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Adventures in Zambia!

Rebecca (FCMA)
MicroCredit Foundation (MCF), Zambia

I am now into my third month as the interim Finance Manager for the Microloan Foundation in Zambia. Although I have settled down, become a regular feature around town and got into a fixed routine, nothing is predictable here and the days go so fast that I still feel I achieve little but learn a lot. However everything happens with a smile (and a lot of laughs) and I can’t help but think how lucky I am to be having this experience. My adventures in Zambia could be the making of a film!

It is now the rainy season, the temperature is still a constant 30 degrees and the mangoes outside my office window are turning yellow – so I don’t have to go far for a snack! The rainy season is important here for the crops, no rain means food shortages and high prices (the billboards say ‘Thank the farmers – no farmer, no food, no future’... this sums it up) so along with everyone else I praise the rain, the thunder and lightning and just hope it stops at 5pm when I walk home!

I had my first day off work on October 25th when we celebrated Independence Day, a patriotic public holiday in Zambia. Off I went to join the rest of Chipata at the town stadium for a day of music, military displays, political speeches and football matches. However, when I arrived at the stadium I was sent off in the direction of the VIP stand, great views of the local dancing and singing groups and I even made friends with a nice cultural group who shared their bread and drinks with me. I admired and stroked their leopard skin clothes but when someone draped a leopard skin tail around my head like a crown and then got me up out of my seat I realised I had made a big, big mistake.... my worst ever nightmare was about to come true. The group lead me in front of the entire stadium of Zambians (like a trophy), to dance with them in some sort of celebration – I will never know what, but I made sure I enjoyed the experience and smiled a lot!

This gave me some street cred at work when I regaled the story the next day. That was the day I had my first budget meeting with the branch managers and since we are in Zambia, the meeting started with a prayer. Wanting to engage everyone, I asked for a wish list of items for the budget but this led to a rather long discussion about the state of the motor bikes for the loan officers and the need for security guards for the offices ....we ended up deciding on really practical things like a generator for the head office and landline phones for the branches! I used an Excel model called MICROFIN to prepare the budget for submission to London – this was a challenge in itself with incompatibility between versions of Excel, the size of the file being too large to download normally with a slow internet and a sizzling power adapter that looked like it was going to blow up and take everything down with it - but we got there in the end and had a smooth meeting with our colleague from the UK.

Life went back to normal for a few days until I struck the most memorable day in Zambia, so far. We received a call to inform us that two of our loan officers (Moses and Mathew) had been involved in a serious motorbike accident – my assistant and I rushed to Chipata public hospital to deal with the situation. We were directed to a ward and there I saw a sight that I shall never forget.....a room full of patients, some lying on a bed, others on mattresses on the floor and some under beds – but not a single piece of electrical equipment anywhere. There were no cubicles or curtains, few staff and patients with open wounds. Moses was bruised and cut and rather traumatised but Mathew had a bad cut in his leg and it was broken. The ‘bone doctor’ for the province would not be at the hospital for another week so it was decided that we would have to take Mathew to him some 80 kms away in another town. But Chipata public hospital had no available wheelchairs or ambulance transfer service so Mathew was carried by hand by his colleagues to the CEO’s car. It was a sobering day for all of us and it made me realise just how close I had become to my colleagues and that they had become my ‘Zambian family’.

By now I was ready for a real break as I had worked most weekends because of power cuts. So I headed to South Luangwa National Park, just 2 hours away by car to go on safari. Well, it was very, very hot ...... over 40 degrees. I was camping in a site where elephants and lions roamed (in fact a herd of elephants blocked our entrance) and at night I could hear the animals wander past my tent – it was very scary. However I saw; a leopard, giraffes, zebra, porcupine, hippos, lions, monkeys and impala – I even did a walking safari with an armed ranger and got really close to the animals. 

It was truly wonderful to see the animals and also to just relax and have morning tea near a drinking hole!

Next on the list of new experiences was my short term role as bodyguard for Danny, my assistant. Now Danny is a sensible lad but on the day that he had to collect a considerable sum of cash from the bank, I was asked to go with him ‘to make sure nothing happened!’ But Danny was really worried about juju (black magic) which is common here. Apparently the witch doctors can smell cash on foreigners, they cast a spell, the foreigner falls asleep then gets robbed. I was worried too so I wore lots of perfume! So off we went to collect the cash and transport it from one bank to another (no internet banking here!) – the two of us crossing town with a big manila envelope stuffed with cash....and me on the lookout for witch doctors. It was a successful operation but I was glad to return to base safely.

I was temporarily promoted a second time to ‘acting CEO’. Our CEO handed me the keys to the office and sent an email out to everyone telling them to send all issues my way – I felt very important. Very little finance management took place that week, I had to get shoe sizes from the loan officers so that I could order gumboots for them (really important because of the rain), I had to cold call audit firms in Lusaka to try and source new auditors (kiwi accent + Zambian accent on the phone = difficult conversation) and I had to take on some of the loan administration for our groups of women. I learnt a lot that week.

Because it was starting to rain heavily I thought it was time to buy some proper shoes for myself, so off I went to the boot shop in the market.

......whilst on the way I stopped to buy from fruit and eyed some goodies I had never seen before. Someone walked past and suggested I try them and then he would tell me what they were, and not wanting to offend, I did – big mistake.....  they were fried caterpillar and there were huge vats of them all over the place. Apparently you soak them in boiling water then put them in a casserole. Talk about having butterflies in my stomach!

I got another month end out of the way, prepared the pension and PAYE returns, sorted out some IT issues in the office then planned my long weekend break to the capital city, Lusaka – an 8 hour bus trip. Lusaka was a cultural shock – high rise buildings, roundabouts, dry cleaners and a rugby club, I knew I had spent too long in the provinces..... but once I had shopped for essentials and done a sightseeing tour I was pleased to return to home in Chipata.

My day at work is full of excitement and challenges, if faced with something new – my attitude has to be ‘can do, so will do’. My colleagues ask for my advice and help on all types of issues so I really feel very valued and I do make a difference because I get things done for them. It is hard at times to work within all sorts of constraints but essentially it is all about being professional and having a sense of humour – I have learnt that you can achieve everything if you try (and you have to be a bit creative at times!). Life is hard in Zambia for a lot of people so it is humbling to be here doing a job that will improve the lives of many and I really do go home each day pleased that I have had another great day.

This is such a wonderful experience and I am very grateful to AfID and the Microloan Foundation for the opportunity.

Rebecca Ryan, FCMA, CGMA
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