Saturday, November 1, 2008
"Lying under a coconut palm may seem like a tropical idyll, but there have been some tragic accidents. Take care when walking under coconut trees and don't lie (or park your car) beneath them."
Thursday, October 30, 2008
I now know why it’s impossible to rent a car in Madagascar.
For about a month before I arrived in Tana, I had been in touch with all of the rental agencies trying to locate a small, cheap car for the week I would be there. But in Madagascar, you can’t rent just a car – instead, you hire the car and a driver together. So, this is how I ended up spending four days of my time in Madagascar riding shotgun with Rebe, a driver I hired through a recommendation at one of the hotels in the capital.
Our negotiation was quick: I told him where I wanted to go and for how long, he quoted a price, I knocked off 25% - to make the offer a bit lower than the price charged by the major rental agencies, except Rebe’s price included the petrol – and he agreed immediately. There is nothing worse than having a counter-offer immediately agreed to, and I knew that I paid more than I needed to. But Rebe turned out to be well worth the money.
Driving in Madagascar is a sport. It’s a test of dexterity, agility, and endurance, and it requires the right combination of patience and aggressiveness, knowledge of the local roads, and a sense of humor. It’s probably best for tourists, Malagasy, and the cars themselves that foreigners don’t drive. For four straight days, Rebe piloted his red Ford station wagon through the Madagascar towns and countryside, handling the hazards and distractions in, on the side of, and beyond or past the roadside.
What’s in the road depends on where you are. Getting out of Tana – which could take between 30 and 90 minutes, depending on the time of day – the road is thick with traffic and people, mainly vendors selling whatever you could possibly imagine and taxi brousse, the Malagasy equivalent of an African combi.
Taxi brousse are shared-ride mini-buses that travel along a set route. To take a ride, you find the right taxi brousse in the bus station lot, throw your bag on the roof, and take a seat inside. And then you wait. Most taxi brousse are the size of 15-passenger vans in the States, but in Africa it’s common to have 20 people inside, and not uncommon to have 22-25 passengers. When – and if – the taxi brousse fills up , the trip begins. (Besides the comfort factor, travelling to the countryside by taxi brousse wasn’t an attractive option for me, as I didn’t have the time needed, and not speaking any French would have made it very difficult.)
Back on the road in Tana, Rebe stays close to the cars in front of him, putting his front bumper right next to the bumper of the car in front of him, careful not to let a car sneak in, or to allow a never-ending stream of pedestrians to carve a path in front of him. Whenever we are still for more than a few seconds, a street vendor approaches my window and holds out mango, toy, a whisk, or a live chicken. (15,000 ariary – about USD$8, I’m told is the price of the flashlight. I don’t need it, I tell the vendor. Fine: 11,000 ariary, he comes back with. And so on.)
As we leave Tana the crowds thin, the scenery changes, and the obstacles in the road change. Rebe puts on his old MP3 player, which has about 50 songs on it – a combination of 90’s American dance music (think Vanilla Ice, and other hits from the early 90’s bar mitzvah circuit) and French/Malagasy electronic – which he knows quite well. There’s one song, part in English and part in French, which I gather is called “Chihuahua,” that Rebe seems to like. It’s on the playlist multiple times, and Rebe starts to whistle to the melody when it comes on.
We’re on a “good road” – it is sealed and wide enough for a lane in each direction, but it still has its share of large potholes and the occasional unmarked speed bump (a Swazi specialty, no doubt, that has made its way to Madagascar), of which Rebe seems to know each one. Here, instead of the armies of people and vendors, Rebe now navigates the curves of the road bending around the hills and mountains, and whatever else ends up blocking our path. We are likely to come across a pack of cattle being shepherded by young boys to a pasture, an overloaded taxi brousse or large truck chugging slowly up the side of a hill, or a pousse pousse, or rickshaw, especially if we are in or close to Antsirabe, where there seems to be a rickshaw for each of the 150,000 living there.
When there’s something in our way, Rebe taps on his horn. This first toot is polite – friendly even – and most often the offending party obligingly moves. Trucks drift to the side of road, and flip on their left indicator lights, signaling to Rebe to pass; rickshaws slow down and move over; and even the cows knowingly shuffle aside (and if they don’t voluntarily move, the young boys give them a sharp smack on the side with a stick, tree branch, or rope.) But if there’s no movement, Rebe becomes inpatient. He hits the horn again, but in a longer, angrier blast.
In the countryside the roads are clearer, and my attention turns to the show on the side. There are constantly women lining the sides of the roads, with huts or simple displays selling honey (in recycled empty plastic water bottles), fruits, crayfish, homemade rum, crafts, or live animals. As we approach, each woman holds up what they are selling and gestures to our car. I quickly learn that live animals are handled in different ways to keep them docile while they’re being held. Chickens are dangled upside down, held by their feet; rabbits are presented by their ears, held back behind their heads; and ducks are fastened by their wings.
We often pass furnaces, where sand from the rivers is pressed and baked into bricks. These are simple ovens, formed by creating several long openings at the bottom where wood is inserted. These bricks will be loaded into wooden carts, and pushed or pulled by a team of young children along the side of the road to their destination. (Almost all of the buildings on the sides of the road are the same modest construction of brick and thatched roofs. They are rectangular, with a triangular roof, and windows only opening to the west, to avoid the fierce wind coming from the east.)
There is more activity on the side of the road, but my attention often drifts beyond it, to the beautiful hills and mountains we are traversing. The Malagasy countryside is beautiful, and this trip will take me through farming areas (rice paddies, mainly – all cultivated manually – no tractors here – with cattle pulling sleds to churn the land and women knee-deep in water pulling the rice out), rolling hillsides, and finally rainforest.
When we arrive at our destination – a park or nature reserve, or a hotel for the evening – Rebe will often sort everything out for me. He will locate a park guide who allegedly speaks English or arrange the room. We’ll figure out a time to meet up later in the day or the next morning (the hotels here often will give the driver a free shared room and sometimes a complementary dinner as well). He will disappear, and I will explore.
