An exciting future ahead

Children at Cambodia's Children House of Peace

Children at Cambodia’s Children House of Peace

As I sit in my apartment in London, it feels as if I have just awaken from a dream in which I spent 2 weeks in the amazing country of Cambodia. I start to question whether any of what I am currently seeing is real because the last 2 weeks flew by so quickly, and this time two days ago I was tucking into a local Khmer dish which inevitably included rice and was washed down with Angkor beer for about $2.

Despite my extremely short stay, I left Cambodia inspired to explore more of Southeast Asia in the future, and excited about where the country is headed. Looking back at some of the things I noted during my time there, a few things touched me.

Light will find its way out of darkness

Landmine Museum

Landmine Museum

Few things touch the heart more than when one human cruelly takes the life of another human. And yet a myriad of reasons are given as to why it is acceptable to do so.

A visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum created by Aki Ra about 25km north of Siem Reap really brought to life another example of the devastation humans have done to one another. Having being forced to join the Khmer Rouge army as a 10yr old boy, Aki Ra was involved in setting landmines around the country, and at one time found himself taking aim at his uncle in combat. But following his conscription into the Vietnamese army when they overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime a few years later, and ever since peace returned to Cambodia, Aki Ra has spent his life clearing landmines throughout Cambodia (Aki Ra was voted as one of CNN’s top 10 heroes of 2010) and raising awareness of the devastation caused by this indiscriminate killer and maimer. When one looks at the outcomes of such lethal weapons, it is hard to understand how some governments still refuse to sign the anti-landmine Ottawa treaty which seeks to ban the use of such weapons and prevent the reoccurrence of suffering that still haunts Cambodians long after the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled. Aki Ra and his charity’s continued dedication to risking their lives to clear landmines and supporting the victims are an inspiring example of light that has emerged after Cambodia’s dark past.

Can corruption ever be a good thing?

Local crafts

Local crafts

During discussions about conducting business in developing countries, it is inevitable that the issue of corruption governs a large part of the conversation. And whilst many westerners take the moral high ground and argue that there is no corruption in their culture, this is highly inaccurate when you consider the disguised corruption in western nations such as MP expenses in England, irregularly large individual & corporate donations to political parties in the USA, and oil & gas contracts in Russia (to name a few).

Cambodia has its fair share of corruption, and having spoken to a few business owners it became clear that tax collection is an area which could do with better regulation or rather the proper application of the law. It seems that businesses are accustomed to making unrecognised tax payments to local inspectors which are not necessarily the right taxes due. It also appears that there is a culture of employees convincing their employers to use suppliers who are personally known to the employees for prices that may well be higher than the market rate. And both of these acts are deemed as “normal business” in Cambodia. But if one were to judge these acts not from an idealistic western standpoint but rather from a socialistic perspective, could it not be argued that these acts are more effective in helping the local community than a poorly run government welfare system? Is there not an argument that by allowing these practices it actually helps in keeping money in the country as opposed to the system the west model to the rest of the world which allows large corporates like Apple and Starbucks to pay no taxes? Of course there are no simple answers to these questions but it does make you wonder if an ideal tax and welfare system could ever be applied in any country.

Following my stay in Cambodia, I am excited about the future of the country as more and more opportunities for investment become evident in so many different sectors. And Cambodians are investing in their future by taking the steps necessary to create more opportunities for themselves. An increasing number of young Cambodians are taking English lessons as they recognize employment opportunities due to the influx of English-speaking investors in their country. And having spoken to a few youths, their dreams include becoming business owners and travelling overseas. And why shouldn’t it be possible – after all, there are no limits for those who strive to make a brighter future for themselves.

Me and Sokha Sokha and his tuk-tuk

Where am I again?

