Moving on from Ghana…

I wrote this post just after I got here

***

Today, I complete three weeks in Ghana – everything has been smooth and pleasant so far. In many ways, settling in has been easy and I am starting to believe that approaching a change of location as emotionless-ly as possible works! Neutralise expectations from people you are likely to meet, temper the doubts in your mind about food, weather, transport…everything. (admittedly though, what I am really paranoid about are snakes – and no, in my mind, it is not stupid at all that I try to keep my feet off the floor as much as possible!).

Kind partner institute, ISSER sorted out housing for me even before I got here – a major portion of settling down. Transport – I bought a bike (bicycle) – after two weeks of careful consideration of the distance I need to commute to work, the deep open gutters all along the road and getting used to the traffic driving on the right – its great fun and I would strongly advise it to everyone. As I told a friend here last week, I am confident I am not going to die young…So thats essential transport to work taken care of. The lifeline of public transport in Accra is the tro-tro (mini-van) and I was completely intimidated by them for a few days to begin with. I havent mastered it yet, but have sampled them enough, started recognising the hand signals that refer to specific stations and can count on them as an option when I travel.

What I have little hope with are the local languages. It pricks my ego that I cant seem to pick even a single word (I had learnt the word for ‘Thank You’ and then promptly forgotten). It amuses me (reminding me of India) when people from different parts of Ghana themselves do not understand each other’s languages and have to resort of English to communicate. If I were able to even partially crack even one of the local languages, I would consider that a great personal achievement.

And work…has been fine. I enjoy the sense of camaraderie that exists here across hierarchies and I know I am working with a group that is serious, committed and competent.

***

About 21 months later, happy to report that I had a great time here. Public transport is fine; the language still a mystery. Both ISSER and IPA were great to be around and I leave hoping I will come back – adding to the list of places I feel familiar with and that I know I could live in. Work has seen ups and downs, as one might expect and there have been moments that were hugely satisfying professionally and some others, that were pretty frustrating. I will write more about it after I leave here, I think – there are lots of little things that made a difference; and none so much as to make these two years any different on average from any previous year – and that’s mostly the way I wanted it to be.

Now with three weeks to go and at the verge of taking major leaps in both my personal and professional life, I am trying, as usual, to be calm and non-curious. Its a bit harder this time though.

Delhi, I know; a job with KPMG – not really. Sanjana, I know; marriage – ??  

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MBA as an insurance policy

Sidin Vadukut, an IIM-A graduate and now an author, confirms a popular stereotype in this (video) and this.

In the video, at the very end, he talks about how the Chief Guest the convocation, Raghuram Rajan spoke of the IIM A degree being a life insurance policy – one that guarantees that the IIM A graduate should not be risk-averse for even if everything goes wrong, he/she can fallback on the degree. Sidin says he took that advice to heart and that’s probably the reason he could chuck the comforts of a salaried consulting job to take a stab at writing for a living.

An MBA from many a top b-school could act as a similar guarantee. Not too many of us use it to really explore our creativity. There are a couple I know personally, and admire – one, a wanderer and the other, a musician. Of course, an MBA is not the only guarantee, but its an easy one…

MBA as an insurance policy

Sidin Vadukut, an IIM-A graduate and now an author, confirms a popular stereotype in this (video) and this.

In the video, at the very end, he talks about how the Chief Guest the convocation, Raghuram Rajan spoke of the IIM A degree being a life insurance policy – one that guarantees that the IIM A graduate should not be risk-averse for even if everything goes wrong, he/she can fallback on the degree. Sidin says he took that advice to heart and that’s probably the reason he could chuck the comforts of a salaried consulting job to take a stab at writing for a living.

An MBA from many a top b-school could act as a similar guarantee. Not too many of us use it to really explore our creativity. There are a couple I know personally, and admire – one, a wanderer and the other, a musician. Of course, an MBA is not the only guarantee, but its an easy one…

Dress to kill

Please do not embarrass us is basically what the Ministry of Health seems to be trying to convey through the Roving Bandit.

