Ranil Dissanayake has written a perceptive elegy to his time in East and Southern Africa.
“I will miss the constant obstacles, challenges, fights, compromises, small victories and major changes that come when working in a developing country Government here. There is no such thing as a simple task in Government: a photocopy could take an hour of begging or a day spent searching for the magical combination of a machine, electricity, printer toner and paper in one place. … It can be frustrating, but when you finally start seeing all these small things coalesce into something bigger, you begin to thrive on the little challenges.”
I recall one of my early visits out here I was searching for a job (any job) that might keep me here for a bit longer: talking to a boss of a small company, I said that I relished dealing with things like regular power outages. He cut me off dismissively complaining that these were incredibly bad for business. Even worse, he was massively frustrated at being constantly undercut by competitors who slip a bung to procurement managers rather than competing squarely on service and price.
Many years later, I can see both sides of the coin. Every single power cut and episode of slippery business is individually immensely frustrating and sets us back. However, like Ranil, I also thrive to a certain extent on the knowledge that I can cope and that we have the robustness in our approach to deal with these challenges: not in the way that embassies and big businesses will just throw money at a problem – insulating their staff from vagaries of life out here – but because we built up our NGO from zero and have overcome many obstacles along our way. We are proud of what we have achieved, but also one gains an individual sense of satisfaction of having adapted to a challenging environment.
On my visits back to UK I am sometimes struck by the apparent banality of conversation, e.g. the latest good wine found down the supermarket, rather when was the last power cut. Both topics are equally parochial, and talk of power cuts may seem equally banal to people who live deep in the bush – off-grid – and have to generate their own power. Nonetheless, one feels toughened up living out here, and though many years ago I might have sounded a bit wet behind the ears with my talk of relishing such challenges, now I’d far rather hire someone with a bit of gung-ho like that than someone who will fall to pieces when faced with sheer number of things that just don’t work as straightforwardly as they do back home.
All of which is to say that, for all the nonsense talk you hear sometimes about people coming out here to find themselves (and it is utter tosh), there is no doubt that if you’ve got the right personality in the first place then this is a great place for personal development; you will be challenged in so many ways you’ve never been before.
Unfortunately what is great for personal development, is absolutely **** for businesses and economic development. I decided to come here, and so have to accept the rough with the smooth as part of the life I’ve chosen for myself. Locals and local businesses merely despair at the dysfunctionality of their country. Things are getting better, but there are so many other things which could so easily be so much better still if important government institutions just worked a bit more like what they should do.
To be continued …