Sunday, February 6, 2011

Feeling full

I'm starting a new job tomorrow.

Oh yah, there have been some changes since I last reported about the water outtage at the Kabwata Flats. Some things have happened.

in Sept 2010, after 3.5 years with EWB in Zambia, 3.5 years of 75 hour weeks, of living, breathing my passion, , of struggling and learning, of succeeding and failing, I had reached a point when I realised I needed to make a change. It's not that I had lost any more passion, or conviction in the necessity for more investment in business growth in Africa - on the contrary --, but it was that I found myself out of balance; I found myself no longer being able to think, to write full sentences, to analyse or process information in an intelligent way. I found myself without the energy to help others in a way they needed. More importantly, I found myself without the resilience you need if you're in the business of change.

So, I left my job with Engineers Without Borders. I packed up my life in Zambia, Malawi, and EWB. I moved back to create a life in Vancouver. I did what I never thought I would do, what women like me, who are raised on the principles of independence, ambition and professional success shouldn't really do: I moved for love. And I moved for the opportunity to spend more time with family, friends, people that matter. A much as these were the most drawing of forces, it was also not without tension. You see, in my choice to move for love, I also chose to moved away from a path of certainty in my career, to a life where I would have no job, and to a city in which agribusiness in Africa is relatively far off the radar. I took this leap with a fear that it would take me down a slow slide, and 10 years down the road, I would realise that I am part of the reason why change doesn't happen - complacency.

So what did I do after I arrived in Vancouver? I baked. I struggled to be ok to not doing anything or to not have a plan. I fought the idea that I was wasting my time by not being productive, until I let go of that notion and realised how much I needed it. After learning concept shared by a friend: to chop wood and carry water - I found pleasure in the mundane. I loved cleaning dishes. I slept in. In fact, I struggled to wake up because the sun doesn't actually rise until 8am. I yearned for the sun. I really yearned for the sun, and the heat. I realised that I no longer needed to boil water in a kettle in order to do dishes with hot water - hot water came out of the tap. I cooked, and grew a big fat gut. I scowled at the pet store down the road that offers 15 types of dog dishes. I vowed to myself I would never ever stop scowling at the excess of that, I vowed to myself that I must never forget how this life I have in Canada is merely a bubble of luxury within a world that has far less. I felt my chest tighten when I noticed that maybe I'm losing touch of that - my desire to buy white towels for the bathroom, or scented hand lotion. I felt guilty. I rationalised. I felt fear that I was sliding slowly into why change doesn't happen - complacency.

I laughed. A lot. From a place of joy. I fell more in love and feel a sense of immense fortune to have found someone who inspires me to be a better person and anchors me in the values that matter - that who you are, is more important than what you do, what a family means, what appreciating the moment means. Don and I also went through the process of putting together a home. We bought a couch, made a fir table, started a story board and have had many friends over for dinner. We had our first debate over buying jars while in IKEA. I realised how lucky I am to feel safe to have these debates because communication is the cornerstone of strong relationships. I have slowly reconnected with friends, choosing to spend more time with fewer people, and cherishing the long personal relationships that are based on things outside of what you do.

I tried to avoid the trash in the magazines lining the grocery store check out, and found myself not being able to fight the sound bite headlines - holy crap! a t.v. show on teenage pregnancy!? and yes! you're right! I do need a new phone every year. I felt a sickening feeling come on when I realised how much effort there is behind the news, the products to breed a generation of passive citizens.

I spent a lot of time with my brothers and their families, and have been re-inspired by my little nieces and nephews Izzy, Dante, Jada and Kayden who's curiosity, imagination and ever present laughter grounds me in the simple fact that potential in people here in Canada hasn't changed, even if the world around them is changing. My admiration for all my brothers and their wives grew as their parenting styles have given me hope that this potential in people will translate into responsible, engaged citizens through loving, supportive parenting based on values. And I felt fortunate to have them as role models for creating a life in which they are each living their passions and have healthy loving relationships. I got to hold my new twin nephews Max and Logan when they were just a few hours old, be amazed at my sister in law giving birth, at the support of my brother as a dad. I was also peed on as I gave my nephews their first bath as they were just a few days old, and I also witnessed one of my nephews pee in his own mouth. That is a memory I will never let him live down ( now, if only I can remember which twin it was...)

I learned to cross country ski - it is amazing when you get your body to move in a new way. I remembered how even though it is damn cold here, being surrounded by the beauty of snowy mountains on a sunny day is a gift. I spent time with my parents, and enjoyed having them come over for dinner, lunch, an afternoon. I bought rainboots, and laughed the first time I had to wear them, because it was not nearly as close to when I had to wear rainboots in Zambia. I have gotten used to using toilet seats because here, you can't really avoid them - but I still hold true to the belief that they are mostly overrated ( if you live by yourself or only with women).

