It’s 7 am. A breeze is blowing the chitenge curtains making sun beams dance on my eyelids. Sounds poetic, but it is irritating enough to make me put in the effort to throw the heavy wool blanket over my head. Lying under the weight of the covers I start going through my list of things to do to for the day. Go to the office, get some feedback on my training manual, present my proposal for the agent prices and commission system to the Board, and get the go-ahead for the pilot in Chipata. The last two have been on my "list of things to do today" since the second week of June. With that thought I let out a sigh and push myself off my mattress on the living room floor of Anna's Flat.
The "EWB Flat" is in Kabwata Market in the middle of Lusaka. I remember pulling up to the white flats in late May thinking it looked stereotypical of those grungy apartment buildings you see in movies. You know the kinds that are usually in some foreign country and someone is almost always being chased along the roof top? I remember seeing the first cockroach crawling across the eating/working table and staring at it in bewilderment before getting some tissue to kill the bastard. I recall it went something like this: “Eww Eww…” Squish. “EWWWW!!!!” But I mean come on, they don’t even have cockroaches in the village…
I walk into the kitchen and flip on the hot plate to boil some water for a bucket shower. I watch as 5 roaches crawl out from the socket and 3 more out from under the hot plate. I don’t hesitate to drop a heavy open palm.
SMACK! SMACK!…. SMACK!
I shower, gather my papers, removed the iron bars from the back of the door, unlock the deadbolt, unlock the fist-size padlock locking the iron-bar gate, step outside, re-lock the deadbolt, close the iron-bar gate, and re-lock the padlock. It’s like escaping from a maximum security prison every time you want to leave. But don’t worry. It’s safe.
It’s strangely windy this morning and within five steps the dust clouds have turned my black dress pants and shoes a visible 5 shades lighter. I walk past a massive Rupiah Banda sign.
Zambia is having elections in September, and the current president (Banda) and the MMD party have decided to win some votes by improving Lusaka roads. Passer-byers look at the half grated road then to the sign and go, “Oh wow, look at all the construction the MMD is doing! They really care about developing Zambia!” Meanwhile those who live in the area start to speculate whether they purposely don’t finish construction to make it appear they are doing lots of construction to passer-byers. There haven’t been any construction trucks on the road for weeks, and this isn’t the only location in town I’ve seen it. Oh, and the sign costs 30 - 40 million Kwatcha (6 - 8 thousand dollars).
A minibus flashes its lights at me as I stand on the shoulder of Chilimbulu road. The conductor sticks his head out the window, whistles, and makes a forward sweeping pointing motion with his arm. I raise my hand and the bus pulls over. Plastered on the front bumper is a sticker that reads, “Relax, God is in control.” As I wonder if this statement actually relaxes people the conductor slides the rusty door of the mini bus open.
He asks, “Kalima Tower?”
“No boss, Kamwala.”
“Ehh, Kamwala. Let’s go.”
I climb in the cramped mini bus beside a university student playing with his new blackberry. Weird
I get out in Kamwala and walk 10 minutes through the market to Kafue Road where I transfer to a second minibus. This one has a “Only The Good Die Young” sticker over the back windshield. All bumper stickers seem to resonate with the same message to me: Death. Some are just more subtle than others. I guess their warning meshes nicely with vehicle condition and driving style.
After the second minibus, it’s only a 5 min walk down a dirt side road to the office. Right outside Headquarters gates I walk by some women and children pounding boulders into gravel and sand with small hammers and other rocks.
“Mzungu! Ow ar you!?” the kids will call out.
“I’m fine, how are you? Blank stares…
“Ow ar you?”
“Haha, I’m fine how are you?”
“Ow ar you?” Now it has become a game. I can say anything and they just repeat the only English phrase they know. This repeats until I reach the solid rolling steal gate of the headquarters compound.
I wave at the gate man, and he waves back with furious enthusiasm from inside his small office.
“How are you this morning sir?”
“Maocha Bwino, Maocha Bwanji?”
