A day in a consultant's life
A cold wind strives my neck, which makes me switching off the air condition, only to be hit by the heat a few seconds later. I put the air condition on again. I am in Dar es Salaam at a small guest house. The room is simple but has all what I need: a mosquito netted bed, a closet, and a small desk with a chair. I am sitting in front of my laptop with the assignment to write a capacity development approach.
Work as a consultant can be lonesome at times; it is weekend, and I have told my friends in Dar es Salaam that I have no time to meet them. I feel the pressure of presenting my report in a week to come, so I have to move forward with the work. The past days I have spent with collecting information through reading, observing, asking questions, and listening to all sorts of stakeholders. It is now time to cut through the jungle of information and get my ideas on paper. I turn off the air condition and start writing.
Breakfast hours start at 7:30 AM this place, but is usually first ready at 8. I head for breakfast with a good feeling, because I already have been written a few pages of my report. I am an A-type person, working best in the morning hours, and my brain is formulating phases, even while I walk to the breakfast hall.
Near the reception I pass by a European woman who has braided hair and is dressed in a kanga like the local women. She is speaking fluently Kiswahili, giving orders to those who assist her with carrying the containers and boxes from her car to a storeroom. “One of those aid workers who 100% adapts to the local environment”, I think by myself and smile.
When I greet her in English, she responds with a quick and harsh look of disapproval. “So, you are not one of us who speak Kiswahili”, her eyes seem to said. I guess she is right, though I have been “one of them” some years back. And who says I don’t speak Swahili!
It takes me a few minutes to eat my breakfast while thinking through the next paragraphs to put on paper.
My work continues taking shape. Salted biscuits and juices in small packages are keeping my energy level up and will have to substitute the lunch today. I type like a crazy, as my fingers are trying to keep pace with the flow of phrases coming to my mind. I am describing the existing capacity gaps before formulating the approach to improve the situation.
The hotel room is starting to bore me, so I decide to trick my mind by changing the working environment to a different location: a room next to the reception, where there also is an internet connection. There, I take a place at a long table where two young guys already are seated with their laptops. They are British students who are doing a field study in Dar es Salaam. I talked to them yesterday and found them to be very enthusiastic people, thinking to be on top of the world, though it is quite obvious that they don’t understand much.
“Wow, it is so easy to get to talk to people here. We just went to Kariakoo (local shopping area in Dar es Salaam) and did our research. Though we don’t know the local language, people where really helpful and informative. The research is progressing so well, I think in a few days I am done and will take a trip to Zanzibar”. Well, I tried to explain a bit about Tanzanians who are good at saying what they think you want to hear, and about asking questions in an open way to allow different options for answers, but I think I did not get through. Maybe the beach on Zanzibar was more important for the student than the quality of his research.
I am now writing on the chapter of how to develop the capacities. International trends are moving away from trainings (taking an individual out of the organisational context) towards a more holistic approach on learning. In other words: no more training seminars, and more focus on alternative ways of learning, such as coaching and mentorship.
This change hits into one of the biggest problems with development work in Tanzania. A huge number of professional development agencies, NGOs, volunteers and beneficiaries are making a living of organising / participating in workshops and seminars. The topic they teach or learn is secondary to the small amount of money they will manage to take home. Even with the best intentions and with an interest in the learned topic, many people in Tanzania actually depend on this extra income.
I actually understand that a volunteer-driven NGO needs these workshops as a source of income. However, if the volunteer engagement becomes a way of living, the driving factors of volunteerism change completely. Voluntarism becomes a form of job creation.
How will these volunteers manage to survive if I propose a capacity development approach completely without any workshop or seminar? It is both cheaper and more efficient learning to propose a group meeting with a facilitator, who thereafter provides support and coaches via phone, skype or email.
I am not sure how to continue my approach here and take a short break from my writing.
“I must express my strongest opposition to the expat community” she tells me with a very harsh tone at the dinner table. I joined her table because I overheard her speaking German with her daughter. I now look at her with surprise, because it is only few minutes ago she had told me that she lived at Msasani, the most upmarket residential area for expats in Dar es Salaam, and only stays at the guesthouse because her husband moved back home and she has a small consultancy to finish before leaving too.
There is something dangerous about people feeling strongly against something they are themselves, so I change the topic and ask about her consultancy. “Oh, it is so difficult to find time to write. My nanny is sick and my daughter requires my full attention”. Okay, I feel that I have touched another difficult topic and finish my lunch quietly. I guess she is going through a difficult time.
I would not describe myself as an expat though probably has been one without wanting to associate as such. As a consultant I feel more like an observer and as an outsider. Looking back on my life, I have actually been both student on field study, aid worker, and expat myself, all those type of people I meet here at the guest house, but now I feel different; like a person who just needs to get this report done before I am off again to my home and family; like an outsider who uses his insight to look at a particular context for a few days and before being off to the next assignment.
It is against my work-life balance policy to continue working until late; it is also against my nature as an A-type person, but as there is a deadline ahead and a lot of work still to be done, I continue writing this evening. I decide not to propose a radical change to capacity development in my report. People still need workshops and seminars as income generation. However, if I introduce a combination of workshops with new ways of learning, I think both approaches can meet. This is probably the most sustainable way of change, and can in the long term also bring a change of attitudes towards seminars and workshops.
Having solved this paradox, tiredness overcomes me. Efficiency has dropped to a level where I better stop and take a rest. The air condition is off this night, and I fall asleep, knowing that the heat of the sun will hit me tomorrow morning, calling for another day in a consultant’s life.