Giving up. And not giving up.

By Nicole Iden on August 27, 2013

It’s dawn.

And I’m already late.

I’m supposed to be on the road to visit a branch. But the power went out while I was sleeping and my phone (and stand-in alarm clock) died silently during the blackout. I’m supposed to be conducting focus groups with farmers so that we can figure out how we can better serve them and enable their businesses to grow.

But I’m really late.

I rush out of bed and flip the switch to the bathroom. The power is still out, the light doesn’t turn on.

I rinse my face in ice cold water as quickly as possible.

No power, no shower. Now I’m cold, wet, rushed. I used to expect the power to be there when I flip the switch. I used to expect the water to come out of the tap when I turn it on. But that was in the US.

Here I hold my breath just a little bit every time because I never really know what will happen. And some days, like today, my heart sinks when that which should be as reliable as the sun rising just suddenly isn’t there. Dammit. Not today.

I throw on clothes and grab my bag and rush downstairs to greet my driver with an apology on my lips. He is not there. He is late too, because the traffic in city center is epic this morning. The president has decided to drive across town causing kilometers of gridlock. I sit down on the steps, feeling the frustration of a day that hasn’t even started sitting on my shoulders.

Waiting for the driver I have an hour with my thoughts: will I still have enough time with the farmers to get their input? Will they be open and honest with the loan officer, even though I’m sitting right there…the mzungu from the big city, from the head office? Or will they just be polite and tell me what they think I want to hear: that our organization meets all their needs, perfectly.

I feel myself getting increasingly more anxious when finally he arrives. Relief floods me. Finally. But that relief hardens into frustration almost immediately when I realize that since we’ve left late, during the height of rush hour, we are now sitting at a standstill in Nairobi traffic. The unpredictable nature of the traffic and the omnipresent headache caused by inhaling diesel fumes is something I’ve come to expect. Even in the largest city in Kenya and one of the most developed in Africa, the roads are riddled with potholes, the beat-up matatu minivans drive aggressively and cause endless jams, and although the traffic cops are ever-present they seem more concerned with chatting with one another at intersections than actually directing traffic and alleviating the congestion. So we settle in and wait.

Another hour passes and by inching along, now we’re finally escaping the inertia of town traffic.

And then we get flagged down.

It’s December, the month Kenyans buy Christmas presents and the month before school fees for the next year are due, a time when everyone needs some extra cash.

Including, and in particular, the traffic cops.

We haven’t been pulled over for driving aggressively, or overtaking illegally, or speeding, or disregarding traffic lights. We’ve been pulled over at a traffic stop ostensibly set up to randomly check for driver documentation. And while my driver has all the documentation required for our car and his driving license, I do not have my passport with me. Because I am not legally required to carry it on me. I also don’t have my birth certificate or high school diploma or resume.

The cop demands we pay a “fine.” We haggle. And haggle. And haggle. I try to keep my cool despite the fact that this is blatant corruption and I want to get in this guy’s face and call him out on his abuse of power. On any other day I would just sit on the side of the road in this game of chicken, patiently waiting until he folds. But today we’re already so late. I don’t have time for this. Thirty more minutes passes until finally I give in and pay a “fine” for not having my passport with. But we have to go.

Finally escaping the city we drive into the country. The roads are good for about an hour, and then we turn off the highway and enter the rural areas to find the farmers that we’re trying to meet with today. We slow to a crawl. I’m lucky to be driving in a car with four-wheel drive instead of a motorbike or a local matatu, and yet still the car slows to under 10mph, inching along the bumpy dirt road. I imagine what it would be like to try to transport eggs or milk or children along this road.

Finally. We arrive, dusty and tired and a bit saddlesore (and seasick) from the constant bumping up and down on the rural dirt roads. We pull up to the farm where our group of farmers have been waiting all day to talk to us.

And no one is there.

“Nicole I’m so sorry!” Purity, our loan officer, exclaims. She is the only one still sitting in the clearing. “But we waited and waited and waited and finally all the farmers had to get back to the market. They couldn’t wait any longer.”

We are 5 hours late for our meeting. I understand.

I would never expect clients to wait on me for 5 hours in the States, why would they do it here? Especially when the market calls and the opportunity cost for a farmer to spend time away from his farm is so great.

And so, after a long and frustrating day of failure of utilities, infrastructure and even corruption, we have achieved… exactly nothing.

As the sun begins to go down, we pile into the car and turn around to go home.

And during the traffic on the way home, I have plenty of time to think about all the answers I now do NOT have:

How is the dairy cow loan working for you? Are the payment terms ok? Do the group trainings help at all? If not, what can we do instead? Would you be interested in receiving your loans vis SMS on your phone? How much would you be willing to pay for that service? Is there anything we should do differently to make the group meetings more efficient? What else do you need from us? How can we help you in the future?

A beautiful opportunity to understand how we can change our product offering and operations to better meet the needs of our farmers. Lost. Lost to the friction of everyday life here. I am deflated.

