Where I Am Small

Always watching, the sun encourages a lioness and her cubs to rise. Today on the Savannah will be the same as yesterday and it will be the same as tomorrow. The land will rest, and then it will hunger and thirst. After it will sleep. But unpredictably, a silent drama unfolds and I succumb to its earthy magic.

A day and a lifetime mutually reinforce each other. The rhythm of the morning blends into noon only to stretch into the horizon of life’s final setting sun.

Gently, the Maasai Mara reminds us of our place in the world. Liberty imbues its vast sky and inhabits the grassy plains. This is a kingdom where freedom is at peace. It is a place where I am small.

The wind stirs the dust until it dissolves into my breath only to be momentarily stolen away by a nearby lioness nursing her cubs as she basks in the sun. This is the pride; wherein lay affection, security and the mighty roar of protection.

The lioness is strong. Her life is one of family. She suckles all young, sharing with her sisters in the nurturing of their growth. Together they hunt. Together they eat. Jointly, she enables her lion’s dominance enabling his purr and calling out his roar. Alone, she is small.

A patchy network of shrubbery is disaggregated across the expanse of land that lays bare its soul. From within this humble palace, the pride dominates its kingdom.

The golden hue of the lion’s mane lingers in the sun betraying the majesty of his supremacy, his athletic physique and his pride’s collective rule. The power and visual glory of these mighty creatures only serves to substantiate their commitment to joint support but where each one knows their place.

Each cub greets the others with a loving nuzzle. One affectionate encounter after another nurtures their bond, their love and their pride. Each lioness welcomes her sister’s cubs as her own.

Life is played out for all to see. There is a marked absence of uncertainty as to whom is deserving of respect. The lion’s strength commands deference. The lioness hunts. She is fierce and the weak fall prey to her and her sisters’ determinate strategy and certainty. She feeds first, opening the sinewy carcass for her cubs.

We have watched her for so long. She does not teach us anything new. Only, she reminds us of what we already know and reminds us as to what of necessity must be.

A pride, jointly working together across patchy shrubs of green to raise its young, to greet each other with affection, to share and to respect each others’ strength.

Where I am small, is alone.

Where I am strong, is together.

As a family, we are the pride of the earth. Let us behave as such and may liberty reign supreme across our lands

Sex for Fish

Last month I wrote an article on why ApplePay Isn’t the Be-All and End-All. In essence the articled discussed one of my favourite topics, namely, how mobile payments service providers can provide a compelling value proposition to their consumers and merchants, simultaneously creating incremental value.

In the article, I briefly touched on M-Pesa, the most successful mobile payment scheme on earth. M-Pesa has intrigued me for a while. It stands tall as an innovative example of mobile phone based money transfer and micro financing service that allows users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money easily with a mobile device.

I’ve favorably referenced M-Pesa countless times in workshops, lectures, articles and conversation. And now I’m here. I’m in Kenya, M-Pesa’s birthplace – the ‘Sillicon Savannah’, where it is easier to pay for a taxi in Nairobi with your phone than it is in New York City – or even Silicon Valley for that matter.

Originally, M-Pesa was designed to allow microfinance-loan repayments to be made by phone, reducing the costs and risks associated with handling cash and thus making possible lower interest rates. However, after pilot testing, it was broadened to become the general money-transfer scheme that it is today. M-Pesa’s role is access. It is no more or less than a for-profit transactional and store of value platform. I love this about M-Pesa, but Africa needs more. Africa needs to prioritize people over profits.

Nowhere is this need more evident than on the small Kenyan fishing islands in Lake Victoria. In this deeply poor region the artisanal fishermen use sex as currency, not money. Their catch has been a deadly one. It has contributed to the region’s Aids crisis, leaving the area with the highest prevalence of HIV in the East African Community.

