“But how does it ‘feel’ to be there?”

We’ve posted a lot about our various activities & routines so far, but I’m going to try to answer the question I’ve received a few times: “what’s it like to be there?” This being my first time in Africa, and first time living outside of the US, I didn’t know how it would truly ‘feel’ to be here. Hopefully this post sheds some light.

Weather:

  • Heat: the average high temp so far have been in the 80’s. With the seasons inverted here, we arrived in early spring in September. Warmer than home, but pleasant overall. Some evenings have been quite hot, but we’ve gotten acclimated pretty well. We hit a few 60-degree days and found ourselves pulling on all the layers. Getting back to Seattle in December is going to be a shock! Tembe Safari
  • We’re technically into the rainy season: but here, the rain doesn’t last for more than a few hours and so far it hasn’t heavily rained on back-to-back days often. Rain often comes with heavy winds/thunderstorms – it will literally rain sideways – and it makes the river down the hill from us really roar the next few days.
  • Pollution/smog hasn’t been a problem – the only air quality haze are when farmers burn their fields to prepare for planting, which happens often. But most days are fairly clear, gives awesome views of the valleys and hills.
  • Humidity has bearable so far, but we’re heading into summer, so, fingers crossed!

Fun Fact: we unofficially measure humidity by how difficult it is to shuffle the cards during our daily lunch break cribbage game.

Culture:

  • People in Swaziland are generally friendly: talking with each other enjoyably, lots of laughing. When we greet anyone (from grocery cashier to customs officer to gas station attendant) – the default greeting is a friendly “Hello, how are you?” – to which people generally respond with “I’m fine,” and then the conversation moves to the topic at hand. This cadence also has been our experience in South Africa – much friendlier than back home.
  • Although I feel we do get the occasional second glance, for the most part we’re not afforded special treatment. One tip I had heard might happen is that people would encourage us to “cut” to the front of a queue. Happy to report that hasn’t happened – we’ve waited our proper turn!
  • Except for times where we’ve taken a significantly wrong turns and end up way off the beaten path (thanks Google Maps), for the most part people here don’t seem ‘surprised’ to see two tall, skinny Americans out and about. However, we are aware that we stand out a little and strive to be as conscientious as possible in every interaction. This isn’t rocket science (shout out to my mom for reading Uncommon Courtesy for Kids when we were young) but we do take extra care here.
  • Although Swaziland never had anything like apartheid (indeed, many companies and individuals relocated here during that time in South Africa seeking stability), there are limited areas of racial mixing. For example, Malendela’s Farm Restaurant/Bar has ~75% white customers any given time we’ve visited.  There doesn’t seem to be an “unwritten” rule preventing mixing, but it seems people stick within their own spaces. One exception is The Gables – a giant, western-style outdoor shopping area that has people of all walks of life –  and the KFC (only US fast food chain in the country) always has a line!

Geology:

Within Swaziland, the western half of the country is mountainous/hilly with beautiful valleys between – think western Montana or Colorado. Sections here are almost mile high in elevation – including the capital city, Mbabane. The eastern half of the country is flatter and more lush/tropical – think parts of Hawaii. But, everywhere seems to be covered in the same red dirt!

Geologically, this part of Africa contains some of the oldest rocks in the world. I’ve appreciated the unique rocks all over the place – like a giant boulder in the middle of a field, or red pointy rocks rising from an otherwise mundane hillside. Back home, the Cascades / Olympic mountains with their evergreen trees provide an awesome but consistent image. Here, rising over a hill or turning into a valley, there is a lot more variability in what you will see.

 

Overall, compared to Seattle, this part of Africa has been easy to “be” in. Definitely has exceeded my expectations, and after over two months here, starting to feel like home. In fact, when traveling last week, I kept having to differentiate home between “Swazi home” and “Seattle home.”

On the Road

This weekend we took our first road trip out of Swaziland. Because we don’t have visas, we have to leave the country at least every 30 days, so we knew we would be making a number of trips out of the country and used it as an opportunity to do some exploring.

Driving a vehicle on the opposite side of the road has taken some getting used to – with a handful of moments of panic. Fortunately, we’ve been practicing with a number of 30 minute trips over the past few weeks. Since we’re rarely in a hurry, emphasis is on driving safely (which truth be told…is not too different from my habit at home).

Image result for toyota hilux 2002 surf
Similar to our surf – sturdy!

Our vehicle is rented from our hosts – a 2002 Toyota Hilux Surf. Drives like a tank and has a 4×4 option, so it’s great for getting around, although the conditions of the roads and standard driving practices can make for a… festive experience. Here’s what I mean:

Road quality:

From our experience, roads are mixed throughout Swaziland, with mostly paved main roads but dirt in the rural areas. When on pavement, avoiding axle-breaking potholes ensures there are no boring stretches, even on the main arterials!

Once in South Africa however, road quality on the highways/arterials (even on mountain routes) was as good as anything in the US: consistent signage/road paint, passing zones marked, few potholes.

One unique feature we noticed was periodic large signs that outlined who was responsible for the upkeep of that road section (engineering firm, local authorities, etc). A good way to ensure accountability for when a pothole does appear!

Following distance:

Nope, not a thing here. Whether on a highway or dirt road, two-seconds following distance is far too generous. At home when someone tailgates you, they want to pass/drive faster. Here, it’s pretty much just the habit – even with another lane available to pass!

