of coffee, with damaging physical effects.  It permanently stains the teeth and gums red.  Most of the betel chewers display obvious tooth decay.  (It is not clear to me whether betel is the cause or if betel chewers just don’t get dental care.)  The people are so friendly, so there is always a big smile – – with red on the gums and teeth, at least on the teeth that are still there. And then there is the blood red spit. Yucky. But fascinating.

Salt in Your Eye

I returned to La Paz nearly three weeks ago to begin my second round of work with Walisuma, the upmarket retailer of Bolivian crafts that provides poor artisans with an outlet for their goods. Flying in, I saw that the previously snow-capped mountains were now heavily snow cloaked.  It is summertime here south of the equator and La Paz lies in the tropic zone.  But at 12,000 feet and in the rainy season, it feels anything but summer. It rains off and on for a few hours every day.  And that precipitation will land as snow on the mountains outside of La Paz. In the city it will drop below 40 at night.  Wear a coat and carry an umbrella. Happy summer.

While I was in the US for the holiday season La Paz opened its third aerial cable car line.  In a city built on steep mountainsides it is impossible to construct an underground metro system.  How would you tunnel horizontally down a vertical cliff?  With a million inhabitants trying to drive up and down hairpin turns, the traffic is slow and nerve-wracking. One end of town to another can take well over 90 minutes.  If you are poor (like most here) and without a car (like most here), the ride requires two or three mini-bus transfers.

But La Paz, now with three cable lines, offers the most connected aerial urban mass transit in the world. Aerial transit here cuts commuting time by over 60%. The ride costs less than 50 cents and the views are spectacular.  More lines are on the drawing board.

And speaking of superlative, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia´s other-worldly salt flats are tops in the world salt bed competition.  They are roughly the size of Belgium. I drove for two hours across nothing but a salt pan, say from Brussels to Antwerp, or more accurately, from Coquesa to Uyuni.  Nothing but hard crystalized salt as far as the eye could see.  Like a winter whiteout without the snow. And all around the fringes are fascinating sights: four species of flamingos, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, volcanoes reaching 20,000 feet, mineral-stained red and green lakes. As well, a boon for poor Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni offers the largest lithium reserves, yes, in the world.  Battery powered devices – – your iPhone, for example – – will only grow in popularity and so will demand for Bolivia´s lithium.

In order to ensure that Walisuma´s newly developed growth strategy passed the commonsense test, we met with a selection of our most knowledgeable suppliers and friendly competitors to get their views on our plans to export our product, initiate web commerce, and improve marketing at our La Paz outlet.

All indicated support, even our friendly competitors.  I suspect they are hoping to piggyback on our initiatives.  Soon Walisuma will be looking for a full time business director. If any of you wish to move to La Paz and run a growing social business, please let me know.  It promises to be a stimulating job in a fascinating place…once you get over altitude sickness. Bring your umbrella.

World’s Most Dangerous Road

In 1995 the winding road from La Paz to Coroico was christened by the Inter-American Development Bank as the “world’s most dangerous road.” But since that moniker is sort of long and unwieldy, it is known locally as El Camino del Muerte: The Road of Death. I biked down it last weekend and survived to write this post.

But first, let´s talk business. I am nearing the end of my first month of work in La Paz; in a few days I will head home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, then return to Bolivia in January for a final month of work. Walisuma, the upmarket retailer of fine Bolivian crafts wishes to grow so that the increased proceeds from this non-profit organization can be channeled back to poor artisan producers in the countryside. The management of Walisuma is highly talented – – talented enough to ask for outside assistance to help them craft their growth strategy.

Last week we held a half day meeting to sketch the outline of just such a strategy. But before moderating this meeting I needed to understand what sort of artisan suppliers they relied on for product. The craft producers are typically quite small: A husband and wife duo make silver jewelry in their home. A five person leather workshop turns out fine purses, bags, and briefcases using simple cutting and stitching machines.

Only the textile producers who make alpaca sweaters employ more people. But they don´t employ them in a workshop. Instead they conduct “outwork” whereby they provide indigenous Aymara women with alpaca yarn, patterns, and simple looms. These outworkers produce the sweaters at home, while tending to their children and to their traditional domestic chores. The weavers bring the finished sweaters to their employers upon completion. The employers, in turn, deliver these products to Walisuma for sale (by consignment) in the Walisuma store.

With just enough newly acquired knowledge of how Walisuma works with its suppliers, I convened the half-day strategic planning meeting. We have tentatively decided to pursue four initiatives:
1. Add a mid-price product range aimed primarily at Bolivian clients – – those who cannot afford the current high prices.
2. Enter the international market with a focused product range
3. Add a web business
4. Open new outlets in Bolivia

The details of just how we will address this rather ambitious menu will be worked out when I return in January.

My weekends are free so I do my best to explore my current temporary home. A bike ride down the Road of Death seemed like suitable exploration. Early Saturday morning Gravity Assisted Biking, a tour company with a stellar safety record, bused 14 of us tourists from La Paz to a 15,400 foot high pass outside of town. There we received our $2,500 mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. Since the Road of Death descends nearly 12,000 feet on a steep switchback lane over just 30 miles, top quality bikes with true stopping power were a must.

We descended from the high altiplano wearing layers of clothing topped off with warm foul-weather pants and jackets. We shed layers as we descended, arriving about six hours later in the Yungas cloud forest wearing shorts and tee shirts. The Yungas is in the upper reaches of Boliva´s Amazon Basin.

Now, going downhill doesn´t require a lot of exertion, just concentration. We had to share a one lane dirt and rock road with upward bound vehicles. By convention, downhill traffic (we bikers) had to ride on the outside – – the chasm side. And we were usually three feet from the edge. Not to worry, we all wore helments. But I doubt they would have helped much had we gone off the 1000 foot drop. Some drops, however were not so profound, just a few hundred feet of sheer cliff.

With disc brakes we were taught never to grip the front brake hard. The bike will stop abruptly and its rear wheel will somersault over the front. Well, the 22 year old Dutch lady hit a small rock, bounced a bit, and panicked. She threw on her front brake full force and found herself and her bike flying head over heels through the air. She landed on her back three feet from the cliff edge, bruised and likely chastened. Her bike was less fortunate. It somersaulted into the abyss.

But this story has a happy ending. The $2,500 bike hung up on a small tree jutting out from the cliff, about 20 feet below the lip. Our two guides used a saftey rope to rappel down to the bike and recover it.

I suspect the Dutch lady will never again slam on her front brake. I know I won´t.

Hooked on Cocaine

Last week I arrived at the highest international airport in the world – – serving the highest capital city in the world: La Paz, Bolivia. The airport sits high in the Andes, 13,000 feet above sea level…so high, that in the thin air, airplanes need a runway 2.5 miles long.

I had arrived from sea-level Boston and within 30 minutes I began to feel the effects of SOROCHE, altitude sickness. One gets a sort of low grade flu feeling. The passage of time will eventually cure SOROCHE, but if one must go to work the next day it is necessary to speed up the acclimatization process. For this, one can take a mild stimulant. When one´s heart beats faster, it will pump more oxygen-bearing blood through the body, speeding recovery time. The stimulant of choice high in the Andes is MATE de COCA, made from the leaves of the coca plant, which you may know can be refined into illegal cocaine. In Bolivia, growing coca and chewing the leaves or brewing in tea (MATE de COCA) is perfectly legal.

So, I followed the lead of the Bolivians and drank coca tea for several consecutive meals. Now before you think I have become a coke addict let me point out that the cocaine impact of coca leaves is tantamount to becoming a heroin addict from a morning poppy seed muffin. Or a wino by eating grapes. Or a crystal meth addict by watching two seasons of Breaking Bad. But I digress.

Time and coca tea cured me of altitude sickness and I went to work.

Walisuma is an upmarket retail store offering traditional, but refined, Andean crafts. Think alpaca sweaters and pure silver necklaces. The sweaters are so upmarket and refined that they sell for as much as $500. In fact, in the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages, Walisuma means ¨Best of the Best.¨

Now you may wonder, how in the world could a poor Bolivian, living on less than $2 per day afford such a sweater? The idea, dear reader, is that you, not the poor Bolivian, will be able to afford the butter soft, stylish, natural tone alpaca sweater. And the $500 that you (and other wealthy tourists) cough up for the product will go to a poor Bolivian artisan. Though not yet in the product line, Walisuma may someday even offer a sweater from the rarest of all wools: vicuña. A vicuña sweater can cost $5,000. I only mention this in the event you are at a loss for an appropriate Christmas gift idea for me.

My assignment is to help Walisuma grow so that it can help more craftsmen make more than $2 per day. I will work with my client to develop a growth strategy – – inside Bolivia and internationally – – so that more and more poor, but talented artisans can find outlets for their products. Artisenal products offered by Walisuma include woven fabrics (sweaters, shawls, dresses, wall hangings, table cloths), wooden ítems, leather goods, silver jewelry, home furnishings, and specialty foods (coffee, chocolate, wine)…all 100% products of Bolivia.

I have already been introduced to the team behind Walisuma, evaluated their business results, been given a workspace in the back of the store, visited competing retail shops, and toured a local crafts fair. Tomorrow I am scheduled to visit and interview several of the 40 or so artisans who supply product to Walisuma. Armed with this background, we will begin a series of strategic planning discussions that will lead to a Best of the Best growth strategy.

So until my next blog post, I leave you with this final thought: my favorite fabric color is natural coffee-colored vicuña wool. Size: medium.

Who took my cow?

Back in Africa, I am just now wrapping up a 2.5 week assignment in Uganda.

Heading north from Kampala, the capital, we passed through rolling green hills, fertile fields of grain, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables, and crossed the Nile at Karuma Falls (more like rapids than a bona fide waterfall) before reaching Lira. Uganda sits astride the equator in East Africa and I am working not quite astride the equator near Lira a sizable northern regional town of 100,000. My clients are grain and legume farmers, growing corn, millet, soy, sesame, peanuts, and more.

I am providing leadership skills training to the management team of a rural farmers’ cooperative. We have covered co-op organization, ways to run effective meetings, the key elements of a business plan, internal communication, and conflict resolution. I am also teaching the rank and file members of the co-op the finer points of business communication so that they will be better able to engage with their customers.

At the first training session, I asked the farmers how they communicated with the buyers of their crops. One farmer raised his hand and answered, “Prices are too low.” Not exactly a response to my question. So I asked again how they currently communicate with buyers. Another farmer had the reply, “Prices are too low.” Still not getting the essence of my question, I asked once more and received the same response: “Prices are too low.” So, on the fly I adjusted my business communication class to include negotiation skills – – in the hope that better negotiation ability will increase the likelihood of receiving a fair price for their crops. And also in the hope that this topic would shut them up about those damn prices.

As usual, I spent the first couple of days of my assignment – – before starting the training – – by meeting a sampling of leaders and farmers to conduct a needs assessment. Otherwise, how would I know what I should cover in my training classes? During this needs assessment stage I visited the members of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA.) They were meeting in a farmer’s well swept dirt compound under a large shade tree.

The thirty members of this VSLA meet weekly to set aside money for the future. They each bring their passbook to be stamped with the number of shares they save each week. Each share costs 3000 Ugandan shillings (about $1.15.) They are permitted to purchase up to five shares weekly. Thus the maximum would be nearly $6 savings per week – – a princely sum for a poor farmer. Their savings are pooled and they may borrow from their communal kitty for any need: seeds, fertilizer, children’s school fees, bicycle, cow. In fact, they are required to take out a loan from their VSLA each year. And they must repay the loan, plus 10% interest, before the end of the year.

There are no nearby banks in this rural area. And besides, the amounts saved would be below the minimum account requirement of most banks. So, the VSLA members secure their cash in a lock box that has three padlocks. Three different members each hold a key. Of course only one member will take the cash filled box home with him for safe storage…and then bring it back for the following week’s meeting. I would feel very vulnerable if the lock box were at my home, especially in December after a year’s worth of savings – – even with three padlocks.

At the end of the year the cumulative value of each member’s savings, plus the 10% interest earned from loan repayment, is returned to the members. But not quite 10%. The interest must be reduced by the amount of bad loans – – there are deadbeats in every group. If someone does not repay his loan, the VSLA will attempt to confiscate something of equivalent value from the deadbeat. Like his bicycle or his cow. Such is village justice in rural Uganda.

Following class one afternoon I learned that the farmers like to get together after a hard day of work in their fields to share the local equivalent of a cold beer. Late in the afternoon, while passing by a convivial group of 15 farmers, I was invited to join them seated in a circle around a large cast iron pot. In the pot was MARUA, a fermented millet alcoholic beverage. Six hollow reeds, three feet long, served as straws. They passed these six shared straws around the group so that all revelers could take sips of the hooch. One of the lengthy reeds came to me. (NB – the nearest Ebola case is still at least 2000 miles away.) Drawing a beverage up a three-foot long straw takes quite a pull. By the time it reached my mouth I was anticipating refreshment. It was lukewarm, slightly alcoholic, a little bit thick, and decidedly unpalatable – – easily ranking in the lower decile on my lifetime beverage list. But like the good soldier (that I once was) I swallowed it with a smile and passed the straw to the stranger next to me.

Communist Paradise

I visited the only communist paradise in the new world and found Cuba to be unexpectedly cool. Not the weather, the music. There was music everywhere: in clubs and restaurants, in parks, at lunch joints, on street corners – – day and night. Of course with my tin ear I was never certain if I was listening to salsa, rumba, cha-cha, mambo, meringue, son, trova, or reggaeton…all distinctive Cuban sounds that they have originated and shared with the world. And such music is a gateway drug to dancing.

Occasionally, a couple would get up from their lunch table in mid meal and salsa their way towards the live band entertaining us while we ate. Public squares – – being public – -offered another outlet for exhibitionistic dancers just as long as a band was playing. Cuban music + dance are addictive. I even took a salsa lesson but didn’t get much further than counting the steps in my head before I got distracted and wrong-footed. Despite what you may think of this dictatorship, don’t criticize their music. It is world class.

And there are some other aspects of Cuba that are surprisingly world class. Like their education system. Literacy rate is over 99%, the same as the US, UK, and Sweden and ahead of all the BRICS. Medicine is top notch there as well, delivering life expectancy of 79.4 years. The US is just a few months longer, 79.8 years. And their life expectancy is accomplished in a relatively poor country that has had an economic blockade around it for the past half century. Their medical outcomes, by some measures, similar to the US, are achieved at a fraction of the cost. The Cubans have virtually wiped out malaria from their tropical nation and have trained so many doctors that they share them with other poor nations.

They are also very good mechanics. The thousands of 1950s era automobiles are still running (and polluting just a bit too.) At times I felt like I was on a 50s movie set. Many are offered up as retro taxicabs.

But before you think this is a paean to Cuban communism, let me point out a couple of things that their system lacks: freedom and a market economy.

I found some people too fearful of police to talk to and walk with me on the street. After a few strides they politely bid me farewell and slipped away. The guys trying to sell me Cuban rum and Cohiba cigars were not fearful. Their product was possibly counterfeit anyway.

GDP per capita (according to the World Bank) ranks Cuba 60 out of 185 countries tracked. Just below Turkey and slightly above Mexico. Only problem is the people don’t really benefit directly. Most businesses are still run by the state. And the related professions don’t pay well. I spoke with a ballet instructor who can’t afford to buy a cell phone SIM card on her government ballet teacher’s salary. There are no private ballet teachers or private dance schools.

There are two currencies. Moneda Nacional for ordinary Cubans and convertible pesos (CUC) for visitors…and for lucky Cubans who can get their hands on some. Those with CUC can spend them in the finer shops and restaurants. Those with only Moneda Nacional must make do with the government stores. I went into one of the ration stores where the everyday Cubans must purchase their rationed food items. There was very little on the shelves and very little variety as well. Looked a bit like a rundown 7-11 that had been closed for a couple of years. Everyday Cubans don’t have access to CUC and hence better clothing, restaurants, food, and goods. Not that they could afford them on their government salaries anyway.

One of the business sectors newly opened to private ownership is small restaurants, called paladares. They are typically found in a private home. Several Americans who had previously visited Cuba extolled the virtues of these paladares. Generally I found them to be not yet a culinary delight. Like state owned restaurants, they too are limited to the raw ingredients that the government’s command economy is able to deliver. Canned green beans appeared on my plate far too often.

As would be expected in a dictatorship, communication is well under the thumb of the state. In the beautiful rural town of Viñales in the west I tracked down an Internet café so that I could let my loved ones know that I was still free. The Internet cafe was located in the post office, but before I could log on I was required to cross the street to the local ETECSA office. This is the government communications monopoly. Their Viñales branch was housed in a large shipping container. It had a door and a customer service window cut through the metal wall. My passport and a few CUC (convertible pesos) were requested. They gave me a scratch card which I took back across the street to the post office/internet café where I entered the code from the scratch card into my Internet browser. All worked well and I was surprised to find access to several western news sources. (Time, The Economist, New York Times, et al.)

After a ten day assessment I conclude that Cuba delivers some things surprisingly well for a poor country: medicine, education, music, culture. Actually Cuba is not really a poor country, just a blockaded country with a command economy.

I figure three changes would make this an even better place:
• More personal freedom
• A market economy
• Removal by the US of its blockade.

Let’s do all three.

Beauty School Dropout

For a change of scenery (from Africa) and a change of industry (from farming) I accepted an assignment offered by Partners of the Americas. My base is in the very pleasant Dominican Republic town of Jarabacoa. This town sits in the central highlands pretty much equidistant between the north and south coasts. My task is to work with an environmental organization, Plan Yaque, to guide the development of a strategic plan. This organization seeks to preserve and also repair the largest watershed in the Caribbean.

There are so many threats to the watershed that I am not sure where to begin. In the upper reaches deforestation is taking a toll. Fewer trees result in increased erosion, dumping sediment into the rivers. The sediment eventually overwhelms the dams further downstream and leads to flooding – – a big problem for farmers who have fields near the rivers.

Settlements for the most part have no waste water plants, so untreated sewage enters the rivers. Jarabacoa, a town of 30,000, has no waste water treatment. Waste flows onward to Santiago, the DR’s second largest city with over one million inhabitants, where only 60% of the houses are connected to a sewer. The other 40% empty directly into the Rio Yaque del Norte River.

Further down, around Mao, a major rice and banana growing area, we encountered additional problems. The river water, carrying its waste, cattle field run off, and factory effluent is used to irrigate the paddies and banana fields. We observed tributaries choked with floating Styrofoam and plastic refuse including empty agricultural pesticide containers. And not 50 yards away from this toxic flotsam was the intake canal to an organic banana field.

Fortunately, the people I am working with are super dedicated, environmentally savvy, and very well educated. I suspect I am learning more from them – – than they from me. But that is usually the case on my assignments.

There are many more insults to the watershed than my organization can address in a lifetime. So we have selected a few linchpin problems that, if corrected, will create a positive domino effect. We are focusing our efforts on the upper part of the watershed where reforestation will provide benefits all the way downstream; where anti-litter efforts are easier to take hold because there are fewer people; where plantings along stream banks can help to naturally filter waste water and field run-off.

El Parque Central is the nexus of Jarabacoa nightlife. Sunday evenings are as throbbing as any place I have ever seen. The open air bars spill their patrons, their music, their light shows, and their beer into the streets. The boom box bearing cars cruise the park offering deafening techno beats into the night. The hundreds of motorcyclists show off for the crowds by weaving recklessly among the (mostly heedless) pedestrians. Every few minutes a motorcyclist will lay a block-long wheelie. Sunday night entertainment is the best.

The following Wednesday, in mid-afternoon, after completing the first draft of a strategic plan, I went out for a mind clearing stroll around town.

I followed the sound of the marching band to find the graduates filing out of church – – from, I presume a graduation mass – – and up the steep hill leading from El Parque Central. But these were not ordinary high school or college grads. These were beauty school graduates, wearing mortar board, gown, and cape. I didn’t know that beauty school graduates wore this traditional garb on their commencement day. But then again I never attended beauty school. Some of you may find that hard to believe given how neatly I keep the hair around my ears trimmed. But no, I never attended.

The movement of several score newly minted estheticians captured my curiosity so I followed them using a technique I learned from the 007 novels, the front trail – – staying about 20 yards ahead so that they would not know they were under surveillance. The John Phillip Sousa marches played by the band reminded me of my early 20s Army career. So I continued to front trail, all the way to my hotel, where, by coincidence they were holding their graduation party.

They marched well over a mile, mostly uphill in the hot tropical sun, wearing party clothes covered by cap and gown. Not an easy hike, especially while wearing makeup and hiking in high heel shoes. And I mean really high. After all these were not the beauty school dropouts.

I urge you to come to Jarabacoa to get your hair fixed, watch the Sunday night entertainment, and stay for the watershed clean up.

Who’s your aunt?

As I wrapped up my assignment in Mozambique two weeks ago, I employed my usual arsenal of developing country marketing tools. Primarily the cell phone. As in other assignments I had the farmers make mock phone calls to potential buyers. They were practicing setting up a meeting to show their products. One farmer would act as the sales person seeking the meeting, another as a crop buyer. I teach them to always give their phone number to the buyer after scheduling a meeting. The seller needs to be contactable. This may be obvious to us, but not to illiterate farmers with little business savvy.

There is no point in taking a public mini-bus two hours to a meeting with the buyer only to find out that the buyer’s schedule has changed and he is not in the office that day. In one mock exchange, the seller failed to give his phone number, so the role playing buyer asked for it. The seller replied, “I don’t have a number.” During the post exercise critique one of the participants asked the seller why he did not give his number. He explained, “I don’t own a cell phone so I was pretending like I was calling from a phone booth.” Well, he failed to leave a call-back number, but at least he was quite realistic in his role playing.

After conducting a count of phone booths in Mozambique (there still are a few), I moved on to Zambia where I have returned to work with the Mfumbeni Chiefdom. This is the group I visited twice before. You may recall that my main client is Nkosi Nzamane, the Senior Chief of this Ngoni tribe. His marriage was arranged when he was in his early 20s by his parents and the parents of a 20 year old Ngoni woman. At that time he was next in line for the throne. Consequently, marriage to a tribesmate was important.

But of particular curiosity, both the chief and his wife told me that she, the wife, is the chief’s aunt. Now, I must say that’s a bit unusual. Their marriage has endured for 40 or so years and has resulted in four children. Now before you think this is all too weird, I should add that the term aunt (or uncle) is somewhat fluid in these close knit tribal clans. More likely they are cousins of some remove. For example, in a separate meeting, a woman introduced me to her own aunt; but after probing I understood that their relationship was first cousins once removed. The older of the pair had been denominated “aunt.”

We are working on a plan to build a poultry feed factory that will utilize the farmers’ abundant corn and soy – – ideal ingredients for poultry feed. My efforts on this assignment are designed to find a milling company to partner with the Mfumbeni Chiefdom and to help craft a proposal to seek grant money for the factory. Finding funding for such a venture is a big challenge.

One afternoon while working on my primary task, I was invited to attend a meeting that addressed an even greater challenge to the chiefdom. The meeting was held to evaluate the chiefdom’s efforts to combat HIV. By my observation they are doing pretty well on indirect measures (e.g. number of villagers trained in HIV avoidance, HIV awareness signs posted.) But they lack what I would think are crucial direct measurements: actual incidence of HIV, number of HIV patients under treatment with anti-retrovirals, and measures of condom distribution. Condom distribution in Zambia is not such a cultural/political flashpoint as in the US. A fact of life in rural Africa is that 15 year olds are having sex. Better to protect them with condoms than to condemn them to death for their behavior.

I was told that early marriages in the chiefdom contribute to a higher incidence of HIV. A 15 year old wife with a 25 or 30 year old husband is unequal in power in that relationship. This sometimes leads to the husband taking multiple partners outside of marriage, contracting AIDS from unprotected sex, and then infecting his young wife.

Now, back to my main task: Needing information on poultry feed consumption in our market area, my colleague and I visited the provincial Central Statistical Bureau…whose mission is to provide government statistics to people seeking those statistics. Mission fulfillment was not a strong point on the staff. We tried several people in several offices, but got the run around. “The system is down.” “I must ask my boss. He is out today.” “You should email Lusaka (the capital.)” So we tracked down the information on our own. We found a government veterinarian who could tell us the chicken count in the Eastern Province. We asked half a dozen local poultry feed distributors how many customers they served and how much they sold. We consolidated the data and calculated our own guestimate. For those of you interested, there are 1.5 million chickens in Zambia’s Eastern Province and they consume 36,000 metric tons of poultry feed annually. I worked so hard for those figures I just had to tell someone. Thank you for listening.

Twelve Wives

Well, the headline has given away the surprise, but you will have to wait for the details. Worth waiting for I might add. I flew into Beira, Mozambique’s number two city and a major port on the Indian Ocean. The rice paddies around the low lying city were a patchwork of emerald green shades. The small concrete box homes were roofed with corrugated metal. This contrasted with the circular mud and stick homes. roofed with grass in the highland villages around Catandica, my new African home – – at least for two weeks. Catandica is inland, five hours northwest of Beira. It is an agriculture trading center with a population of around 30,000. I am working with another American volunteer, Ron Overmyer, a retired agricultural extension officer from Ohio.

On this, my second assignment in Mozambique, I am working with the Batane Phanza Farmers’ Association. Batane Phanze, in the Shona language, means very roughly, field work. An accurate name for what the association’s farmers do for a living. The organization’s 1500 farmers grow corn, soy, sunflower, and beans as cash crops. They have asked me to help them improve their sales (find new customers) and grow their membership (find new farmers to join their association.)

The 1500 farmers are formed into 43 Clubs of around 40 members each. Communicating with so many members presents a significant management challenge. When an important message must be shared with the association members, the association president will phone each club leader. The club leaders will in turn, call the few club members who have cell phones. The remainder, almost always the majority, must be contacted physically: they have no cell phone…and the club leaders have no cars. And illiteracy prevents sending a written message. So they walk or bike. These in-person visits, due to the great distances farmers live from one another, require a club leader to spend two or three days to contact all members under his aegis. Management control is clearly a test for the rural association.

Last Monday was a holiday: Mozambican Women’s Day. Each school, local organization, and employment sector (e.g. education, health care) was represented by groups of women in matching tee shirts and color coordinated African wrap-around skirts – – some with matching head wraps, a sort of Aunt Jemima-like look. The brightly multi-colored groups were dancing, singing, and ululating. This appeared to be a spectacular photo op. That is until the plain clothed policeman took us aside and commanded us to cease photographing. Our translator, Francisco, suspected this had something to do with sensitivity about upcoming elections. Maybe we were spies from the opposition party. We weren’t; but sadly the only images from this supremely colorful spectacle are etched just in my mind. Come see me sometime and I’ll describe the scene to you.

The food in the small handful of restaurants is chicken or fish paired with white rice or plain spaghetti. Perfectly acceptable but incredibly uninspired. Seldom do fruits and vegetables appear. We have put the four best restaurants on a rotation plan. And we have taken to shopping in the local open air market and then preparing somewhat more appetizing food at our guest house lodging. Usually chicken or fish paired with white rice or plain spaghetti. In one of the traditional markets we came across a vendor selling goat offal. Few people can afford to buy proper goat meat, let alone beef in this poor rural area.

Today I visited several farms to learn what the farmers want from their association. These meetings will inform the training that I will conduct over the remainder of my time here. At one settlement of about 12 thatched-roof mud homes surrounding a large dirt courtyard we asked, “How many families live here?” Thinking 12 homes = 12 families. One of the farmers responded, “Just one family, I have 12 wives and all the homes are mine.” His wife rotation plan is clearly more robust than my restaurant rotation plan. Probably in his mid-thirties, he already has 32 children. Likely he will surpass 60 before his fertility is spent. One of his sons already has three wives. The apple never falls far from the tree.

He is one of the most productive farmers in the association. In rural Mozambique women and children do much of the farming and he has quite a stable of farmers on his team. I wasn’t in his settlement long enough to observe any outbreaks of jealousy among the countless wives. I just know that I was jealous. On the other hand, I suspect he may now be thinking, “Twelve wives. It sure sounded like a good idea initially.”

Nearing the End of the Alphabet

Zambia lies landlocked in the southern tier of Africa. It is the penultimate country in the world alphabetically. Name the last one; it borders Zambia to the south.

I am in eastern Zambia working with the Mfumbeni Chiefdom. In a previous post I related how I had met Nkosi Nzamane, the Senior Chief of this tribal area, on an airplane last summer. I visited his Mfumbeni Development Association briefly in August. I have now returned to conduct market research – – and train Chihwalla, one of the association’s bright young businessmen, how to conduct research himself. Give a chiefdom market research and they will have data for a day. Teach a chiefdom how to research and they will have data for a lifetime. Or something like that. Chihwalla and I have been going around Chipata – seat of the chiefdom, Lusaka – capital of Zambia, and Lilongwe – capital of neighboring Malawi, conducting research in an effort to determine which raw crops the Mfumbeni farmers should process into a value added product.

We have settled on a plan to grind corn, press soy beans, add vitamins and blend all together into poultry feed. There is a sizeable market, no competing feed mills nearby, and apparently chickens aren’t too choosy about taste. We had earlier ruled out making peanut butter because humans do care about taste and appearance and branding – – all things that we doubted the novice producers at Mfumbeni could get right in their first attempt at crop processing. In some years hence, if you read about the plump chickens around Chipata you will know that they got it right with poultry feed production.

Working with a senior chief as my client is a new experience for me. I am not accustomed to having the guy standing next to me addressed as your royal highness. I suspect I am even looked at with more respect due to my proximity. Senior chiefs are treated deferentially. Subjects enter a meeting room in a crouch so as to keep their head below the chief’s head. As a sign of respect people hand things to a chief with both hands. They let the chief select a restaurant seat against the wall so that no one can pass behind him. This is perhaps a holdover from the warrior days when an assassination attempt from behind was a very real risk.

I was riding with the chief in his 4×4. At a routine traffic stop the chief was asked to produce his driver’s license. A Zambian driver’s license shows no rank, only name…no way to see who is a chief. The inspecting cop pointed out that the chief’s license had expired eight months previously. It appeared the cop was getting ready to ticket the offender (or extract a bribe.) Nkosi Nzamane then produced his business card indicating his royal rank. It even had a photo of him in ceremonial animal skin dress. The previously snooty cop was clearly impressed. He apologized and gave the chief a free pass. No fine this time.

Zambia is a former British colony and its citizens are excellent English speakers, albeit with an accent that sometimes flummoxes me. But it is not just the accent; in this part of Africa even the perfect English speakers say things differently than we Americans are accustomed to. Someone might approach you and say, “How is it?” I think to myself, how is what? But he is really just asking, “How are you?”

“Did you sleep well?”almost always follows, Good morning. I tend to appreciate their concern with my sleep habits. They spell Hi as Hie. No, it is not misspelled, it is just spelled differently in southern Africa. When someone steps away from the dinner table momentarily, he will say, “I am coming.” And I think, no, you are going. But he really means, I am coming back. I once asked a business colleague, “How long does production training usually last?” He replied, “It depends, some don’t listen fast.”

Zambia, while still a poor country is developing rapidly. Its urban population is well educated, sophisticated, and still a bit superstitious. A Zambian lady told me that women in Tanzania practice juju. This is a sort of witchcraft with secret spells cast. “I had a boyfriend. We never fought. He went to work in Tanzania where he told a woman about me. That woman cast juju on my boyfriend. When he returned to Zambia we fought all the time because of the juju spell. Now we have broken up. Be careful if you go to Tanzania.” Naturally, I will.

In Zambia’s fast growing and vibrant capital, Lusaka, the traffic is horrendous. But the bright side of this is that during the never ending traffic jams one can watch the street vendors who weave among the stationary automobiles. They offer bags of fruit, bunches of bananas, water, chips, tomatoes,clothing, ties, caps, shoes,warning triangles, cell phone chargers, towels, newspapers, backpacks, stuffed animals, DVDs, decorated steering wheel covers, and sunglasses. So you can dine, select clothing, and conduct all your Saturday shopping without ever leaving your car…as long as you find a traffic jam.

And finally, the answer to the opening quiz is Zimbabwe. The last in the alphabet, nationally speaking.

The Crocodile Whisperer

Most Timorese carry first names befitting 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule: Osorio, Luis, Santima, Raul. And most last names likewise: Correia, Fernandes, Guterres, Pinto.

But despite 450 years of Portuguese presence (ending in 1975) few people speak that language fluently. Those older than 50 tend to be more adept; they were of school age when the Portuguese ruled. Timorese between 30 – 50 do pretty well in Bahasa (Indonesian) for they were students during the Indonesian occupation. Younger folk, under 30, are showing substantial interest in learning English – – not an official language in the country – – but a fair bit more useful internationally than the others. Fortunately for me, my local work colleagues all speak English.

I can always get one of them to translate the finer points of business planning to the local fishermen who aspire to become mud crab farmers. And they want to become mud crab farmers in order to generate supplemental income for their families. Many live on less than $2 per day from their fishing and subsistence farming activities. These farmers are rural. Most are illiterate. Most are innumerate. It is difficult for them to calculate the amount of food to toss into their crab ponds. My NGO (ACDI/VOCA) is providing a technical expert to help the farmers get started…but eventually they must proceed on their own. I hope that food calculation can be picked up by illiterate and innumerate farmers. That will be a challenge.

