July 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Two weeks in Uganda is a crash course in humility.
I am an ant, on day 16, crawling on the surface of the world’s most complex continent – a speck of a speck in a history reaching back centuries beyond my Scottish ancestors.
Mosquito bites down my right arm, razor burn down my left leg and three notebooks of hand written pages in six different colors of colored pen, here I am trying to pin down a piece of the enormity that is Africa rising and taking her place in the global market.
And I am tired.
Three things remain consistent: world over: water, sun and Guinness. This weekend, I set out in search of all three.
A thousand shillings and a boda ride later, I was walking into the Swim and Dive, just shy of Agenda 200 on Namugongo road where I left twin sweat marks on the back of my driver’s faux leather seat.
I convinced the life guard I just wanted to lay on one of the soggy, plastic chairs and he waived my 5,000 shilling “swim fee” after a back and forth of the same conversation for several moments.
“You only want to sit on that chair – that chair there?”
“I just want to sit there.”
“You don’t want to swim, you only want to sit?”
“I only want to sit.”
“So you will not swim?”
“I will not swim.”
“No, it’s ok. You go.”
Social entrepreneurship is what I imagine an enduro must feel like – simultaneously washed up at your weakest and best in a place beyond where you’ve ever pushed yourself before. I imagine there must be some place where you want to quit, then a point of numb exhaustion, pushing forward for god knows what reason except that you said you would, and then your second wind arrives, and suddenly you’re in it to win again. There’s some type of clearing ahead – and, at the end, a finish line.
In 16 days, I’ve been stolen from, double crossed, left to find my own way in a city I couldn’t map out if you asked me to, cut my supply chain in half, fired and hired a manager, threw out an entire set of designs and started from scratch – loved and hated Uganda at once. And, in a series of small, acutely personal ways, I have been reborn.
I’ve laid awake until 4 AM, had nightmares like a scared little girl in the dark, resolved through my issues with people I love but hadn’t forgiven, and people I needed to left go. I’ve been stressed to the point of delirium, staring at my mosquito net in sheer, anxious exhaustion, unwilling to turn out the light. I’ve been afraid of losing the things I love most in my life, methodically aware of what I have grown to love – people, a home in Brooklyn, my family, and how I would feel if I lost any of it. Alone with myself, I’ve discovered that I’ve been rubbed raw by exposing the things at the heart of me.
“I’m living out the things I always wanted most,” I told Onyait in the kitchen. Electricity out. Dark. Candles. Peeling potatoes for an hour.
The people, the place, the job. I’ve done the work to get to the edge. It’s scary out here, living your dream. You’ve got a hell of a lot more to lose than when you stayed comfortable with the things that were only marginally important to you. Out here is no man’s land, all passion and fire and love for things you know you couldn’t stand to lose.
“You’re at your best,” T told me over a bad internet connection to San Francisco, two days later.
He told me we can only mimic the desperation that occurs before our best work. When it comes, it sharpens us. The real genius, the masterpiece, comes at the end of our rope – the jagged edge of disaster before you just might topple…and don’t.
Out beyond what we’ve endured is where innovation happens. I don’t mean shiny, New York technological innovation on a pitch platform stage or an air conditioned contest room. I mean hot mess innovation – the kind when there’s red dirt under your finger nails and hair on your legs and a pounding desperation behind your need to find a solution or lose years of work in a place where you have no favors to call in before you make your next move.
That’s when you get smart.
I sat down and started writing, with the sun and water and Guinness last week. Two Guinness and six pages of writing later, I knew I’d learned more in my two week humility crash course than I perhaps had in the past six months.
“Your impact will be measured by your profitability.” That was the first one. I scrawled it into my notebook as T was saying it, warning me not to get too emotional, but to instead focus on good business, and let the social good fall in line underneath it. The next work day, my lead artisan and I let 10 workers go, choosing to focus on quality instead of numbers – women with the most intense initiative, instead of women with the most intense need.