Those of us who work in the ‘sector’ are familiar with the liberties some people take in the name of being non-conformist or anti-establishment. In India, the ‘kurta and jhola’ are standard NGO-wallah symbols. Add to that a stubble and open sandals – and you are sure to be known as a left-leaning intellectual. Sure enough, I have played to the stereotype, but it also helped that I had been wearing kurtas from long before I started working for Gram Vikas in Orissa.

I do agree that some people literally dress to kill. But then, I am also as vehemently in disagreement with over-dressing. For instance, I see men wearing suits and ties in the hot and humid Ghana. Sure, if I walk into their offices here even wearing a loose shirt and jeans, I would feel terribly under-dressed. However, it is official etiquette…wonder if they will ever be relaxed.
But there is hope – whenever anyone wears any local fabric, the official dress code vanishes. From colourful prints to over-sized gown-like attire…it is seriously casual, but smart. Much like the kurta-jhola look back home…

What is Africa like?

Thanks to Chris Blattman for pointing me, through this post, to the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. He recommended the interview. I gladly followed the lead and absolutely loved it.

It also got me thinking – I too, am an outsider in Ghana, working in the development sector with a local research institution. What do I really think about Ghana? and about Africa? I actually don’t have an answer to that. How do I process a situation here, or get things done? I know something about that. What am I learning from here? I can figure that out too. In a previous post 3 weeks after reaching Accra, I had written about how easy it was to start out and settle in. Now, I am two weeks short of completing four months in Ghana. So these thoughts make sense.

First things first. I am completely aware of my overwhelming ignorance about the continent. About the specifics. Yes, I was aware Africa is not a country. And, I guess one of the good things about growing up in India is that our parents did not need to show us images of naked starving children from across the seas. They were always there, just across the street. In spite of that though, I knew about famines in Ethiopia and Sudan. We read the basic geography of Africa in secondary school. We obviously did Indian history in good detail too, especially in a broad-brushed manner – choosing to focus selectively through 5000 years of civilisation (that we Indians take very seriously) – on a narrative of our past glory. So yes I know of a Nelson Mandela (because of his association with Mahatma Gandhi). I also had heard of dictators and guerrillas. No names, just information that they existed. And about diamonds. First movie set in Africa that I remember – Gods Must be Crazy. It was really funny and we used to watch it over and over. I was very aware of how people of African origin dominated the sports world.

Very superficial. And basic – this is all I knew as I grew up. Along the way, I picked up little bits here and there – some that interested me and so I kept them in mind, some that didn’t interest me, so I forgot about them. So yes, I will never claim to be an Africa expert, not even to be a Ghana/Accra expert (just as I will never claim to be an India expert). Life, as it unfolds around me, is almost always anecdotal. While I carry some generalised impressions, I will never make the mistake of assuming I have completely understood the people or their successes/failures. All I can quote are examples – “this is what I saw in city X at this time. This suggests that…” or “this is what person Y told me about this issue. I think that is an interesting view because it supports/refutes the claims made by person Z (who may be a policy maker/practitioner/academic/layman)”.  I did not think of development work in any part of Africa as being any more different or difficult than in say, any part of India. Obviously, the solutions could not be the same. I have always believed that its more important to cultivate the right perspective to look at a situation – often more important than even coming up with a solution.

All this of course does not in any way mean I don’t want to know ‘why’ something works and ‘why’ something else doesn’t. I am. But learning is a slow process, and I am prepared to be patient in my quest.

Now, coming back to Binyavanga Wainaina – listening to the interview made me realise there was so much of the conventional image of Africa that I had never heard of previously. Wainaina is oozing sarcasm in this piece. Firstly, I do not feel any special love for Africa/Ghana/Accra. And I dont feel the need to justify my existence here.

With the mental framework I carry, I am reasonably sure I will never make the mistake of generalising Africa or Africans and talking of them in halo-ed stereotypes. If anything, the three months in Accra have given me a completely diverse picture. Again, Accra is not Ghana. Everyone in Ghana knows that and keeps repeating that. It is probably as true that Ghana is not like the rest of Africa.