After working on the Mud Crabs of Timor Leste business plan and observing the excavation of the first of 20 crab ponds, I took a weekend break on Atauro Island. This Timorese paradise is 15 miles offshore and sits on the Eurasian tectonic plate. Timor Leste itself is on the Australian plate. The ocean depth between the two plates plunges to over 15,000 feet deep. I put on my snorkel, mask, and fins, but try as I might, I never got much closer than 15,000 to the bottom. Actually, close in to shore are some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs; the most beautiful and diverse I have ever seen. In fairness, I should point out that I grew up in the middle of the desert. The main island of Timor Leste also has excellent coral for diving and snorkeling. At a few of the sites, however, one must be alert for saltwater crocodiles.

Timorese are predominately Catholic (95%) but with animist beliefs interwoven. For example many believe that crocodiles are ancestors of people. In fact, the county itself is a giant croc that rose up from the sea. The rugged mountains are its back. One of my colleagues told me that one should always speak to the reptiles before entering the sea. He always tells the crocs that he is not there to harm them but to fish or to swim or to collect crabs. “Then they won’t attack me.” “Once I saw a crocodile near my boat and I spoke to him nicely and he swam away.” “That is key important.” “Only if you don’t speak to the croc will he harm you.”

I asked if people were ever attacked even after speaking to the crocodile. He admitted that if you don’t speak in the right way they might attack. “Or also even if you speak to them, but you did something bad like murder someone or say bad words.” (There seems to be a fairly broad range of crime in this example.) He knew of a lady who stole a pig from her neighbor. She cooked it, fed her family then hid the carcass in her well. “But she forgot that she would need to go to the sea sometime. When she went to the sea, a crocodile ate her.”

He told me his brother has special skill to speak to the crocodiles. He can address them in any (human) language and the crocs will understand him. Once a villager stole someone’s cow. When confronted, the thief said a crocodile had taken it. “So my brother went to the sea and asked the crocodiles to line up. They did. Then he said, ‘If you took the cow, please open your mouth.’ All mouths remained shut, so he knew that a crocodile was not the one who took the cow.” “Later the man that took the cow was in the sea and a crocodile killed him.”

I offer these vignettes with no judgment, merely as a neutral reporter of cultural beliefs. You may draw your own conclusion.

One of the great joys for me of these assignments is that I always learn something new from my experience. In this case the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center sent one of their leading experts on mud crab cultivation to train our farmers. I have paid attention so that I can help you with your backyard mud crab cultivation. This is assuming, of course, that you have a tidal mangrove forest in your backyard. And no crocodiles, because once I used bad words.

Mud Crabs to the Rescue

I suspect many of you may find Timor Leste a rather obscure country – – perhaps even an unknown country. But its obscurity is what attracted me to it.

The third newest country on earth (2002) is in the Indian Ocean, northwest of Australia at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. (For Business Trips to the Edge bonus points, name the world’s two newer countries.) This island nation is about the same size as Connecticut and is one of only two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia. And the other would be…? If you guessed Indonesia you couldn’t be more wrong. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. But if you selected the Philippines you are correct. Congratulations.

Timor Leste is commonly referred to by English speakers as East Timor. Leste is the Portuguese word for east. And in an unnecessary bit of redundancy, Timor, in the native Tetun tongue also means east. East East. Sort of like the redundant names in my home state of New Mexico. There we have the Cerrillos Hills and the Rio Grande River. But I stray from topic.

Timor’s recent independence followed 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia preceded by 450 years as a Portuguese colony. Neither the occupier nor the colonist spent much time developing home grown businesses and an effective government. So country governance and business management skills are sparse. And the country faces a few additional challenges.

The population is among the fastest growing in the world, with each woman having on average 5.5 children…well, they are Catholic after all. The literacy rate is just 58%. And then there are the languages.

There are 32 indigenous languages spoken here. In a country of 1.1 million people that means an average of about 35,000 speakers per native tongue. With so few speakers, several of these languages must be candidates for extinction. Tetun is the most commonly spoken and is used as the lingua franca in the country. Clusters of towns and villages have their own language. Just cross a mountain ridge to the next valley and find another one. My Timorese colleague, Osorio, says his home village has three indigenous tongues. And throughout the country three international languages have all been taught: Portuguese, Bahasa (Indonesian), and English. It is difficult to make economic progress and create a sense of national unity with such a linguistic fracture.

And speaking of fracture you ought to see the roads. This very rugged county has mountains, hillsides, and valleys radiating down to the sea. The only major paved road system winds its way along the coast. Since independence in 2002 the UN and many development agencies have patched some of the potholes. The tortuous highway holds max speed to around 50 MPH but frequently slowing to 10 MPH to round a hairpin turn. There are few airports and no regularly scheduled domestic air transport. All this means lots of infrastructure impediments to compound the language challenges in conducting business.

But the country needs business to advance. I am here to help with one small business: cultivation and sale (maybe even export someday) of mud crabs. Despite the unappetizing name – – who wants to eat wet dirt – – mud crabs are a popular (and expensive) delicacy in Southeast Asia. One could pay around $30 at a decent restaurant. Of course this is far out of range of the poor Timorese. But nevertheless mud crab production could be an attractive income supplement when sold to the local restaurants catering to the many NGO and development workers in the country. But there you would order a chili crab or a coconut crab, not a mud crab; but they really are mud crabs, just with a more tempting name.

My job will be to help mud crab producer groups develop a business plan that will guide their efforts and that can be used to seek private investment in their burgeoning (we hope) business.

You can do your part by visiting your local Red Lobster and ordering up a large mud crab.

And finally, the answer to the quiz from above. Newest countries on earth:
1. South Sudan (2011)
2. Montenegro (2006)
3. Timor Leste (2002)

Nkosi Nzamane of Zambia

I met Nkosi Nzamane early in the summer on a flight from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi. He sat next to me. In the process of casual chitchat I learned that he was the senior chief (Nkosi) of a large African tribe. Actually, he would not call it a tribe, sounds too primitive. He is the senior chief of the Mfumbeni Chiefdom – – over 300,000 people living mostly as subsistence farmers in eastern Zambia. So, you can think of Nkosi as the governor of a small state, say Vermont, or the mayor of a medium size city, Pittsburgh for example.

Like most poor, rural Africans the Mfumbeni members face many challenges. Nkosi Nzamane was heading home after a conference with other traditional chiefs who had met to discuss one of those challenges: ways to reduce the prevalence of underage marriages in their chiefdoms.

In parts of rural Africa, including in the Mfumbeni Chiefdom, fathers and mothers sometimes give their 15 year old daughters in marriage to men perhaps one decade older, sometimes more. I think the parents figure that eventually their daughter will get married anyway so why not do it now while the bride price is near its peak? The bride price is paid by the expectant groom (or more likely, his parents) to the family of the bride. The price is negotiable and is usually paid in cattle. A somewhat more modern version involves agreeing on the number of cows a young bride will fetch, then making the actual payment in cash, equivalent to the market value of the negotiated number of cows.

Marriage at 15 with babies soon to follow pretty much spells the end of girls’ education and also likely leads to many more children than a subsistence level family can easily feed. There are not too many good things one can say about this situation. Consequently the chiefdom has told the headsmen (traditional mayors) in each of the chiefdom’s 325 villages to dissuade farmers from giving away their too-young daughters in marriage. The village headsman has no absolute authority to stop a family who wants to give away its daughter; he has only his own persuasive power. But a headsman who doesn’t dissuade underage marriages in his village will have to answer to Nkosi Nzamane.

In addition to discouraging families from marrying off their teenage daughters, the chiefdom is trying to improve lives through improvements in health (reduce the prevalence of HIV and malaria), education (build secondary schools of which the chiefdom currently has none), farming (improve crop yields), and business (generate jobs). When I told Nkosi Nzamane about the business assignments I had completed elsewhere in Africa he invited me to visit Mfumbeni. Serendipitously, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in next door Malawi at the end of the summer so we agreed that I would cross the Zambian border after my conference was finished.

So in late August Nkosi Nzamane collected me at my hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi and we drove the four hours to his chiefdom near Chipata, Zambia. We spent an entire day meeting with the board of the Mfumbeni Development Association (MDA) at the chief’s palace. At least he called it a palace. To me it looked more like a modest ranch house…however, perhaps palatial when compared to the surrounding mud brick and grass-roof homes of the locals.

As is the custom, when Nkosi Nzamane entered the meeting area the MDA board members all rose and said in unison, “Yoh Jere.” This is a term of respect using the chief’s family name. At the end of the meeting, when the driver came to pick me up, he knelt at the entrance to the meeting hall, ensuring that his head remained below that of the seated chief.

During the meeting I learned that the local farmers grew and sold unprocessed crops; none of their crops was refined into a value added product. So we discussed their business development plans that involved adding value to the crops. We agreed that the MDA should select only a very few products (those with the greatest likelihood of success) to pursue in its initial business efforts. At our meeting we identified three such products:

• Process soy beans into soy milk and tofu
• Process peanuts into oil and peanut butter
• Blend soy, peanuts, corn, and other crops into animal feed

And then we planned the next step: I would return to the Chiefdom to lead the evaluation of each product to ensure that:

1. A sufficiently large market exists and is accessible to the Chiefdom
2. The cost of equipment and the cost of operation are in line with the expected revenues from the products
3. Factory operation can easily be taught to members, virtually none of whom are familiar with processing businesses and simple factory machinery

Now back home, I am busy contacting the several NGOs that have sent me on previous assignments. I am hoping to convince one of them to provide the necessary funding to support this work with the Mfumbeni Chiefdom. If I am successful in my appeal then you, dear reader, will see additional posts from Zambia.

No Shoes, No Shirt, Please Worship

I had a free weekend so I took a break from humid, coastal Colombo into the hills of Kandy. Moving from 90-90 weather (temp – humidity) to 80 – 80 actually feels quite refreshing. Kandy is of course Sri Lanka’s sweetest city. And also one of the most venerated by Buddhists. Situated there is the Temple of the Tooth, a famous religious landmark that houses a tooth of Buddha. Only thing is, this tooth, plucked from Buddha’s funeral pyre in India 483 BC, was spirited around South Asia for almost two millennia before alighting in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth in the 1200s. It was stolen and recovered at least twice. And since the 1600s no one has actually seen the relic, it (theoretically) resides inside seven nested gold boxes. I participated in a brief walk-by of the outer box…along with scores of faithful pilgrims.

Sunday morning I went for a jog along Kandy’s rural winding roads. A bit different than my jogging route at home. Here I passed by an informal cricket match in a vacant lot. Serendipitously, just as I passed by, the batsman angled a ball out toward the road. Since it was coming straight at me I fielded it and threw it to the wicket keeper. Yup, I have picked up a few cricket terms while here. I did bobble the ball and drop it twice before firing it home. I suspect that would be scored as a fielding error in cricket’s American sister sport.

I also passed a lady heading down to the river with her laundry, as well as a three foot long monitor lizard. For clarification, the monitor was not with the lady. It did look a bit fearsome but a Google review afterwards revealed that it was unlikely to attack me. These reptiles have “a predominantly carnivorous diet, eating eggs, smaller reptiles, fish, birds and small mammals.” Good news for me and other large mammals.

My first week here I spent a few days in Jaffna, capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. This is one of the provinces targeted by the government – – and supported by USAID – – for rebuilding. In fact I was there to assess a manufacturer of pre-cast concrete blocks, the sort used for building (and rebuilding.) Most workers at this block factory are female, many are ex-combatants. They have difficulty being accepted at work and in the community. The government requires them to report for questioning. This is disruptive to their work and makes it obvious that they are under suspicion. The locals don’t want to rent rooms to them.

I have discovered that middle income countries, like Sri Lanka, while substantially advanced over developing countries, are not yet at the level of the developed world. In the block factory, as well as at a steel fabricator, and on a construction site I saw that the workers were underdressed, wearing flip flops and singlets. Fine for a hot tropical climate, but not great when moving hard, heavy objects around. No steel-toed boots in sight. Also no hard hats either. But the workers at the block factory donned surgeon’s masks when I asked to photograph them. Previously they had no nose or mouth protection against the fine factory dust.

And speaking of underdressed, while in Jaffna I visited Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Sri Lanka’s leading Hindu temple. The entrance sign depicted the rules: no photography, no shoes, and – – for males – – no shirts. Casual is the rule of the day. You may recall the simple and insubstantial dress worn by the most famous Hindu of all, Mahatma Gandhi. I came close that day in the temple.

Moving on from Jaffna, I evaluated a rural rice mill whose owner wants to expand and provide more rice, more jobs, and more raw rice purchasing from surrounding farms. The mill has already bounced back from adversity. During the final battles of the country’s civil war, the factory was destroyed. The owner’s adjacent home was bulldozed as well. I met several of the brothers who form the factory’s management team. One brother had one leg, the result of an aerial bombing near the end of the war. After seeing photos of the destroyed factory and home, and meeting the brother, I had to take a minute to compose myself before continuing my interview with them. In all of my recent travels I have yet to find an instance of a good war.

I observed many infrastructure projects underway: roads, railways, government buildings; but the people still need private sector businesses and regular jobs. There is a lot of reconstruction but not so much reconciliation. For example, there is still a massive government military presence in the Tamil region with highway checkpoints manned by armed soldiers. No Tamil police force has been created to police the Tamil region. The government doesn’t want to give guns to any locals – – even to those who never supported the defeated Tamil rebels. Tamils complain that the government is settling Sinhalese in the Tamil areas in order to dilute the local population. This is similar to complaints from Uighurs in western China that the Chinese government in faraway Beijing is settling Han Chinese in the Uighur region.

Geez, the world is a complicated place. In the immortal words of the late Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”

All Quiet on the Northern Front

Sri Lanka’s brutal thirty year civil war ended in 2009. The north and the east of the country were decimated. This is the homeland of the (Hindu) Tamils, losers in this wasteful endeavor. The victorious (Buddhist) Sinhalese government has come in for much criticism about their final push into the Tamil region at the end of the war. Innocent civilians were mowed down along with the Tamil rebels – – the notorious Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers introduced the world to suicide bombings aimed at innocent civilians. They extracted “war taxes” from civilians of their own Tamil sect. My take is that neither side in this sectarian conflict can claim much moral high ground.

Well, now that the war is in the past – – four years of peace, no lingering violence – – I have a new assignment. The US government is helping to fund the rebuilding of the devastated north and east of Sri Lanka. Believing that rebuilt businesses and factories will lead to jobs and livelihoods that in turn will secure the peace, USAID is providing grants to new and rebuilt businesses. My job will be to evaluate a few of these business to ensure that they are worthy of receiving your tax dollars.

First stop will be Jaffna, capital of the North District. I will evaluate a company making pre-cast concrete blocks used in construction. There is much rebuilding to be done here and an expanded factory can turn out greatly needed building materials to speed reconstruction. Second, I will work with a destroyed rice mill to determine if their request for a grant to purchase a building and equipment is appropriate. At present there is no mill in the area where farmers can sell their rice crop, have it milled, packaged, and shipped to retail stores. Nor is there a place to grind the rice into flour for use in noodles, crackers, etc.

Increased employment, especially of ex-combatants, will solidify the peace. Especially so, since wages are pretty good here: at $160/month, enough to keep a former fighter more interested in a secure job than in an uncertain conflict.

Sri Lanka is classified as a middle income country – – ranked 147 out of 229 listed in the CIA Factbook – – not normally poor enough to warrant such US funding. However the damage caused by 30 years of grinding warfare has created the need for assistance.

Sri Lanka is that tear drop shaped island to the lower right of India. The equator passes just south of Sri Lanka and then there is nothing but water all the way to Antarctica. I am spending my first few days in Colombo, the country’s commercial capital and largest city, preparing for my trip north and getting acquainted with my Sri Lankan colleagues.

I suspect I could spend several weeks just learning their names. Here are the workers whose names begin with T: Thangavel Sakthiyanlingam, Thanujani Kurukulasuriya, Tharanga Gunaratne, and Thayalini Jeyachandran. My bad if I have misspelled any. People appreciate it when addressed by name – – accurately, so memorizing these names has become my challenge and obsession. Sorting through the thick Sri Lankan accent (similar to an Indian accent) makes it difficult for me to even capture a correct spelling for my notebook.

At my high end hotel in Colombo I have been observing a string of weddings all weekend long. Very elaborate, very colorful, and I suspect, likely arranged by the bride and groom’s respective parents. The Sunday newspaper is full of bride- and groom-seeking classified ads, all placed by the parents. Here is a typical example. Read the entire ad, it is culturally enlightening.

“Colombo suburban Govi-Buddhist parents seek an academically/professionally qualified well brought up slim, pretty and fair daughter fluent in spoken English, preferable a doctor for their handsome proportionately built, 30 year old, 5’10” height, MBBS qualified doctor son, owning substantial assets, currently following a post- graduate training programme in a govt. general hospital in the Colombo District. Please reply with family details, contact telephone number and horoscope.”

If you know of such a woman (and if you are not personally interested in her yourself) please pass her contact info along to the prospective groom’s parents. They will be most appreciative.

Tower of Babel – Swahili Version

Two years ago I conducted an assignment in Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. I have returned to continue work with my former client, Tandale Wholesale Grain Market. My previous advice to them was to upgrade the physical aspects of their (very dilapidated) market. Upon my arrival I saw that they had widened and graded the dirt approach road. Some holes in the market roof had been patched. A water line was being installed. So, some noticeable progress; still, much remained untouched, like the labyrinthine, uneven, dirt internal passageways that porters carrying 220 pound bags of grain had to navigate. And the noticeably unclean conditions in the dining area.

This time my NGO thought the time was ripe to deliver marketing lessons to the market members. These are small businesspeople who operate market stalls selling large bags of rice, corn, beans, lentils, etc. to hotels, schools, shops – – anyone seeking more than a small retail quantity of product. We felt the stall operators would benefit from a bit of Western business technique. We went to great lengths to prepare the training, organize the venue, order water and soft drinks for the participants. But no one showed up.

On previous assignments in Africa I have delivered marketing training to farmers. And they always show up…hungry for knowledge. But when a farmer leaves his fields for a few hours in the classroom he suffers no adverse effects, the crops continue to grow. When a market stall operator leaves his stall for a few hours, sales cease. In these mostly one person stalls, there is no one left behind to tend to the customer. And every day these stall operators must take home the proceeds of the day to feed their families. So short term revenue trumped long term knowledge. They stayed in their stalls and out of my classroom.

Once my NGO realized that I had a marketing curriculum to deliver, but no students to receive it at Tandale Market, they asked that I take my show on the road. So for the past ten days I have been based in Morogoro, a small regional city 120 miles west of Dar, from where I have traveled to Mvomero and Kiroka villages to train farmers about marketing. And they do show up and their crops continue to grow.

Yesterday in class, I taught the farmers the benefit of good communication with their customers. I am always gratified when a student applies my somewhat Western lesson to his local situation. One farmer reinforced the value of good communication. He said communicating with your customer keeps the customer faithful to you. Just like communicating with your wife. This is not an analogy I would have selected, but by the response of the class it appeared to resonate. So, on my next assignment I will play up the benefit of marital fidelity.

The first day in town my hotel chambermaid asked me for lunch money, the next day for transport money. Generally it is not a good idea to badger the hotel guest for cash. I did not cough up the requested funds, but I will not mention this transgression to her supervisor even though she shouldn’t be doing it. Steady jobs for poor people are precious in Tanzania.

I have received many requests for money in this poor country. One lady asked me for a $1500 loan so she could start up a cash transfer business using cell phones. East Africa (particularly Kenya) is a world leader in money transfer via cell phone. Simply give a mobile carrier’s authorized rep $100 cash, he will place credit on your phone, and then you can text that credit to, say, your mother back in your home village. She will find one of the ubiquitous authorized reps in her village; the rep will deduct the credit and give her $100 cash. In a country where few people have bank accounts, mobile transfer is a godsend.

This morning, as most mornings, I ate breakfast at my hotel. The waiter approached my table and said, as waiters do every morning, “Room?” I replied with my room number, three-one-three. He looked at me and said, “Spanish?” I thought it strange that he wanted my room number is Spanish, nevertheless I replied, tres-uno-tres. He cocked his head and asked again, “Spanish?” Oh, so he thinks I am from Spain? Now I decided to proudly use my newest memorized Swahili phrase, Hapana, mimi ninatoka Merikani, meaning, No, I come from America. He cocked his head the other way and asked in perfect English, “Sir, would you like a Spanish omlette?”

Haitian Viagra

I last visited this challenged country three years ago, about five months after the devastating earthquake. I’m back for another round and I am finding some real post-earthquake progress; but challenges continue and a fair bit of dysfunction remain. This time I am working in Haiti’s north, in Cap Haitien, the country’s second city. By any poor country comparison Haiti is poor. Also by any poor country comparison, Cap Haitien is an absolute jewel. It is vibrant, reasonably well supplied with hotels, restaurants, and nightlife, and is remarkably secure. I safely and enjoyably walk the downtown after dark. The colorful and balcony lined streets are reminiscent of New Orleans (another poor city.)

My client is Makouti, a local business that supports entrepreneurial efforts by small holder farmers, bee keepers and producers of chicken, goat, and rabbit meat. Makouti has asked me to visit a range of their farmers and producers, design business training for them, and guide the writing of a business plan for the producers.

Last week my first visit was to a successful beekeeper and honey producer. He let me sample a new product he is offering – – described as Haitian Viagra. I downed a bottle. Ladies, please do not read the next sentence. (Guys, I think you can make this at home; it is mostly a blend of honey, peanuts, and ginger.) Ignoring the likely overly touted Viagra-like effects, the product tastes delicious and is quite healthy. I cannot report the same health benefits from the rest of the Haitian diet. One legacy of French colonialism is a fondness for white bread and french fries. Fried plantains and white rice round out the mix. In a poor country with numerous health challenges, I suspect such a diet is not a life enhancer.

Yesterday I conducted my first training session for the farmers and producers. One topic I covered was marketing. I asked one of the farmers how he communicated to his customers. He replied, “I don’t need to, they know who I am and they come to my house.” I believe he is following the famous adage credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” There are at least two shortcomings in this message: you must communicate that your mousetrap is indeed better and you must tell your customer how to find your door. The good news here is that there is plenty of room for improvement in this farmer’s marketing program.

Due to the simple fact that I come from the United States, I am seen (likely erroneously) as a business expert. I met a local guy at my hotel who wants my advice regarding his pizza parlor in town. Now I don’t know much about the retail pizza business, but I suspect I’ve got the basics nailed: take a heap of refined white flour, throw on a glop of mozzarella, and then ladle on canned tomato sauce: voilà, pizza. I think I’ll recommend that he watch Mystic Pizza.

Frequent readers of this space may recall that from time to time I like to get a haircut from a local barber. I generally wear my hair on the bushier side. I now have learned that if you do not know the Haitian Creole words for long, short, and hair, you are pretty much at the artistic whim of the kwafè (barber.) Haitian men sport one of two hair styles: shaved head and short buzz cut. I lucked out and got the latter. In fact, the last time my hair was this short was July 1, 1967 – – the day I was inducted into the army. Over the next several months I will save barber fees while my hair grows out. As well, I have access to Haitian Viagra until my hair is presentable again.

Uncle Charley’s Booze Den

Last post I reported that the farmers of Mbiza Farmers’ Association (MFA) had achieved success by landing three new customers for their vegetable business. The preparation to raise their business capability, basic to most readers of this blog, was a new experience for them. We developed a telephone script for them to use when scheduling a visit to a prospective customer. The association members made mock cell phone calls to each other, taking on the roles of an MFA salesman and a target prospect.

They also developed and practiced their “One Minute Speech.” Back home we call this an “Elevator Speech.” No elevators here – – but the concept is the same: clearly and concisely tell your audience about your business in a span of time so short that they cannot get bored. And finally we jointly developed a form of questionnaire called “The Customer Needs Assessment.” The thought here is to determine what your customer needs, then address those needs. No sense in trying to sell him a tomato if he needs an onion. As it turned out the farmers readily mastered these new business tools and now have new skills and new customers.

After their successful sales visits, I was so happy for them, that once back at my hotel, I went for a celebratory jog. Mid afternoon in the African sun is not a good time to jog. A barefoot ten year old girl overtook me. That was embarrassing. In my defense, I was running uphill at the time. But I should add (with humility) that later, going downhill I did pass an elderly man carrying 100 pounds of firewood on his head.

Once finished with my assignment I began one week of travel in southern Malawi: Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital, Mulanje Mountain, third highest peak in Africa, and the piece de résistance, three days on Cape Maclear at the southern end of 365 mile long Lake Malawi. Cape Maclear is a national park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has earned this distinction by virtue of its unsurpassed population of cichlids. Cichlids? Not tiny chickens, nor those small square pieces of chewing gum. Cichlids are the very colorful freshwater fish found in home aquariums. There are over five hundred species in the waters surrounding Cape Maclear. A local guide and I rowed a dugout mahogany canoe twenty five minutes to a rocky offshore island. Rocks, sandy beaches, depths all provide differentiated habitats for the many species of cichlid. Some have compared the differentiation of species here to Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos.

With a piece of bread in my hand I began my snorkeling transit of the waters. Each time I shed a small bit of bread a feeding frenzy materialized. Literally hundreds of fish would compete for the offering. I would release this tease just six inches in front of my mask, resulting in a neon rainbow of color. From shiny black to bright white, from solid silver to zebra, from vibrant orange to yellow to blue to purple. And of course, a multitude of patterns, stripes, and spots. The fish ranged in length from ½ inch up to six inches. As I changed local habitats (rocks to sand to depths) the collection of fish changed. The density of fish was remarkable, denser even than the time I fell into my wealthy neighbor’s aquarium. During the bread feasts I often could not see beyond the diners, they were that thick. And for some, the bread was not enough. Many nibbled at my arms and legs. No danger here, their mouths are tiny and they were just after a flake or two of dead skin. It was amusingly ticklish though. But the six incher who swam up from behind and took a bite of my armpit was a bit more aggressive than the others.

The day after my cichlid swim I took a long walk through Chembe village, my temporary home on Cape Maclear. I just love the slow pace of life in a traditional village: locals grinding corn, bringing tilapia in from the lake, mending fishing nets, and resting in the shade. I heard a bit of music playing in the distance so I followed my ears. Uncle Charley’s Booze Den, despite its upmarket moniker, turned out to be a hangout for degenerates. Around noon there were a handful of midday beer drinkers and several ladies of questionable repute hanging around. Also three pool tables where I got shellacked three times in four games. But the victors were gracious and the pace of the village on my penultimate day of travels was perfect.

Back for More Malawi

I knew I was back in Africa when I encountered the beggars, the honking cars, the sidewalk peddlers offering me handmade mops and used clothing; when I saw the roads choked with pedestrians and barely functioning bicycles. And I knew I was back in Malawi when the people greeted me warmly, asked if I had slept well, went out of their way to help me – – like the stranger who carried my suitcase from a provincial bus depot to the taxi ranks five blocks away. After all Malawi calls itself, “The Warm Heart of Africa”.

On this, my third visit, I am working in the south of the country, staying in Zomba, the original capital of British Nyasaland, modern day Malawi. It is said to be Britain’s most beautiful colonial capital: at the base of the nearly 7,000 feet high Zomba plateau, green hills, mahogany trees.

Hotel Masongola bills itself as Malawi’s most historic hotel, an 1886 colonial mansion. In its day, I suspect it was stunning. However it appears that it was last looked after late that same century. When I checked in: no toilet paper, no soap, no light bulbs, no curtains on my ground floor windows. A visit to the front desk brought these shortcomings under control, but yielded only one light bulb – – and of course a very warm smile.

Malawi faces some challenges. An estimated 42% of population live on less than $1 per day. Secondary school enrollment stands at less than 30% of those of secondary school age. 93% of population remains dependent on wood fuel.

The Mbiza Farmers’ Association (MFA) faces some challenges too. But theirs deal with the marketing of their crops. MFA grows seven vegetables – – tomatoes, onions, mustard greens, and more – – which they sell to middlemen at very low prices. The farmers knew how to grow crops, but they did not know how to market them, expand their business, fetch higher prices. I was asked by my NGO, CNFA, to provide marketing training, teach the farmers to write a marketing plan, and assist in efforts to find more customers. For example we considered calling on the district prison in Zomba, they have many mouths to feed. But the prison roof had blown off the day before I arrived, so management was preoccupied.

From Zomba, reaching the village of Mbiza and its farmers’ association required a very rough 1.5 hour drive over rutted, rocky, and muddy roads. All along the way the barefoot children walking to school in threadbare uniforms waved at the stranger driving through their countryside. I returned these waves so often my rotator cuff became inflamed. Fortunately I could use my other arm to point at the flip chart in my classroom.

I worked with the farmers in a mud brick meeting room with grass roof; the walls stopped two feet short of the roof to allow in some light and a bit of a cooling breeze. There was no electricity nor running water. But there was a dirt floor and benches for the association members to sit on. As usual, my lessons required an interpreter. Emmanuel spoke excellent English and Chichewa, allowing me to communicate with the farmers.

The day we arrived the farmers greeted us with two beautiful songs. The eight women were uninhibited, the sixteen men, more reserved in their singing. However when answering my questions about their farming business, the roles reversed. I did learn that every fortnight they deliver 220 pounds of mustard greens to a secondary school in Zomba via bicycle – – a 4.5 hour bike ride each way. Challenging logistics.

I introduced a market research tool to the association: the Yellow Pages. None of the members were familiar with the phone book. There are no landlines in the village. (I suspect many Americans under 30 who use only Google for research aren’t familiar with yellow pages either.) Incidentally, the Yellow Pages for all Malawi is only ¼ inch thick.

Rural African farmers are not perfectly punctual marketing students. When a man would arrive late, he would bow to me and shake my hand – – while I was in mid lesson. Then he would proceed around the room to shake hands with all of the punctual students. When a woman arrived late she would stand in front of me and courtsy. Quite precious, but pedagogically disruptive.

Ultimately the training paid off. My interpreter and I had secured several sales meeting for the farmers. At these meetings MFA was able to land a hotel, a wholesale buyer, and the district hospital as new customers. Prior to these meeting they had never made a visit to a prospective customer. This just goes to prove Woody Allen’s adage: “80% of success is just showing up.”

At the end of training the thank you speeches were never ending. All got into the act: village headsman, agricultural extension officer, MFA chairman, MFA secretary, a local government official, my NGO handler, my interpreter. And after all the speeches the farmers association gave me three very practical thank you gifts: a sack of beans, a live chicken in a bag, and a live dove in a box. If I can get them through US customs, I’ll have some of you over for dinner. Sorry, not all of you, I have only one chicken and one dove.

Make ‘em Laugh

Previously I had reported that many in Africa have trouble grasping what I think is a rather straightforward name, Bill. Finally, I have incorporated a little joke into my personal introduction that guarantees memory. “Hello, my name is Bill. Like Bill Gates or Bill Clinton. Except Bill Gates has more money than I have and Bill Clinton has more girlfriends.” Not only does this guarantee memory, it also guarantees a laugh. I authorize any of you who wish, to use it in Africa when you want to people to think you are a funny guy.

I have finished my work training farmers in two small villages near Tambacounda in eastern Senegal. Some rode 12 miles on horseback to participate in the multiday class. The ones without horses walked, all to learn marketing, negotiating skills, and business planning. After wrapping up with the farmers, I met with the management of their farmers’ cooperative to provide them with advice they had requested regarding organizational improvement. For example, I recommended that they establish staggered terms (like our US Senate) for their board of directors. But, perhaps most importantly, I advised them to listen to the needs of their members. In true African strong man tradition, they were more likely to lecture the members than to listen to them. I passed along a nugget of wisdom I had learned years ago: “Always listen; one never learns anything with his mouth open.” I’m pretty sure they listened.

After the meeting we drove past a dozen eight year old boys kneeling beside the highway. They were dressed alike in white shrouds and were wearing white hoods. They hoped that passersby would contribute a few coins to their community project. And they were undertaking a community project because they had just been circumcised. In this part of Africa male circumcision is a very crucial maturation and cultural milestone. Culture aside, I have seen recent research that shows a 60% decrease in the likelihood of circumcised African males to contract HIV. Put me down in the supporter column.

The Gambia (official name) is a country that is proscribed by a river, two river banks and not much else. It is surrounded by Senegal, save only for its river mouth opening to the Atlantic. I visited The Smiling Coast of Africa (official nickname) after my work in Senegal. Many were smiling in this pleasant narrow country. Not the least of whom were the middle-age European women dating on the arms of young local Gambian men. Age differential: easily three decades, maybe more. I met a German guy who described this as, “The world is upside down.” While I haven’t seen this dating situation elsewhere, I suppose it is little different than older men dating generations younger women. So, no judgment passed.

