Monday, 25 February 2013

The Return Home: Part III – Exposed

We were on our way to South Africa, one week after landing back in Zambia. For us, the timing couldn’t have been any better. We were in serious need of a break from Zambia after the disastrous week back from vacation. We relished the opportunity to get back to the Hands Village and reconnect with all our good friends there. We were excited to take advantage of normal restaurants, shopping malls and grocery stores. Materialistic, you say? Perhaps. Probably, in fact. But there were things we wanted to make our stay in Zambia a little more comfortable – a French press (who isn’t in desperate need of a cup of good coffee (i.e., not instant) in the morning?), decent bedsheets and pillowcases (who isn’t in desperate need of a good night’s sleep?), Asian groceries and ingredients (who isn’t in desperate need of comfort food?), and a giant bag of protein powder (who isn’t in desperate need of muscle recovery supplements to help you get shredded?) … OK maybe we could have done without this last one. Most of all, we were looking forward to hashing out our future with Hands.

The Initial Conversation – Some Clarity

The first day in South Africa, we sat down with Lynn and Marc and continued where our Skype conversation left off from a few days earlier. The conversation, from our end, essentially reflected everything we expressed in our previous blog post. “We love Zambia and our team at the Kitwe Service Centre BUT … (insert issue here).” Despite what seemed like us laying a barrage of convincing testimony about how it didn’t seem like Zambia was a great fit for us long-term, Lynn and Marc remained steadfast in their belief that Zambia was where we belonged.

Why Kitwe? And why for so long?

One of the major questions we had was why, from the beginning, we had been assigned to support the Kitwe Service Centre for 6 months, as opposed to the 6 weeks that everyone else in our intake had at their respective Service Centres. This question was even more pressing now that there was the possibility of us staying in Kitwe beyond the 6 months. Our primary concern was that the roles we were in were not utilizing our skills and abilities to the fullest. Again, I want to reiterate that we loved being with our team but we felt that we had more to offer than to simply tag along with whatever they were doing, without defined roles or a clear mandate as to what we should specifically be doing or moving towards.

Lynn and Marc acknowledged our concerns and understood how being at the Service Centre, at times, could have been a struggle for us. Despite this, they helped us realize that that’s a big part of the reason we are there – to help the Service Centre get to a place where there aren’t days wasted sitting around in the office or running around inefficiently. Our team of Blessings, Towela, Clement and Mary possess all the character traits that cannot be taught, the ones that enable them to be so committed as humble servants, to serve the most vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities. However, they are doing so with virtually little to no education past high school, with no previous organizational or managerial experience and having grown up in a culture where the prevailing mindset is one of survival, not one of efficiency and optimization. We’re only beginning to understand how vast the dichotomy is between our two cultures.

The Service Centre itself is fairly new, having only started in 2010 (compared with some of our other Service Centres that have been around for 10 years). On top of our team being so green, it is in a period of transition. Blessings is transitioning into the RST and Towela is taking over the role of the Service Centre Coordinator, a role in which she shared with Blessings over the last little while, but in which she more often than not defaulted to Blessings to lead. Clement, our field coordinator in charge of project support, is even newer, having been on board less than a year, and is still in the process of getting comfortable in his role and in the communities. Mary, our bookkeeper, is transitioning out of that role and into a new role of administrator. Throw in a new bookkeeper and field coordinator in charge of care worker support to be added later this year and the need for support in the Service Centre becomes more glaring than ever.

As the discussion continued, Lynn and Marc explained how we should now be transitioning into a much more active role in the Service Centre. As stated before, our pre-Christmas mandate was solely to build relationship which sounded great but led to us feeling unsettled and that we were not accomplishing much else. What we are now beginning to grasp is that it would have been extremely difficult for us to take on more active roles had we not built the level of relationship we currently have with our Service Centre team and the care workers in the various Community Based Organizations (CBOs) our team supports. Without that level of relationship and trust, nothing we say or do is of any value or consequence. Imagine what it would be like for some random foreigners to step into in an African community, not having walked alongside the children and the care workers in that community, not having established any credibility in their eyes, and then having the audacity to think they can step in and play the role of hero. We’re not saying that the 6 weeks we spent in Kitwe pre-Christmas elevated us to savior status but we cannot underestimate the power of the relationships we built and how imperative they are to the work we will be doing. This, coupled with our greater understanding of the operations of the Service Centre, puts us in a much better position to effectively “build capacity” than we were back in October.

Lynn and Marc further explained that the reason we were assigned to Kitwe long-term is because it is a key area of focus and growth for Hands. Currently, Zambia receives the largest amount of donor support amongst the 8 African countries that Hands operates in and Kitwe is one of Hands’ largest Service Centres, partnering with and supporting 9 different CBOs. Hands could not have asked for a better team to lead that Service Centre and investing in each one of them is high on its priority list.

Most importantly, Hands could not emphasize enough how much our team considered us a blessing. Although we doubted how much we really contributed to or built into what they were doing, our team lobbied for us to continue with them long-term and spoke about how invaluable we have been to the Service Centre and how invaluable we will be going forward into the new year. Though we may not have necessarily agreed with their assessment, it meant the world to us.

What about the isolation? The lack of community?

