Friday, March 18, 2011

Get to the point!

Living in a different culture forces you to question the most basic “rules of society”. Why they exist, how they came to be and why we follow them? Certain things that I’ve always thought of as “polite” or “respectful” behaviors in the US are actually considered rude here. There are many many examples to choose from, but for today I’ll share just one:

“Get to the point”

In the US, time is a precious commodity and anyone who wastes your time is rude. In the work environment, if you need something from a colleague you get to the point and let them get back to work so as not to be a burden.

In Senegal, however, you’re considered rude if you don’t spend at least a couple minutes exchanging pleasantries and asking how they are and how are their families, friends, chickens etc. Then once you’ve established everyone’s wellbeing you move onto ask your question. This goes for random people on the street too. If you need to ask for directions you begin by greeting the person and asking them how they’re doing before getting to the question.

From an outsiders perspective this all seemed very superficial at first- just making small talk to give the appearance of really caring so that you can ask a question. But I like that people here haven’t forgotten all together that we should first introduce ourselves as humans before we turn to business. In the US it is much more time efficient to skip over the pleasantries, but it becomes all too convenient to see people only as the job they’re doing and treat them as such.

Regardless, rules are rules where ever you are and when it comes down to it, whether they make sense or not doesn’t really matter. If you don’t follow the rules you aren’t going to get very far. If I didn’t take time to chat with my fellow employees I would come off as cold and actually get less accomplished because people would take twice as long to respond to any requests (if at all). But by taking the 2 min to converse and “small talk” I save hours in the long run and also get a chance to know my coworkers a little better!

Reader Challenge: Next time you go to the grocery store or the bank (or something else- be creative), try to spend at least 20 seconds finding out how that person is doing. I'm sure some of you do this already, but I'm interested to hear how people react!

Friday, March 11, 2011

The power to develop!

Everyday I am confronted with the hindrances to economic development that come from outside the country and from within. There never seems to be an easy or obvious solution to these problems and I spend hours each day just driving myself crazy trying to figure out why there are no jobs, why people are living in poverty and why the many natural resources are being thrown away. You can blame it on the lack of education, corruption in the government and cultural barriers, but there is a more obvious problem that I’m reminded of every time I come to work and hear the hum of the generator; Power cuts!

Lately the electricity shortage has been causing a lot of frustration and anger in Dakar. Often the electricity will go off in the morning about 10am and won’t turn on again until after 5pm! What could Senegal accomplish if there was reliable electricity?

1) People would be able to get work done during the day instead of waiting for the power to come back in the evening.

2) Factories and machinery could be built to increase economic growth.

3) Companies from outside of Senegal wouldn’t be so cautious about investing in the economy.

4) Street lights and business lights could run at night allowing longer hours of business and safety for those venturing out after 8pm.

And much more….

Now, I realize I can’t blame all of Senegal’s problems on the power cuts, but you have to admit, having power throughout the day would give Senegal a huge step up. And it seems so easy- just turn the power on!!

So why is Senegal living in the dark? I’ve been asking around to find a suitable answer. The Villon is Senelec(the state owned power company) that provides the power for all of Senegal (or at least they are supposed to). People call them "Societé des tenebres", litterally meaning the Company of Darkness. Some people have told me that it’s the outdated meters and equipment that is the problem, but its also just been bad planning. With the growing population of Dakar and increased usage of power for running factories and small business, Senelec simply didn’t plan for it and now they randomly cut power to make it last through the month.

What is needed is a new strategic plan, not for the month, but for the next 5 to 10 years that reflects population growth and increased usage. Even in the short term just having a schedule of when the power will be cut where would be an improvement and help people plan their day and schedule work. Unfortunately they aren’t even that organized yet...

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the power to come back on at work, and reading by candle light in the evenings.