There are lots of Bumsters in Gambia. These are unemployed young men who hang around the hotels and restaurants…unless they are the select few dating older European women. They are not dangerous, just annoying. Whenever I walk down the street they accost me, selling something or offering unwanted (and unneeded) guide services. They always have a shtick to open a conversation. My favorite: “Hey boss, good to see you again. Yesterday you said you would buy one of my wood carvings.” This was highly suspect for many reasons, but primarily because I had just arrived in country that morning.

Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country and, as such, permits a man to have four wives. A local bumster gave me some valuable life advice: “Four wives, four troubles. One wife, only one trouble. Stick with one, Mister.” Good advice from the Smiling Coast.

One of my favorite stops was St. Louis in northern Senegal. St. Louis was France’s first colonial town in West Africa and became the capital of the entire region. The town is built in a style that is reminiscent of a more dilapidated New Orleans. But here you get the French-African feeling as opposed to the French-Cajun feeling.

In St. Louis I walked into a local hotel from bright sunshine outside. My eyes had not adjusted to the unlit lobby so I was effectively blind for a few seconds. But I strode in purposefully just in case someone important was in the lobby. In full stride my foot hit a six inch high impediment jutting from the floor. Losing balance, I stumbled forward coming precariously close to a face plant. However, to ensure that I didn’t tumble to the ground, I executed what we call in basketball, the jump stop: springing slightly off the ground then landing squarely on both feet simultaneously. My right foot landed solidly on the lobby floor. My left foot landed with an alarmingly loud splash in the lobby fountain. (The impediment was the fountain’s retaining wall.) This sound startled the two, now visible, employees who gasped in unison. Then there was dead silence. And then they burst out laughing. I am pretty sure they weren’t laughing with me. To deflect attention from my bungle, I attempted some lame joke about having found the swimming pool. Sadly, my command of French made this comment totally unintelligible. They could not grasp my clever interjection. They continued to laugh while I retreated to the sunny street outside. I just love making people laugh.

Honoring Richie Valens

Time to visit a new country and this time around it’s Senegal.

I am working with a farmers association that goes by the pithy name of Agricultural Society of Advice in Supplying, Production and Marketing for the Agreement of the Associated Groups in Senegal. But since Senegal is a Francophone country my client is more commonly called Société d’Approvisionnement, de Production, de Commercialisation et de Conseil Agricole des Ententes des Groupements Associés du Sénégal. Equally memorable. If this were a branding assignment I believe I would be able to tighten up the brand name a bit. But instead, this is an organizational improvement task.

Senegal is Africa’s westernmost country, found on the tip of the West African bulge. I arrived late at night in Senegal’s vibrant capital, Dakar. Vibrant I think – – I arrived near midnight, went straight to bed, woke up early the next day for the seven hour drive east to Tambacounda where I am based. I will check out the reports of Dakar’s vibrancy once I complete my work and my post-work travels and return there.

I have arrived near the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the annual harvest. Senegalese sometimes call this the hunger season. The current crop is not yet quite ready to harvest and last year’s crop has been totally consumed. The storerooms are empty. Consequently, the World Food Program is providing rice, split peas, and cooking oil during the nearly two month long hunger season leading up to the fall harvest.

From my base in Tambacounda we drove one hour down the highway and then about 10 miles through the bush to the village of Touba aly Mbenda where heavy overnight rains had collapsed the mud brick walls of three homes. Farmers don’t have an easy life here, but they are nevertheless a happy lot. They live close to nature, have strong family and religious connections, and lead a simple, but perhaps challenge-prone life: shortage of food, crumbling homes.

I began my work by meeting with 30 association farmers to conduct an assessment of their organizational, management, and business needs. I created a set of probing questions in English. For example, “How are your association leaders selected? And, what changes would you make to the selection process?” My Senegalese colleague, Yaguemar, translated the questions into French, based on the assumption that some of the farmers had been taught to read French but not Wolof, Senegal’s primary indigenous language. Most Senegalese are Wolof speakers, but not readers. Literacy is less than 40% in Senegal and certainly substantially lower in this rural region.

We split the participants into three groups to discuss the questions and thereby tell us their organizational needs. A literate person in each group took these questions and verbally translated the French into Wolof for the rest of the group. As the groups discussed our list of questions, I wandered from group to group where I recognized an occasional French phrase and not a single word of Wolof.

I suspect the long chain of translation – – English to French to Wolof and back to English (for my benefit) – – diluted the message a bit. Nevertheless, based on the results of the needs assessment, I spent several days training and a couple more days giving advice. After all, I sort of make a living as a management consultant.

Each morning after training we would break for lunch and afternoon prayers (Senegal is 95% Muslim.) Lunch was, every day without exception, a mound of rice with some spices, a bit of eggplant and red pepper, and a scrawny roasted chicken on top. We would eat communally by right hand from a rice filled dishpan. The flavor was actually pretty good; it’s just that, at one point, six consecutive days eating rice from a dishpan lacked variety. And with up to nine of us around the dishpan with a single chicken, the protein component was meager. Think about it, when was the last time you ordered rice and 1/9 of a chicken?

Every morning and afternoon a helper from the village would wander through my training class passing out jiggers of hot sweet tea, hard candy, and kola nuts to the participants. The kola nuts are a mild stimulant and hunger suppressant. The helper, passing randomly among the attendees, served to disrupt the class’ attention. As did the ringing cell phones. Farmers are poor, but most have cell phones, and I learned it is a cultural imperative to keep your ringer on at all times…even if asked nicely by the trainer to silence it.

After my stint in Touba aly Mbenda, I repeated the needs assessment and training drill in a second village, Bamba – – maybe the inspiration for the Richie Valens classic. But I doubt it. Bamba’s main crop is peanuts, Touba aly Mbenda leads with millet. But both serve lots of rice.

The Bribe: to pay or not to pay

I finished my assignment in Wa one week ago. My client, Antika Company, had asked for my help in business planning, marketing, and organizational improvement. I took a stab at all three. For example, one of the basic tenets of sound marketing is to portray consistency in all company images. I discovered that the company had its name painted in three separate spots on its building. Each of the three spots showed a different name, all somewhat similar, but different nonetheless. We consistency hounds do not approve of this. So for the cost of a bucket of paint and a local sign painter, Antika Company can fix its consistency problem.

I also spent time working with Antika to select one person to consolidate their financial reporting. At present three different individuals use a mix of manual ledgers and Quickbooks, struggling to track their business results. Like in marketing, consistency in record keeping is essential. But enough business talk for now.

I had a bit of free time on my final Sunday there so I walked to WaNa, the mostly ruined former palace of the traditional chief. While not a UNESCO World Heritage site, nor even at the level of a state park, it was interesting enough to warrant a few photos.

And apparently I was interesting enough to attract the attention of a nearby policeman, hungry for cash. He came up from behind, stepped around in front, put his hand on my camera, and demanded that I release it. I complied and then followed him to a small seating area a few yards away. He began to berate me for knowingly breaking the law.

“You know you cannot take pictures of buildings in Ghana without permission!”

I knew better and I told him so. “No, I have been to Ghana before. I traveled all over the country and there is no restriction on taking photos of tourist sites.”

He said, “In your country you can’t just take a picture of the White House or of Obama.”

“Actually, that is perfectly legal to do.”

“No it isn’t. The US, the UK, and Ghana all have the same constitution and it is not permitted.”

At this point I realized I was not in a rational discussion. Consequently, I offered to delete the offending shots.

“No, he said, “we must take you and your camera to the central police station because you don’t respect my uniform.” Clearly his goal was to extract a bribe. In principal I prefer to avoid paying bribes. So, I elected to play my trump card.

“I respect your uniform very much. I was a Captain in the US Army and I respect all men in uniform.”

He seemed a bit awestruck when he responded, “Oh, you were a captain?”

At this point I thought of strutting around a bit, but decided that would be overkill.
“Yes, but now I am doing volunteer business work to help your country.”

“Oh, then please just delete the photos and everything will be alright.”

Bribe avoided, but pictures deleted.

Then he said I could go back to the palace and re-photograph.

Lesson: Never mess with a (former) Captain in the US Army.

Postscript: He deferentially accompanied me back to the palace and showed me around. I am pretty sure that palace tours are not an approved role for the uniformed police force. And his knowledge of the palace was extremely limited. Then he asked if I could give him a small tip. He willing accepted the $2 I offered.

So in the end did I pay the bribe? Or did I give a tip to a nice policeman who showed me around? You decide.

As usual I tacked on a few days post assignment to see some nearby sights. I selected next door Togo where I found the small town of Kpalime (silent K) to be an ideal spot for R and R. Kpalime is a typical African trading and market town with an interesting overlay of artisanal crafts shops, wannabe guides, rastas (usually offering drumming lessons), aging western hippies, one Goth, and other assorted misfits. (Apologies to my hippie and Goth friends.)

I found a legitimate guide, Jerome, to take me on a six hour trek through the hills and forests a few miles outside of town. We passed the ruined German colonial capital – – Germany, after their second place finish in WW1, relinquished their West African colonies to France and Britain. We hiked past small fields tucked into the jungle, visiting patches of cola nuts (a prime ingredient in Coca Cola…not counting sugar and water of course), cacao (chocolate), coffee, yams, cassava (tapioca), and palm nuts (palm oil).

Electric colored butterflies flooded around us. We stopped for lunch near a natural pool and waterfall where I took a refreshing plunge to wash off several hours of jungle sweat.

Jerome pointed out various rainforest plants used for traditional healing and for natural dyes. For example, the indigo leaf to make a midnight blue, in fact so midnight that it looked black to my inartistic eye. We also passed a few fields with voodoo symbols warning people not to steal crops at the risk of angering a giant snake that would materialize if a thief should enter the field. I am not a thief and I saw no snake.

As a result of this trek I have now become an accomplished jungle guide myself. Anyone who would like me to lead you though the rainforest on my next assignment, kindly get in touch. The only catch: you will have to pay the bribes.

A Fine Selection of Porridge

I am mid way through a two week assignment in Ghana. Before I tell you about it, we must first locate Ghana. Find the equator, move towards the West African coast. Keep looking up, the equator passes just beneath Ghana on the southern bulge of West Africa. But, do not confuse Ghana with nearby Guinea, nor with Guinea Bissau or even with Equatorial Guinea – – both are in the neighborhood. Or for that matter with Guyana and Guyane – – for those two countries you would be on the wrong continent – – they lie in South America. It seems there is a whole family of homophonic G-countries. But I digress.

I am working with Antika Company, a small farming inputs supplier. My client provides fertilizer, pesticides, and grain seed to farmers in Ghana’s Upper West Region (A region is equivalent to a U.S. state.) Antika helps farmers in its region improve crop yields. And the company hopes to reach more farmers. Consequently my assignment is to help Antika develop a growth plan with special emphasis on marketing.

They have no marketing and sales personnel. The company accountant doubles in these crucial functions. A by-the-books accountant’s brain is not the natural home of a creative marketing mind. Nor is a typically introverted accountant a prime choice to fit an extroverted salesman profile. But the company is doing well, so something is working…nevertheless there is ample room for improvement and that will be my goal.

Antika is located in Wa, a town of about 50,000 people in the far northwest corner of the country. The local language is Wali, a relatively minor language in Ghana’s pool of 70 languages and dialects. (36% of Ghanaians speak English.)

Ghana is one of Africa’s rising stars: a stable democracy with a growing economy. Nevertheless, it is not yet a wealthy place. GDP/capita ranks 142nd out of 193 countries in the UN. Its GDP/capita is $3,100 vs. $48,000 in the U.S. Ghana is slightly smaller than Oregon with a population about the same as Texas, 25 million. The various religions here get along with one another very well, there are no evident signs of strife. (69% Christian, 16% Muslim, 15% all other including traditional African religions.)

I saw a current Gallup poll that ranked Ghana as the most religious country in the world. I already had deduced this by observing business and shop signs around the country. Here are a few examples:

• God’s Way Metal Works
• Finger of God Communications
• God Is Love Car Air Conditioning
• Hallelujah Ventures
• Mother Mary Full Of Grace Palm Oil
• God Is in Control Cold Storage, and they compete with…
• …God Is Able Cold Storage
• God Has It Made Convenience Store
• Remember Your Creator Weaving Thread
• and a bar, improbably named, In God We Trust New Jersey Spot

And not to short shrift the local Muslim community:

• Allah Alone Is The Healer Herbal Center
• Peace Allah Trucking

Eight years ago my kids and I visited Ghana. Local people used a variety of friendly terms to address me: Mr. White, Big guy, Papa, Mon Pere, Dad, and Granddad (I think it is a term of respect and not a physical description…especially not eight years ago.) They also called me Obroni ,white man, in Twi, Ghana’s primary indigenous language. This time only Obroni has been repeated and Nasara has been added. Nasara is the Wali term for white man. Some things never change.

And finally a word about the diverse food choices here in Wa. Ghanaians select from one of four traditional starch dishes. First there is TZ, a thick corn porridge eaten with one’s fingers. Or we could choose Banku, a thick fermented corn porridge eaten with the fingers. And if these two are inadequately diverse, we can try Kenkey a thick fermented corn porridge steamed in corn husks, then eaten with the fingers. Too much corn? OK, try Fufu a thick cassava porridge eaten with the fingers. You may have already concluded the good news: we have no shortage of thick porridge here in Wa.

Time for Healing

I held my final marketing training class last Friday. The dilemma: start on time, 8 AM, or wait until the late comers arrive. We had 25 farmers in their seats by 8:05 so I commenced. Some stragglers wandered in around 8:30, even more by 9. The class had doubled in size and they continued to file in. I suspect word had gotten around the village that my jokes were spot on that morning, notwithstanding the translation filter that they had to pass through. The class was scheduled to end at 10 and even after 9:30 they still came. I have discovered that punctuality is not a cultural imperative in rural Tanzania. The locals mostly all have cell phones (with clocks) but farming and family chores often take priority over attendance at marketing class. By the time I wrapped up the day’s lesson, 60 eager farmers were packed into the small community hall turned classroom.

All of these farmers were members of an irrigation program that channels rainwater from the nearby mountains to their fields: Due to the success of their irrigation scheme many in the village have graduated from the traditional home of mud brick with thatched roof to kiln fired brick with metal roof. They still don’t have electricity and running water. Once the benefit of my marketing lessons kick in I expect to see them upgrading to McMansions. I’ll check on my next visit to Tanzania.

The final marketing training class covered the fourth P of the marketing mix, Promotion – how to make your target market aware of your product. Modern marketing communication calls for a sophisticated mix of TV, radio, print, direct mail, Internet, trade shows, and so on. In Mlali village the farmers can really apply only the most basic marketing communication tools. Phone calls and text messages to prospective customers figure prominently. Emails are out because computer ownership is close to nil. And besides, you already know that there is no electricity in their homes.

After class I treated my Tanzanian colleagues to lunch. They suggested I try the fresh blended fruit juice. But an unusual blend: passion fruit and avocado. The sweetness of passion fruit juice is tempered by the avocado and in turn, the density of mashed avocado is cut by the passion juice. You can drink it through a straw and it tastes really delicious. Dust off that old juicer you’ve been keeping under the sink. I guarantee you’ll like it.

After finishing my work in Tanzania, I decided to visit the next door neighbor.

Rwanda burst into our conscious and our conscience in 1994 as a result of its horrendous genocide. Actually, horrendous always precedes the word genocide. In Rwanda extremist Hutu murdered Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

I flew into the capital, Kigali, to find a modern, efficient airport: off the plane and through customs inside of 5 minutes. Really. Only Singapore can beat that. A taxi ride through Kigali’s rolling hills (Rwanda is nicknamed the land of a thousand hills) revealed paved roads, working traffic lights, modest but solid homes, well kept yards and gardens, no beggars in sight…clearly a step or two up from most other African countries I have visited.

During my walk the next day I suspected that most of those thousand hills were in Kigali. My first stop was the Hotel des Mille Collines – – known more familiarly to us as the Hotel Rwanda, the setting of the memorable film of the same name. Today it is a $200 per night high end lodging and yields little clue of its troubled past and its heroic manager.

In fact today the casual visitor would not suspect Rwanda’s troubled past. At least until you chat with the people. I asked a taxi driver, are you from Kigali? He answered, “No, I was born in northern Rwanda but had to live in Uganda during the genocide. I don’t have a wife.” A worker in my hotel responded, “My parents fled to Burundi where I was born. After they were killed I was raised in an orphanage.”

In a country of 8 million, one million were killed. Another two million fled to other countries, perhaps two million more were internally displaced. Everyone has a story to tell: as a victim, as a perpetrator, a collaborator, or a bystander.

In the hills of Kigali stands the Genocide Memorial – – the most moving memorial I have ever visited. And I have seen Anne Frank’s house, Dachau, Auschwitz, and the Armenian Genocide Museum in Armenia. My emotions ran from incensed, to angry, to sobbing, and finally to inspired. This was so moving for me due to the recentness of the genocide. It transpired during my recent adult memory. It reflected on other genocides: the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, contemporary atrocities in the Balkans. And the flow of the memorial displays is remarkably powerful. They begin with pre-genocide peace and then proceed through the planning of the atrocities to the actual events – – interspersed with video recollections of survivors telling of the violence they or their families suffered: torture, rape, mutilation, execution. Then there was the children’s room (this was the sobbing part) with brief life stories and photographs of twenty or so of the hundreds of thousands of children murdered. Final stop was the memorial gardens surrounded by the mass graves of 250,000 victims.

But by the end I felt purified. Indeed the goal of this Genocide Memorial is to ensure the victims will never be forgotten and to contribute to the country’s healing. And based on my scratching of the surface in Rwanda the healing has begun. Hutus and Tutsis are pulling together. Come see for yourself, this is an amazingly upbeat country – – all one thousand hills of it.

Tanzania Redux

Last July I experienced a very satisfying assignment in Dar es Salaam. I enjoyed the country and the people so much, that when CNFA (my most frequent NGO partner) offered another Tanzanian assignment, I accepted. This time I am working in a small rural village in central Tanzania with a group of tomato farmers. The farmers of Mlali village – – and yes, that initial consonant blend is a tough one. Say it again with just a hint of “M” – – are good farmer but they lack nearly all marketing skills. My task is to provide basic marketing training to 80 or so of them.

By the way Mlali is not the only tongue twister. A few kilometers away is Mgeta. So are Mbesegera, Mzimba, and Mzegeni.

I began by meeting with small groups of the farmers to discern their marketing training needs. Marketing is proving to be an amorphous concept here. One guy told me his marketing need was to learn better soil conservation. Another wanted to discover improved crop growing techniques. With such input I was able to design marketing seminars covering an Introduction to Marketing, and the four Ps of the marketing mix: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion.

In addition to producing a large tomato crop once a year, the farmers use their two additional growing seasons to cultivate rice, which they refer to as paddy – – it only becomes rice after the husk is milled off – – and corn (called maize here.) Different crop names are the least of my challenge. I work with an interpreter since most of the farmers speak only Swahili. Of course working with an interpreter slows my pace considerably. And most of my jokes fall a bit flat. Somewhat like my jokes back in at home.

I teach a morning and afternoon session every other day. The off day I use to prepare for the next day’s class. We meet in a bare bones community hall: Mud plastered brick, concrete floor, metal roof, open windows, no lights nor electricity. A slick PowerPoint presentation would be out of the question. One flip chart allows me to record key points, then tape the recorded sheets onto the mud wall where they sort of stick.

Nearly half the class are women farmers. They show up in multi-colorful wrap-around dresses. Several come with an exceptionally well behaved infant secured with a clashing large print wrap tightly to the back. If they weren’t in my marketing class they would be working their fields with their baby still on their back. I love to look out across the assembled students, so gaudy it looks like an exploding rainbow.

I was free this past weekend. On Saturday I climbed the very steep Uluguru Mountains just outside town to reach a refreshing waterfall. I got slightly lost as the steep road turned to a steeper trail then to even steeper irregular rock steps. The forest closed in on me. Fortunately, a couple of children, despite our lack of a common language, realized my situation (lost) and assumed my goal (waterfall.) As they led me towards an ever louder cascade hidden in the trees, they shouted to their friends that they had captured a lost white guy. I think. Soon I was led by a small platoon of six-year olds down a slick muddy path to the base of the waterfall. They scampered ahead barefoot like mountain goats while I slid my way downhill in my expensive Adidas with high tech non-slip soles.

On Sunday I took advantage of my rural location by visiting Mikumi National Park, one of this country’s lesser visited game reserves, just 90 minutes down the road. Mikumi does not offer the spectacular large herds that one can see in the Serengeti, but it did offer a highly interesting break from the classroom. In alphabetical order I enjoyed wildlife views of baboon, cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, hippo, impala, lion, polar bear, wildebeest, and zebra. Now compare, also in alphabetical order,to the animals I see in my Newton neighborhood: cat, dog, squirrel.

When I finish my work one week from now I will visit Rwanda to ensure that the genocide has really ended. By all reports it is now very peaceful place. I’ll try to report from there.

Monire fuma Mzuzu

I think Monire fuma Mzuzu means “Hello from Mzuzu” – – the town in northern Malawi where I am spending nearly three weeks. About one year ago I conducted a previous assignment in the central region of this warm and friendly country. So when CNFA (the Washington DC-based NGO I often work with) told me of this new assignment in the north of the country, I quickly accepted. The language I greeted you in is Chitumbuka, one of Malawi’s 14 indigenous languages. Last time around I memorized a few phrases of the country’s main language, Chichewa. Now I am able to mangle basic greetings in two languages, often mixing the pair without realizing it. The Malawians think I am a pretty funny guy.

The way to ask “how are you?” is a rhythmic little ditty, “Muli wuli” This is not to be confused with Wooly Bully (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, 1965, Pen Records.) But I digress.

My assignment is to assist Green Shop, a relatively upmarket fruit and vegetable dealer, expand its business. This small company (six employees) does a fairly good business selling fresh organic produce out of its modest shop in the center of Mzuzu, third largest city in the country. The company also delivers to resort hotels along the shore of Lake Malawi – – this landlocked country’s inland sea, 365 miles long. Green Shop’s owner must rely on notoriously unreliable public mini-buses to transport produce to resort clients, some over 100 miles away. The hot, crowded mini-buses are packed with passengers well beyond the vehicles’ capacity. Extra passengers and excess baggage end up on top of Green Shop’s produce. These public busses stop frequently, sometimes due to mechanical or fuel problems. So, Green Shop delivery personnel often reach their resort customers late and with wilted and damaged produce. Generally, customers are not too keen on receiving produce in such state.

My task has been to help Green Shop acquire a loan in order to purchase a delivery truck. If only it were so easy. Green Shop owner, Bobby Joe Mlongoti, and I visited the two large local banks to learn that the interest rate on a small business loan ranges from 25% to 36% per year. With cost of capital so high, few businesses can afford to borrow. Compounding the challenge is that for the past several months, Malawi has suffered from a lack of foreign exchange (hard currency like the dollar and Euro) with which to import gasoline. Consequently, fuel is often unavailable – – the gas stations completely run out. Queues of vehicles form, some as long as a quarter mile in length, when rumor is spread of the expected arrival of a fuel tanker.

Due to the exorbitant interest rates asked by the banks – – I know a loan shark in downtown Boston who charges less – – we have given up on pursuing a loan. Instead we are now hot on the trail of a grant via a US government program to assist African countries. This grant entails completing a business plan and submitting a 10 page application. We are nearly finished, but will have to wait until the US government’s new fiscal year, October, to find out if Green Shop will get its grant. Meanwhile, it’s back to the mini-bus.

My work space while in Mzuzu has been in a corner of the Green Shop store, near the open double doors. There I can interact with nearly every retail customer who enters. The store is more like a large alcove with wooden boxes propped along the walls. The boxes are filled with fresh produce from the company’s farm. The store lacks refrigeration, so the green peppers, pineapples, leafy greens, carrots, tomatoes, and squash all sit in their boxes until purchased…or until they get tossed out once they are well past their peak attractiveness. Our grant application will also include a request for cold storage equipment.

Malawians are a particularly friendly people. Most who enter the store make a special effort to great the stranger sitting in the corner. Many ask my name, and surprising to me, have difficulty grasping “Bill.” I have been called Bir, Bull, and Bell. Some skip the challenge of learning my name and call me bwana or its English equivalent, boss. To me, both smack of colonial overload connotation, so I am not fond of either moniker. Muzungu (white man) is fine and is not pejorative, merely descriptive. One guy called me captain which many years ago I once was; so that too is fine. And as an American, I have been addressed as Obama, Bill Clinton, and most disturbingly, George Bush.

The Malawian names often follow a pattern I have observed in other African countries that are predominantly Christian. The pattern is to use names that connote a special attribute hoped for by the parents when the baby is born: Mercy, Gracious, Precious, Memory, Gift. The first reader who can select the single male name from the preceding five will receive a free annual subscription to this blog. Give it a try. One guy I met was named Finish, as in, “I am finished having children now.” On average, women have 5.43 children in Malawi. The most striking name I have heard is female, Why Do You Hate Me. Probably chosen by the mother in anticipation of her newborn daughter’s teenage years.

Today I took a very enjoyable Sunday walk on the dirt roads winding through Mzuzu’s rural fringe. The monkey and mongoose sightings were unlike my usual animal sightings at home. And the sounds of a choir pulsing from an open air church were inspiring. Let me just say, you haven’t heard singing until you have heard a Malawian hymn sung in Chitumbuka. And finally, the sole male name above is Gracious – – just like the people.

Blood in the Streets

I have finished my work with the rural (aspiring) fish farmers in Toula village, near the town of Bougouni. The farmers’ hope is that their fish ponds will provide additional food for their families, plus some extra to sell at the market in Bougouni. Much of my work entailed teaching basic business topics to these farmers. And much of my teaching entailed dealing with disruptions that one does not typically encounter in an American classroom. I have previously reported on the hunter who passed through our alfresco classroom with his shotgun and just bagged rabbit. This was not the only disruption. I pretty much got used to the crowing rooster, chickens, and guinea fowl scratching in the dirt in front of my flipchart.

As a teaching point I asked the class the age old business question: What is the difference between marketing and sales? One hand shot up, then another and another, soon over half the class had a hand in the air. I thought, wow, these farmers are really business-sharp. But it turned out they were not answering my question. Instead, they were waving at a friend bicycling along the road that ran past our outdoor classroom…and shouting greetings too. As well, they inquired about the health of his second wife and new baby and about the price of corn in the market. I just about had regained their attention when a young man herding thirty cows down the road lost control of his cattle. The herd veered off toward the village cotton field. Most of my students jumped up to divert the cows from their precious cash crop.

These sorts of interruptions tended to throw me off my patter. However, in the end, I suspect they learned something. After all, they had a teacher who very much enjoyed his work.

By the way, the difference between marketing and sales: Marketing is having what you can get rid of. Sales is getting rid of what you have.

After I finished my work, I could not leave Mali without viewing several of its most interesting sights:

• Djenne – with the largest mud building in the world, a six story mosque
• Timbuktu – at the end of the world, the legendary caravan town on the southern edge of the Sahara
• Mopti – the country’s major river port in the heart of the Niger River inland delta
• Dogon Country– Mali’s famous trekking destination and an area of incredibly rich culture

Let me tell you about my experience in the latter two locations.

Mopti lies at the confluence of the Bani and Niger Rivers. I hired a boat captain to take me through the waterways at this river junction in the inland delta. My captain – – a highly inflated title for someone who commanded no sailors, just a 25 foot long pinasse (canoe), a pole, an oar, and I guess, me as well – – spoke little French. I too know only a little. His little and my little didn’t correspond. Consequently, I was pretty much sailing blind, going wherever he poled and paddled me.

When we arrived in Kuakolodaga there was blood in the streets. Also blood in the dirt courtyards, in the dirt alleyways, pretty much all over. At the risk of sounding bloodthirsty, it was quite colorful: red on tan. By the time we got to this island, the sheep had been slaughtered. All over predominantly Muslim Mali, every family that can afford a sheep – – almost all – – purchase and slaughter one on the important Muslim feast day, Tabaski, the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son. If you want to get a relaxed view of Islam untainted by the media, by al Qaeda, by the Taliban, by radical Pakistani madrassas, then come to Mali. Some 90% of the population are Muslim. And most live a rather chill version of Islam. Veils are essentially unknown. In some villages the women go topless. (Try doing that in Saudi Arabia.)

On this special feast day the villagers were dressed in their finest: especially bright clothes, women with perfectly corn-rowed hair, a sort of yellowish mud makeup on the face. Even some with plucked and redrawn eyebrows. From that alone I could have been at a Manhattan charity event – – except for the blood in the streets.

By the time we poled downriver to the next village, Masaya, there the sheep had been quartered and were slow cooking over a low wood fire in a mud brick oven. I sat down to talk with some young men in an extended family. After a few minutes one of the guys stepped away, then shortly reappeared with several unrequested pieces of mutton on a bed of rice covered with green slime. Okra and baobab pods I think, but I can’t be sure. The rice was likely boiled in muddy Niger River water with the requisite dash of sand. I wasn’t keen on dining just then, especially this meal, but they were so hospitable to share their Muslim feast day mutton, that I felt obligated. The score: somewhat tasty, but highly chewy.

On to Dogon Country: The Dogon are an ethnic group of half a million, living in 700 villages scattered along a 150 mile long escarpment. Some villages perch on the plateau atop the escarpment, others lie on the plain at the base of the cliff. And in between are a series of abandoned cliff dwellings strewn along the length of the escarpment, sort of like a never ending Mesa Verde.

We trekked for four days and three nights through Dogon Country, about nine miles each day – – a healthy but not an inordinate distance to hike. However this was no cakewalk either. We both ascended and descended the 1600 foot high escarpment each day. So, many hours of our daily hike were essentially on nature’s stairmaster.

My guide, Batrou, spoke English fractured enough to be quaint, but clear enough to be occasionally understood. We were climbing up the 1600 foot high escarpment to a village that promised to have chicken and rice for lunch. (All villages promise to have chicken and rice for lunch.) Batrou was about 10 yards ahead when he suddenly wheeled around and sprang back towards me, closing the gap between us in about 3 milliseconds. His eyes were saucers; he said in perfectly clear English, ¨Big cobra.¨ I didn’t get to see the snake, it had slithered off into the bushes before I had the opportunity to talk it down from its agitated state. The last half of our ascent, post-cobra, was not as relaxing as the pre-cobra first half had been.

Maybe Dogon Country is the end of the world. I spent my first night in the aptly named village of Ende, in rather rustic conditions: I slept on the roof of my lodging – – too hot inside – – under a mosquito net and under the stars. I lost count in the high trillions. Neither Ende, nor the rest of the dozen villages I visited, had electricity or running water. I showered with a bucket and ladle. But what the Dogon country lacked in infrastructure, it more than made up in richness of culture.

One morning Batrou needed some advice about how to recover $500 that he had misplaced a couple of months previously. He took me with him to visit the village fortune teller cum traditional healer. Some might call her a witch doctor but that term would be pejorative.

The elderly Dogon lady sat us down in the shade of an alleyway and from a leather pouch she emptied out 20 small seashells onto a woven grass placemat. Next she scooped up the shells in her hand, brought them to her mouth, blew on them, talked to them, then tossed them back down onto the placemat. I have seen guys at the craps table in Vegas behave similarly.

She repeated this process several times until the shells landed in an auspicious configuration: perfectly side by side or one on top of another or one hanging off the edge of the mat. For each auspicious configuration she told Batrou the meaning and the ramification on his search for lost money. For twenty minutes she kept up this shell tossing, shell blowing, shell talking, and shell interpretation. This woman, like all Dogon soothsayers, was untrained. She had learned her trade, Batrou said, “From the spirits.”

Apparently so pleased with her advice to him (“you must sacrifice to recover your lost money”), Batrou asked her to evaluate my future. Good news: She said I – – and my family – – would have good luck. Consequently, any of you wishing to join my family, kindly email me. And also wire $100 to my bank account. She said I would have good fortune, too.

Before we left she gave me a good luck potion to rub on my face three times a day. The bottle she found for me to carry it in was previously filled with what looked like greenish curdled cream. She sort of washed it out. Not entirely certain that I wanted an unknown potion mixed with curdled cream on my face, I discarded the bottle when no Dogon were looking. I still feel guilty about this.

I will be leaving Mali tomorrow. Shortly after my arrival home I will post a final report in pictures on Flickr. Standby. And standby for a post from my next assignment: whenever and wherever that may be, but certainly from the edge.

Hieroglyphics Brought to Life

My work in Mali continues. On this assignment I am working with an American NGO: Winrock International, headquartered in Little Rock. I am based in Bougouni, a town of 25,000, in a mainly cotton growing region of southern Mali. I am assisting a newly formed fish farming cooperative with business training.

Bougouni is a regional center of sorts. But despite its importance and its size, there are just three proper restaurants in town. I am excluding the countless roadside stalls – – ten feet off the road – – that have a vat of hot oil to deep fry almost anything, including fly-encrusted raw meat awaiting cooking. The passing trucks and buses on the highway, stir up a fine coat of dust that settles over the food along with an essence of diesel fumes. My Malian colleague and interpreter, Bourama, won’t eat at these restaurants, so I don’t either.

