Archive for January, 2009


The Characteristics of a Leader

This is not a commercial for London Business School or INSEAD.

I was visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya and while we passed through a small Masai village I met with the village elder. A tall young man in his early thirties.
He took me around the village and explained to me how the community lived. Their most valuable items were their live stock and they had a place in the middle of the huts that was made of branches with a very small passage for the cattle to go through.

Cows were kept inside the huts with the Masai itself.
Wild animals could otherwise come and attack the cattle.

I entered one of the huts. There was no window and it was pitch dark inside. I was taken by the hand and lead to a small place that served as the living area where the family would come together to cook and to eat. Food was made on open fire inside the hut so the smell of smoke was intense to say the least.

The elder showed me the spots on his skin where he had put out burning sticks. He also showed me his teeth, or what was left of those and explained to me that he pulled his teeth out.
These somewhat horrific exercises are part of the rituals of the Masai to train the men to withstand pain.

Once back outside some of the other Masai men came and they formed a circle and one man at the time stood in the middle and started to jump two feet at the same time and managed to jump at least high enough to pass his waist line over the heads of those standing around him. The man was of similar hight as his neighbors in the circle. Each of the men took a turn while the others cheered the man jumping.

We concluded our visit at the school in the village. The children were having their break and were playing in the field.
When the elder had shown me the classrooms I asked him if it was alright to wait until the children came back from their break.
I wanted to see a class in action. The elder stepped outside and called the children back to the class.
I felt sorry for the children to have put a sudden end to their break. In a few minutes the classroom was filled with smiling and curious faces staring at me.

The age of the children ran from 3 to 12 years. A second classroom was under construction and once ready the elder children would move to the new classroom but for now they had to share the available room.

On the blackboard different topics were explained for the different age groups. One age group at the time took a turn to answer some of the questions.

The elder asked the older boys to explain to him what the characteristics were of a Leader?
Hands went up and a boy age 9 started:

A leader has to be honest, has to have a goal and must never put his men at risk.

Another boy took a turn and added a few more traits he felt were required to be a true leader like discipline and the need
to understand the strengths and weaknesses of himself and his men.

What I heard from these very young children made me realize how much we can learn from the Masai who have no television, no computer, no internet connection and yet are teaching the fundamentals of leadership to primary school age children.

I wonder how many 9 year olds in Europe or the US will be able to explain without any hesitation what the characteristics of a leader are. Some may not even know that the word leader means…..

At times I ask myself who is better off ?

