Under African Skies
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We are entering week 4 of our 9 weeks of training and the two biggest items on our schedule is the Small Business Workshop that’s scheduled for most of next week, and the language test that’s this coming Friday.
We, the trainees, will be hosting the workshop. The presentation we gave to our trainers on various aspects of small business management last week was a dress rehearsal for the workshop, which is open to any small business owner or potential owners. I cohost a talk on business management. Each session is about 1.5 hours long and it can be quite informative.
The training and discussions we had leading up to the preparation for the workshop was much needed because it gave us insight into how tradition and culture affects how Namibians think in terms of business, which is very different than the way Americans do. We take pride in punctuality and credentials while Namibians are more focused on relationships and ability. Timeliness is far less important here especially in social settings where business dealings are often discussed.
Beyond that, Namibian small business owners make the same mistakes or lack the same knowledge that their counterparts in the U.S. might, but with an emphasis on money and time management.
Money management, or rather the lack of it has roots in cultural differences. Here it’s natural, and even expected in some instances, to share. If someone dies, for instance, it affects the whole village and everyone is expected to pitch in to help with the burial and ceremonies. Even if you are no longer living in the village, but you have relatives still there then you’ll need to contribute. These and other incidental financial stresses can and have cause small businesses to fail. It may seem obvious that a budget would help, and it might, but setting one up requires a full understanding of all financial burdens, which are often overlooked because they so integrated into the culture.
I am not the best person to be talking about money management so I’m glad I’m not hosting that particular session.
Time management is yet another culturally rooted issue. Many Namibians have recent histories in a subsistence agricultural environment, a way of living that does not adhere to tight schedules. Seasons change, weather changes and the pace of life ebbs and flows to a slower, more natural rhythm. Business, at least how we in the West sees business, moves at a much faster pace. Schedules are created and become the cadence by which business is conducted. It’s a concept that, while not foreign to Namibians, can be hard to adjust to.
These are just two of the many subtle, but significant challenges we face when dealing with culture in a business environment. What makes it easier is that Namibians, at least the ones I’ve met, are eager to learn, open to help, quick to adjust, and want their endeavors to succeed.
Okahandja’s defunct train station
The lubricant that is supposed to ease our integration into local society are the skills we learn at speaking one of the local languages. While English is the official language and most Namibians can speak it, in social settings one of the many native tongues are used. The most common and most cross cultural besides English is Afrikaans, and that’s what I’m learning. Namibians, like most people in whatever country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, appreciate an effort in speaking their language. It shows respect and a sincere effort to understand them. That respect can translate into real relationships, and through those relationships one can better understand and address what’s needed. It’s really why we’re here.
As long as the testers aren’t too picky about grammar and pronunciation I think I’ll be ok. I’ll confess to a wee bit of pride, it’s been two weeks a few hours a day for language classes and I can greet and hold a conversation as long as the other person is patient and doesn’t speak too fast. By the time I graduate in five weeks I should have a firm handle on Afrikaans. I’m glad too, I’ve been told that volunteers who are unable to acquire at least a basic understanding of the language they’ve been assigned may be sent home. I’ve also been told that it’s highly unlikely that anyone will get sent home because of poor language skills. Even so, I want to do well.
On a completely different note; I’ve been wearing the same clothes for about 6 weeks now. So, Sunday I bought two shirts. A collard shirt and stylish v-neck tee. I don’t intend to have a large wardrobe ever again, but man should not wear the same shirt more that 3 times before washing it. These additions give my clothes washing schedule some much needed breathing room. Now, if I can just find a decent pair of Levi’s!
And I’m losing weight. I haven’t weighed myself, but my clothes are all baggy. I don’t count this as a problem because I was feeling a bit doughy before I left. That dough is leaving. What I need to do is come up with an exercise routine that doesn’t require covering long distances or the use of weights since I can’t walk when I want to and hand weights are impractical at the moment.
I’ll work on that.
Now that my clothes are ill-fitting I may need to do more clothes shopping, just not here in Okhandja where the choices are not the best. It is a small town and I’m surprised to find what variety I did, but it’s better in Windhoek which is about 40 minutes away. I’ll work on that too.
One last thought: I’m asked a lot about where I’ll go after graduation and what I’ll be doing. As of now I have no idea. I hear rumors that I could go south towards South Africa ( wine country!!) or west towards the Atlantic (beach time!!!) because of my Afrikaans training. There’s even a chance I’ll stay in Windhoek. But I currently don’t know where I’ll ultimately land.
As to what I’ll be doing exactly, I still don’t know. In two weeks I will know, because that’s when shadowing starts. It’s where I follow around the PCV I may be replacing. So, when I know, you’ll know.
That’s it for now. More to come so…