So what have I seen so far? Glimpses from my life here:

  • There are a million hawkers on the roads, at traffic signals, selling almost everything possible – maps, clothes, footballs, phone cards, bread, water, fruits, key chains, pens, magazines…everything. A lot of people are working very hard to make a living.
  • Religion is a big deal here and Christians in particular, are very loud in their prayers. Its like a thousand big parties at different places every Sunday morning and whenever else they schedule special sessions.
  • Everyone bargains – just like in India. It is annoying at times, but mostly, just banter followed by a compromise.  There is a thriving local economy; and a parallel over-priced, but cushy expat economy.
  • The roads here are impressively well laid, but the open gutters on both sides are not and neither is the traffic management.
  • As academic researchers or research managers, people are excellent and usually have great insights from long years of experience. I am reasonably sure they hold their own when negotiating with the government or international agencies. But admin is a mess.
  • I have seen/met many feisty, outgoing women. Is that a sign of women’s empowerment in general? Probably not. But its strikingly different from India.
  • There are slums, people living in boxes. Poverty is easily visible in the rural and semi-urban areas I have visited as well
  • There seems to be a thriving democracy. Politicians bicker, allege and ridicule each other. People I have talked to make judgments on the government’s performance, grumble about their problems and often, tell me they are proud to be Ghanaian.
  • Corruption – I have seen it play out both ways – in situations which could have  been easily exploited, there were helpful government officials (immigration personnel, police, etc) and the other extreme where some officials not only insisted on being paid off, but also made it  a really tortuous experience for us. And a third, where some people just try their luck and look for a little pay-off, but refrain from pushing it.

None of this is surprising; or exciting or anymore depressing than a scene in another part of the world. That is really the reality for me. In any case, reading/hearing about anything in Africa surely doesn’t infuriate me as much as reading about the dismal public policy failure in regulating the obscene global (speculative) financial sector.

One of the few FMCG companies I have some interest in

is HLL. Yes, I know its HUL now. But I haven’t quite made the switch in my head. And whether HLL remains an iconic FMCG company in India or not, it is the one name in a headline that is sure to grab my attention in a newspaper or the internet.

Why? well, its silly. I had my first ever job interview with HLL. In 2003. HLL used to offer a rather attractive trainee-ship programme to undergraduates (in their final year) in select few colleges in India. SRCC was one of them. In my final year, sometime in the last few months of college-life, placement season started. Of course, placements in SRCC have now expanded way beyond what it was back then. Click here for a quick glimpse

Back then, there were a few random companies on campus, HLL was the prized catch. I cant remember for sure, but surely over a 100 students applied. I did too. I was short-listed. Big first step – we were down to six or so. Then, I  gave the first job interview of my life. It was great fun.

I clearly remember the panel pleased and nodding their heads when I mentioned how integrated HLL’s products are in the day-to-day activities at my home. That we often didn’t know that the products we used regularly were HLL, but knew only the brands of the specific products like Surf, Sunlight, Vim, Rin etc etc. We talked about ethics – of factories without pollution clearance not shutting down (not realising ever that HLL was in fact embroiled in a controversy in Kodaikanal – the story pretty much as described by the interviewers).

Long and short of it – I made it through that round. One among the two candidates chosen from SRCC to go on to the subsequent rounds. Big ego-booster. The next round was to be in the Gurgaon HLL office. That interview, it turned out, was a day before my IRMA interview for which I had to travel to Anand, a 16 hour train journey. Luckily for me, when I proposed that I could go to Bombay (6 hours from Anand) and appear for an interview at the HLL head office at Backbay Reclamation a day after my IRMA interview, HLL agreed. I was even impressed by the name – Backbay Reclamation!

