Archive for March, 2008

Kisumu Town, 3 months post-election

March 22, 2008


What Happens When Labor is Cheap

March 21, 2008

My internet service is available on a month-by-month basis.  That means I have to renew it at the end of every month.  Expressing the intention to renew is easy—a reminder pops up a week before the deadline when I log on, and I can “renew” online or even by sending a text message on my cell phone.  But that’s where the easy part ends.  I can’t pay for the new month online, or by credit card, or over the phone.  Instead, the internet company sends someone to my door to collect my cash payment.  Of course, I have to be home to make the payment.  This presents more of a problem.  I work all day, which is exactly when the internet reps like to come.  I have to call multiple times to ensure that they come late in the evening, after I fight the traffic home—and I assume they, too, spend quite a bit of time trying to get to my door.  On the surface, this seems like a very expensive way for the internet company to conduct a financial transaction.  But labor here is cheap, so why bother making the payment process more efficient?

Similarly, I had to buy a table to furnish my apartment.  I took advantage of ordering by catalogue to save myself a 2-hour round trip to the “nearby” store.  But then I had to make time in the middle of the work day to commute home to receive the delivery of the table.  Then I had to go home again in the middle of the next day to receive the crew that was sent to assemble the table, because the same people can’t deliver and assemble a table in the same visit.  All of this cost both me and the furniture store time and money.  But why make this process more efficient when labor is cheap? 

On the plus side, while I sit here waiting for the internet rep to come and collect my next payment, I have the time to write a blog entry.

3 bombs in 3 days–Too close to home

March 18, 2008

As some of you know, my life in Pakistan is split into two places, geographically–Lahore, where the Saiban project is and Islamabad, where my wife/home is.  So, I end up travelling about 1000 km/week due to this arrangement.

Last week, as I was travelling to Lahore, I received a phone call from my mother frantically asking where I was.  Once I told her I was on the highway (far away from any civilization) she told me there were two bombs that went off in Lahore and many people had died.  My mother was actually in Lahore at the time, and she said the timing was ‘almost perfect’.  Since my parents live only a few kilometers from both bombings (in Lahore)–they heard the explosions and said it was only a split second between the two bombings, and the targets were very clear–seemed very well planned.

A few days later, as I was still in Lahore, my wife called me up from Islamabad and told me she was going out to dinner with some friends. Two hours later I get a phone call from a friend, ‘Is your wife ok–there was an explosion at a shopping center not too far from your house–and they say many foreigners have died’….without him finishing his sentence, I hung up the phone with a thousand thoughts racing through my mind as I called my wife…’when we go out to eat, we almost always go to that shopping center–what are these suicide bombers thinking–God, I hope Asiya wasn’t there–what if she was in the explosion, I am 500 km away…’

 ‘Hello’….I hear her voice and finally exhale…’Yeah, we are all fine, we decided not to go out and cooked at home’

The bomb went off at an italian restaurant that is walking distance from our home, and my wife and I have gone there several times…

About six months ago the bombs were in different cities than where we lived–and selfishly, I did not give it much thought beyond a general frustration that the ones that end up getting killed are the security guards, the gardeners, and other support staff (who were probably supporting large (extended) families with their income.

Then the bombs were within the same cities as my residence, but far off enough that we could steer clear of the troubled areas.

Now, the bombs are exploding in our own neighborhoods–the thought that a bomb will explode while you are grocery shopping or at the park with your family–is now a harsh reality

Tribalism, bad. Nationalism, good?

March 15, 2008

“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” [Albert Einstein]
“We need to put tribalism behind us and remember that we’re all Kenyan” [The leader at my church, in the height of the troubles]

It’s funny how allegiances can look very different in different circumstances. In 1918, after the loss of a generation of Europe’s young men, an unquestioning allegiance to one’s country – so praised in the years proceeding – began to look unmodern, dangerous and ignorant.

Following the crisis in Kenya, it is tribalism that is under attack, and nationalism suddenly seems the hero of the day.

In today’s world where rationality rules, any allegiance is an easy target. For a rational allegiance isn’t an allegiance at all – it’s a contract. And yet, who wants their friendships reduced to contracts? I believe I am a richer person for feeling a debt of duty my family, my friends, my university college, my church, my faith, my fellow red-heads, the first firm I ever worked for and – yes – even my country. Preventing conflict by destroying my allegiances feels akin to creating equality by destroying wealth.

Perhaps who we ally with isn’t what matters. Perhaps what matters is how we perceive those outside the allegiance – the ‘others’. In which case, maybe the solution isn’t less allegiances, but more. Until there are no ‘others’.

What do you think?

