Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On Capitalism. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda.

I was all worked up - and continue to be - about the difficult situation of the boys in the warehouse, the low wages, the insane hours accepted without protest...

Life in upper management is easy. *My* life is easy...

I attended a series of meetings with Hugh Marlboro this afternoon that really got me thinking. He has two big projects in mind - one is an expansion of the Banana Empire's current operations; the other is a new venture altogether, but has the potential to create many jobs and generate significant revenues for the Province of Maptuo, as well as, obviously, for Hugh Marlboro himself.

I come out of meetings such as these invigorated, excited about the possibilities of entrepreneurism, motivated by the transformation potential on a national level of these types of projects. Then I go back to work, look at the reality of my warehouse friends, and become more of a realist.

I think the Banana Empire - along with most profit-oriented businesses (certainly those in the developing world, but I think in general) - could stand to provide better wages and more benefits (who am I kidding...ANY benefits!) to their front-line workers.

However, I clearly see the other side to this coin.

Hugh Marlboro is the largest employer of women in Mozambique outside the Government. Think about this for a minute. It is a pretty incredible statistic. He employs nearly 1,000 workers in rural areas of the country where there are painfully little job opportunities and the population has significant aid-dependence.

Thus comes the age-old development quandary: is it better to provide employment, any employment, even if it means measly wages, long hours and no benefits? Is this better than the alternatives of joblessness and destitute existance, and total dependence on foreign aid or the State (oh, wait, they are also dependent on foreign aid!) for subsistence??

I flip-flop in my evaluation of this argument on perhaps a monthly basis. Sometimes I see the clear benefits of Capitalism with a capital 'C'. How else can you ensure real accountability and efficiency in service provision? How else can you create a market that will be self-sustainable and not clogged with subsidized, unfeasible entities? On the other hand, there are the clear social downsides to this model...


La Despedida

Yesterday morning, Ahmed came into my office and announced, "Estou a bazar," slang for "I am outta here."

I asked where he was going, thinking perhaps he was making a run to Shoprite for some lunch curries, or maybe to Maputo to run some errands for the day. From the way he looked at me, however, I knew it was more serious.

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"Estou a bazar," he said again. "I won't be seeing you anymore at work."

My heart froze. What did he mean he was leaving work? Hadn't I just reassured the boys the other day that their jobs were safe, that despite these times of transition, they would still be around at the Banana Empire?

"Como assim?" I insisted on more details.

"Mr. Luigi put me to work on the night shift, starting today. I'm going to be supervising the banana operations from now on."

"What about Paulo and Raimundo?"

"They're staying on the day shift to sell the eggs in the warehouse."

Ahmed and I looked at each other over my desk, each of us suddenly without words as the news sunk in that our fabulous team of four was being broken up. He held out his hand, asking for mine, and gave me a reassuring squeeze.

"I'm really sad that you're leaving," I said, unexpected tears welling up in my eyes.

"Não chora," he said. Don't cry. "Life goes on."

And with that, Ahmed turned and left my office, leaving me staring at a blank computer screen.

Obviously I am very relieved that Ahmed still has a job, no matter what the hours are. I am glad that all the boys managed to retain their jobs. But selfishly, I am incredibly sad that Ahmed will no longer be working with us during the day.

After he left my office, we texted each other, trying to figure out when our schedules would cross and we could all get together to hang out and have a beer. There is only one possible time - Saturday afternoon - and I silently vowed to do whatever it takes to make sure we meet at least once a month outside work.

I went downstairs towards the end of the day and sat a bit with Paulo and Raimundo. We all agreed that work simply isn't the same without Ahmed, without his incessant shouting for the workers to load the trucks faster, MAIS RRRRRRRÁPIDO, without his jokes and gifts and stupid cell phone ring that blares out Brazilian funk every time someone calls. The three of us will certainly continue with our lunchtime rituals and camraderie in the workplace, but without Ahmed it's incomplete.