Friday, October 24, 2008
In the eighteen hours I've been in Madagascar, on the street I've been offered - in order of usefulness - a bottle of water, cell phone airtime, a baugette and other foods, clothing, French-language newspapers, calculators, raw meat, bamboo, live animals, and a 40-pound full-scale replica model sailing ship.
Tana is a bustling town, and you need to share the streets and narrow sidewalks with cars, rickshaws, and the armies of street vendors walking around. It's, to borrow a word from RSA, quite hectic.
Madagascar also seems a bit difficult to navigate. I speak almost no French, and - although there's some English spoken here - have done a lot of pointing and gesturing, and getting around is also tough - there are virtually no street signs and all rental cars come with drivers - it's impossible to drive your own vehicle, though I'm not sure why.
I have plans to spend the rest of the day exploring the capital here, then tomorrow I'll head south to spend a few days visiting some national parks and searching for lemurs.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Pros: amazing desert landscapes and scenery; interesting mix of African and German influence; lots of adventure sports options.
Cons: long distances; the sand gets everywhere.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
15 Oct: Namibia
21 Oct: Jo'burg
23 Oct: Madagascar
29 Oct: Mauritius
5 Nov: Reunion
9 Nov: Zurich
10 Nov: New York
If you're in the region, drop me a line.
A bunch of TechnoServe colleagues came out to the braai, which was in Big Bend, about 120 kilometers outside of Mbabane. It felt good to include them – I have learned a lot about the work of the horticulture, feed and livestock, handcrafts, business plan competition, and youth entrepreneurship teams in the office, and have collaborated with a few of them. But Sabelo – the Executive Director that we hired last month (a well-connected SME champion and Swazi patriot) to take over the project – and I haven’t had a product to show. Bringing everyone together at the site and giving a short of the building took steps towards that.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Yesterday was the big 40-40 event here, the double celebration of Swaziland’s 40th year of independence (actual date, September 6, 1968), and King Mswati III’s 40th birthday (actual date, sometime last April). To commemorate the occasion, there was a big party in the main stadium, complete with entertainment, marching and military displays, and heads of states and other dignitaries from a number of (mainly southern African) nations. The party also fell on my 29th birthday.
Nick, Shubha, and I went out to the stadium at around 9am yesterday and found some space in one of the bleachers. The ceremony took a long time, as the dignitaries’ arrivals stretched for over an hour. Heads of state from Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the SA Zulu Nation all arrived and were announced to the crowd, which was close to 100,000. The largest cheers – besides for Mswati – went to the Vice President of Taiwan to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe.
Swaziland is one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, and reaps a lot of benefits in terms of aid and investment from throwing its weight around on Taiwan’s behalf in the UN and other multilateral bodies. The Taiwanese have a big presence here, and it’s clear that the crowd was responding to them. It’s less clear to me why Mugabe got such a big hand, as most of what I’ve heard from locals about him isn’t at all positive.
The 40-40 celebrations have been controversial here as a large, vocal group has seen it as a big indulgence. I haven’t seen a price tag put on the event in the papers here, but a lot of money has been thrown into it – and not always wisely.
Each of the visiting dignitaries rolled into the stadium in a brand-new USD$100,000+ BMW. The government bought 20 new cars, and – after the news of the expense made its way into the paper – a minister announced that they had always intended to sell the cars immediately after the 40-40. Five of the BMWs have since been taken off the sale block, and will likely end up in the garages of the royal family, ministers, or other connected people. There have been other grandiose expenditures, including a shopping trip in Dubai for 8 of Mswati’s wives. (This article in the NYT recounts Mswati’s extravagance in the face of the nation’s poverty, and captures a lot of the complicated sentiment here about the King and his spending.)
Nick, Shubha, and I lasted through the introductions, a lengthy marching band session, and a few speeches, before ducking out at around 1pm. After the event, I felt the itch to get out of Mbabane and drove down to Maputo for the night. I caught some live music, met some bribe-loving Maputo police officers (once for taking an “illegal” U-turn, and the second time for Driving While White), and toured around the city before heading back to the Swaz.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
TechnoServe’s mission is to create jobs, income, and economic growth for the rural poor. We do this by identifying and working with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and individual entrepreneurs, and providing business planning advice, technical help, access to finance, and other services that will help businesses grow, and help the benefits flow down to the poor. In addition to working hands-on with specific businesses, TNS also runs a number of programs aimed at raising the business literacy and stoking the entrepreneurial drive of the population here.
In Swaziland, most of the consulting engagements focus on a handful of industries: agriculture – mainly horticulture (e.g. vegetables) and feed & livestock, handcrafts, and tourism. TNS is selective about the engagements it takes on, and does its best to identify clients with the potential to maximize impact among the poor.
While TNS works with individuals, a more typical project would be to provide support for a project management office (PMO), which would oversee and support a larger group of smallholder farmers.
For example, TechnoServe is working with a company here that specializes in the production of chili mash, which is the main ingredient in Tabasco-brand sauce, which all of you have seen in restaurants and supermarkets in the US. TNS helped this company pilot a program to grow chili peppers, provided technical support for growing, and helped arrange the market for the mash with the Tabasco company, and was involved in financing the capital investment required. Our client oversees the production of the mash, and sources chilies from a number of rural smallholder growers. Chilies are a good and profitable crop to grow in Swaziland – technically it is not that difficult, and there is a guaranteed market for them through this project. TNS has helped to pilot this vegetable, and is hoping that to roll it out on a larger scale.
In all of the work, the importance of the entrepreneur is high. It takes committed individuals to start or grow an enterprise, especially in a business climate as difficult as Swaziland's. TNS will look for an individual or small team to work with that could help drive forward different projects.
In Swaziland the entrepreneurial spirit is lagging, and these individuals are hard to find. To help foster a better environment, TNS sponsors three country-wide initiatives – SAYE (School-Aged Youth Entrepreneurship), The Business Place (TBP), and Believe, Begin, Become (a business plan competition, or BPC).
SAYE is targeted at primary and high school students, and is an elective program that students could sign up for. They work with about 50 schools nationwide and put together a number of classes that teach economics, financial literacy, and decision making skills, and other initiatives (such as a program where classes organize and run their own business out of their schools).