He laughs and replies, “Bwino, bwino, zikomo,” and sits back at his desk giggling. People find it oddly comical that I know simple Nyanja.
I walk through the double doors and into the main office building. My dress shoes clack on the polished white tile floors and echo off the glass walled offices. I walk over to the large oak desk they’ve let me use temporarily and I switch on the computer. Less than a football field away there are people using their hands to crush boulders into gravel to sell to cement companies just to make enough food for supper; and I’m sitting in a plush leather chair being served coffee and scones by the office maids, and looking at an excel sheet with product profit margins and agent discounts wondering how to balance company profits with agent benefits. The contrast is enough to get me thinking…
Well, it’s more like a feeling really. I feel disconnected from the village and from the agents. Being at headquarters makes it easy to get caught up in company benefits, company efficiencies, company this, and company that. But, am I here to work for the company serving me scones? Or am I hear to work for those rural small scale farmers who have never tasted a scone?
I mentally re-draw the link between increasing agent support and benefit to small holder farmers.
Build Headquarters Capacity to Manage Agents --> Agent Sales Increase --> More Farmers Are Buying Inputs --> Farmers Increasing Yields
At least once every couple days I have to stop and re-draw this link to explain to myself how exactly what I am doing is actually benefiting rural farmers – or improving their livelihoods. I choose not to get caught up thinking about all the weak chains in this link and turn back to my excel sheet.
I check my watch. Its 11:37 am. The Board meeting I was supposed to present my proposals at was scheduled for 9. There is still no sign of the CEO.
I start asking around the office, “Is the Madam coming in today?” The usual response is, “We are hopeful” or “Yes, sometime.”
Frustrated at things being delayed again, I open a fresh word document and type the title: Team AVC Success Report 2011 – Spencer Weber. It’s ironic, but it’s also distracting. I write 1500 words on the successes I’ve had throughout the summer and when I place the last period the sun is starting the set.
I save the document to my USB along with 9 inevitable viruses, pack up my bag and walk out of the office. Only a few cars remain in the parking lot. I wave to the gate man, walk past the now empty make-shift quarry and out onto the main road to flag down a mini-bus.
The wind is blowing through a hole in the door of the minibus and I am pressed up against the cracked window, second row from the back. Mini-bus rides are technically the most uncomfortable part of my day, but for some reason I feel contented driving in them. Comfort in discomfort.
As difficult as it can be and as frustrated as I can get with work, there are always moments in the day that make me just stop, smile, and take a mental picture because I don’t want to forget them. Moments like being completely lost in a cramped tin-roofed market, cycling my ZamBike through the country side to visit an agent, riding to town in the back of a canter while the sun is setting, or having someone try and sell you a bunny through a mini-bus window for 2,000 Kwatcha (40 cents). I refuse the offer to buy the bunny.
It is twilight and I am walking back up the stairs of the flat. The stairway is pitch black. The power is out, again. I use the built-in flashlight in my phone to find the key hole and open the door. I walk into the living area, which is also the eating area and my bedroom. The room is glowing blue from laptop screen light reflecting off of Anna and Raquel’s faces. I put my bag down, open my laptop, and contribute my share of luminance to the room.
An hour later the power comes on. We cheer, high five, take turns connecting to the internet so we can download our emails, and turn on the hot plate to make supper – beans and toast. Sometimes living at the flat is a lap of luxury, but tonight it is like camping and I like it.
Around 23 hours I flop down on my bed. I pull the heavy wool blanket over me. It’s cold tonight. I sit up and un-wrap a second blanket to double my warmth. I start going through a list of things to do tomorrow. Go to the office, present my proposal for the agent prices and commission system to the Board, and get the go-ahead for the pilot in Chipata. The last two have been on my "list of things to do tomorrow" since the second week of June. With that thought I laugh to myself, “Maybe if she doesn’t show up to the office tomorrow I can add another 1500 words to my success report.”
I fall asleep to an orchestra of dogs barking, ZamPop popping, and termites eating the table 2 feet away.