A question for you dear readers

This is kind of off-topic but I am interested in hearing from as wide a range of people as possible on this scenario:

A question for you. If you belonged to a small company, let’s say a flourishing flower selling business with franchises around the country. Once a year or so all franchise owners get together to strategise for the year ahead. At this year’s meeting, a group of you meet in the kitchen ahead of the main meeting. While getting your coffees, someone mentions that they have just seen a new type of flower on offer – let’s call them Leavonias. Apparently these Leavonias were stunning and smelt beautiful. At present, your particular company doesn’t sell Leavonias – they are so new to the market that no-one knows much about them. But this person who saw them keeps on and on about how incredible they were. When pushed he doesn’t have many answers about how much they cost to buy or grow but he manages to pursuade most people in the kitchen that the company should start selling them. A few people even get on their phone and start ordering them from the wholesaler. Remember – this is before the annual meeting has started.

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Anyway you all go into the main meeting and start discussing strategies. Someone brings up the Leavonia idea. All those who were in the kitchen support the idea whole-heartedly and start to talk about how good it will be for their business. But someone who wasn’t in the kitchen is a little more cautious. “I know someone who tried selling them and it didn’t work very well,” she says. Apparently they cost a lot more to grow than you get back when you sell them. Nevertheless the enthusiasm for the venture in the room is still strong. As a group you decide to go away and think about it. Two or three people are designated to look into the pro’s and con’s – to draw up a risk strategy if you like.

Over the next few weeks, those designated people can’t find a single reason as to why selling Leavonias would be a good strategy for your company. They can’t find any evidence they would make money and in fact in many scenarios they would lose money. The only plus would be to save the blushes of those franchisees who have already started negotiating to buy their Leavonias from a wholesaler (who has already said it’s fine, they don’t have to go through with the deal).

Oh and they also find out that if you do decide to start selling Leavonias there is no going back.The only people that sell them make you sign a contract for life (or until the demise of the company). Even at a loss. It doesn’t make business sense but everyone can still smell that lingering scent of the beautiful flowers.

So – question: do you still go ahead and start to sell the Leavonias or do you bin the idea and carry on selling the flowers that are already making you a profit?

Two worlds

I learned something new the other day – there are hand signals used by people here in South Africa who want to catch a taxi on the road side. I got this from my helper, Sannah, who comes in to clean our house twice a week. I can’t even remember how or why we got on to the subject but apparently if you whirl your hand in a circle it means you want to go to Mamelodi (one of the main residential areas in the city), pointing upwards means “town” and downwards means you are asking them to stop so you can find out where they are going.

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It was like a secret that I had been let in on, like a code that only some people in this country understood. I was fascinated – but also a little embarassed that I didn’t know this already. Taking a minibus-taxi is something that the vast majority of people in this country have to do if they want to get anywhere and many spend long periods  (including waiting by the side of the road at certain times of the day) simply getting to work or home.

But the reason I didn’t know about the hand signals is because I will never use one of these taxis. I have a car and on those occasions when I don’t want to drive we can use Uber. For most people however both a car and Uber are simply out of their price range and instead they have to rely on the packed, hot, uncomfortable and often pretty dangerous minibusses that are used as taxis here. And if you want to know how dangerous, just don’t ever try and get ahead of one at a red-light. These guys mean business.

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Anyway all of this got me thinking – that although we often talk about living in our expat bubbles, how hard we find it to make friends with local people and to integrate, the two worlds here aren’t really between “us” (expats) and “them” (South Africans). Really, it is between us with money and jobs and cars and warm homes and security – and everyone else. We aren’t South African but in so many ways we have more in common with those locals who drive cars, send their kids to private schools, shop in the same supermarkets we do, go on holiday and basically live in “our world” than we – or they – do with everyone else.

It isn’t just South Africa of course but globally there are two completely separate worlds and I suspect few of us really ever gets to see the “other”. Sure, we go on tours and peak into homes and eat meals in downtown restaurants or sit and chat with the people who clean our homes and cut our grass. We listen to the radio and talk about politics with anyone who will listen and try and understand what it means to feel so hopeless about the state of your country that you haven’t voted in more than 20 years.

But we can’t understand it, not really, because we haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it feels like to live hand to mouth with no back up. To not know how long your job will last and if you lose it whether you will ever get another one. To fear that your children won’t ever get a job when they grow up or, worse, that they won’t survive long enough to grow up. To never have seen the sea in your own country or an elephant in the wild when you live in Africa.

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So when we talk about “understanding” a country I don’t think many of us will ever really understand what life is like for (in the case of South Africa, at least) the majority of the people who live there. We can scratch the surface, we can do our best and we can keep trying but in the end the two worlds are so far apart I suspect we will never be anything but brief visitors to the other side.

To finish, another short tale. I started a discussion on a local expat Facebook page the other day about how much we should tip the people who help carry our shopping and guard our cars. Most people agreed roughly what we tip, which amounted to between 5 and 20 Rand depending what they had done for you (for perspective that is around 30p – £1). I don’t know what the local South Africans tip but hopefully if enough of us give a little each day then some of these people can at least afford to buy food.

But as well as discussing the amount we give we talked about how it made us feel. Yes I don’t particularly like following someone to my car as he (it is almost always a he here) pushes my trolley (“Princess syndrome”) and the guards that stand behind you and “guide” you out of your parking spot – often into the path of an oncoming car – drive me nuts. However, it isn’t about us and it isn’t about our feelings. Ultimately we are paying people to do a job and I can be pretty sure that most people would rather get paid for doing SOMETHING than to beg or steal.

