Friday, October 28, 2011

The classroom of Africa.

It has been an embarrassing long time since I blogged but I feel its about time to put some things on paper. On November 16th, I am officially moving from Ghana back to the California with lots of mixed feelings. After 20 months in Africa, it has become home for me – the resilient people, the sounds of bustling streets, the horrible airlines, the spice Ghanaian cuisine, the taxi drivers who have no idea where their going, my small office – all of it.  
I have been reflecting on my time here trying to capture what I have learned and how I have changed. There is no way I will ever complete an exhaustive but I might as well get started.

  • People are not meant to live isolated, individualistic lives with no connection, responsibility or concern for others.  I love the community of Africa, the family compounds and the general shock that someone would l try to do it on their own. Here its impossible;  I know because I have only survived by my community. 
  • Dogs in Africa don’t chase runners but kids do.  Dogs here have no territory so have nothing to protect. Children also have no territory and no concern for protection. 
  • Having the power go out every once in a while is actually a great excuse to do the things that matter. Having the water go out is not. 
  • Taking the extra minutes to make a human connection with those around you matters a lot. People want to be recognized, humanized, and connected to, even from a strange obruni girl. 
  • Bargaining is about understanding the game of perception of willingness to pay and experience. I love bargaining.  And yes, that $0.30 extra matters when you’re going to make that transaction daily for 2 years. 
  • Africa is expensive. 
  • Africa is HUGE and incredibly diverse. Takes 8 hours to fly from east to west and 9 from North to South. 
  • Each country, region and tribe is unique with its own culture, naming conventions, ceremonies, language and identity.  My given names are Ama, meaning born on Saturday (Fanti tribe) and Na Adjeli, meaning second born girl (Ga tribe). I live in a Ga neighborhood that is loud, peaceful, full of goats, kids taxis, street vendors and music. 
  • Being a kid in Africa rocks – freedom, family, sun, animals, and room to play.
  • Being a kid in Africa sucks – poor education, dismal maternal health, lack of nutrition and a lower value of human life. Death is just too common. 
  • Water is life. 
  • Putting up street lights is only the first step, then you have to find someone willing to pay for the electricity. 
  • China is taking over the world and especially Africa. 
  • Trust is the most important and hardest things to earn in Africa. 
  • Business = relationships. 
  • Things are almost never as they appear at first. 
  • Africans are optimistic perhaps to a fault. 
  • Patience.  No one else is in a hurry. 
  • Everyone was created with the same human potential, I was just born somewhere else to different parents. 
  • Anything is possible in Africa, it just takes a persistence and creativity. You can even stop a plane on the tarmac to get on.   
  • What process? 
  • Fear is in the eye of the beholder. People fear what they don’t understand, but a lack of understanding and real danger are different. Besides on dodgy planes, I have very very rarely felt fear. 
  • Nigeria is not that bad, in fact it is intoxicating. 
  • No is not an answer, its an excuse. 
  • The propensity to be a good or bad person is the essentially same regardless of economic status. Poverty is not romantic nor does it make you a good person just like wealth does not make you a happy person. 
  • Marriage needs to be about love and faith, not economics. 
  • Money is not the issue. Africa has tons of it. 
  • Americans should stop complaining. At least your taxes go somewhere although in Africa you don't really have to pay them (btw, I do pay my taxes here!).
  • All of the accomplishments in the world cannot be compared to positively impacting even one individual. 
  • Compassion is fundamental to relating to others. 
  • God tells us to love our neighbor regardless of race, status, geography or understanding. Its true. 

A piece of my heart will always be here.  I am forever changed by Africa. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

A network without connections.

Its been a while since I blogged by I figured its not to late to start a good habit. Per the usual, I have been traveling lots lately. At one point I was in six countries in a week, two of them unplanned but caused by the ingenuity of Africa’s airlines.  Now I am back in the US for a few weeks. This trip home I have really been struck by something - How little human interaction an American go through in a day. You can check ourselves out at a grocery store, pay for gas, take a flight, do all your shopping online and spend the day isolated by the sounds around you by an ipod or TV. Its crazy. In this world, you really don’t need people. I recently wrote on my facebook page "In this digital world, people are more "social" but interact less. Have more "friends" but fewer relationships."  Its true and I think a bit sad. We are so connected and yet so disconnected.