We stick to the three proper restaurants. None of the three has a menu for its patrons to review. The waiter tells us what is available: meat with rice, chicken with rice, fish with rice. Pretty much day in and day out, lunch and dinner. So we are applying a restaurant and meal rotation plan: never the same restaurant nor the same dish two meals in a row. Variety is the spice of life.

Many days I spend in Toula, a small village just ten miles outside of Bougouni. The members of the fish farmers coop gather under a large shade tree next to their mud walled compound to listen to my morning business lesson. In the afternoons we usually visit their prototype fish pond to ensure that the fish are still alive. Since my lessons are given outdoors there are many interruptions to deal with. One day during my lesson a hunter from the village walked through our alfresco classroom carrying a shotgun and a recently bagged rabbit – – poor Peter Cottontail. My class erupted with congratulations and praise for the successful hunter.

That day the villagers ask me to stay for lunch. The village ladies cooked up enough food to feed the entire business class. As a visitor I was invited to dine in a nearby mud and thatch hut with senior members of the cooperative. Six of us sat on low stools around a large dishpan full of rice (I think it really was a dishpan shortly before it was filled with rice.) All six of us ate with our hands out of this communal vessel. And we ate the same meal found in restaurants: chicken and fish with rice. But that day, the chicken and fish were augmented by the ill fated Mr. Cottontail. That culinary change of pace was quite welcome. Variety is the spice of life.

A fair number of the villagers who attend my training classes are illiterate, so I use symbols as much as possible when I draw on the flip chart. For example: A fish silhouette with a sun above it to represent dried fish. A small fish with an arrow toward a larger fish to indicate size growth over several weeks of feeding. A fish with whiskers for a catfish. But just how do you represent such business terms as a board of directors with these signs? It is kind of fun trying to think creatively in symbols. Not to brag, but I could have done quite well as the court hieroglyph-ographer during the reign of Ramses II in ancient Egypt. (I kind of slipped that history lesson in without you noticing, didn’t I?)

One of the legacies of French colonialism in Mali is that French is the official language. However, outside of cities and towns (like Bougouni) where the educated speak French, numerous local languages are the means of communication. About 80% of Malians speak Bambara as their first or second language. Consequently, Bourama, my interpreter turns my English into occasional French and more frequent Bambara.

Through all of this I have learned that when working with an interpreter it takes twice as long as normal to share an idea with the audience. And twice as long to learn what their response is. I usually make up for this delay by talking twice as fast…and thinking double time as well. But it really wears me out.

Through all of this, I have trained about 30 people in fish production planning, marketing and sales of fish, how to organize a cooperative, and basics in business planning. And also in symbol drawing.

Enhanced Virility in Bougouni

We’ll come to the virility part soon. At the moment I am in Bougouni; and no, it is not an African country that you have never heard of. It is a small town in an African country that you have heard of. The country’s capital is Bamako. Need another hint? Its most famous city has been known to you since childhood…Timbucktoo. Bougouni, Bamako, and Timbucktoo are in the west African country of Mali.

Do not confuse Mali with Malawi in east Africa. (I reported on that country earlier this year.) But you can remove the aw from Malawi and get Mali. Like the other countries I have chronicled, Mali is poor: its GDP per capita ranks 205 of 227 countries tracked – – $1,200 per person vs. $47,000 in the U.S. It is a large country, almost twice as big in size as Texas…but less populated: 14.2 million people live here, 25.1 million live in Texas.

To find Mali, put your finger on Burkina Faso and go north one country. If this is confusing, try moving one country east from Mauritania. Alternatively, head due south from the southern tip of Spain into the bulge of West Africa until you reach landlocked Mali – – shaped a bit like a butterfly in flight. So, you can think of Mali as a big, poverty stricken butterfly. But a beautiful one.

I will be working here for 2.5 weeks, helping a fish farmers’ cooperative. They are attempting to raise tilapia and catfish in hand dug ponds. I think I was asked to participate in this assignment due to my reputation as a talented aqua-culturist. Actually, the aqua-culture talent is Joe Sullivan, like me an American volunteer. His role is to teach the aspiring fish farmers how to build effective ponds and how to raise fish. My job is to help the fish farmers develop their sales, marketing and production plans.

From Joe I learned that tilapia are mouth brooders. After the female lays her eggs, the male will fertilize them. The female will then scoop up the eggs in her mouth, where they will incubate until hatching. She will not eat – – cannot eat – – until they hatch and swim out of her mouth. While still tiny, if they spot a threat, say a wading heron or a hungry catfish, the little tilapia will swim back into mommy’s mouth. This flight to mouth-safety will continue until they can no longer fit there. Fascinating.

The Malians are extremely hospitable. Several times each day, they will interrupt our work to offer strong, hot, sweet tea in a jigger-sized glass. One holds the scalding glass by the slightly less scalding jigger rim and quickly downs the tea. Speed is important because, in this poor country, there are only two or three glasses available to serve five to ten people at a meeting. As guests, Joe and I are usually served first. Once we have finished, the glasses are refilled (no washing) and offered to the remaining people at the meeting. At least I get to drink first. Except that typically a second and even third round is offered. And I feel obliged to partake at each offering, otherwise I would be rude. So far I have not gotten sick.

And I have not gotten sick from the spicy meat brochette they have served us as a daily snack. Thin strips of grilled beef are skewered on a wooden stick, then we rub the beef-on-a-stick in a dry mixture of ground peanuts, millet, chili and other spices. And also, dried, ground goat testicles. They say that final ingredient improves virility. I have taken a second helping every day.

For those of you interested in improving your backyard tilapia ponds, get ready for my intervention when I return to the U.S. And be advised, I have been eating a lot of that goat gonad spice.

Gorillas in the Mist

Tanzanian Update – August 23, 2011

I woke at sunrise to begin preparation for my rainforest trek to encounter my (and your) distant cousins, the mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species with only 700 or so left on earth.  They are found only in a small region of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  But I am getting way ahead of myself.  Before going in search of gorillas I had to finish my assignment with Tandale (wholesale grain) Market in Dar es Salaam.  I spent nearly three weeks in Tanzania evaluating the market, visiting suppliers of crops in the countryside, and formulating a set of recommendations designed to improve the operations and business of the market.

The recommendations that my colleagues and I put together seemed to be sound.  Our various stakeholders – – market leadership, related trade association members, municipal government, and officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade – – tended to agree with us that Tandale needed fulltime paid professionals to run the market.  At present an elected committee of six unpaid volunteers oversees market operations.   We also suggested that the market be run by private owners instead of by the local municipal government.  Private business generally operates more efficiently than a government-owned business does.  We also weighed in with a list of physical improvements that would benefit the market…such things as laying a concrete floor over the existing dirt floor, patching the holes in the roof, providing water in the very unsanitary toilets.

So, the business counsel we gave was embraced.  The only real snag was political: the local municipal owner did not want to give up control because the municipality was keeping 85% of all market revenues.  Think of this as an 85% tax rate.  Not even Sweden has that rate any longer.  I am decent at making the business analyses and recommendations.  I am substantially weaker at resolving entrenched political positions in a country and culture where I am an outsider.  Consequently, I made a wise move.  I delivered the business ideas then skipped town and left my Tanzanian colleague, Bahati, to fight the political battle.  Results to be announce someday.

And when I skipped town I flew to Kampala, the capital of Uganda.  There I linked up with a driver/guide to drive me ten hours west to Uganda’s very accurately named, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  But, I was feeling rather macho so I anticipated no difficulty in achieving penetration.   Oh, how wrong I was.

On the long drive there we passed papyrus swamps – probably known to you as the source of paper in ancient Egypt, but used today to weave baskets and to make thatched roofs, flooring pads, and even walls for rural homes.  We crossed the Equator near Jandira where I briefly stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern.  Wahoo.

We passed along the edge of a game park where encroaching farmers’ cattle were grazing alongside zebras.  The two were relatively easy to distinguish.  Zebras have no horns and cows have no stripes.  We arrived at our eco-lodge (solar lighting, solar heated water, and local materials used in construction) at sunset.  After dinner, I was given a short pamphlet, Gorilla Rules, and sent to bed.  My favorite was rule #5:

“Sometimes the gorillas charge.  Follow the guide’s example – – crouch down slowly, DO NOT look the gorilla in the eye, wait for the animals to pass.  DO NOT attempt to run away.  Running away will increase the risk of attack.”  Early the next morning our lead trekker reemphasized this.  He said an angry gorilla would jump up and down, tear branches off trees, charge, and pound the ground near us.  That is the sign that we should employ rule #5.

Our group of eight curious tourists (five Czechs, one German, one French, and I) began the trek.  A local lead trekker led us out of base camp into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  His mission was to find the Nshongi group of 23 gorillas who were somewhere in the forest.   The search itself was a major challenge.  We hiked up and down incredibly steep mountains; it felt as if we walked up one side of the Washington Monument only to walk down the other side, then we scaled another.  In all we ascended and descended six steep monuments on our search.  The rainforest smelled particularly fecund and fertile with all stages of plant decomposition evident – – certainly enough decomposition to sustain the 15 inch earthworm that squirmed across our path.  At first I thought it was a baby snake.

Attached to our trekking party was a soldier with a semi-automatic AK-47 and a 30 round ammo clip. They never told us the purpose of an armed escort.  I am pretty sure he was not there to shoot gorillas, after all, they are endangered; and we already knew the defensive measures to take if we angered one.  I suspect that the soldier served as a deterrent to crazy militia crossing the border from turbulent and lawless eastern Congo, just 10 miles away.  In the end he shot no gorillas and the deterrent worked.

After nearly four hours of really challenging hiking – – this was no Sunday stroll around the block – – we struck gold: the Nshongi group of gorillas dining on leaves that they were stripping from the jungle trees.  We were required to keep 20 feet from them to reduce the likelihood of agitation and of human-to-gorilla disease transmission.  But in actually we were sometimes closer.  Like the time we were single filing down the trail and a 300 pound silverback overtook us.  Our guide immediately said, “Quickly sit off the side of the trail in the bushes, do not make eye contact.  Our big relative knuckle-walked right past us, so close we could have touched him.  In fact, I reached out and whacked him on the butt.  When he wheeled around to confront his tormentor, I shrugged my shoulders, gave an innocent smile, and then pointed at the tourist next to me.

By the way, most of this report is true.  Disregard the butt slapping vignette.

Especially true is the emotional rush I got by seeing, watching, listening to these beautiful and massive animals.  They grow quite hefty, some over 400 pounds and all from eating leaves.  Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a vegetarian diet fights obesity.  Actually it does, but just not in gorillas. Several looked like NFL interior linemen.  In all we spent an hour of rapture watching and photographing the group, then we were required to leave so that the gorillas could get back to uninterrupted leaf dining.

Our hike out was nearly as long as our hike in, but felt much easier because we were all on an emotional high.  And even if we had not been able to see the gorillas the rainforest trek would have still been rewarding: we had penetrated the impenetrable forest and we saw a giant earthworm.

I will post photos in a few days. Probably of the gorillas, not the earthworm.

From Field to Table

Tanzanian update – August 10, 2011

I reported in my last post that my assignment is to help improve the operation of Tandale (wholesale grain) Market in Dar es Salaam. After one week in Dar, I moved to the Tanzanian countryside to meet with farmers and crop traders who supply the market and also to speak with management of other markets.

I did not book sufficient time on this trip to take advantage of Tanzania’s spectacular wildlife parks.  However, Tanzanians naturally want to show off their country.  So, on the way from one business meeting to another, my Tanzanian colleague suggested we take a 90 minute detour through a nearby national park.  While not a full-fledged safari experience, in this short time we were able to see giraffes, zebras, gazelle, wildebeest, elephants, baboons, savanna buffalo, hippos, and crocodile.  Sort of reminded me of the time on a business trip in the US when I saw cows, horses, and a farm dog all on the same day.

The land here is rich even if the people are not:  green fields of crops and trees laden with fruit.  The villages are vibrant and colorful, but there is no electricity or running water. The bicycle is the favored mode of transportation in the countryside and also serves as the beast of burden.  One would expect the poor country folk to dress in rather worn clothing, but the opposite is the case.  The rural poor men dress in business casual even though they spend their days walking and working along very dusty roads.  Slacks, neat collared shirts, and (dusty) dress shoes are the norm. Most were dressed more up-market than I, and that was embarrassing.  They generally look sharp even if they own only three sets of clothing. I saw very few ragamuffins about, even in the poor countryside.

A rural woman wears the iconic colorful (and loud) African print textile wrapped around her torso.  Those with babies, use a second textile to hold the baby close to her back, papoose style.

Near the country’s capital, Dodoma, are a cluster of farms that raise a rainbow of fruits and vegetables: eggplant, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, mangos, papaya, spinach, and many, many others (quite a few of which I have never encountered in the U.S.)   The fields require irrigation in this relatively arid region of Tanzania.  And since there are few wells here (expensive to drill and maintain), the farmers have bunched their fields along 10 miles of river bank.  The river itself is seasonal, and in August when I visited, the dry season had turned the river bed into a long stretch of very dry sand.

But the crops still need water.  So the farmers dig wells by shovel and hoe in the soft sand in the river bottom.  A typical well is perhaps 10 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter.  Water seeps through the sand and collects in the bottom of the well.  To reach the water, the farmer will dig a sloping trench so that he or she – – there are many female farmers here – – can walk down the slope with buckets to fill and carry to nearby fields.  (To picture a well, imagine looking down on an uppercase Q ) Over the course of the months-long dry season, the farmer will have to enlarge his well, wider and deeper, multiple times; and of course, re-cut his ramp to reach the receding water.

The farmers seem to manage this bucket irrigation scheme relatively well.  Weak pun intended.  But they would benefit from mechanically drilled deep wells, pumps, and piping to increase their productivity.  However the greatest challenge they face is transporting their crops to market.  The largest market for their produce is Dar, 250 miles away.  The farmers own no trucks, so they send bags of produce in the baggage hold of large cross country busses that ply the highway between Dodoma and Dar.  These busses are notoriously unreliable.

Using Chinese cabbage as an example here is the drill: the farmer harvests and bags the cabbage on Day One, then carries it to his home by bicycle where he sprinkles water on it overnight.  (Dried, wilted cabbage commands no premium in the marketplace.)  On Day Two he or she re-bags the cabbage, surrounding it with protective and moisture trapping ferns, then bikes the re-bagged produce to the highway to wait for the bus.  If a bus arrives with space in the underside compartment the farmer will pay a fee to have the cabbage carried to Dar where it will be picked up by a broker and delivered to a local market.   By Day Three the cabbage will be displayed for sale in an open-air market.

However, busses don’t always stop along the highway where the farmer waits with his cabbage.  Some stop, but do not have sufficient cargo space to accept the cabbage.  If the farmer cannot send his cabbage to market the day he waits by the road, it will wilt, become unsalable and must be tossed out.  Estimates are that 40% of the cabbage is wasted before it can be put on the bus.  And of the 60% that makes it on the bus, 25% of this will be unsalable: too wilted from the hot cargo hold or perhaps crushed by the suitcases packed alongside.  Thus, over half of all cabbage harvested is wasted, it never reaches market.

So, the next time you are in Whole Foods buying Tanzanian crops, please appreciate what it took to get those crops to you.

Grit in the Grain

I am nine days into my current international assignment: this time in the east African country of Tanzania.  I spent the entire first week in the country’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, which means House of Peace.  And since I have been neither mugged nor molested I believe the name rings true.

There are 120 tribes in Tanzania and I guess nearly that many languages.  However one can get by in the cities with English – – thank you British colonialists.  In the countryside Swahili is spoken by most people as either their first or second language.  Consequently I have been pouring over my Speak Basic Swahili book.  I think I will do quite well: computer is kompyuta , television is televisheni .  Dining room and bedroom are nearly as simple:  sehemu ya kulia and chumba cha kulala respectively.  I should be fluent in no time.  Except that the grammar is tough for me.  And just in case my Swahili doesn’t improve quickly enough, I have been assigned a Swahili interpreter to accompany me to my meetings.

On this assignment I am again working with CNFA, the NGO that sent me to Malawi and Mozambique previously.   I have been tasked to evaluate and help improve the operation of Tandale, the country’s largest wholesale grain market, based in Dar es Salaam – – Dar for short.  Discovering shortcomings in the market has been simple.  I merely visited Tandale and walked around.  The roof has holes in it allowing rain to pour through onto the bags of rice, corn, and legumes.  Soggy grain loses value quite quickly.   The dirt floors are not conducive to keeping food clean for human consumption, especially when the dirt turns to mud.  Interior aisles are narrow, crowded, and labyrinthine, making navigation difficult for the porters carrying 220 pound grain sacks on their backs.  Surprisingly there are few reported injuries among porters, but there is high incidence of tuberculosis in that group.  On the bright side, Tandale Market management has set up several pool tables for the porters to enjoy between hoisting very heavy loads.

So I figure my essential task is to prioritize the needed improvements.  Someone else will have to figure out where the funding will come from.  And this is always the biggest challenge in poor countries.

I have met with officials high and low: senior staff in the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Trade, the mayor’s office, leadership of the market, trade association leaders, produce vendors at the market, even the market’s two custodians, as well as the ladies who cook lunch for the vendors.  These ladies are referred to as the “Nutrition Mamas.”  All agree on the changes to be made.  However, none of them is quite sure where the money will come from.  Leaving this intractable problem aside for a while, I have headed into the Tanzanian countryside to meet with farmers and crop traders who supply the market and also with management of other markets to see if I can glean some beneficial ideas to transfer back to Tandale.  This stage of my journey will appear in later postings.

Just so you don’t go away ignorant of Tanzania, I offer the following:  To find Tanzania, locate the equator, follow it to Africa’s east coast (Indian Ocean coast) then look slightly south.  It is a big place, about 1.5 times the size of Texas; and at 43 million people, its population is comparable to Texas and New York combined.  But it is poor, GDP/capita rank is 202nd of the 228 countries in the CIA World Factbook.  (It seems I haven’t been invited to work in a wealthy country yet.)

As you know, Tanzania is famous for its herds of wildlife.  While I will not be going on a safari during my stay, in my next report I may tell you about the giraffes and zebras I saw beside the highway.  You’ll just have to stay tuned.

Elephants in the Mist

Mozambique update – April 26, 2011

In my last post I reported that I was spending several days near the small rural town of Dombe, meeting with groups of farmers to learn their needs and hopes for their association.  After the final meeting we were invited to stay for lunch at the home of Paolo, the association president.  We ate inside his wattle-walled (stick and mud) dining room.

The menu was local: Boiled pumpkin leaves with chopped onion, stewed chicken drumstick, and thick corn porridge, “nxima. “ This is the same dish I reported on from Malawi a couple of months back. There it is called “nsima.”  Clearly there are similar cuisines and related languages on both sides of the M&M border – – Malawi and Mozambique.  Nxima was a decent grain dish, made by Paolo’s wife from their own farm corn, hand shucked in front of their mud and thatch home in their dirt courtyard.  Because much of the preparation was done around dirt and mud, the porridge had a few more tiny stones in it than the porridge one buys at Whole Foods.  But if you can get beyond the extra grit in the diet, the lunch was perfectly enjoyable.

Following four days of meeting the farmers’ groups, I returned to Chimoio, the provincial capital to meet with crop buyers and to draft my preliminary report.  I also managed to fit in a shoe shine on the street at 16 cents.

And then I returned to Dombe to share preliminary recommendations with the association board and other association members.  Thirty people crowded into a small room to hear our report.  A few lucky men got to sit on wooden benches.  The rest, including all the women had to sit on mats on the floor.  Not even the two women nursing their babies during the meeting rated a bench.  As guest of honor, I was provided a straight backed chair as was Fran-shees-ko my interpreter.

Periodically, I would pause during my presentation to ask if the audience agreed or disagreed with a just-made point.  They never disagreed.  Perhaps I had absolutely nailed their needs.  But more likely, they were just being polite to the foreigner who flew across the Atlantic to work with them.  But when they agreed with me, instead of nodding or saying yes, instead they would clap and ululate.  For those of you who have never heard ululation, it is sort of a high pitched, sing-song trilling sound common in Africa and the Middle East…and very pleasing to the ear.  Especially when it means they agree with you.

So after several days of hard work and a good meeting with the association we decided to take a break at our advantageous location: Ndzou (elephant) Camp.  We arranged a guided hike to view the namesake animals in the adjacent national part.  We departed shortly after sunrise for a 10 mile 4×4 ride to the starting point of our trek into the rainforest.  There were four of us: Azarias, the driver; Rocha, a colleague at my NGO; Fran-shees-ko, the interpreter, and I. In addition we had two local tracking guides with us.

Farmers in the area had reported elephants in their fields the evening before so we parked our vehicle and began to walk.  It had rained heavily before sunrise, consequently a heavy mist still hung over the trees as we started our pachyderm search, but the sun looked like it was begging to break through.

The recent downpours had left the narrow paths that wound up and down the rainforest mountainside quite slick.  Every now and then I would lose my footing and begin to slide.  I quickly learned that when this happened, the best thing to do was to place my feet shoulder width apart and “ski” down the muddy trail…hoping for the best at the bottom.  Sort of a modified snowplow, with no stopping ability. The last time I had been this out of control was when my son made me follow him down a double black diamond through the trees at Taos.  Sliding down the muddy rainforest piste I didn’t dare grab hold of adjacent trees and vines.  Many were covered in thorns.

While we continued to hike, the sun eventually quit begging. The mist thickened and it began raining cats and dogs.  This was not particularly helpful since we were actually looking for elephants.  We hiked through several small banana fields (based on the theory that elephants like bananas) and past a couple of family farm compounds.  At one, the family had opened a baseball-sized tree pod that was filled with caterpillars.  They would dry the insects in the sun, then cook and eat them.  We didn’t wait for dinner.

One guide – – with a machete – – led our single file squad, the other guide brought up the rear while carrying a clucking chicken that Rocha had insisted on buying from one of the farms we had passed.  We hiked along the narrowest of jungle paths.  Some paths were so overgrown that our lead guide hacked his way through with a machete.  Now, I am just a muzungu (white guy) from the city, but I figured if a human cannot walk down a trail without enlarging it, it is highly unlikely that a herd of the largest land animal on earth had recently passed through.  But nobody asked me.  However we crossed intersecting trails that showed signs of elephants: large muddy footprints and elephant droppings.  So we knew we were hot on the track.

During part of the search I walked immediately behind the machete wielding guide and quickly learned not to walk too close.  To open a covered trail the guide’s overhead wind-up nearly gave me a cerebral contusion, then his below the knees follow through almost resulted in a vasectomy.  Neither of these outcomes was desired.  I backed off.

After 3.5 hours of up and down hiking, occasionally snagged by wait-a-minute vines, through an increasingly inundated forest, I had all but given up hope of finding an elephant.  We had seen a couple of monkeys in the trees above us, a few caterpillars, the chicken that Rocha had purchased, but no elephants.  We were worn out and ready to call it quits.  In fact by this point I felt like a new recruit on a forced march with Delta Force instead of a common tourist in search of pachyderms.  But then we broke through into a clearing and right there in front of us, unexpectedly, was our 4X4 vehicle exactly where we had parked it.  We got in and drove back to our eco-lodge.  Mission not complete.  And of course the guide fee was the same with or without the desired sighting.  Payment was fixed and was not results based.

When I get around to it I plan to re-title this posting, “No Elephants in the Mist.”

The First Rung of the Economic Ladder

Mozambique update – April  19, 2011

When I accepted this volunteer assignment, the spec sheet listed several job requirements.  One of them was patience.  Well, last Tuesday we planned to leave Chimoio around 2 in the afternoon.  We were headed several hours south to a rural town where we would work with our assigned farmers’ association.  Often things seem to move more slowly here in Africa than back home.  Consequently, that Tuesday, instead of pulling out at 2 PM as scheduled, we didn’t depart until 4:30 PM.  On Thursday.

Now I am used to late departures.  Some of my relatives (and I love them dearly) specialize in late departures.  But nothing could prepare me for leaving 50.5 hours late.  And it wasn’t as if a catastrophe prevented our on-time departure.  Just a series of minor screw ups and senseless delays piled one on top of another until Thursday afternoon.  So patience is indeed a critical skill required for this job.  And a sense of humor about these things helps too.

Since we left so late in the afternoon, the final two hours of our drive was after dark…on a dirt road, and I really don’t like driving at night in developing countries, especially on dirt roads.  Even after dark, this dirt road was swarming with pedestrians.  And when an oncoming car would stir up a blizzard of dust, we would be faced with a whiteout situation – – or to be a shade more accurate, a tan-out situation. Our headlights reflecting back at us off the swirling dust cloud reduced us to near blindness. We couldn’t see the road, we couldn’t see the pedestrians.  Somehow swerving through numerous tan-outs we stayed on the road without hitting anyone.

But we were rewarded at the end of our journey.  The town of Dombe, where our association is based, has no hotels or restaurants.  At least not ones that a westerner would recognize as a hotel or a restaurant.  So we pushed on twenty miles into a mountainous rainforest to stay in a beautiful eco-lodge.  The Nzdou Camp is a collection of spacious round brick huts with thatched conical roofs. Each hut has a hot water shower, toilet, and electricity (sometimes all day).  My hut had a large wooden deck that hung out over a steep valley and offered a panoramic view of the surrounding elephant reserve.  In fact Ndzou means elephant in the local Shona language.  No elephants in the camp, but one morning shortly after sunrise I spotted a most spectacular spider’s web, 10 feet across, with a golf ball sized black and yellow arachnid still spinning its trap.  Someone once told me, “If you don’t like insects, don’t come to Africa.”  I shudder to think what an inadvertent walk into this giant web would have done to my psyche.  But fortunately it never happened.

The morning after our arrival, the same morning of my spider spotting, we drove down the mountain into Dombe to begin our meetings with the members of the farmers’ association.  We met with the association board of directors and several other ranking association personnel.  Since they didn’t speak English I had to rely on my multi-lingual interpreter, Francisco – – pronounced Fran-shees-ko – – to translate for me.  Some of the farmers’ association personnel didn’t even speak great Portuguese, so talented Fran-shees-ko translated into Shona as well.  Consequently my 20 words of Portuguese weren’t really needed.  And my two-word Shona vocabulary was even less helpful.  For the record my two words are “datenda” (thank you) and “ndzou” (but you already know what that means…elephant, if you haven’t been paying attention.)

There is no computer or typewriter at the association.  So all minutes, notes, and records are written by hand.  The association does not copy these documents for dissemination because there is no copy machine in town.  When an important announcement must be made to the 1400 members, the association leadership calls or texts 35 senior members who have cell phones.  They in turn take the greater part of a day to visit about 40 farmers each, on foot or by bicycle – – since nearly all 1400 have no cell phone.  They also have no car, no electricity, and no ox.  Plowing is done by hand hoe.

My goal is to work with the association to devise a business plan that will encourage growth and development.  In and around Dombe I visited several groups of farmers to learn their needs.  For the first of these meetings we drove one hour south from Dombe (on a dirt road, naturally) then several hundred yards along a narrow farm path to a small picturesque settlement of round mud homes with thatched roofs.  The homes surrounded a packed dirt central plaza.  About 25 people lived there.

Attending our meeting were six farmers from this and surrounding settlements. The local headman came with two of his three wives.  Wife number one farms the fields to the north and south of the plaza, while wife number two handles fields east and west.  I don’t know wife number three’s farming responsibilities.  Because we were meeting with people far outside even rural Dombe, the official language, Portuguese, was not understood by all.  Most have had little formal schooling and some are illiterate. Shona was the language of choice.

We sat in a circle on hand hewn log benches just off the dirt plaza under a large shade tree.  Chickens, dogs, ducks, and guinea fowl wandered around our group.  Timid young kids watching from a distance eventually lost their shyness and minute by minute crept closer to our alfresco meeting.  I was stunned at how captivating business planning can be to seven year olds.  Or perhaps it was just the lighter shade of skin that drew them.

After the meeting the polygamist headman (totally accepted in rural Mozambique) offered to show me around the settlement and into the corn and sesame fields nearby.  I quickly accepted since I was mesmerized by the place.  At a far corner of the settlement a local women was tending the moonshine still.  She was distilling fermented bananas into whisky.  I was offered some of the just made hooch.  It was so strong I couldn’t taste the banana, just the fire.  Not my drink of choice.

At the next meeting we asked the farmers how their lives had changed since joining the association.  One woman replied, “I used to be poor.  I had no bed, no blanket, no radio, and my roof was made of straw.  I felt sorry for myself.  But because the association finds higher priced markets for our crops, I am happy.  Now I have all of those things and a metal roof as well.”  Another farmer, a middle aged man, said, “Because of our farmers’ association I now own two cows, four sheep, and I am building a small store.”  I find it absolutely heartwarming that an abjectly poor farmer can now grasp the first rung of the economic ladder.

Another M Country

Mozambique update – April 13, 2011

I have just started a new volunteer business assignment in Africa.  As with my recent work in Malawi I will be working on a USAID-funded assignment, managed by CNFA, the same Washington DC based NGO that sent me to Malawi.  In an effort to cover all the M countries in southeastern Africa before moving on, I will be working this time in Mozambique.  To find Mozambique, go to South Africa, then move one country north along the Indian Ocean.

I started in Beira, a major port, serving central Mozambique and landlocked Zimbabwe to the west.  Flying in on Monday I saw a patchwork of small fields around the city.  Rice was growing in many fields – – this part of the country is tropical, hot, and humid.  However, mercifully I have arrived at the beginning of the dry season and now it is quite pleasant…sunny and warm but not so hot.

Portugal colonized Mozambique and didn’t give up their colony until relatively recently: 1975.  Mozambique then fell into the Soviet orbit and suffered 17 years of the failed communist experiment.  But today it is a relatively successful developing country with a rapidly growing economy and a reasonably functioning democracy.  But poor: ranks 217 out of 229 countries tracked.

Walking around Beira I observed three eras of architecture:  1) Portuguese colonial style – – quite stately but somewhat faded, sometimes even dilapidated… not unusual in a poor developing country.  2) Some of the finest concrete-block buildings inspired by the Soviet Union.  Several buildings look as if the architect for the proverbial Moscow Hilton (ca 1960) was invited here to offer his bland rectangular grey concrete design.  3) And finally structures from the current era – -some quite chic and modern.  But scattered throughout all three eras of architecture (and far greater in number) are poor, ramshackle African homes and buildings.

After my work introduction in coastal Beira I have moved 120 miles inland to Chimoio, Mozambique’s fifth largest city (237,000) and capital of Manica province.  This highland region hugs Mozambique’s western border with Zimbabwe.  Before moving on, a quick aside about Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe has been run into the ground by hero freedom fighter turned brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe.  His boneheaded policies have led to world record inflation, an inflation so rampant that Zimbabwe printed a 100 trillion dollar bill…written Z$100,000,000,000,000.  That’s a one followed by 14 zeros.  Now imagine trying to negotiate in a local handicrafts market for a carved wooden hippo.  Try to divide quickly in your head by 100 trillion to figure out the dollar price.  The Z$100 trillion bill was worth 30 cents (US) shortly before Zimbabwe eliminated its worthless currency and now uses only US dollars, Euros, and South African Rand.

But I own one of these Z$100 trillion bills (from an earlier trip) and recently tried to pass it off in my hometown bank by holding my thumb over “Zimbabwe” and  showing just the $100 trillion part.  The teller didn’t fall for it.  I think the image of Robert Mugabe instead of Abraham Lincoln spoiled my scam.  But I’m hanging on to it.  If ever the Zimbabwe dollar becomes legal tender again, I’ll be set for life.  But back to Mozambique…

I will spend the next couple of weeks in the highlands around Chimoio helping a farmers association develop a business plan designed to grow the size of their business.  If any of you need a good source of corn, soy, or sesame, please let me know.

To get a feel for this country, you should know that Mozambique is about 10% larger than Texas in land mass, but has a population slightly smaller – – around 23 million here.  This translates into a sparsely populated country with lots of open space, quite similar to Texas in this regard.  However, one major difference is that people here don’t often wear expensive cowboy hats.  There are other differences too.  Some of these will unfold over the course of my ensuing reports.

Do the Mamba

Malawi update – February 19, 2011

The drive to my work site in Dwangwa was 3 hours north from Lilongwe through some of the most verdant countryside I have ever seen. Even the Irish would have OD-ed on the multiple shades of green.

I am staying at the Kasasa Club. This is a country club of sorts, serving the surrounding South African-owned sugar plantation. Besides lodging, the club offers golf, tennis, squash, and a swimming pool. This is not actually as glamorous as it sounds, but it is certainly better than I expected in a poor African country. The rooms are well worn, but spacious…and due to mosquitoes, well screened to include a bed net. But the net at the tennis court is shredded beyond use and the surface is unplayable crumbling concrete. The swimming pool’s smooth milky surface is broken by floating leaves and floating bugs and also bugs that look like leaves. But all in all, it is in the upper echelon of places I have stayed in the rural 3rd world. The golf course is functional, so too bad I only play golf once a decade. I don’t consider golf a full fledged sport. What sort of sport is it where you can’t dive for the ball?

