Monthly Archives: December 2015

Turkey

I think I’m going to like Turkey.  Istanbul is an extremely weird and old and beautiful city, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve been here for centuries rather than just a few hours.  I got into Ataturk airport this morning and disembarked into the international arrivals terminal, where we were met by a line of four police officer verifying that everyone had a passport before we could proceed to immigration.  This seemed like a redundant step because we had all just gotten off an international flight, and unless someone’s citizenship had been revoked in mid-air we all still had valid passports.  The officers were all in plainclothes, which meant that one of them wore a Galatasaray jersey, a woman wore Uggs and sweatpants, and another man wore a down jacket suited to polar exploration.  I had to pick up my checked bags to leave them in consignment during my two days in the city, and was happy to find one of them already orbiting the conveyor belt when I got there.  I waited for the other one for twenty minutes until a baggage handler beckoned me down the concourse and showed me that my other bag was circling a carousel for luggage that had come from a flight from Azerbaijan.  I lugged them to the bag check and caught the bus into town.

I didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul, and it’s a great mix of old and new.  The city seems a bit like Paris, a bit like Aladdin, and a bit like San Francisco, all hills and cobblestones and sloping views to the beautiful bay.  People sit outside coffee shops and smoke four foot tall hookahs, men walk through the streets preceded by impressive bellies and trailed by gusts of aromatic smoke, all men over 30 have awesome moustaches, there are really fat cats draped over sunny surfaces like Salvador Dali clocks, and the call to prayer booms out of mosques everywhere.  I thought it would be seedier and more touristy, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how little attention I get.  Anyone who looks carefully could tell that I’m an American and thus a prime target for hustlers.  I have a strategy, however: I bamboozle them by wearing a scarf so that by the time they’ve made up their mind if I’m European or not, I’ve already made my escape.

One of my favorite sights of the days was walking on the bridge over the Bosphorus and seeing men, women and kids all fishing over the bridge in the black waters below.  Trams squealed behind them and Hagia Sofia loomed in the background under wheeling flocks of seagulls, and all of the fishermen focused on their lines with great concentration.  I went into the Hagia Sofia mosque and was blown away by how BIG it is.  I appreciate a well-engineered dome as much as the next guy, but this mosque is something else.  The floors are made of great slabs of black and white marble that are illuminated by chandeliers that dangle hundreds of feet from the ceiling to float 10 feet above ground level.  There was scaffolding blocking off a good chunk of the apse, which I thought was annoying until I realized how splendid it was that the building is still a work in progress and always being maintained and improved.  Before it was a mosque it was a byzantine cathedral, it is the tomb of imams and sultans, it has annexes that have been used for baptisms and fuel oil storage, and it’s all just so old.  There are dozey cats in there too.

Outward Bound

So right now I’m sitting on the terrace of the Café de Vienne, an Austrian outpost in the heart of Ouaga.  The place is decorated with heavy furniture and newspapers on a wooden rack, they serve tiny cups of espresso with a cup of cold water, and they are the home of the finest strudel between here and Salzburg.  I just discovered this place a week ago, and since then I’ve been using it almost daily as a base of operations for my sorties to mining offices for meetings.

The CDV is one of many many things that I’ll miss in Ouaga.  I’ll miss the dirt roads in center city scarred with ditches and massive washouts, I’ll miss the informal bars that pop up in every open plot of land, the guys selling telecom credit who swarm my moto at every stoplight, I’ll miss banging around the city on my big red motorcycle, I’ll miss the terrific live music I can hear every weekend, and I’ll miss the huge diversity of friends that I’ve made in my six months here.  I have some regrets about leaving, but I’ve also accomplished a lot during my time here.

For the first time I lived completely on my own in a city, no roommates, no host family, nothing.  I bought the first vehicle I’ve ever owned: I landed in Ouaga on a Thursday night and on Saturday morning I walked into the dealership and paid cash for a brand new motorcycle.  On this bike I’ve been stopped by the police, I’ve ridden into the villages all around Ouaga to visit eco farms and crocodile lakes, I’ve had a wicked crash and then picked up the twisted moto to ride myself home, and I’ve put over 6000 kilometers on the bike.  I introduced the sport of beer pong to Burkina Faso.  I lived through a coup d’état, and heard shots 200 yards from my house and stood on my rooftop to see the columns of smoke from tire fires at roadblocks smudge the horizon.  Twice during the coup I had to abandon my house to stay in a safer neighborhood, carrying only a backpack that contained everything I needed if I had to flee the country.  I worked deep in the villages in the northern sector of Burkina Faso, helping the poorest of the poor to manage small business and exponentially increase their revenue and their prospects.  I did not take a single day off work throughout my six month contract.  I produced a coaching guide that will standardize the activities of field agents as they engage with over 10,000 program participants.  I took an interest in a job in Corporate Social Responsibility, and in the last two weeks through sheer persistence I’ve arranged meetings with half a dozen CSR directors at different mines, visited a zinc and a gold mine, and met with the Burkinabé Chamber of Mines.  I made some very good friends during my time here.