Yesterday evening, while cooking carne adovada, I spoke to Ahmed on the phone as he was on his way to work. I asked if he'd sorted out his working hours and salary. He said mais ou menos, that he still needed to get exact figures. I am always urging the boys to be assertive when it comes to things like unpaid overtime, working on holidays without extra pay, no benefits. If they don't say anything, the powers that be here at the Empire will gladly move forward without giving the workers fair compensation. Not that they are running an exploitative business here, it's just that it's all too easy to give someone the short end of the stick if it means you get a higher profit and have less of a headache in the process.

Last week, for a few days, all of my warehouse friends worked double shifts, from 7am to 11pm, without a break inbetween. I asked if they'd sorted out their extra pay for these insane work hours, and they said Mr. Luigi their supervisor was beating around the bush and avoiding a detailed discussion. The boys worked anyway. I later found out what they'd been paid for the additional shift, an amount negotiated after the work had already been performed: EIGHT DOLLARS. Eight fucking dollars!

This makes me upset on so many levels. Disappointed that management is willing to pay so little to 3 guys who are definitely a rarity in terms of work ethic. Sad that the boys didn't push for fair compensation for their hard work, be it because they themselves don't recognize the value of their work, or because they don't feel comfortable talking to the big boss. Upset that the quest for the biggest profit possible at the end of the year makes these types of decisions commonplace.

Yes, I understand that the principles of capitalism create this situation, and in general I think the private sector, profit-oriented model is the best (or even the "least-worst") way forward. But I also believe there is space in the capitalist model for fair wages, employee well-being, certain benefits. Little things that yes, at the end of the day take away from the bottom line, but end up buying a tremendous amount of goodwill, which in theory leads to productivity and loyalty.

I doubt the people who decide the wages that these boys - and all the other manual labor/seasonal/warehouse workers - receive have ever stopped to think what it means to live on minimum wage in Mozambique. I think there is a perception that life for "those kinds of people" is cheap, that they are quite content and able to make do with a monthly salary that is equivalent to what I often spend on just one meal in a restaurant.

Paulo and Raimundo were telling me yesterday that the price of chapas is set to increase here in Maputo. Currently, the price for taking one of the insane public minibus taxis is 5 to 7.5 meticais, the eqivalent of US$0,20 to $0,30. The new price will be 14.5 to 17 meticais, or US$0,60 to $0,70. This may seem extraordinarily cheap for public transport, when compared to US or even Brazilian bus fares, but bear in mind that these are largely unregulated, unsafe, uncomfortable vehicles.

Raimundo got a calculator and did a simple equation for us. In order to come to work, he must take 2 chapas each way. The end figure for 26 working days a month was 1,500 meticiais, or about US$63 spent on transport. Minimum wage in Mozambique is around 1,600 meticiais. You do the math...

In other news, yesterday was Hugh Marlboro's birthday, but as he was away from the office all day, we are celebrating today. The financial manager and I have organized a small party. I sent one of the warehouse loaders to Shoprite to buy a cake and some cokes. The only cake available in the supermarket's bakery was one that is fit for a little girl's princess-themed 11th birthday. It is light pink, covered with hearts and flowers and silver sprinkles. I can't wait to see Hugh Marlboro's reaction!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Safe Jobs and an Incredible Mind

For now, at least, it seems that the warehouse boys' jobs are safe. True, Hugh Marlboro has decided to suspend the import of potatoes and onions indefinitely. There were some serious management issues in the fresh produce operation, mostly the result of jumping at an opportunity too quickly with no structure or procedures whatsoever, and in light of the consequences of said leap, I actually agree that this is the appropriate step to take. As Hugh Marlboro said to me yesterday, not only does a ship need a good captain before she goes out into the open seas, she needs a captain who is armed with a nautical chart, a radio and a clear idea of where he is going.

Ahmed, Paulo and Raimundo are still working during the day (this is where I let out a very selfish "Yay!!"), but have also been put on the night shift for the next few weeks. They will be supervising the loading of the banana trucks before they head out to the sales depots. Apparently there have been some serious problems as of late regarding theft and side sale of bananas. Hugh Marlboro suspects they were being siphoned off by the banana truck loading crew (different from the crew of boys who sing dirty songs and unload the potatoes and onions), so he put my warehouse friends to work with the banana operation becuase, I am happy to see, my boss recognizes that these boys are hard, serious workers.

