Early career, Travels in Africa and how I got to England in 2002.
Of my various lifetime to date rollercoasters, the biggest swings have been experienced in my working career. Work was however firmly linked to my travel experiences and my travel experiences to my work.
I was drawn to accountancy from about the age of 14/15 by career guidance at school where some bloke (Jack Deevy from Coopers and Lybrand as then known and who was also a family friend of my parents and former drummer too) did a presentation but what logged in memory cells was an extract from a promotional booklet published by the Irish Institute of Chartered Accountants dealing with International Opportunities.
It was the desire to escape the Catholic clogged and controlled society that was inspiring my escape from it. Plus there was the logical aspect that I was far from having Linguistic skills, failing to find inspiration in French, Irish or Latin studies preferring the safety of the English courses. Nor were science subjects appealing and whilst having to this day a general interest in the sciences it was the prospect of cutting, dissecting (never seen in practise though) or mixing, heating etc chemicals that dampened any potential interest. History and Geography appealed and still do but careers seemed limited. Numbers and more in accountancy rather than Maths rang bells, that appealed!!.
Early training 1978-83
I signed 5 year articles in September 78 with the local firm of Coopers and Lybrand that many in Waterford still referred to by its former name of “Deevy’s” having been established by Bill Deevy (father of presenter mentioned above) and Noel Kelly who was still alive at the time but retired when I joined (not linked!). It was a 5 partner 80 staff firm with small offices in neighbouring Wexford/ Kilkenny. The quality of the firm to me was in its mix of clients from traditional farmers to large national co-operatives and particularly subsidiaries of US and other foreign companies. The professional standards were high and actively encouraged.
My first year was spent at the local Regional Technical College which was one of 4 nationally to whom all those not entering the educational stream via University were required to attend. Freshly arrived at the age of 17 and arriving at college which was not university like but still more grown up than school I quickly became a studious swot and avoided social activities other than for rare exceptions. Many of the 5 subjects on the course were familiar to me but the approach to study more mature. Encouraged to read widely I devoured Economic textbooks that were beyond our syllabus requirements. At the end of the first year, I gained 1st place of some 120 student sitting the exam in summer 1979 and whilst my father was visibly proud, my mother was joyfully tearful as not seen before. I was very proud, inspired by their support and encouraged to at least continue to succeed with my studies.
My 2nd year was working (real work) in the tax department where there was a great and keen approach to look after the interest of our clients. I still recall the cigar smoking Mick Hayes (the air was foul even by office standards back then as nearly everyone in the main tax room smoked. Other rooms were smaller with 1 or 2 staff and non-smoking but I got the smoke room before it became an official room in many companies. There was a very professional approach to the work when as an example a new tax proposal came out from a budget in print and Mick would look for weaknesses in it. That was the competitive approach to tax planning in what was fundamentally a provincial office. My studies now at night time continued but I relaxed consciously the more studious side in order to balance with the demands of a working week.
Years 3 and 4 saw me complete each of the 4 exams with the final exam been sat for in July 2002 when I was 20 shortly before by birthday in August. Proud as can be.
My 5th year of articles was spent on certain specific non-routine work including a 3-4 month internal systems computer project work. I was happy with my achievements but was clearly intent on getting away.
For overseas work there were 3 main categories of overseas work: good money / savings, good work experience and good social life. No country offered all 3 and some just 1. I decided on Australia probably because it was the furthest away possible. It immediately entered a recession and my 2nd choice came up in South Africa. The decision was supported by meeting up with a former employee who was in the finance department of Cape Town university although he later questioned why I choose Johannesburg rather than applying for Cape Town. Cape Town is special still is for its scenery but Joeys was the big money making city with a good social life and good sporting facilities. It took some more personal investigations to realise I was a sporting disaster but the outdoor centred life was a big attraction to a young 22 year old.