The Business Place is the project I’ve been working on, which will be a physical business resource center located in the countryside, where farmers and other small business operators could walk-in and receive a variety of management and technical help. TBP’s focus is to be accessible to its clients, and the center will provide resources to smallholder farmers who otherwise would lack access to them. The center also will incubate a number of shared services and increase coordination between farmers, lenders, and PMOS.
The last initiative is a business plan competition, where TNS solicits individuals to start or improve a small or medium business. TNS takes the participants through a variety of trainings to help develop their plans, which are presented to a judging panel at the end of the competition. Prizes include seed capital and vouchers for professional services.
Throughout all of the work, TNS takes a scientific approach. Most of the staff and volunteers here come from management consulting backgrounds, and projects are selected and conductive based on industry analysis, feasibility studies, and study of data (which could be hard to come by) of potential impact. As a result there’s this interesting and somewhat exotic mix of business and agriculture, with a good dose of silliness/frustration negotiating the sometimes difficult and arduous Swazi business culture.
Swaziland’s size presents a challenge to TNS’ work here. The country is small, and it’s difficult to identify projects and interventions that will have the same scale of impact that they would elsewhere. For example, in East Africa, TNS works largely in the coffee and cashew sectors, both of which (coffee especially) are huge industries with high potential for impact. An intervention in the coffee value chain could bring higher prices and more income to probably millions of individuals. In Swaziland – a country with a population of just over a million, and with great diversity in geography and climate (and thus in what crops grow in what areas) – there’s no industry with anything close to that scale. The industry that comes nearest is sugarcane, which is seeing prices decline over the next few years. This is a huge challenge, and makes TechnoServe’s work much more one-off and labor intensive than it would elsewhere.
Between learning about sugar cane, agriculture, small business, social investment, micro-finance, and development work, it’s all quite an education.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Liz, one of the outgoing volunteers left her two cats, with us temporarily until they find a permanent new home with a friend from the Clinton Foundation in mid-September. With a new home, we christened them with new names - Liz had named them Bogani and Mouphle, two SiSwati names, but they didn't fit well with their personalities.
Yebo (pronounced YAY-boh - the gray and white cat) is the friendlier and more curious of the two. He rolls around the house, jumps up into your lap, and purrs like a motor. Yebo means "Yes" in Siswati, and reflects Yebo's outgoing ways. The word is also used as to acknowledge a greeting, to answer the phone, to voice agreement, and in many other ways that I'm just starting to understand. There are lots of ways to say "yebo" (YAY-boh, YAAAAY-boh, and yay-BOH are some to start with), and each intonation conveys a different meaning and context.
Stout is a bit more reserved, but equally affectionate once he gets to know you. Stout spent a good deal of time the hanging out under my bed the first few days, and is now branching out to the rest of the house. Stout's named after his color - a dark black with a few patches of white - in honor of Castle Milk Stout, the beer of choice in the apartment.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Last week I had two experiences which shed more light on the HIV situation in Swaziland for me. A couple of colleagues and I were invited to spend our lunch hours at an orphanage in Mbabane this past Wednesday, and on Friday we toured an HIV clinic on the outskirts of town here.
HIV / AIDS is a huge issue in Africa in general, and Swaziland in particular. It’s the number one problem that this country and continent face, and it’s claiming millions of lives. Swaziland has been particularly affected, and until recently had the unhappy distinction of having the highest HIV infection rate in the world (39-42%, depending on the survey – and that’s the official percentage for those who have been tested; estimates are much higher – 60% or more – for the general population), and the shortest life expectancy of any nation in the world (32).
The country hasn’t dealt with the problem effectively. A few years back the official HIV strategy announced by the King was a four-year prohibition of sex for all women under a certain age, a ban which the King broke several times. Through polygamy, lack of robust prevention policies and health care, and the stigma of the disease, HIV spread and has devastated the country.
While I don’t see the impact of HIV directly through my work, it’s impossible to be in Swaziland and not see the reach of the disease. There are things that you notice right away – all throughout the country the population is very young; there are relatively few elders. And there are tons of children – mainly HIV orphans – all throughout the country, and especially in the rural areas. Single mothers or grandmothers become caregivers for six, eight, ten or more children. They have few ways to earn money, and little resources to pay for food, clothes, and school fees. It makes the job of raising a child, the experience of growing up, and the prospect of lifting a country out of poverty extremely difficult propositions.
Working for TechnoServe in Mbabane, I’m a bit removed from seeing the impact of HIV. A Swazi colleague, Gail, took a few of us in the office to tour an orphanage where she volunteers. The orphanage was run by a US expat from Alaska, who came to Swaziland as a pediatric nurse and ended up moving here with her husband and taking on this project. Many of the twenty-one children were HIV orphans.
The orphanage was a really great facility. Most of the children are between two and five (with one or two older children) and were taken into the orphanage when they were very young. They live in one of three houses, each with a House Mother who is their primary caregiver. There was a shared playroom and nursery school, and the houses were clean and cheerful. The orphanage has a lot of local support and connections for supplying good, healthy food, and the expat who leads the project receives sufficient funding, mostly from the states. From Gail’s judgment, it seemed to be one of the best-equipped, well-run orphanages in Swaziland.
Visiting the HIV clinic was a similar experience. I’ve met a number of doctors who are working here through the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative, and two of my neighbors – Peluca and Lucia – are Spanish doctors working at the clinic. Peluca and Lucia gave us a tour of the clinic last Friday. Unfortunately, on Friday the clinic is closed to patients, but we got a good look at the building – the most modern building I’ve seen yet in Swaziland, well on par with or beyond many of the medical facilities being used in the U.S. – and a bit of a background about the epidemic.
The clinic provides care to any HIV positive child up to 15 years old, and their caregivers - parents, grandparents, guardians, etc. (Like all clinics in Africa, HIV care is delivered free of charge.) While the clinic is meant to test, diagnose, and treat HIV, they also end up providing general medical care for these children and their families.
We saw what may have been the best HIV and orphanage facilities in the country, which painted a rosy picture of the epidemic. Rosy or not, there are a couple of things that are clear about AIDS and HIV.