On the issue of our lack of community being in Kitwe, Lynn and Marc explained that Hands is focused on building more into and establishing a larger presence in Zambia, essentially hoping that it will one day serve as a second hub (the main hub being in South Africa). The immediate and long-term plan is to build into Kachele Farm (our main hub in Zambia, just outside of Luanshya) to make it an ideal place to station more long-term international volunteers. Despite this vision for Zambia, there is a severe shortage of people here on the ground. We may be lacking in community but we understand how our presence and support in Zambia is vital at this time. I guess we’ll just have to learn to put up with each other!

What about the car situation?

To be determined. Lynn pledged that I wouldn’t have to deal with this on my own and that, when it gets closer to the expiration of my 6-month permit, and we have a better idea of where we will be long-term, Hands will do everything it can to assist me through the process.

How did we feel after this conversation?

After this initial conversation, we felt somewhat better about the prospects of staying in Zambia. While not all of our concerns were addressed, it helped us gain some much needed clarification about our purpose and roles going forward and why it is so important for us to be there at this time. Having said that, we were still experiencing some anxiety about the possibility of us staying in Zambia long-term.

The Second Conversation – Going Deep

A week went by after our initial conversation, leading us to assume that there was no further discussion to be had, at least until April. Lynn, however, wanted to spend more time with the two of us while we were in South Africa so he invited to take us out for dinner in Nelspruit. With Lynn’s wife out of town, Marc became Lynn’s de facto date and the four of us went into town for some Indian food. (Surprised that there’s Indian food in Africa? It’s more common than you think!)

The dinner was meant to be informal and more of an opportunity for us to hang out and catch up but it didn’t take long for the discussion to revert back to our future when I brought up the issue of my car. The conversation started when I asked if Hands had any insight into how long they envisioned us in Zambia. I was wary of beating a dead horse but, aside from our general curiosity, I needed to have an idea of whether I needed to start thinking about making arrangements to import my vehicle into the country, given that my 6-month temporary permit is set to expire in mid-April. Lynn, almost expecting the question, turned the question around back at us (don’t you hate it when that happens?). Essentially, his response went something like this:

“I think a large part of that answer depends on you guys and where you’re at in your decision of whether you are going back home after the 1-year mark or whether you plan on staying in Africa longer. I know that it’s something you guys have stated you’re open to. The way I see it, if you decide to go home after your year is over, it makes most sense for you to stay in Zambia and continue to build upon everything you’ve already established there, rather than to uproot you guys and place you in entirely new roles in an entirely new country, since it would only be for a few months. On the other hand, if it’s in your plans to stay with Hands past this year, then I think it makes most sense, with your guys’ respective skill sets, to have you back at the Hub in South Africa. So, having said that, where are you guys at with that decision?”

Whammo! We weren’t expecting this discussion to happen so soon but, yet, here we were, face to face with the million dollar question that has been the source of much inner anxiety and conflict ever since we’ve been here. The discussion that followed exposed much … maybe a little too much … about where our hearts were at.

Warning … This is going to get philosophical ... And potentially may not make sense to everyone. Regardless, I’ll try my best to reproduce what we got out of the conversation and how it spoke so deeply into our hearts. (*Kudos to Lynn Chotowetz and Chris Wiersma for a lot of the ideas behind the following mish-mash of thoughts*)

As North Americans, as Westerners, we are born into a culture where our identity is based on a myriad of things, most of which do not actually define who we really are as a person. Most often, our identity is based on our profession, our chosen line of work. Do I define myself as a lawyer? I really hope not. I may have been young as a fourth-year lawyer but I’m not going to deceive anyone to believe that I was ever going to be seen as a rising star in the legal field. Is my identity based in my family – in my role as a husband, a son, a brother? What does that even mean? Are my defining characteristics a product of my interests, skills or talents, most of which revolve around sports? Does that make me who I am?

Along the same vein, we have an ingrained mindset to assess our value and our worth primarily on three factors: performance, achievement and comparison. We take a highly detailed view of performance and achievement and work backwards from that to gain insight to what we are worth, who we are and how we rank in the grand pecking order of things. We look to things such as the figure on our paycheck or bank account, the size of the house we own, the type of car we drive, the brand of clothing that we wear, etc. We have an innate tendency to view our peers as measures of comparison, associating positive things to those who have more and negative things to those who have less. The measure of success is often based on how much we have to be proud of.

Therein lies the question both of us have had to wrestle with since we arrived here: “Who am I? Who am I in Africa? What is my identity here?” All of the things I’ve built myself upon my whole life – all of the indicators of my value, my worth, my level of success – count for jack all. That’s not to say that my education and experience are not important or that my family and relationships have no significance in my life. But when looking to the factors of performance, achievement and comparison in trying to determine what my identity is here in Africa, I am utterly lost, because they mean absolutely nothing. All of the things that I felt made me valuable and worthwhile all fall by the wayside.

It is in this identity crisis that I think a lot of our struggles have been rooted. Inherently, we long to feel appreciated, to feel valued. We think that, by virtue of our education and experience, we are entitled to something, that we are “overqualified” to be here and that we have sacrificed so much more than most. When we sit idly with our team, it is an abomination of our precious time, a waste of our abundance of talent and skill. We yearn to be constantly validated by what we do, what we achieve, and it was humbling to think that we had yet to, or at least feel like we had yet to, make so much as a dent. It’s ugly, I know, and it’s tough to admit and come to grips with. But, really … who do we think we are? When we set out to come to Africa, we wanted to eliminate this very mindset, knowing full well the inherit dangers in it and how it could potentially hinder what God could accomplish through us during our time here. We said all the right things and maintained a happy face, all the while allowing those sentiments to creep slowly into our hearts.