My work colleagues 1978-83
I started at the local RTC with Paul Cooke who went through the exams in the same quick way as I and currently (2008-11) is MD of Star Newspapers in Ireland (Since then he left there and now runs his own newspaper ), Bendan O Connor who went to the Kilkenny office of the firm, Ann Quealy who went on to work with one of our biggest clients in Avonmore, Deirdre Mooney who went on to Australia and Aidan Treacy (who now has his own consultancy business here in the UK and with whom contact was re-established via this website). All 6 of us qualified but whilst very different in personalities all were influenced by the work and professional ethics of the firm. In year 2 we were joined by 2 university graduates John Hearn who contacted me in November 2013 despite me not spelling his name correctly (how did he find me lol) and which I have now corrected and Maura Joyce a doctor in science with no accountancy knowledge beforehand. She had married a bloke fom Kilkenny area and she was too highly qualified for any of the few science jobs in Kilkenny. For 1979 when all 8 of us met up it was of note that 3 were female a very high ratio for the time although since then over 50% of newly qualifieds are female.
South Africa: first 18 months 1983-85
I arrived in Johannesburg on a Thursday morning after an overnight flight of alcohol inspired dehydration to find a chilly and dry air (altitude some 5,600 feet) and a spotlessly clear blue sky. Met at the airport by an English colleague I was driven into town towards a hotel (temporary home). A police drill was in progress and a large part of the city centre grid like street pattern was cordoned off. The police looked tougher and bigger than my experiences before. A few pictures from my early years are here
Getting around in Johannesburg
Getting a car organised took a few days and subsequent weeks were spent proving I could get lost in any direction. The whole city from east to went is some 80km and some 30km north to south with excellent roads but massive distances. By week 2 I was entering Soweto (South Western Townships) at 8am when the population (all one million or so it seemed) of Soweto were heading out. A simple innocent and fortunately harmless mistake. But it could have been otherwise. I knew I was heading the wrong way when everyone else on foot in vehicles etc were black. But that was at Baragwanath hospital proving I can be slow on the uptake or alternatively committed to a course of action until obviously wrong when I change direction. There was no public transport, few taxis and the big distances meant nearly everyone (white) drove themselves or if black were driven in black taxis which came in different colours.
Apartheid and culture: the dichotomy
The firm said it was "was" non-discriminatory but all partners were white as were all but one Asian manager (technically ahead of all others) stuck at his level. It was a mix of English Afrikaans both in partners staff and also in its clients. We even had a Jewish audit client which was staffed by Jewish staff. Clearly international clients who spoke English were for me but I was lucky to get involved in the audit by spot checks of the South African Lumber Millers Association, a trade body geared to regulating its members production and prices. Most of the staff and client representatives ever only spoke Afrikaans. It was interesting culturally but hostility was often visible until they realised I was Irish rather than English. A big indeed very big difference in the minds of the Afrikaans. Historically Britains are best remembered by the Afrikaners for introducing concentration camps long before they were popularised by the Germans and the Soviets.
The idea of separate development was very strong namely we take the best resources in terms of quality, you can have the quantity and we develop separately. Cruel economics.
As a group of staff we used to go away together for weekends about once in two months. It was always a requirement that we went to “international” resorts that were multi-racial but that was only a veneer to our separate lifestyles in terms of where we lived. I was selfishly self interested and by 1985 planning on getting out to Australia or to USA.
In September 83, I was basically told I was been assigned to Swaziland office. I immediately went to the AA (Automobile Association and not Alcoholics Anonymous) to find out where this place and country was and more importantly how to get there. A long drive of nearly 4 hours and not getting too lost one Sunday morning saw me at a border crossing into my first African run country. Its cute and quaint on the surface but probe beneath its an autocratic monarchy where wealth is divided very unequally. It’s a very small country nestled between SA and what then was war ravaged Mozambique. Its industries were asbestos (Havelock), lumber and sugar cane (South African plantations) but I think the asbestos is gone now.