The first is that the epidemic needs to be controlled before any meaningful progress – economic, social, or otherwise – could take place in Swaziland. Meaningful economic development will continue to take a back seat to AIDS in Swaziland for a while; it’s hard to promote business and an entrepreneurial culture on a large scale in an environment where family structures are destroyed, caregivers have eight or more children to tend to, the life expectancy is so low, and education gets a back-seat due to HIV. While there are a number of different organizations here involved in HIV/AIDS, TechnoServe is the only non-Swazi NGO in the economic development space. Unfortunately Swaziland does not seem to be on the shortlist of countries to enter for many other development organizations or foreign direct investment.
The second, more encouraging, thing is that the crisis is now in the forefront, and there are huge efforts and big money behind prevention and treatment efforts. Looking at the Baylor facility and speaking with Peluca and Lucia, it’s clear that there’s money available, mainly from major foundations in the US and Europe. Swaziland has also embraced prevention efforts – billboards here promote monogamy, safe sex, or compliance with treatment options; free condoms are offered in office bathrooms, at government offices, and border crossings; images of red ribbons are common on newspapers and official documents; and there are constant reminders and announcements at concerts and events. Awareness is now embedded in the culture here.
Despite the money and promotion, beating AIDS here is a monster task, and implementation is extremely difficult. The doctors at Baylor face treatment compliance/adherence problems (patients may not take pills, and often don’t come to the clinic as needed because of high transportation costs, etc.), government bureaucracy (connecting the Baylor database with the Mbabane hospital DB has been a real problem), and social problems (a big stigma still persists). They’re optimistic, but also realistic about the enormity of the problem. A number of Peace Corps volunteers I’ve met, who are stationed in the countryside, are less optimistic, as they’ve been close to the problem and have spent too many days attending funerals in their villages. It’s a rural country, and a number of the PC volunteers have written off the development prospects for Swaziland as a whole.
I’m reminded of a speech a few years ago by a former US Ambassador to the UN whose name I can’t remember and whose speech I can’t find online. In the speech he asks how could the West have turned their eyes to the crisis that was unfolding in Africa, and the millions of lives being lost. It’s clear that there’s attention on the problem now, but there’s a lot of work to do.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Sent: Thursday, August 07, 2008 4:42 PM
To: TechnoServe Swaziland
Subject: Please do not use your parking space tomorrow - (45 - 60)
The King will be coming tomorrow to bless the Insurance Building next door and the Landlord has requested that we do not use our parking space from number 45 to 60. This will be a morning function and after 2pm you can then use your parking spaces.
Apologies for the inconvenience that maybe caused by this.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Swazis seem to like stamps - stamping documents, inspecting stamps, sharing stamped documents with other Swazis, looking at unstamped documents and shaking their heads back and forth, etc. Nothing could get done unless the supporting documentation was stamped. The annoying thing was that there often seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why something needed a stamp to be processed. The trick seemed to be more about locating who held the stamp that you needed and how you could find them than producing anything particular about the application you were pushing through.
After some frustrating times getting various things stamped (and some fleeting moments of pure satisfaction upon getting things stamped) I decided to get my own stamp made. It's beautiful, round, and self-inking, and extremely satisfying to pound down onto a document or a note.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Flew in Friday night. Yesterday: hike up to the top of Table Mountain, Manchester United - Kaizer Chiefs friendly soccer match, Thai dinner, Long Street bars. Today: brunch on the waterfront, Chapman's Peak drive, Boulder Bay penguins, Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, Franschhoek dinner. Plans for tomorrow: District Six Museum, Robben Island, Lion's Rump hike. Tuesday: The Business Place visit, fly to Jo'burg.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
SAYE is a voluntary after-school program started by TechnoServe in collaboration with a local NGO; it reaches schools all throughout Swaziland. The program’s targeted at high-school students, who voluntary choose to participant in a series of classes, clubs, and job-shadow programs, and aims to instill an interest in and understanding of business, as well as decision-making and other life skills. Some of the materials for the program are locally developed, but the majority of the curriculum seems to be borrowed from an international organization called Junior Achievement.
For the August event, each facilitator is matched up with a school somewhere in the country, and leads a four-hour session for about thirty Swazi students on two consecutive Saturdays. The school that I was assigned to is in Nhletjeni (“spelled just the way it sounds,” Toby said), which is out in the rural areas.
During the training session a SAYE employee led us through a series of activities and games we will run in August which are designed to convey basic ideas within the decision-making process, budgeting, investment horizons, understanding and using credit, and understanding insurance. The highlight of these was a board game called World of Work, which devolved into an incredibly intense and competitive session.
In World of Work, each player had a token which would move around the board in a ring (picture Trivial Pursuit) representing an Educational Path. As you progress along the path by rolling a die you amass knowledge (finishing high school, enrolling in college, receiving a 2-year degree, etc.) until you are a full-fledged college graduate. All the while you accrue points based on the spots where you land (you organized a study group – collect 30 points, nice work on your extra-credit paper – add 25 points, your grades are lagging – lose 20 points, etc.). Upon starting every turn, each player chooses to either continue along the educational path, or enter the WORLD OF WORK In the center of the ring.
Based upon where you are in education level, the options in the World of Work vary, as do the points you could accrue by entering it. (High school graduates earned significantly less points when progressing in the World of Work than college graduates.) However, the points available in World of Work are significantly more than those on the Educational Path. The crux of the game is when to make the decision to enter the World of Work and stop going to school. The immediate pay-off of starting to work early (by, say, dropping out of high school or not going to college) is high, but you could earn many more points by staying in school and getting your degree. (And you thought that this blog was just about entertainment, and you wouldn’t learn anything…)
During the sessions in August, the students will play two games – one with six rounds and another with nine-rounds, which hopefully will illustrate the difference between short and long-term educational and investment horizons.
In the training session today, Nick took the lead by rolling a number of 6’s and moving quickly towards getting his degree before entering the World of Work. He trounced everyone with a whopping 380 points. I made the strategic decision to move into the World of Work on my fourth move (out of six) after high school, and was foiled by a couple of curveball Junior Achievement questions which knocked down my point potential. I have a feeling that there may be a rematch sometime in the next few months – complete with a couple of Castle Milk Stouts and some sharpened elbows.