© Desi Lopez Fafié


Crossing Boarders

As a member I was informed about a Roundtable Meeting held on November  2008 at The Corporate Council on Africa in Washington.  Representatives from USAID came to CCA to discuss The President’s Global Food Security Response, a $130 million increase in development assistance to increase agricultural productivity of staple foods, stimulate the supply response and expand trade of staple foods.
The presentation went over  facts as they are understood today.
Now facts are facts and to see poverty come down from 60% to 54% in 14 years is a fact, not one to be proud of I would say.
The development process takes too long. In part to quote Jeffrey Sachs “because too many institutions are providing small parts of development assistance and as a result the assistance is too fragmented.
In part because the one size fits all approach that has been a practice for many years clearly does not bring the efficiencies that could be achieved if a more case by case approach would be implemented”.
With the economic crisis I am concerned that Africa may suffer from more delays to get out of the poverty trap because other priorities will prevail.
What strikes me here is another fact:
Initially 700 Billion dollars could be found in a week and it took another week to agree on the first set of terms and conditions to repair an industry sector that had gotten out of control while we need a few decades to resolve a problem that affects almost 1 billion people in Africa. A problem that deals with the most burning issues threatening human beings in all their outlook of life.
To quote Bono “Where we live in this world should not determine whether we live in this world”. The devastating impact of Malaria Tuberculosis and Aids can be addressed if only we want to.
Botswana is already starting to get hit by the crisis due to a drop of commodity prices according to a recent article I read.
This on top of the human hemorrhage that is taking place in the country as a result of AIDS leaving it without a labor force needed to fuel a sustainable economy.
The presentation addressed Regional trade which is a logical and reasonable proposition but why will this work in Africa if the EU has made insignificant progress to deal with their Agricultural issues for as long as they exist and EU Agriculture has been the biggest tax payers money waister to keep inefficient French and Italian farmers alive at the expense of inflated consumer prices due to imposed subsidies.
As long as a Ghanaian farmer pays 8% duties exporting raw cacao and 38% on cacao powder to protect inefficient production capacity in the west, the incentive for the farmer in Ghana is lacking let alone to try and share the market with his Ivorian neighbor… So without fair market access I see no significant change that will arise from regional trade while we maintain trade barriers.
Food shortage is a threat with the current world population projections where we are almost doubling the numbers in 15 years. So knowledge transfer to improve agricultural output is a priority in my opinion to avoid more hunger and famine. The presentation acknowledged this and that was a very positive point.
In today’s information age solutions are within reach if only we want to share our knowledge.
One slide  said that we have to recognize Agricultural related issues are a complex problem. I could not agree more to that. But it should say that we have largely imposed our problem on the farmers in Africa due to protectionism in the rest of the world.
Climate impact is another concern, and some of the biggest contributors to the global warming are outside Africa and Africa will again be one of the most hit victims.
According to the presentation only 3.1 M hectares are irrigated out of the 74 M agricultural land in Nigeria. I guess soon the cost to irrigate will increase since water will come in less abundance to the region. Ghana is suffering as we know from short rainfalls and Lake Volta was drying up, causing severe energy problems to the region as a result.
I drove from Ouagadougou to Bamako recently and back. It took me about 45 minutes to get through the border and this should be considered a record time. I made 6 stops in total each way between customs, passport control, laissez passer for the car etc. Trucks take hours to cross the border.
The procedures at the Ghanaian border are even worse because at times the language barrier kicks in.  Between Ghana and Togo the situation is not  any better.
Borders close at 22.00 hours between Mali and Burkina Faso. If you want to get to the border from Mali back to Burkina after 1800 hours you have to be in a convoy of 6 cars or accept two police officers to escort you to the border the last 90 km. They say it is for your safety.
You have to pay the officers for them to assist you.
How does this compare to cost of interstate transport in the US or EU. All of this op top of the fact that both Mali and Burkina Faso are landlocked countries that already suffer from excessive costs of transport in the first place.
On a positive note the roads are getting much better but there are still long stretches to be fixed with dangerous potholes.
How many people in Washington or Brussels realize what the transport corridors look like between Burkina and Mali ?
A major opportunity to use Information Technology to speed up the border formalities I would say.
I am not negative towards all the good efforts of the likes of USAID. All these efforts are most welcome. That said, Jeffrey Sachs estimates that the AID industry consumes about 8B US $ out of the ODA sums that are allocated to Africa just to keep itself operational. This amount is significant if you consider the debt service and other components that are coming out of ODA as well, leaving real cash to a stripped down number insufficient to deal with the burning issues nations are facing. As long as we have talk shows going on until pigs fly and the G8 continue to provide lip service I am not so sure that the MDG’s will ever be met, forget about 2015.
Why did I have to sign a petition sent to Prime Minister Gordon Brown asking him to ensure at least the presence of ONE African leader at the discussions concerning the economic crisis in the world.
So when are we going to have a slide that says
“The complex problem constitutes of the following”, and lets state the dry facts as they really are and put a solution to it.
If we want, any problem no matter how complex can be solved. If we really want that is…
© Desi Lopez Fafié


Eagerness to Learn

A boy of about 9 years old walked along with us up the hills in North West Ethiopia. We were on our way to visit some monasteries that were hidden in the slopes of the hills. This way the orthodox Christian communities protected their places of worship from the eyes of different religious invaders. Some of the monasteries were so well hidden that you almost had to fall into them before you could actually see them. Lalibela is probably one of the best kept secrets of ancient Ethiopian times and the construction is believed to have taken about 20.000 men 40 years to complete.
A hugh square trench was hewn from solid rock. The hugh mass of rock that remained in the middle was consequently chiseled out from the inside until a monolithic church was formed.
Similar to places like Petra in Jordan, in the case of Lalibela, twelve churches were rock hewn and connected to each other by tunnels in the late 12th to early 13th century.
A “draft” project was constructed first and collapsed in part. With the lessons learned a second complex was built successfully.
The river Jordan separates the two complexes.

During our climb the boy who had followed us for some time now was talking about life in the village.
I asked him where he had learned to speak English so well because most of the locals spoke very broken English or only Amharic. He told me he had learned English at school.
So I asked him why he was not at school. He told me that you needed a pen and a notebook to attend classes.
Unfortunately he had run out of both and his mother had no money to buy new materials for him.
So I asked again, how much he would have to pay for a pen or a notebook. One pen would be 2 Birr, and one notebook 6 Birr.
If I were to give you 20 Birr what would you do with it, I asked ? He thought about it for a moment and answered me that in that case he would buy four pens and two notebooks. That added to 20 Birr.
I realized that the boy had also learned some basic arithmetic. When I gave him the twenty Birr, ( 2US$) I asked him how I would know that he was going to use it as he had told me. He said that he would come to my “hotel” and show me the purchased items.

The boy ran back to the village and kept running until I lost sight of him.
I started to understand why Ethiopia produces so many good marathon runners.

We were in a remote area a couple of hours drive from a small airport about 800 kilometers north of Addis Ababa and throughout the fields you could see UN bags of milk powder that the UN planes had dropped. A burned out military tank reminded us of the war that had taken place not so long ago with neighboring Eritrea.