The women living here feel that they are forced to pay for the fish with sex because they have no other means. Here, the men man the boats, and when they come in with their catch, the women compete to buy it. The women offer sex to the fishermen for a better chance of getting fish. Without sex, there is no guarantee that these women will get any fish. Competition is fierce. After the fish procurement, the women must take it to market while it is still fresh. Competition for space on the roof of the bus can also be just as intense as getting hold of the fish in the first place. Sometimes the women have to have sex with the driver, just to ensure the fish actually gets to market. And then there is the market, meaning that some of the women are having relationships with all constituents of the system: fisherman, bus driver and market vendor. Clearly, intervention is required.

The women traditionally kept their money at home. Theft was a constant concern, and for many, traditional banks were either too far away, or demanded minimum deposits the villagers could not afford.

Mobile money and mobile banking platforms effectively address these challenges but not the underlying problem. Mobile money is a fast-growing industry across many parts of the developing and developed world. But can it really transform the lives of those living on just a few dollars a day?

Last night I discussed this issue over dinner in Nairobi with Brian Branch, President and CEO of the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and Daniel Burns, 2nd Vicechair of WOCCU’s board of directors. Together they explained how Credit Unions are approaching these types of systemic problems.

Firstly, they pointed out that Credit Union’s aim to improve the economic and social well being of all members. While they are profit-driven and profit maximizing financial institutions, their primary goal is human development and humanity expressed through people working together to achieve a better life for themselves and their community.

Contrary to all other financial banking institutions, credit unions distribute their surplus funds to their members. They encourage savings and provide loans and other services. They seek to bring about human and social development. Their vision of social justice extends both to the individual members and to the larger community in which they work and reside. Their decisions are taken with full regard for the interest of the broader community within which the credit union and its members reside.

So when Mr. Branch and Mr. Burns told me what they were planning to do in partnership with USAID and the newly launched eKenya Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) for the island communities of fisher folk in HomaBay, I got really excited. Not only do they plan to establish a SACCO for the community, but they will also provide agricultural business development services to increase the economic capacity of vulnerable households through providing access to agricultural loans or grants and training in labor-saving and conservation technologies.

This is a real-life example of a financial institution prioritizing people, as Mr. Branch explains it, “people over profits”. This message really resonates with me.

This is one of the best examples that I know about which will use financial institutions to empower women economically, socially and will be the key to ending the dangerous fish for sex trade.

Lets take a word of advice from Mr. Branch and Mr. Burns and start thinking…

“People over Profits”.

Beware The Black Mamba

Health and Safety in Sub-Saharan Africa is a bit of a conundrum. With some irony, I must state that reliance on governmental regulations and standards only serves to underwhelm in an overwhelming way.

Looking through North American eyes, one’s own standard of care must remain high at all times. Individuals bear full responsibility for their own safety. However, for locals, there is no need to rethink the usual format. Caution only serves to interrupt life as usual. This enables much freedom, which is actually quite liberating, even if occasionally dangerous.

There is one thing however, that the African’s don’t mess around with and that thing is a snake.

On one occasion, Rita discerned the English word ‘diesel’ in the mix of Bemba conversation that accompanied our friends increasing distance from a nearby cactus tree. Their fear was abundantly clear but our friends were hesitant to enlighten us as to the nature of their conversation. Assisted by Rita’s unceasing insistence, they reluctantly informed us about a very large cobra inhabiting the tree. Sheepishly, they admitted that prior to our visit they had spread diesel around the tree, so as to scare Mr. Cobra away and ensure our collective safety.

The diesel must have worked because we didn’t spot Mr. Cobra that day. Other than absence, the only evidence of the snake’s departure was a large branch that it snapped on its way out. Both Rita and I were quite disappointed and perhaps a little naïve to the danger of the snake because both of us really wanted to see it. Thankfully, it was not long thereafter that my snake wish did come true and I’m alive to tell the tale.

Both at Mvuu camp and for any guided walks in a National Park, one must be accompanied by a safari field guide as well a guard armed with an Ak47. The guides are always interpreting the environment and the guard is always anticipating the unexpected.