This information didn't come easily, mind you. Hugh Marlboro avoided (or just plain forgot about) our meeting in which he was supposed to bring me up to speed about the warehouse operations for 2 entire days. We were on site visits with clients, and in meetings, so I couldn't exactly pin him down in that time. Yesterday, while we were in his truck on the way to the Ministry of Agriculture, I hammered him with questions and gave him my straight opinion about several issues related to the fresh produce operation.

Not only am I satisfied with the answers he gave me (as are the boys, let me tell you!), I think the fact that I insisted on the subject actually gained me some respect in his eyes. The core reason behind the decision to shut the warehouse operations temporarily is not a pleasant one; in fact, it is one that I would prefer to avoid altogether if it were possible, but so it goes in business, you have to face situations that you'd rather pretend never existed in the name of what is good for the company. Bringing up this subject, and then pressing for details was a bit hard for me, but I'm glad I did it. Not only was my own curiosity satisfied, I need to be informed of what is going on in the Banana Empire - the good, the bad and the scandalous - if I am to perform my strategic planning and advising function with success.

In other news, two days ago I went on a day-long site visit with Hugh Marlboro, a Zimbabwean man who is the head of agricultural lending at one of the main banks here, and a group of 5 South African investors who want to start a tropical fruit processing project here in Mozambique. The investors would like to partner with Hugh Marlboro in the venture, so we all went together to look at potential plots of land. We spent the entire day in the bush, with the Zimbabwean and I a bit left out of the loop because all business discussions as well as smalltalk were done in Afrikaans.

I had a strange thing happen to me, though. I was in the backseat of Hugh Marlboro's truck at one point, and he was yammering away to one of the potential investors in Afrikaans in the front seat. It was a long car ride out to the land we were visiting, and the heat plus the motion of the vehicle made me dreadfully sleepy. I was in that dreamtime state, just before actual sleep, and a very strange thing occured. Instead of composing flowing, perfect paragraphs in English (the dreamtime writing I talked about a few weeks ago), my mind randomly decided to start understanding Afrikaans. I swear, I listened to Hugh M. and his potential farming partner talk and talk, and I not only could follow the jist of the conversation (pretty normal for me at this point), I was understanding all of the words they were saying!! I even caught exact phrases, and managed to remember them when I woke up.

Yesterday, I told Hugh Marlboro about the experience and quoted back to him some of the things I remembered from the conversation. I'm talking about specific things, like the man in the car saying that he saw the world through rose-colored glasses, while his business partner saw things through black-lensed glasses in the midst of a discussion about management styles. Hugh M. confirmed these and other details, and was just as impressed as I was that I somehow managed to develop a complete understanding of Afrikaans.

Mind you, I still can't speak a word of the language, and my comprehension is back to normal levels in my awake-state, but nonetheless...what a cool experience! The human mind is a fascinating thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cultural Marketing

I noticed a fantastic Nokia billboard yesterday while driving around Maputo Province on several farm visits. Someone in their marketing department has caught on to the idea that cell phones in Africa many times serve a very important dual function: not only are they used to communicate, they are used as a source of light.

The ad features the image of two people riding bicycles along a dusty road in the night. You can barely make out their silhouettes, but the path in front of the bicycles is nicely illuminated by what looks to be a headlamp.

The text at the top of the billboard is as follows:

É humano ver para onde se vai.
Por isso a Nokia desenha telefones com lanterna.

(It's human to see where one is going. That's why Nokia designs telephones with flashlights.)

The ad then goes on to list three features of the cell phones:

  • Long-life battery
  • Flashlight with just one press of a button
  • Anti-dust coating

I find it beyond cool that Nokia has created such a spot-on campaign for the reality of cell phone use in Mozambique.

Monday, January 21, 2008

And, After Nearly 3 Years...

...we finally bought a car!

It's a 1996 Honda CR-V, silver, automatic, complete with airbags, sunroof and cd player. We purchased the car over the internet from an importer in Durban, South Africa, who specializes in second-hand cars from Japan.

