(part of the Africa series)
It’s 5:00 AM and we are (mostly) awake and dressing for one of the most unusual classes Laura and I have ever planned. This morning we will teach a 3 hour class on Introduction to Business. Actually, we will be teaching Introduction to Introduction to Business. Our students today are parents of the children served by Rwanda Children, a mission led by one of our former ACU students, and we will be spending three mornings with them.
To understand the task we face, you need to know a little bit about Rwanda. First, it’s small, about the size of Maryland, but with lots more people and lots less college basketball. Second, it’s land-locked, meaning it has no sea coast and no ports, which is both unusual and inconvenient. Oklahoma has the same issue but they have mostly overcome it. Third, Rwanda has a major problem with unemployment, which sits between 10% and 15%. Compounding the issue, Rwanda has a major problem with under-employment, which means that even people who complete a university degree can wind up performing what would be minimum-wage jobs in the US. We have seen countless security people whose careers consist of standing outside a business with a rifle or a club and looking official. Our host tells us that many university graduates work in hotels or other tourism-related businesses, and apparently these are the lucky ones. It does mean we have some incredibly capable tour guides and drivers!
Our students in today’s afternoon session will be trained teachers, but this morning we are expecting a group of less educated people, some of them completely illiterate. To make matters worse, we will be using an interpreter, which adds a layer of complexity, and since everything has to be said twice, cuts the available time in half. Our plan is to start at the very beginning, with basic questions like “What is a business?” and “Why would a person start a business?” and “What are profits and losses?” We have been told our audience will be receptive, eager to learn, and willing to work incredibly hard to improve their lives, which makes them exactly like the students we teach in the US, except for those three things…
KIDDING. Just kidding. No hate mail please.
For our three sessions, our preparation currently stands like this:
- Session 1: completely planned, with more material than we expect to need, lots of details, etc.
- Session 2: a fully developed outline, partially planned with some details, but not yet finalized.
- Session 3: topic is chosen.
I’m exaggerating a little bit, but we are so unsure how today will go that we see no point in trying to nail it all down now. We think today’s material might be too much, or too little, and we might wind up taking three days to cover it, or half a day, in which case we will wish we had taken that improv comedy course so we can fill the remaining ninety minutes. We have been given good insights into our audience and their needs, but won’t really know who we are dealing with until we are in it, so once we survive today, we will adjust, reset and move ahead.
We arrive at the facility, and realize that, like most things in Africa, our session will be starting late. Why? Because it’s Africa. Trust me, if you come here you need to memorize that line, take a deep breath, and start developing that patience thing we Americans are so bad at. We also like the fancier version, the acronym TAB, which means “This is Africa Baby.” We use both of these a lot as we remind ourselves to just chill and go with it, and since we have no idea if we have too much or too little material anyway, what difference does it make?
Our host tells us to expect about 70 people, and the room is set up for a hundred or more, but as I scan the rows of empty chairs I wonder if this will be one of those nightmare events where you plan for an army and wind up with a cozy small group session. Amazingly, the room eventually has about 70 people in it, so we introduce ourselves, I quickly learn that less than 1% of humorous statements survive the translation process, and off we go. NOTE: The children’s song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” translates just fine, thank you. This will be the starting activity each time we meet, so if nothing else they will learn that. This is America’s gift to you, Africa. You’re welcome.
Everything here is just more complicated than back home. Africa is online, but mostly at the “you’ve got mail” level of the 1990’s, so along the way we find ourselves with our teaching notes in the cloud and one or both of us unable to connect to retrieve them. I wind up taking screen shots of my notes just to be sure I can deliver my sections of the content. As a result of the pervasive dust here I am battling a sinus infection, and my voice steadily fades as the first session wears on. We do have one funny moment as our interpreter and a class member wind up in a fairly lengthy discussion, none of which we can understand, and I look at Laura and say, “The class is on autopilot” as we consider stepping outside for a smoke.
KIDDING. Just kidding. No hate mail please. Very few people smoke here.
Our interpreter wound up being the key to making it all work. She speaks four languages, including ours and our audience’s, but beyond converting our words to the local dialect, she repeatedly took our examples and key points and rebuilt them in a local context, making them understandable. In my mind, taking ideas and putting the into a form someone else can understand is the foundation of teaching, so we felt hugely blessed to have someone so capable helping us. Her name is Caroline, but she goes by Kabibi and she is in the center of the photo at the top.