The staple food in Malawi is “nsima,” eaten at lunch and again at dinner, virtually 365 days a year. Nsima is congealed cornmeal porridge made by slowly adding corn flour, bit by bit, to boiling water. Nsima is done when the consistency is similar to that of partially congealed oat meal left unfinished in the bottom of your breakfast bowl.

Once it has reached this firmness, nsima is served, still piping hot, on a plate along with a protein dish. The proper way to eat it is with the right hand: break off a small portion, roll it into a ball, then using the natural stickiness of the of the corn porridge, pick up a bit of the side dish. My client runs a grinding mill and consequently he can always scrounge up a pot full of cornmeal to make nsima. He has taken to serving me a daily lunch of this staple dish along with chicken or freshwater fish as the accompaniment. The relative blandness of the unspiced, coagulated corn porridge goes well with a bit of poultry or fish in sauce.

But on Thursday I hit the jackpot: the combination plate. And I am not talking about the chicken/fish combo plate. Instead, he served me toasted flying ants and termites. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Sounds good except for the flying ant wings.” Well, the good news is that the wings get singed away during cooking (in a hot skillet over a charcoal fire.) Consequently, one gets a nice crunchy taste with a hint of natural saltiness. You may think I am just saying this, but the flying ant/termite dish was really good. Please email me back if you want to be invited to my next dinner party. Or not.

Back at the Kasasa Club after work that day, I skipped golf (as I have done every day for the past 10 years) and went for a long walk along the country roads. I saw my first black mamba. This is Africa’s longest – – and the world’s fastest – – venomous snake. It can move at a max speed of 12.5 mph. Had I known this beforehand I would not have been so cavalier to walk within 6 feet of it. I only learned this fact after visiting NationalGeographic.com at the end of my walk. The website reports, “…without antivenin, a bite from this fearsome serpent is usually 100 percent fatal within 20 minutes.” But, this black mamba didn’t mess with me. After all, I eat flying ants.

Count Your Blessings

Malawi update – February 12, 2011

I have been on the job for one week now, working in Dwangwa, an agricultural trading center of about 20,000 people. This town is located in the central part of the country near the western shore of Lake Malawi. I am working with Tendai Poultry Feed. TPF is a very small company (five employees) that grinds corn, soy, and other grains, then mixes the grains along with vitamins into small pellets as feed for broiler chickens. They also make mash, sort of like muesli, as feed for laying hens. They sell this product in large 120 pound bags to local poultry farmers.

As in past international business gigs, my assignment is to introduce more modern business tools. In my first week I have helped TPF to track its sales and expenses in order to create a monthly income statement. Now for the first time they are able to discover at the end of each month if they have made a profit in the preceding 30 days.

And in order to increase the likelihood that they do make a profit, I have also helped TPF with a variety of marketing and sales activities. Together we have designed a small highway billboard. (While the highway is indeed small, I am referring to the billboard in this case.) We have also put together a program to distribute 2 pound sample bags of feed to prospective customers and have designed an appropriate accompanying label. In addition, we have created English and Chichewa handbills to post on telephone poles in the area.

One day last week, my translator and I rode a public minibus to the district capital to meet with the local radio station. We are crafting a radio ad. Any of you who have listened to rural radio in America’s heartland will know the tone of poultry feed ads: “Poultry farmers looking for high quality feed should know about Tendai Poultry Feed. We offer starter, grower, and finisher feed for broilers…” Those of you who have access to 101.9 FM in Malawi should listen to our new ad. You will need to have a basic understanding of Chichewa to fully appreciate it, however.

My translator’s name is Blessings Banda. While most people speak a modicum of English, for me to discuss topics beyond the social niceties, Chichewa is essential. And that’s where Blessings comes in. He also negotiates purchases for me so that I pay closer to the Malawian rate rather than the foreigner’s rate. And he is highly adept with document design software so that our handbills and sample bag labels look almost professional. For me, he is truly a blessing.

One experience I like to have on each of my assignments is to get a haircut. I don’t really know why I find this experience so enjoyable, but I do. Blessings took me to a barbershop on Dwangwa’s main street and passed on my instructions: clean up the back of the neck and around the ears; take no more than one quarter inch off the top and sides. The young barber seemed thrilled with his first white man’s haircut. Up until then he had cut only Malawian hair and virtually all Malawian men wear Michael Jordan-length hair. This is not my hairstyle. The young barber began joking and showing off to the ladies’ stylist, swooping the buzzing clippers over – – but slightly above – – my head. I felt obliged to ask Blessings to remind the theatrical barber to limit his removal to just one quarter inch. (Actually, I said one half centimeter – – about the same.) Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the finished haircut was a fine one…perhaps in the top quartile of haircuts I have received during my lifetime. Beginners luck? And regarding value, at roughly 40 cents, easily in the top decile

And now a riddle: How many Malawians does it take to fill the back of a pick up truck? Let me answer that riddle in a round about way. After a productive first week, including a successful haircut, I treated myself to a weekend at nearby Ngala Beach Resort. Without my own transportation I elected to ride public transport along the highway alighting not more than a quarter mile from my weekend hotel destination. Public transport comes in many forms: comfortable large busses, crowded minibuses, and the alfresco ride in the back of a pickup truck. At the time I left, only the pick up truck option was available. At 86 cents for the 12 mile ride, I was quickly on board. (Compare that to the $55 taxi ride from my house to Boston’s Logan airport – – also 12 miles.)

I was among the first passengers to board so I chose a coveted seated position along the wall of the pick up bed. There were no benches so the other passengers and I perched ourselves on the narrow metal wall. Sort of uncomfortable, but still a seat, and my seat was next to the cab so that I would be able to enjoy the view as we motored along. As experienced elsewhere in the developing world, we waited until the pick up truck was full before departing. After 20 minutes waiting, and sitting on that narrow metal wall, my butt was getting pretty sore, but at least I had a coveted seat and the truck was nearing capacity.

The late arriving passengers could find no seat so they stood in the center of the bed. Now I want you to picture the first standing rider positioned next to the cab, he held on to the top of the cab. The next stander held on to him. The next in line held the passenger to his front, and so on. Ultimately we had a conga line of five standers. At highway speed, with the driver dodging the ubiquitous pedestrians and bicyclists, the final stander would essentially play a life and death version of crack-the-whip. Eventually, the truck could take no more, it was packed – – actually beyond capacity. So the answer to the riddle is that it takes 16 Malawians to fill the bed of a pick up truck. (Technically, 15 Malawians and one American.) We also had to fit in the contents of a small grocery store. One of the passengers had purchased enough foodstuffs in Dwanga to stock his store in Ngala.

The bed was so crowded that my body was bent in an unnatural position and my legs were twisted in a most uncomfortable way. But at least I had a coveted seated position. However, it turns out that 16 is not the correct answer to my riddle. Along the way we picked up more passengers. And a second grocery store. The number of passengers climbed. Some sitting on the metal sides, some perched on the bags and boxes of food, five forming the standing conga line, one mother on the pick up bed seated between standing legs while nursing her baby. It was so crowded that I was immobile and my twisted and tortured body could find no movement for relief. The only thing that took my mind off my increasing pain was the large bug that smacked into my cheek; I played the role of windshield for that bug. After my cheek stopped stinging my body pain returned.

In the developing world, low cost transportation is in great demand. And in case you are still curious, the correct answer to the riddle is 22. And that doesn’t count the two women and one infant in the cab with the driver. I think I’ll opt for the $55 cab ride next time.

Outcoached in Malawi

Malawi Update – February 6, 2011

Flying into the capital, Lilonge, one sees a patchwork of small fields growing corn, tobacco, soybeans, and much else. The great majority of people here are farmers – – many are subsistence farmers – – in this poor southeast African nation. Malawi’s GDP/capita ranks 219 out of 229 tracked in the CIA’s World Factbook. (A really interesting factbook even if you don’t intend to overthrow dictators. And anyway, Malawi is a democracy. )

The capital has one million inhabitants, but feels much less populated due to wide open fields and sparcely spaced low rise buildings throughout the city. I haven’t seen a building yet (on my first day) that resembles a skyscraper. But I did spend time in the open air marketplace: acres of open sided huts selling all sorts of used and inexpensive items: shoes, clothing, cell phones, hardware, as well as basic foodstuffs. I didn’t need any of the preceding so I merely wandered aimlessly throughout, to the chagrin of the hard working touts trying to unload their excess inventory of well worn shoes.

I was coerced into a game of checkers on a hand drawn checker board played with bottle caps. I thought I was pretty good at the game, but was whipped mercilessly by a guy in the market who apparently has more time to practice than I have. And besides he used a few trick moves that I was not aware of – – like a non-king that can jump in any direction and a king that can move the length of the board without stopping. But out of sportsmanship let’s just say I was outcoached.

Most shops and restaurants were closed today (Sunday.) This, like several other African nations, is a devoutly Christian country. (80% of the people are Christian, 13% Muslim, and the rest a mélange of other religions.) I did find the Green Restaurant open. I was the only lunchtime diner in this cavernous Chinese eatery. I assume that the Chinese have made substantial commercial inroads in Malawi just as they have in other African countries. Otherwise, what could account for a restaurant that can serve hundreds? The staff were recent immigrants from Hangzhou, China and spoke little English. When I told them I had recently visited China (an exaggeration – I was there in 1984) they were thrilled enough to turn on the Chinese language TV station for me.

I learned through experience (today) that diced chicken, Hangzhou -style, includes diced fat and diced bones and some diced meat. Waste not want not when you have 1.2 billion to feed. But apparently some of the 1.2 billion are here in Malawi. I passed the Shanghai Market, Wejian Shop, and China Weavers…all closed on this Sunday afternoon.

But enough about China, this report is on Malawi. I will spend 2.5 weeks here assisting a poultry feed factory improve its business reporting capabilities. After a briefing Monday morning here in Lilongwe, I will drive out to my work area in Dwangwa, an agricultural trading center, 170 miles northwest of here, near the shores of 365 mile long Lake Malawi. The country itself is landlocked, blocked from the Indian Ocean by Tanzania and Mozambique to the east. So Lake Malawi serves as its ocean, providing fish, steamer transportation, and beach tourism.

English is the official language and something like 90% of Malawians speak it…but not always coherently. I saw two guys beside the main street in Lilongwe, one holding a puppy, the other a kitten. Clearly the animals were for sale although they look suspiciously like strays to me. I approached the prospective pet sellers and asked the price. They answered in English that I did not understand. Perhaps $4 for the dog, less for the cat. And while English is the official language, Chichewa is the national language. I am not too sure of the difference between an official- and a national- language. If I sort that out before I finish my assignment I’ll report on it.

Let’s close with one more educational fact about Malawi. It is roughly the same size as Ohio. But Malawi is long and thin, and as you know from childhood, Ohio is high in the middle and round on the ends. Both this country and that state have about the same population: Malawi 14 million, Ohio 12 million. So until next report, think of Malawi as a very poor Ohio.

Name that Albanian

You may know the late John Belushi for his iconic role in Animal House.  You may also know his actor brother, Jim Belushi , and of course Regis Philbin, TV personality.  All are of Albanian descent.  But the most famous Albanian of them all was Mother Teresa.  Actually she was born in Macedonia, but at the time (1912) Macedonia was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and was administered by them as Greater Albania.  That’s enough for modern day Albanians to claim her as their own…and name streets and squares after her, erect statues, and hang giant posters.  I occasionally see elderly women with white head scarves, a la Mother Teresa.   They are very proud of her.

They are less proud of their Gypsy (Roma) population.  Albania is poor by European standards, but not by world standards.  The only people I ever see begging are Roma mothers, sitting on a busy sidewalk with young children draped over them.  It appears to me that such begging is more a lifestyle choice, that a poverty-induced requirement.  Young Roma boys hang around crowded streets in the evening.  As a car begins to back into a parallel parking space, a boy will make a show of directing the driver into the space…then stand near the driver’s door until the driver emerges and hands over a few coins for a service he didn’t ask for and didn’t need.  But wise just to part with the coins anyway.  This disenfranchised population – – and not just in Albania, but in many European countries – – needs to be integrated into society, but no one knows just how.

I have finished my footwear factory tour, taking in eight factories around the country.  Shoe factories are a big deal here, they employ 100,000 people – – a lot in a small country, and they account for 18% of GDP, again a big number.  Such factories provide needed employment and especially for women.  Few men work in the factories, perhaps because of tasks that are required – – cutting, stitching, sewing – – are traditionally viewed as women’s work.  And Albania, especially rural Albania where many of the factories are located, is very traditional.  Factories adjust their schedules so that their mostly female workforce can leave work in mid afternoon, shop for groceries, then arrive home in time to put a hot meal on the table for hubby.  Factories never run a second shift because that would require their female workers to be at work in the evening leaving father and children to fend for themselves.

Tirana is a mix of old and the new.  Old means decrepit, crumbling buildings from the communist era.  New means bright, shiny new buildings.  But not everyone can afford a bright shiny new building, so they do the next best thing: they paint over the old crumbling buildings.  And they paint with the loudest, gaudiest, most clashing colors available.  It is a visual treat to walk around town comparing the old, the new, and the painted-over.  Check out my newest photos.

I have had a very heavy work schedule here.  For most of my assignment I have been going 60 mph with my hair on fire.  Consequently, I decided that I deserved a break so I found a place to get a one hour massage at the relatively affordable price of $36.  By luck of the draw I ended up with a Philappina woman.  She was an excellent masseuse.  At least until she jumped up onto the massage table with me, then jammed her hands and knees into my lower back, balancing there as her bony joints dug into me.   In order to mask the sound of my spine rupturing, I began a conversation that I often use with foreigners.  “Are there any good Philippino restaurants in Tirana?”  (I knew there weren’t.)

A few days later I found myself at a birthday party in a private apartment with fifteen Philippinos – – one guy, fourteen women, and me, eating the finest Philippino food in all of Albania.  Based on the food alone, I think I’d like to work in the Philippines next.  And since my Albanian adventure ends tomorrow, who knows what will be next?  Stay tuned.

The Family Bunker

You can’t tell by looking, but Albania is a predominantly Muslim country. (70% Muslim, 20% Orthodox Christian, 10% Catholic.) As in many Muslim countries, men wear no distinctive clothing that provides a clue to the individual’s religion.  However, in most places the dress of the women is a clear give away.  But not here.  Young women of all religions wear tight revealing clothing, sort of like in Italy, but not quite to that extreme.  Pork appears on most every restaurant menu, as do alcoholic beverages.  Night clubs and bars pulsate.  I have yet to see a veiled woman and the number of headscarves I have seen can be tallied on one hand.  White domed mosques paired with graceful minarets are scattered about…but I don’t see too many people going to them.

For over a decade in the midst of Dictator Enver Hoxha’s autocratic rule, Albania went through a period of forced atheism.  Religious practice was absolutely forbidden.  Perhaps that is why even today Muslim is more of a heritage or cultural artifact than a rigid guide to living one’s life.  I suspect Albanian Christianity is likewise.

The cuisine here is not world class, but it is pretty good.  Traditional Balkan food includes lots of grilled meats, varieties of feta cheese, and plentiful fruits and vegetables.  In Adriatic-hugging Albania one can find a fine selection of fresh fish as well.  Due to Albania’s Mediterranean climate – – we are on the same latitude as Italy’s heel – – at this time of year the open markets brim with oranges, tangerines, pomegranates, kiwis.  And just climb one thousand feet in altitude and one finds more temperate fruit: apples and pears.  So, while I pretty much avoid the heavy meat portion of the menu, I can find much that appeals to my palate.  Including, of course, many Italian-inspired pasta dishes. The Italians were good enough to bring their food with them during their many occupations of neighboring Albania.  Augustus Caesar was here (but rushed home upon news of Julius’ assassination on the Ides of March.)  Mussolini sent his fascist troops as well.  Fortunately, today big Italy and little Albania are good friends.

The Italians were not the only invaders, we can include the Germans, the Greeks, the Bulgarians, and especially Turkey and its Ottoman Empire.  They controlled the country for 500 years leading up to World War I.   All these invasions could bring on paranoia – – who is coming next?  Well, Enver Hoxha, a master of paranoia, wanted to make sure that the next invaders were properly greeted.  Consequently he ordered 700,000 steel and concrete bunkers built.  This is 700,000 bunkers in a country of just 3.6 million people.  Safe to say that most ever family had one. These one-person bunkers were, and still are, scattered all over the country, but especially along anticipated invasion routes.   I have seen them on every trip I have taken outside of Tirana.

They are a solid round shell, about five feet in diameter.  Perhaps four feet is buried in the earth, the top foot or so, along with a small slit window, pokes above ground.  Every able bodied man was expected to collect a rifle and retire to his bunker when the invasion came.  Well, the invasion never came.  Hoxha passed away, communism collapsed, but 700,000 bunkers remained.  Unfortunately they are too small to turn into anything useful, like a disco or a snack bar, unless you like dancing and dining alone – – or much of anything else for that matter.  So they remain, like large concrete mushrooms poking through the earth, to remind Albanians and tourists of a confusing time in the middle of the 20th century.

My hotel stands on the edge of an area in downtown Tirana called “The Block.”  During Hoxha’s rule (we just can’t seem to get away from his legacy) The Block was a closed zone, closed to everyday people.  Only ranking communist officials could enter the area.  Their homes were here, as were shops that carried items the rest of the population could not get.  Today the block is the most happening area of Tirana.  It is packed with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and offices.  My office is here.   The area is lively from early in the morning to well past my bedtime.  After a busy day at work, I stroll around The Block, to pick out my restaurant.  I can always find a good menu that won’t set me back more that $10 – $15 max.

And now, back to Hoxha:  During his time private ownership of cars was not allowed; private business was forbidden.  Even such basic services as barber shops, cafes, shoe shines were all government run.  And not surprisingly, inefficiently run.

One of my Albania work colleagues grew up in the 1970s – – right in the middle of the communist era.  She told me that furniture factories turned out one style, and only one style, of each item.  Consequently, her family owned the same coffee table, the same sofa, and so on, as every one of their neighbors.  If by mistake, she stumbled into a friend’s home, she might not initially realize she was in the wrong place.  Presumably the friend’s mother looked different than her own mother.  If someone lucked out and was able to purchase a TV, all the neighbors would show up with boxes of chocolates to offer their congratulations…and also, I suppose, to jockey for an invitation to watch TV.  But they didn’t get “All in the Family.”  Hoxha wouldn’t allow that.

007… and 1/2

Albania is small, about the size of Maryland; with a population of 3.6 million, similar to metro Seattle.  And poor: ranks 42 of 47 countries in Europe in GDP per capita.  I am here for the month of October to help Albania – – or at least its footwear industry – – become just a little bit wealthier.  I am working on a USAID-funded project to bring modern sales and marketing tools to Albania’s inward looking footwear manufacturers.

Albania is in the western Balkans, north of Greece, south of Montenegro, west of Kosovo and Macedonia, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.  In fact, if Italy cocked its boot back any farther, its heel would thump Albania in the stomach.

I arrived on Tuesday to find a hybrid country.  At first blush, Tirana (the capital) looks much like the rest of Europe: modern steel and glass office buildings, up to date malls, vibrant cafes and restaurants, traffic jams.  But looking deeper I saw the signs of a still emerging economy: haphazardly strung electrical wires, cigarettes, gum, shoe shines sold by sidewalk vendors, open markets with piles of second hand shoes and clothing for sale, also used hand tools and cell phone chargers.  Hubcaps sold streetside.  There are plenty of local fresh fruits and vegetables in the markets, but also unrefrigerated butchered meat on display and homemade cooking oil sold in recycled plastic bottles of varying sizes.  And still crumbling, communist-era concrete block buildings. So Albania is clearly a mixed bag.

The country (and its industry) is still emerging from a half century of gross mismanagement by Enver Hoxha, Albania’s late paranoid communist dictator.  In fact following World War II until the early 1990s, Albania was Europe’s version of North Korea.

I am based in the capital, Tirana, but will take several trips to provincial towns elsewhere in the country where shoe factories are found.  In my first week I traveled to Shkodra in the far north near the border with the aforementioned, Montenegro – – a country so new (2006) some of you might not even know it exists.  I have already visited four shoe factories, and as an added bonus, one underwear factory.  I think my hosts threw that in because they heard I liked underwear.

I am working in an office headed by an American, but staffed with 13 Albanians…all of whom speak remarkably good English.  I speak remarkably little Albanian.  The language forms its own branch on the Indo-European language tree.  This means it is distantly related to English, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, but has no close cousins (like Spanish and Italian.)  One of the first things a student looks for in a new language is cognates, words that are recognizable from language to language.

I discovered some cognates on the menu during my first restaurant meal:  okotpod = octopus, birre = beer.  Other words were a bit more difficult to recognize: xaxiq = sour cream with cucumber, berxolle gici = Piggy chop. (Sounds too cuddly to eat.) One item was translated as “white cheese with aluminum.”  (Eat your trace minerals, children.)  The Republic of Albania is a partial cognate, Republika e Shqiperise.  The Albanian part, the non-cognate, is also totally unpronounceable.

Saturday was my first day off.  I walked around Tirana for a while to get the lay of the land and then took a taxi (seldom more than $5 anywhere in town) to the cable car on the outskirts of the city.  There I was whisked a thousand or so feet upward, high on the flank of Mount Dajti, spectacularly overlooking Tirana and its plain, then further west 30 miles  to the Adriatic.  I decided to hike to the actual mountain peak, nearly two hours above, to take in the scenery and to get some exercise.  I had had no exercise the previous two days, unless one counts watching shoes move along the assembly line.

I hiked uphill for two hours through what I thought was a national park…except that I saw no other hikers during the entire time. This seemed strange for a national park near a city of 700,000 to draw no hikers.  I began to realize I was not in the national park when the two rifle toting soldiers approached me.  An animated conversation in Albanian broke out.  They were animated and they spoke Albanian.  I mostly stood there dumbfounded, occasionally offering my two best Albanian phrases: “I don’t speak Albanian” and “Sorry.”

I gathered that I had been hiking in a restricted military area and the guards weren’t too keen on this.  However, eventually we became friends and they pointed me in the most direct way out and back to the cable car.  I wanted to take photos of them but thought it not wise to push my luck at this point.  But, they did have handsome uniforms.

On my way back to town I realized that I would actually make a very good secret agent with the ability to infiltrate restricted zones and then bluff my way past guards.  I have seen James Bond do this several times.  So maybe on my next gig…

A New Employer in Town

Farmers outside Les Anglais, this rural town of 5,000, are self employed. But in town, very few people have jobs and almost all are very poor. There are a few “ma & pa” stores that employ the owner and perhaps a family member part time. Such a store might be 10 feet by 10 feet in size and would sell daily necessities: soap, batteries, candles, bouillon cubes, etc. The largest (and perhaps only) employer in town runs the combined hotel, restaurant, internet café, flour mill, popsicle maker. He employs 10 people. Our new clean energy store will soon be a relatively large employer: 3 people and growing.

Unemployment is unmeasured, but it must be around 70%; consequently, there is a lot of sitting around on the sidewalk, especially in a shady spot during the heat of the day. I suspect most people exist on aid (e.g. Catholic Relief Services) and on remittances sent from Haitians working abroad. Despite the crushing poverty there are virtually no beggars in this rural area. But there are a few opportunists. I have been hit up to fund a motorcycle purchase, as well as a law school degree. I passed on both contribution opportunities.

We launched the Clean Energy Store on Wednesday. We started the day with a booth at the weekly market. Thousands of townspeople as well as countryside dwellers showed up Wednesday morning to buy their weekly food supplies, used clothing, plastic shoes, woven palm frond donkey saddle bags, and so on. Our booth drew a crowd to watch demonstrations of our efficient cook stoves and to consume the food produced. (Produced tastefully and efficiently, I should add.) We had a DJ who selected a music genre that appealed to young teenagers – – not exactly the target market for cook stoves and solar home systems – – but at least we drew a crowd.

That evening we brought in a group from Port au Prince called Sinema anba Zetwal (Cinema under the Stars.) They set up a large screen in the town square to show a variety of short environmentally themed films…and a few cartoons for the kids. Between films we interviewed local townspeople abut their energy use, we gave out information about our products, and then we raffled off a few of them.

This being a poor country, we didn’t’ sell the raffle tickets, but gave out the tickets in exchange for the entrant’s cell phone number. With residents’ cell numbers we can build a data base of prospective clients to text store updates to in the future.

Thursday morning we opened the doors of the store. The first customers who showed up held the winning raffle tickets from the night before. We did have a few paying customers as well…so now the Magazen Eneji Pwop is off and running. Keep your eyes on this remote tip of Haiti as charcoal use plummets and solar lighting begins to brighten the homes.

And now to wrap up, a few random observations:

The little kids call us rare visiting Americans, “blanc,” which means white. So as I walk down the street the young ones will shout out “blanc, blanc,” always in a friendly, good natured way.

Being a guy, I don’t travel with a mirror. The room where I stayed had no mirror, nor did the bathroom, nor the living room.  I later found that there was a mirror elsewhere in our host’s home; but at one point, I actually went eight straight days without seeing my reflection.  This doesn’t count using my cell phone screen to see a hazy view of a small, very regionalized part of my face.  Going without a mirror for over one week is quite liberating in a strange sort of way.  I was a baby the last time I went so long without seeing my reflection.  You should try it sometime.  It will help you to avoid one of the seven deadly sins, that of vanity.

One day I was laid low by a brief bout of food poisoning. Our hosts were very concerned about my health. They also spent some time discussing the likely cause. Ultimately, local folk wisdom settled on the culprit: I had gone on a bike ride that was followed by drinking hot chocolate. So much for believable folk wisdom.

The Haitians are devoutly religious, mostly Catholic. At each of the meetings we held with the local board of our store, the Haitians would begin and end with a prayer. But the most beautiful part of this was they also included an acapella hymn with each prayer. Really sweet music, from a really sweet people.

So now, with good feelings about my experience here, I will depart tomorrow. Thus ends my reporting from Haiti. This blog will go into suspended animation until I find my next special international opportunity.

Seeking a Miracle

On Saturday my EarthSpark colleague, Allison, and I took a break from work to bike deep into the countryside.  The ride along the Caribbean coast on a dirt road in southwestern Haiti at the tip of the backwards C was absolutely beautiful.  We passed small one and two room homes, thatched roofs, whitewashed walls, that held families of 4 – 10 people (lots of kids here.)  We stopped to cool off in the Caribbean twice and also paused in the shade to purchase a very juicy and refreshing watermelon and to quench our thirst with coconut water from a freshly opened coconut.

We biked westward for 2.5 hours until my left pedal fell off and my rear tire went flat.  Separately, I plan to write a book about the perils of 3rd world bike rentals. Keep your eye on Amazon books.

Haiti is a mountainous country and the green hills are covered in fast growing grass…but are mostly devoid of trees.  No real stands of trees along our entire 2.5 hour ride.  This is a result of unlimited cutting to produce charcoal  and very limited replanting to replace the stripped trees.  We passed eight charcoal manufacturers:  Mounds of dirt covering tee-pee shaped wood piles.  The wood had been lit, then before fully burning, covered with dirt so that the wood would continue to burn in the absence of oxygen, thereby converting the unburned wood to charcoal.  Which brings me to the reason I am in rural Haiti.

I am assisting in the launch of a clean energy store.  Beginning July 7, the residents of Les Anglais and the surrounding countryside will be able to purchase home solar lighting and various cook stoves that are more efficient than traditional stoves. Stoves currently in use are basically free standing metal grates that hold charcoal with a cooking pot set directly on the charcoal.  I suspect that a 50 year old Weber grill is substantially more efficient.  One of our products is called, in Creole, Recho Mirak, or the Miracle Stove.  This stove, if not quite a miracle, is nevertheless a great benefit.  It uses 25% less charcoal than traditional stoves.  In a very poor country, reducing charcoal expenditure by 25% is a big deal.  And slowing deforestation by 25% is a big deal, too.  We even have the Eco Stove which uses 50% less charcoal…but costs substantially more than traditional charcoal stoves.

So, 2.5 hours out of town with a dysfunctional bicycle required us to flag down a passing tap tap: the ubiquitous rural Haitian bus.  Our tap tap was a pick up truck with two parallel wooden benches running along the sides of the pick up bed.  There was room for 8 seated passengers, but with the inclusion of our bikes and a very large bag of charcoal and another of coconuts headed to market, three of the passengers had to ride on the top of the cab.

We ultimately made it back to town to continue preparation for our July 7 store launch.  Stay tuned.

Life at the Tip of the “C”

Haiti occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola between Cuba and Puerto Rico.  (The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern half.)  Haiti is shaped like a backwards letter “C”, pointing westward.

Our six hour drive to Les Anglais took us to the far southwestern tip of the backwards C…through the massive damage in Port au Prince, through the earthquake’s epicenter several miles west of PAP.  There the paved road showed signs of earthquake stress: odd rills and ridges in the asphalt as if Mother Nature had held the roadway at either end and had shaken and twisted it.

But the most precarious part of the drive was when the pavement ran out, about 1.5 hours short of Les Anglais.  The dirt road clung to a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea to our left.  Water which sporadically rushes down seasonal rivers and gullies had washed out stretches of the dirt road.  This required us to creep along a two lane, reduced-to-one-lane road along an irregular precipice on our left plunging to the sea below.  Just glad that Rene, our driver was up to the challenge.

As it was we forded half a dozen rivers before reaching Les Anglais.  The final river was the largest and most challenging: maybe 50 yards wide, hub cap deep at the ford but deeper elsewhere, and flowing briskly.  Enterprising local river guides were waiting for us near the river.  By then it was too dark to discern the hub cap deep passage from the deeper car swallowing passages.  One of the river guides waded to the far side in front of our vehicle leading us across a known safe passage.

Our lodging for the next two weeks is at the home of Madame Alexander, the elderly mother of one of EarthSpark’s vendors.  Her home may be the nicest in this town of 5,000 people.  It is a relatively new concrete three bedroom construction.  My EarthSpark colleague, Allison, and I each have our own rooms, Madame Alexander, the other.  The house is spotlessly clean – – a small army of helpers sweeps, cleans, washes (and cooks) for her daily.

However her house does lack what most every house in Les Anglais lacks: running water and electricity.  I am already accustomed to bucket showers and bedtime preparation by flashlight.  Fortunately EarthSpark is in the clean energy business so my ES solar flashlight never needs replacement batteries.

Sleeping is damn hot though.  The temperature seldom dips much below 80 degrees, the humidity likewise rarely falls below 80%.  My bed is below the level of the high bedroom windows so a refreshing breeze never reaches me.  The mosquito netting around my bed protects me from potential malarial pests, but also traps body heat.  After a cool bucket shower, I slide slowly into bed and lie perfectly still to avoid generating additional body heat.  But that’s just life at the tip of the C.

Finally, the food:  lots of white bread, white rice, and processed cheese – – not my favorite cuisine – – but also fresh tropical fruits and fresh fish, so it all sort of balances out.

Beyond the Rubble

On Friday I started a new business volunteer gig, this time in Haiti…but not in the earthquake zone.  I am not participating in a rebuilding effort.  Instead, I am working for EarthSpark International, a US-based NGO that is bringing clean energy to rural Haiti.  I will spend 17 days in Les Anglais in the far southwest of the country, about six hours over rough, but mostly paved road, from Port au Prince (PAP).

We will launch the Magazen Eneji Pwop (for those of you who don’t read Creole, that is the Clean Energy Store)…a retail store that will sell solar lighting, efficient cook stoves, and alternatives to charcoal fuel.

Haiti is relatively easy to get to, just 3.5 hours Boston to Miami, turn left and travel another 1.5 hours. There is only one time zone change and travel is mostly north to south, so no jet lag to deal with.

Flying into PAP I saw, as expected, numerous collapsed buildings, many tent camps, as well as scores of buildings missing roofs, but with replacement blue plastic tarps to keep out the elements.  The airport is still standing, but – – for safety reasons, I presume – – we disembarked through a newly built temporary arrival hall.  I discovered that a windowless metal building in the tropics, full sunshine, 90 degree heat, gets pretty toasty inside – – especially crowded with people and with only a few weakly spinning fans.  Once through the immigration line and covered in sweat, I went outside to meet my EarthSpark colleagues: executive director Allison (like me, an American) and driver Rene from Haiti.

Since it was too late to begin the six hour drive to Les Anglais, we drove instead to our overnight rooming house through PAP’s ramshackle streets.  The streets display a collection of rubble, much from the earthquake, some from just third world daily life.  Traffic is not particularly heavy.  There are few car owners in this, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.  We passed many, many collapsed, pancaked homes and buildings.  I now understand how the country suffered 200,000 people killed in the January earthquake.

Since few of the remaining buildings are safe to enter, most retail commerce takes place on the sidewalks.  Grilled chicken, coconuts, toilet paper, chewing gum, cigarettes, and so on can all be purchased from a sidewalk vendor.  Throughout the city, are countless tent camps, sheltering I am told up to 1.2 million still homeless Haitians.

A typical tent camp consists of a town square filled with a mix of canvas tents interspersed with plastic lean-to shelters.  Around the border of the tent camp are outhouses and showers set up by relief organizations.  My first impression is that in this incredibly poor country, full reconstruction is years away.