Similarities to America:

  • BMW & Mercedes owners drive like idiots everywhere
  • Police know where to set their speed-traps most effectively. We didn’t get nabbed (except at a rural checkpoint where they stopped everyone to ensure you had a drivers license), but at one point we saw 5-6 cars pulled over receiving pay-on-the-spot fines
  • Semi trucks are annoying to pass
  • Fuel: a full tank of gas is about $50 at home, and about the same here.
  • It’s a big country! For example, driving from Swaziland to Cape Town would be an 18 hr drive – similar to our annual Seattle>Winnipeg road trip across half of North America.

Weekend Recap:

We drove to South Africa, heading north from our home near Manzini to Nelspruit, the ‘largest’ major town of 50,000. After some first-timer confusion at the border, we hit the mountain roads, taking in some beautiful views and even saw some roadside baboons!

We spent 2 nights in Nelspruit at a quiet AirBnB studio. We found a nearby breakfast place where we ate both mornings, next door to a fantastic restaurant (dinner both nights – do you spot a trend?) Allie is a great cook and does a good job at home, but it was nice to eat out and not have to cook or worry about dishes after 🙂

We toured Chimp Eden (where they care for the oldest chimp in the world – 79 years old!), and then went to the Sudwala caves and butterfly garden that afternoon. Both exceeded our expectations, and we stopped for a while outside the garden due to the not-at-all-afraid-of-us creatures.

Returning home Sunday evening (stopping to get groceries on the way), we both felt mentally refreshed – it was good to adventure out and change our routine the past couple weeks.

Unexpected Challenges

In speaking to our hosts and past Fischer Fellows, and doing research online about what to expect working abroad for the first time, I tried to prepare a realistic picture of how work would be, knowing I’d need to keep an open-mind once arrived.

However, after two weeks here in Swaziland, I’ve found myself slightly over-prepared in some areas. For example: the quality of paved roads has exceeded my expectations, and the design of local supermarkets practically matches those in Seattle.

But, there are challenges I didn’t anticipate:

  • Constraints not only on internet speed, which I did expect, but also on total capacity: specific amounts of GB are procured for download/upload each month for land-based home and business connections. This causes otherwise easy solutions to common business problems, such as file sharing or server backups storage, to be exorbitant or flatly unworkable.
    • So-crazy-it’s-almost-funny-side-note: the internet was out our first days onsite because thieves had stolen an entire transmission pole nearby – wires, cables, the literal pole!
  • Limited merchant/commercial banking options. I’d read a lot about the popularity/success of personal mobile money in Africa but, from a business point of view things are different. PayPal for Business (for example) and affordable wire transfer services are not available in the country, so international payments are difficult/expensive to process. It’s even challenging to work with the banks to secure an easy method to receive credit card transactions. Some small businesses here utilize an out of country bank account (UK, South Africa, etc) to process payments.
    • Personal note: to book a $100 shuttlebus into Swaziland, the only payment option available was international wire, a service for which our bank charges $40. ☹
  • Lack of transport outside the main cities. I (wrongly) assumed that people who lived rurally would depend on cars. But it turns out, often the rural poor can’t afford vehicles. Although Tsandza is in a rural location (intentionally, since the mission is to provide jobs for rural women), they provide transportation for their artisans to/from the workshop each day. This brings major business risk. Recently the large vehicle used for this purpose seized up due to lack of oil – leadership had to scramble to find alternate methods since this jeopardized their production schedule and customers.  A proverbial “for want of a nail” scenario!
  • Labor laws: employees are on a (sometimes perpetual) contract – not an “at-will” employment scenario. While I’m sure the rules are well-intended to protect worker rights, in practice this means it can be a challenge to keep staff motivated and focused.

These challenges limit the number of tools you have to deal with a specific problem, including many default “tools” to which I’m accustomed. To put it another way, I’m used to seeing a nail and reaching for a hammer; but what if you only have a screwdriver?

Coming up with creative yet straightforward solutions seems to be huge requirement for success here.  I’ll let you know how we do.

An Introduction by Jon

When the Fischer Fellowship program was launched 5 years ago, I made a mental note to participate “when the time was right.”  The only problem was, life seemed to keep getting in the way: buying a condo, major family milestones, friend’s weddings, saving for an engagement ring….

So when I mentioned this program to Allie, and she responded with “why haven’t we done this yet!?” I was slightly taken aback because we are at the core, homebodies (see post below). But, once we started talking in more detail, the more excited I got and we quickly realized this was the perfect time:

  • I’ve received a wealth of experience and training in 11 years at West Monroe Partners that I’d like to apply to new challenges.
  • After years at the same firm, this will force me into new habits in work approach and daily rhythms.
  • I’ve never lived outside of Washington – this will expand my world views and I’ll experience a new culture
  • The opportunity to do this together with my wife – having someone else to lean on and share this with.

The Fischer Fellowship supports West Monroe employees in taking a leave of absence to volunteer for meaningful global causes – and ensures my job when I return!

As Fischer Fellows we will be spending the months of September-December in The Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland but renamed by the King in April 2018) assisting Tsandza Weaving and their sister companies with marketing and business development/planning.

More details to come on the actual projects and undertakings.