The rest of the training took us through a bunch of other activities (none quite as exciting as The World of Work). It will be interesting how it all works out in August. I feel prepared to lead the sessions, but the concepts are at times a bit antiquated and the lessons a bit jumbled. I’m also not sure what the capacity of the students will be, but am pretty excited to travel out to a rural school to see what it’s like.
I wanted to write a bit about SAYE, as it’s a big strategic and operational part of the work that TechnoServe Swaziland does, and links into the organization’s overall approach for Swaziland. I hope to write more about TNS and the programs that it runs in a future entry sometime soon.
In other news, I had another off-site meeting with Toby last Tuesday at the Mbabane Golf Club, and I only lost two balls during the round. I also learned a new local rule from my caddy, Douglas: if your shot lies in the rough within a golf club’s length of the fairway, you’re allowed to pick up the ball and reposition it anywhere within the length of the club. Toby wasn’t so sure about the rule, but pointed out that in Swaziland you’re also allowed to have many wives, and it’s up to you to pick which rules you want to follow and which you should let pass by.
Tuesday’s a national holiday here, and I’m taking Monday off to make it a four-day weekend. Tomorrow I’m off to Cape Town with Rob and Esther, two other TNS volunteers.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
I went to Merkato 55, which is featured in the article, for a pre-Swaziland dinner. I don't think my friend and I had a good command of what authentic African food is like - I think we had a sense that the doro wat was pretty traditional, but the "African Brownie" maybe not so much - but we both had a tasty and fun meal.
A lot of people have asked me what I've eaten in Africa, and what Swaziland food is like. It's actually hard to find a Swazi restaurant with traditional food, and I'm not quite sure what's indigenous to Swaziland and what's borrowed from the region. If you go out for breakfast, it's usually either something light (yogurt, breads and muffins, cereal) or a full traditional English breakfast. For lunch I've been eating a lot of take-away curries (served with rice or pap - a thick porridge-like pasty substance that you eat with your hands), toasted sandwiches, and meat and vegetable pies. Dinner - if I'm not cooking - could be piri piri chicken (a spicy Mozambican roasted chicken), a hamburger or steak, or a fillet of fish (salmon or Kingklip), or a take-away Debonair's pizza (the Domino's equivalent) with a Kastle beer (lager or Milk Stout) or a Coca Cola or Fanta, which is made here with sugar instead of corn syrup.
About 90% of the restaurants here have the same feel. They are all reminiscent of what I imagine a high-end restaurant would be like in the U.S. in the early 1980's. The menus are pretty similar too. The selection is always there, but there's little creativity or variance in the menus. Hopefully having a car will open up some new options.
A few years back a successful Swazi bought the entire town, and incorporated it as a Section 21 (nonprofit) company with the mission of revitalizing Bulembu and providing employment, education, and health services to the region. Bulembu’s now a centrally-planned community, and an interesting social and economic experiment.
Nick, a TNS volunteer with a knack for making connections, had met Bulembu Lodge’s Manager, Vernon, through a TechnoServe program, and a bunch of us took an overnight trip last weekend to check out the town and also bag Swaziland’s highest peak (Mt. Emlembe, elevation 6109 ft), which sits just outside of the village.
We arrived at the lodge just in time for dinner, where we were hosted by Sipho, the Asst. Lodge Manager / Receptionist / Waiter / Shopkeeper / Bulembu Calendar Model. After breakfast the next morning our guide, Niti, took us on a walk through town before we hiked up to the peak.
Still in the transformation stage, Bulembu was a weird mix of abandoned mining town leftovers (an unused 22km. cable car to take the asbestos through the mountains to SA, an old cinema with 1960’s style projectors that haven’t been in use, and an overgrown golf course) reminiscent of DHARMA Initiative infrastructure that you’d expect to see in LOST, and remade buildings that housed the various projects and businesses that the town has started up (a wood-working shop, a honey collection plant, and various orphanages and schools). The town clearly has a way to go, but it’s seemed to make progress towards its mission of reviving the town and providing industry, education, and health care.
There’s a general feeling among Swazis that the government can’t be trusted or relied upon for much, and that feeling is very strong in Bulembu. (Talking with Vernon, the town has been waiting in vain for years for the main road in to be paved – which would clear the way for the large tour buses and other visitors and income – but the government ministry responsible for the project has kept on putting it off.) Rather than face the decline of the town, a small group of Swazis and expats rallied among its vitality and beauty and formed a community to face the uphill struggle of bringing it back to life. It’s an example of foreign and homegrown Swazi entrepreneurship coming together.
After touring the town our group successfully summitted, marking what I’m pretty sure was my first time at the highest elevation of any nation.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
One of the most annoying and frustrating things over the past few weeks has been relying on others to get around. TechnoServe has helped by providing a driver to take me to and from work, and by supplying a shared rental car for the volunteers, but there’s always been the daily grind and negotiation about what time the volunteers would leave the office, who would have the car overnight, and how we’d make it in to the office the next day.
Having my own vehicle will make life easier and much more independent. Need to stay late at the office to get out a couple of emails after the golf game? No problem. Miss the volunteers’ weekly trip to the supermarket? Not stuck eating delivery pizza. Spontaneous weekend trip to Mozambique? Let’s go.
The Corolla’s the first vehicle I’ve owned, and the third I’ve purchased. (The first two were 15-passenger vans I bought for Bike & Build – one in person and one off of Ebay.) When I went car shopping about a week ago, I brought TechnoServe’s driver Kiki with me to help check out the cars. I looked at a banana yellow two-seater Mazda convertible – which would have been awesome – but settled on the practicality and resale ease of a Corolla. After a test-drive, Achmed, who sold me the car, popped the hood and it looked like everything was in order. We negotiated a bit, and when I convinced him to throw in a second set of keys, we struck a deal.
I think it’s appropriate that the car have a name, and under Swazi law I have three weeks to decide on something. Leading candidates so far are “506,” “King Mswati III’s Royal Corolla,” and “The Red Rhino.”