On the tourist scene its hotels allowed gambling (illegal in South Africa as they are good church goers and bible readers). I was caught in a speed trap that Sunday going past the outskirts of a very sleepy capital Mbabane. I negotiated a fine rather than the threatened arrest and got a receipt for a fraction of the cash I had paid. My first experience of how Africa sadly works then and now. My hotel was the Yan-Saan a Chinese style hotel not only in the food but also in the heavy wooden furniture in darkened but at least cool rooms. That first night I really felt alone in terms of distance from everyone but was cheered up the Swazi waiter who decided to teach me how to use Chopsticks. In 1985 I had missed out on this aspect of my cumulative education. A quirk of the hotel was its very quiet night-club with its pornographic cartoon movies. Swaziland had in contrast with South Africa a very relaxed attitude to sex (as does most of Africa) reflected in the “Why Not” nightclub. I went there one lonely Friday night found a nice looking girl or more likely she found me went back to her place and from there the following morning left my watch as deposit as I went to the bank to get money. My first experience of sex although not sure if it ever counted as losing virginity. I fumbled badly both in the night upon return and also in the morning and failed to get a firm erection despite her gentleness. At the same time I was scared and not encouraged by my isolation. An experience of growing up but there was something in my mind that this was not what I should have been doing and I don't mean in moral terms. (issue explored further under "Complexity & I")
Departing the firm March 1985
I had some good very good work experience in one Client Alfa Romeo that kept me busy 12 weeks of the year, some average work in Chloride batteries and then SALMA (the tree roots and branch people mentioned above). One other client was particularly slow on producing the figures and it seemed I was to blame. The job turned into a cost nightmare and more blame came my way. But it had started when in the early stages I queried personal shopping going on the company accounts. I could understand the cost of a barbeque assuming it was for business purposes but was annoyed to see a weekly grocery bill of household items going through. That was in my view clearly wrong and I raised it internally in writing as part of the routine reports. From that stage on I felt I was on the losing side. Another incident where a partner went away on a weekend with the client, returning on Monday to overturn the recommendations of the audit staff and agree with the client all seemed wrong to me. I started to look outside via agencies for work because although the hours were longer the pay was much better.
Working on the railways 85-86
I joined Railway and Civil Engineering Construction which claimed to be out of recent financial troubles but was rapidly heading into newer bigger troubles. It might have helped me get the job that an audit client in Swaziland which I had worked on 18 months earlier was a subsidiary of the company. The finance director had realised its accounts and business were a mess and its English GM did a runner as did its South African accountant who did not have as far to run. They left a business in Swaziland that spent a lot of time building homes for the various offspring of the king of which there was some 100 in total and so a lot of potential. I started commuting to Swaziland on a weekly basis for a couple of days a week to sort things out. More self disciplined this time I focused on 12 hour days a good restaurant in Manzini and a demanding boss. By November 85 the business was closed, audit complete and it was obvious that most of the rest of the group was in dire straits. Railways were a big cost item and infrastructure spending was been curtailed as the economy constricted. By January I was going for interviews and was made redundant in March as the South African economy hit a major downturn.
Metal Box/ Nampak 1986-93
I then opted for more stability particularly as 2 interview processes were dashed in the final stages by the jobs been withdrawn or in the case of one furniture company going into liquidation. What was it, I thought but in hindsight it was the end of the good times in the country and the start of the bad (economic) times.
The Metal Box head office job at the Diversified Packaging division came up and after my interview by the divisional finance director I had a phone call from the agency saying al was well but my hair was a bit long. Try make that complaint now. he he. You see it had been a few weeks since a cut but it was still above my shoulders but I think below the top of the shirt collar. It was cut that afternoon and I started a couple of days later after a 2nd interview.
It was a very structured organised lean head office. Routines and disciplines were obvious and clear, and sanction busting was only starting as the UK controlling company by the same name was selling out. I had joined for a step on an international ladder that was been withdrawn just as I had boarded. I had a corner office by accident (we had only a small staff) and my boss was next door with his PA in the open plan area between the 2 offices on the 13th floor of a building in Auckland park. It was the best office view looking out on the city and out northwards to the leafy suburbs. To this day no views have come close. The conversations at lunchtime with other management both operational and financial were both good socially and intellectually. Tables were shared and it was quite usual to be sitting at a table with a senior group manager or director with their views of the economy and business strategy and I despite my title, posh office and fancy company car was comparatively junior.