*****

He wakes nearly two hours before dawn every day, quietly dressing while his wife fixes him tea and they try not to wake their five children. He exits their small home and pulls on his mud and shit-stained knee-high rubber boots and begins the list of daily chores: feed and water the cows and the chickens, clean out their stalls, milk the cows, collect the eggs, and weed the sweet potatoes, spinach, onions, and carrots.

He should be able to finish these daily chores by 7am, load his motorbike with liters of milk, drive the 5km to market and be selling milk no later than 8am.

He plans to get a full day of sales.

He begins by making breakfast for the cows. He gathers the napier grass that he’s set out the day before to wilt down and standing under the moonlight, he begins loading the grass into the family’s chaff cutter. And then suddenly the machine makes a high-pitched whirring sound, shudders, and stops.

He checks the diesel tank. But it’s full.

He pulls out the grass and rearranges it to clear any blockages. He finds none.

Suddenly he notices that despite the fact he replaced the blade only weeks ago, it now lies at his feet in two pieces. He doesn’t have a replacement blade on the farm.

His chores are put on hold. As the sun begins to rise in the sky he speaks to his wife about heading into town. He tries to call his friend in town who runs the shop he’ll visit, but his mobile phone has died overnight. He plugs the phone in to charge but the power has been out since last night – this outage is the culprit behind his dead phone in the first place.

He borrows his wife’s phone but she’s out of airtime so he can’t make a call. And he is wasting precious time. He hurriedly waves goodbye and climbs onto his motorbike.

Two bumpy, dusty hours later he arrives in town. He visits the agriculture shop but finds that they are out of the part he needs. They don’t expect to get new parts until the next day, but he knows from experience that estimate could stretch into a week or more.

He tries another store, on the opposite side of town, a one hour walk. They have blades, but none that will fit his cutter.

And then the rains begin.

As he walks back through the muddy, winding paths of the town he stops to purchase his wife more airtime so the day won’t be a total waste. But he can’t drive home yet because the rains are coming hard and fast and the dusty roads are transforming into muddy rivers. He ducks into a roadside restaurant to wait out the weather. His stomach growls at him, but the few shillings he had have already been spent fueling his motorbike for the trip. He orders a cup of tea instead.

Two hours pass.

Finally the rain lets up and he hops on his motorbike, anxious to get home before the sun sets and he can no longer see the gaping potholes in front of him. The ride home takes twice as long. His motorbike gets stuck in the mud nearly every kilometer. He is covered in filth by the time he can finally see his farm over the ridge.

The sun has sunk beneath the rolling hills of bright green tea, and darkness has settled. He enters his home and sits down next to the candlelight as his wife puts a plate of beans and maize down in front of him.  It’s his first meal of the day.

His morning chores remain unfinished and the fact that he never made it to the market today is heavy on his mind. As he sinks into his mattress on the floor he thinks of the days wages that are now lost. But soon he’s asleep.

In a few short hours he’ll rise to do it all again.

*****

If you’re poor and trying to make a living for yourself and your children, the certain friction that you will encounter at uncertain intervals creates an atmosphere of constant risk.

You don’t know exactly when your attempts to improve your family’s livelihood will get derailed, but you know for sure that they will.

And if you’re not poor, but you want to build systems, solutions, and companies that empower or serve the poor, then the certain friction you will encounter at uncertain intervals creates an atmosphere of constant struggle.

You don’t know when your attempts to improve the lives of others will get derailed, but you know for sure that they will.

So when I’m driving through the rural towns and I see men who should be working just sitting with their friends, drinking in the middle of the day or milling about chatting but most certainly *not* working…well, I can understand that reaction. Why invest your time and energy in building a business when the power’s just going to go out and drive away customers and you’ll inevitably have to watch your profits walk out the door in the form of bribes?

The friction in the system is insidious, pervasive, and destructive. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And it cascades and it builds and it reinforces itself in a nasty positive feedback loop seemingly designed to beat people down. It can easily stop you dead in your tracks.

And when I see young entrepreneurs trying to build businesses that will deliver goods and services to the economically poor pull their hair out after trying unsuccessfully to get their goods to the rural areas in a cost-effective way, well, I understand why they might give up and take a job with some corporation where the paycheck is regular and the challenges are simpler.

But. Not everyone gives up.

Countless farmers continue, day in and day out, building their farms, their assets, their families. I met Josiah just outside of Murang’a. Years had passed since he bought his first dairy cow and he and his family had endured countless setbacks and frustrations. But he never gave up. When I met him his home had transformed from a single room into a three-room home powered completely by biogas, which he fueled with the dung from his cows.  His seven children were all in school, the oldest in university and getting their technical degrees to become engineers, the school fees funded completely from his tea crop profits. The family was fed with fresh fish from his tilapia pond, and they gathered on soft couches at night to watch television and play music together.

Every day he battled the friction of broken infrastructure and a culture of corruption. But every day he tried again.

The outcomes are worth it. This much is clear. But it’s damn hard to tap into that deep determination, to tap into that hope of a better day and a better life so that we don’t give up. So that we actually make it out the other side and realize those positive outcomes: safety, security, education, health.

Happiness.

Choice.

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