Jazz band photo Jazz promo

It’s Thursday evening. 6:30pm. And I’m greeted by five smiling hotel staff as I stroll through the reception of the Heritage hotel in Siem Reap, having just walked past two classic 1950s Mercedes cars parked outside which had caused me to question whether I was asleep. The decor inside appears to be a mix of vintage and modern lounge furniture, with high ceilings and suspended lighting. And then the stage hits me: percussion and brass instruments for the free jazz tonight.

This is a regular meet up of the Siem Reap Social Club (a group of expats, volunteers and travellers who meet regularly to socialise and share stories), and when the French band start playing (a different band plays every week which makes you ask yourself how many expats play instruments in this place or have the artists flown in especially for this?!) you really need to pinch yourself to remember that you are in Siem Reap, Cambodia – a city in a third world country which in my opinion could compete on many fronts with first world cities.

Talking of comparisons, let us put some things into perspective:
a) WiFi: Now in Siem Reap, you really do not struggle to be connected. Free WiFi is available from almost every hotel, cafe, shop and restaurant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a tuk-tuk driver tried to solicit business by saying he had WiFi in his motorised cart. The only issue that you encounter is the speed of the connection which could be slow at times. Whereas, in my home city of London, arguably one of the best cities in the world, if you don’t have a data plan with your phone contract you would struggle to get connected at all with limited WiFi hotspots (BT recently confirming it was not renewing its agreement with O2, thereby decreasing the number of hotspot for O2 users), none of which are free when you connect (although some councils are making plans to offer free WiFi for 30mins per day in their boroughs).
Siem Reap 1 – London 0

b) Price of food and drink: Now some may say it is unfair to compare the price of food and drink between Cambodia and England given the fact the cost of living in third world countries is far less expensive than in first world countries, but just for comparison sake let us compare Siem Reap to Sunderland (which some would say is one of the cheapest places to live in England). Food is locally sourced in both places, and admittedly having a local Cambodian dish costs far less than a western dish in Cambodia, with the western dish costing about the same in both Siem Reap and Sunderland (£3-£5). But when it comes to beer (forget about fruit juice which costs about the same in both cities shockingly), a pint of beer in Siem Reap is around $0.75, compared to around $4 (£2.50) in Sunderland. And this is despite VAT in Cambodia which is 25% for beer (imported OR local).
Siem Reap 2 – England 0

But comparisons aside, the last 5 days of my stay here have been great even though I am still to do any sightseeing. The occasional thunderous outbursts after intense sunshine do well to quench the heat prevalent during this period. But even when it rains there is a certain warmth to the rain that is akin to the warm nature of the smiling people you meet and see everywhere.

On a final note, here are a few of the things I did not expect to encounter here:
– traffic lights with countdown timers
– it is customary to have a siesta after lunch for 15-20mins
– a large number of people have a good understanding of and can speak English
– there can be thunder when it is blazing 33°C heat
– I have not yet been asked for my hand in marriage (my mother still worries I’ll return to London married)

The band bash out tune after tune, and I find myself bobbing my head along with other members of the social club. Then they bust out one of my favourite classics with a funky twist: “Summertime”. Awh, bliss!
Plan for Friday; there’s talk of going to an all-you-can-eat free buffet (as long as you buy one cocktail) at a hotel, and then a pub quiz session afterwards. I really have to remind myself of where I am at times.

Journey to the far Southeast

My ride for the next 13hrs - A380.

My ride for the next 13hrs – A380

Similar to the way this type of journey started out 2 years ago, I find myself at an airport in London marveling at the plane I am about to embark and still unsure if my surroundings are a dream or reality. Except this time my thoughts are overcome with emotions arising from the fact this will be my first time in an Airbus A380.

I have been looking forward to this day since the first commercial flight of this aircraft in 2007. Yes – we all have some weird obsessions. And even the most vocal Euro-sceptic could not deny that this is a great success story of the collaborative efforts of several European countries. Extra leg room even in economy class, hardly any turbulence felt, excellent service by the world-class Singapore Airlines hosts; the only thing that could possibly explain my lack of sleep during the 13hr trip to Singapore would be my excitement at what I was experiencing.

