Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Innocent versus security company

Our house is located on a small but beautiful complex in posh Harare. There are some massive advantages to live on a complex. First, it is possible to get to know our neighbours a little bit, but also because it has got good security and we don't have to worry about it.

Innocent is our main security guard. He works six days a week, 12 hours a day, no holiday. He is employed by an external company, security is a flourishing business here, responsible for the security on the complex. He gets paid a $100 every 2 weeks i.e. about $0.70 an hour (which might still be a lot in some other developing countries where people live on $1 a day, but in Zim and especially Harare, it doesn't get you very far) .

For the best part of the day, he listens to the local radio on his mobile phone sitting in the vicinity of the gate. Despite the fact that he is doing one of the most boring job in the world, he is always jumping to open the gate as promptly as possible and greets residents and visitors with a big smile.

Yesterday, Innocent stopped me as I was entering the complex to ask if I had a job for him. Rather than quickly dismiss a request that is so common here in Zim, I thought it was worth having a little chat. He explained that he hadn't been paid for the last two weeks, and that this was the fourth time it happened since last November. So now he was fed up. Naively, I suggested that maybe, he could present his employer (a reputable company) with a bank statement and claim what was owed to him. I also promised that I would have a chat with the people dealing with the company on the complex.

To add to my concern, Pedzi confirmed Innocent's desperate situation to the point that he had to ask to be fed by some house staff on the complex.

Later that day, I knocked at my neighbour's door (a lovely lady) and presented the situation. Only to be politely told that this was none of our problem, that it always happens with security companies. Surely he could take his employer to court – Zimbabwe has an elaborate labour law, generally very protective of employees - but he might need support in the process. Well, maybe but the tribunal would then puncture half of what he had gained so that was probably not worth it. However, she was happy to report the issue but then, most probably, Innocent would end up being sacked for telling us. And anyway, it was better to let “them” deal with “their” own problems because “they” had “their” own ways of sorting things out within “their” culture and that if “we” got involved, “we” always ran into problems. I'm quite tempted to call that hand bleaching if it wasn't for the fact that I really like my neighbour. Whichever way I looked at it, I felt that I was advocating for a lost cause. As diplomatically as I could, I said that actually, it was my problem because this person is directly working for me every time he opens that gate for my fat 4x4. And that knowing what I knew, every time I greeted Innocent, I couldn't ignore the fact he was victim of a simple form of human exploitation and basically working for free when I dutifully paid my monthly levy, which in huge part involved his salary. And that I would be happy to pay for a more expensive company if I knew they were paying their guys fairly. I concluded that I was going to ask Innocent whether he wanted us to report the issue to his employer considering the risks he was facing or not. And I left.

I didn't have the time to talk to Innocent again. Five minutes later, a knock on my door. My neighbour. She WAS going to talk to the security company, she WAS going to insist that all the guards on the complex were going to be paid no matter what and she WAS going to make sure that they were not going to get sacked for talking to us. I'm still waiting to hear about the outcome of her meeting, but what puzzles me is that, nothing had changed since I spoke to her but suddenly, it all became possible.

I hope I can still be greeted by Innocent for a little while more and that he is now being paid his full wage... until he finds greener pastures than the manicured lawns of our complex.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

If you thought that was the conclusion...

Here is another story about travelling and crossing borders.

Chipo is Pedzi's sister. She lives in Durban, South Africa, with her husband and 9 months old baby and has not seen her family for two years. Until a couple of weeks ago when she decided to make a surprise appearance. As only warning to her visit, Pedzi received a call late in the evening from her. “I'm in Beitbridge (the border town in Zim), I'm tired, can I come?”

The next day, Pedzi goes to fetch her at lunch time (which implies jumping on an overcrowded commuter bus to the main bus station in town, and back again) and turns up again late in the afternoon. “I'm so sorry I'm late. I had to wait for two hours because my sister's bus broke down. Come and see my sister”.

So here is the sister sitting on Pedzi's bed in her little room with her little boy looking at me with his big black eyes, surrounded by the most enormous suitcase I've ever seen, a big bulky bucket, a baby bath and a couple of other smaller bags. After all the introductions, this is the story of their journey that I get.