The area was extremely dry. Flies were trying to get as close to your eyes as possible to pick up some of the fluid and the only way to keep the flies away was to sweep a branch of a tree back and forth from your left shoulder to your right one. At night it cooled down to almost chilling temperatures because of the altitude we were at while during the day the sun was burning.

In the center of a village five small one-bedroom lodges formed the “hotel”. You had to go outside to use the shared shower. In the middle of the place was an open space covered with a straw roof that served as the dining room.

We arrived in the late afternoon and were welcomed by the owner of the lodge who asked us what we would like to eat that evening and what kind of breakfast we would like the next morning so that he could sent people to villages nearby to get the necessary ingredients.

After dinner we enjoyed the traditional coffee ceremony that Ethiopia is famous for. It’s said that coffee originates from Ethiopia.
Coffee beans are washed and roasted on charcoal and the guests are first invited to smell the aroma that is released from the roasted coffee beans.
Next the beans are ground. A clay pot with the coffee powder and water is put on the fire until the water boils.
The first round of coffee is served in small cups to the guests, as it is the strongest version. Two more rounds of coffee are served, each time releasing a milder version since more water is added.

While the coffee is being prepared incense is lit to chase the flies.

The next morning we woke up at 5 AM because we had a long trip ahead of us again. The boy was already sitting in front of our lodge with his notebooks and pens.
He told me that his mother had invited us for a coffee ceremony at her place that evening. A small cross made from stone hanging at a piece of rope was the gift
his mother insisted us to accept because we had given the boy back the opportunity to attend school and with that his future.

Rural life in Ethiopia is harsh but makes very honest people.

Back in Addis Ababa a child was asking me money at a traffic light. Instead I offered a pen I had in my pocket. The child took the pen and looked confused.
Probably the child had never seen a school from the insight. Some elder children shook their heads and explained that they wanted money instead.
It seemed to me that the influence of the big city on children in Addis Ababa was similar to that of New York or Madrid.

© Desi Lopez Fafié


A Party, Dinner or Dance ?

One newspaper headline in Europe some years ago highlighted some rebellious actions against the extravaganza of Christmas- and New Year dinners.

Some restaurants found their food supplies damaged just a day before Christmas and were unable to serve the menus that people had made reservations for many months
ahead of time.
If you ask someone in the West what the ideal Christmas celebration is, increasingly you will hear “a great dinner with lots of drinks”.
Some people spend a fortune for a night out dining and drinking to celebrate Christmas or New Year’s eve.
As such there is nothing wrong with that since this is a personal choice anyone can make.
So what was great about that?
The full belly ?
The headache the next morning ?
How did you enjoy yourselves ?
These questions are not coming from those who had damaged the food supplies of the restaurants but from people in Africa who don’t understand how you can call a party a party if all you do is eat.
In the West people often think of famine when it comes to Africa.
Therefore these questions may sound surprising for some people in the West.
It illustrates again some misunderstanding about the two worlds.
You put on the music, you make sure that there is a big enough space where people can dance and that is all you need to have a group of people expressing themselves joyfully for hours and hours.
No need for cocaine, no need for hard liquor, no need for abundance of food, lobster, caviar or any of the other big ticket items you see on some of the celebrity parties that people in the west dream of to attend and are willing to spent a fortune on.
At a party in Africa of course there is food as well, but the emphasize is not on food nor on drinks.
The emphasize is on sharing a happy or a sad moment expressing yourself.
A local band, with some very basic loud speakers will take care of everything.
If the band has to take a break, scratched cd’s will fill the musical gap and even if the song skips a few tracks the African built-in natural understanding of rhythm makes sure that people adjust without even mentioning it.
And people dance until the sun almost comes up, elders and youngsters sharing the floor,families all coming together, children included who will fall asleep when they feel like they had enough.
Life in Africa is about the family and the community, the year around and music and dance are a bonding force throughout life.

In some parts of Africa there are special dances to celebrate a newborn child and different dances to please the ancestors or to commemorate a loved one that passed away.

This year we were invited at a New Year party at one of the Senior Officers Messes and we danced in the open air under the starlight, together with Captains, Colonels and Generals.
A hugh open space was cooled by a very mild breeze while at 03.00 hours AM it was still 25 degrees Celsius and the dance floor was packed.
From Ndombolo to Salsa to Zouk, all styles of music filled the air and there was no way the guests were getting tired. Sometimes more traditional music invited people to dance as one group and everybody that related to that particular dance would try to join.
It demonstrated from what village or region people originated and they all felt proud dancing their traditional dances that distinguished them as a unique group.
Some tables were only showing some bottles of water, Coke or Fanta, while some other tables were having champaign in coolers and bottles of whine or whiskey but
most of the time that was all you could see at the tables……the guests were all out dancing…

© Desi Lopez Fafié

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January 2009