So even though we can’t ever really know what it feels like to live on the “other side”, I think most of us can guess how hard it probably is. If all you do to help is pay as many people as possible to work for you in one way or another then you are doing something at least.

Two worlds – I wonder if there will ever be one?

 

Photo credits: Hand Signals – John Karwoski, Taxi ride – Rafiq Sarlie

Politics from afar

I have written a few times about politics and how it feels to be so far from home when so much is going on. I have never felt like this before – I have lived abroad during several general elections and although have followed with interest, I have never before felt so hopeless about not being able to do anything to aid the cause.

This time is different because I do feel like we, the people, have been abandoned by our politicians and it is being left up to grassroots campaigners to make a real difference. And yes when I say “the people” I do mean ALL the people – not just the 48%. Well, all but a tiny percentage of our population who will be the ones getting rich from all of this.

But here I sit a very long way from Brexit Britain and in all honesty I feel a bit useless. In just over a week’s time there will be what is planned as the biggest march possibly in the UK’s history against Brexit and my facebook timeline is full of it. I have been asked if I am going but I can’t – the round trip would cost me more than £1,000 and be very difficult for the rest of the family in terms of child (and dog) care. I do know some of my friends who travelled to the US (one from here, one from Sweden) for the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s election and i take off my (pink) hat to them. Sadly it just isn’t possible for me to emulate their lead.

So instead I have to think of other ways I – and others in a similar position – can get involved. And so I am doing two things – I have donated to the cause and I have pledged to share the information as much and as widely as possible. So here for those who live in the UK, are British, aren’t British but care about the future of Europe, think money should be spent on social care and education instead of our Brexit divorce bill, and consider themselves to be open, tolerant and basically an all-round good Egg  – for you all here is the info:

And once more here is a link to donate to the march – money that will be spent on advertising and marketing, health and safety on the day, marshalls with megaphones, helping people who can’t afford it to get there and more. We really need to make the UK government sit up and take notice – they’ve been pretty well ignoring us up until now.

Learning to live with the New Normal.

Phew! What a week. I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson over these past few days, with news coming at me from every direction. There was the travel ban in America, the huge protests against Trump being invited on a state visit in the UK, and then there was the Brexit debates and vote in London. It just seems like every time I check the news something else has happened….

But somehow, with all this going on, we have to learn to carry on.

In all honesty, I am finding it inceasingly difficult to focus on anything. I have plenty of work and am in the middle of an essay-writing course with a view to increasing the amount of freelance work I do. I also have this blog to keep up! Never mind all the normal, daily routine work like shopping and dog-walking that you can’t just forget about. But on the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and another check of the latest news and before I know it half the day has gone. I also find my mood swings all over the place with the increasingly worrying information we are getting on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

But I know it’s just going to keep on coming so somehow we have to find a way to live with this new normal. And one of the ways I have been doing it is talking to people who have been surviving for years, decades even, in the sort of uncertain political environment that we in the UK and the US (and other stable democracies) perhaps haven’t ever had to contemplate. In particular, I spent last weekend in Harare visiting with relatives.

For those that don’t know (which hopefully is few of you!), Zimbabwe has been living under Robert Mugabe for more than 35 years. I am not about to go into a plotted history of the country and its politics – especially as, to my shame, I am actually pretty ignorant as to exactly what is happening in that country despite living righ next door and having relatives there. But if you are interested to learn more, here is a link.

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Trying not to get crushed in Zimbabwe

However, what is true is that life in Zimbabwe has become increasingly difficult for many of its nationals and change still seems elusive. It is that lack of WHEN things will improve that I think is the hardest to deal with – many people can cope with difficulties if they know it is for a limited time. If nothing else, contigency planning is easier when you have an idea how many months, years or even decades you are planning for.

It obviously isn’t easy and there aren’t any simple rules but it certainly seems that trying to get involved, in one way or another, in any opposition to the ruling government can make you feel a lot more positive. Just to feel like you are DOING something can certainly lift your spirits. How much you are actually able to do will of course depend on where you are and your particular situation – but in the UK and the US we are still in a position to be able to petition, march, write, donate and share information pretty widely. Hopefully all of those things will continue.

Otherwise, distraction is a great way to deal wth whatever is going on around you – epecially when you feel so helpless to change it. Change does and will come – we only have to look at history to know that we won’t stagnate in this situation forever. But it may be slow, a lot slower than we would want – so in the meantime we need to find ways to cope with the wait. Whether that be writing or crafting or sewing or baking or even burying yourself in work, it is always going to be healthy to take your minds off things for periods of times.

Getting together with like-minded friends is another thing that can really help when you are feeling despondent. As an expat I do sometimes feel quite isolated from everything going on in my home country, especially as I am surrounded by American expats so the news of Trump does tend to dominate. But every so often I get together with another sympathetic British friend who reassures me that no, I am not alone in feeling like this (I know the internet and Facebook in particular is another way to bring people together but there is nothing like a proper, face-to-face get together).

Finally the other thing that really helps me is what this blog is really all about – which is that many people, in many countries have been living with these uncertainties for years and whatever happens we will still almost certainly remain some of the most privileged people in the world just by dint of our passports. Although I speak about Zimbabwe, South Africa also has been going through interesting political times with a difficult and unpopular government, student riots, allegations of corruption right to the top of government…..

But I look around me and people are getting on with their lives. They are shopping and cooking and drinking wine and selling mobile phone cases at traffic lights and sweeping leaves and walking dogs and going to business meetings….in other words, life goes on. It is frustrating, incredibly frustrating, when you feel that you can’t do anything to bring about the immediate change that you crave but actually what you do need to be doing is living.

Now I am going to take my own advice and go and make a cup of tea. Please let me know your thoughts – these are interesting times.