Pain by Zain

March 12, 2008
Zain Ahmed Khan, 14 year old passed away a few months back due to cancer. Zain had written a poem sometime when he was fighting with this fatal disease. His father found it while cleaning his desk.
The pain that I got is unbearable,
But I don’t care coz it’s repairable,
I don’t act as am feeble
coz acting like this is fearful,
And thus it makes me tearful,
But I want myself to be careful,
I want myself to be strong.
As strong as a diamond,
coz I have to face this pain,
and I want to fight it like a fighter plane.
Zain Ahmed Khan,
14 years,
City School

Bribery 101

March 10, 2008

It is said that the PM of Pakistan sat down with his ministers and advisors and said, ‘I did not sleep last night… I recieved terrible news yesterday…Pakistan has been voted the “the second most corrupt country of the world” only after Nigeria!’.  After a brief silence a minister stands up proudly and says, ‘Sir…we were actually #1 on the list, but I paid them off to bring us down to #2!’

And so has been my two years in Pakistan in dealing with the government.  Bribery has been institutionalized (prices are generally standardized) and is called ‘commission’ (!!).  So, if you want to get something illegal approved–you will pay a high price, and it will get approved in no time.  AND if you want to get something legally approved–you will pay a price as well (not as high, though).  If you dont pay the bribe/commission, your file will sit with the ‘clerk’ for days and weeks.

So,  I have had many, many battles with guys in all departments….trying to instill the fear of God in them–telling them that the money I pay them will be borne by the poor residents of Saiban, since we are a non-profit.  Many have come around to accepting the Saiban project as an exception to their norms (they consider that they are doing their part in charity by foregoing the commission!)

All of this came to a climax (read: my head was going to explode) last week.  We are building a 3 KM road (US$ 150,000)leading to Khuda Ki Basti-4, of which the government is funding 80%.  As the government issues payments in installments, upon verification of work completed, everyone in the food chain lines up to get their share.

So I sat down with a guy who said he would process the claim for us in a fraction of the time we would take on our own…and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, how are you, fine, good, ok…..what can you do for us?

Him: I will process the file for you in one week, BUT you have to pay all of the bribes along the way

Me: OH NO!!, who takes bribes in this process?

Him: local sub-engineer, SDO, District Officer-Roads, his personal assistant, the personal assistant of the Executive DO-Roads

My heart is racing now, and I am furious…’I know the Executive DO himself does not take any bribes, as he is a personal friend and is an upright individual’

Him: you are right (then he continued) the Executive DO-Community development, his assistant, the DO-Social welfare, his assistant

Me: I am NOT paying any of thes guys bribes, that is my headache, you tell me how much you want to carry the file through–what is your fee for service?

Him: Hmmm, I will take 3% of the project amount to collect all payments as they are needed.

Me: What!? US$ 4500 for carrying the files through the departments…(I started my ‘speech’)…this project is for poor people, blah blah..

Him: I am poor too

At that point we ended the conversation and I walked away.  He takes $4500 for a job that will take him four weeks to do and he claims that he is poor as well….I wanted to smack him on his head to knock some sense in to him, but didnt 🙂

So, what did I do after all of this…I set up a meeting with the road contractor and told him, ‘you deal with government contracts for a living…and how you manage to do it is not my problem, but getting these payments released is your problem from today on, not ours–we are not paying bribes’.  Luckily he accepted the proposal–apparently that is standard for them.

Sometimes I think a revolution is the only way things will change in such conditions.

Say the secret code

March 3, 2008

I’m in a convenience store in a small town south of Chennai and I meet this guy, Kannan, who runs it.  Never seen this guy in my life.  He’s a congenial kind of fellow: Big smile, straight-talking, laid-back.  I had bought a bottle of water from him a few hours back and he mentioned he could help me rent a moped if I wanted one.  So I had thought about it and came back to ask about it… can you help me find a moped?  “Everything is possible,” he says.  Little did he know, these are the code words into my secret society.  On hearing this, I extend my hand to shake his and ask if I can sit a spell.  Forget about the moped ride – this is the kind of person I want to spend more time with.  Turns out, he’s 25.  He makes 2000 rupees a month ($50) working 30 days out of 31.  He grew up living on the streets of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.  He has apparently mastered the English language with no formal training.  His father is dead and was only good for drinking and making babies anyway.  His mother doesn’t work and needs to go to the hospital for a nerve problem every few days.  They have no assets, no way to save and no insurance.  His sister who lives in a big house in Kerala won’t help out.  His uncle who gave a damn is now in the sky.  And yet, after all this, Kannan still has the optimism to smile and say “everything is possible”.

He previously had his own shop (a sculpture gallery) but some Kashmiris came and offered his landlord an irresistible sum of money for the space.  I guess that’s what’s happening all around – The price of real estate is skyrocketing and forcing people out of prime areas. 

The boss man comes into the store, needing drinks for his upcoming card game.  He points out a few things with the inventory, gives his daughters some candy and leaves.  Meanwhile, Kannan is stuck in the store everyday, treading water, waiting for the day when he can re-open his own store.  He’s clearly a highly capable person.  But can he make the leap with only one day a month to think about it and a mother to care for at home?