The idea that we can form our identity by looking at God reaching out to us instead of how we are performing in our lives is incredible. An identity based on God’s decision to show us grace in light of all our shortcomings, our faults and our failures provides us with immeasurably more than performance, achievement or comparison ever could. The fact that we have “sacrificed so much” and abandoned our lives back home to become missionaries in Africa does not mean we are in need of any less grace or more deserving of His favour than anyone else. We are nothing but for His grace. We desperately needed to be reminded of that and live our lives accordingly, rather than validate our existence through chasing things that, ultimately, will always fall short.

When we made the decision to come to Africa, we did so out of faith and obedience to God’s calling in our hearts. We did not come for an adventure or an experience, to check one off the proverbial bucket list. We wanted to avoid coming to seek a cure to all that ailed our spiritual lives or to alleviate the increasing burden of attempting to live our lives for Christ while also trying to keep up in the rat race of the material world. Rather, we wanted to come for the “right” reasons. We sought to humble ourselves and asked that God use us in whatever way He desired, not in the way where we would feel most fulfilled. We pledged to put our faith in Him, to trust in His purpose for us being in Africa and that we would not let our own personal desires or selfish ambitions interfere. How quickly things changed …

Through all our complaining, all the focus on our recent misfortunes, all the self-pitying, we realized that we had all of a sudden, somehow, made everything about “we”. WE are not being utilized properly. WE are lacking community. WE are getting screwed with our car. WE have nothing to do, no restaurants to eat at, no ability to buy what we feel we need. WE don’t like our home. WE are uncomfortable. Wah wah wah … As our whining and complaining replayed over in our heads, we wanted to tell ourselves: “Go cry about it … you pathetic LOSERS!” OK, that might be a bit harsh but you get the point. Everything became about us and how we’re so hard done by, without even the slightest hint of perspective, which is shocking, given where we live, the work we do and who we’re surrounded by. There was not even any contemplation of where God fit into all of this or what His plan was through all of this. It was only about Diane and Byron. Byron and Diane. That was all that mattered. Needless to say, we couldn’t have been more disappointed in ourselves.

I don’t know how or why we expected any different. We did not make this life-altering decision simply because we thought we would enjoy our time in Africa. We are not delusional to the point that we thought we would live comfortably here. We knew full well that we’d miss our family, our friends, the comforts of home, etc. Do we enjoy being in Africa? Sure … to a certain extent. But, also to a certain extent … not that much. If our main focus was to enjoy life, then Africa is probably the last place we would be. It’s not like we convinced ourselves that being complete outsiders, in 40 degree heat, in a foreign, third-world country was in any way more desirable than kicking it back at home, downing a delicious bowl of pho and a delicious bubble tea, while bouncing my niece or nephews on my lap. It’s not as if we thought to ourselves that making zero income for the next year and having to step out in faith and humbly rely on friends and family to support us was the key to happiness in life. Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of being in Africa that we love – the community, the level of spirituality, the work we’re doing – but we’re not here simply because we enjoy it.

Nor are we here because we have some grand illusions that we will “save” Africa in our brief time here . A one-year commitment is nothing to sneeze at, for sure, but we are very aware that the problems here are cultural and systemic, have lingered for generation upon generation and are beyond what any one (or two) person(s) can do to solve it in their lifetime.

Putting it simply, using the logic of the world to assess the pros and cons of being in Africa, doing what we’re doing, living how we’re living, would result in a one-way ticket back home. But, at the risk of sounding cliché, we are here because we are called to be. And we will continue to be here for as long as God calls us to be here. There was and is something very deep that is pulling at every fibre of our being to be here in the midst of everything else that doesn’t make sense about it. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of that. We lost insight and perspective on the only thing that really matters and the only reason behind everything we seek to do with our lives.

For those of you that are skeptical or concerned that our idea of following God means that we have to give up everything we glean any personal pleasure from and, instead, suffer, let us assure you that this is not how we feel. We realize that there tends to be a bias towards thinking we need to live like martyrs before we are truly living our lives for God. However, we do not subscribe to that ideology, nor is it our intention to live that way. We said it from the beginning and we will continue to believe it – one can serve God and serve others no matter where they are and regardless of what they are doing (subject to certain limitations, of course). Not everyone plays the same part or is blessed with the same gifts. But we are all called to be a part of the body of Christ. We do not feel compelled to be in Africa or to stay in Africa simply because we equate serving orphaned and vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities as the only way to serve God with our lives. Granted, it’s hard to think of a more worthwhile cause to devote ourselves to at this point in our lives, which is why we are here, but it does not necessarily mean that God has called us to be here forever.

For now, we need to get back to the heart of why we are here – to serve God and to serve His people in the way that He has called us to in this moment – and have faith that God will take care of the rest, whether or not we ever come to see or realize the fruits of our labour. Everything else is just noise.

*For those of you that have stuck with us and supported us throughout this journey (particularly through this verbal diarrhea masquerading as a three-part blog post), please continue to extend us grace and pray for us (see the updated prayer request section of this blog). Thank you!*

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Return Home: Part II – What does the future hold?

In the midst of our hellish week, we got a Skype call from Lynn (the Operations Director of Hands) and Marc (also part of the leadership team at Hands). I (Byron) have known Lynn and Marc (both of whom, coincidentally, are from Calgary) since I first volunteered with Hands back in May 2008. Diane and I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them and both serve as an inspiration to us, having been in Africa with Hands for a combined 11 years, despite both being only in their early-to-mid 30’s. The purpose of the call was to debrief our time in Zambia so far and to discuss our roles going forward into the new year.

