In isiNdebele we say ukuhamba kuzala iNkosi which, loosely translated, means travelling bears a king. Metaphorically speaking, this means that travelling is an enriching experience. I’m going to share a bit of my experience in Nigeria with you all. Doing an RLF, for me, meant helping out at an organization in a developing country through the skills I’d gained at the ESMT, but also being moulded personally by the experience. I immersed myself in a culture different to my own, and came out a better person on the other side. Continue reading “Tida’s RLF in Nigeria: Immersing Myself in The Culture”
“Tida, don’t smile so much in Nigeria if you want to survive, o!”
“Never leave your food lying around – you could get poisoned!”
“Make sure to tone down your accent so that you don’t seem foreign!”
“Beware those smooth-talking Naija boys!”
“Shine your eye, o!”
This is the advice I got from friends and family on how to ‘survive’ my three months in Abuja, Nigeria. Almost everyone around me seemed worried when I chose to do my Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) there – if you read some of the messages I got, you’d think I was heading out to a war zone! Especially for my Southern African family, my decision to go to Abuja instead of Cape Town (which would only be 2 hops away from home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe) was beyond comprehension. Let’s just say Nigeria(ns) don’t have the best reputation in Zimbabwe and the image of Nigeria is mainly formed through Nollywood movies whose storylines often centre around witchcraft, cult-killings, drug cartels, kidnappings, love ‘hexagons’ and evil mother-in-laws. Oh, and the fact that my cousin eloped to Nigeria with a Nigerian guy some years back didn’t make matters better for me – mom’s suspicion levels were at maximum 😉
This was not going to be my first time in Nigeria, though, so I was really relaxed and excited about the opportunity – until the week before I left Berlin. Continue reading “Tida’s RLF at AfriLabs, Nigeria (Part 1)”
So far ESMT has been nothing short of a thrill ride!
It seems like ages ago but I remember when the program started, I was all wide eyed and bushy tailed. Right now, it seems my tail has lost it fluff and my eyes now have depth due to all the short nights and long, long days. I have found myself in the ‘valley of despair’ few times during the first two modules of the program. However, the clouds parted after a while and the sun shone again. Continue reading “Internship Bound”
Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.
RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.
The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.
Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.
Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.
You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.
At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.
Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
Madagascar is a beautiful and interesting experience. In making this statement I am conscious of the element of novelty which makes any new place appealing to a traveler, but fades away as one gets used to the place. My impression of Madagascar remained beautiful and interesting beyond this element of novelty. If you’ve traveled a bit, you will agree that traveling is a rewarding experience. It opens us to spaces that hitherto didn’t exist in our minds. It’s an amazing feeling when we realize that we travel to discover new places and people and cultures, and in the process we end up discovering ourselves. This is how I felt backpacking in Madagascar.
My goal was to experience the Malagasy culture, food, people and nature. I asked myself what is the best way to do that, and the idea of backpacking without a plan sounded very exciting. So, I decided to not have a plan, instead play it by the ear, make on-the-spot decisions about what to do, and head wherever my instincts led me to. The three things I was certain of were, (1) I will NOT go North and to the beaches, because they are touristy (2) I will NOT hire a vehicle but travel by the local transport, and (3) I will be detached from the world as I knew it i.e., no phone, no email, and no WhatsApp. A colleague at TSiBA gave me a Lonely Planet book on Madagascar that I carried as a back-up resource, for just-in-case situations.
As a result, I traveled with ducks and chickens along with people squeezed in taxis, discovered tribal villages in hills, experienced Malagasy hospitality, slept in people’s lawns and in stranger’s houses, went to family celebrations in villages, ate heaps of rice with sparse side dish and burnt-rice water, climbed Madagascar’s highest accessible peak, chased taxi on a motorbike, met numerous craftsmen and craftswomen, camped in a rainforest, enjoyed an open-air Jazz music festival, had conversations with strangers with no common languages, saw numerous plant and animal species endemic to Madagascar, was awe-struck with some of nature’s wonders, met ambitious youngsters, watched young men playing different sports, and most importantly saw and felt how happy and helping the Malagasy people are, despite their abject poverty.
Taxi-Brousse, the lifeline of Malagasy life
Taxi-brousse is the universal transport in Madagascar and is perhaps the best opportunity for an outsider to get a feel for the Malagasy life. In addition to people, these taxis transport anything and everything except the live big cattle. Grains, Plastic containers, Mats, Steel, Chickens, Vegetables, Clothes, Pigs, Bicycles, Ducks, Water…
Traveling by taxi-brousse is a trade-off between time and money. They are inexpensive but don’t start until they are full, and will stop anywhere and everywhere for passengers. One stretch of 90 kms took me 3.5 hrs to travel. Most landscape is hilly and roads windy, which slows you down. And poor condition of the roads adds to travel time. There are potholes all along the road. On one stretch of the road I saw so many deep and wide craters, I felt a meteor shower had hit that road 🙂
In taxis, people travel in all positions, sitting, standing, bending in all directions, scooching, sitting in spaces between seats balancing on the edges of thighs and bottoms. One of the taxis I traveled by, squeezed 35 people in a 14-seater (inclusive driver) 🙂 But no one complained. At every stop, people welcomed the new comers with a smile and made space.