Left Durban on Sunday evening to take a night bus to Johannesburg. Arrived very early in the morning in Jo'burg. Waited all day for another bus to Harare. Got on the bus in the afternoon. Border control (slow). Arrived in Beitbridge in the night where the bus stopped for the night (all passengers stay on board and try to sleep). Left Beitbridge on Tuesday early morning, bus breaks down on the way. Arrived at Harare central bus station mid-afternoon. Commuter bus (or did they treat themselves to a taxi ride, I can't remember). Arrived here with the baby and all the stuff. Man. How did she do it?? No wonder she is tired. And the financial cost aside, no wonder she only travels once every two years.

The love of international travels

I have been very quiet in the last weeks. Several reasons for it: laziness (always), slow and irregular Internet connection, lack of inspiration, but also because we've had to go away for a few weeks rather unexpectedly. After three weeks in the UK and in France (we loved it!), it felt so good to be “home” again.

Ben was in South Africa, which meant I had to travel on my own with the girls. Luckily he was able to meet me half way across... in Addis Ababa. So the first leg of the journey, a day flight from Harare to Addis via Lusaka was very smooth chaotic. Neither Amandine nor Zélie slept and I became any air-plane passenger's worst flying nightmare: the mum who can't control her kids. A few tears were shed and I must confess some were mine too. By that point the air hostess had managed to calm Zélie down (a task in which I, the mum, had failed, only to reinforce the point in my fellow passenger's mind I'm sure). I have unlimited gratefulness to the passenger sitting right next to us, a very experienced Egyptian diplomat back from a high flying inter-African summit who, after having been kicked a 100 times by my darling daughters, alleviated a bit of my embarrassment by telling me that for sure, there is no way his grand-children would have behaved as well as my girls and that I was doing amazingly well. In Addis, Ben and I found each other straight away and I stopped feeling too sorry for myself.

Coming back was eventful too. In London, we were not allocated a bassinet for Zélie and were promised some extra seats instead only to find on board that this wasn't the case (if anyone has ever experienced keeping an exhausted wriggly Zélie on one's lap for 10 minutes, one might understand what kind of misfortune I am talking about). So Ben argued for 20 minutes with every single member of staff on the plane... and we eventually got what we needed.
In Addis, we battled again to get the buggy out, which we were promised was going to be available on arrival. So we waited and waited and eventually got it. By that point, Amandine was feeling rather unwell. We thought it was due to lack of sleep but then noticed a couple of spots on her little body and she definitely had a temperature. We looked for some airport medical assistance, and found a friendly nurse who examined her. She couldn't find any cause for the symptoms but was eager to offer an injection (of what? I have no idea). We thought the trauma of an injection would be worse that any relief she would get from it and opted out of the friendly offer. As Ben checked out flight details, he bumped into some worried passengers in transit over a middle aged Belgian guy who was obviously not feeling well but had some problems to communicate. Ben thought it would be helpful if I could speak to him in French. Unfortunately, I didn't get any further with my attempt to get any information from him (name, flight, etc.). We were told that the man had been sitting there for about two hours after collapsing, hurting his forehead and had missed his connection. It sounded too much like a stroke. An African lady who was trying to assist, a French speaker as well, encouraged us to do something about it because “at least, they will listen to you” i.e. because you are not African. So Ben went to get the well-meaning nurse again, who said she had seen the man already but had given up because he couldn't communicate! To which Ben responded that what that man needed was to be taken to hospital. By the time we boarded, the man had disappeared from the airport hall and I just hope he was able to receive appropriate medical care on time.

So we got to Harare airport and waited and waited and waited to get our passports stamped and collect our luggage but received a wonderful welcome from some of Tearfund Zimbabwe's members of staff, and found that one of the Tearfund vehicle had been clamped - it had not been parked perfectly straight (!). The Nicholson family got into the other car whilst we left Edward sorting this out. We got home at last, and were so pleased to be greeted by a smiley Pedzi. As it turned out, Amandine was having chicken pox (for the second time) and must have been the happiest of us all to arrive!

Anyway, we loved the whole experience so much that we decided to fly all the way back to Europe again (Ethiopian again) in three weeks time. And surprise surprise, I find it extremely hard to contain my excitement.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The car saga

Public transport (i.e. taking overcrowded commuter buses) or walking (i.e. for miles under the sun) are not options in Zim if you want to go anywhere quickly, especially with two small children. So owning a vehicle is top priority. Sick of crying over the absence our superb but useless Honda CRV parked at some warehouse in the London suburbs, we decided to buy a vehicle locally and splash a bit more of our savings on yet another 4x4 - I don't want to hear about carbon footprint here - just like that! Just like that. This is an account of the path we followed to get (nearly) there:

Ben called on the help of Chenjerai, a very knowledgeable car mechanic friendly to Tearfund who had given excellent advice on a few purchases. They toured dozens of car dealers over a period of about three days, with disappointing results.

