Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saying and doing

Things Zambians say:

They NEVER swear and get really thrown off by hearing swears

A Zambian was reading about an African visiting Canada. The African was surprised that in Canada you can't just walk up to someone and tell them they are fat. He looked at me and said "You can't tell someone they are fat?"
"….Even if they are?"

I was telling my friend that it's a big insult to tell someone they are fat in Canada. "If you told someone they are fat, they would feel as hurt as if you called them an idiot and would wonder why you were insulting them for no reason"
"Oh really? It's a big insult?"
"Can you be locked up for saying it?"

Wow Ben, you're really getting fat! You're enjoying our country!

How has been your impression of this place, Zambia?

Zambians are incredible at using sayings and expressions and have a large vocabulary, unfortunately I can't think of any right now, but things like "A whole new can of worms"

Us blacks, we get very happy when we see you whites

Zambians, we like dying, we die a lot

What is the recommended body temperature for human beings in Canada?

Are there elephants in Canada?

How did you get to Zambia from Canada? Did you take a bus?

Oh you're from Canada? Where, Montreal, Quebec, Vancouver, Toronto, Saskatchewan? Do you live beside one of the Great Lakes? On the Canadian Shield?

Okay, we are running late as you know (2hours) so in the interest of time we'll just have each of the (7) guests of honour make a short speech before we begin.

Things Zambians do:

They are extremely formal, I am Mr.Ben or Mr. Tembo and Steph is Madam, Madam Stephan, Mrs. Ben. Parties and gatherings are always announced by physical invitation only. Parties have a "head table" and "guests of honour" and each and every guest of honour makes a speech and the dance floor has to be "opened" by a guest of honour.

When someone dies, everyone comes, there are no invitations, and bringing gifts, sleeps on the ground outside the house of the mourner. The sometimes light a fire and stay up all night talking.


Hold hands (with the same sex) while walking and talking

Stop and chat with seemingly everyone (capital cities are of course different)

Are often late, or on time if you're using the "African Clock" i.e. no clock

Are incredibly kind to guests and hospitable. They know you're out of your comfort zone so they do everything they can to help you

Women eat separately (and after) men. Men eat inside at the table and women eat outside on a mat on the ground

What you do is very determined by your sex. Women grow peanuts (mostly), wash dishes and clothes, sweep, fetch water and firewood, care for children. Men drink, smoke (not all, but only men and prostitutes drink alcohol and smoke) farm the other crops (but women do join them in the fields to plough, weed, etc) go for trips out of the village. In the city women sell fruit and vegetables at the market, clean streets and are clerks. Men repair bikes and cars, drive taxis, sell things in traffic, push wheelbarrows and run businesses.

Give (and expect and ask for) gifts all the time! When a visitor comes, the visitor gets a gift, when they visit someone they bring a gift, when you go to a funeral you bring a gift, when you go to a party you bring a gift, when you marry a girl you bring her family a gift before discussing the payment for her, when a guy likes a girl he gives her a gift right away, when you leave you leave a remembrance (gift). If you have nothing to give, you give the last thing you have, your food.

Are so sweet and kind, at least to me. Making jokes at someone else's expense isn't very common like at home(but people are people so don't take this point too far)

If you ask directions, people will usually walk with you until you find where you're going

Kids do what they're told!

If a visitor comes within hours of a meal, they will be fed and can stay and eat free without complaint for a month

One thing I can say is that the social safety net is much stronger here. If I was naked and had no money and was dropped off anywhere in the country, I can guarantee I would go to bed inside, wearing clothes and with food in my stomach. Not as likely in Canada.


When I was a kid I would wonder if I could have been a racist if I lived in the southern US in the time of slaves, or in Germany in the time of Nazis or in Africa in the time of Apartheid. I now know without a doubt that the answer would be yes in at least one of those situations.

The purpose of this blog has been twofold, to share funny stories and updates, but also to open up my mind to you and be totally honest about the different feelings and thoughts that I have along my journey.

Not only could I have been a racist in those times, but even now I catch myself thinking racist thoughts and it's only when I stop, accept that I feel them and then dissect them do I see why it is so easy for so many people to be racist.