There is music, and if you are lucky, video songs as well. Most numbers are monotonous and cacophonous, and some are close imitations of hit western numbers. The videos are fraught with booty shakes. On one stretch of my taxi travel, a total of about 30 songs were played, and only 3 of them were free of booty shakes 🙂 Initially I felt a tad irritated by the blaring music, but the numbers were surprisingly catchy, and I started enjoying them 🙂
Nature and The Landsape
Nature is perhaps the biggest draw of the country. Most places are untouched and retain their pristine quality. The land, mostly red soil, seems to be very fertile. There is abundant vegetation. And apparently water resources are adequate as well, evidenced by ubiquitous paddy cultivation. The landscape is mostly hilly, red, and undulating. Red and brown hills laced with green patches, mostly symmetrical, with sparsely distributed red houses on the hills, and red mud roads as the veins and arteries is a common sight. By carving terraced fields, the Malagasy seemed to have coped well with the hilly terrain. Early in the morning, the moisture vaporizing and rising from freshly ploughed fields is a sight to watch.
And then there are national parks. I visited two very diverse ones. Andringitra – dry, hilly and mostly granite wilderness. This park is home to the highest accessible peak of Madagascar, Peak Imarivolanitra, or Pic Boby in short. This is an all-in-all-out park, so you have to carry all supplies for the hike, and bring all waste back with you out of the park. With the help of an English-speaking guide and a local guide I was able to hike this peak. The start point of our hike was a good 2-hr drive off the highway, on a dirt road through villages. From there, a 15-km trail, winding through villages and fields, crossing multiple small streams, passing the Antaranoombi river, cutting through a Palm forest, reaches the base camp which is at a height of 2000 meters. From the base camp, the peak is a 3.5 km hike climbing through steep rock faces.
There were several awe-inspiring moments during the hike. At the door step of a plateau called The Lunar Landscape, we watched the sun setting behind the mountains on the west. In the park, there is a rock that’s named La Chameleon for its uncanny resemblance to a chameleon. A millipede rolled itself into a tough but amazingly beautiful marble when touched. Awesome!
At the base camp at night, it was pitch black all around, silhouettes of mountains were dwarfed against the backdrop of the sky illuminated by millions of twinkling and steady stars, shooting stars every now and then, away from all sounds of civilization the only sounds I could hear were those of the nature, crickets and other insects, water running downhill somewhere far away, the wind, and that of my own breath. It is one of those moments when my heart wished time stood still because the beauty of that instant is far beyond expression. And then the thought of how hiking makes me sensitive to each breath and how wilderness inspires me to introspection. When I am climbing, and I take a break and turn back to appreciate the beautiful view from that height, it’s then that I can hear and feel my pounding heart and my heavy breath, and my eyes are treated to the beauty of the wilderness around me, and in that moment time freezes and loses meaning.
Ranomafana – a wet, dense rainforest, best known for the high scope of spotting lemurs. I camped in this rainforest and went on a lemur-spotting tour with three American tourists. It’s amazing that it was raining when we were inside the forest but the rain did not reach us. This forest is so dense! The guide told us some parts of the forest do not receive sunshine ever. Saw four different species of lemurs and some birds.
Both of these parks are home to various species of plant and animal life endemic to Madagascar. Ranomafana is easily accessible. Park entrance is by the highway which is well connected. But not Andringitra. There are two entrances to this park and both are a good 2-hr drive on a rough road off the highway.
The Malagasy seem to love beef, called Zebu. It is the most commonly available meat. In addition, there is pork, chicken, duck, vegetables and sea food. Rice is the staple food, and the Malagasy eat rice three times a day. Most of the other items such as snacks are also made of rice flour.
The typical Malagasy meal consists of three parts (1) Rice (2) Side dish, usually meat, and (3) Burnt-rice water. The rice is served first, and is usually served in a troughed-plate, and there is so much rice stuffed into it that it looks like a mountain of rice 🙂 Looking at the quantity of rice, I was expecting huge quantity of side dish to eat it with, but to my surprise the side dish was totally inadequate. I had chicken and duck on different occasions, and both were very bony. So, effectively the side dish was too little. When I mixed the side dish with rice, it was barely visible 🙂 Nevertheless, every meal I had, the rice and the side dishes were very tasty. The most interesting part of the meal for me was the burnt-rice water. After the rice is dished out, water is poured into the vessel and the bottom is raked multiple times until the water almost comes to a boil. The water turns brown due to the rice that stuck to the bottom of the vessel. This hot brown water is then served. The first time I drank it, it tasted weird, primarily because it smelled of burnt rice, but I quickly acquired a taste for it because the next time I had it, I enjoyed it.
