Monday, November 30, 2009

Mzungu moments

Let me start by saying that our life here is pretty sweet: nice school, busy social life, great friendships, unbelievable weather, crazy wildlife, a housekeeper who comes in to clean the kitchen four separate times while you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 8 families and who sneaks in and cleans up while you are outside teaching the brits about Thanksgiving Day american football.....etc. We can get on a plane and in 3 hours be on the beach in Zanzibar. I can go outside and pick oranges, mangoes and passionfruit from my garden. (The lemon tree did not survive the dry season, unfortunately.) There are many many things to be really excited and happy about.


In the words of Pee Wee Herman, “Everyone has a big but....”

Every once and a while we have these moments where things are so frustrating you want to scream. The horrible thing is that there is no point in screaming, no point in pulling your hair, no point getting all stroppy -- unless it keeps you from doing worse, of course. The complete irony is that you just look like a crazy mzungu when you start expecting people to behave rationally, all compounded by the problem that you can’t go home and eat an entire box of cookies -- because you didn’t buy any cookies!! Thankfully you noticed that not only are all the boxes of cookies (imported from brasil) $12 apiece, they are ALL SMASHED to bits, so you came home from the supermarket with an empty wallet, milk, and eggs -- the bread was all burned and it was from yesterday anyway....I digress.

Today it was an issue with the printer for a design that we are trying to crank out to send a good-will gift along with a government official who is traveling to South America tomorrow - am I being vague enough?

The example I will give is something else altogether but it goes to the core of the issue, which honestly, even as I write, I am still trying to reconcile. The problem as I interpret it is that I am operating on the assumption that ‘the customer is always right.’ Some have said that ‘customer service does not exist in zambia’ but I think that is not quite it.... there IS customer service, BUT - and it is a big but - it is that people and businesses operate on the assumption that the customer is NOT always right.

In fact, the customer could even be WRONG. Most importantly, the customer is VERY FREQUENTLY wrong. As a result, part of providing customer service is taking the instructions that the customer gave you (in this case DETAILED written and verbal instructions) and deliberately NOT following those instructions.

what I wanted

This example concerns a set of stools I had made by a very able and talented carpenter, Crispin, who works with the local hardwood, mukwa. I took Crispin a photograph of design I wanted him to copy, a 3-D sketch (to scale, on graph paper) with the exact measurements (in cm and in inches). I explained the design, the finish, etc. and we settled on a fair price. When I went to pick up the stools and the kitchen island (I’ve shown this off before, it’s really nice), it was as if he was working from someone else’s drawings. He made some modifications at the workshop "....because surely, Madame, you did not mean for it to be like THAT." Oh, Really? Silly me. I took my island and stools home, but the modifications were not working, the kids were frightened of sitting on the stools and what I really wanted....well, was what I had originally wanted!

Try #2 with the same sketches, the same measurements, the same conversation about the fact that what was in the photo, what was on the paper REALLY WAS HOW I WANTED IT. EXACTLY how I wanted it. Stool set #2 came....with modifications. Several of our friends had eyed my design and wanted them also. Stool set #3 came....with modifications. and set #4, set #5. All from the same measurements and all from the same drawing, all from the same, all from the same carpentry studio. All different from eachother and NONE executed as instructed.

what I got .... attempt #1 and 2.....SO close!

This happens with everything from getting business cards printed to getting your car repaired, from ordering a birthday cake to having a dress made. It is now more surprising when something comes out as you intended than disappointing when it does not. To add insult to injury these orders are expensive and usually you pay twice or three times to get it done right. If you are lucky, you just live with these 'modifications' if you are unlucky (as is a friend whose car is in the shop AGAIN) you pay over and over for the thing you asked for in the first place to just be done correctly.

OK I'm done.

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