First and foremost, WE ARE DIFFERENT. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting the truth that sits right in front of all of us. We are genetically different, but there is more genetic variation within races than between races so that's not important. The cause is cultural, and when you can tell 99.9% of the time what culture someone belongs to by their appearance (black, rich etc.) it's a recipe for judgment.

It exists here daily, but I would say it's not horrible and it's not unfounded. Most petty crime here is committed by black people, most (if not all) beggars are black, most white tourists are uncomfortable in crowds of black people speaking another language and when you're uncomfortable and you see another white and know they're probably uncomfortable and frustrated by all the same things as you and you know they're not going to pick your pocket, you open up to them and trust them, initially because they're white. Most people (black, white, Indian) distrust blacks first as a rule and make them earn their trust and most trust whites at first. (I can bring a backpack into a grocery store, can walk out without showing a receipt or letting them check my backpack, but I think this is also true for well dressed black Zambians).

Culture and race are very connected and we are from very different cultures and you can usually tell what culture someone is by their race (here). Culture affects us so deeply that it can even manifest itself in us physically. Examples:

-Some Zambians sleep with the light on in their bedroom throughout the night, that is physically uncomfortable for me and would cause me to lose sleep
-When driving, Zambians blind you with their headlights on bright and then dim them after they pass
-On buses Zambians listen to music so loud it distorts the sound quality
-I can be standing beside a Zambian and I'll be wearing a t-shirt and they're wearing a jacket and they are uncomfortably cold while I'm fine. I've been asked if I am able to feel coldness and of course I can. I am from Canada but my ancestors haven't been there long enough to adapt to extra coldness so what is it? I feel cold, but I'm used to being cold, my house in the winter is as cold as the coldest days here and as a result, I think that this feeling (being a bit cold) is a normal feeling.

One of the biggest things I've learned here is the depth of the effect of culture on us. How we act, see things, react and even FEEL both physically and mentally are products of how we grew up.

The cause of developing racist thoughts is mental isolation and the key to concreting them is continued mental isolation. When I say mental isolation, I don't mean you're by yourself, I mean you are surrounded by people of the same way of thinking.

The stages of development of racist thoughts are: Annoyance, confusion, frustration and then the explanation (racist idea). I am sitting on the bus and the music is so loud its uncomfortable for me. I stop and ponder why no one asks to turn it down, they would if it bothered all the passengers so then it must not bother them, but how can it not bother them? Now I'm distracted by how ridiculous it is that the music has to be so loud that it distorts the sound. We could all easily hear everything clearly at half the volume, so why subject us all to this suffering without cause? But it's not "us all" it's me. "These Zambians don't understand what's going on around them, these idiots, they didn't invent buses or speakers, they just got this from our western culture and don't understand how to use them properly. Arg! Why are they so dumb?!"

The racist thought has been created and the next step is crucial. Is it cemented or destroyed. I could get off the bus and go see my other western friends and complain about how dumb Zambians are with their music and they would understand and tell their own stories of frustrations. Cemented. Or I could start talking with the Zambian beside me, or my Zambian friend when I get off the bus and complain about the music and they'd say "Yeah it's those stupid bus drivers, they always put the music too loud and people don't complain enough. It is too loud sometimes" or "But sometimes when it's a good song it's nice to have it loud so you can really feel it" which is true, I just have a different taste in music.

This transcends race and goes to ages, sexes and political beliefs. People don't understand why another group and the only way they can explain it is by making it a trait of that group and this segregation of groups is the most common and worst evil in our world. "Conservatives want Muslim women to uncover their faces for voting because they're racist", "vegetarians care about animals because they don't understand nature", the Separatists, Feminists, Red necks, Gays, Socialists, blah blah blah.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Communication Breakdown

There are so many challenges to communicating. Here's an example. There were storm clouds to the South and I wanted to know if they were moving towards us or away from us. Simple enough. I asked my neighbour Ketty (Katie)

Ben- Good morning Ketty
Ketty- Good morning Ben
B- Are those clouds coming here or going over there (points to the south)
K-They're coming.
K-But not here, there. (points to the south)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Farming as a business

I have a friend that has been studying at university and college for nearly 6 years now so that he can be the best grain farmer possible one day. He thinks (rightly so) that farming is a business and requires a specialized skill set to do properly and the fact that so many people "fall back on farming" is a reason there are so many bad farmers out there.