Number two was to create competition, instead of competing against myself. Thousands of people earn their place in a global market every hour, and I learned that I have to teach the women I work with to do the same. Show up on time. Put your best foot forward. If its not good enough, do it over again – and do it better, this time. Incentive. Competition. Broadened understanding. These things are my job to bring to the table, even when it doesn’t feel good. And, I’ve learned it almost never does. The other half of my job? Decrease the competition happening against me within my own supply chain – things like laziness, misunderstanding, dishonesty, bad vibes.
Number three: test everything. “There is a life cycle to working with you,” T explained. “It lasts only as long as a woman works for it to.” When he said it, I pictured myself as the last in a long line of worn out matatus – NGOs and nonprofits, hand outs and free rides to no where except the place you started. Here, you have to begin where we all do – with waking up and trying your very best. And I have begun to ask that of each of the women I work with, as I do myself. I’ve found, in the midst of it, that they have been asked for their suffering, their disease, their sad stories – but not, recently, for their very best. And perhaps that will be the most healing request of all, over time.
Four was the most important. I learned that even the strongest, most persistent of people have a breaking point. I’ve got to know before I get there, and set up boundaries, guards – lines of clarity between me and the great big, guilt ridden abyss that exists if I let myself get sucked into the wrong vortex of mixing business and development work.
God. What am I made up of? That’s how I feel when I walk out of certain situations in development.
Skin. Blood. Family. Desire. Doubt. Blind Drive. Blinding fear. Experience. Memory. Love.
Who am I?
I am all the things I love, and the things I hate – the things I cannot handle, and the things I can. I am my breaking point, and the things I do to save myself so I don’t go beyond it. I am the people who love me – the things I have learned, the rage filled drive to beat the intellectual obstacles, the technological issues, the desire to do better in business than I saw my former bosses and mentors do within the constraints of aid, before I began this journey. I am every hour of effort between me and profit earned on the back of my biggest dreams.
I am everything that has brought me here. But I am more than that.
I am my second wind, and my vision of the finish line.
I am in this to win.
June 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
If I could give you a piece of Africa, I’d give you color.
Great, big, popping bananas off the side of my veranda and searing blue sky – clear like Lake Tahoe. Except the African sky goes to straight to the heart of the world. Great, pulsing, heart of the world blue sky.
If I could give you a piece of Africa, I’d give you children, looking up at me at the roadside banana stands at night with casava in their hands and white on their cheeks from messy eating.
I’d give you their quick morning greetings from the side of the road, only after I’ve passed – shy, until they have my back. I wait to hair their shouting from behind, and I wave – “Zungu! Zungu! How are you? Hi hi! I am fine!”
If I could give you a piece of Africa, I’d give you the heart of the world speaking.
“I love you,” “I love her,” “be still,” or, two nights ago, “this is going somewhere beautiful. Trust it.”
I don’t need a name for it – Elohim, or Jah or God. I know its speaking to me. My heart goes still. My mind clears. It’s a pulsing, a compass – a path in a place where all the road signs seem to have gone missing somewhere in the brick red earth.
I’d give you the breaking down of a set of ideals and beliefs, the changing up of what you thought you knew. Betrayal, racism, prejudice. “Mzungu, you give to me from your happiness. You are so rich.”
I’d give you the feeling of hatred from a woman who doesn’t understand you. I’d give you the misunderstanding that’s changed my life, once I learned to let it go, learn from it, live beyond it.
“You don’t have time for that,” Onyait tells me. And, after years of paying attention to small people, betrayal and petty arguments – I finally believe him. And I grow much bigger, here, under the searing, heart of the world, blue sky.
If I could give you a piece of Africa, I’d give you the magic in building a story.
“I called my relative in London,” my lead artisan told me last night. “I asked him, ‘what should I name the new design the Mzungu girl and I have now created together?’”
“‘Jazi,’ he told me. In my language it means, ‘to expand.’”