The guides are a fountain of knowledge and keen observers even when off-duty. This was the case the other morning when Samuel, the manager of the lodge, noticed that a squirrel was acting out of character. The squirrel was making all kinds of noisy chatter in the green leafy bush above his head so Samuel paid attention. Fantastically, the squirrel deliberately pointed its nose, and Samuel, toward a very large Black Mamba snake sharing its tree.

Unaware of this commotion, I happily strolled along toward lunching hour, nearing the intersection of Samuel, snake and squirrel. Samuel heard the footsteps of my innocent bliss approaching and immediately ordered me to freeze in my tracks, be very quiet and squat down.

This fearsome serpent is by far the most feared and most dangerous snake species in Africa and I was not far from sharing its time and space. Before the advent of Black Mamba antivenin, its bite was 100 percent fatal, usually within about 20 minutes. There it was, directly above my head – all 6 feet of it.

At first I couldn’t see it – its belly looked like a tree branch and it was a grey colour. The squirrel was still upset and making an enormous racquet. I stayed still and quiet for a very long time but I wanted a better look. I inched closer, straining to see the snake and then I saw it.

It quickly disappeared and moved into another tree. Then it extended its head and about one third of its body straight like a meter stick to catch the next tree beyond. It moved very fast and I lost it after that.

Once the snake was out of sight, I was free to finish the few last steps of my journey to lunch. We proceeded with great caution. And what should be waiting to greet me in the middle of the dining area? Nothing other than a rat.

I’m alive and so is the squirrel. The rat isn’t.

Beware the Black Mamba my friends!

A Bit Longer

I was supposed to go home but I stayed.

Africa’s warm heart calls my own heart and business calls in Nairobi. I’m staying until the end of the month.

There is much to write about and so much to say. I’m looking forward to writing more about my work here over the past two weeks, about the people of Malawi and Zambia. I’m looking forward to telling you all about the strongest women I’ve ever met and their boundless joy in the face of great adversity. There is much to share about the governance of the villages, about their way of life in a world of chaos.

Orphan’s stories must be to told. Child-headed households need to be unveiled. Gender based violence is threatening. The sick are suffering. The widows face hardship. People are starving and hungry for food, education and opportunity. There are stories of transformation but so many more in need of it.

In the midst of all of this there is freedom in spirit, in song and dance, which gives Africa a symphonic harmony that reflects nature’s circle of life.

There is too much to do here. So much curiosity to be satisfied. I want to learn, to explore, to adventure. I want to adore the majesty of life here.

And so, I’m staying a bit longer…

Melin’s Mango Tree

Yesterday a tree snatched the roof rack on our truck and held so tightly that we dismembered it. The thumping and trashing and snapping of the tree couldn’t match our 4×4’s horsepower. The branch held strong and fast until it could only cling with dying strength as its life peeled away with each forward inch we drove.

Three men were required to detach the branch from our truck and give it a proper burial.

One of my favorite parts of the African landscape is the tree. I simply love the trees and yesterday in the village of Mandala, I planted a little baby mango tree with a young boy named Melin.

Like the mountains and the sea, trees are stronger than we are. They stand when we fall and endure when we pass away. But trees are also givers. They give beauty and shade and fruit. They also willingly give their lives for lumber with each cutting blow of the axe.

Unfortunately, all to many trees in Malawi have given in this way. Malawi’s population is greater than that of Zambia, Namibia and Botswana combined and it is smaller than any one of those countries. In fact, Malawi has one of the highest population densities in Africa and it is continuing to grow.

This density has demanded much from the environment. The vast majority of people in Malawi live without electricity and hence, they use wood as a fuel source. It is estimated that an unsustainable 30% of Malawi’s forests have disappeared over the last 10 years alone (50,000 hectares are being cleared each year, mostly for fuel).