Liquid Packaging the start- 1987
Manufactured poly coated fibre-board cartons otherwise known as milk cartons in local competition with Tetra Pak. It had 3 factories on the coast and an accounting / equipment provider centre in Johannesburg. The whole lot was due to be closed and moved to a Greenfield site in Isithebe in Northern Natal. It was a busy work time from early 2007 to December 2007. It meant moving away from a more active and varied social life in Joeys for the more quiet and sedate old English outpost.
Liquid Packaging surrounded by cane fields in Zululand 1988-90
In January 1988 I arrived at the Salt Rock hotel in Northern Natal to reside there for 2/3 months whilst I settled in and found a home. It was humid and sticky and just a tough job going from a-b unless air-conditioned. Work was extraordinarily busy and the post-work social at Darnall country club liquidly intense.
The scenery was that of rolling hills covered by dense sugar cane subject to periodic clearances of underbush when set aflame. The worst part was the carnage on the local roads when frequently over-loaded taxis with drivers working to their physical limits would lose control or worse still dangerously overtake on a long very twisty road (since largely upgraded). The aftermath sometimes recent was never less than horrific. Human life seemed so cheap. Socially life was quiet despite the occasional intensity of weekly and several times a week to the DCC.
Many Sundays were spent eating alone at the Chakas Rock Hotel overlooking the sea in airconditioned comfort before returning to my gentle sea-breezed verandah at home of a bottle of wine or so. Once a month I drove some 650 km back to Joeys for a weekend at Fibber Mcgees an Irish owned and managed pub just north of Kyalami race track before returning to work early on Monday. It was that kind of unbalanced lifestyle.
Getting back to Johannesburg with Glass 1990-92
I had worked well and there was an opportunity for promotion at the Glass Division back in Johannesburg as “divisional finance director” The director bit flattered the importance of the specific role and it was simply a bigger version of what I had been doing.
It was good socially to get closer to a group of friends in the local pub
Work was again very busy but the company very unsuccessful in meeting its production and hence its financial targets. The boss very optimistic, no, too-optimistic. A new deputy MD was appointed to sort out the production problems but a change in divisional chairmen prompted a more radical wipe the slate clean and I was told I was been replaced. The concept of a fresh broom can only improve. It was sad but also the pinnacle of what had been a too-fast rising career. My failure was more on the ability to be more politically aware of what was happening.
Sideways into Cans; But forward to disillusionment with RSA 1992-93
My part time studies at Wits Business School were progressing satisfactorily starting from 91. Combined with a very busy work period it was absolutely hectic but there were several things impacting on my view of the country.
The rigours of intellectual discussion were revealing the cracks in an economy that was stagnating badly.
The release of Nelson Mandela had brightened the political prospects but this was possibly as viewed at the time a papering over of the reality of African politics
I was questioning many aspects of my personal life (discussed under “Complexity & I”) which was deeply unsettling to my plans. This was compounded by the halt to my career progression of the recent 6 years. Now it was a question of what "it" was all about.
I had the opportunity for a trip to Malaysia including Penang and Kuala Lumpur in December 91. It opened my eyes as to the failure of Africa and the comparative success with both regions gaining independence from similar colonial masters at the same time in the 1950’s and both regions experiencing generally autocratic leaders but with Africa ahead in the mineral resource stake. I was very puzzled but intrigued.
The return to the region via the backpacking route began to appeal and more so in my dreams. It took over all other plans
Absence to SEA
I have devoted a separate section to my 2 backpacking trips in 93-94 and later 1999-2000
Return to SA and the start of temping 1994-5
I had placed my money on my credit card travelled and spent slightly too freely for the purpose of relative comfort rather than maximum economy and after about a year there was just about a months living expenses left. I moved back in with Johnny and Marie whilst I unwound from my near on year long holiday.
Within a week I had a cv typed up met several temp agencies and was working on the East Rand in an automotive casting business that was in the throes of a management review to keep or close. I had got the job I think from talking about my holidays and more so from my hunger to get working again.