The clearing agency at my work is taking care of the bureaucracy to get the car into Mozambique, which is pretty daunting and includes an inspection to verify that the price on the invoice is comparable to the condition of the car, multiple taxes that add up to over 50% of the value of the car, and getting the license plate and registration.

All said and done, we should have our third-hand (at least!) wheels in about 3 or 4 weeks.

I'm excited to be driving again, even if it is on the left-hand-side of the road. Especially with a sunroof and the possiblity of mix cd's and road trips!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Afternoon Portrait

Anticipating what might happen with the warehouse, I was motivated to start writing about some of the things that I will miss the most...

Twice a week, when the company trucks would cross the border and enter Mozambique with fresh produce deliveries, I would shut down my computer early and go downstairs to the warehouse to keep Ahmed and Paulo company. It was their responsibility to watch the trucks being unloaded to ensure there was no theft or damage to the sacks of potatoes and onions imported from South Africa. We would sit on warehouse dock in the late afternoon heat, the sky hazy with particles belched out of the nearby cement plant, the toxic dust making the sun glow fiery orange.

It was a slow job, each truck taking around 3 hours to unload, as the company did not own a forklift to efficiently move the product. Instead, everything was done manually. A crew of local boys hired for a half-day’s work would form a line inside the belly of the trailer to unload the produce, heaving sack after sack into the next waiting pair of sweaty hands, and finally into stacks on pallets on the loading dock.

One boy in the crew was a hunchback, his shoulder blades twisted at such an angle they looked like the back legs of a grasshopper, tensed and waiting to spring. He walked with a limp, laboriously dragging a misshapen foot against the floor, but nonetheless helped unload the truck. His job was to ensure that the sacks of produce were stacked properly on the pallets outside the truck, adjusting and rearranging when necessary until there were 100 sacks neatly piled high. Ahmed nicknamed the boy Notre Dame, and would call for him in this manner, his startlingly loud voice echoing off the warehouse walls.

In the US we are taught to be blind to physical handicaps. We are supposed to speak to the man with a deformed arm as if we didn’t notice the missing fingers or lumps of scar tissue, for it is rude to stare. We are meant to carry on a conversation with the person in a wheelchair without any mention of whatever accident or medical condition caused paralysis of the limbs, lest we cause the person embarrassment. Only after sufficient intimacy do the unspoken social rules allow that we ask what happened, and even then any reference to the handicap is shrouded in political correctness.

Here, however, it seems that physical handicaps – among other things – are acknowledged with a bluntness that seems to be a trait of many an ex-Portuguese colony. (I am reminded of Brazil, where people casually comment to your face, “You’ve really put on some weight since the last time we met, haven’t you? You’ve gained, what, 4 kilos?” or “Is that a zit? Wow, it’s gigantic! You should stop eating so much chocolate!”) Or perhaps, sadly, it is the vestige of years of civil war, where land mines made physical deformities commonplace.

Whatever the reasons, in Mozambique, you might find the vegetable lady on the corner who is cross-eyed is called just that – Neusa vesga; the vendor who hobbles around on a crooked foot at the car parts store might be known as José manco, literally José-who-limps. The nicknames don’t seem to be taken with offense; rather, the handicap seems to be accepted as a descriptive quality, much like one might talk about a girl with green eyes.

One day, Ahmed asked the hunchbacked boy if he knew what Notre Dame was. He shook his head ‘no’, and Ahmed promised he’d bring him the book the next week.

I shot Ahmed a sideways glance, for not only was the boy likely illiterate, Ahmed himself wasn’t exactly the type to appreciate the classics of literature.

“Have you even read ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’?” I asked.

“No, no!” Ahmed laughed at my question. “I saw the movie!”

“The cartoon, you mean?”

“Of course.”

While unloading the trucks, the boys in the work crew would go shirtless, with the exception of Notre Dame. He always kept on a torn and stained t-shirt while he worked, faded red letters proclaiming the FUN TIMES! that were had in Tampa, Florida at the JAMESON FAMILY REUNION, 2002. Clearly this was a charity shirt, one of the thousands hawked at used clothes markets all over Africa. I could only imagine the trajectory such a shirt must have followed, from a church donation bin in the Southern US to a crowded stall in Xipamanine, the largest popular market in Maputo.