I haven’t posted in a bit as I’ve just gotten over a bout with African Tick Bite Fever and spent a good deal of the early part of the week in bed. The good news is that I’m practically all better, and have boosted my African street cred a notch.
Friday, July 4, 2008
This July 3rd Nicholas Kristof column about a girl from Uganda, a goat, and Heifer International was passed around my office.
There are fireworks tonight in the Ezulwini Valley, about 20 minutes outside of Mbabane, which I'll try to make it to (if I could get a ride). And yesterday we celebrated at a party thrown by the honorable Maurice Parker, the U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland, who represents America's valuable and important interests in the Kingdom. I arrived too late for the Ambassador's speech, but was able to address the crowd briefly afterwards.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Crossing the border into South Africa the day before I had seen the lady in line in front of me give a 100 Emalangeni bribe (about USD$12.50) to the border official. She presented her passport with an E100 note tucked into the back page, which the official pocketed in exchange for the coveted government stamp. I asked Gen if she had any E100 notes on her, and we both agreed that if it came down to it, it’d be worth $25 split between the SA and Swazi border guards to make it back to Mbabane that night.
Rushing towards the border was fun, and a similar – but different – feeling than the drive the day before on the way to Johannesburg for a series of meeting for The Business Place. There was a similar anticipation I felt on both trips; driving into Jo’burg I felt a similar sensation to the one I had on the British Airways flight. There was the feeling of going somewhere new and foreign with a goal in mind and an excitement about what needed to be accomplished, except that by now I had a much clear picture of what was expected of me and had started to put the pieces together.
Gen and I were on the way to Jo’burg to meet with a couple of people from The Business Place Network (TBPN), the umbrella group of TBP, which the Swaziland branch would be a licensee of, and to tour two of the branches. There were a couple of contractual and logistical issues that I needed to discuss with the Network, and it would be helpful to see what an up-and-running TBP office looked like and get a sense of how it operates.
South Africa immediately felt different from Swaziland. The roads were wide and smooth, the towns were more built up with more plentiful and diverse commerce, and the countryside was dotted with nuclear power plants (we saw three within a few hours). Every few dozen miles we would see controlled fires in the hills around the roads, which farmers set in the middle of the dry winter season. When we stopped to take a break, we found the Mug & Bean – a kinda South African Starbucks. Being in Swaziland for 2½ weeks I’d forgotten about lattes.
Our meetings did not disappoint. It was great to make contact with TBPN and work out a couple of contractual issues. In establishing the Swazi TBP branch, we’re taking the model in place in eight centers in South Africa and Botswana, and adapting it for the local context in Swaziland. The biggest change is taking a model that works in urban environments, and making it suitable for a rural location. As such, a lot of our concerns in the contract were about having the ability to change around the physical design, the manuals and materials, and databases and systems to make them a better fit for farmers.
In South Africa, a client could walk into The Business Place for help with virtually any idea for a small or medium sized business. Being in a major city, the options are endless. In Swaziland, TBP will be in the countryside about 90 minutes outside of Mbabane, and we expect that our clients will be mainly farmers, and owners of small businesses closely tied to farmer (e.g. crop transporters, fertilizer suppliers, irrigation designers, etc.). Because the South African centers can’t be experts on all of the different businesses their clients spawn, they seem to focus on providing general management training and connecting clients to other service providers as needed. TBP Swaziland will have a pretty narrow industry focus compared to the South African sites, and we plan on focusing both on management/business and technical – or farming – advisory.
It was also fun to see TBP centers in Johannesburg and Alexandra, about 15 minutes outside of the city. It helped to envision what the space in Big Bend will eventually look like, and seeing Alexandra was fascinating.
I had read a bit about South Africa’s history in my guide book and had heard plenty from my housemate Rob, who spent three months working in Jo’burg, that it was a rough town. In fact, the bed and breakfast where Gen and I stayed Tuesday night – like all other homes in the neighborhood – was bordered by high walls with barbed wire. Even the front door to the inn had a motorized steel gate controlled by a PIN code. All of this is a product of the high crime and general violence from a long history of apartheid, and it’s something that I clearly only got to understand the very tip of during my short trip.
Gen and my visit to the second TBP site in Alexandra was particularly eye-opening, as the building was right in the middle of Alexandra, a very poor township where blacks had been in for years. Driving down the roads to the center you could barely see houses on the sides of the roads, as shanties had been built on virtually all available yard space and land, and essentially there were dwellings on top of dwellings – most of which looked decrepit. At lunch later, our host from TBP, Julie, gave us a bit of a lesson and insight into Alex, and described it as a dense, fascinating, and complicated place. (We were hoping to have lunch within the township, but the restaurant Julie had in mind – one of the few whose quality she trusted within the township, happened to be closed that day. I also regret not having my camera with me when we walked around outside of TBP.)
I plan on making it back to Alex – either to TBP there or not – to check it out a bit more. I saw a sign for the Alexandra Township Habitat for Humanity affiliate, but it looked quite a bit old. It would be fun to take a group of TNS consultants to volunteer for a day there and make a weekend of it in Jo’burg. I did a quick web search and it appears that the affiliate no longer operates, but if anyone could find out better info for me on that, I’d love to hear it.
Back on the road to the Swaziland border, Gen and I arrived just before 8pm, and we were glad to learn that the crossing is open until 10pm. I was a bit relieved, as it was a hectic couple of days, and it felt comforting and a bit strange to think that we would be able to get back to Swaziland. Back home.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
It was the type of thing off the beaten path that only a local would have known about and which isn’t listed in the guidebooks or the weekly email that’s circulated to the expat population. Indeed, our group was the only non-Swazi contingent there, and – apart from one other guy, Jan, the President of the Swaziland 4x4 Club (let me know if you’re planning an overland pan-continent trip, I’ll put you in touch) – the only white people in the crowd. It was great to experience an authentic local event, and I think that Mkhululi was proud to show us the dancing (which was fantastic) and have us sample the local maize-based bathtub brew (not as fantastic).