In Africa, there is no way you can go an hour with out human interaction. You really need everyone around you.  I need the security guard to turn on the generator, friends to know if there is any events or holidays coming up, fruit stand ladies to find fresh basil, guy on the side of the street to make my furniture, an experienced driver to find locations that have no addresses, a friends uncle to find, bargain and install a new wash machine, etc, etc. My phone is full of these phone numbers, people who can help me get things and do things.  They are my network, they are my connections.

In the developed worked, your network is digital. It’s often not knowing the right people but the right website or app.  I think it has a lot to do with how people access information and what information they trust. There is not much web content in Africa – you can’t find out where to buy anything, the best restaurants, the phone number to a plumber, etc. The internet for local things, is fairly useless. It's getting better but does not compare to your social network (not facebook :) that allows you to survive and get ahead.

Each person around you is useful or maybe useful to you, perhaps not in the moment but you realize, in the future, you will likely need them. You are incentivized to connect, to talk to everyone around you, to get there contact and make sure to stay known. The social barrier to speak to someone you don’t know almost doesn’t exist (exception is among classes).  Random people talk to me all the time, often because they want to marry me, but also because I am likely a person that has information or connections that can help them. I can strengthen their network.

I used to feel sort of odd about this - people always wanting to stay connected to me -  but not anymore. I was able to stop a plane on the tarmac because of friendly connection with an airport security official, and I got a visa for a friend in Nigeria who had previously been denied 4 times because I knew the consulate general.  It's a place of connections. Its my personal network that makes helps me make progress each day. It's a place where where each person must provide value to others to receive in return. I realize, like everyone else in Africa, it’s a world where you need each other, where the social network is not digital and the network not make of cables but people craving information, opportunity and others to help them advance.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A distrust for Africa.

Not sure how many of you have checked out my bridgetoadventure blog in the past 2 months and did not find it. Rather, graced your screen. I received number lots of emails asking why. The best answer is TIA. This is Africa. Seems like an odd response given the website is virtual, but actually, the series of events that led to my blog being taken over, is a great demonstration of why people say TIA and often why is it not Africa's fault. 

It all started in some shop in Kenya likely around mid August. I purchased some sandals and running shorts with my credit card. It was the first time I had used my card in a while. No problem with the purchase, but Bank of America saw the transaction as risky. They KNOW I am in Africa but regardless, they froze my card. I called, after much persuasion, they released the hold. A few weeks later, I bought lunch at one of the few hotels that take credit in Ghana. Same story. Card frozen, except rather than freezing, they decided I my card was too risky. Without telling me, they cancelled all my cards with them and issued new cards with a new number. 

In the coming weeks, I was tipped off that something was up as emails rolled of late charge warnings from all my auto-bill pays. I called the bank who had sent the new cards to my parents who do not open my mail. After explaining for about 20 minutes where Ghana was, they finally agreed to issue new cards, send them to Google and Google would forward them to me, likely arrive in a few weeks. In the mean time, I went online and changed all my auto pays to my debit card. But then, my debit card suspected "suspicious activity" and decided to follow suite from the credit card company. Thus here I was traveling around Africa, stuck without card, or cash in for around a month. This was going to go great. 

During this period, my domain purchase came up for yearly renewal - $10. It tried to charge my credit card, which was no longer active. No luck. It sent me a link to enter another card. With some creative practices, I got another card, added it to my account. But then, their payment system noticed my IP address - Nigeria - 'country denied. I tried again the following week in Ghana, same message "sorry, we can not complete your transaction." Awesome. There was an option to use Paypal. So I tried that "sorry, PayPal your account is suspended, please send full verification of identity." 

Thus, my domain lapsed. Not for lack of effort but because I am in Africa. Often things lapse, or just never happen, not because you aren't capable or don't have the means, but because of where you are - your circumstances. I probably work about four times harder living here than I did in the US to do simple things, and get about a half as much done. Everything takes longer, and unpredicted barriers pop-up in life like pot holes in late at night. And just like hitting a pot hole at 40 miles an hour, it does damage and is expensive. Rather than costing me $10 a year, I now I will have to pay $65 a year for the exact same domain. Imagine I was a business and not just a blogger. I would have lost my website and paid more. 