So, a sobering first view of my first afternoon in Haiti.  I will report more once I reach Les Anglais…and its rural povery, well beyond the rubble.

The Rules of the Road

The Buriganga River runs through the capital. I went down to the docks of the teeming river port in Old Dhaka where dozens of river steamers and a few big paddle wheelers were moored, ready to take people all over the country. Remember the country is pretty much a giant river delta (the size of Iowa) and the roads are slow, so the rivers become an indispensible transportation network.

I took a boat trip, but only a short one, and on a small boat. I sat on the floor of a wooden taxi boat, just a few inches above water level. The taxi boat was propelled by a single large oar, wielded by a standing boatman. I was the only passenger. We dodged the big river steamers and the hundreds of competing taxi boats that were transporting people and goods across the broad river. My driver spoke virtually no English and I never did understand his name, but I will call him Bangla (which means Bengali.) Somehow we communicated enough that he knew to take me to far side of the river as my guidebook had suggested.

When we got to the far side he said something like, “Go shore,” which I interpreted to mean we would pull up on the far bank and take a walk. We came ashore next to a schoolyard where I instantly became the center of attention for five classes of elementary schoolgirls. They ran up to try out the three English phrases they had learned: How are you? What is your name? And, what name your country? (America turned out to be a popular answer.)

From the school, Bangla led me through a warren of alleyways, no more than two to three people wide. I thought he was just showing me around, but after 10 minutes of zigzagging through the area, he ducked under a three foot high doorway; I bent over to follow into a small courtyard with 10 single rooms opening onto it. Each room housed a family and all the families were a related extended family unit. We sat in Bangla’s 10×10 one-room home. His wife brought tea and cookies. His three young toddlers showed up on foot or in the arms of the grandma. The doorway and single window were soon crowded with extended relatives peering in at the unexpected stranger who had appeared with the boatman.

Throughout my third world travels this sort of home invitation has happened before and I still never know exactly why I have been led into someone’s home. In this instance, I didn’t know whether this visit was a ploy to get me to leave money for the extended family. If not, offering money for genuine hospitality would be a major insult. Or maybe it was just a thrill for Bangla to show me his home and to show his relatives his foreign customer. Anyway, once he took me back across the river to my starting point, I paid him our agreed upon fee, 100 Bangladeshi taka ($1.25) and then gave him a tip of 100 more, “for your good service and for your family.” I doubt he understood what I was saying, but he gratefully accepted the money.

On Wednesday I went to Kasherpar village with a business colleague, Muzammel. He had invited me to spend the night at his farm in the countryside so that I could observe renewable energy applications in rural areas. Kasherpar is 100 miles SE of Dhaka, near the eastern border with India. Bangladesh also has a northern and a western border with this all-encompassing neighbor.

To reach Muzammel’s village required five frightening hours to travel 100 miles on Bangladesh’s highways. In fact, this journey ranks among my top ten scariest highway drives of all time. It took two hour just to get out of traffic choked Dhaka where red lights seem to be a suggestion, not a command. Once on the highway I learned the rules of the road: Pedestrians (yes there are pedestrians on the highway) must give way to rickshaws. Surprisingly there are rickshaws too, and a pedal powered rickshaw moving at 8 mph is quite an impediment to a car flying up behind at 60 mph. This is not a safe highway situation. So the rickshaws in turn yield to cars which are supplicant to trucks. But the large cross country buses lord it over all of us.

Now let’s put this into practice on the two lane highway. Our driver begins his passing maneuver, overtaking a slower moving car, but here comes a rickshaw head on – – it will swerve to the shoulder. We are bigger. Now back in our driving lane we spot a large bus passing a truck, thus both lanes are filled with multi-ton vehicles bearing down on us, head on. Theoretically we have the right of way – – we are in the correct driving lane. But the bus, is still coming straight at us, its driver makes no effort to return to his proper lane. So we do what the rickshaw did earlier, we slam on our brakes and veer to the shoulder. Catastrophe avoided. But my heart rate has increased and it never subsided. We repeated this drill every other mile on the way to our destination (or about 50 times over 100 miles.) The last hour of our drive was in the dark and I discovered that the majority of vehicles at night drive with their lights on.

The final half mile was pleasant though. That’s when we turned off the highway to Muzammel’s village. Down a twisting, tree lined road, past a few small shops, homes, rice paddies, and a country mosque, lay Muzammel’s farm – – a most idyllic sanctuary. He uses this as a retreat from hectic city life (and I would guess a retreat from frightening highway traffic as well.) By the way, the return trip was equally harrowing and ranks among my 11 scariest rides ever.

The 70 year old farm house has been in his family for 70 years. He has created a sustainable farm that runs on renewable energy – – a real benefit in a poor country that can’t afford to import enough oil and natural gas to supply uninterrupted electricity. The farm has solar panels for home lighting. It also has a biodigester which turns cow manure into methane gas to fuel the kitchen stove. As well, the biodigester processes the manure into high quality fertilizer for his fruit trees and vegetable gardens. He can even feed it to the tilapia in his fish pond. Muzammel keeps cows for milk, and goats, pigeons, ducks, and chickens for meat. Every meal we ate there came from fresh, organic farm produce. My delicious and healthy breakfast consisted of fresh grated coconut meat with homemade date syrup poured over, then eaten with a type of Bangladeshi pancake. Oh so good.

Three random observations:

  • I learned that village girls might get married (arranged marriage) between ages 13- 15. The national law that sets 16 as the minimum age is not always observed in the countryside. Usually, the husband is around 25. Sometimes he is getting ready to go work in the Middle East, perhaps as a construction worker. He wants to get married (and receive travel money from the bride’s family) before he leaves. So maybe the teenage newlywed female gets pregnant shortly before her husband departs. Now she is home alone at age 13 with a young baby. The husband will return home after 2 or 3 years, maybe only to visit before signing on to a second tour abroad. In my view, this is not an ideal arrangement for a teenage girl.
  • Trains are slow and crowded in Bangladesh…with poor people riding on the roof, just like in the movies.
  • Working class Bangladeshis, even those who speak little English, show great deference to foreigners. They would call me, “brother” or “boss.” I am neither, but I appreciate the totally unwarranted respect I receive from absolute strangers.

The Rickshaw Risk

The food here is pretty good. Sort of like the Indian food we find in restaurants in the States. Just not as diverse; but one can still find chicken biryani or jalfreezi, curried fish, spicy vegetables, and breads: paratha, roti, naan.

But rice is the main staple. Put chicken or fish right on top of a mound of rice, add some sauce, then with your right hand only (no utensils), roll up a large marble-sized ball of the combo and pop it straight into your mouth. The Bangladeshis are so dexterous at this. I, on the other hand, can create the round bite, but I can’t effectively move it to my mouth. It usually seems I have created an exploding ball. White rice, soaked in sauce with bits of chicken, flies all over the place…including onto my shirt. The only time I don’t end up with chicken on my shirt is when I order fish.

Rickshaws in the dark are tough to see. No running lights and no reflectors makes them nearly invisible at night. And since the soft sound of pedaling is drowned out by traffic noise, they are essentially silent; so in the evening when I step off the curb into the path of a fast pedaling wallah, I have not seen him coming, I have not heard him coming. At the last minute he will ring his little bell, giving me a fraction of a second to recover to the sidewalk. And in turn, the rickshaws are equally threatened by cars: the drivers can’t see unilluminated rickshaws. And many streets do not have functioning streetlights…not enough electricity to go around. I have vowed never to ride in a rickshaw at night. Just too risky.

I did take my first rickshaw ride last week in the daytime though. Actually felt kind of guilty at first. Here I am, an able bodied man and I hop in behind a skinny little rickshaw wallah and have him pedal me around town. I would have preferred to pedal myself, but that just isn’t the way things are done around here. I did note that hundreds of thousands of local people were filling the hundreds of thousands of rickshaws and this is a very practical way to get around. Non polluting. Takes up less space than a car. Cheaper than a taxi: 14 cents vs. $1. Ultimately, I enjoyed the ride. Fast enough to get around, slow enough to see things, and a fresh breeze on my face. Maybe not a fresh breeze, but at least city air blowing across my face. Only the bus to my right and the lorry to my left made me feel slightly vulnerable. But never at night.

The national sport is cricket. So is the national passion. When I walk past a dirt lot or a pocket park I spot multiple pick up cricket matches underway. In a country that has a paucity of land and a plentitude of people, there are usually more matches in play that common sense and space would allow. Hard rubber balls are flying everywhere. Just like my rice at lunch. Even though I lived in London for three years, I don’t know much about cricket, never really followed it. I do know that it is about as deliberate as baseball. Someone once timed the true action in a baseball game. While it normally takes 3 – 3.5 hours to complete nine innings, the actual elapsed time when the ball is live and in play is a whopping nine minutes. And I’m not making this up. I read it somewhere so it must be true.

I went to a business conference in Dhaka where I discovered that Bangladeshis love their cell phones…and they just can’t seem to turn them off. While the Canadian Ambassador and the Bangladesh Director of Infrastructure and other luminaries were speaking, phones were ringing in the audience. And ruder yet, audience members were answering…and talking. Fortunately for me, one row behind, a guy talking loudly on his cell was engaged in a conversation far more interesting than the Ambassador’s presentation that he was drowning out.

At this conference I also learned that Bangladesh has a vibrant business media. Swarms of reporters and cameramen attended and they packed the space between the speaker and the audience. Half the media trained their cameras on the speaker, the other half aimed their cameras and bright lights at the audience. So many cameramen and such bright lights that I couldn’t see the speaker. But didn’t matter, I couldn’t hear him over the cell phone chatter anyway.

The Crush of Humanity

I am in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where I will spend two weeks evaluating the viability of a new renewable energy venture for a client. Bangladesh is nearly halfway around the globe from Boston so it took a long time to get here, 29 hours door to door. Really confuses the ol’ body clock, but nothing like a good night sleep to get one back on track.

Bangladesh has a lot of people, 156 million, making it the seventh most populous nation on Earth. But it is relatively small, about the size of Iowa. Imagine taking every other person in America and jamming them into Iowa. If you did you would understand why Bangladesh is the globe’s most densely populated country. (I have excluded tiny island nations like Singapore or other odd jobs like Monaco or the Vatican.) But as far as “normal” countries go, it’s the most crowded. And when you factor in the water – – this country is basically a giant river delta where three massive rivers (Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna) and countless smaller ones merge – – you don’t have a lot of land left to crowd onto. There is barely room to move on the sidewalks.

Nor is there much room for the vehicles. Traffic is dense and ill mannered. Drivers weave in and out, just get a nose in front and you can cut off the guy next to you. Horns are always beeping, at night high beams flash an additional admonition to fellow drivers. Vehicles of all types constantly vie for position. Dilapidated buses, fume spewing trucks, beat up cars, overcrowded taxis, and golf-cart-like tuk tuks. But in addition there are several hundred thousand (yes, several hundred thousand) pedal powered rickshaws. These three wheelers are driven by a rickshaw wallah. At crowded intersections, hundreds of them cause traffic jams in their own right, even without the help of the other vehicles mentioned above. And a most colorful traffic jam at that. Every inch of available rickshaw surface – – sides, back, cover, seat – – has been decorated by the wallah with the gaudiest art imaginable. Because Islam has some kind of restriction on depicting living objects, most designs are bright geometric and curlicue shapes.

Traffic jams are a good opportunity for street vendors to peddle their wares. When everything moving grinds to a halt, the peddlers flood into the street, weaving between the jammed vehicles, thrusting their wares up to car windows in hopes that a passenger, in a moment of weakness, will purchase a bag of popcorn, sack of peanuts, bunch of flowers, bath towel , dried noodles, books, and more. One book vendor stood next to the passenger window of my immobile car and displayed his entire library of 30 books, one by one, even though I had waved him away before he had even started. Perhaps he thought I would eventually cave in and purchase. And like many in the third world who admire our new U.S. President, he saved the best for last, The Audacity of Hope. Even though I voted for the guy, I still didn’t buy his book…to the chagrin of the relentless vendor. Still he wouldn’t go away. Only the movement of traffic eventually freed me from the unwanted book presentation through my closed window.

The language is Bengali. 200 million speakers make Bengali the seventh most common native tongue on Earth. (The rankings for you linguaphiles: 1. Mandarin, 2. Hindi, 3. Spanish, 4. English, 5.Arabic, 6.Portuguese, 7.Bengali.) But very few of them speak English, despite Bangladesh being a former British Colony. And Bengali uses the Sanskrit alphabet which looks more like artwork than letters to me. At least I paid attention in yoga class when the instructor announced positions using the Sanskrit term. As a result, about the only thing I know how to say is down dog. The business people I come in contact with are well schooled in English, but I can’t communicate much with the man in the street.

And it is mostly men in the street in this predominantly Muslim country (85% Muslim, 10% Hindu, 5% all other.) Even though Bangladesh follows a relatively secular strain of Islam, women tend to stay home. Those who do come out are dressed in a most colorful, but conservative, sari and cover their hair, but not their face with a shear scarf. Very, very few are veiled.

This is a poor country. Bangladesh ranks 196 in GDP/capita out of the 229 countries tracked by the CIA. (And no, I’m not in the CIA. I just looked up their easily accessible database. You can too.) Because of the poverty, there are beggars and very persistent ones at that; like the lady who stood beside my immobile vehicle (did I mention the traffic jams?) tapping non-stop and irritatingly on my window. That’s when I realized the book vendor wasn’t so bad after all.

Culture Shock

I have successfully completed my final work assignment with the Solar Energy Foundation in Ethiopia and on Monday I returned to the US. However, after finishing my SEF gig and before returning home, Robin and I traveled for 10 days around Ethiopia. We spent most of that time in South Omo, the most underdeveloped part of one of the poorest states in the 11th poorest country on Earth. And it was like walking through the pages of National Geographic. There are 22 different tribes living in this region, speaking about as many different languages. Here are the highlights:

The Dorze tribe reside on a string of mountaintops in the south of the country. They live in 20 foot tall beehive shaped homes. The height allows for a poor man’s cathedral ceiling: bamboo covered by banana leaf thatch. Inside the home a small smoky fire continuously burns to keep the insects down and to ward off the (relatively) cool temperatures at their 8000 foot high elevation.

We went into one of the homes. It housed a family of six, plus three cows and three sheep, humans separated from the livestock by a woven banana leaf screen. The cow area is very important: If the husband comes home drunk and tries to beat his wife, she will retreat to the cow side of the house…a recognized safe zone. If he should violate that safe zone, she will report him to the village elders. They will penalize him by requiring the purchase of a cow (at the princely sum of $300) which he must butcher, roast and share with the village. Perhaps this seemingly simplistic tradition keeps domestic violence to a very low level.

The Mursi tribe provided us a big culture shock. Their claim to fame is a custom believed by them to increase female beauty, but certainly believed by most everyone else in the world to be barbaric. At about age 20 a young woman becomes eligible to marry…and begins to wear a clay lip plate. A slit is cut inside her lower lip and over the course of the ensuing year, larger and larger clay disks are inserted into the slit until her distended lip can accommodate a 6 inch diameter disk. The larger, the more beautiful.

I have never seen a sight as interesting…and as disturbing as a village of 600 people with virtually every woman over age 20 either wearing a lip plate or displaying a sagging lower lip, dangling down to her chin – – when the plate was not being worn. Many Mursi women were topless and I am substantially more in favor of that custom than a stretched, deformed lower lip. I saw only one women of lip-plate age without a stretched and distended lip. She had gotten pregnant before marriage, and as a punishment by the tribe, she was forbidden to ever slit, stretch, and wear a lip plate. Bummer.

But then again, who am I to judge another’s culture? I am thrilled to have seen such a spectacle, even if I strongly object to it.

And speaking of objectionable spectacles, we spent an entire afternoon at a Hamer bull jumping ceremony. Nothing wrong with bull jumping, just with the custom that proceeds the jumping. A twenty-something single man proves he is ready for adulthood and marriage by running across the backs of eight bulls standing flank to flank. Only one man attempts that feat at each ceremony, but hundreds of Hamer participate in ceremony.

The first – – and the truly objectionable – – part of the ceremony is the whipping of the women. Female supporters of the jumper-to-be line up to be whipped (always by a man) with a long stout switch. And we are not talking about playful taps across the shoulders. Each woman asks to be whacked really hard. I could hear the snap across her back. I could see the welts rise. I could see the blood lines form on the welts. Most women from late teenage and older bore permanent whipping scars across the back.

A most surprising aspect of this ritual beating is that the participating women, dozens of them, seem to do this willingly. They taunt the whipper to hit them harder, they get back in line for a second and third beating. The more and the harder they receive, the more support they show for the jumper.

After the whipping, and a bit of dancing by the women, and some face painting by the men, the entire group of well over 200 Hamer (and a few tourists) walked 15 minutes into the bush to the bull jumping site. The jumper is presented to the crowd – – naked. Then he takes a running leap onto the back of the first bull, scampers across the backs of the remaining seven bovine, and jumps to the ground…where he catches his breath, then repeats the journey from ground to bull back to ground – – two, three, four, five, six times. Each time successful, no falls.

This triumph was especially satisfying for the jumper’s sister. Had he failed, she would have been beaten, just like the willing female supporters before her, but this time by the entire crowd. Had the jumper botched his quest, punishment would be have been meted out to his sister under the belief that she did not feed him sufficiently to succeed. Consequently, brother’s success was especially sweet for sister.

Most of the Hamer came to the bull jumping dressed to celebrate. Men were bare chested with ornamental beads around the neck, biceps and waist. Women work goat skin skirts and loose goat skin tops to cover their breasts, but nothing on their backs…all the better to receive the lashes from the stout switch. And those who really wanted to stand out had a mixture of fresh red clay and butter applied to their page-boy-length, tightly curled hair. The mixture, also rubbed on the shoulders and sometimes the face, glistened in the afternoon sun.

So eye catching, so memorable. Now if they could just eliminate the bloody beatings, I would be a total supporter of traditional Hamer culture. But at least they didn’t wear lip plates.

In every tribal region we passed through, young children (mostly boys) would – – upon seeing our vehicle approach – – dance by the side of the road. Dance style would vary depending on the local tribe: shaking hips or bootie, waggling one raised leg, bouncing up and down from deep knee bends, making vertical leaps into the air. Even waking on stilts (with white chalky clay on the face and torso.) Initially I thought the purpose was a sort of greeting, but more likely it was a creative request to pose for a (paid) photo. However, had we stopped to photograph and pay each dancer, we would have had no time to complete our journey. There were that many dancers.

The corruption of policemen in Africa is legendary. Being shaken down for a bribe or charged with a made-up traffic violation is rife on the continent. But not so in Ethiopia. In my entire three months here, not a single time. That is until my final week. Our driver, Osman, was flagged over by a policeman who requested that we make room for the cop’s friend in our privately contracted vehicle. Osman protested, said we were foreign tourists who had paid for the vehicle. The policeman calmly explained, “No problem, but we will have to pull your van off to the side of the road and inspect every bag.” Osman decided that discretion was the better part of valor, so we made room for the policeman’s friend in our vehicle. We didn’t talk to him much though, we were not especially gregariously inclined at this point.

Our final stop, a one hour flight north of Addis, was the small town of Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most famous historical treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About 800 years ago King Lalibela, during a 23 year burst of religious devotion, commissioned the carving of ten churches (one for each of the Ten Commandments) out of solid bedrock. Legend has it that St George complained to the king that not one church was named for him, so Lalibela added an 11th – – called Gyorgis Church. Many of the churches are connected by underground tunnels also cut through the rock. Quite a fun way to travel from church to church.

They say that these rock hewn churches at Lalibela would be considered one of the seven wonders of the world if they were not located in the remote highlands of a relatively obscure country in Africa. It is not totally clear to me who “they” are, but the supposition is correct. A three story tall church, ornately carved out of solid rock is beyond description. You’ll just have to come see them yourself…or check out my photos.

In the late afternoon, after we finished our full day visitation of these 11 spectacular churches, we walked down a crooked rocky path through a cluster of homes. A young, but very self possessed, preteen girl stepped from the gate of her family compound and inquired, “You want buy scarves?” Interested in such a purchase, we entered her walled compound: a dirt courtyard surrounded by four mud and stone buildings. We sat on a stone ledge in the compound while the girl, her mother, older sister and a friend displayed dozens of hand loomed cotton scarves. After several minutes of very friendly bargaining with the appointed negotiator, the 12 year old girl, we made our purchase.

The family was so taken by the size of our purchase – – 8 scarves – – that they invited us to stay for coffee. An older sister roasted the beans over charcoal, then brewed a rather strong cup for each of us. To go with our coffee the mother brought us freshly cooked injeera and a mound of spicy red chili. During coffee hour, the 12 year old quizzed Robin and me on Amharic vocabulary. We answered only 2 of 20 correctly. She was asking difficult words. Like hello and yes and chair. Who knows that?

When it came time to leave, the bright young girl walked us down the path in deepening evening shadows to the main cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare. She stopped, pointed at her shoes, Croc knockoffs with a large split in the back. “For me you have extra shoes in your hotel room?” We didn’t. None that would fit anyway. My well worn Nikes were years too large for her. Instead we offered her 20 birr (about $2 – – the amount a new pair of shoes would cost in Lalibela.) Too proud for that, she rejected our repeated offers of the cash…even when we suggested she give it to her family.

We ultimately went separate ways, us with the money back in our pockets, but much richer from the cultural interaction. And she, equally culturally richer, but still wearing her broken down Crocs.

And two days later we returned to the US, so thus ends this series of Ethiopian updates. I wish you all the best.

 

Let’s Twist Again

In a very poor country it is important for companies to safeguard their assets. In the case of SEF, we have a large gated-courtyard in front of our office with several lockable storage sheds within. We park our SEF vehicles in the courtyard and lock the gate. However, an energetic thief could scale the courtyard fence, unlock the gate from the inside and abscond with a vehicle or with some solar systems from our inventory. But this has never happened. SEF, like most businesses and like many upper crust home owners, has an on site guard. Typically the guard is on duty 24/7/365.

Our watchman lives in a 3×7 foot guard shack in the courtyard. He sleeps on the shack floor and uses one of the office restrooms as his bathing area. He buys very cheap food on the street. I have asked several of my SEF colleagues what his name is. Most do not know, even though he guards their business compound 24/7. Except for a few weeks annual leave each summer, the guard is on duty non-stop. He visits his family in the countryside only during his summer leave. Otherwise, he seldom sees them. What a way to live. The guard’s speech is mostly unintelligible, perhaps due to a speech defect or maybe a mental shortcoming. I don’t know.

But in a sense he is very lucky: He has a full time (very full time) job and a roof over his head, albeit in a 3×7 room. Many other unskilled people with similar defects sleep and beg on the streets. He earns less than $3 per day, but it is steady money.

Currently SEF is attempting to computerize what has been, up to now, a paper-based activity: Recording and tracking the loans given to customers so that they can purchase a solar home system. (Cost is around $500, and for most customers a purchase of this size requires a three year loan.)

SEF has made loans to nearly 1000 customers, and all these loans have been recorded by hand. But as SEF grows to 5,000…10,000…50,000 customers, such a paper-based system would become overwhelmingly cumbersome. Hence the introduction of a computer-based system.

Now this introduction entails a substantial training program. SEF has contracted the design of the computerized loan system and the subsequent training to a vendor from southern Mexico. The very friendly Mexican contractor arrived with a decent, but imperfect command of English. The SEF personnel being trained arrived in class with a somewhat challenged understanding of English.

So, when the trainer asks a question in fractured English, the SEF personnel do not respond: maybe they don’t understand, maybe they understand but are not capable of formulating a response. Each student, working on a laptop, is attempting mightily to keep pace with the instructor’s not-totally-clear explanations. But several students are unfamiliar with computer use; and all are struggling to follow his English. Most have fallen behind the instructor’s lesson…but due to politeness or shyness or inability, they never ask him to slow down or to repeat.

I do my best to alert the trainer when it is necessary for him to slow down or repeat, but I am not always present in the training room; I have other things to do. Consequently, I suspect that the students are absorbing only a portion of the lesson transmitted.

Bottom line: One of the great challenges of business education in a developing country is full communication. Full communication seldom happens and this is one reason developing countries struggle mightily to catch up to the more technologically advanced nations.

Now for your reading enjoyment, I share some of my favorite fractured commands from the draft computerized loan system – – imagine yourself filling out an on-line loan application and trying to figure out the meaning of the following buttons:

  • Customer could not assist meeting
  • Family expense reasonably
  • Operating costs personably

The latter has a drop down menu with the following choices: High Regular Low. It must be comforting to know a customer has “operating costs personably, regular.” In my last remaining days at SEF I have made it my assignment to help make some sense of this new system.

Last weekend seven of us journeyed to Rema – – four Ethiopians, the Mexican mentioned above, and Robin and me. This was my third visit to SEF’s training facility five hours of spectacular scenery north of Addis. And this time, at the tail end of the rainy season, it was greener than ever. Waterfalls plunged over previously bone-dry cliffs and streams rushed down formerly parched gullies.

One purpose of the journey was to repair a faulty solar-powered refrigerator in the local bar. With the fridge on the blink the bar owner had reverted to the pre-solar way of cooling drinks. He buried them in the sand. I discovered that a sand cooled beer is only slightly cooler than the 85 degree air temperature. I think the entire town of Rema was relieved when our solar technician got the fridge back on line.

That night our Ethiopian hosts, mostly in their early 20s, taught us the traditional dance from each of four major Ethiopian ethnic groups. For those of you contemplating a visit to the disco soon, here is a guide to the dances:

  • Amharic – the famous shoulder shaking dance
  • Tigrinya – in a circle, kind of an ethnic bunny hop
  • Gurage – hands in prayer position, pointed forward, cross stepping back and forth
  • Oromo – hands behind the back, stepping forward and backwards

The moves of each were quite different but the music sound pretty much all the same to my untrained ear. Robin and I demonstrated my strongest dance: the twist. The twenty-somethings Ethiopians were vaguely familiar with this genre.

Happy Ethiopian New Year

One observes the run up to the Ethiopian New Year on September 11 (only coincidentally a date seared in Americans’ minds) in the few days prior. Shops and restaurant scatter fresh cut long stem grass on the sidewalk, at their doorways and even inside on the floor. I think it gives them a rural village feel. The ubiquitous street vendors have added celebratory bottle rockets to their product line. Women (and their daughters) begin appearing in traditional white thick gauzy fabric dresses bordered with multicolored patterns around the hem, waist and sometimes shoulders. And for the first time I have been in Ethiopia, I observe men in traditional outfit as well: white trousers, shirt, and shawl of a similar fabric to that of women.

Depending on one’s economic class, the traditional New Year’s feast is meat. In the last few days leading up to the big date, more people than usual are on the street taking home live meat: chickens held upside down by the feet, goats carried over the shoulder, sheep led by a rope around the neck. I even observed more oxen in the streets around my (urban) office. People from the surrounding countryside drive their small herds into the city in increasing numbers just before September 11 to take advantage of the peak in demand for feasting meat.

Robin observed employees of a small company killing, butchering, grilling, and feasting on what had been a live goat. It took the entire New Year’s Eve afternoon. And in a related note, the next morning we spotted, for the first time, two vultures on a perch above the butchering area. I suspect they smelled the blood. Unfortunately for the vultures the only carrion left was goat heads.

Early on New Year Eve I went to the gym to get my weekly yoga fix. Afterwards in the gym parking lot I discovered that the gym management had set up a bonfire for gym patrons (including Robin and me) to celebrate the coming year.

About 50 of us gathered to participate. Each man was given a 10 foot long bundle of straw – – dampened to control the burn rate. We each lit our bundle from a small fire in the center of our gathering, we then tossed the burning straw onto the central fire creating a larger flaming tribute, a bonfire, to the coming year. As soon as all straw bundles had been dropped on the central bonfire, the gym staff began circulating in the crowd, offering helpings of roasted meat: mutton, beef, maybe others. None of which could be considered haute cuisine, and all of which, should be considered quite tough and chewy.

A couple large bowls of popcorn and cups of steaming espresso wrapped up the early New Year’s Eve celebration. Then we were off to our main event. The day prior Robin had met an American jazz band from Philadelphia that was staying in our hotel. They were scheduled to play at a venue on New Year’s Eve and had invited Robin (and me by proxy) to stop by. As Robin had understood, the venue was the Yugo Center – – the former Yugoslavia Cultural Center.

However, when we arrived we discovered the venue was actually the You Go Bible Study Center and the anticipated jazz was instead, gospel music. Only after we were seated inside did we realize that we had joined the Ethiopian version of an American tent revival meeting. Three thousand people inside swayed to the gospel music, shouted halleluiah and amen to the preacher’s exhortations. Frequently members of the audience would raise a hand (or both) and sway from side to side with eyes closed as if in rapture. But we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when audience members began to ululate and the gospel singers on stage began to leap vertically into the air – – a not uncommon African tribal dance ritual. The Masai in Kenya do this for example. Except for the Philadelphia band members, we were the only westerners in the 3000 person meeting hall.

Regardless of one’s religious inclination, this was a very moving experience…except that there were too many long sermons in Amharic between the musical numbers. Multiple preachers offered their guidance to the congregation. We left after 1.5 hours. The full revival ran from 6 PM until 4 AM – – 10 straight hours of religion – – and I suspect many of the 3000 Ethiopians stayed for all of it.

To wrap up the long New Year’s weekend we took a Sunday day trip to Ziway Lake, about two hours SE of Addis. We hired a row boat with driver (rower?) to visit two of the lake’s islands: one with an abandoned small village (my first Ethiopian ghost town) and the other with hundreds of cacophonous water birds: Marabou storks, herons, ducks, black egrets.

But the highlight on the water was passing by a dozen swimming hippos. We had to stay at a safe distance, but thanks to the magic of telephoto lens, I have memorialized this experience. Hippos, despite being vegetarians, are very territorial and protective of their young. I have read that hippos kill more humans in Africa than do lions. But due to our New Year’s good luck, they didn’t get us.

Santa Has Arrived

The remaining cardinal direction from Addis that I had not visited was west. So Robin and I planned a day trip to the town of Ambo and nearby waterfalls. Two hours west via bus… but that doesn’t count the taxi ride to the wrong bus station, the city bus ride to the correct station, then the wait on board the correct bus before it left.

Robin and I were the first to take our seats and we chose two in the front row so that we would have an unobstructed view out the front windshield. We knew the bus would not depart until all seats were filled – – they don’t run on a schedule here, they run on capacity maximization. What we didn’t know until we departed nearly two hours later was that it would take nearly two hours to fill the bus. We also didn’t know that the view from our front row seats would be obstructed by several last minute passengers who took the SRO positions in the aisle and bus door stairwell directly between us and the front windshield.

Anyway, the two hour drive to Ambo was fine. But our full journey, counting all our missteps, had consumed five hours, door to door. And when we arrived it was still raining cats and dogs, just like when we started. Along the route the beautiful green fields had rivulets of mud-red water coursing through them.

We had intended to hike from Ambo to a series of scenic waterfalls. However, our later than planned arrival (remember five hours door to door) pretty much precluded this possibility. And besides, who wants to hike through the forest under an umbrella in ankle deep mud? Instead we retired to a local restaurant where, after lunch, we joined an American Peace Corps volunteer and three Ethiopian women for coffee and conversation. The locals roasted raw coffee beans on an open charcoal fire, then crushed them with a mortar and pestle, before brewing the beverage. We sat in a circle on handmade wooden stools for our little kaffee klatch. Not quite as much exercise as a hike to the waterfalls, but a lot less muddy.

In preparation for the Ethiopian New Year, one of the women showed us how to execute the famous Ethiopian shoulder shaking dance – – famous if you have been hanging around Ethiopia for a while. Ask me to demonstrate when I return home.

After our coffee break and shoulder shaking lesson, we boarded a return bus so as to arrive in Addis before dark. A winding Ethiopian highway is no place to be after dark, what with the plentiful pedestrians, donkeys, goats, etc wandering on the road. We had an uneventful, but scenic late afternoon ride back to Addis in a cozy eleven person minibus that was carrying 15 passengers and two very well behaved chickens.

The view from our fifth floor hotel room overlooks a small field that contains a ramshackle corrugated aluminum shack in one corner. The one room shack is inhabited by a mother, father, three children and a grandmother. It is pretty obvious that these are poor people, even by Ethiopian standards. So Robin decided to divert a few of the toys and school materials she had brought for her volunteer teaching job, to our poor neighbors in the field below us.

I accompanied her as she took a collection of stuffed animals, bracelets, pens, paper, and balls to them. The grandmother and kids were at home when we knocked on the metal fence surrounding the field and shack. We interrupted the grandmother who was sitting on a blanket sorting a large pile of barley. She was removing stones from the grain. The kids must have thought Santa had arrived; they seemed thrilled even though none of us could speak the other’s language. Robin even gave the grandmother a bracelet.

Our hotel manager informed us that a week earlier, a Danish couple staying in the hotel, had arrived with a suitcase of children’s clothing since they were adopting an Ethiopian orphan. They too had looked out their hotel room window and then diverted some of their stash to the poor family in the shack. Now I figure that family must be the richest poor family in all of Ethiopia.