The event started slowly, and fortunately we were warned to show up a couple of hours after the announced starting time of 10am. A bit after noon, the crowd slowly gathered into a semi-circle in a courtyard formed by the school’s buildings, a loudspeaker system was set up, and the elder women of the village kicked off the dancing. Each woman was wearing traditional Swazi garb – usually a skirt and a colorful top fashioned with the symbol of the flag. They wore ankle bracelets of reeds and trinkets which formed the beat as they stepped.
The women came out with a lot of spirit, and were followed by a group of high school girls, high school boys, primary school boys, and then the older women again. Each group had their own dance and their own costume – a spear-like stick or shield, some colorful pants or skirt, and –depending on whether or not they were married – a shirt or top. While the older men didn’t have their own dance, they would often join in the other acts, rhythmically running between the dancers with their walking sticks in the air. As each group danced, members of the village would run up to the performance and present tokens of appreciation – often fruit such as oranges, mangos, or avocados; or coins or small notes – to the dancers.I didn’t fully grasp exactly what the occasion was, but my sense is that the whole afternoon was a practice session for an inter-village dance sometime soon. Not many of the villagers spoke English (those who did spoke just a bit), but despite the language barrier, we were welcomed both through Mkhululi’s introductions and the warmth of the villagers.
There were a ton of very young children watching the dancing, and Esther (a fellow TNS volunteer) and I made friends with some of them, who loved seeing their face in my digital camera and wearing Esther’s sunglasses.
The afternoon was festive, but it was hard not to notice some of the elements of poverty and disease that I’ve read about and have seen in films about the country. Jan was at the school with his 4x4 to make a donation of about twenty 25-pound bags of rice to the soup kitchen there. I stepped into a classroom at the schoolhouse to check it out and couldn’t imagine much formidable learning in the dilapidated building. And –most noticeably – you couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of young children watching the performance, and the unfathomably high ratio of children to adults. I’ve noticed that there are very few older people in Mbabane, and it was hard to find someone over the age of 50 at the schoolhouse.
Outside of the dancing, it’s been a busy weekend here. The weekend was kicked off with a 3pm Friday Happy Hour at the office with a screening of Without the King, a documentary about King Mswati III and Swaziland. (The DVD will be out in the U.S. in July – check it out on Amazon or NetFlix.)
Friday evening I went with a bunch of TNS people and other expats to check out Napalma, a Brazilian and Mozambique-an band at a unique outdoor concert space called House on Fire. Both House on Fire and the band were interesting – the club is outdoors and has bonfires in areas surrounding the stage, and Napalma was a mix of Afro-Cuban rhythmic percussion and electronica, and they were pretty fun.
Yesterday I drove out to Malotoja National Park, which borders South Africa, with Nick and Rob (both from TNS) and Maaya (who runs the Clinton Foundation’s office in Mbabane). The park was beautiful, with rolling hills and some small peaks, and a river running through a valley. Maaya’s small SUV made it down some precarious roads to a trail-head, and the four of us hiked down into the valley and followed a small river to The Potholes, a series of waterfalls separating small swimming holes. The water was pretty frigid, but Nick, Rob, and I did our best with a quick swim before we had lunch and hiked the 90 minutes back up to the car.
We climbed quite a bit to make it back to our parking space, and by the end my legs were feeling it and my body was happily exhausted. I was thirsty, and I caught myself having an urge for a 20-ounce bottle of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, which is most definitely not available in Swaziland. After only 2 weeks, it’s a bit early for me to be having urges like that, which worries me a bit for what September and October will be like.
At work, things are moving forward slowly. I had a couple of good meetings this past week, including a trip out to Ubombo Mill in Big Bend, in the southeast part of the country, to meet with a team member from Illovo, a large sugar company with offices there. This week I’ll be traveling to Alexandra and Jo’burg – either Tuesday evening for an overnight or a long day there and back on Wednesday – to check out some of The Business Place offices and meet with their management.
I’ve gotten a bunch of requests for my mailing address in Mbabane. While I don’t have any expectations for packages from home, here it is: TechnoServe / Attn: Marc Bush / P.O. Box 663 / Ezulwini H106, SWAZILAND.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Life is good in Swaziland.
Monday, June 23, 2008
I started Siswati lessons at work this afternoon. TechnoServe is sponsoring a class for the staff, which will be held in our conference room twice a week. Learning the language seems a step below impossible right now, but the class itself was fun and it’ll be helpful to at least pick up the basics, like “sawabona mkhulu,” or hello.
This past Saturday I went on an overnight to Mkhaya, a game reserve about 90 minutes southeast of Mbabane. There was a group of eight going in two cars – mainly TechnoServe folks, and two others – and we timed the drive to coincide with the Swaziland World Cup qualifier soccer match. Kick-off was at 2pm, and we were expected at the park by 4. The plan was to drive to a small town about 10km away from the park to watch the second half. We’d be able to watch the second half of the game and get to the reserve on time.
The plan was working beautifully until about 3:30, when we were all at a bar and I stuck my hands into my pockets and couldn’t find the key for the TNS car we were using. (I’ve moved from novice to pro driver in a matter of days.) I looked all over before realizing that I must have accidentally put them in the trunk in place of my apartment keys, which were still in my jeans. We were due at the park at 4pm sharp, and this wasn’t exactly the type of town that a tow truck could get to in 15 minutes. Neil, a TNS volunteer who had put down a non-refundable deposit on his credit card, was starting to get nervous.
The bar that we had stopped at was in a small mall on the side of the road. We weren’t thrilled about leaving our car there while we went inside the bar to watch the soccer game, and I definitely wasn’t excited about leaving the car there –with all of our bags locked in the trunk – overnight. I asked for someone’s help at the mall, and very quickly about a dozen Swazis had surrounded the car.
My group and I found some wire hangers, a mop stick, some metal rods and a few other things lying around the parking lot and got to work. It took a while for the Swazis to grasp the situation. About six times I was asked how come I wouldn’t just use the keys to get inside, or I was asked where the keys were. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in helping, but – albeit rather comfortingly – after 15 minutes nobody was able to get close to unlocking the car. The effort was not lacking, but nobody seemed to know what to do.
