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.'