People frequently look at Africa and consider its condition as something created and perpetuated by Africans. And yes, there are lots of examples, especially in leadership (see Ivory Coast), government policy, and import duties. But what people often don't see is that the global systems exclude Africa from accessing much of the infrastructure that enables economic growth. For example, online payments. I await the day I can make an online purchase, watch NetFlix, enjoy Hulu, listen to Pandora or open a merchant account in Ghana to start my own eCommerce business. For now, its simply not possible. Why? because this is Africa and the rest of the world has sent an auto response has been 'your country is unsupported.'  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Treat others as they treat you.

Note: this is delayed might call delayed reaction ;) 

Per normal when blogging, I am sitting on a plane. But this flight is different. I did not buy a ticket or have any plans of being on it. Even better, I am not sure exactly where it is going or when it will get there. For the first time ever, I have been deported. 

Earlier this evening, I arrived in Cameroon set to spend the next few days with some of the largest ISPs (Internet Service Providers), tech hubs and mobile operators. But, it looks like after all, I won't be. Why, you ask? Due to the principle of treat others as they treat you

I arrived in Cameroon without a visa but with multiple letters supporting my visit and lots of official documentation. The embassy website says if there is no consulate in your country of residence, you can get a visa on arrival. Cameroon has no presence in Ghana. 

To be honest, I am still wondering what happened. I got off the plane, rapidly completed my entry card and headed for to immigration desk, was told to stand aside and then met with a heckle of aggressive female immigration officers. They denied my documents, my kindness, attempts at persuasion, multiple calls to high officials, sly offers of payment and them and finally a few tears. Nothing could change their minds because as they put it, in my country, without a visa, they could not even look out of the window of the plane. This was reciprocity - they were treating me as the US treated them. 

Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about it. I strongly agree with the biblical principle to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But this requires and 'you and me' in the situation rather than an 'us and them.' To these women, I was a them. Despite my attempts at becoming human rather than a object of punishment, I could not. I could not appeal to any commonality or humanity. 

Perhaps she was once deported or has a son in the US who can not come home to visit as he is there illegally.  I could not deny her claims, if she was missing even the slightest document or stamp, she would be denied access to my country.  

We have lots of information and people to process everyday. We naturally stereotype and categorize them to make life easier, and to give ourselves an auto-treat- response to others. I was categorized and treated according as I was not able to break out of the 'us and them' for her.

But there is a bright side. Once back on the same plane I arrived in, the flight attendance felt compassion for a 'me' and were incredibly kind. The end result,  flight went to Point Noir. Not sure where that is. I was not either. I rang the call bell to was the Congo. you can bet I had no visa there either.  

Luckily, the plane was sleeping in Togo and the crew let me stay on.  Once on ground around 11 PM, the Senegalese cabin crew, helped me get a visa, drove me to a small hotel, had the airlines pay for it and my breakfast and then arranged to have a driver bring me back today for a flight to Ghana. They did not have to. I could have slept in the airport but luckily for me, they saw a single tired person, not a them worth attacking while weak. They treated me as they hope to be treated. 

Sum of story, I was deported to the Congo.  30 hours = Ghana - Togo - Benin - Cameroon - Congo - Togo - Ghana

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Little lives, Small world.

'" I'll see you again." Its a phrase I use almost daily. I almost never say good bye, not because I am fearful of saying it but more because chances are, I really will see them again, no matter if I am in Uganda, Zurich, Lagos or Prague. The world is a huge place but people make it feel small. We are always moving, bumping into each other and making connections. The more people you meet, the more connections you create, the tighter, and thus smaller feeling your web gets. 

I have had so many small world moments. From a business meeting at a bank in Accra that led to discovering this guy was my Facebook friend, introduced by a mutual friend who knew I was moving to Ghana.  To the new friend from Botswana occupying the office is next door who was in the same a Harvard class as my former roommate in San Fran (yeah Nicole!). Not only that, they were super good friends. We called Nicole together and she about had a heart attack. In Nigeria, the minister at the church a few months prior went on the same tour as my parents in Israel and knew them well. And in Israel, I spent two days touring with Kurt Hoyer, who once lived in Kenya. He climbed Kilimanjaro with a friend of mine in Dubai and at his home, he served me Kenya tea given to him by my favorite people in Nairobi.  My favorite is when my driver in Senegal was transfered to private security in Ghana. After months of not being in contact, I was about to miss my flight to Liberia and literally bumped into him in the Accra airport. He was able to hold the plane, walked me to my gate, and gave me a hug - 'See you soon.'

