Tick-tock goes the croc! This is how I have increasingly found myself explaining the TEM Lab project over the past couple of weeks. In the famous story of Peter Pan, the villain, Captain Hook, is stalked by a crocodile that having once tasted the captain’s delicious flesh is on a continuous hunt for more. Luckily for Captain Hook, the croc swallowed a clock and can be heard approaching, but despite exerting ruthless control of his crew and their captives, the incessant tick-tock of the clock holds the captain at its mercy.
On a daily basis, I can hear the tick-tock of the croc clock in my head as the time passes and the project nears its end.
If there is anything that TEM Lab is, it’s short and intense. A misguided observer may look at the projects’ warm weather locations, perhaps the beachside setup in Vietnam, or even the photos of a weekend excursion and believe that we have gone on a 6-week cultural trip disguised as a consulting project. They would be dead wrong. The reality on the ground in Rwanda is something completely different.
You generally wake up with the sun, bright and early, often to take a luke warm or even cold shower, scarf down some breakfast, and then hop in a van that weaves its way up and down the lush hills of Kigali towards work as you inhale plumes of exhaust for the full 30-minute trip. Having made it once again safely through the city, you find yourself at the office. The office is a brightly colored, steamy room occupied by two large fans that hum throughout the entire day struggling to keep the beads of sweat from appearing on your forehead and the internal fan of your computer from remaining on constant overdrive. It is here in this sunshine-filled room that you will labor away for most of the day around an L-shaped table until 5 or 6P. And just when you think the day has come to a close, you remember that you still need to return home. The 1 to 2 hour smoggy evening rush hour awaits!
Admittedly, I have omitted some of the perqs of working in Rwanda at RD Tech: home cooked lunch brought to you every day in the office, a client and host that is often more concerned about your well-being than his own, and company staff that can’t help but smile every time you try out a new word in Kinyarwanda. However, trying to finish a large consulting project with limited time in a developing African country is no walk in the park.
The following is a short rundown of the types of challenges that we face on a daily basis.
The Sound of Generators – The power goes out daily in Kigali and it always seems to happen at just the moment that you have found that one piece of essential information on the web that you have been hunting for all day. When will it come back? Who knows…sometimes it takes 15 minutes, other times hours.
“Can you hear me?” – The hard line phones in and around East African are notoriously expensive and often poor quality. The result has been a burst of telecommunications creativity with everyone jury-rigging multiple technologies to avoid the high rates. Unfortunately, the more types of technology you intertwine to make a simple call, the poorer the quality. It is often the case that we cannot hear the person on the other end of the phone. After being transferred multiple times within a company (the current record is 6 transfers) and finally reaching the person you need, it knocks the wind out of you to have them hang up simply because they can’t hear you.
“T as in Thomas…no, no Thomas…no, T as in Thomas…ok T AS IN TANZANIA! Yes, Tanzania.” – Ever tried to spell your Thunderbird email address over the phone to someone? Painful. How about a non-native English speaker who doesn’t recognize the words “thunder” and “bird.” How about to a barely proficient English speaker, on a phone line filled with white noise, in a sweltering hot room, with two large fans running in the background…I think you get the point. And now, you really expect the person on the other end of the phone to send you the pricing information you so desperately need after you just got done yelling out your name followed by @ and 19 letters? Sure, there is always the @global.t-bird.edu address. Good luck explaining the hyphen.
“It’s up again…no, no sorry it just died.” – Our client has done everything possible to keep us well connected, including shelling out hundreds of dollars for average speed internet that can just barely handle a Skype call. Yet, despite his efforts the internet is always on the fritz. We have all been on frustrating Skype calls that were dropped more than 10 times in 30 minutes, and we are constantly rationing bandwidth amongst ourselves to download documents or do very basic research online.
The Digital Divide – By far the most daunting obstacle facing us is lack of information. Most of the information that we need to complete our project cannot be found on the internet or through deep dives into research databases. It is only available from the horse’s mouth, i.e. by calling government officials, real estate agents, and others. Sounds easy right? No problem, just call the investment board and they should have the answer you need. In reality, many folks you talk to don’t understand what you are asking for and if they do, they generally don’t have an idea who knows the answer. Assuming you find someone who does have an answer, the question then becomes, how do you validate their answer? On more than one occasion, we have fielded information from phone conversations with bureaucrats only to find that the information wasn’t accurate. And when you do finally have someone on the phone you trust with good information, the phone line is often so full of static that you can’t hear them.
I am not complaining in the least. In fact, I love it all. But as you enjoy the bright photos, the reflective experiential blogs, and the fun sound bites that we will continue to post, don’t be lulled into believing that it’s all fun and games.