The boys in the crew would sing as they worked, the rhythmic melodies helping them keep up the pace of unloading the produce, one sack thrown down the line of muscular arms for each beat of the song. Each sack had its own unique markings – not just the logo of the farm where the potatoes or onions had been grown, but full color geometric designs. At the top of each paper bag, the name of the product inside was written in 3 different languages: English, Afrikaans and Zulu.

The name for ‘potato’ in Afrikaans particularly caught my eye, and I would whisper the name repeatedly under my breath, trying to imitate the pronunciation of my South African colleagues in the administrative sector upstairs. “Aart appel. Aart appel. Aart appel.” Each time I would accentuate a different part of the word, trying out all of the variations I could imagine. Unexpectedly, one day what had before been meaningless trills and vowels were suddenly words I recognized. Earth apple! Of course - the same root as the French name for a potato.

I would sit with Ahmed and Paulo until the truck was empty and the warehouse had neat, colored bags of produce covering the floor. All of the sacks would be accounted for, including those that had ripped open during transport, or that contained rotten potatoes and had to be disposed of before fouling up the entire building. The work crew would then be paid for the afternoon's labor - $2 per head, plus a loaf of bread. Sometimes Ahmed would let the boys take home the loose potatoes and onions that had spilled out of the sacks in the truck, or those that were salvageable amongst a bag of otherwise rotten product.

I would keep Ahmed and Paulo company while the warehouse was swept, the paperwork for the load filled out, and the truck sent back to the farm. Many times, this meant I would be at the office for several hours after my workday was meant to end. I didn't care. On some level, I already knew that those afternoons spent chatting with my warehouse friends and watching the workers unload a truck full of produce would be one of the things I'd miss the most about my time in Mozambique. The humid air, the work crew's harmonies, the earthy smell of the produce, the subtle process of establishing a friendship across cultures. I would recline in my chair on the loading dock and take everything in, occasionally becoming overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for something that hadn't yet ceased to exist.

Please Say It Ain't So!

I received some news yesterday at work that made me very sad. It isn't official, but it seems Hugh Marlboro intends to close the fresh produce warehouse where my friends/lunch partners/beer companions work. Ahmed, Paulo and Raimundo were briefly told by their supervisor that we will stop importing potatoes and onions. Without the imports, there is no need for the fresh produce operation, and consequently not much of a justification for the boys to retain their jobs.

These boys are some of the hardest workers I've come across in Mozambique. They are dedicated, honest and pleasant to be around. I don't know what is behind Hugh Marlboro's decision (assuming he does actually intend to close the warehouse), but it is a shame for the company to lose such good employees. Furthermore, I find it hard to stomach that nobody will be straight with these guys and say, "You know, you might want to start looking for other work options. The warehouse will close in 1 month." (or 2 months, or whatever) None of the boys have signed contracts, so not even the super-pro-worker Labor Law of Mozambique will safeguard their jobs.

Obviously I am sad about this possibility because I will be losing something that has grown very near to my heart. In the last 3 months, Ahmed, Paulo, Raimundo and I have developed a special and unexpectedly close friendship. I will miss our communal lunches, our text messages throughout the day, the carpool rides back to Maputo, the gifts and snacks sent up to my office, and the general feeling that we are a team at work, we have each other's backs, despite the fact that they are in the warehouse and I am up here on the administrative/management floor.

Obviously this news is not 100% certain. Hugh Marlboro has yet to come into the office and bring me up to speed on the month of work that I missed while on vacation. He promised to do that today, but as of now still hasn't shown up. I want to hear what he has to say, what is behind this decision, becuase - all biases aside due to the fact that the boys are my friends - the fresh produce operation seemed to be bringing in a lot of cash.

My hope is that, assuming there is no pressing reason to close the warehouse, Hugh Marlboro will change his mind. He is notoriously impulsive, and I take most of what he decides/promises/declares with a reasonably large grain of salt. I hope this warehouse story is something he said in a moment of stress, financial worry, strategic misdirection. Whatever. I just hope it's not true...