I went to the EWB national conference last month. I reconnected with friends whom i have known through my years working there, and have an immense sense of excitement for what they will do - in business, in government, in leading change. More importantly, I have an immense sense of repsect for who they are as people. I became obsessed with what's happening in Egypt. I cried when reading the stories of citizenship, of courage, of a population finding their voice and demanding something better. I wondered, and continue to wonder, how I would have acted. I was facinated by the pace of change, and the power of social media. And I reminded of the bubble from which I was following the developments here in Canada, and how I want a life that is global, or where you stand up for what you believe in, and one where you believe something better is possible.

Yes, a lot has happened and this is just a sampling. There is much to share. Maybe one day, I'll take the time to write about it all, with more detail. Maybe one day, I'll write about how in order to help me think, work and start contributing again, I needed to take time to feel again, to be in the moment and to experience the things that will pass us by when we are so focused on that thing called change. Yes, maybe one day.

But for now, as I started out this note saying, I just wanted to say, tomorrow, I'm starting a new job here in Vancouver. I am starting a job that somehow is letting me work on Agribusiness investment in Africa, travel to Africa, and learn a lot - an absolutely incredible opportunity. And while I'm still trying to sort out life in Canada and Vancouver, I am doing it full of the things that matter - love, family, opportunity - and with no less ambition and passion for change, than when I took the leap back in August.

I feel like I'm the luckiest person alive.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

water is life


The taps are flowing. First time in 72 hours.

What did it take? It took us to act our our distrust of the building managers ( 'no, Zesco, they're coming'), and go directly to the utilities company, ask them to reconnect it.

Interestingly, the service there was pretty good. The clerk we talked to sought out the big bwana who then put in the order for a technician to 'rush back'. The clerk also gave us his personal number to get in touch in case it didn't work. 1.5 hour later, water is flowing in the pipes, again.

I took a bath.

I flushed the toilet.

And now, I tackle the dishes.

water, is life.

Monday, August 9, 2010

it was almost like the village


48 hours, and still no water.

The story is that the bill has been paid. (I didn't believe it, until I saw the receipt.) Now we're just waiting for ZESCO, the utilities company to come back and reconnect the pump.

My friend Nsangwa - who just lives 2 doors down from me - took us to another friend's place to fill up our buckets.

It was almost like going to get water in the village, except instead of walking to the borehole, we drove. and instead of enjoying the process, i was too busy scheming how to make sure the building managers felt some pain of this whole situation and enforce some accountability. We could make them come down and carry our buckets up for us. We could publicly shame them by putting posters up on the wall. We could go in and use whatever water they had saved up from their flat.

In the end of course, I ended up appreciating that I wasn't pumping my water from a borehole, or gathering it from a stream every day. And that this was more of an inconvenience than it was a way of life.

It was just fun to think about how to introduce better accountability mechanisms into this system and how you could leverage the social pressure from 16 flats to change the way things operated. And it was also somewhat fun to consider that instead of working on a report, or working on a proposal, or coaching someone on my team, I spent 2 hours needing to fetch water; funny, there isn't a management book on managing time wisely that takes these things into account.

Anyway, I didn't scheme and I'm all hot air when it comes to making the building management feel the pain of our inconvenience. I ended carrying my own water back up to the flat, all 18 L of it.

Oh, yes, all 18L. I thought i had 40L saved up, but I had less than half. Interesting how when you have less resource, you adjust.

As in, i'm adjusting to the dirtiness of my kitchen. I have pretty much used up every single pot, pan, and plate i own. Twice. Ok. maybe three times. ok ok, maybe four times?

We've been reassured that it will be on tomorrow. First thing.

We'll see about that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

prisoner's dilema

Currently, the water is off in my building. It's been off since yesterday afternoon - "the pump is broken, we will need to turn it off so that it can be fixed. It will be back on on Monday".

It's not that i trusted that a 36 hour pump repair job would really take place, but if that's what they say, i guess that's what I had to go with.

So I stockpiled water, about 40 L of it. No, it's not a lot, but every single bottle and bucket, and pot was pretty much full. ( tells you a bit about what i have in my house).

And I've been managing, I've been conscious of water use - even more than normal. I've still been able to bathe, make coffee; I've made the critical decision between flushing the toilet or keeping the water for cooking; and my kitchen is starting to drive me crazy because the dishes are piling up.

Anyway, how I use water isn't really what I want to talk about. You see, I just got a knock on the door though from the building management. Every month, I pay about $8 in monthly fees that is supposed to go to grounds upkeep ( sounds fancy, but its really just some dude who sweeps every day). I didn't know that it was also supposed to go to water pump management, but it turns out that it is supposed to. It also turns out that the pump isn't broken, it's just the pump service fees haven't been paid and so the powers that be turned the pump off.


Now, I'm being asked to pay the $8 in advance for September, so they can pay make up the shortfall in overdue fees and we can get the water back on on Monday.

So what should I do?

(Nevermind that its $8 and that's what most of you back home pay for your fancy lattes, or a single fashion magazine, nevermind that, its quite a bit of money here. And never mind, that this shortfall is the management's fault, and yet we're getting the short end of the stick. never mind that.)