So when our neighbour told me that her car was for sale (small Mitsubishi 4x4, within budget) I felt very hopeful to find a quick solution to our problem. But Chenj strongly advised us against it (has had one of those stuck at his garage for 4 months waiting for spare parts, so not good).

At the risk of becoming very boring with my systematic questioning of every single person I knew or met (essentially, “wives”) about cars for sale, I eventually got the details of some white Zimbabwean selling what he said was a 2004 Toyota (the winning brand here) 4x4 with “only a few scratches” at an extremely reasonable price. Sounded too good to be true. As Ben and Chenj went to check it out, they were met by a relatively unpleasant guy who dared to prompt the question “has this guy got a license?” when Ben introduced Chenj as his car mechanic. I hate to think that there wouldn't have been such question if Chenj's skin colour would have been any different. His car turned out to be a wreck 10 years older that what he had said. That episode did make me a little (understatement) angry.

We finally heard of some British embassy people leaving the country with two cars for sale. So there we are, we bought what we thought was a 1995 Toyota Rav 4, which we realised was actually 1997 (deal!!) after we made the transfer. Joy, intense happiness, clap clap clap, Amarula chin chin, we are all over the moon. Well done us!!!

End of the story... but not quite.

The car is currently being registered so it has got no number plates on it. Many people drive around Harare without number plates and we were told that it is fine as long as we carried the related documents in the car in case of a police check. Prudently, we decided to wait until everything was completed to use it and we continued borrowing the office's car when available.

Last Monday, Edward, the office driver crashed the office car (broken window and the side properly scratched, no one got hurt). Ben comes home with our new car.

On Tuesday, the new car doesn't start, the battery is dead. Thanks to a neighbour's help, we are good to go. Ben asks Chenj to organise for a new battery to be installed that very morning. I pick him up, go home and off he goes with strict instructions to be back on time for me to be able to pick Amandine up from school. He is late, I get a bit nervous. As it turns out, the reason for this is that he got stopped three times by the police, once for speeding, once for driving through an orange light at the “robots” and another time because of the absence of number plates, which he got away with showing the paper work.

With the new battery fitted and my two girls at the back, I'm taking him home on the way back from school and as we drive past a police check point, I'm being asked to pull over. The policeman who checked Chenj about half an hour earlier about the number plates tells me that I am now breaking the law. I show him the same paper work, only to be told that one crucial document is missing. Chenj engages in a conversation in Shona and not surprisingly gets angry at the policeman, which is obviously not doing our case any good. So here comes the usual “what are we going to do now?” question. And as he realised that I was not going to give up on letting go of a $20 note unrecorded, he summons me to come to the nearest police station for my car to be impounded. I explain that I have two very hungry and tired children at the back and that I won't be able to go home if they impound my car. I don't get much sympathy. I ring Ben, who luckily is with Edward (and the crashed car) and can meet me shortly. Our car is sitting by the side of a busy road in full sun, so I take my babies out, cross the road and wait for Ben under the tree with the policemen hoping to, if not change their mind, make them feel guilty for giving me a hard time for a bribe. Ben arrives and we swap cars. He goes to the police station taking one of the policemen with him whilst Edward drops Chenj off and takes me home.

On the way to the station, the policeman explains to Ben that he can make a call and sort it out quickly. Ben says that as a Christian, it is against his principles to pay bribes. At the police station, Ben receives some elaborate explanation that he needs to pay 3 fines: one for the front plates, one for the back plate and one for the disk (all for the same infraction), and in that case, he has to go to court. And the car should be impounded, but really “it is not safe to leave it here”, at a police station! At this point, the policeman whom Ben took in his car says that they should let go of them (probably realising that putting together a court case that they were very likely going to lose was not worth it). Ben finally pays a $20 fine, gets a proper receipt and comes home with the car, two hours wasted.

To avoid more trouble, we share the car with a broken window, i.e. that can't be parked unattended, with the office and ourselves for the rest of the week.