Last night I invited Ahmed and Paulo out for beers. We sat for hours at the restaurant, talking over this uncertain news. I realize that good things can't last forever, that situations change, and people move on...but I wasn't expecting to feel the pang of saudades for my dear colleagues and our amazing bond quite so soon. I know that I can still see them outside work, we will still be friends even if they have jobs elsewhere, but it won't be the same, and this makes me very sad.

Yesterday, when I came to work for the first day, I distributed chocolates and presents that I'd brought back from Brazil for the boys. The cowboy boots were delivered and much appreciated, as were the Levis, the designer sunglasses, the t-shirts, the surf shorts, and the hat. They loved everything.

What I didn't expect was that the boys would have gifts for me as well. They gave me a beautiful silver necklace and bracelet set, and a really cool dress that is basically a white tube top with a flower-print halter dress layered on top, with a cinch tie at the side. It is a dress I'd never have picked out for myself, but they actually managed to give me something I really like! I tried it on yesterday, and it fits perfectly...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Home Again

I am enjoying yet another multiple-hour layover in the Joburg
airport. Our flight out of Brazil was unexpectedly delayed 21 hours, so we
left the country a day late. This was actually not an inconvenience at all,
as South African Airways put us up for the night at the Caesar Park in São
Paulo, and Rico and I spent the time relaxing, eating (free!) good food,
sunning by the pool, and working out a bit at the hotel gym.

The break in our travel plans was especially nice because the last week has
been INSANE. Friends, if Rico and I wanted to get married with a full
ceremony and reception next week, we could probably pull it off. We planned
the entire freaking event in 4 business days. It was off the hook -
appointment after appointment, traveling Rio and her sister city Niterói by
subway, bus, ferry and taxi, negotiating prices where possible and doing our
best to nail down all the details.

As a result of the crazy runaround and all the long-haul travel of the last
month, both of us are marginally sick and very, very tired.

We will catch our flight back to Maputo in a few hours, then it's back to
work and life as normal.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Nerdiness, Part Infinite

Did you know that the yellow fever vaccine is cultivated using a live sample of the virus incubated in a chicken egg? This fact alone I found very interesting, especially since the same technique has been used worldwide since 1936. But the *real* thing I found fascinating is that people who are allergic to eggs shouldn't get a yellow fever vaccine!

I've had the shot twice now, and was never asked if I was allergic to eggs prior to getting stuck with the needle. Granted, the most recent vaccine I received was an a public health clinic in Maputo at the verylastminute before traveling to Brasil, but I'm surprised none of the lawsuit-phobes working in the infections disease clinics in the US thought to mention this little fact.

Here in Brazil, one of the world leader in vaccine development, researchers have been developing a yellow fever vaccine using a dna sequence as the starting point, as opposed to a live culture. Unfortunately, the project is at risk of being aborted because of lack of funding. Quel surprise...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Yesterday, on the plane somewhere between Miami and Rio, not knowing what time it was or even if it was day or night outside the plastic window shade, I drifted into the dreamlike state just before actual sleep where my writer's mind runs wild. I composed every latent blog entry about the last three weeks, word for word, entire sentences and even paragraphs forming effortlessly, my tongue tracing soft syllables on the backsides of my teeth.

If I'd had a notebook in hand, perhaps I could have recorded those complete bursts of thought for later publication, but any writing implements were buried deep in the backpack on which my feed rested, wedged under the seat in front of me. I sighed, drifting closer to true sleep.

This happens to me often, this effortless writing stage just before my brain makes the switch to unconsciousness. In these quiet moments, free of the filters of waking life, I am able to find words, combinations of words, that express what I never quite seem able to capture on the blog screen, in the e-mail to an old friend, even in the blank pages of my neglected journal.

My dreamstate writing is flowing and alive while it lasts, then gone just as quickly once the amnesia of sleep takes over. In the morning, I am left with the blurred impressions of moments too perfect to have existed in waking life, much like one remembers an "I love you" whispered prior to surgery by a friend who has never before expressed such a sentiment, a sweet first kiss in the midst of too many glasses of wine, or the relief of a cool towel held by a caring hand that wipes away fever in the middle of the night.