All these experiences (and many many more), have made me believe that we see the world not by topography or geography but through people, through interactions, through relationships. We, or at least I, get meaning out of my environment from those who are in it, those who I share it with.  

Many people have asked me if my current lifestyle is lonely. Understandable question. I am on 1-2 flights a week. But my answer is always 'no.' And I mean it. Yes, I miss my family, road trips with my best friends, long chats with my siblings and of course a traditional Thanksgiving! But in all my travels, I have created connections and built small lives all over the globe. I have a local number for every country, core friends who get texts when I land, a favorite local beer, a familiar run and Googlers who are always happy to see me.  

Last night I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for around 30 people, only 3 of them Americans. There were people from over 8 countries many of whom I met for the first time as they walked into my house, others met through random encounters. But needless to say, we were all connected, at least for the a love for food. It was an amazing night due of  the relationships created, making the web a little tighter.  Its these relationships formed that make Ghana and my $60 turkey feel not far from home.

Mom, I'll see you soon! 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The journey with company.

Talk about behind, I am 9 countries and a million small adventures away from my last post  - from 4x4'ing around the bush of Mozambique on trails they call roads, taking in the serenity of Cape Town, taking the plunge of the world's highest bungee, relaxing on a beach watching whales, and exploring the vibrancy of the mega-city Lagos, Nigeria and hitting the streets of Prague. Much of the above all, experiencing it much of it with lifetime friends. 

Over the past few weeks, I have learned more intimately what I have sacrificed and gained by leaving the US for a nomadic life. Having people around who have known you for longer than a few months or a few days is kinda nice. 

The memories I made with the "american crew" (as the ZA'rs named us) them will be shared in decades to come over a nice glass South African wine, reminding us of our travels. Insted, my norm is a random Nigerian immigration officer who takes my phone number off my entry card and call saying 'I miss you." Miss me how? (True story!) Its not really all that bad. There is a warmth in the hospitality and kindness of Africa and to Googlers. I have met some incredible people consider my colleagues more like family than workmates but you still miss the mean and constructive comments only a best friend can deliver with love. 

South Africa and Mozambique was a reminder of the value of relationships and the growth that only comes with iron sharpening iron. Even better, it was all the the back drop of the beauty of Africa's coast line - bonfire perfection!

After leaving the rainbow nation, I headed for the first time to Nigeria or as they say 'Naija.'  Arriving in Lagos by night fall, gives you an eery feeling.  The city of 22 million (same as entire population of Ghana), is sitting in near darkness with only the flicker with small lights until arriving the high-class district of Victoria Island. With no electric grid, generators hum.

Despite the lack of infrastructure, people are busy about their lives with no excuses.  They are hardworking and persistent people who rise around 4 AM and hit the streets working to make a buck and survive in this dog-eat-dog economy.  They are optimistic about the future and believe strongly in the power of education to change their lives. They are savvy businessmen, quick to pick things up and are proudly Nigerians. Unlike much of the rest of Africa, in Nigeria, you don't feel the influence of the past colonialists rule. Rather, Nigerians are unapologetically their own. From music to fashion, mastery of hacking, to the drop dead spicy food - they do it their way. 

While in Nigeria, I met with some interesting start ups, met with a bunch of techies and then headed off the island for the weekend to spend the weekend with a family from church - the famous Akinbo's. There are no words adequate to describe their  unmatched warmth and dedication.  Their chatty and bouncing children entertained. Dare and I explored new technologies and ideas for his business and his wife, sisters and I share great convo and attempted to reeducate me on cooking.  I have happily been back to Nigeria and their place since. The Akinbo's will always be another home for me in Africa, friends for a life time.

From Nigeria, I returned to Ghana after almost 4 months of being absent. It was more than nice to come land in this familiar place. Still missing my American Crew, my Nigerian family, but excited to return to what will always be my first home in Africa - Ghana.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burst your bubble and go for it.