In my absence South Africa had had its first democratic elections and the victory from the Rugby world cup added some extra zest. But the currency was in decline making future holidays expensive (a big factor as I craved more overseas adventures) and then there was the honeymoon impact of it all. By now I was negative about the future growth of pseudo-democratic africa.
I was interviewed by Kirti J, his wife Kala and their daughter Seema. The first and only time that 3 very different people from the same family had interviewed me. I was offered the role in Zaire and was excited. I would earn hard currency and travel more. The prospect of financial independence was most appealing. But there was a certain chaos to all the arrangements.
I arrived at Jan Smuts airport on a Sunday morning a bit before scheduled time for a private flight. It was very quiet in the departure lounge as tis normally international morning arrivals and evening departures or certainly was so back then. Some other people were loosely milling around but I was not sure who was who, Eventually we were scooped up by a white shirted flight crew / co-pilot type character and we proceeded casually past a lot of official signs. There was one sub-group of 3 young women who turned out to be daughters of a Zaireoise general on their way home from a trip to Joburg and from their dress code that Sunday morning coming direct from a night club. The family were there as was a half plane of cargo. Never waste the opportunity to move some freight as my boss, Kirti (main boss) was finding SA a good source of merchandise for his wholesale retail business.
They employed about 40 Indian staff, 550 local staff and 1 pale skin (me) in a number of Kinshasa shops plus 4 others scattered across Lubumbashi, Mbuji-Mayi, Kananga and the town of Tshikapa (the only one I did not visit in my time).
The flight in the twin engined plane that morning had a very weird sense to it. I felt internally thrilled and fearful of a country with no reputation other than for its corruption and size, its massive size. The approach to the airport at Kinshasa revealed more greenery and less buildings infrastructure than most international airports
We landed and passports were collected, disappeared and re-appeared much later with a stamp. It was to happen quite frequently in future.
Scooped up (this also happened and basically means that something happened to which I was just a package) we went to the family home where I was to stay a couple of days. It had a cool interior sparsely furnished, I mean it had furniture but little decoration. In a country prone to coups why waste money on such things. There was some confusion abot the flat set aside for me been ready and there was a verbal squabble about that. They were been very protective, too protective but I had no idea of what was outside the safety of the cocoon. Slowly very slowly I settled in. It transpired that somone appointed earlier had "bottled" it after only a short while.
Travels in Zaire
Lubumbashi in the South East was by far my favourite oit-of-town destination, with its wide tree lined streets, pleasant cafés or restaurants, an easier going city than Kinshasa and more prosporous. Smaller towns mean that people have easier access to neighbouring farms for crops food etc and distance means lower cost particularly in a country where the infrastructure is non-existent.
Mbuji Mayi a major diamond centre had a wild west feel to it, both at day and early evening. Fortunes were been made and lost through a varying combination of wisdom, luck and stupidity. Some would say “easy come easy go” but there was real money being made in a loosely structured "my wealth is in my pocket" society.
Kananga was where upon arrival I was told that there was 8 Asians in town, 12 white missionaries in nearby villages and me and all in a town of over 50,000. It (Kananga) had upset President Mobutu some years earlier by supporting a coup and in his miffed response he instructed that the trans-national electrical supply would miss Kananga by passing it to the South. If you had money you had a generator but the absence of conventional electricity meant that this was one of the most heavily taxed stores we had. It was also the oldest where the boss and his wife had started. Taxes were official and minimised by bribery but this was the first and only time I had seen a tax on beauty products. Bribes replaced non-paid salaries.
A night away hunting
We left in a convoy of vehicles one Saturday afternoon, a convoy that became more disjointed as we navigated the large potholes and roadblocks. Cigarettes paid the local duties. One scary roadblock at a very non-descript village of huts presented a problem as we were judged to have approached too quickly. Arguable, but more likely they were napping. Then it was a question of reversing and then approaching again very slowly to be warned, questioned and bullied by a bloke in some fake designer sun glasses. I assume they were fake but opaque black and big sunglasses adds authority to a bloke with a gun. I'm not sure if Hollywood started this first and then it was copied in Africa or if it was the other way around.