A local NGO here is doing their best to change this. They are planting 100 mango and orange trees in each of the communities that they support. Yesterday, I got to join in the fun. The whole village of Mandala participated in the planting from the chiefs to the children.

The event was about transforming mindsets. Living in the shadow of death and dying, this is a welcome effort.

Each child in the village was assigned to plant a tree and adopt it thereafter. This teaches them to appreciate their environment and to invest in it and understand the value of the tree. The trees we planted were tiny baby seedlings and will need a lot of tending to. By giving the children the responsibility for the tree, it becomes part of them. The tree is used as a way for them to understand their own growth. It helps them to see a world different from what their parents saw. They will grow up with trees around them and observe the changing culture and environment. And isn’t this the important part? All animals can take and eat the fruit. But as humankind, we can adore and before we take, and adore we must. Taking is not the only way. Giving is built into the universe. As humankind, we must first give adoration and then take.

Transformation doesn’t happen overnight. First you need to plant the seed. Then you have to nurture it and once its germinated, help it grow.

A young seedling is like this. A caretaker must be assigned to protect it; else the animals may devour it. A caretaker must water it; else it will dry up and die. The tree must be pruned; else it may fruit too early and become weak. Then it needs to grow its own strength, and this takes time.

Melin is the caretaker of my little baby mango tree. Together they will grow. Together they will face danger and thirst for water. They will need some pruning and time to build strength.

I trust that at the appointed time, both will bear fruit and live an abundant life.

My prayer for Melin is for him to give to his tree before he takes. It is my hope that he will first give of his adoration and only afterwards taste the sweetness of its gift.

All That and a Bag of Chips

This is a slightly edited translation of “The Elephant and the Ant” as told by Chief Mandala*

Mandala, Malawi

For Ms. Dallner’s Grade One Class and also for Beatrice, Samuel, Hannah and Jack.

One of the stories that my parents used to tell us when we were little girls was about Pride.

There was a time that an Elephant was on a journey travelling. Along his way, he met an ant. Together they journeyed and they were on their way going to a certain village. As they were going, they found that ahead of them there was a bridge. The bridge was made of wood and of some strings and poles and it looked very weak.

The elephant was a bit scared and said ‘how am I going to cross the bridge, it looks so shaky and I’m a heavy thing’ but he gave himself some encouragement and then he started crossing. As he was crossing, the bridge started shaking and the ant was afraid and he asked Mr. Elephant, ‘can I climb on your back because you are a big guy and that way I’ll be safe with you’.

The elephant was like ‘oh ya, come’. So they went along and the ant climbed up on the back of the elephant. They crossed going to the other side of the bridge. When they got to the other side of the bridge, the ant jumped from the elephant’s back and said to the people in the village ‘did you see how we shook that bridge’? The ant started bragging, ‘look guys, I am the giant. I am the man! I shook that bridge. It was shaking, it was about to drop’!

The elephant got so furious because he knew that it was all because of him and then here is an ant that was trying to be all that and a bag of chips.* The elephant was so fed up that he stamped on the ant and the ant died on the spot.

The elephant was trying to show the people that even though the ant thought he was so amazing, he really wasn’t. It was the Elephant who was the big guy and shook the bridge.

When I was growing up as a child, this story taught me to remember to be in oneness with other people and also to cherish kindness and gestures of other friends.

Always be thankful for what other people have done for you because if you are not going to be thankful with other people’s things or gestures or kindness then next time they will never lend a hand again when you are in trouble.

 ***

* Chief’s are the top leaders in their villages.

**All that, and a bag of chips’ was a phrase popular in the early 1990s meaning ‘all that and more’ or ‘something cool’.

On to Malawi

Our journey from Zambia to Malawi didn’t begin well. Rita and I made such wonderful friends at the Luangwa Safari Lodge and we were sad to say goodbye. I keep telling myself that goodbye was only until next time; else I think I may have stayed, but Malawi was calling us. We had a plane to catch and had to go.

