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.

Week One(ish)

While I had the best of intentions to share a Week One update on the one week anniversary of our departure from the US (I even had a witty intro written up) I was thwarted Thursday evening by an invitation to happy hour, followed by an extended weekend away from the office/wifi and now here we are, day 12 – the time seems to be flying by.

Our first week was quite a busy one. When booking our travel, we didn’t realize that we would be arriving in Eswatini (Swaziland was renamed by King Mswatii III earlier this year – apparently they were tired of being confused with Switzerland) during the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance*, a cultural event lasting eight days where young ‘maidens’ from across the country come together to honor the Queen Mother and to dance for the King – and possibly for the King to pick a new wife, although the particulars of that component are a bit unclear to me. We missed the first few days, but were fortunate enough to be tipped off for the seventh day, which is open to the public and hosted near where we’re staying, so we took the opportunity to attend.

Day Seven is one of the actual days of dancing during the Reed Dance festivities. By day seven, the participating young women (of which they said there were around 100,000!) have already come together, gathering at the royal residences. They’ve already make their 30k trek to the river to cut reeds and presented them to the Queen Mother, and they’ve finalized preparations for their hair and attire in anticipation of the seventh day. On Day Seven, the King and his family welcome dignitaries and representatives from all over the world, along with public spectators who crowd the seats of a stadium, to watch the young women dance.

During the ceremony, the ‘maidens’ assemble in groups based off age and region, dressed in beautiful, colorful, celebratory attire and parade across a large field in formation, dancing and singing as they pass by the King.

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The sheer number of women participating was staggering – taking well over an hour for the seemingly never-ending line of dancers to finally conclude. After their initial pass in front of the stands, they assemble in the field, where some groups continued to sing and dance, filling the field with movement and noise. We took video but apparently we’re not paying enough to WordPress for our blog to support video so… I’ll have to figure something else out.

Once all the young women were gathered in the field, a small group of women stepped up to a microphone and began to sing. At this time, the King, brandishing a solid gold axe, and his entourage came out on to the field and greeted each group, dancing with them one at a time. With SO many groups participating, the King had to hustle to get to each group, and even then still, it was bound to be a long process!

In the end, I’m told that often the King announces his new bride near the conclusion of the Umhlanga ceremony, pulling her forward from one of the dancing groups, but with the sun setting and the evening growing chilly – and a large field of maidens still to meet – our little group decided to depart early.

The following day was our first day of work. Our small but mighty team is captained by our host, Kerry, who owns and operates Tsandza weaving. Temphilo, Tsandza’s Office Manager has made us feel quite at home, and we’re also joined by Katrina, a volunteer through the Australian Government Funded Volunteer Program (AVI) – and of course Spooks, the office cat. Our office is located on the second story of the weavery and there’s a constant hum of conversation from the women downstairs, combined with the methodical click of the shuttle shooting brightly colored fibers back and forth across the looms. While working on getting our bearings this first week, Jon was able to successfully sort out an IT issue and I’ve been getting familiar with other social enterprises in Swazi to see what guidance we might glean from their experiences.

This week we’ve also been thoroughly enjoying the vibrant nature that surrounds us daily. My binoculars hardly see the inside of their case and I’m constantly on the porch looking for birds and creatures. To date, from our own little porch, we’ve spotted colorful birds like black-collared barbets, brown-hooded kingfisher, and scarlet-chested sunbirds. We’ve also seen blue-headed lizards, countless geckos and even one monkey, climbing through a nearby tree. At night, we enjoy a chorus of frog calls combined with the cheerful chirp of bats. The days range from temperate to hot, and the evenings have been cool. We’re entering the rainy season and for the last few nights have been thrilled with rolling thunderstorms that light up the sky, shake the house and fill the river that we can now hear flowing rapidly just down the hill.

All in all, we’re settling in well, enjoying our surroundings and slowly getting acclimated and acquainted. I’d call it a successful first week.

*Please note: I, by no means, am any expert on the history/rules/traditions of Umhlanga so if you’re interested in learning more, the Kingdom of Eswatini’s tourism site provides a more thorough overview: http://www.thekingdomofeswatini.com/eswatini-experiences/events/umhlanga-reed-dance/

10,405 Miles Away

A car, a ferry, a taxi [that rear-ended a Porsche so we got…], an Uber, a shuttle, an airplane, another shuttle, another airplane, a bus, and a car. By land, air and sea, it took us just over 40 hours of travel to arrive in Swazi, and by the end, I asked the question: did we pick the single furthest destination possible?

At 10,405 miles from home, the answer is: essentially, yes. While it would be possible to add a few hundred kilometers by heading to the coast or even a few more by jumping over to Madagascar or Reunion, once you hit Mauritius, you’re technically headed closer to home once again.

And with so many miles between here and home, there’s bound to be a number of differences. Looking out my window now, I see only a handful of trees large enough to climb when I’m used to forests filled with trees so tall you can’t even see the tops. There are no squirrels bouncing around, just lizards climbing up my walls. The outlets still have three prongs, but they’re all three round and gigantic!

But there are also similarities and we’ve found ourselves settling in comfortably to our new home. We live on the property of Tsandza Weaving, just downhill from the home of our hosts, and only a few steps along the road from the weaving workshop, in a cozy outbuilding that was recently updated for us.

Home

Nestled just south of the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and southwest of the city of Manzini, we’re perched on the slope of a hill and the view from our deck looks out over a valley carved out by a stream, then up steeply towards the mountains of the Ngwempisi Wilderness Area.

Porch

A large wall of windows with French doors marks the entry way and keeps a pleasant breeze flowing through, so even the 95° spring days don’t feel as hot as you’d imagine. Inside we have a comfy living space and a fully equipped kitchen, divided by a large countertop/peninsula/breakfast bar. Under the counter is shelving for food storage and we were pleasantly surprised during our first trip to the grocery store that many of our usual staples were readily available and we’ve been cooking dinner every night.

Front Doors    Living Space

Down the hallway is our bedroom beautifully decorated with pillows, curtains and a throw from the weavers (we actually got to meet the women who made them!), along with a mosquito net over the bed to keep the creepies out at night. Beyond our bedroom is a bathroom and additional bedroom with a single bed, more than enough space for the two of us.

Bedroom

In the coming weeks, I’ll post more about the property and the nature around us, as well as about life in Swazi. This morning Jon and I joked that if we were a newspaper, he’d write the Business section and I’d be in charge of Lifestyle, Travel and Culture, so keep an eye out for additional updates coming shortly!

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.

 

How we got here (according to Allie)

I’ve never particularly considered Jon and myself to be an adventurous couple. We like our quiet island and our low key routine. We have no ambitions to jump out of airplanes or scale daring peaks. We like reading books, playing games, eating good food and spending time with family.

Yet for some reason, the decision to pack up our life and move to Swaziland for nearly four months didn’t seem like a daring adventure. It seemed like a no brainer.

And in reflecting upon it, while we may not be your traditional adventurists, once we determine something is logistically possible, and potentially a little bit fun, any adventure is within bounds. Through our professional lives (“merge two giant entities together? – sure, that sounds doable;” “oh, a party for 800 people to raise over a million bucks? – I mean, sure, as long as the room is big enough”) to our spare time (“travel 3 different states and 3 different countries all in less than 3 months? – insane but… possible”) well, I guess we like a good adventure after all.

So when presented with the opportunity to spend our first anniversary in Africa, we sorted through the list of logistical hurdles and decided: sure, sounds fun. We’ll be using this blog to document our time, travels, work and adventures and we invite you to follow along.

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Thank you for joining us!