We arrived eventually at a very run down hutted camp that might have looked good in the 1960’s or even 70’s. The wood was aged and uncared, the interiors dark and unlit. I decided I would sleep on the verandah as it was cooler. The evening bbq was of a couple of antelope that like the locals were bone and skin with little meat.
Sunrise did eventually happen after a chilly boistrous night. It was a one off experience but not sure if it was my pale skin to 40 Asians that made me feel isolated.
I felt tired and weak but hey I had survived 2 years without any illness other than the odd cold. I was perhaps becoming complacent because if you live that long then you will get Malaria. Me thinks I recall the specific assailant as I sat on verandah reading a book staring to nothingness and watching a mossie burrow through the jeans material on my knee.
A few days later I began to lose interest in everything as a blanket of lethargy wrapped itself around me. Eventually a colleague prompted a visit to the local clinic and I left later with some medicine. A week later I was no better, with appetite and even fluid intake way down. In that week I had lost a half stone. The 2nd doctor had a sense of humour acquired in UK whilst training and his diagnosis in the non fresh white painted room in a converted house on the outskirts of Kin was you have Malaria, its bad and your white. The last part had me laughing but tis true as I found later that immunity or more likely less likely favours the locally born rather than the foreigner.
A few days later on a Sunday evening I got a craving for food and for sugar in particular raiding a local shop for some giant bags of extra sweet Middle East sweets. Normality to food diet and mood soon returned and I returned to a Catholic church for the first time in years thankful for my recovery. We prayed for peace in all neighbouring countries some 8 from 10 were in the midst of wars. I began to despair with the reality of the regional cruelty that barely permeates the European and American news and again started to lose my new found religion. I don’t think it was my arrogance at identifying responsibility for my recovery. But Africa was losing its novelty and acquiring a sense of despair. Money did not blinker my humanity any more.
Some characters I met.
The Belge bloke: Sundays were a non-working day but there was little to do. After what was a lazy start to the morning I would often wonder to the local Hotel Intercontinental which had many years earlier hosted a famous "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing fight involving Mohammed Ali. It was a top star place and had a nice sanitised poolside area where I could read a UK paper several days old, sip a cold beer sold at twice the price of my regular pub and have a snack if I was feeling that way. A frequent visitor there was a Belgium bloke of burly disposition, quiet manner, dark suits and serious face. We chatted through my poor French and his poor English. He travelled the country selling equipment and parts for a earth moving franchise he ran. His advice to me went along the lines of the implications of marrying local. He had found a woman of good education locally and they had married. They travelled on honeymoon and upon return to his/their home found it occupied by her family. Western families are very nuclear in structure being eg 2 adults and 2/3 children. African families can be nuclear too not in their structure but rather in their impact. rule of thumb would be to double the number and in this case add a few chickens too. In this case the family viewed the marriage of "their girl" with pride and an opportunity to move up the housing ladder. The Belgium husband thought otherwise ordered 3 taxis / minibuses as this a biggish family and despatched the lot. The wife was given the ultimatum of leaving with them or staying with him alone.
The diamond bloke: Starting from Rhodesia as it was called he had gained his diving certificates in Cape Town, went working in Namibia working from the boats sucking up diamonds by fancy vacuum cleaner type equipment, saved some money whilst working in the North sea and was when I met him recently returned from a trip to the border with Angola prospecting for diamonds. He was about my age, a quiet and un-assuming lad of wirey body and casual appearance. We had a few beers the first night we met before adjourning to a local night club where the manager bestowed favoured treatment upon him and by my presence with him upon me. Preferential treatment in a Zairoise nighclub had a few benefits including access to beers, clean glasses and the manager trying to arrange local girl for me; no thankyou as I was enjoying celibacy. I used to meet this chap from time to time either when he was heading off again with a convoy of vehicles to his mining area, or upon his return. One of those delightful people it would be nice to run into again.