Our Time in Kitwe

We raved about our team in Kitwe and how much we’ve enjoyed working with them. The relationships we’ve built with each of Blessings, Towela, Clement and Mary have been a huge blessing in our lives and we are mindful not to take those relationships for granted. Upon being assigned to support the Service Centre in Kitwe for the 6 weeks before Christmas holidays, our mandate was simple: build relationships. If an opportunity presents itself, build capacity, but building relationship with the Service Centre team and the care workers in the various communities and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) was our number one priority. As mentioned above, we felt that we were able to accomplish this fairly well and we received reciprocal feedback from our Service Centre team.

In terms of building capacity, we felt we were able to contribute most tangibly when it came time to preparing budgets and proposals. As mentioned in an earlier post, the 2013 Three Essential Services (food, education, health) budgets for each CBO were due towards the end of last year, as well as all 2013 project proposals and training budgets. Given the time constraint to have these submitted, we really saw how our knowledge of computers and Microsoft Excel greatly assisted in the preparation and submission of each of these budgets. Having said that, due to the time constraint, this exercise did not so much build capacity in our team as it did ease the burden on them. It’s not like we feel any more confident in our team’s ability to prepare and reason through budgets for each community or that we can point to a noticeable uptick in their grasp of the inner workings of Microsoft Excel.

Throughout most other days, it was a joy to do the things we were doing, whether it was going into community to visit one of our CBOs or assisting our team in conducting a training session with a group of care workers. However, in much of the work that we were doing, we were curious as to whether our presence was making any impact. Sure, we got along great and our relationships were continuing to grow, so we have no doubts that our team enjoyed us being a part of them, but we weren’t as confident in exactly what we were bringing to the table. A large part of the struggle is a result of our work being dependent on what the needs and situations of our communities are and/or what Blessings and Towela assign us to do. If there is nothing to do, we are not in a position to create work or bring up ideas as to what they should be doing, yet. We have, after all, only been there for 6 weeks and it is not our role to tell them how they should do things. Moreover, we don’t have a specific set of daily duties that we can rely on as one would have in a normal job. As much as we wanted to help and to build capacity, in all honesty, we couldn’t really point to anything significant that we had accomplished. And that didn’t really sit well with us.

Despite the fact that we genuinely enjoyed being at the Kitwe Service Centre and working with our team, there were times where we questioned why we were there. Days would pass by where we felt like we had accomplished nothing. We would sit at the Service Centre, asking Blessings and Towela whether there was anything we could do. Sometimes, there was nothing and we would just sit in the office and … sit. While this was great for allowing us time to catch up on the internet (come on ESPN … more trade rumors, please!) or work on our blog, this is not what we came to Africa for. Everyone says that everything in Africa happens at a much slower pace. Apparently, they weren’t joking around. And, apparently, we have yet to let go of our Western mentality to be productive and efficient at all times.

During orientation, we were told, on countless occasions, that this would happen. We were prepped to temper our expectations, to understand that we wouldn’t be saving Africa in our brief time with our respective Service Centres. We understood the importance of reigning back our North American tendencies of wanting to take over and control outcomes. We acknowledged the value of forcing ourselves into the background, of allowing ourselves an opportunity to soak everything in and gain a better understanding of the culture and needs of the communities in Kitwe and how things operated at the Service Centre level. We knew we had to strip ourselves of our identity and what we felt made us valuable and allow God to work through us on HIS timing. It all made sense, in theory, but trying to live it out on a day-to-day basis with a focus on the bigger picture has been a big challenge for us.

We were sure to communicate everything that we were feeling, openly and honestly, during our Skype conversation with Lynn and Marc. There was a temptation to portray everything as sunshine and lollipops, out of trepidation that our complaints and concerns would be perceived as us being impatient and whiny, but there were things that we wanted to address and questions we were hoping to get answered.

Our New Roles

After some initial conversation, Lynn began to discuss where Hands sees us with our new roles going forward into 2013. Hands realizes that we do have more to offer and that staying solely in a role of supporting the Kitwe Service Centre would not be the best way to utilize our time with Hands. Conversely, from the organization’s perspective, there were good things happening in Kitwe and they wanted to continue to build off the momentum we had established in our first 6 weeks. Hands pointed to the relationships we had built with our team and their feedback of how we had been a huge blessing to them. Despite our doubts of how much we had really contributed, it appears that our Service Centre team disagreed with our assessment.
As such, Lynn proposed split roles for each of us. Part of our role would involve continuing to support the Kitwe Service Centre and the team there. Our other roles would capitalize upon our educational background and experience. For Diane, they envision her greatly assisting Marc and carving out a niche in project administration, essentially acting as a liaison between the project support teams and the finance team. Diane would make use of her finance background to help build capacity in various Service Centre bookkeepers and aid in implementing a finance system in Zambia (a great need which is currently lacking). As for me, they proposed that I assist Lynn with the legal registrations across the 8 different African countries that Hands operates in as well as ensure that Hands is compliant with local laws and regulations governing NGOs in each of those respective countries. Further to this, with Hands at Work in Africa (Canada) Society being the major contributor of funds to the Hands office in South Africa and providing Hands with most of its international volunteers, there is a major need to ensure that our operations in Africa across the 8 countries are structured in a way so as to be compliant with the Canada Revenue Agency and Canadian charity law, insofar as it relates to projects that Hands Canada funds.