Another important food item is the bread. This foot-long bread seems to be the favorite of many and is available almost everywhere. The peculiar thing I noticed about this bread is that it is fluffy. If you press it, it will crumble into a much thinner mass.
While most of the meals I had were mild in spice, there was one meal at a street-side eatery (hotely) that burnt my tongue and stomach. I had something called a coutlet, a deep-fried rice-flour dumpling, stuffed with tasty potato curry. I asked for some sauce, and the hotely person brought me something that looked like an Indian pickle. I dipped the dumpling in it and ate. It was tasty. The spice didn’t hit me when I chewed it but only a few minutes after I swallowed. So, by the time I felt the spice I had already eaten 5 coutlets. It was so very spicy that that night I had to drink about 1.5 liters of water to douse my burning stomach. Deadly delicious!
Poor but happy!
The taxis stuffed with people and everything imaginable, huge quantities of rice with little side dish, the burnt-rice water and the fluffy bread are reflections of the poverty of the people. The country is very poor. Most people, including children, are seen in ragged and unwashed clothes and with greasy faces, and there are people begging for food at every taxi stop. But in all the places I visited, even in crowded markets in the capital city, I never saw people fighting or arguing. I never heard a complaining tone. No one seemed to be protective or hoarding.
People were always smiling, and when I greeted them in Malagasy they greeted back with a big smile. Always helping one another, always adjusting and making way for others. Whenever I bargained, if my offer sounded unreasonable to them, they gave a big smile, waved their palm to signal “not acceptable”, and counteroffered.
Tana was a surprise!
The first 11 days of my trip were spent in villages and parks that were characterized by a laid-back, easy-going, rustic and simple life. Coming from this vibe, the capital city of Antananarivo, Tana in short, was a complete surprise. The city has an urban appeal to it, and in rush hours is like any major city in a developing country. The hilly, cobbled streets and the vintage local taxis give it a unique old-world charm.
The markets are huge and crowded. Each market seemed to be a world in itself. Hiking the cobbled streets to the royal palace and watching the sun setting over the city, watching the hustle and bustle in the markets, eating at the hotelys are quite an experience.
And a day before my return, about 100 jazz artists had converged in Tana for a music festival. I spent one whole afternoon enjoying the mix of local and international instruments, and artists.
The Malagasy are polite, hospitable and guest-friendly. Whenever they give something to the other person, they bend down a little, use the right hand to give, and the left hand touches the right elbow underneath. All family events are celebrated with music and dancing and feasting.
There are a lot of beliefs or superstitions that are called Fady. In some places, such as in the Andringitra National Park, it is believed that pork brings bad fortune. My guide narrated one instance. On one of his trekking expeditions, one of his assistants, unknowingly brought pork into the park. Apparently the weather suddenly turned stormy, and the locals were convinced that someone brought pork into the park. There was one other lake I visited, and there too, pork is believed to bring bad luck.
And the thing that impressed me most about the Malagasy is their hospitality. One morning I was exploring villages on a hill, and I heard music coming from a distance. With the help of basic Malagasy phrases I learnt from the receptionist of the hotel, I was able to find my way to the house from where the music originated. No common language, but they invited me in, showed me around, the cooking, the dancing, the music, and served me a meal. And when I left, the head of the family asked one of his boys to accompany me to my destination 🙂
On another occasion, I ended up at my guide’s place for a night’s sleep. His wife prepared and served me egg-noodle soup with bread, which I had absolutely not expected, because I had already told my guide that I had food with me.
While nature is the biggest draw of Madagascar, people made the biggest and strongest impression on me.
Jean On a taxi ride to Ambositra I befriended Jean, who spoke very little English. When I got down, he started walking with me. Initially I thought, his destination was in the same direction. After a while I asked him if that was so, and he said his place was in the opposite direction. When I asked him why then he was walking with me, he told me just to make sure I don’t get lost as this was my first time in Madagascar and I didn’t speak French or Malagasy. I was in smiles, and showed him my iPhone to reassure him that I can find my way using the GPS. He smiled, shook hands and left.
Onja After receiving the Malagasy hospitality at the village family celebration, when I left, Onja accompanied me. He spoke no English and I spoke no French or Malagasy barring 4-5 basic phrases. It was raining, and the path was steep and totally slippery. He told me caution at every step, taught me how to say many things in Malagasy and asked me how they are called in Indian language. Path, Slippery, Ox, Food, House, Marriage, Wife, School, Cigarette, Cycle, Clothes, Water, Rain, Fields. It felt strange but amusing to have that conversation. We spoke no common language, but kept talking all along the 4 km walk.