The last two weeks I spent putting on two sizable Google tech events in Uganda and Kenya. I met and reconnected with hundreds of techies from computer science students to millionaire entrepreneurs. The present and future success of tech in East Africa filled each room. Every day ended with a panel of both young and seasoned start ups serving as the vision, experience and advisors to an audience aspiring to follow their footsteps. 

These panel discussions got me thinking. What is the difference between those who actually take the leap verse those who only aspire or perhaps don't even dare to aspire. Although not a comprehensive list, I have a few ideas.
Panel for developers and entrepreneurs

First, we can't choose the family we are born into. At birth, there is no difference between those on the stage and those in the seats. 

Family also largely determines the second - capacity for  risk. Not everyone has even has the chance to consider risk. In Africa for example, making it to university requires typically requires enormous sacrifice from families. Not just the cost of the tuition of uni but also the previous years as secondary school costs parents out of pocket as well. If you are luckily enough to make it through college, your family expects you to start repaying and supporting them and your other siblings. Get a job at a bank or with the government  and never turn back. Put your head down, work hard and ignore any inclination of stepping out of the norm. Don't think about the other possibilities. You literally can't afford it. 

Risks is innately tied with fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting others down, and fear there is nothing to catch you if you fall. There is a very limited safety net, if one at all for the typical African. Families are strong, committed to one another but have very limited resources. You, as an educated student are their safety net, their insurance. 

This brings me back to those panelists and my own story. Most of the panelists came from at least middle income families. They had a bit of a cushion and an appetite for risk they chose to feed. Likely contrary to the advice of their families and friends, they went for it. They were well educated, well spoken and perhaps most importantly, well traveled. 

Making goodies with friends in Kenya
Why do I say traveled? Well, a friend of mine and I observed that whether you live in Africa, the US, Asia or the UK, we all grow up in a bubble. That bubble is meant to be secure and reassuring that if you follow the foot steps of those around you, you will have at least as good a life as them. Its not innately a bad thing. But the downside of this bubble is that is also limits the scope of your horizons. What you believe is possible for yourself is significantly determined the radius of that sphere and what is encompasses. In Africa, that results in lots of farmers, bankers, security workers, and government employees - this is actually the same in the US.

For myself, growing up in a small towns in a high school where my career counselor got her degree online, most of my male friends went to drink themselves ill in the military, and about 5 percent of my graduating class went to university, the stats would say, I would end up the same. What changed for me? First, I was blessed, born into the right family. Unlike many in my town and in Africa, my parents and sister pushed me think bigger, to see and change the world. How did they know about the possibilities out there? Travel. How did I learn? Travel. Interacting with people who had done it, seeing a path outside my bubble. 

Young, naive traveler. I am still her :)

When I was 19, I met the first person I ever knew to go to Harvard, Doug.  I was amazed to know and be friends with a real life Harvard grad. For him, it seemed the option to do anything was right at his finger tips. He told me of his adventures in Russia, Asia, Latin America. I wanted to know how he got the there. He just did it. For the last five years, he has pushed me and had no doubt I can do the same despite my own disbelief. Likewise, my sister pushed herself and in turn me, to fear but do it anyways. I now think that almost anything is possible. Not just for me but for anyone. I have now come to realize, that this mind set is a bit of a self fulfilling prophesy. For those who think, nothing is possible, it isn't. Its a mental block and perhaps a form of myopathy. Sadly, in Africa, this mental block is heavy and bubble narrow. 

So, why do some people end up on the high road to Harvard, or in investment banking or doctors? For most, unlike here, that option lived inside their bubble. Why do many people spend their life in a job they hate? That option was also readily available, a default in their surroundings.  Why do entrepreneurs rise from what appears to be poverty? Why I live in Africa? We were challenged and inspired to venture outside, and take a risk. My fist move to out of country to Nicaragua, I was scared and cried almost the whole way on the plane. Its not a lack of fear, its just getting on the plane anyways. 

My first home in Nicaragua. Good reason to cry. 
I am the first to admit that the option to take that first step, its not all or even mostly self determination. I have a great family, strong faith, and have had ample blessings along the way. But when given the option to jump, I fortunately was pushed to swallowed my fear and take a running start. Today, I am now blessed to be living a life beyond my wildest expectations. 

If you choose to take the leap, its not assured you won't fail, but is assured that if you make it out of your bubble, the potential on the other side will open a whole world of possibilities. Go for it!