We were both quite intrigued with our new roles. Considering the feelings of boredom and unproductivity we experienced from time to time, we were genuinely excited to apply our respective areas of expertise to assist Hands in roles that were of great need and in an area where most other volunteers would not have any experience. Having said that, we realized how daunting our new roles may be. If my dealings with the ZRA re: my car permitting issues have provided any foreshadowing, I can only imagine how much of a headache it will be to correspond with governing authorities in 8 different African countries and try to get some guidance or clarification on their laws and regulations!

As the conversation progressed, the big bomb dropped: “How would you guys feel about staying in Zambia long term?” When we pressed for what “long term” meant exactly, the follow up was: “The rest of the year that you’re with Hands.”

Is Zambia our future?

We weren’t expecting this at all. Ever since we left for Zambia in mid-October of last year, we had been preparing ourselves to stay in Kitwe until the end of April and were convinced that Hands would subsequently ask us to come back to South Africa to be a part of the Regional Support Team (RST) or Hub team there. Never once did we think we would be in Zambia for the rest of the year. At the time, we didn’t really know how to feel or how to respond.

Understanding the significance of what had just been proposed to us, Lynn and Marc encouraged us to spend some time thinking and praying about our conversation. They then asked us to come back to the Hub in South Africa for a couple weeks so that we could continue our discussion, learn more about our new roles and have a chance to reconnect with everybody back at the Hub. This was also quite a surprise, given that we had just settled back in Zambia a few days ago after 6 weeks of traveling, but we were more than happy to have the opportunity to go back!

After the conversation ended, Diane and I discussed how we felt about our new roles and the possibility of staying in Zambia for potentially the rest of our time in Africa. Given everything that I had just detailed in Part I of this blog post, perhaps it wasn’t the best timing. The more we discussed, the more hesitant we felt about staying. We couldn’t really pinpoint it down to one factor. Rather, it was more a culmination of a lot of little things that have been eating away at us during our time here: 
  • What’s going to happen with our vehicle situation? Can we afford to be paying $2,000 to continue having our vehicle in Zambia? Is it fair that we bear the costs of this?
  • Are we going to be able to handle living in our house for another 8 months or so? It’s easy to romanticize being in humble accommodations and ‘roughing it’ (relatively speaking) for a short period of time … but for an entire year? Is a year of bucket bathing, hand washing our laundry, and an inability to be comfortable in our home going to drive us mental? How much longer can we stand having our landlord operate her property as a bar?
  • How do we really feel about Kitwe? Is the fact that there’s nothing to do in the city, a lack of restaurants, coffee shops and social activity, slowly chipping away at our spirits? What if more situations like this past week arise where we’re forced to try to deal with situations in a city/country where it appears impossible to do anything easily?
  • How do we feel about potentially being isolated in Kitwe for the rest of the time we’re in Africa? Part of what makes being with Hands so great is the community aspect and the genuine love and support we receive from so many of the people in the Hands family, most of whom are in South Africa. In Kitwe, it’s just the two of us and, while we value our privacy, it has been difficult adjusting to not having much of a social network here. With us being together 24/7 with no outlet, are we going to drive each other insane before the year is over?
  • Why did everyone else in our intake get assigned to support a Service Centre for a few weeks and then return to South Africa before Christmas except for us? Why did it seem like everyone in our intake was transitioning into long-term roles with the RST or Hub while we continue to support our Service Centre and our long-term roles remain undefined? How are we supposed to make a decision on whether we will stay on with Hands past this year (the million dollar question that has consumed our thoughts) if we don’t even know what our roles will look like?

These were, among others, some of the questions and thoughts racing through our minds as we prepared for the trip back to South Africa. We felt we needed to lay everything on the table for Lynn and Marc to hear so that they understood exactly where we were coming from. We needed to be heard! 

How everything unfolded during our time in South Africa is a different story …

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Return Home: Part I – Africa is Going to be the End of Us!

Warning: This is an extremely long post, even after having been split into two three parts. We don’t expect you to read it all but the detail is necessary to convey everything that we have been through and so that we can look back on this situation one day and laugh … hopefully …

As you might have gathered from our previous blog post, the 6 weeks we spent vacationing and going home was glorious. Our welcome back home to Kitwe … not so much. After a significant amount of time away, we were looking forward to getting back to work and being reunited with our team at the Kitwe Service Centre. However, we didn’t foresee the problems that lay ahead of us.

Problem #1 – Dude, where’s my car keys AND house keys?

We arrived back in Kitwe only to discover that our house keys and both sets of car keys were missing. The thing that makes this even stranger is that we were certain that: (i) we had taken our house keys with us, having locked all of our doors before leaving; and (ii) we had left our car keys at home, since we never take our car keys when we travel and we specifically remember locking them up in our bedroom so that they would be behind two locked doors (as opposed to one if they were left out in the living room). Despite this, we could not find any of our keys. We turned our place upside down and looked through each of our suitcases and backpacks several times. Nothing. Nada. We were (and still are) at a complete loss for where they could have gone. Nothing else from our house is missing. Nothing else from our luggage is gone either, except for Diane’s iPod, which is also mysteriously missing. Did we accidentally bring all three sets of keys with us on our trip and subsequently have someone steal them on the train or at the airport? Did we accidentally leave them behind in one of our hotel rooms? Did our landlord, or an accomplice of hers, swipe our car keys from inside our house (she has keys to our place and enters our house every night when we are away to turn on the porch light so that her drinking patrons have some light)? If someone stole our car keys, why was our car still left parked out in front of our house? It all seems very strange.