10:30 is apparently the official tea time, so we broke for delicious African tea and homemade bread, enjoying a fifteen-minute break that went thirty (TAB). Then we returned for the remaining half hour of our session.
As the morning rolled on, it became pretty obvious that we were going to finish up early, meaning we had not prepared enough material. But because our audience was so into the topic (and because each exchange took so long) by the time we wrapped up, we actually had a small cushion of ideas we had not been able to cover. So we sent the class on their way and began to plan for the next day.
Today we focused on a simple idea: it’s all about the customer. I told them that if you want to be a seller you have to think like a buyer, and we learned that a few terms here are the same as back home, including “Customer Care,” which many of them were familiar with. We started the day (of course) with Head and Shoulders (the song, not the shampoo), enjoyed tea and bread, and finished up on time and on schedule.
We were told more than once that Rwanda has a culture of entrepreneurship, and that the government pushes business start-ups as a major way for the country to grow. As a result, several of our attendees had already started small businesses, and given the scarcity of jobs, most wanted to. My favorite story came from a man sitting in the back. As he told his story, every segment or two would draw big laughs from the attendees, as Laura and I stood there waiting for the translation so we could laugh too (less than 1% of humorous statements….). In short, he had gotten into the goat business, which is a good one here. Goats are easy to keep; they mostly take care of themselves, they eat almost anything, and they provide three great things to their owners: milk, the potential to make cheese from said milk, and of course, more goats (note: they can also provide the raw materials for excellent barbecue served on a stick, a local favorite). This man began his business with one goat, grew it gradually until he had amassed a minor herd of fifteen, then lost it all when the goats were stolen. He seemed to take it in stride (TAB), and we suggested that he might have a future as a comedian. I suspect he is on track to start more businesses.
My voice survived, but just barely, which worries me a bit, and worries Laura a lot, since if I go down for the count it’s all Laura, all the time. Thankfully we have a day off before our next meeting.
It’s now the evening of our final day of teaching, and we survived, as did most of our attendees. On day one we covered the basics of business, on day two we dealt with marketing and customer care, and today we did the piece de resistance (French for “you have got to be kidding me”): creating a business plan and finding funding. When we talk about funding we are not using US scale: the school teachers we met with on day one earn about $50.00 per month (roughly 31 cents an hour) so our example in class today of a woman who wants to get a $50 loan to start making and selling soap is pretty ambitious in local terms.
By the time we broke for tea and bread, Laura and Kabibi had been laboring for a while to communicate the math and the reasons for creating a business plan that a bank or micro-finance organization would consider funding. They did an incredible job, as did the students, who were doing the hard work of learning. After the usual 15/30 minute break, we wrapped up, said our thanks, prayed over their efforts, and left feeling exhausted but pleased.
Did I mention that many of the students brought their children with them? If the sight of breast-feeding makes you uncomfortable, you would not have learned much in our class because America’s “lactation suites” have nothing on Africa, where this is just part of life. As we got ready to start our final day, I made eye contact with one tiny human in the second row. We smiled, waved, etc. and I assumed that if I walked toward her she would scream and run. But she seemed determined to communicate with the giant pale visitor, and slowly wobbled up to the stage. I held her for a while, then concluded that while I was having a fine time (and so was she), it was probably distracting people, so I returned her to her mom where she was soon enjoying a nice meal….
I love what I do in Abilene, and I truly believe that we have an impact on our students, but if we are honest, many of our students are headed for success regardless of what we do for them. Some of our students in Rwanda are living right on the edge, and a few may be teetering between life and death. If one or two people in that class go on to start businesses, it could change their lives, and their kids’ lives, and our trip will have been well worth it. It was humbling and deeply rewarding. We hope to help more in the future.
Read here about the two organizations we worked with, both started by graduates of ACU’s College of Business (and we are extremely proud of each of them):
Kingdom DNA (South Africa) is using sports to bring reconciliation to a nation with an ugly history of racial conflict.
Rwanda Children (Rwanda) is working to provide nutrition, education, and medical care to at-risk kids.
Follow Laura’s accounts of our harrowing adventures at https://adventurouslivingblog.wordpress.com/