Armed with blessings from parents and the good wishes of friends, the IRMA interview was smooth. I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it, but I liked the campus and the people and the questions at the interview. I talked a lot about the little I knew of Kerala and explained the (now-silly-sounding) logic of how the ‘Development Economics’ class in my final year at SRCC had spurred my interest in Development and convinced me to run away from the latter part.Anyhow – mission completed and as I would later know – with success. Began planning the train ride to Bombay – the first of many on that route – and all of them easily rank among the toughest train rides I have ever been on.

I had never been to Bombay before (I think). But I was out, on the designated date, in full-sleeved shirt (blue Vaish), pleat-ed trouser (dont remember which one. With my expanding waist line, I have had to discard many trousers over the years, but I still have that shirt) and a tie borrowed from my cousin – tied, but kept safely in the pocket for the duration of the commute by the Bombay local.

Earlier that day, at breakfast, my cousin asked me – what are some examples of FMCGs? I started with TV, washing machine…! That was my level of preparedness for this mission. I also remember, later that day, walking around in circles in and around Nariman Point for over half-an-hour before I could find the famously reclaimed backbay. Now, with the tie in the right place and wiping sweat off forehead, I made my way in. I had to focus so hard to finding my way to the place that by then, I had all but forgotten about the interview.

The interview itself was hilarious. I of course do not remember exactly in how many ways I made an ass of myself in there. I tried making a pitch about why sales excited me (my friends would have laughed even at the thought of me doing sales). But I was mixing it up with ‘development’ and improvement in quality of life of the poor and whole lot of bull. The HR head was there. And so was another very senior manager. I was much less savvy back then, or else, I would have taken their business cards and gotten in touch with them a decade later.

The senior guy asked me – What are the three main problems faced by an Indian farmer? Damn, why, IRMA had not asked me that in their interview. If they had I probably would have never made it there. Here at HLL, I felt what it was like to sweat in a air-con cabin. As I fumbled and struggled and said something about fertilisers, I could clearly see the panel sympathizing with me, probably thinking – “there is no way in hell we can give him this job. And he probably wont make it to IRMA either. The other topic I remember was one about career choices. He asked me what my second choice of career was (sitting in there, my first choice obviously was selling FMCG). I said – ‘civil service’. Why did I then choose sales over civil service? I started with all the negatives of civil service that I could think of. Turns out, the interviewer’s daddy was a civil servant. He said he was going to play the ‘devil’s advocate’ and defend civil service. He won. I lost.

By the time the interview got over, everyone was done even pretending that I had a vague shot at the job. I had looked up the HLL website in some detail before this interview. None of it had been of any use. I consoled myself thinking that I got screwed because I had to face the real tough guys, a choice I made by opting out of Delhi and scheduling a Bombay slot. Anyways – IRMA worked out and life took off in a completely different direction. But I never forgot HLL…

The worst winters…

for me were during my three years in Delhi. Living in a room with wooden windows and doors that had cracks in them; no room heating; going to bed wearing three layers of warm clothes and socks under a warm razai (duvet) – doesn’t matter the temperature is rarely ever sub-zero. Its just cold everywhere. No respite. A couple of friends in the hostel had electric heaters – the kind that you could use for cooking as well as room heating. A clear fire hazard. But we had so many nights of instant noodles and toasted bread thanks to those things. Midnight parties and warm friends – that’s what saw us all through.

And then there were the train rides in the winter breaks to Trivandrum and back. A 54 hour train ride to get home. Luckily, it wasn’t cold all the way. South India was pleasant. But to get there, we had to pass one night in the train – with the open windows and doors and the pores in the coach through which the cold wind streamed in. On the way back to Delhi, the train used to pass Bhopal at about 5 am. I remember on almost every such train ride, walking down the coaches to the pantry and getting a cup of hot milk. No coffee/tea for me back then.

Last year in Brighton, I experienced snow for the first time ever. And made it through the notorious English winter. It was a breeze. Really. After the kind of training Delhi put me through, I bet I can stand much worse. In fact, we would be outdoors a lot more in Delhi, since staying in rarely made a difference, and sometimes, was just worse – cold and damp.

Read that Delhi is getting terrible weather right now. Hold on, people…