Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Blog Posting Has Been Approved

I spent much of my time the first couple of weeks in Mbanane getting various documents stamped. Show my passport at the airport. Stamp! Submit an application for a work permit. Stamp! Register a Swazi company. Stamp! Open a corporate bank account. Stamp! Stamp! Stamp!

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

Cape Town, in a Nutshell

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

World of Work

Every Monday morning, as part of a full staff meeting in the office, all of the team leaders give a quick update on their work and the upcoming week. At each meeting, starting a month ago when I arrived, Toby –an American expat who manages the School Age Youth Entrepreneurs (SAYE) program – has given his pitch to recruit volunteers for a country-wide program that SAYE is running the first two weekends of August. It only took a couple of tries before I signed up as a Facilitator, and today we had a training session to prepare for the program.

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

Good Eats

Thanks to my mom for passing along this article from today's NYT, about the lack of African restaurant options in New York City. It's interesting that ethnic food being the rage in New York, it's hard to find an authentic (or even non-authentic) Sub-Saharan option.

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.


Bulembu is in the Highveld region in northwest Swaziland, where – up until 2001 – a thriving asbestos mine had been the anchor for employment, education, medical care, and recreation for a town and community of about 10,000. Following the mine’s closure almost eight years ago, the town literally shut down overnight, as all the mining and related support jobs were lost. Commerce essentially stopped, and villagers (Bulembuers?) emptied out in search of employment, dropping the population down to about 100.

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

Hedging the USD

With the declining value of the Dollar I decided to put my money into Swazi assets, in the form of a red 1998 Toyota Corolla.

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

"The Luckiest Girl"

"In short, millions of things could go wrong. But when there's a good model in place, they often go right. That's why villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America."

This July 3rd Nicholas Kristof column about a girl from Uganda, a goat, and Heifer International was passed around my office.

Happy 4th!

Happy 4th of July from Swaziland!

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

Jo'burg: HECTIC!

For the past forty-five minutes I had my foot to the floor of our POS TechnoServe rental car, racing towards the South Africa-Swaziland border. It was around 7:30pm and Genevieve, a fellow consultant, and I were still about 60 km. away. We weren’t sure what time the border closed (I knew that it opened at 7am – a reasonable hour), but for a country where everything closes at 5pm, my best guess was we had until 8pm, and it would be close. Missing the border would mean driving another hour back to the nearest SA town with a hotel, and another early morning the next day as I had to be in Big Bend, in southeastern Swaziland, by 10am.

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.