It’s not always Africa’s fault

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That we will be on the move again is inevitable. I rail against the thought of more unsettledness, more uncertainty, more bloody racketing around. But I rail more against our employers. (Can they be employers even when they don’t’ honour Employment contracts?).

They have made the mistake so many Investors in Africa make – listen to the Lion’s Roar says the Sunday Times, make your money here, reads the sign: they think they can impose their western ideals and ideas upon this vast wild place and assume they will stick profitably. So they build proposals around the healthandsafety surety of more predictable nations. And when it fails, as it often does, they throw up their hands in despair and blame Bad Governance and Corruption and Africa.

I watch the swift fragmentation of this particular project and know that none of that is to blame. The problem here is that dislocated London-based investment bankers in suits and shiny shoes (who have never stood beneath a shower cold as ice and brown with silt, never tried to forge a swollen river with their hearts in their mouths, never pushed a car out of the mud) have distilled their money making scheme to a generic,  glossy proposal of lines and digits and sums and projected what-it-will-look-like-if-it-works images: academic assumptions). They don’t know the rules here. They don’t know that when it rains on the farm we can’t get out, which means, by extension, their produce – the one that will never come – won’t get out either. They don’t know that the equipment they bought isn’t Built For Africa. That their Logistics Man (in Essex …) got it wrong.

So it begins to collapse and they call midnight meetings and wipe the white board clean and write down some more numbers. The money-shufflers. Meantime, on the farm, the fuel for generators has almost run out, when it does we will be in darkness without water. They know us, the little team here, merely as more lines of figures, perhaps we come under the column that says Management or Personnel or Admin?

We’re certainly not identified as Flora, in the farm office, who dresses beautifully and I wonder how on earth she manages it? I wear badly laundered shorts day after day. I’ve never seen her wear the same outfit twice; an Audrey Hepburn two piece accessorised with a clutch purse and kitten heels, she minces to the office, an incongruous and heartening sight against a sprawling, dust-laced savannah. One day she wore a shirt printed with bold, gold daises and lime green flares, her hair teased into a glorious Afro and she looks for all the world like one of the Three Degrees, ‘Flora, you look lovely!’, I told her and she giggled but was unable to return the compliment, her eyes darting over my unironed attire and flipflop clad feet. And our number crunchers don’t know Joshua, the mechanic, whose eyesight astonished me: far older than I, I watch him read the tiniest calibrations, ‘with no glasses?’, I hiss at Ant. Joshua was spot on though. And they’ve never met Saidi, the askari, who opens the gate with a flamboyance that makes me smile every time. He throws back his shoulders and offers a flourish of a salute and the broadest grin.

Bottom lines don’t replace reality. Digits are no substitute for personalities. You have to really understand a thing to know it; you have to get right under it’s skin.

This is Africa. And it isn’t always her fault.

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12 Responses to “It’s not always Africa’s fault”

  1. Gillian Stickings Says:

    I’ve been a lurking subscriber to this blog for 5 years. I was born and brought up in Africa and up until my mid 30s had spent more of my life there than in Britain, where I am bound to live now.
    Thank you for this brilliant and perfect capture of this problem. I wish every western businessman I’ve ever heard moan and condemn could be forced to not only read but truly ‘get’ this post.
    ‘this is Africa. And it isn’t always her fault’ – preach it!!

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Hello Gillian, thank you for reading – and for your comment. there is this sometimes an odd arrogance that comes with western investment: a sort of, ‘because we have the money, the idea, a western education, we know it all’. but they don’t. and they certainly don’t know how it works here. they often don’t ask enough of the right questions. that’s part of what’s precipitated the downfall here. if only they’d asked …

  2. Kimm X Jayne Says:

    I totally agree with your post. My husband’s project found it useful to bring accountants and admins out for a week or two to “give” technical training, but really it was so they could see everyday realities (e.g., power outages that prevent 6 copies of 50-page contracts being made; lightning storms that fry machinery for which no parts can be found in country; difficulties in getting to work because donor-made roads that looked gorgeous upon completion washed out at the first heavy rain; and so forth). Things take longer to get done and that’s okay. Upon return these accountants and admins are so much more helpful and help with problem solving, instead of being patronizing eye rollers and thinking everyone’s stupid.

    p.s. I think you should write that award winning, best-seller novel that’s turned-into-a-blockbuster movie and spawns a merchandise line featuring coffee cups, t-shirts and I-phone sleeves. Then, you can ignore those employers!

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      thanks Kimm X Jayne. that’s a good idea – bring them out to see what it’s really like. then i will stick them under a cold, muddy shower. i will see what they think of an internet connection that jumps about like a grasshopper, ‘oh so you see now, skype meetings aren’t as easy as you think are they?’ i shall say in reaction to their frustration when they cannot connect. and when i get stuck in the mud i shall say, ‘out boys. push’. and i shall enjoy the horror on their faces as they roll up designer chinos and take off their shiny shoes.

      • Kimm X Jayne Says:

        Oh! How could I have forgotten the internet taking 12 hours 47 minutes to download the single photo of a bluebird in my uncle’s yard (despite me politely saying, ‘I love your photos but please don’t send any because they’re too large for African internet’), thereby preventing any other ‘urgent’ messages from being seen until 12 hours, 48 minutes. Oh! And then how people have already sent 5 follow-up messages by this time reminding you to respond to their urgent request. Oh! And the muddy roads, broken down cars (with no parts in the country), and the simple fact that people just don’t understand that work/play/life moves at such a different pace in different parts of the world. 😉

  3. Rob Says:

    Pole sana. Good that you still have your sense of humour – and your health. As that song at the end of Life of Brian goes, “Always look on the bright side of life…”

  4. Tattie Weasle Says:

    Christina, who used to help out in our house in Lestho, was always immaculate too. I wish I had half as much style and laundry skills now!

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      i agree Tattie; i love African women. i think they are the soul of this continent: the soul, the style, the sheer bloody graft.

  5. Mud Says:

    Oh yes. “Can you upload those giant photos?” No actually – to have internet good enough for that I’d have to drive 6 hours and then just hope it’d work.

    “Can you ask so-and-so to agree this tomorrow?”

    No – that entails 6 letters to 6 Ministries all stamped and signed and processed in a matter of weeks.

    “Can you buy X, Y, and Z?”
    Not really, I’d have to drive 7 hours to Thailand, and then would be stuck in customs negotiations for at least a week.

    Life just isn’t European out here!

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      oh perfect Mud! loved that. made me laugh. once, when ant was growing fresh veg for tesco, the buyer in uk was doing his nut as the rains had come and our trucks were stuck. he was shrieking down the phone and the language was blue, ‘where are the beans?’ he demanded, tho not so politely. ant explained that they were on the way but the truck was stuck. ‘then tar the effing road’, he demanded. ant put the phone down .

  6. Daryl Says:

    This goes to highlight the importance of running projects completely out there. My childhood was spent on a tea estate in Tanzania; all the accountants, etc, were based on the estate as well. This made everything much smoother as there were more realistic expectations.

    I’m so sorry to hear that this has failed and that you’ll all have to be on the move yet again.

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