(Never mind even, the fact that it probably means that they just haven't really paid the management fees so who knows what they did with the money we've all paid? )

Never mind. The more important issue is what I should do.

You see, I'm not going to be here in September. There's some dude in flat 13 who owes about 4 months fees, and a few other tenants who haven't paid up yet. I'm the only one that is being asked to pay in advance,and maybe I would do it and the water still won't come on. But if I do pay, and the other folks pay, then the water ' could' really come back on.

I'm stumped: should I pay, or should I not pay? If I pay, I'm supporting a system of lack of accountability and poor management and i might be screwed in the long run. If i pay, I might also be able to get the water back on. And all of this will hinge on whether or not the other folks will pay their arrears as well.

What should I do?

I've lived here for 3.5 years. I've learned to be incredible distrustful of almost every single interaction that involves money. Every business decision that I make is involves a bit of game theory that often hasn't gone my way. It's going to be a doozy moving back to Canada.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Can Black Stars Shine.

“Welcome to Kotoka airport”.

As the pilot did his customary welcome, I looked out the window at Accra in the night time and for a moment, got a swell of emotion. I can’t believe I’m really here.

While the disbelief is in part due to a hellish and absolute nightmare flying with South African Airlines (topic for another post), it is more a sense of surrealism. You see, it was 7 years ago that I was first, and last here.

7 years ago, I didn't know that I would end up falling in love with this place and its people. I didn't know that it would be a gateway into a continent that surprises me constantly and cares for me in a way that is difficult to describe. I didn't know that it would shape my life in such significant ways. I didn't know that it would get inside my bones and soul to have me come back to live and work in Zambia for the last 3.5 years and a commitment in the future.

At that time, I had no idea what to expect and was swept off my feet with all of the new sounds, sights and smells that I had never been exposed to. This time, all of this feels so natural and I breezed through customs, and haggled with the taxi drivers like I had lived here all my life ( I still paid twice what I was supposed to by the way).

7 years ago, I was naïve, believing I could change the world. Today, I am still naïve enough to want to contribute to some change in this world, because its necessary, it matters, and because its possible.


I arrived to my guest house two hours ago, at 4:30 am under a cloak of darkness. During the taxi ride through the empty streets of Accra, my eyes searched for familiar buildings, streets, signs. Instead, a memory popped up.

It was a conversation I had had with my boss Mr. Boateng, at GRATIS ( an acronym, but GRATIS nonetheless). We were talking about the Ghanaian Flag which has a black star against yellow and green.

"Ka-Hay, do you know why we have a black star on our flag?"

“Daabi”, I replied, “I don’t”

“Well, its because black stars never shine.”


I haven’t gotten outside yet, but through window above the door, I can see that the sun is up. I wonder what lies outside the door and what comes with the passing of 7 years.

I've watched this special place from afar. I've seen its rise to host the Africa cup; to discover oil off its coast; to transition power peacefully between parties, demonstrating a maturity in democracy in last year's election; a growth rate that is about twice that of Canada; its football team, Black Stars making headlines during the last world cup, and likely again, this time around; to be part of the wave of Chinese investment into this continent, to grow to be the continents rising hopes, as others and itself has been once before.

I'm not sure of what will actually greet me when I open this door. But the last seven years has made me sure of one thing: that black stars can shine, you just need to look for them.

Because if they didn’t, how do you know they exist in the first place?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

31 ways to electrocute yourself

Safety first.

I’m back in Zambia, right smack in the middle of the rainy season. The rains have been good for farmers ( thumbs up).

But remember that blog post I wrote about our road being paved? Well, it never happened. (thumbs down). Over the last month and a half, the rains have turned the road into a mogul run and river. It has also turned my house into an island. I on arrived to find that I needed a boat to get to my front door; water up to my shins surrounding the entire house with no dry path.

But hey, water doesn’t stop anyone. Not even the welders and metal fabricators who use our driveway to manufacture door frames and window frames.

Check it out. That’s real time metal working and welding in water.

‘Ah, aren’t you afraid of electrocution?’ I ask Innocent, one of the guys.

Innocent, innocently and with confidence answers “ ah, no, these wires, they are insulated, no problems, they can be immersed in water”. The wires don’t seem to be anything special to me, but hey, what do I know?

I found a site on the internet ‘30 ways to die of electrocution’ – which showcases shows old illustrations of situations where one can be electrocuted.

Well, I think I have number 31.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

anyone lose a dog?

I’m sitting here in Johannesburg airport, looking out at rain POURING down on the tarmac and wincing at lightning bolts as they fill the sky.

Just across the way are some airport guys, dressed in their dark blue and neon green vests. They're running fast while chasing a dog that is running faster.

The little guy is darting in and out of luggage carts, and past 3 airport vehicles flashing yellow lights. I hope that the dog doesn’t get struck by one of these lightening bolts.

That would be unfortunate.