Problem #2 – Home Not-So-Sweet Home

Luckily, we were able to use our landlord’s spare set of keys to get into our house. In hindsight, it might have been better for us to not have entered our house at all. We opened the door to a filthy, filthy home. Dirt and dust covered all surface areas. Rat droppings were rampant. Dead grasshoppers and the wings of flying termites littered the floors. Worst of all, our toilet continued to leak out from the bottom (it’s been leaking ever since we moved in despite numerous complaints to our landlord).

Rat droppings and other dead bugs
What we swept up in our living room
Ant invasion!
We spent the entire weekend cleaning, deodorizing and disinfecting our entire place and washing our laundry by hand. We were determined to have our toilet fixed so, again, we talked to our landlord about the situation. Just as we were settling back into our freshly cleaned place, the plumbers came and had no problem stepping in the dirty, leaked toilet water and trampling it all over our house. The first day they came just to examine the nature of the problem and left without doing anything other than leaving muddy footprints all over our place. Another day of sweeping and mopping. They returned a second day to fix the problem. The solution? Patch up the toilet with a bunch of mud, of course! We were told not to flush the toilet for 24 hours in order to let the mud set and dry. I wish I was joking. Again, our floors were covered in dirt and muddy footprints. Making the situation even worse, the plumbers kept scooping the water from the toilet tank and dumping it into our bathtub and bath bucket. Seriously?! Another day of sweeping and mopping. Another day of cleaning the bathtub. The result? A muddy toilet that leaked more than ever. Shocking that mud wasn’t the solution! A third day of the plumbers coming in and looking at the toilet solved nothing and only led to another day of … wait for it … sweeping and mopping!

The object of our disdain
Poo brown water. Yummy.
Using Diane's mom's washing technique ... Grape lady falls, anyone?
Problem #3 – How the heck do we get into our car?

My first instinct was to call various Nissan dealerships within Zambia and get their advice. When it became clear that they had absolutely no idea, I called Nissan dealerships in South Africa. Again, they were of no use. Here’s a breakdown of the advice I received:

Kitwe Nissan
Nissan: You’ll have to pay 1,500,000 kwacha (approx. $300) for us to order you a new key from South Africa. It will take 2 weeks to get to Zambia. If you want it expedited, you can pay an extra 300,000 kwacha to have it here in 1 week.

Me: Awesome! It’s more expensive than I had hoped and it will take a little longer than I expected but let’s do this!

Nissan: After your key arrives, you will then have to take it to Shakti (a local engineering and locksmith company) to get it cut.

Me: Wait a minute … So you can’t cut my key for me?

Nissan: No.

Me: And you can’t do anything to open my doors?

Nissan: No.

Me: So … I’m essentially paying 1,500,000 kwacha for a blank key?

Nissan: Yes.

Me: F you guys (Ok, not really. But that’s what I felt like saying.)

Lusaka Nissan (in Zambia)
Same story as above, except they were going to order the key from Japan which would take 4 weeks, minimum. F you guys.

Nelspruit Nissan (in South Africa)
Nissan: You’re just going to have to tow your car here so we can look at it and determine the solution.

Me: Awesome. Just let me find a legitimate towing company in Zambia (non-existent) that will tow my car across two borders over a period of 3 days. Shouldn’t be a problem! F you guys.

Johannesburg Nissan #1
Same as Nelspruit. F you guys.

Johannesburg Nissan #2
Nissan: It sounds like your only option is to smash one of your windows in order to get into your car.

This one really takes the cake. Nothing better than a Nissan employee telling you that you have no other option than to “smash your window”. This guy deserves a double F you.

Ok, so that’s a lot of F bombs. While they may have been repeated in my mind, I swear (pun intended!) I didn’t drop any verbally. I am a missionary, after all …

African Solutions
James, a local Zambian who is part of the Hands team here, offered his solution. “I know a guy that can pick your lock and then cut you a new key from your ignition. The entire process will take 30 minutes, max.” Any sentence that starts with, “I know a guy …” is never a sound solution but, after what Nissan had told me, it sounded like my only option. James came into town, picked up his friend, and brought him to my car. He whipped out a thick, long, metal wire and a screwdriver. Not a good start. He then proceeded to pry open my driver side door with the screwdriver, just enough to allow the wire to enter through the top of the window. For the next 2 hours, he tried over and over again to flip my lock from the lock position to the unlock position. It looked like he succeeded early on but the car door still would not open. Meanwhile, paint was being chipped off the door, the interior of the driver side door was getting all scratched up from the sharp end of the hook, and chunks of the rubber piece that sits between the top of the window and the car frame were ripped off. This was not going well. 

He then tried using the wire to press the auto-unlock button but, because my battery was dead from having not been driven for 6 weeks, determined that it would not work, unless the battery was charged. James popped the hood of my trunk and removed my battery. They then tried to connect the battery from James’ car into my car but soon realized that the terminals were on the wrong side and that the connectors on my car couldn’t attach properly to James’ battery. Back to square one.

After some more time spent trying to pick my lock, the guy gave up. He did, however, know of another guy that was an “expert” with this sort of stuff, so we drove into town to pick him up and bring him back to my car. After a few attempts, he resolved that it could not be done. He reasoned that my keys must have had a transponder chip and that, because we did not have that transponder chip, the car was deadlocked. This was the most reasonable thing I had heard all day. However, it didn’t provide me much comfort when the guy told me that he could fix my car but it would involve him breaking through the lock and then tinkering with the engine to reconfigure my transponder system. As much as I trusted James, I didn’t trust these random guys to tamper with my engine.