The collapse of Zaire
There was this day when I arrived at work in the open planned office and in walking around noticed that one clerk who was awaiting documentation for data processing was colouring in a map of the country as a child would, but the coloured bits referred to rebel held territory.
The hours of work became shorter as we frequently retired to the American embassy club (AERWA) for a few bevies earlier in the afternoon before returning home before the 7pm curfew. Passing weeks made the curfew more casual in concept but I was always home a few minutes before 7. Frankly it was not worth the risk and anyway the AERWA club was closed at 6.30 and we as being a few die hards lol finished off our drinks until 6.50 before the 5 minute drive home. the road was always quiet and no uniforms to be seen. Maybe the army was under curfew too!
The expat population became thinner as wives and family were sent out. Our flat compound of 12 flats plus Hindu temple were vetted one day by 4 white blokes from the British embassy in civvies. Saw them later that week and it was curious how they each paid for their own meal at the local AERWA. SAS as per the local gossip and just checking they knew where everything was. No other explanation. A company of Royal Marines had taken up position on the other side of the river.
Then one morning I hit the radio switch to hear the BBC say “this is an announcement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office…….. evacuations are taking place today… contact embassy at….. There will not be subsequent evacuations” As sobriety, clarity and colour returned to myself it slowly became clear that this was for Albania but were we next ?.
There were some crazy things like the new number plates which cost $1,000 a set, were compulsory and the first batch had a high take up. By the 2nd batch the money collectors were being bribed off but this shows how money can be made. Do the sums again if you are not sure!!
Kabila the leader of the rebels that had captured the country had a very simple tactic to taking towns, namely, surround 85% encourage a fleeing and then enter and control. There were local stories of the yanks advising him to do it peacefully. Then the news came through that an ill Mobutu with an entourage of 100 had fled.
Then there was a morning when nothing happened. The short wave radio I had could pick up chatter from the various phonies (walkie-talkie) system and the rebels were entering slowly. By lunchtime 2 columns of youths / young men were on our street heading out to the main military camp and Mobutus’ palace. We sent water and food but the officers instructed the soldiers to continue leaving the donations to be picked up later. Discipline in Africa?
A few days later, things were slowly returning to normal when on a Sunday I decided to go get paper at my Hotel Inter. Plans disrupted, by a puncture which meant pulling in at one of the local makeshift huts and tyre repair. The hut was a few branches and half a dozen corrugated sheets. The wheel was removed and then the owner/manager/sole employee disappeared off around the corner. This was not grounds for a panic as clearly he was missing a piece of equipment in his equipment free establishment. Wheel came back after say 30-40 minutes and was re-attached. Progress and success seemed to be a cue for a car to pull up with a driver in the front, a soldier in the passenger seat and a suited bloke in the back. May we borrow your car was the question from the soldier with the gun. There are two ways of responding to this situation: calm or panic. Its the absence of support and that one is on one's own. I had learnt the importance of remaining calm. They swopped batteries, drove their car with my battery up and down the road and then returned my battery. Another 30 minutes of local morning entertainment. Then I went for my drink.
Back in Joeys and been paid in dollars
Returning from a holiday in Cuba and Ireland I found I had a new job operationally supporting the daughter Seema in her procurement and delaying people who were chasing us for money and all not because the country had collapsed but that a $1m currency exchange deal had gone bad and my boss was out of pocket. It blows a hole in any cash plan.
I got tired of been chased and started looking again. My dollar salary was not great once I had paid for a car and flat, expenses previously part of package but there was clearly less money and we were all now part shareholders. That was a great time for my holiday when all this became started resolved and concluded.
My first pursuit was with a role in Rwanda with a mobile phone company but at the last minute the joint venture partner insisted on his representative controlling the finances. Not surprising as the SA company controlled all operation General management and Technical in particular.
So I kicked dust for a while.
Coffee in Zambia 1998-99
It was picturesque, it was pretty and it was pretty remote.