Zu He was the English-speaking guide for my Andringitra trip. Almost fluent with English, I found him to be a very friendly, solution-oriented and jovial person. He picked me up from the taxi station in Fianarantsoa, had his student drive me to the hotel, and when the hotel said they don’t allow camping when rooms are free, offered me his courtyard to camp, but when we reached his place, he offered me his bed to sleep for the night 🙂 When I told him I can’t afford his tour package, he worked with me to adapt it to suit my needs and had his student drive us to the park to bring the costs down.
Alexander My local guide on the Andringitra trip, a soft-spoken, unassuming, caring person. He learnt a little bit of English for his profession, but is very poor and lives in the village. We trekked 15 kms on day 1, and 22 kms on day 2. He was on flip-flops, but no complaints. At the base camp, I was eating plain rice since the side dish was beef. He noticed it and without me asking for it, he asked and brought vegetables from the other group of hikers for me. He moved me so much that before parting I gave him some money, my trousers and t-shirts. It meant I had to spend the next 8 days of my trip with one pair of trousers and 3 t-shirts but I was convinced that those clothes were more valuable to him than to me.
Nantenaina (Naina) was the receptionist at the Ranomafana Park Office and Roland her husband. When I arrived in Ranomafana, after talking to Naina about the fee details, I wanted to pay for the campsite and that’s when I realized my jacket was not with me. My wallet, with my credit and debit cards, and all my cash, was in the jacket. I had taken it off during the lunch break and forgot to take it when I alighted the taxi. I was in total shock, it was already about 15 mins since the taxi left and there were not many villages ahead for the taxi to stop. I asked Naina if there is someone who can help me chase the taxi on a motorbike. She understood and asked Roland to drive me. Roland spoke no English, but once we were on the road he said, “Don’t panic.” We chased the taxi through the winding roads and hairpin bends of the forest. He showed presence of mind to fill up the tank and to carry an extra bottle of fuel, just in case. After about 25 kms we found the taxi. It had stopped in a village for some check on the tyres. I found my jacket. I stayed in the forest for 2.5 days, and during that time Naina helped me with information about many things and translation when required.
Receptionist and Night Watchman at the campsite in Antsirabe
No showers for campers, but the receptionist told me she can give me hot water in a bucket, and that I can use a small bathroom used by the workers on-site to take a bath. It was three days since I last had a shower, so I said I’ll take it. The next morning when I asked for hot water, the receptionist showed me to one of the vacant rooms and let me use the shower there 🙂
It got very cold during the nights. I managed one night in the tent somehow, but on the second night it got colder, and so I asked the night watchman if I could bring my sleeping bag and sleep by the couch in the reception area. He spoke no English, so all communication was in signs. He took out a thick rug from the cupboard, gave it to me and made signs which I interpreted as “Use this to sleep in the tent, and bring it back tomorrow morning.” I gladly accepted the offer. The rug was so warm, I had a sound sleep in my tent 🙂
Worth one more visit
On a stretch of about 500 kms, all my time was spent in the central highlands, at least 200 kms from the beach in any direction. This part of Madagascar is charming, beautiful and interesting, and with the diversity of people and places I experienced, I am convinced that traveling to other parts of the country would be a different experience and worth another visit.
Backpacking without plan, worth it!
My decision to have no plan and to be not connected helped me gain some invaluable experience in dealing with uncertainty. Enquiry at the check-in counter in Johannesburg airport revealed that ZAR is not accepted in Madagascar, not even at the airport foreign exchange offices. This meant I had to carry EURO/USD in order to change in Madagascar. The first thing that hit me on this trip was some financial regulation in South Africa due to which I, as a volunteer holding an Indian passport, was restricted from changing money at any bank. So, my only option was an expensive one and that limited the ZAR I could change to EURO. I could only get 295€. And in Madagascar ATMs did not accept Maestro cards. So I could not draw any cash. This put me in a position like no other time in my life. I was all by myself in the country, spoke no French and no Malagasy, knew no one in the country, had no internet, and had 295€ to experience Madagascar in 13 days. A moment of reflection, and I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-life-time experience. I smiled!
Over the next 13 days I explored options that I otherwise would not have, made decisions knowing that I had absolutely no other way to get additional money, bargained using signs and calculator on iPhone, rationed my supplies prudently and stringently, ate very limited food when traveling and resting, purchased only the absolute essentials, took chances and waited at the park office to find tourists who could share guide fee, and despite the limited resources I could donate money and clothes, and buy food for poor people and small children. This experience taught me something about myself, that I can empathize with others’ difficulties even when I am constrained by resources, that I can trust strangers, that I can persist under unfamiliar circumstances, and most importantly that I can explore options to handle uncertainty.
Thank you Madagascar!