On Saturday night, Ben and I went out. By a miraculous mistake, Ben pressed the button to close the broken window, and up came the glass, intact, beautiful. And we should get number plates on our new car tomorrow!

End of the story.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Housekeeping (Part 2)

We have found a little angel. Her name is Pedzi.

Pedzi used to work at one of our neighbour's house and was the first person I interviewed to help me in the house with... everything. First pick seems to be the winning one so far as Pedzi is just lovely. She is a 27 year old single mum and comes from Chinhoyi, a little town situated a couple of hours out of Harare. We accommodate her in a little room with separate bathroom and cooking area just behind the house.

I'm sure the idea of having help and baby sitting “on tap” will make most of our friends a little jealous, but honestly, how could I cope with mountains of ironing, numerous window cleaning, no dishwasher, hosting quite a few visitors, and just the fact that the house seems to get dirty more quickly here?

Pedzi's official story is that she failed her O levels because her dad died the month of the exams and she had to look after her 3 younger sisters with her mum. She lives in a tiny house without electricity and is the main bread winner for her family (her mum, who sells tomatoes by the side of the road, her 5 year old son and a couple of sisters). Now, I've been told that this is the set story, but it all sounds plausible so I am going to believe it. And what I do know is that Pedzi really needed a job, and that when I told her that we were taking her on board, her smile was so beautiful that I knew she'd be motivated!

Her son is being looked after by her mum in her home town. Apparently, it is common for kids to be brought up by their grand-parents in Zim, a cultural fact that helps me to alleviate my sense of guilt to keep her away from him.

On the other side, I do feel uneasy when I compare her wage to our extremely high standards of living (for Zim!). It is not unusual for us to spend her monthly salary in a single shopping trip at the supermarket. What is “fairness” all about when the gaps are so huge and when where you are born is what makes you rich or poor? This is why we like being here, to be reminded that we haven't done anything to deserve what we have. The day I stop wrestling with the issue of justice (I don't have the answers), then I may as well go home.

For the last 2 weeks, we've gradually gotten used to each other. She is good company for the girls and myself. She is much tidier that I am, she has got a good sense of initiative, she works hard. She is a little angel.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Today was Valentine's day. Today, Ben bought a brand new washing machine and had it delivered to the house whilst he was at work. How romantic is that? Well, sadly that's made my day!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Housekeeping (Part 1)

Since I don't have a car yet (container packed with a car and our stuff has yet to leave the UK), I am pretty much housebound so I thought writing on this very exciting subject would be appropriate.

We still haven't got a washing machine. After running out of clean pants (actually, just before that), I decided to call on Juliet's help again to hand wash a bit of laundry. She asked me to buy a special laundry soap (a blue bar measuring about 50 cm so delicately scented), which is what most people use in Zim, and I showed her my very precious pack of imported non-bio Fairy powder. Laundry powder is expensive here and not good quality, so I was very proud to stick one of those in our hold luggage when we came for our 'recci' visit in October. No washing lines could be found anywhere, so we put the lot to dry on our wired fence. Job done.

Now, apparently in Zimbabwe, some little bugs lay their eggs on fresh laundry and you are at risk for those to gently nest into your skin and develop into beautiful worms. Obviously you don't realise you are hosting one until a little worm comes out of your skin and says hello. For that reason, every single item has to be ironed here. I decided to start the task using the ironing board that Ben had by miracle found, and subsequently bought, by the side of the road. Not such a good idea after all. I have a cramp in my wrist after just three knickers and four socks (the board is bending) and the cover is full of holes (it doesn't take the heat). I put a towel on top and carry on anyway only to realise that our t-shirt have gone shapeless, my Egyptian cotton towels look like they're coming out of Primark, the whole lot smells of cheap soap and a third of my precious powder has disappeared from the box. Juliet's hard work has paid off in making sure everything is spotlessly clean but that's not been very cost effective!

Ben's now in the process of buying a washing machine. And what a surprise, they are very expensive here. Whilst shopping around, he thought second hand would be a great option. He promised me that the one he saw looked fine, not too dirty or dated (I asked about yellowed plastic as a sign) and was even a branded one for a mere $150! So here comes the washing machine... and what appears to come straight out of the 70's (with this delicious brown finish). How cool, a 40 year old machine, can't wait to see how that works! In order for it to work, it needs a hot pipe to be fitted i.e. a day's plumbing work. Should I be sad that it is not working after all? Our hunt for the best buy washing machine is ongoing.