The Real Solution
I went to Shakti – basically, my last hope – to see what advice they could offer. The first day I went there, I explained the situation to an old Indian man behind the counter. He sat there scratching his head with a pen for a full minute as I awaited his response. I was hoping that his time spent in deep thought while I awkwardly stared at him scratching his head would provide a moment of brilliance. His response: “So you don’t have a spare key, hey?” WOW! Why didn’t I think of using my spare key the entire time? Thank you for your brilliant advice! Where would I have been without you? F you! As is a common occurrence throughout this post, I didn’t really respond that way, as much as I wanted to. The old man told me to come back the next day so that I could speak to the owner.

Without any real alternatives, I went back to Shakti and spoke to the owner. Much to my surprise, and for the very first time since this whole ordeal began, I finally found someone who knew what he was talking about! Once he obtained the year and model of my car, and learnt that it was from South Africa, he knew right away what needed to be done. Apparently, South African cars are built not to be stolen. He explained that my 2005 X-Trail has a transponder chip system which prevents the manual unlocking of the doors if the transponder chip is not present. Even if we had managed to enter the car and cut a new key from the ignition, the car would not have started. Talk about secure for an 8-year old Nissan!

As a result, the owner said he would need to reconfigure my entire transponder system. This required importing three separate pin codes from the US, the UK and Spain. What that means or what the pin codes were needed for, I have no idea! It sounded right, though. Timeframe: 2 weeks. Estimated cost: 6,500,000 kwacha ($1,300) exclusive of VAT; cash, of course. After some desperate pleading on my part, he agreed to give me a 7.5% discount and said that if I paid through one of his other companies, I would only be charged 3% instead of the 16% VAT. Either way, this was a ridiculous bill and one that a poor missionary found hard to stomach!

Despite me telling them otherwise, the guys at Shakti were convinced that they could be the heroes to pick my lock. For hours, one of the workers tried and tried but, like the others that had tried before him, he was unsuccessful. We went back to Shakti to pick up some tools. The only choice left was to drill through my lock. It seemed that the guys at Shakti were reluctant to go this route (as was I) so, this time around, a second guy came with and tried his own luck at picking the lock. Again nothing. Despite the hours and hours they had already spent trying to manually pick my lock, they were convinced that all that was required was just a little more time and effort. I had enough. I finally convinced them that it was not going to work and to get on with drilling the lock. I thought I had made a huge mistake. The guys fired up the drill and drilled into the lock. Sparks flew as metal collided upon metal. Two minutes later, the drill-bit broke off. That’s not good. The guy casually pulled the drill-bit out, placed a new one on, and got back after it. I cringed as I watched the electric drill go deeper and deeper into my car door. After about 20 minutes of continuous drilling, he stopped. The door had yet to be open. He then started inspecting my tailgate and my rear passenger doors. I started to panic and called the owner.

“Do your guys know what they’re doing? Because they’ve been drilling my car door for the last 20 minutes and the door still is not open … and now he’s looking around at my tailgate and other doors! I’m concerned that you’re now drilling a hole in my car for nothing!”

The owner assured me that it would work and asked to speak to his workers, directing them not to touch any other part of my car. Magically, after 10 more minutes of drilling, they were able to open the door! They spent the next hour removing the ignition from my car and went on their way back to Shakti.

The doors hath finally opened!
What was left of my lock ...
The next day, James used his vehicle to tow my vehicle, African style, to Shakti. Apparently, legitimate towing (if it even exists in Zambia) costs a pretty penny and I didn’t have many pretty pennies left to spare after this whole ordeal. Again, James “knew of a guy” that could come steer and “drive” my towed car, since I had no experience doing so. For that, I am thankful, because it was extremely stressful being a passenger in a vehicle being towed by a 3-foot rope, driving over bumpy dirt roads, never mind being the driver!

Towing, African-style!
Diane's taking the picture. I'm riding shotgun in our car.
Problem #4 – So … is our car in the country illegally?

On top of our house headaches, the temporary permit that allows my South African car to be in Zambia was expiring that week. What I would have normally done was go to the Zambia Revenue Agency (ZRA) to have my permit renewed. The problem was that all my car papers and permit were locked inside our car. Great. 

Speaking of the permit, having our car in Zambia has actually proved to be more of a headache than we could have ever imagined. Because we purchased the vehicle in South Africa, there are certain rules re: importing a vehicle into Zambia, much like if you were to purchase a vehicle in the United States and bring it into Canada. However, the rules have been anything but clear. If someone could please find us some answers online, we would be forever grateful! In a nutshell, here’s what we have had to deal with in Zambia on how to legally have our car in the country.

What I was told before I left
When I drive my car across the border, I will receive a 30-day permit (CIP). That 30-day permit should hold me over while Hands helps me figure out how to handle the vehicle situation. Any duties I will be required to pay to temporarily import my car into Zambia should be nominal.

What the Ndola Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) told me
Due to a new circular that was recently released by the ZRA, I am no longer able to renew my CIP once the initial 30-day period expires. Rather, I will be required to obtain a temporary import permit (TIP), which will allow my vehicle to be in the country for 1 or 2 years. In order to get a TIP, I must travel back to my port of entry (the Botswana-Zambia border, which would be a 3-day journey, there and back) and obtain it there. To apply for a TIP, it is necessary to retain an agent.  The agent, using a car value that is double what my car is actually worth (due to it being randomly assigned that value without me knowing as I entered the country), quoted me a cost of 8,500,000 kwacha (approx. $1,700) for my TIP.