Things aren't any different here. People don't farm because they always wanted to be farmers and it's their passion and what they're good at. They farm because it's the only source of money and the cheapest way to get food. On top of that, the whole mentality around farming is different. There is an emphasis to teach people to "Farm as a business" which means don't give things away to your friends and calculate expenses and income. The fact that this is being taught (and with good reception) probably indicates that lots of people don't take it as a business now, although most of the farmers I know enthusiastically treat it as such, but I've got a biased group of friends.

Bottom line, most people are really crappy farmers, for a lot of reasons, a big one being that they have neither the motivation nor specific talents and skills to be good farmers. To run a farm as a business means that you need to be a businessperson and in my experience, that's not common among anyone. The thing is that in Canada we don't all have to be businesspeople or farmers, we can be truck drivers, welders, nurses and teachers, all of which can have nothing to do with business skills.

So what about laziness?

Sometimes people prioritize things above farming, not surprising. Sometimes I look at a field and think "if those guys just got in there now, they'd earn 25% more money this year on this crop…" So why don't people "get in there" when they should? One thing I can think of is procrastination. It is easier and nicer to sit around visiting with friends for an extra hour in the morning than it is to do an extra hour of intense physical labour and the reality is that you won't even feel the repercussions until harvest next year, which is a long time off.

Being employed by someone else shortens the time between your actions and the repercussions. Also it's easier to tell someone to do something than it is to do it yourself. For those reasons and the fact that business skills are not common, I wish that bad farmers would give up their land to good farmers and become their employees. BOLD!...?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

African Businessman

I'm going to give you a profile of one of our champion agents, and one of the people that makes me believe Zambia can make it and that I should be a part of that. You are reading this from your "Ivory Towers" in cities of your respective countries, not understanding what it's like to be here and do this work. I can say that without offending and with full confidence of it's truth because I live here and work with him and people like him every day, yet only get glimpses of "what it's like" which make me realize how much I don't know. I had a meeting with him today and was intending on ripping a strip off him for poor performance, partly because he dropped the ball on a few things, but largely because I had forgotten the good things he's done and what it's like to be him for a day. By the end of the meeting I was holding back tears and had resolved to help him.

He doesn't have the tools and skills to get what he needs. I called his manager and asked, "Why can't you give him a bigger float?" and he replied "What gain will his business make from this investment? We have limited money to invest so we have to put it where we get the biggest returns" I responded to him that we will make a proposal and get back to him. When I hung up I knew exactly what kind of proposal was needed to get money. My friend had no idea. This isn't his fault but is the result of only completing gr.12 in a shitty education system. Does anyone want to invest in a small business? Loans in increments of $100?