The ideas were grand, the big plans floated, the big name floaters ! of a soon to be listed company. The concept was fine. There was only 1 problem. Growing coffee is one of the toughest agricultural businesses with seedlings for a year in a nursery followed by a year in the field followed by a 2nd year in the field when they produce a fly crop followed by an uncertain future due to the prevalence of disease. The new owners to this day are struggling with the impact of disease and what was planted in 1999 and subsequently has now peaked and is in decline. The world coffee price for Arabica as opposed to Robusta beans does not warrant the investment in setting up, spraying fertilising etc. Some cynic in 98 said it was a mistake to increase production in Vietnam but that was a USA inspired gift to former enemies.
Under perfect conditions one can make money but perfect occurs seldomly in Africa. Just check the infrastructure when coffee leaves the estate by truck to Durban or when a train passes by on its with to Tanzania. That was part of our plans back then but if you spend so much on getting agriculture produce to the market it will at best be marginal. It saddens me. It saddens me deeply that even after this time a well laid plan, a bold plan has been stifled and marginalized. Compare the Arabica price of coffee with the starbucks retail price and despite the fancy words the coffee farmer gets very little.
Socially this was the loneliest I had ever been. Gender issues were by now bubbling more furiously than before but hidden beneath a veneer of whiskey drinking smiling laughing me. My expat work colleagues were very good work colleagues but socially we were apart. In hindsight it was my drive for privacy plus the fact that they were a private bunch. Escape to the shores of lake Tanganyika were a welcome interlude for sampling the noble nile perch with a big bowl of rice watching the waves on the lake and sleeping in very rustic but clean huts.
Soaps and Pizzas in Nigeria
There is little synergy between manufacturing medicated soap, importing electrical surge protection equipment and making hamburgers and Pizzas. But to a skilled Syrian entrepreneur and an English branding MD it was easy. This part of the conglomerate (there was a construction company to the side and later in my final days an oil services partnership) did not have regular accounts when I arrived. I slowly and steadily got accounts together that showed that it was only the soap business that was making money. The others were closed / sold off by the time I left.
Nigerians are the most skilled, confident and communicatively strong and all bolstered by a strong interest in education. These positive skills are unfortunately offset by a climate that encourages and nurtures the cancer of corruption that has wreaked havoc and plundered the savings of this fine country.
Explosions in Lagos 2002
One Sunday afternoon whilst reclining lazily at home watching the box of South African television modified for Africa with a dollop of European movies and programme interests eg comedy etc, I started to notice screams from the street. I had curtained the large windows to keep the cool air apart from the heated exterior. Peering through I noticed running folk. Then the air was punctuated by “boom… boom”. Confused I observed the growing crowd all heading in one direction away from an army camp which was off to the left. Moving from confused to a bit mystified the crowds were growing, the screams louder and the boom boom sharper and more frequent. Then I heard the window smash in a nearby bedroom and I moved away from the windows. More explosions louder and more frequent and soon more windows of my flat were been smashed. The munitions dump from colonial days construction had exploded and in 6 hours killed about 1,000 many by drowning as they attempted to escape.
My own business 2002-4
It had been floating around my head and particularly from Nigeria to use my savings and to set up an internet business catering for cross-dressers with the logical focus on larger sized clothing with the personal twist that I was not interested in the fetish or uniform market. But in reality that is where the internet market is and changing social attitudes makes retail clothes procurement by blokes less of a taboo than it used to be.
I continued full time to mid 2003 when the cash flows showed poverty looming and then part time to end 2004 when all was closed down and all debts paid. The last part was important to me even though I could have saved myself money as the whole affair had been through a company.
I learnt that getting all of the 4 P’s of business (Product price promotion place) right is essential and that I had the wrong product wow big mistake. I also learnt that Im not an entrepreneur at heart as the demand on my time causes a loss of time for other aspects of my personality. There is more to my life than business
In 2003 I started my career in interim finance here in the North East. It was intended as an “interim” measure whilst I continued working on my own business which was closed in December 2004. No need to comment on my clients individually other than say I have very much enjoyed the diversity of challenges.