Our first turn onto the highway back to airport in Lusaka should have been right, but we turned left. Realizing the mistake, Rita quickly corrected course but this should have been our first warning sign of things to come.

A roadblock welcomed us to Lusaka, Traffic was at a standstill. There were no viable alternatives and so we decided to navigate an ‘off-road’ detour. We simply didn’t have time to waste parked in the middle of the highway.

Our detour took us on an interesting journey through the heart of a graveyard and into the middle of a funeral before we found ourselves face to face with a mini-bus in the middle of a mud-puddle.

The mini-bus is an ugly scavenger in the heard of motorcars. It scours the road looking for prey, powered by a primal insatiable hunger. One is best advised to avoid this beast at all costs. It loves to bite.

Then it happened. All of a sudden and all at once, we were eye to eye with the creature. As the mini-bus flew into the mud-puddle, it assaulted us with a splash of dirt before gnawing our passenger door with its vicious teeth. The door sustained deep scrapes and painful bruises. The mini-bus beast also suffered some scrapes and bruises before quickly scampering into the bush with its taillight hanging between its legs.

Although a little dazed, we made our way out of the mud and continued on to the airport with time to spare. We checked our luggage, passed through security and boarded our plane.

Happily finding our seats, we breathed a sigh of relief. We were safely on our way to Malawi, but our plane wasn’t.

Our plane was on its way to Ethiopia. Our luggage was on its way to Malawi and there we were caught in the crossfire. Thankfully, the plane had not yet engaged its engines and we were escorted to disembark very quickly.

All sorts of logistical instructions ensued. Stand here. Stand there. Go here. Walk there. Another escort was required before boarding our Malawian plane. All of this commotion earned us a picture with the Captain, much joking and a visit to the cockpit. Thankfully, it also got us to Malawi on time.

Biking in the Sky

Innovation is a way of life in Zambia. High rates of poverty, malnutrition, and food insecurity plague the population and hence, people simply use what they have to solve their problems.

There are so many examples of innovation. I’ve seen solar panels held together with clothes pins, I’ve seen water faucets made out of plastic pop bottlenecks. I’ve seen car tires, plastic bags, old scraps of fabric, screws, nails, glass, sticks and wire all used in ingenious ways and all out of necessity. The bicycle pump is no exception.

This bicycle pump resides in a demonstration garden. The garden serves as an example to local farmers and educates them about how to farm their small plots of land to achieve maximum yields in a healthy way.

There is a fish pond in the garden where fish are raised. Above the pond there is a chicken coop built on stilts. In the coop there is a slotted bamboo floor, which allows the chicken droppings to fall into the fish pond below and fertilize the algae, which the fish feed on. Lovely plants oxygenate the water and the fish grow to serve as a food source. Water from the pond irrigates the garden. However, the fish pond is too small to irrigate the entire garden and another water source must be found. In the dry season, water must also be stored.

Filling a reservoir tank with water for use in irrigation is difficult without electricity. The water must be pumped from the ground below into a holding tank high above the garden. Like many things in Zambia, this becomes a very labour intensive process. However, the bicycle pump provides a solution.

Operating the bicycle pump is a precarious. One sits on an old wobbling bicycle seat unsupported by anything else and starts pedaling. You must find balance and you must use your core to hold that balance. Otherwise, you will find yourself toppling down to the hard ground below.

I’ve talked a lot about finding purpose and looking up. I talked about building strength and growing more human. In all of this we must not loose our balance. Else, we’ll find ourselves incapacitated on the ground below.

Fill your tank. Use that core, hold your balance and keep pedaling.

Step by Step

Strength may be gained in only one way – through work. Sometimes we forget this principle. The key is to start wherever you are and take one step at a time, but one must bear increasing resistance for gains to be made. That is how life is for both the people here in Africa and in my crossfit gym at home.

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of climbing a cellular communications tower. My friend Chris made this happen for me.

Our journey began by driving beyond the outskirts of Kabwe and into the bush. Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we started our ascent to the top in order to reach the base of the tower.

