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.