I remembered being in the same situation about 4 years ago, when I locked myself out of the car while going to the U.S. Open in Queens with my friend Nathaniel, and I had watched AAA open my dad’s station wagon in about thirty seconds. I found a crowbar at the mall, and Paul located a bendable metal stick, and – while we weren’t as quick as AAA – we got in fast enough to get to the game park only five minutes late. The worst part – besides for a couple of small crowbar dents on the car – was that Swaziland lost the match on a penalty kick goal in the 89th minute.
I got a couple of jokes that night (on being late for dinner, “What the matter, Marc? Locked out of your open air tent?”), but nothing that I couldn’t handle. It’s a much better story being the new guy in town and everything working out, than being the new guy, ruining everyone’s trip. and blowing their deposit from being a bit absentminded.
The park itself was pretty fantastic. We dropped our cars at the entrance and drove out to our camp in open-air vehicles driven by a ranger. Along the way we stopped to watch giraffes (my favorite), rhinos, and impala (a type of antelope). The zebras and hippos would have to wait until the next morning, and the elephants (only 15 of them in a 5000 hectacre park) unfortunately weren’t to be found.
Got back into town in the early afternoon and spent the afternoon running some errands before an ultimate game and a viewing of a Swaziland documentary that someone had rummaged up. The film, Today the Hawk Took One from the Nest, was about the HIV situation in a rural part of Swaziland and painted an ugly picture of the crisis, it’s affect on the homesteads and families, and the efforts to educate the population and get people tested. It was really sad and interesting, and gave some insight into the Swaziland I’ve yet to see.
The coming week should be fun. I’m travelling out to one of the big sugarcane mills this Friday, there’s a concert this weekend for some Brazilian band at the biggest club in town, and then on Sunday I was invited by a local Swazi at TNS to head out into the countryside with him to watch some traditional dances.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
It’s been five days since getting into Mbabane, and there’s a lot to tell. I’ve gotten situated at work, am settling into my apartment, and have been adjusting slowly to Swazi life.
At the office, I’ve been thrown into it, and have started to take over The Business Place project from my manager, Liz. Wednesday morning I met with a number of the groups that I’ll be working with and started to map out what the next four months will be like. I’ll write more details about the work sometime later, but essentially my job will be to start an organization that will provide services and training to small farmers (mainly sugarcane) who currently don’t have access to them. The project has been in conception for a long time, and we’re adopting a model that has worked in South Africa for a similar center.
Liz will likely be leaving in August – at which point I should be the expert on the project – and I’m trying to take over as much as possible as quickly. I have a laundry list of things to do and to get up to speed with (registering the entity, opening a bank account, collecting funding, hiring staff, setting up an accounting and control system, performing a needs analysis, aligning the operation and strategy of partner organizations, identifying service providers, setting up monitoring and evaluation procedures, preparing the physical office space, etc.). There’s been a lot of consensus building and planning over the past year before I’ve arrived, but operationally we’re starting from scratch right now, and essentially this project will be to start a new organization.
It’s nice to have been entrusted with so much so quickly, and exciting to feel like I’ll be driving this project. The job seems familiar enough from my work with Bike & Build, though I don’t know how easy or hard it will be to get things done in Africa.
One thing that’s been a challenge is setting up the bank account, which is a priority because that needs to be in place before we could collect pledged funding, and contract with employees. One of the papers we need to open the account is the company’s registration documents, which are issued by government ministries. The registration forms were submitted a while back and have been being processed for about a month and a half. Each ministry has something to review and some document that they must stamp. (Requesting government stamps, waiting to have things stamped, reviewing stamped documents, looking at unstamped documents and shaking your head, are all very popular activities here.)
I checked up on the status with the Ministry of Enterprise & Employment and was told that the documents were still with the Ministry of Justice. When I called Justice, a lady told me that the documents were with Enterprise & Employment. You get the idea. Anyhow, I came to a solution with the bank that if I couldn’t produce the registration documents, I could provide a (stamped) letter from one of the ministries stating that the registration was in process. I got the letter within a day.
It took a little while longer to gather the other documentation, and Liz and I went down to the bank branch to present it all. We were missing passport photos for the bank (we had stopped on the way to have them taken, but the printer was broken – I’ll get them Monday), and as requested, brought our passports and photocopies (sorry, but the copies need to be stamped by the police department). Needless to say, the bank account hasn’t quite been established, but I feel like it’s close.
Over the phone it’s been difficult to get the right information and get things done, but each time I’ve gone out to meet with someone (the bank, the ministries, the police station, the Wednesday meeting), they seem genuinely interested in the project and willing to help. Building relationships here is important to making things happen as email isn’t widely used and voicemail is virtually non-existent. (I made the mistake of asking to leave a voicemail for someone my first day and after having a difficult time with the request was told sternly, “Why don’t you call her back in the morning.”) It’s been fun to get out of the office, and I look forward to getting out of the city and meeting with the sugar mill and farmers.
As for settling in, there are a bunch of NGO’s operating out of Mbabane, and there’s a small but close community of expats stationed here or rotating through whom I’ve been starting to meet. Besides the volunteers from TNS, the group has a few people from the Clinton Foundation, some HIV researchers, and two doctors working for a Baylor University out program, and a couple of local Swazis born abroad. It seems that every few weeks someone comes or goes (Thursday night I went to a going away dinner for a TNS volunteer who’s headed home), besides for a few long-term (year plus) workers who form the core.
People often meet for lunch, there’s a twice-weekly ultimate Frisbee game (Wednesdays and Sundays), and the trip I’m going on to Mkhaya Game Reserve later today was organized by one of the expats. It’s great to have a welcoming community to walk into and help introduce me here.
Some other things… I had my first experience driving on the left side of the road yesterday (think “stay left, stay left”) and did admirably... My roommate, Rob, is working on a project within horticulture. He went into the field on Thursday and came back with a big box of fresh vegetables which we plan on cooking up for dinner tomorrow… I’m having a difficult time understanding the accent and pronouncing African names (for instance Mbabane, which I thought was “Mah-bah-ben-nay” is pronounced “Bah-bahn”), but am learning… And what I thought was skim milk from the supermarket (almost as well-stocked as a local Gristede’s) turned out to be sour milk, and doesn’t go well with corn flakes.