We huffed and puffed our way up the mountain steps until a beautiful vista came into focus. But that vista wasn’t the entire view. Although we had just climbed a mountain, that wasn’t the end goal.

Reaching the top of the mountain only allowed me to catch my breath to see how far we’d come. We built strength. But had we stopped there, I would have missed out on the whole point of it all – climbing the tower.

As we caught our breath, Chris granted me access to a one-in-a-lifetime behind the scenes look inside the building hosting the tower’s telecommunications hub. He explained and demonstrated the innermost workings of the hub and tower. He showed me the backbone of the network and the repeater towers and explained their strategic positioning in relation to each other. He taught me about the transmission signals. He explained how the physical infrastructure enables the transmission of a call from Zambia all the way to Canada instantaneously.

After marvelling at the plumbing of the miracle that is telecommunications, we started the ascent up the actual tower to get up close and personal with the dishes affixed to the tower.

We were not wearing harnesses and so Chris, being the gentleman he is, made me go first, so as to catch me if I fell. I started but not far behind me, he could sense the hesitation in my shaky steps. I watched my fists above my head slowly grasp the ladder rung by rung until I reached the mesh wire platform. I felt some uncertainty –but I trusted Chris.

Once I stepped on the platform, I couldn’t look up. I started looking down. I looked at my feet and saw right through to the base of the mountain very far below. I felt a little weasy. There I was – I’d reached the pinnacle and I was only looking down again. All the while, there was an incredible vista and sunset just waiting for my eyes to behold it.

I very quickly became uncomfortable looking down. So, I decided to look up again. Once I did, there before me lay paradise – a bird’s eye view of Zambia’s throbbing heart of wonders.

This was the goal. This was the objective. To stand in humble adoration of the beauty of creation as the sun cast its golden glow upon the horizon to baptize the landscape in light – to squint in the setting sun and watch her kiss the beloved earth goodnight.

Having the confidence to look up takes courage. It takes trust. But, ah, to reach the top of the tower just before your sunset, that is the goal.

Such a goal takes strength only gained one steep step at a time. Start where you are, look up and take the next step. Then take another.

Keep going. There is a sun aching to show a strong you its sky full of colour.

This is Africa

I ate gasoline. I drove an excavator.

You may ask why and my answer would be “This is Africa”.

“TIA” is the acronym that explains the unexplainable. It proves all your assumptions wrong and surprises you time and time again. I am having so many of these moments and I would like to share one of them with you now.

Today was a big day; our friend Jeff found a great deposit of manganese in the mine. The mine, like the bush, is off-road. However, it is much closer than all the villages we’ve visited.

In days gone by, the mine was active. That is, until the Zambians made some quick money and then quickly abandoned it to live like kings. There remains promise in this mine and Jeff is excavating it further and pumping the water away in order for the owners to realize on this potential. Since January, Jeff has been digging and today he found what he was looking for.

We don’t always find what we’re looking for when we want. Nor do we find it how we think we’ll find it, or where. Sometimes what we’re looking for needs to be uncovered and discovered.

First we may need to remove the dirt to uncover the rock. When we find the one rock we’re looking for, then we’ve got to discover that particular enriched vein in the earth that will lead us to the promised land of prosperity. But first the dirt must be removed.

Today I removed the dirt.

There was a lot of dirt and so I used a track excavator. A track excavator is a big machine. It takes some learning to operate such heavy equipment. Under one’s control, it grows your arm and strengthens it. Although it is not a part of your body, it becomes an extension of your flesh and bones. It gives you great power.

Sometimes we find our selves in deep murky pits only to find muddy sediment and grime. We might look for months, even years trekking through it. But my friends, don’t trek through the dirt – remove it.

What you’re looking for lies right beneath your feet, just dig a little deeper.

And yes, I ate gasoline, which I do not recommend. But that is another story for another day.

This is Africa.