Anticipating a Happy New Year

I have just begun my final tour with the Solar Energy Foundation in Ethiopia.

I flew in to Addis Ababa on Monday. Since I am working for a non-profit organization, cheap flights not efficient routing, is the order of the day. Consequently, I departed Boston at 6 AM, heading to Washington, DC where I made my first stop. Six hours later, onboard Ethiopian Airlines, I was high above Boston again, flying (and it looked about the same at noon as it had earlier in the morning) the opposite direction towards Rome and on to Addis. Personally, I think it is crazy to fly the wrong direction to get on a plane flying the right direction, but like I said, efficient routing is not the order of the day.

But all is well that ends well. After 21 hours in transit, I arrived at my hotel in Addis, took a short nap, and then walked to the SEF office. When I arrived, the office was a beehive of activity. Most of our field technicians (solar installers) were there. They had come in from all points on the compass to cake care of home office business before departing for nearly two weeks vacation. And all took the same two weeks: the run up to the Ethiopian New Year on September 11. On that date, by the Ethiopian calendar, 2001 will tip into 2002. And the change will be preceded by – – according to one of my Ethiopian colleagues – – dancing, drinking and eating…raw meat. Not that again. Anyway, raw meat aside, I look forward to their celebration.

I knew I was back in Addis when I encountered a goatherd near my office driving his goats down the city street. He snapped a homemade whip, a two foot long stick topped with a three foot rawhide strip. He also talked on his cell phone. Traditional meets modern in Ethiopia.

My girlfriend, Robin, has joined me for this final three week stint. While I am working she will be teaching English at an Ethiopian school. She has volunteered to work with first through fourth graders there. At the end of our concurrent three week sessions we will travel around the country for two additional weeks.

Ethiopia is nearing the end of its three month rainy season and the countryside showed it. Flying in, I observed the fields: a kaleidoscope of greens… depending on the crops planted in each. Even in the dry season the Ethiopian highlands retain some green, but these colors were striking: pale lime to bright emerald. Also, the rivers and streams were flowing briskly and the ponds and lakes had ballooned in size. Wild flowers were everywhere.

They say this is the best time of year to be in Ethiopia. And it probably is. Except for the raw meat.

Burnt Face

You may recall – – if you have been a regular reader of this space – – that SEF has a Solar Training Center in the town of Rema, to the north of Addis. On Thursday we made the long six hour drive there over what I had previously described as one of my top ten driving routes (anywhere). The journey still ranks up there. This time, courtesy of the rainy season, the view was imminently greener than before and just as eye catching. A new addition to the view was farmers, each plowing his rain softened field behind a team of oxen. Just like we did as kids.

Shortly after arrival, we took a sunset walking tour of Rema. As before, the kids swarmed us, wanting to shake hands with every foreigner in our group (two Germans plus me.) To gain respite from the well meaning, but relentless onslaught, we took refuge in a local bar. The barkeeper barred the kids and served each of us a solar cooled beer. Actually, the sun indirectly cooled the beer – – by powering a refrigerator. Before SEF, tepid beer, warm coke, room temperature water was the norm.

After the sun had set we walked back to the Solar Training Center. It was very dark on the return path, allowing us to see the Milky Way spilling across the sky above. But at house level, from virtually every home, a soft light emitted. Remember, every house in this town of 2500 families, has a solar home system.

The residents can actually conduct activities at night. They used to eat dinner at dusk – – around 6:30, then go to bed by 7:30 when it was totally dark. Now with solar powered lights they can eat after the sun has set. The school kids can play in the afternoon, then do their homework by light. Tailors can work in the cooler evening air. Some say Rema is the luckiest town in Ethiopia. No other town in the country has free, non polluting power in every home. And all of it was given to them by SEF.

The reason I went to Rema was to conduct a training workshop for 19 SEF personnel: systems installers, supervisors, and home office staff. Working under the belief that we all must be a sales person for the organization…and with the observation that SEF personnel were not yet well honed public speakers…I designed a full day of sales presentation training for this group. Theoretically all spoke English – – however that premise was mostly theory. My presentation was in the simplest language I could devise. For example I edited, “All sales people interact with their customers” to “All of you talk to customers.” But often that was not nearly simple enough.

In preparation we had to consider poor country logistical constraints. We had planned to purchase a metal flipchart stand to use in the training. But SEF found the price too expensive so we instead applied third world technology by using electrical wire to hang the flipchart pad from random, but fortuitously placed nails in the wall. We didn’t have to worry about power outage though: at SEF’s training center everything is powered by solar batteries well charged by plentiful sunshine

At one point we broke into small teams to practice our presentations. The door to one breakout room was locked and the key was not to be found. (My bad – always check all logistics before the session begins.) Anyway, that team met instead in a storage shed and took it all in stride. They are used to this sort of improvisation.

There was one slightly disruptive episode when some local kids brought their donkeys into the courtyard in front of the classroom to water them at the training center cistern.

I taught my class the basics: stand up so they can see you, speak up so they can hear you, sit down before you bore them. (I learned that gem of wisdom in the Army.) I taught them to sell the benefits of their solar systems, not just the features. E.g. Feature: This is a 10 watt solar system. Benefit: A 10 watt system can power four lights (in different rooms if you wish) and also a radio.

Initially, the group was quite reticent to answer my questions. Several did not understand my simple English and even if they understood, they couldn’t formulate a response in English. Many had never spoken in front of a group before. However when we broke into smaller teams of six people most of them flourished. They learned how to make an “elevator speech.” For those of you unfamiliar with this business term, it means a short speech or explanation that you can deliver in the time it takes an elevator to lift you from the ground floor to your office in the skyscraper.

But we couldn’t use the term elevator speech, it would not translate culturally. There are very few buildings in Ethiopia tall enough to warrant an elevator and some that are tall enough can’t afford one. I am pretty certain that some of my training class had never ridden in an elevator. (Nor in a Mercedes, an airplane, or a ski lift.) We described this short speech as a “60 Second Speech.” Each student ultimately delivered one in English. And several of them I actually understood.

At a sales training session in the US, I had seen one company award $1000 to the individual who gave the best sales presentation. I suggested this incentive to SEF management, scaled in size to the local economy, of course. The winner here received $30 and she was just as thrilled as the $1000 recipient in the US.

The training session ended with a self graded quiz…a very simple self graded quiz that some had difficultly with. Here is a sample question that was challenging for them to understand:

1. Which direction should you face when presenting from a flip chart?
a. Face the chart
b. Face the audience
c. Face the door

But despite the problems I have described, the session was a success. Samson, CEO, and Worku, CFO, were thrilled with the progress of their staff. And your humble trainer was also quite pleased.

After the session, Worku took me to visit a traditional round wooden church just outside Rema. The church guard was very poor. He was barefoot, wore shorts and a ragged blanket around his shoulders. A sort of modified Mahatma Gandhi look. For his troubles to open the locked church gate for us, I offered him 2 birr (18 cents.) He refused, correctly sizing up that I was not a local, he said, “Your country is so far away; you need this money more than I do.” First time in Ethiopia that someone tried to give money back. (I insisted and he reluctantly accepted.)

Back in Addis on Sunday I took a walk to the Shola Market, a very large and active market of open stalls selling food, clothing, shoes, furniture, fabric, and much else. I took the obligatory photos of the spice and grain shops displaying baskets piled high with multihued lentils, grains of every shade, ground chili, and red, yellow, and orange curry. Very colorful. In the market, I passed an open area filled with 20 foosball tables, nearly every one in use and surrounded by spectators. Most of the tables were barely functional, missing miniature players designed to kick the ball and missing handles designed to grip the flipping bar. But the players were enthusiastic nevertheless.

On my walk back to the hotel I stopped to watch a real football (soccer) game in a vacant lot. The soccer pitch was a challenging combination of wet mud holes surrounded by sun baked mud that had hardened into semi-concrete divots. Adding to the challenge for the players was the lack of uniforms – – unaffordable to the teams. They wore whatever shirt they owned. Watching a red shirted attacker guarded by a red shirted defender, confused me and I wasn’t even on the field. I had no idea whose side the green and blue shirted players were on. So I left.

You may recall my blog entry several weeks ago about the women firewood carriers, the ones who labored all day to bring very heavy loads of wood from the forest back into Addis. Well today I saw a sign for the “Former Women’s Fuelwood Carriers Association.” Someone has organized these women, taught them to make saleable crafts so that they can earn money – – more money than by lugging backbreaking loads of firewood for less than $2 per day. Less wear and tear on the body too. I doubt that I could carry loads as heavy as these women do. Anyway, this sounds like a good organization bringing benefits to these women.

I learned a new word today. Previously I reported that the Ethiopian term for foreigner is “farengi.” Well, their own term for an Ethiopian is “habesha” which means literally, “burnt face.” This is meant to connote that Ethiopians are darker than farengi, but lighter skinned that other sub-Saharan Africans. They take great pride in being different – – both in shade and in culture – – than the rest of Africa.

Tomorrow I will make the 24 hour journey back to Boston for six weeks of personal battery recharging. I will return in September for my final stint with SEF and with the habesha.

The Name Game

On Sunday my friend, Lorenz, and I hopped on a bus for the one hour ride east from Addis to the small town of Debre Zeit. The name means Mount of Olives – – no olives here, but like many places in Ethiopia, this is a biblical name. What the town lacked in olives though, it made up for in lakes. And most were strikingly scenic crater lakes, filling a string of extinct volcano craters, all lying in or near the town. We spent most of the day hiking from lake to lake, four in all; chatting with the locals, eating a brown bag lunch on the rim of one crater, and fending off the persistent horse cart taxi drivers – – we wanted to walk. All in all, a sort of low key day with plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. A prescription, I believe, for a healthy and happy life.

A good name can contribute to a happy life as well and the Ethiopians have some great names. As I wrote in one of my early blog entries, a few are recognizable biblical names, say, Samson. Some cannot be immediately recognized, but can be translated into an English name. Dawit = David, for example. But the fun part about names here is that while many can be translated into English, they are not names that we would ever use. Let’s visit a few.

I will spare you the Amharic version, but from the English translation you will see that these are quite different than the names we have in America. It seems that Ethiopian parents give names to describe their new born or to register hope about some desired trait.

“Loving” – – A sweet thought.

“It Is Clear” – – For a particularly light skinned baby.

“Quiet” – – Perhaps wishful thinking by the parents of a new born.

“Flower” – – We have Rose and Daisy, but no generic flower as far as I know.

“Border” – – No idea what this might relate to. Incomprehensible connotation.

“God Allows Me” – – Exactly what God allows him to do is unstated.

“Response” – – I am not aware of an equivalent name in English. Sounds too much like “Responsible,” which of course would not describe any children I know. My kids excepted, naturally.

“Gold” – – We do have Goldie Hawn, but generally we don’t name kids after precious metals. Although in college I once dated a platinum blonde.

“Always World” – – You may remember our equivalent, former NBA player, World B. Free. I’ve always thought that was a cool name…even wanted to name my son World B. Free, but unfortunately his last name is Nichols. Rocks are one of the thrills of motoring on Ethiopia’s roads. In a land of poor people and hence, unaffordable maintenance, cars breakdown on the highway…and not infrequently. I doubt that a reflective warning triangle exists in the country. And even if it did, the typical dented and jammed car trunk would not yield it in a time of need anyway. Consequently, the driver of a breakdown will protect himself while supine beneath his vehicle by placing two or three large rocks on the roadway behind his disabled auto. We are talking big bowling ball-like objects. Once he gets his car running again, he will be so excited at his success, that more often than not, he will hop behind the wheel and take off, leaving the spherical, non-reflective warning signs on the road.

Now imagine yourself in a car (as I have been) flying down the highway at night, 60 mph. All of a sudden there they are. Rocks in the dark are usually spotted when it is much too late to swerve. So, if don’t avoid them, you will likely be laying out your own set of rocks while you change tires. You will leave your rocks behind as well. And so it goes.

Thirteen Months of Sunshine

The rainy season has arrived with a vengeance: torrential downpours nearly every day. They last several hours at a time and turn the many dirt roads around my hotel into sticky, goopy red mud. The other morning I made the mistake of taking a dirt road shortcut – – after a heavy overnight rain – – to my office; By the time I had navigated the 300 yards of dirt road-turned mud puddle, my shoes were so heavily coated with red sticky mud I could barely lift them. And they had grown in size as well. On the far side of my sludge traverse lay an asphalt road and a phalanx of heaven-sent shoeshine boys. For 20 cents – – and at that price I should be getting several shines a day – – one of them washed off the mud, shined and reconditioned my shoes and had me on my way to work inside of ten minutes. Looking pretty spiffy, except for the mud on my pants up to my knees.

One rainy afternoon I went outside to discover that someone had replaced the asphalt main road in front of my hotel with a lake – – and not an insignificant lake. I had to walk nearly a block to find a fordable spot, all the time jumping back from the lake shore to avoid too fast drivers and their less than thoughtful splash. Naturally, one really doesn’t want to get splashed, and not just because rain water is especially wet. More because our new lake is red with mud washed in from tributary dirt roads…all of which have had herds of cows, donkeys, goats, and sheep driven over them earlier in the day. The lake water is about as clean as a stock pond on a farm.

The great challenge is to navigate all this in an evening downpour during a power outage. Control the umbrella, try to see in the dark, find thy ford, avoid the car splash, and have a nice day.

Ethiopia lies north of the equator and thus it is officially summer here, but the Ethiopians call this season their winter. The days are often darker (lots of clouds) and noticeably cooler: 50s at night, 70s in the day. Some wear a parka with the hood up to protect against the (relative) chill. I am fine with just a shirt (and umbrella), this is like a typical New England summer day for me.

The Ethiopian tourist board has a poster with a tag line that reads “13 Months of Sunshine” Such a statement of course requires explanation. In this country they use the old Julian calendar – – the same calendar used by the western world until 1582, at which time we switched to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian, or Ethiopian calendar as they like to call it, has 12 months of 30 days each, plus a 13th month of 5 days (6 in leap years.) Do the math: 365 days, just like our year, only packaged differently. So that’s how they get 13 months of sunshine. But that still doesn’t account for the rainy season which I presume the tag line ignores.

Back in 1582 when much of the world made the switch from Julian to Gregorian, seven to eight years somehow got lost in translation. The upshot is that it is currently 2001 in Ethiopia, turning 2002 in September. And if months and years haven’t confused you, let’s move to time of day. In the west our day is split in half, midnight to noon (AM) and noon to midnight (PM). In Ethiopia they start counting their daytime from 6AM and nighttime from 6 PM. Thus 2 o’clock daytime on an Ethiopian clock would be 8 AM on our western clock. Some clocks are set on Ethiopian time, some on western time…all very confusing. So let me put it all together. Say you have a very important business meeting (or a hot date) at 3 o’clock daytime on day 4 of month 13, 2001…that could very well be tomorrow, however you would never know until it is too late. But you should take your umbrella anyway.

No Girls Allowed

With perhaps the possible exception of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s most famous historical figure is Lucy, the 3.5 million year old hominid. Our suspected human ancestor is displayed in the National Museum in Addis. Actually, a copy of her skull is displayed. When you come to Addis be sure to check out her noggin.

Last Thursday I traveled with the SEF country director, Samson, and his executive assistant, Yikanu, to the Southern Peoples State. The name brings Mississippi to mind, doesn’t it? But this was not a trip to Mississippi; in fact this journey was a repeat of the first trip I took with SEF two months ago to observe our sales process to home owners in this southern region. The sales efforts were successful; we will install around 100 solar home systems. This recent trip was to check on the health and welfare of our 10-person installation team in the village of Abasuja and to visit two local families who had each had a solar system installed a fortnight earlier. Everyone was happy: the installation team had three rooms to sleep in at the local school, plus one more room to cook in. The locals were thrilled with light in their homes for the first time since Lucy.

But I wasn’t happy. We departed Abasuja after dark and got hopelessly lost on cattle trails (no road signs here) that wound tortuously from the village for nearly 20 miles back to the main road. In the pitch black African darkness, it was impossible to see the natural landmarks that had marked our arrival in the late afternoon. We had arrived too late, stayed too long, and departed after nightfall. Only spectacular flashes of lightening provided fleeting illumination of rural (very rural) Ethiopia. But we did make it back, eventually, to Addis Ababa where I caught a Friday night flight to Bahir Dar, around 300 miles north of the capital.

Bahir Dar sits on the shore of the Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. The lake is more or less round, about 50 miles in diameter. At my charming, but rundown lakeside hotel, I discovered that several independent travelers had banded together to hire a boat to visit the lake and its ancient, but still active, monasteries. I joined them on a five hour excursion to three monasteries dating back four centuries. The first one, Kibran Gebriel, sits on a hilltop on a small island in the lake. Women are forbidden from entering this monastery for fear of putting impure thoughts into the minds of the 20 monastic male residents. (Sorry, I don’t make the rules.) So the several women in our group visited the nunnery at a nearby island, while the more macho contingent checked out the male-only island.

Out of respect for monastery rules, I would like to ask all female readers to stop reading now. You may pick up again one paragraph down.

Well, the monastery itself was closed on the day of our visit, so the women didn’t miss much. (Ladies, please!) However the head monk – – I am a bit unclear on Orthodox ecclesiastic titles – – escorted us to the storeroom where monastic treasures were safeguarded. He showed us an antique book of the Gospels written on goatskin, which he said was 900 years old. It was written in Ge’ez, the predecessor language of Amharic, and is still used in the Orthodox Church – – not unlike Latin in traditional Catholic churches. He removed this fragile volume from a shelf and then thumbed through the increasingly brittle and worn centuries-old pages. At most other places such a historical treasure would be under glass. Other valuable items included ornate crosses of various styles and also crowns, some donated by Ethiopian Emperors over the past few centuries.

Nearly all of Ethiopia’s Orthodox churches, including those at the three monasteries we visited, are built in the round…actually, more like hexagonal. Roofs are made of long juniper poles, cross hatched with smaller twigs, all ties together with goatskin strips and then overlaid with grass thatch. The outer walls surround an internal hexagon covered with orthodox art (similar to Russian Orthodox art) showing scenes from the bible (climbing Jacob’s ladder, Moses parting the Red Sea) or the activities of saints (St George slaying the dragon.)

After the monasteries, our boat driver took us to a river outlet on the lake’s edge: special because this is the source of the Blue Nile. (Which meets the White Nile in Khartoum…but we covered this geography lesson in an earlier posting.) We motored a few hundred yards into the river to a spot where purportedly one could observe hippos and crocodiles. The animals didn’t make a showing that day, but merely motoring out of Lake Tana into the upper reaches of the Nile was satisfaction enough for a geo-freak. And I consider myself one of these.

I attended a wedding in Bahir Dar. I wasn’t actually invited, but the event took place in the courtyard garden of my hotel – – not 20 feet from my room. So, I sat on the veranda in front of my room and pretended to read while the celebration took place. The bride wore bright blue (traditional color?) and her attendants had on eye catching peach dresses. Groom and groomsmen were sharply attired in well tailored tan suites. This was clearly an upper socio-economic class affair. The well turned out guests serenaded the union with, to my ear, very beautiful a cappella Amharic songs accompanied by handclapping – – theirs, not mine – – and also some celebratory ululating. I always love that sound.

I couldn’t bring myself to surreptitiously snap photos, but I thought about it. Tacky and intrusive was my ultimate judgment.

On Sunday I joined a German woman and a Belgian man, like me, both solo travelers, on a half day trip to the Blue Nile Falls. When at its best, some claim these falls rival the famous Victoria Falls in southern Africa. While picturesque, the Blue Nile Falls have not been at their best for over a decade. Ethiopia’s quest for electricity has greatly compromised the water flow. Above the falls the Blue Nile River has been side-channeled to a hydro power plant, reducing the current over the cataract by at least 90%. It is as if the impressive breadth of Niagara was shrunk to about 20 yards.

But the two hour hike to and from the dehydrated falls was a treat all the same. We crossed the 400 year old Portuguese Bridge, dating from Portugal’s brief and unsuccessful run at colonizing Ethiopia in the 1500s. (In fact, no country has ever colonized this nation. Mussolini invaded and occupied it for a few years during WWII, but Italy never colonized the country.)

We hiked through small farming villages with their picturesque thatched roof homes, past numerous shepherds, waded across two tributaries of the Nile, and were included in a photo shoot with some Ethiopian college students celebrating their recent graduation. All in all, not much water, but a fulfilling half day trip.

I had Sunday afternoon free to explore Bahir Dar so I rented a bike. At 64 cents per hour, the rental fee struck me as quite a bargain. I did wonder how a bike rental firm can pay back the $300 or so purchase price of a mountain bike at 64 cents per hour. Well, one way is to scrimp on maintenance. The front brake was non-functional: no break pads. The rear brake coasted the bike to a stop over half a block. Any quicker stop required the addition of foot dragging. The 18 gears had frozen into one, somewhere in the midrange of the gearing. And the tires leaked. I had to pay 27 cents at a sidewalk tire shop to refill the tires, then pedal like crazy back to the hotel before they ran flat again. And to those who love me, no, I did not wear a helmet. I don’t think they have them in Ethiopia.

To recap: the Blue Nile Falls don’t really flow, I didn’t see hippos, I wasn’t invited to the wedding, the bike really didn’t work…but at least I visited a monastery that no woman on earth has ever set foot in. So there.

The Award Winning Solar Energy Foundation

The Solar Energy Foundation was recently selected as one of three Ashden prize winners. The Ashden prizes are awarded by a British environmental group to organizations (like SEF) that work at the grassroots level to improve the environment. Our Ethiopian director, Samson, flew to London to receive the award from Prince Charles. A big deal for our foundation, but an even bigger deal was that the prize carried a $30,000 windfall with it. I doubt I will get my cut, so the funds will likely go toward furthering our solar expansion in rural Ethiopia.

All foreigners in this country are called “farenji” by the Ethiopians. The etymology of this word is uncertain, but possibly comes from a permutation of English slang for a French person, “frenchie.” (Frenchie, Farenji…get it?) Especially rural Ethiopians have trouble distinguishing the ethnic background of one farenji from another. One guy asked me, “Are you Russian or Asian?” Somehow he picked up that I wasn’t African. I have walked down a village path and heard people behind me say loudly, “China.”

In fact there are a lot of Chinese workers in Ethiopia, many in highway construction. These highways are a gift from the Chinese government. But there are many ex-pat Chinese in business jobs as well. In fact, at times I see nearly as many Chinese as I do Caucasian foreigners.

Fresh juice is available year round; the flavor depends on what is in season. Now I am enjoying a choice of orange, papaya, mango, and guava. Either straight up or blended, all for about one buck. But the real seasonal treat is avocado juice. Now if you puree an avocado you basically get guacamole – – a bit too thick to drink. So they dilute the pureed avocado with some water, bottled I hope, and then add a touch of sugar, otherwise it might still taste like guacamole. Try it at home, quite a refreshing way to drink your vegetable. And I suspect it goes well with tacos.

Depending on the route I choose for my morning jog, I will pass some combination of the following educational institutions: University for Peace, Miracle Health College, Good News Youth Academy, Future Generation Hope School, the School of the Future, and the somewhat redundantly titled, City University College. So many opportunities for learning…and if we could just get the truant shoeshine boys to attend one of these institutions, they – – and Ethiopia – – would be the better for it. On my route are both the Light of Today School and the School for Tomorrow. The later is evidently the one that the shoeshine boys plan to attend – – someday. The Community Development Center, despite its high sounding name, is actually a bar. I also pass the “Freind ship Pub.” Apparently too much time in the pub and not enough time in school.

Baboons at the Gorge

You may recall from my June 15 posting that disagreement over the price of repairing my torn trousers (27 cents vs. 9 cents) caused a minor ruckus in Harrar. So, I brought the offending trousers back to Addis for repair. Our very able executive assistant, Yikanu, took them to her tailor near the office. He charged her big city prices: 9 cents. How do they make a living?

The rainy season is just now beginning, perhaps an hour of hard rain every other afternoon. I am told the frequency and length of downpours will increase. But at the moment, our reservoirs are at their lowest point and the few rains have so far not really raised the water level. Consequently, hydro-generation of electricity is at its weakest. We now have all day power outages every other day. One gets used to it and works around the inconvenience. In a few weeks the increasing rain should replenish the reservoirs and eliminate the need for power outages… until dry season again next year.

On Sunday I took a daytrip with a new friend, Lorenz, an Austrian/American working here in Addis. We hired a car and driver ($36 for the day) to take us two hours north of Addis to the Muger Gorge. This steep gorge plunges 2000 feet to the Muger River below. The Muger is a tributary of the Blue Nile, which meets the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Together they form the Nile and flow northward through Egypt to empty into the Mediterranean. But enough geography.

We began our exploration on the rim of the gorge in the village of Durba where a very colorful Sunday market was taking place. Just a couple hundred yards from the market we observed an eye catching 300 foot high waterfall, and then nearby, a troupe of 25 or so Gelada Baboons ambling across an open field. They are also known as “bleeding heart” baboons due a chest of bare red skin sported by the male; no hair there on this otherwise hirsute animal. A quick glance might lead one to think the male’s heart is bleeding.

After a few photo shots we left the baboons and descended the switch back trail into the steep canyon. Soon we stopped on a rocky ledge (with a spectacular view across the gorge) to eat the sack lunches we had brought with us. Apparently the sight of two foreigners eating strange food overcame the reticence of several locals who were streaming down the trail from the market above to their homes on the canyon floor below. They stopped to stare. We had brought too much food for our lunch, so we offered the extra to the curious locals. They seemed intrigued by the exotic food we shared: apples, raisins, hummus, crackers. All purchased in a supermarket in Addis, but quite rare in this semi-isolated canyon.

They seemed to take a liking to our food… and to us as well. They invited us to hike to the bottom with them, so we set off with half a dozen of varying ages. An 11 year old girl was the only one who could speak some English, so she became our main contact. At one point she pointed at me and told 29 year old Lorenz, “The old man is clever.” I was partially flattered.

At the bottom, one of our fellow traveler, a middle aged woman, invited us to her home for coffee, dinner, sleep the night, and breakfast. Quite an offer – – if correctly translated by the 11 year old. But we had a driver and car waiting back on top so we had to decline her generosity. The 2000 elevation rise, bottom to top, was a workout. Due to the extreme steepness of the rocky trail, our climb was like ascending stairs for one hour straight. We didn’t stop, but we did have to side step occasionally on the narrow switchback, whenever a string of charcoal laden donkeys bore down on us from the market above. Good climb, good agility training, no need to visit the gym that day.

Dodging Steam Rollers

Observing road construction in Ethiopia is entertainment. Back home in Massachusetts we are incensed that every minor bit of roadwork requires a police detail on hand. Apologies to the policemen who serve on these details, but, to see a cop standing nearby drinking a cup of coffee and staring into the excavation, while I drive past watching my tax dollars fund this excess, irks me mildly. However, I would gladly fly several police details to Ethiopia at my expense.

The road in front of my office was recently paved. No construction signs were used. No barriers were erected to keep drivers, pedestrians, or goats off of the road while it was under construction. Cars would vie for position with steam rollers on the wet tar. When one side of the road proved impassable due to mounds of rock or dirt, drivers would drive on the wrong side of the median strip, challenging the correctly directioned drivers – – and the steam rollers.

Occasionally, the road crews would absolutely need to close off part of the road. In this very poor country, they don’t have temporary barriers to erect. Instead, the crews would position several large rocks across the forbidden section of road. And the drivers would drive around the rocks and challenge the steamrollers once again. All in good fun

At my yoga class recently, I met a Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Army. He is serving as the senior military liaison between the UN and the African Union forces in Darfur. While his organization is based in Addis he travels regularly to Darfur. The place sounds horrendous. The capital of North Darfur normally has a population of 50,000. Due to the massive influx of displaced people, the population is now approaching 200,000. Some refugee camps have upwards of 100,000 people in them. It would be difficult to avoid squalor in such an overcrowded place that consists of a few buildings, a few tents, and lots of stick and plastic shelters. Running water is virtually non existent and generator-powered electricity is likewise.

When he goes on an inspection visit out in the bush – – always accompanied by a well armed team of African Union soldiers from one of the contributing AU countries – – he sometimes comes into contact with government armed militias. These are the militias that have been accused of many of the well publicized atrocities in Darfur. He says some of these militia units include child soldiers. According to my friend, there is nothing scarier than a 15 year old untrained kid with an automatic weapon in his hand. Fuelled by beer and testosterone, these youngsters are totally unpredictable. I had thought of visiting Darfur while here in next door Ethiopia, but have decided against it due to the high air fare. Actually, I didn’t check the airfare; I just don’t fancy combat zones and weapons in the hands of kids.

There is a woman at my hotel reception. Here name is Jerusalem. In this very Christian nation, I assumed she was Christian. But, she could have been one of the few remaining Ethiopian Jews. Or perhaps equally likely, a Muslim. However, I think the cross around her neck gave her away. In any case, this was the first time I had met anyone named Jerusalem. And speaking of crosses, I have seen several women with crosses tattooed onto the forehead. Very devout.

Ancient City of Harrar

The small city of Harrar lies 13 hours by bus east from Addis. I opted for the 50 minute plane flight. Price for foreigners: $300; for residents of Ethiopia: $88. Didn’t seem quite fair to me, we both fill the same seat. But I lucked out. Since I flew into the country on Ethiopian Airlines, I automatically qualified for the resident rate. Quite fair after all.

We landed in the country’s eastern region, heavily Muslim, near Somalia. But not dangerously near – – still 180 miles or an eight hour drive to the border.

My guidebook described Harrar as the fourth most important city in Islam. For those of you keeping score: 1. Mecca, 2. Medina, 3. Jerusalem, 4. Harrar? Note: My daughter, Alison, who is well schooled in these matters, tells me #4 really is a town in Tunisia. And besides, she had never heard of Harrar.

Whatever its Islamic rank, Harrar is a fascinating place. It is a walled city (one of very few in sub-Saharan Africa) dating from the 1500s. One enters the old town through one of five city gates, then wanders, semi-lost and disoriented, around a labyrinth of winding alleys. These pedestrian pathways are mostly cobblestone and are flanked by whitewashed walls which keep prying eyes (mine) from the courtyards within. But with enough surreptitious glances as people entered and exited their homes, I caught a pretty good composite view of the flowery and attractively painted interior walls within the courtyards.

As picturesque as Harrar is, one would never mistake it for a quaint walled European city. This is the Ethiopian version: crowded, rundown, and more trash – – but fascinating all the same…and soon to be designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Being an upmarket kind of guy, I chose the Belayneh Hotel, the nicest in town. And at $11.80 per night, quite a bargain. But nicest in town is a relative term. We had electricity in the hotel on just one of the three days I was there. Consequently I was able to stay in a romantic candlelit room. Showering was permitted two hours each morning and again two hours in the evening – – strictly controlled by a shower head that emitted water only at the designated times. And in an interesting application of bone headed plumbing, the toilet flushed only during official shower times.

Outside the city walls, in the so-called new town, I stopped under some shade trees to rest and to review my guide book. A nearby shop owner and a couple of his friends soon started up a conversation with me. It wasn’t much of a conversation though. They spoke little English and my few memorized Amharic phrases didn’t get us very far. Furthermore, their native tongue wasn’t even Amharic, it was Oromo. My guide book has a table that translates English into several of the significant Ethiopian languages. So, instead of conversing, we looked up words and phrases in English, Amharic, and Oromo and laughed as each person tried to read a word in a non-native tongue. I’m not sure what was so funny about that…but the simple joy of laughing (mostly) at ourselves was refreshing.

I later stumbled across the qat market. Pronounced chaat in Ethiopia, qat is a shrub with green, bitter leaves. The locals chew the leaves to release a stimulant which gives sort of a quadruple espresso buzz. Only thing is, later I saw numerous qat chewers semi-reclining along the old town alleyways each with a large pile of qat leaves. They didn’t seem hyper-caffeinated; they seemed kind of zoned out. They would spend several hours of the afternoon pursuing this time wasting, non-productive pastime. For the record, qat is legal in some developed countries (UK) and illegal in others (US.)

From my hotel balcony I had a bird’s eye view of the Christian Market. So called because it lies outside the city walls and most of Harrar’s Christians live outside. Inside the walls Muslims predominate and, not surprisingly, the main market there is called the Muslim Market. One observes both religions at both markets. Anyway, I overlooked the firewood section of the market. Teenage girls – – never boys for this task – – would pass my hotel having traveled several miles, each with a large bundle of firewood balanced on her head. Donkeys would bring in heavier loads. Over the course of the late afternoon the firewood market took shape with an ever growing supply of product arriving by female head or donkey back. Each girl could expect to receive $1.50 – $2.00 for the firewood she had likely spent the entire afternoon bringing to market.

