Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Trouble With Mali: Into Afrika With The Wild Wild East V

Mali,  Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, The trouble with Mali is that there is no trouble. Not at least the sort of contemporary corruption and civil unrest associated with Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire. Rather, Mali is a democracy, formed in 1960 after the French abandondoned their colonial rule. According to Wikipedia, today, Mali is one of the most politically and socially stable countries in Africa. And all the better to do business in, one would think. But Mali is also one of the poorest countries on the planet, ranked by the CIA World Factbook as one of the 25 poorest countries on eaMali,  Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, rth sporting a per capita GDP that ranks the country 207 out of arguably 195 countries in the world - Now you go ask the CIA how they came up with that number when WorldAtlas.com has a pretty good explanation of why there are considered to be a maximum of 195 countries currently on the planet. But by any calculation, #207 is dirt-poor and if you don't like the dirt, just go during the rainy season (August) and it will be mud. Mud-poor.

In any case, the only trouble with Mali at the current time seemed to be us. Under the auspices of helping a family business, my partner and I were brought into Mali with the idea that we could help the business at hand through a combination of management consulting and marketing disciplines but after a four day review of the situation, when asked the question by my partner, "What do you think we could do to help the operation here?", my answer was, "Nothing".

And I arrived at that answer, not by using a complex matrix of management consulting evaluations and test scenarios but by a much more simple and human metric. Figuring out the problems and tracing them to their source - and in this case, the source was right at the top. The business owner. To an outside observer, the business had plenty of room for improvement, but to the owner, things were running just as they wanted them to run. And micromanaged to perfection. To make any suggestion, any suggestion at all, would have been to question the owner's logic and authority, and if one thing had become clear, amidst the dust and heat of this subtropical climate, that was not to be done.

Mali,  Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, So we were left to our own devices as to how to earn a living, and in a country supported primarily by international aid organizations that became the problem at hand. Yes, our food and lodging would still have been paid by our initial client but our impact and value would have been of little importance and our own personal job satisfaction seemed at risk, even before we had gotten to the point of getting any job done at all. So it was off to plan "B"- The only problem there, is that we really had no plan "B". Plan "A", which was arranged for us way back in Vietnam, allowed for us to be supported by a single client, whilst pursuing other avenues on our own, but at this point that single client had been reduced to a near non-profit one and other avenues just didn't exist yet in a country that we had only been in for 4 days. Plan "A" had now become plan "B" with no money and no time. However in my short four days, aside from the wonderful day I spent with David and the children of Bamako I had managed to get by the US Embassy to register and to have met the director of marketing at the country's largest TV channel, ORTM, the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision du Mali - (go ahead, say that as fast as you can at the end of every field report you aspiring foreign correspondents).

Mali,  Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, The embassy was predictably American with absolutely no one knowing where any of the other departments were in the complex (Google the US Army acronym OPSEC), like the Commercial section or another section called Pol/Econ (Political/Economic), but the man at Mali ORTM TV was generally interested in meeting me and seemed eager to work together in the future. But at this point, that's all I had and my partner had been so busy with client #1 that she had not yet even ventured into the Malian sea of non-business - and I say non-business, not as a slight to anyone in Mali but as a nod to the idea that the country is still so underdeveloped, aside from the businesses of mining and farming, that little actual consumer work is actually done. The biggest advertiser I could see was O2, the mobile phone operator and after that, a pretty big drop to some food products and motorbike promotions. See the photo that proclaims "rotisserie moderne" and you decide just how "moderne" that rotisserie might be (the second photo of the fire and cook should give you a clue).

The purpose of our trip had always been a combination of business and pleasure mixed with adventure, but now the pleasure had subsided with Paris and we were confronted by the distinct lack of business and an adventure that would only seem adventurous to a fairly green Peace Corps volunteer. Enter the decision.

Mali,  Stunning Women, Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, The vestibule in our accomodation, between the sleeping rooms of the home was the place where the computer was placed and my sole refuge during my stay in Mali. There, the connection (quite good actually) to the Internet provided my contact to the outside world and the world of employment, if any, in Mali or any of the surrounding countries. I do have a friend in Ghana, working with Group M on Diageo spirits and even John Taylor, my old client from BAT had told me that he was responsible for the marketing of their cigarrettes in 12 African countries - so I was up in the wee hours, tryingt to dig us out of our African hole when my partner came out of her room, a mix of pain and joy on her face when she proposed that we leave and return to Germany to rethink the whole plan. Munich to be exact. Let's see - German order, logic, cleanliness, Ocktoberfest and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, or Mali? No decision metrics were involved. (see photo) I immediately agreed on Germany. We had three months worth of cash and lodging left on us. The only choice was from where to spend them.

Mali,  Stunning Women, Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, But leaving Mali would not be so easy as it would have seemed. What seemed to be return Aigle Azur airline tickets to Paris that were supposedly guaranteed to be cost effectively changeable tuned out to cost a bundle to alter the return, and even a few nights in a Malian 3-star hotel came at a price of $70 bucks a night. The only cheap thing we encountered on our way out was a couple of rotisseries offering smoked lamb and I tell you, that was positively delicious, and around three dollars bought you enough for three people. The photos above show the venue and smoker. I was also able to meet Nancy, an American nutritionalist for the Helen Keller Foundation (Did you know that a great number of blindness cases were due to malnutrition? I didn't) and she was a joy.

Mali,  Stunning Women, Bamako, American Embassy,  Wild Wild East, Helen Keller Foundation, Group M, BAT, Peace Corps, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Vietnam, Liberia, West Africa, CIA World Factbook, The other joy I'll take from Mali was the people. They were warm & honest, the women absolutely stunning, and positively joyful the whole time we were there. They remind us pain-in-the-ass westerners that there's a whole lot more to life than money and that maybe we should spend more time looking into the eyes of our children and working and planning for them instead of doing midless yuppie things for ourselves. The Wild Wild East thanks the people of Mali, and certainly in no second place, my partner for giving us a glimpse into this beautiful country. We will be back. But next time we'll understand the nature of business much more and be prepared, both mentally and financially to understand the difference between the developed world and the world that more of the inhabitants of this planet live in.


For more in the "Into Afrika with the Wild Wild East" series, check here:

I) The Antipodes of Mali & Paree
II) Good Morning Mali and the Red Toilet Paper
III) Family Feuds, Singing Children & The Sounds of Silence
IV) How to Get From Mali to Munich
V) The Trouble With Mali


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