What the Kitwe ZRA told me
I am allowed to renew my CIP every 30 days, at no cost, up to a maximum of 6 months. If my vehicle is to be in the country after the 6 months expires, I am required to get a TIP, which can be obtained in Kitwe and doesn’t require me to drive back down to my point of entry. The agent I solicited in Kitwe quoted me a cost of 10,000,000 kwacha (approx. $2,000) for the TIP, despite calculating the quote based on the correct value of my car. This is Africa for you.

What I am doing
Despite recommendations from people at Hands to trust the Ndola ZRA (on the basis that it’s a bigger office and they referenced a “new circular”), I refuse to pre-emptively pay $2,000 for a TIP and embark on a 3-day road trip when I may not need to at all. If I have problems at the border when I leave the country, I’ll deal with them at that time. For now, I’ll continue to renew my CIP every 30 days. If I have a ZRA stamp and signature extending my CIP, that has to count for something, right? Right?

What my options are going forward
As far as I know, the plan is for us to be in Zambia until at least the end of April. There is the possibility that we will stay longer and, if so, I’ll deal with obtaining a TIP at that time. However, there has been talk of us staying in Zambia longer and perhaps even for the rest of the year. If that’s the case, I will either have to: (a) get my TIP; or (b) drive out of the country, drive back in and hope that I get a fresh 6 months without needing to pay any duties. Wishful thinking, I know. Stay tuned …

Problem #5 – Africans can sniff out the weak …

As a safety precaution, we decided to change the locks on our doors, on the odd chance that they ended up in the wrong person’s hands. We asked our landlord if she knew of someone that could do it for us and she told us that the two guys who had been working on our toilet (I refuse to credit them with being plumbers) could do it. In hindsight, this was a very bad idea, given how badly they botched the toilet but, in our defense, this was before we realized how incompetent they really were. Our landlord asked the two guys how much it would cost to replace the locks and they quoted 90,000 kwacha for two new locks and keys (for the front door and back door) plus a little extra for labour. Our landlord then said that it shouldn’t be much more than 100,000 kwacha ($20) total. That seemed reasonable to me so I gave the two guys 100,000 kwacha to go buy the materials and told them to do their thing.

They came back later in the afternoon that same day, locks in hand. As they began replacing the locks, we saw just how easy it would have been for us to do it ourselves. This didn’t become an issue until later. At the same time that they were replacing our locks, the guys from Shakti had finally opened up my car door. The day was almost over and I needed to get to ZRA to renew my permit (it was set to expire that day). I hopped in a taxi and left Diane to handle the “plumbers”. Rookie mistake. Big time.

By the time I arrived back from the ZRA, the locks had been replaced and the guys had left. I asked Diane how much she paid them, if anything, for labour. Expecting to hear something along the lines of 20,000 kwacha or nothing at all, she replied, “200,000 kwacha.” 200,000 KWACHA???!!! I almost jumped out of my seat. Diane actually thought she did quite well for herself. “They asked me for 150,000 kwacha each but I didn’t think that was right so I only gave them 100,000 kwacha each.” This time, I actually did jump out of my seat and out of the house in search of the two guys. Luckily, they were still around the property.

Me: “Hey! Did you just take 200,000 kwacha from my wife?”

Plumber: “No. We told her that it was 150,000 kwacha total but she just ended up just giving us 200,000 kwacha.”

I didn’t know whether to call him out on that straight up lie because this seems like something Diane might have done. Instead, I went to our landlord and explained the situation to her. She came out of her house and started yelling at the two guys. The entire exchange was in Bemba so I couldn’t understand what was going on. In the end, I was given 50,000 kwacha back. Despite my insistence that they were still ripping us off big time, that was all I was going to get.

I was fuming. Absolutely furious. It’s not that 150,000 kwacha is a significant sum of money; rather, it’s the principle. Throughout our first few months in Africa, I was adamant about not being the victim of an “opportunistic” African. Particularly when we were traveling, I learnt never to accept any arbitrary prices that are offered by Africans, whether it was for a taxi ride or an item being sold on the street. Luckily, my Chinese upbringing (i.e., my exposure to markets in China and Hong Kong, my inherent cheapness and my lack of shame) had gotten us by relatively unscathed, until now. I mean, it’s probably a guarantee that we’ve been ripped off a couple times, but it hasn’t been blatant. This time, it definitely was. And I was pissed.

Given everything that we had been dealing with over the past week, it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. I wanted to demolish the two guys badly for ruining our toilet, dirtying our house 3 days in a row and, most of all, for ripping us off. Unfortunately, I instead unleashed my anger at Diane. I justified my anger at being incredulous that, after all this time in Africa and after our various travel experiences, she still lacked the street sense to realize that she was getting ripped off. I expressed my frustration about feeling like I always need to be in control of situations and that she couldn’t be relied on. This, of course, led to a long, heated discussion that solved nothing.

I realize that this was extremely unfair and uncalled for on my part. I admit as much. It wasn’t really all that big of a deal and it was an innocent mistake on her part. At the very least, it was a learning lesson. But after the week we had just experienced, with all the headaches, problems and frustrations, I had just reached a breaking point … and I snapped. At that point, we had both had enough of being in Africa!