Friday night seemed like a good time to watch Harrar’s Crazy Hyena Man (CHM) feed wild hyenas. For a $5 tourist contribution, CHM will feed raw meat to these very scary animals. They look mean with big heads, sloping hindquarters, and fearsome teeth. Hyenas will even occasionally ambush and kill a weak lion. Anyway, four hyenas showed up from the forested hills surrounding Harrar, lured by the smell of raw meat and the familiarity of CHM’s calls to them in the darkness. I had arrived at the feeding site by taxi and by design, the taxi driver stayed to shine his vehicle headlights on the feeding activity.

Crazy Hyena Man began by tossing pieces of meat to the four wild creatures. They snarled and snapped at the meat. Next he fed them by hand, actually by a 12 inch stick with meat hanging from it. But the coup de grace was when he held the stick in his mouth and offered the meaty end to wild, fearsome, unpredictable carnivores. Next he explained it was my turn.

I told him I didn’t eat raw meat. Of course he really meant it was my turn to have my hand and face within 12 inches of powerful hyena jaws. I read somewhere that hyenas have the most powerful jaws of any carnivore on earth. All the better to crush bones to get at their marrow. Since I cherish my hand and face marrow, I took a pass on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remained at a safe distance and snapped headlight-illuminated photos of CHM and his snarling, wild friends.

The next morning I hired Girma as my guide to take me to the Valley of Marbles. We began our journey at the bus station in Harrar, boarding the bus a few minutes before the designated departure time. But departure, despite what the schedule says, is dictated by filling the seats. So we waited…and waited while the driver attempted to Shanghai other eastbound travelers onto our bus. At several points, some passengers grew tired of waiting and attempted to exit the bus, Animated shouting would break out, some flagrant gesticulating, but no touching. After 45 minutes we left, pointed eastward toward the small market town of Babile and the Valley of Marbles a couple of miles beyond.
This region’s inhabitants are ethnic Somalis: same language, religion, dress of their cousins in the failed state. (We were still 150 miles from the border.) Some Somalis live in straw huts. Made from a type of reed, these homes resemble oversized witches hats minus the brim.

The Somali women love bright colors. Those who really pop wear a lace-fringed ankle length skirt, overlaid by a gaudily printed wrap-around to the calf (so that the lace shows below,) followed by an equally gaudy blouse with yet a different vibrant print, then a shawl, often a powerful yellow, orange, or green color. They cover the head (but not the face) with one, sometimes two, additional loud patterned scarves. All these layers are light and breezy as is appropriate in this hot climate. They are also loose fitting so as to obscure the female figure. These multiple competing layers scream for attention. But it all seems to work, unlike, say, when I wore a stripped shirt and plaid polyester pants in college.

The Valley of Marbles is a beautiful mountainous landscape of giant monolithic granite blocks, up to 40 feet in height. Many stand upright, some balancing atop the block (or blocks) beneath. On the rocky/sandy ground were scattered thumb size chunks of marble. Marble and granite are related minerals and are often found together. Scurrying over the granite blocks were rock hyraxes. A rock hyrax is a football sized mammal resembling an overgrown guinea pig. Oddly, it is the closest living relative to the elephant. If you have difficulty understanding how an overgrown guinea pig can be related to an elephant, take up your concerns with a taxonomist. I offer no further explanation.

On Sunday morning I again ventured inside the walls of the old city, destined for a row of sidewalk tailors manning their foot treadle sewing machines. An overzealous laundry lady at my hotel had torn a hole in my favorite micro fiber, wick ‘em away traveling trousers. I was seeking a tailor to make the repair.

I approached the first sidewalk tailor and inquired the price of an on-the-spot repair. “Three birr.” (27 cents) At this low price, I chose not to bargain and handed over the torn trousers. However, a local passerby elected to bargain for me. “No, only one birr.” (9 cents).

This intervention so enraged the tailor that he rose from behind his antique sewing machine and picked up his sharply pointed scissors. Before he could close on the uninvited bargainer, another local stepped in to restrain the scissor wielding, price gouging tailor. And before this situation could fully resolve itself, I collected my micro fiber pants from the now vacant sewing machine and beat a hasty retreat down the cobblestone alley. And besides, it looked as if the tailor was planning to use white thread on my favorite tan trou.

The entire weekend I spent in Harrar, I saw just one other westerner. Being (almost) the sole outsider, gave me a feeling of total immersion in the Harrari culture. The morning I left, I met a lawyer from NYC. He talked too much. The reason: lawyer? Or from NYC? You decide.

Beggar’s Belief

There are a lot of beggars in this very poor country. More than anyplace I have ever been. (Note: I haven’t been to India or to Bangladesh.) But there are lots of them here. Some of them are opportunists, like the sort-of-poor, but not-totally-poor guy who dashes across the street to encounter a perceived affluent foreigner. Or the little kid who stop laughing with his friends and puts on a pitiful face when I walk by. But there are clearly poor women clutching babies, or people wearing little more than rags. There are also many men permanently injured or missing limbs. My best guess is that they are veterans of some ill-advised war that involved their country. And there have been several wars for them to have suffered in.

I can pretty much guess their war by their age. The oldest of the wounded perhaps fought during the 80s in the resistance against Ethiopia’s brutal communist regime. (Overthrown in 1991.) Slightly younger are those that fought through the early 90s in the civil war that followed. The outcome was the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Younger yet are the former soldiers who were sent in the late 90s to fight a simmering border conflict with the newly independent Eritrea. And the youngest of all are those maimed in Somalia. Two years ago Ethiopia sent troops there in an unsuccessful effort to shore up that failed state. Ethiopian troops withdrew this past January. Now the troops are home and the wounded are begging on the streets.

My job is to discern the opportunists from the legitimates. Whenever I have spare change in my pocket I dole it out to the legitimates…at least my idea of the legitimates.

Even the country itself is somewhat of a beggar. When one walks down the street in Addis it is impossible to miss the great number of charities, non-profit organizations, and NGOs that have set up shop here: UNESCO, CARE, Save the Children, The Carter Center, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, UN, Solar Energy Foundation (of course) and the list goes on. I see signs along major roads telling me which wealthy nation funded its construction and notices beside new buildings announcing that the European Commission (or some other body) sponsored its erection. I sometimes wonder if Ethiopia could survive without all this foreign aid. I suppose most low income countries must rely on such aid for their survival.

Religion – Ethiopia claims to be the second oldest Christian nation on earth, after Armenia. Christianity came here around 300 AD. This is a devoutly Christian country despite a large percentage of non-Christians. I have seen varying estimates of the religious mix, but most are around 50% Christian, 40% Muslim, and 10% Animist and other. There is a very small number of Ethiopian Jews. Most were spirited out of the country by Israel during that brutal communist dictatorship of the 1980s.

Despite the sizable proportion of Muslims in the country as a whole, one sees mostly Christians in the central highlands where Addis is located. The significant Muslim populations are around the edges of the country near the Eritrean, Somali, and Sudanese borders. I see many more churches than mosques and while I do see a fair number of Muslim women (evidenced by headscarves) they are greatly outnumbered by Christians. Among men it is difficult to ascertain religion by dress. It appears that these two religions coexist very amicably. I am told that mixed marriages are reasonably common, with either spouse converting to either religion, or even both religions coexisting in the same home. Now, if we could just get other parts of the world to practice this tolerance.

The Rainy Season

With the rainy season fast approaching, it seemed time to spring for an umbrella. One of the women at my office told me I should pay ETB35 – 50 (Ethiopian birr) or about $3 – 4.50. Before heading out for a post-work umbrella shopping spree, I inquired at my hotel reception desk about where to find the desired product. The receptionist told me to go to a supermarket because the nearby small shops sell only “artificial umbrellas.” Hmm, artificial umbrellas are a new concept to me. More likely, we were dealing with a language error. But just in case, I headed to the nearby small shops to see if they had artificial umbrellas.

All in all it was a successful afternoon. I purchased an artificial umbrella. I learned the Amharic word for umbrella. (“jonTELA” for the linguistically curious among you.)And I got to bargain: starting price ETB 80; my price ETB 50 – – just within the range recommended at my office.

The Ethiopians are big on greetings. When men greet they shake hands. And depending how formal the greeting, the man will often bow his head and touch his own forearm with his free hand while shaking hands. Sometimes, while shaking hands he will bump shoulders with the other fellow, one, two, or three times. (I think the number of shoulder bumps indicates how happy he is to see each other guy.) I am fairly adept at the shoulder bump by now.

Women generally shake hands and kiss each other on alternate cheeks three times. Occasionally I have seen this alternation continue up to five kisses. Again, I assume, a sign of happiness to see a friend.

One does not see much public display of affection between the sexes. Infrequently, I see men and women holding hands. But more frequently I see men holding hands with men and women holding hands with women. This is a common sign of friendship, nothing more.

I had my first Amharic lesson on Friday. My tutor, Dawit, was introduced to me by a local British guy. Dawit has tutored several people from the British Embassy and he is quite good. He will come to my hotel two or three times each week to teach me to say please and thank you.

I had written in a previous posting that there were 231 characters in the Amharic alphabet. I was wrong. Dawit brought me a table with 238 characters…and he told me there were actually more, but the extras were not frequently used. 231, 238, even more – – all overwhelming to me. They have strong vowels and weak vowels…including one vowel that is so weak it is used as a consonant. (Whatever that means.) They even have explosive consonants – – my favorites – – that sound almost like one of the world’s rare click languages. So much for the alphabet.

After my first lesson, I can greet men, women, groups of people, and priests at different times of day. Each greeting is different and some are hard to pronounce. Especially those with weak vowels and explosive consonants.

With just one lesson under my belt, conversing in English remains mandatory. I am still finding that accurate communication, even with nominal English speakers, is a continuing challenge. Interviews are especially difficult. The accent is always tough and even those who speak English often don’t have a full grasp of the language. A recent interview went like this:

Me: “What is your job responsibility?”

SEF salesman: “Solar better than kerosene lantern. It provide better light, is less expensive and no pollute.”

Good answer, I guess, but not to the question I asked. I must frequently, reformulate and re-ask my question in even simpler English.

Returning to Ethiopia

Yesterday morning I flew into Addis Ababa for the beginning of my second stint with the Solar Energy Foundation. This time I will stay in country for six weeks, doubling the length of my previous stay. Speaking of length, my flight from Boston was, as usual, a lengthy one. It required two overnight flights: first from Boston to Frankfurt where I had a 10 hour layover, then another overnight flight to Ethiopia.

Fully rested by this morning, I walked to work. Along the way is a shop selling charcoal and firewood. When I see the many containers of charcoal and the numerous bundles of firewood, it brings up images of the shrinking forests around Addis. But the poor people in the city have few other sources of cooking fuel. The shrinking forests became real for me a few weeks previously while driving through the Entoto mountains just outside of Addis. I passed dozens of women walking alongside the road carrying huge bundles of still leafy, green firewood. Each bundle extended perhaps five feet on either side of the woman and was so heavy she walked bent over forward with her back parallel to the ground. (Of note: there were no men carrying these body bending loads of firewood, just women.) They had walked miles from the city into the forest to bring back firewood to use in their homes, as well as to sell. Lots of firewood was stripped from the forest that day and I doubt there is a robust reforestation program in place.

In route to work I also passed a cabinet-building workshop. The unusual thing about this workshop is that it was on the sidewalk. This small business has no fabrication facilities, just a small walled area to lock up their material and equipment at night. During the day, the actual work is performed on the sidewalk. About half a dozen men process the furniture through the various stages of completion. A power saw operator cuts the pieces, another guy hammers, nails, or screws the pieces together, a third sands the cabinet, and yet another worker spray paints the masterpiece. Quality didn’t look to good to me, but what can you expect from a sidewalk factory. Besides, I didn’t get a close-up look, I had swept wide off the sidewalk into the street to avoid the power saw and spray paint operators. In the street was a goatherd with nearly 100 goats. Pedestrians beware.

We have a position at SEF called “Office Girl.” That is her official job title; I checked the organization chart. I am told every business has an Office Girl. Her job is to do administrative odd jobs, but jobs that don’t require education. Typing requires education. At SEF, our office girl’s name is Mahmey, pronounced something like “mommy,” which sort of describes the motherly tasks she is responsible for. She brings me a bottle of water each day. She earns about $900 per year.

Tales of Ethiopia

I am back Newton now for a two week R&R. I will return to Ethiopia on the first of June for a six week stay. Here are a couple of items I wrote previously but did not get around to posting… until now, that is.

Even the paved roads near my hotel – – and there are as many dirt as paved – – are incredibly dusty. Of course this plays havoc with my shoes and hence my professional appearance. But getting a shine is simple, there are shoe shine boys everywhere. I figure they should be in school, but they are not, and consequently their career arc probably won’t rise much above shoe shine boy.

I approached the first one I saw and asked, “How much for a shine” and was told by the shoe shining truant, 25 cents. I knew this was greatly inflated, but at what point does one just pay up and not negotiate small amounts? In principal I don’t like paying above the market rate just because I am a foreigner. But in this case, I figured he could use the extra few cents more than I. So I sat down on his stool at the edge of the sidewalk and the shine began.

When the customer next to me paid 10 cents for his shine, I knew the real market price. My shine soon completed, I offered the shiner the 25 cents we had agreed on. Sly little kid… said that was 25 cents per shoe. Now this is where I draw the line. I am willing to overpay an agreed upon price, but I won’t be swindled – – even if a small amount, especially by a dropout. I put 25 cents on the ground and walked away from the pouting shyster.

Power outages: We have one every 3 or 4 days. There is no schedule for these outages, they begin very early in the morning and I discover them when I wake up. Fortunately it gets light before 6 AM so I can at least see what I am doing. There is also no power at the office either. We have sufficient light from windows to see, but the computers, printers, landline telephones, office refrigerator don’t run too well without electricity. Generally, we operate off the computer battery for a couple of hours until the computer dies. People whose jobs require being connected or using a computer sometimes leave for the day. I try to work on paper or go to an Internet cafe in a different part of town – – one that is not subjected to the current outage. Maybe their turn for outage will be tomorrow. Who knows?

Some larger shops and restaurants switch to generators. But many restaurants do not have generators so they cook from gas canisters and light with candles. Power returns around 9 PM but it has been dark since 7 PM. One evening, around 8 PM I walked home from the gym during a power outage. No shop lighting, no restaurant lighting, no street lighting. It was pitch black. I couldn’t even see the two foot deep holes in the sidewalk. And I didn’t like walking in the street because some drivers save gasoline by driving with their lights off. No wonder they call Africa the Dark Continent.

Journey to Rema

On Saturday, seven of us loaded into two vehicles for the six hour journey north to Rema. We were two Ethiopians, two Swiss, one German, one Brit, and I. All I can say about the long (and dusty) drive of endlessly changing vistas is that it now ranks in my top ten all-time list: Open plains with grazing cattle, sheer volcanic drop-offs, vertiginous mountain switchbacks, flat bottom river valleys, red, white, and tan colored buttes – – studded with eucalyptus trees, human sized prickly pear, and other assorted greenery. All along the way was the usual menagerie of donkeys, mules, horse carts, long horn cattle, and goats, all tended by the local people.

In some countries they would make this a national park. In Ethiopia it is, well, just the countryside.

We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon, just as the Saturday animal market was breaking down. Herders drove their unsold cows and goats down the mountain road out of Rema. From the center of town – – and the daily necessities market – – shoppers from surrounding villages made their way home carrying a week’s worth of produce or grain or cooking oil or kerosene. The outlying villages are off the electrical grid and they do not have solar, thus they are consigned to lighting with expensive and smoky kerosene.

But Rema does have solar. It is the model project for Solar Energy Foundation. Instead of selling the systems to residents here (as they are doing elsewhere in Ethiopia) they have given a solar system to each of the 2,500 households in the town. SEF has established a solar training center in Rema. The center brings aspiring solar technicians from all over Ethiopia to spend six months learning the trade: three months in the classroom and three months installing and maintaining systems in Rema. After six months they return to their home regions to join an SEF installation team there.

SEF tests its new products in Rema and tries out new ideas, like street lights. Not surprisingly, the local people are absolutely thrilled with the benefits that SEF has brought to the town. Apparently they associate any western visitor with the largesse of SEF. Consequently when our group of five foreigners – – three of whom were involved in SEF’s past generosity – – walked down the street we were greeted warmly by nearly everyone. “Salam” (hello) from all; and an outstretched hand from perhaps 25% of the people. I must have shaken hands with 200 people during my walk through the community. (I may go back later and ask for their votes.)

Samson, the Ethiopian director of SEF, took us into several homes to show us the installed solar lighting. Most homes – – typically two rooms in size – – had two or three LED bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The light from one of these bulbs is equivalent to a 20 watt incandescent light bulb – – quite dim when one considers that in our homes a 60 watt bulb is the smallest we generally use. However, quite bright when the townsfolk compare to their recent past: total, absolute darkness at night.

Then there were the kids. They just can’t get enough of foreign visitors. Our group looked like a collective Pied Piper as we walked through town followed by a gaggle of 20 – 50 kids at any given time. The shy kids would run up, touch my white skin and run away giggling. The brave ones, and most were brave, would say “salam” and want to shake hands. Even the little ones with dirty faces, runny noses, and flies around their eyes – – just like on TV. I shook hands with all of them, then washed my own hands with soap and water before dinner.

Rema has another claim to fame: Bill Clinton visited the town last year as part of the Clinton Initiative. He wanted to view Africa’s first solar town. Interestingly, most locals did not know who he was. Some thought he was a wealthy German philanthropist behind SEF. (SEF is a German-based foundation.) Others had no clue. Realize that most adults are illiterate farmers with no formal education and no link to the outside world. Rema is off the grid. Even those who have a few years of schooling have studied basic reading, writing, health care, and agriculture, not geo politics.

Trip to Chale

Worku and I went to Chale (Cha-lay), due east from Addis, on Friday to check on the health and welfare of Solar Energy Foundation’s six person installation team who live in that remote (off the grid) village.

As usual we got an early start, 6 AM, so that we could battle the early morning truckers and their eye stinging, lung searing, unfiltered exhaust. I hate to think what a lifetime breathing this polluted air will do to one’s health. In my case, it merely felt as if I had smoked a pack of cigarettes.

However, when we stopped for breakfast 1.5 hours later in Mojo, I had found my mojo. The traffic had thinned, the air was fresher. We turned off the paved highway and continued on a dirt road, sometimes smooth (40 mph) and sometimes very rough (15 mph.)

The donkey to car ratio increased, as did the horse cart to car ratio. Collective this is referred to as the beast of burden ratio. After a couple of hours we arrived at the edge of a deep valley. As we made our way down the 1000 foot escarpment into Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the air grew hotter and dryer. On the valley floor camels joined the parade. Most were laden down with wood, bags of grain, or large plastic containers of water. More about water later.

Yet anther 1.5 hours brought us to Chale, a small village where SEF has installed solar systems on 55 homes in the past month. They have several dozen additional orders to fulfill in the coming weeks.

The final 10 miles to Chale was on what could at best be called a beaten path. Save our own 4×4, we saw no other vehicles on this stretch. We played dodge ‘em with the local pedestrians, donkeys, camels, heard of goats and cows.

We stopped to talk to one friendly villager. Friendly, except he did have a rifle slung over his shoulder. It appeared to be a near-antique – – a single shot, bolt action piece. However, I assumed it worked, so I was especially charming towards this guy. I dispensed with my usual line of Emperor Haile Selassie jokes.

When we got to the living quarters of the SEF installation team, I was shocked: no electricity (but of course that is why they are in Chale), no running water, and all six installers (4 male, 2 female) live in a single room. About 12 x 10 feet with mattresses covering virtually every square foot of the floor space. The room had a door, but no windows.

I gently inquired about the adequacy of their living arrangement. They were universally upbeat, joking about dorm life. It turns out that all come from rural backgrounds and large families. They seemed to be one happy family now.

They cook outside on the dirt yard in front of their home.. They take bucket showers and there is an outhouse somewhere nearby.20 They rent their McMansion for $4 per month. Ah, the joys of country living.

But there was a problem, a big problem. This being the dry season, the nearest source of potable water was a 15 mile roundtrip to the closest market town. And they have no vehicle.

So, today we drove them and their large collection of five gallon plastic containers to town. There they guided us to the local water merchant: some guy who has a well, a pump, and a hose. It took a full hour to fill their containers. We then manhandled the now heavy containers back into our vehicle and retraced our route to their charming villa, now made even more attractive by the presence of a one week water supply.

Since the installation team cannot count on an SEF vehicle visiting them from Addis regularly, they are seeking other ways to solve their water challenge. They have investigated hiring a donkey or a camel, leading it to town, then walking back with full containers on the back of the animal. Downside: 15 miles roundtrip on foot, plus water filling time, takes the better part of a day. And a single beast of burden, even a large camel, can carry only a couple days of water in containers.

But the resourceful installation team may have come up with a workable solution. Each Saturday morning a truck driver from Areti, the market town, drives his empty truck to Chale to pick up farmers and their produce, and takes them to the Saturday market in Areti. The SEF installation team plans to provide him with a week’s worth of empty containers which he will fill on Saturday morning and bring to Chale in his empty truck. He will return to Areti with the farmers, crops, and another week worth of empties. All that remains to be done is to agree on the payment amount.

Mercifully, the rainy season will begin in another month and then there will be sufficient clean water – – until the dry season returns in mid September.

Living in Ethiopia

I got my hair cut last Sunday – chose most expensive place in town, the Hilton Hotel. Cost: $3.50. I probably could have saved a couple of bucks by choosing a local barber – who spoke no English and had never cut anything but Ethiopian nappy hair. But, I opted for the upmarket choice.

To get to the Hilton barbershop I had two options: take a taxi or take a mini-bus. Taxis are generally bro ken down rattletraps – – some with seat belts, some with window cranks, some with shock absorbers, all with dents. No meters, so one must always establish the price before getting in. The driver will invariable try to make the passenger feel that he is undercutting the accepted price and so energetic bargaining ensues. I usually end up paying about 50% of the starting price – – and even then I am certain that I have paid the foreigner’s premium. Prices to most places in town run $2-$5.

However on Sunday I rode the mini-bus to the Hilton. The mini-bus is a 10-person van that runs on a fixed route, generally up and down a major thoroughfare. As the driver drives along the route, a “conductor” hangs out the sliding side door shouting out the destination of his particular mini-bus. The mini-bus will stop to collect passengers wherever hailed and will discharge passengers wherever one wants off.

Since my route to the Hilton was a straight shot on a major thoroughfare, I hailed a passing mini-bus. The conductor slid open the side door and showed me a tiny open space along with 15 other passengers already jammed into the 10-person van. I paid him the going price – -1 Ethiopian birr (about 9 cents) – – and I don’t think I paid the foreigner’s premium.

I have found a gym about a 15 minute walk or 5 minute mini-bus ride from my hotel. The Bole Rock Gym is large and modern. Price for a single visit is $4.50. Since I view regular yoga as essential to my health and welfare, I have been attending yoga class one or twice a week. The 25 or so others who attend are a mix of foreigners and Ethiopians (upper socio-economic class, I presume.)

Life in Addis Ababa

Some of you have asked about life in Addis Ababa. Here are a few highlights:

Addis sprawls over the foothills of the Entoto Mountains. The city sits at nearly 8000 feet elevation – – third highest capital in the world. That high altitude makes my morning jog feel like a marathon. Half an hour and I am totally bushed.

The city is a crowded urban concentration (3 million), but there are touches of countryside within – – like the goat market (about $50 for a goat) just down the street from my hotel. The goat market is adjacent to donkey market (more than twice that price for a donkey.) One morning a rural visitor was herding cows down the street. Maybe fifteen cows, big horns, looked like long horned Texas steers. I crossed to the other side of the street.

We have had three, all-day, electrical outages in the 10 days I have been here. Much of Ethiopia’s electricity is derived from hydropower and as we are nearing the end of the eight month dry season, the reservoirs that drive the turbines are running low. Consequently, I am told that one should expect an outage every several days – – sort of rolls through Addis on an unpredictable basis.

Getting money in Addis is a regular challenge. ATMs exist but are exceedingly sparse and often don’t have money to dispense. There is virtually no acceptance of credit cards (outside of the big international hotels like Hilton and Sheraton.) Just a handful of banks accept travelers’ checks. Consequently, one must bring all the cash one needs – – sort of a problem for a long stay – – or make special trips to the few travelers-check-accepting banks.

Cashing a travelers’ check is a bit more bureaucratic than in the west. For those of you who recall cashing a travelers’ check, the procedure was simple: Go to the teller, show ID, sign the check, receive money.
Here in Ethiopia we have some additional steps: Go to bank officer’s desk. Give up passport and travelers check to be Xeroxed. Sign check. Xerox again. Bank office then fills out comprehensive form – in triplicate with carbon paper. Returns passport, hands over a numbered metal token. Wait in main lobby, 5 to 30 minutes, until number matching the token flashes on teller’s screen. Go to teller, collect money. Go back to hotel and take a nap after this ordeal.

And finally, a word about names: In this very Christian nation, a few names are recognizable from the bible: Samson and Solomon. A few others have biblical or saintly roots that require some head scratching: Yohannis (John) and Gyorgis (George). However, most are totally unfamiliar: Worku, Workeneh, Girma, Shimeles, Yikanu. Here is a quick test, identify the lone female name above. I have taken to writing down the name of each person I meet so that I can (sort of) remember them and keep them straight.

By the way, if you selected Yikanu, you are correct.

Report From Ethiopia

We left Addis Ababa at 6 AM on Wednesday, heading to the Southern Peoples State where we were to present our solar systems to farmers who live in unelectrified villages. Four of us from the Solar Energy Foundation went along to make the pitch. I was merely an observer, able to speak neither Amharic, the national language, nor Gurage, the language of the Southern Peoples State.

We fought through horrendous early morning traffic. It is a mystery to me how one of the poorest countries in the world – – Ethiopia ranks 11th from the bottom in the world in GDP per capita – – can have enough cars to create a traffic jam…but they have more than enough, big time. There are no pollution controls on vehicles so eye stinging exhaust billows everywhere. Thick enough to see. Thick enough to taste. And the honking is incessant.

Outside the city, the air in the rolling green hills of the Ethiopian highlands (7000 feet) was clear and clean. Small farms lay in every direction. The local farmers and families live in a gocho, a round wooden hut, maybe 20 feet in diameter, covered with a high conical thatched grass roof. Many family compounds consisted of several gocho surrounding a grassy courtyard – – all enclosed with a hand hewn wooden palisade fence. Green hills, crops, scattered gocho compounds and people walking everywhere – – incredibly picturesque.

The bright sun, equatorial sun, pushes the daytime temperatures into the low 80’s – – tempered somewhat by the high altitude. At night the temperature falls to the comfortable mid 50s.

In the countryside, men wear western trousers and shirts, some very worn and ragged. Women wear loose fitting ankle length skirts or dresses with a totally mismatched, clashing top. Most women and some men wrap a thin shawl around the upper torso and over the head to ward off the early morning chill, and later, the bright midday sun.

As we made our way south we passed through 10 or so small towns, each with a school. Kids on their way to morning class wore look-alike school uniforms: a brightly colored pullover. Each town had its own uniform color: vibrant green, bright red, hot pink, electric grape, shocking lavender. All very eye catching. Boys and girls alike wore this uniform, sometimes with matching pants. The sight of an entire school class in hot pink pullover and hot pink pants was unusual for me. Apparently Ethiopians don’t attach such gender specific assignments to clothing colors as we do in the west. Two hours south on a main paved road, then two more hours on a rocky, bumpy dirt road brought us to Gumar, sort of a rural county seat. When we arrived in this small town to conduct a solar demonstration for the county administrators, we discovered that our meeting would be delayed because a local catastrophe had struck just an hour earlier.

An open cooking fire inside a wood and grass gocho had lit the home on fire. A morning breeze fanned the flames which quickly jumped to 10 adjacent gocho. By the time we arrived, only circular smoking ash remained. Hundreds of villagers swatted at the smoking embers with leafy tree branches. Another hundred or so milled around, gawking. School had been let out; hundreds of school kids joined the two teams: swatters and gawkers. Not having a swatting branch, I joined the gawkers. I soon learned that a white face in this remote highland town was imminently more remarkable to the kids than were smoking huts. A crowd of students, 10 – 20 deep surrounded me, silently staring. My abrupt, “hello,” elicited swarms of giggles.

Eventually the fire was brought under control with no loss of life nor injuries. But sadly, 10 families lost their homes. Our team retreated to the local restaurant to await our rescheduled meeting with the county administrators.

Someone ordered for us: injera (remember, spongy pita-like brad made from teff, an indigenous whole grain.) Also a big bowl of rather chewy cooked beef mixed with what looked like small white onion bits. “Good, I thought, “at least I can get my vegetables.” But, bad news: the small white onion bits turned out to be gristle. But also good news: there was plenty of it.

In the afternoon we met with the county administrators to organize a demonstration the next day with the farmers whose villages lacked electricity. The meeting was set for “9:30 or 10.” Sort of indeterminate, I thought.

The next morning the farmers began arriving at 10. They were still arriving at 11 when we started the presentation. They were still arriving at 11:30 when we were into the heart of the presentation. Ultimately we had 166 men and 6 women crowded into the local meeting hall. They had walked in from as much as 2 hours away. Many arrived carrying their dual purpose walking stick/shepherd’s crook. The wealthier ones carried a horse whip – – they had ridden in. One guy showed up on a motor bike. Another farmer brushed his teeth during the meeting – – he massaged his gums with a fibrous plant stem. The non-punctual arrival demonstrated to me that we were working in a timeless economy. There were watches on a few wrists, but that didn’t seem to affect their random arrival pattern. Apparently the watch is more for show than function. I assume the meeting time was set according to wake up, breakfast, and early morning farm chores.

The meeting went well, the farmers were sold on the concept. In a couple of weeks Solar Energy Foundation will send a technical team back to Gumar to begin installing 100 or so solar systems.

Arriving In Ethiopia

I arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday morning after a too long flight with too many layovers en route from Boston. After a brief nap I went to the office of the Solar Energy Foundation. SEF is a German/Swiss organization with a major focus on solar energy in Ethiopia. I will be spending about three months helping SEF set up a sales and distribution network for their solar energy business.

I met my Ethiopian SEF business contacts, Samson – CEO and Worku – CFO, and they are so hungry for assistance that even I can help. I spent the first two days learning, listening, diagnosing.

About 84% of rural Et hiopia is without electricity and SEF has targeted unelectrified villages as its target market. To make this business more than just another NGO (non-governmental organization) give-away, SEF is requiring their customers to purchase the solar system – – thereby committing the customer to the success of this venture. And by running this program as a business, SEF is creating sustainable jobs for Ethiopians, providing technical training, and ultimately will generate manufacturing in the country.

They sell solar systems to rural folk, mainly farmers and their families. SEF subsidizes 20% of the cost of the system – – a solar panel, storage battery, and long life lights – – and takes payment for the remaining 80% from the customer in four payments. SEF installs the system upon receipt of the first payment. Remaining payments are required annually, so in effect, SEF loans the purchase price of the system to the farmer and receives and annual payment over three years.

Ah ha, I thought, I can immediately save SEF money by requiring payment monthly, instead of annually: in effect speeding up collections. Oh, the things we take for granted in the west. Farmers cannot pay monthly. They have no bank accounts; they have money only after the autumn harvest. That is when they can afford to pay for cash items – – like a solar system. The rest of the year they subsist in a mostly cashless state. Apparently, I have more to learn before applying breakthrough business concepts that won’t work in the developing world.

Addis is a big (3 million), sprawling city with few street names and no street numbers. To describe one’s location one states the general area of town and a big building nearby. I am in the Bole area near the Medhane Alem church.

A word about the language…or languages, all 80+ of them. I will focus my efforts on Amharic, considered the national language, even thought just 1 of 3 Ethiopians is a native speaker. The other two thirds use one of the other 80 languages.

I began to study my Amharic phrase book to learn the alphabet. But I gave up when I discovered that there are 231 letters – – and actually they aren’t letters, they are more like syllables and the so-called alphabet is actually a syllabary.

Next, I thought I’d learn some basic verbs, only to find that verbs change spelling (unrecognizably) depending on the gender and number of the subject and the object referred to. Way too complex for my feeble language skills. So now my only hope is to memorize a few simple phrases and hope for the best.

Worku, one of my Ethiopian colleagues, took me around the city on Sunday. He treated me to lunch at a traditional restaurant in a 100 year old house overlooking Addis. The first thing he ordered for us was teuj, a fermented honey drink with all the character of grain alcohol.

Next he suggested we try the raw meat – – I politely took the cooked chicken option while they brought Worku one pound of raw beef. We each cut our chosen meat into bite sizes, then picked up each piece with a piece of injera bread (no utensils other than the knives.) Injera is a sort of spongy pita bread made from teff, a local whole grain. My dish was covered with a mildly spicy red pepper sauce and was quite good. Worku’s was basically a slab of dead cow and, I assume, quite bad. (Apologies to the carnivores among you.) Apparently this raw meat dish is a delicacy in Ethiopia.

I will be traveling in the countryside for several days: my first immersion into rural Ethiopia. With my SEF colleagues, we will visit a village that SEF is trying to market its solar system to. SEF will demonstrate how the system works, then with some luck, sign up a bunch of new customers.