I’m tired now and I’m looking forward to going home for the holidays to prepare myself for the next step.  I think that the work I do demands a great deal of adaptability and self-reliance, and since I first came to Africa in 2011 I’ve gotten better at arriving in new places and integrating myself quickly.  I don’t ever want to reach a point where it’s as easy for me to leave a place as it is for me to arrive there.  I’ve built a great network in my half a year here, made a lot of connections and been to a lot of places, and I can’t let it go lightly.  I want to stay resilient and keep exploring the world, but it’s important for me to maintain a base and have familiar things to come home to.  Once you’ve started travelling it’s hard to stop, though…I turned down the possibility of flying directly home, and instead I’ll spend two days in Istanbul before arriving in Boston on Thursday.

2015 has been a special year for me, uniquely challenging and fascinating and new.  It will be good to come home again, and I’ll have good memories of my time in Burkina Faso.  SG World Tour: coming soon to a location near you.

Back in Action

I apologize; I have been a blogging delinquent.  I have a lot more time on my hands now because my contract ended on Monday.  Amazingly, I’ve been here for six months, which have been packed with excitement and danger and somehow just flew by.  Besides national holidays and a coup d’état, I have not taken a single day off of work.  I thought that my last two weeks in Burkina Faso would be a relaxing chance to bid Ouaga goodbye, but in fact I’m busier now than I’ve been for months.

I’m job hunting.  I’m interested in working in Corporate Social Responsibility and community relations in the mining sector, which sounds like a narrow field until you realize how colossal the mining sector is in Burkina.  47% of the country’s exports are gold, there are dozens of companies based in Ouaga that are extracting gold, zinc, and manganese from concessions in the farthest and most hostile regions of the country, and they’re supported by a gamut of organizations selling hydraulic equipment, hoses, lubricants, leaching chemicals, and hard hats.  A friend of mine works for a supplier that primarily sells a fuel additive that increases the efficiency of diesel engines by 3%.  Business is BOOMING.

So where do I come into this?  To the miners’ consternation, there are a lot of people and a lot of villages with the temerity to live on the land above the juicy veins of gold.  Mines are required to do community needs assessments and design interventions to support populations in their concession zones.  There are legal requirements for this, but it’s also in the mine’s interest: if they don’t build schools miners won’t move with their families to the dig site, without clinics their workers will get sick, without training programs they’ll have to recruit welders and mechanics from far-off sites, and without sponsoring local soccer leagues the miners will have nothing to bet on over the weekends.  Mines look to align their interests with the community’s interest, and that’s what I want to do.  There are amazing opportunities to design large scale economic and social development programs, as long as they achieve the mines’ objectives of risk management and cost effectiveness.

There have been a lot of things I disliked about previous job searches.  I think writing cover letters is tedious, it’s disheartening to send off dozens of emails and get few replies, and many job postings list requirements that not more than a handful of people can ever fill (must be bilingual in English and Portuguese, five years field experience, management consulting background a plus, MA required, salary $18,000 annually, EU citizens only, right-handed people need not apply).  My approach here is different.  I sent in applications to the HQ offices of a number of major mines, heard a deafening silence, and decided that the best way to talk to people at mines is by talking to people who work for mines.  Since Saturday I’ve been banging around town on my moto visiting CSR directors, the national Chambre des Mines, and going directly to mining offices to meet with field personnel.

On Tuesday I met with the technical director of a gold mine in the northern province where I’ve been working.  He asked me to meet him at his house, and when I got there I found a crew of fifteen workers frantically packing all his furniture as he prepared to move up to the mining site.  We spoke in two chairs in the center of his living room, the only furniture, as people swarmed around us unscrewing air conditioners, boxing up the TV, and even folding up the curtains.  I stood up at the end and by the time I made it to the door both of the chairs were already on their way to the truck. From that conversation I got two phone numbers to call and a meeting with the CSR director in 10 days: my meetings increase exponentially.

My friend who works in mining supply told me he was making a business trip out to a zinc mine on Wednesday to hustle more diesel additives, and I decided to try and take advantage and tag along.  On Tuesday I put on my cleanest shirt and shiniest shoes, then rode up to town to the office of the mining company.  I walked in, told the guard I was going to speak with the secretary, then met with the secretary and said “My name is Sam Gant and I would like the number for the CSR director on the mining site.”  I got the number, called the director, and was sitting in his office less than 24 hours later as trucks the size of buildings shifted ore outside his window.  The conversation went great, and led to more leads…

I like job hunting this way.  The mining community is a small circle: I’ll meet someone and express interest in meeting the manager of a particular project or development initiative, and often they’ll be members of the same aerobics class.  It’s amazing how helpful people are when you show up at their office looking decent and request a meeting with them.  It’s a fast paced industry and unless someone’s out of the country you can typically see them in a matter of days.  This seems like how people looked for jobs in the Olden Days: no networking events, multi-round interviews and LinkedIn pages, just an exchange of firm handshakes and telephone numbers.

We’ll see how it goes.  I’m happy to have wrapped up my NGO project (at least as far as my role goes), and I’ll be making the most of time here.  In the last month we’ve had peaceful elections, the curfew should be lifted soon, and I have a gecko living behind my refrigerator who hunts bugs on the ceiling at dusk.  I’m trying to sell my motorcycle before I leave, but I’m heartbroken by the thought of parting with it and I haven’t tried too hard.  If any interested buyers are reading this blog, technical specs can be found below.

Brand: Rato Motors

Mileage: 5700 kilometers

Maintenance: top level

Ever crashed?:  Well…

Product description: large, red, very handsome machine

Price: Priceless