Saturday, June 21, 2008

Actually, it's "Bah-bahn"

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.

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