This is Edwin Nglube. He got a job for a mobile finance company and was sent to work in Katete, which speaks a slightly different language than he knows. He thought he was going for 7 days so packed his bag accordingly. When he sat down on day 1 a manager said "If these guys are going to be here, I want them to be here, not constantly running back to Lusaka to see girlfriends". We replied "No problem, these guys will be living here and are here full time, isn't that right Edwin?" Could you imagine what it's like to get that shocker, two pairs of underwear, one pair of trousers and you're now in your new home. What was his response? "Yes". Did he complain after the meeting saying "Oh shit guys, I thought I was going to be here for 7 days, I still have all my stuff in my rented place in Lusaka"? No. I didn't know he thought he was coming for 7 days until 2 months in. He picked up the different dialect and worked his ass off in the field, 6 days a week, until he was told (not really asked) that he was no longer going to be a field worker but was going to take over the Katete agent shop. He loved field work, but took this job because he had to. He signed a new contract decreasing his pay from 800,000/month to 500,000/month. My hefty volunteers stipend is 2,300,000/month, just for reference. His decrease in pay is partly due to paying off his loan on the champion agent shop. He paid off 250,000 of the 15,000,000 owed. I sat down with him and asked him how long it would take at that rate to pay off his total loan. 5 years. He just got married and owes 3,500,000 as a marriage fee to her parents. He took out a 500,000 loan from me and has repaid 133,000/month out of his 500,000 salary to me for the last 2 months. Of course he's not just an agent doing regular stuff, it's Zambia and we're a start up so he does a lot more, without being paid of course. When shit hit the fan with a project, he was fielding calls from the customer company staff, who visit him instead of the actual agent next door, he also got calls from the real agent and from me. When it was resolved I got thanks from management for a job well done and he got thanks from just me. During this, completely on his own initiative, he got on the back of a bike taxi and journeyed to the prison, not a favourite location for Zambians to visit, and plead with the police, not great people to plead with, to let him talk to the guy who was supposed to be running the agents shop. After several trips he managed a miracle and the police brought the prisoner (aka voucher agent) to the shop to let Edwin try to work. Until then Edwin had been operating remotely out of a restaurant in town. I told him to go around town and source all the food in the voucher package and get back to me. He did that very well and was able to act as the secondary voucher agent, only to find out that we added him as a voucher agent and removed him as a regular agent, oh yeah, he's a regular agent too, so he called us and we fixed his status, then some beneficiaries came and he used his 1,500,000 cash float to run around buying salt and flour for these guys and then redeem their voucher which were supposed to be worth 104,000 but were still only 100,000 which is less than it cost to buy all those goods... He deposits money for other agents, trains voucher agents, trains other agents, pays local casual workers and distributors, rides a bike taxi to the bank 5,000/trip and about an hour of his time, then photocopies his deposit slip, comes back to town, scans it at the computer shop (for a fee) and emails it to South Africa to get the money credited in his account. Then waits at a broken ATM that sometimes has 800,000 limits and pays 10,000/withdrawal to get back to his shop full of angry customers who have been waiting for him, only to process their transactions which empties his float sending him back on the same journey again.

I'm not saying this is a terrible situation and we're in the wrong, I'm definitely not saying this is a good situation. I'm just saying that this is the reality for our key people and it's very difficult. To me it's no wonder he invents ways to make his business work like borrowing money from people or other agents (but instead of being rewarded, he's worried about being caught for doing something he shouldn't have to do in the first place). I've worked with him since March. He's 24, newly married, hard working, smart and trustworthy. He told me he almost quit when he found out his new pay was 38% less than he was getting for doing something he enjoyed more. It sucks that I could easily imagine him stealing his float and running away. But he won't.

Rich Parents

I read that having rich parents makes a child more likely to become rich, not because they have access to better schools, etc. (although I still think that stuff may help) but that the "norms" for those kids are different. They expect and demand more. This was true for me attending an expensive private school. There was an expectation that we should all go to university, and not just do something, but something respectable. I wouldn't/couldn't have dreamt of being a plumber or welder, even though they are fine jobs. I was thinking about this when I was newer in Zambia, how ridiculous it was that the bus station was so disorganized and how all it took was effort and organization, not money, and things would be faster, more efficient. Well that is true for a lot of things in Zambia and I think I know why they exist now! Coming from our culture, a rich place where there is so much emphasis on easy and fast, things are often easy and fast. We EXPECT them to be and get upset when they aren't, then hopefully wonder why they're not fast and easy and then even more hopefully get some motivation to make things better. This process doesn't happen with Zambians in the same situations as it does for us. And that's a big reason why things are different, slower, harder and sometimes less efficient.

"I'll pay for a tractor but an ox should be free"

There is a major difference between a tractor and oxen. Yes , one's an animal and is much cheaper/weaker, etc. but all things equal, there is one important difference. Fuel. A tractor consumes a certain amount of fuel for every hour it's working, and more importantly, a certain amount in kwacha worth or fuel. No one can ask you to plough their field for free, because there is no such thing as "free" with a tractor, ever. It is a business machine and if someone wants work done, they must pay for it. In reality an oxen is the same thing, there is no such thing as free with an oxen, but because the cost is more of a fixed cost, people don't see why they should pay for it. "If my brother isn't using his oxen this morning, why can't I just borrow it for 3 hours, it won't cost him anything?"

This important difference between fixed and variable costs allows people to use tractors to earn money where they might otherwise not with an oxen.