With a 7hr layover in Singapore before getting a connecting flight to Siem Reap, reality still hasn’t kicked in as I observe the multi-cultural passengers around me at Singapore airport through half-shut eyes that are occasionally filled with water and blurred as I incessantly yawn. It’s apparently noon here now, but my body is stuck in London with those who should be fast asleep at 5am. But given my track record of missing flights, I better not even dare nap or I’ll certainly miss the connecting flight in 2.5hrs.

No, reality hasn’t kicked in. Otherwise I would chew all my nails off as the unchartered waters ahead start to dawn on me: building finance processes and systems for a small company from scratch, trying to understand what Cambodian tax should be paid (if any), and doing all this in 2 weeks. Why oh why can I not pick simpler, less demanding things to do when I get a “wave of spontaneity” that washes over me?!

Oh well, I look forward to seeing what the people of Cambodia and their culture have to offer, and I am excited about this new social enterprise which could have a big impact on the local community. From what I have heard from many others, this will be a fantastic and truly memorable trip.

My mother had one last thing to say to me as she bid me farewell: “Please don’t come back with a wife”, to which my sister chirped in “that’s if you’re sure it’s a woman” (exact words slightly modified as I really can’t remember what was said in this sleepless state that I’m currently in)! I wonder what would happen if I did…?

Discovering development successes in Africa

Let us celebrate the successes of development in Africa! No longer is Africa a continent wallowing in extreme poverty, disease and civil war. Yes, there are numerous cases of poverty, corruption, human rights abuses and disease. Let us not conveniently forget these cases also exist in western nations. But more interestingly now in Africa is the focus on improving economic prosperity, eradicating disease and poverty, and creating an investment climate that encourages greater investment and development.

The future of Africa is exciting, and its tarnished history is now complemented by many success stories – stories which this blog will seek to illustrate at differnet points. With each success story comes greater investment, greater development, and greater opportunities for both investors and beneficiaries to be part of the ever-changing landscape of Africa. A landscape which is now characterised by developments in ICT, financial infrastructure, and advancements in health care to name a few.

It is no wonder that 5 out of the 12 fastest growing economies of 2011 are African in a report compiled by EconomyWatch using data from the IMF. Ghana tops the list with the highest GDP growth (constant prices, national currency) of 20.146%. That’s more than double the growth of China and India! Other African countries in the top 12 included: Liberia (9.003%), Angola (8.251%), Ethiopia (7.663%) and Mozambique (7.584%).

So as Africa develops, we should not hesitate to praise the improvements that are changing the lives of its citizens.

The next chapter…

Saying goodbye is never an easy task. Especially when the people to whom you are saying goodbye are such kind-hearted, warm, loving, passionate people. You’ll meet enough jerks in your lifetime, but it’s only when you meet people who are completely opposite that you realise there are some amazing people out there.

1 month ago I decided to follow a gut instinct and come out to Burundi. I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I think I would be of much use here. 1 month on from then, and I now realise why my life had taken the course it has up until now. It doesn’t make complete sense, but I have a clearer picture.

And so as I pack my bags and prepare for my flight in a few hours, I accept that all endings are also new beginnings. I think back to the people I’ve met and worked with, and I stand in awe of their heart for helping others, their motivation through difficult times, their persistence in doing what they feel is just, and their dedication to social causes. I also think of those who impacted me albeit through a fleeting encounter; the street merchants, the laborious people up-country, the smiling community kids, and the mêler during rush hour amongst other things. And as I think back, I realise that I truly have been blessed during my time here.

I may say goodbye with a heavy heart and watery eyes, but a part of Burundi will always be with me. Turikumwe!

Oh really? (Facts about Burundi)

With 2 days left to go and my time in Buja quickly winding down to a close, I thought I should dispel/confirm some of the views people have about Burundi, or perhaps enlighten some of you on this amazing country in the Great Lakes region.

Here are some random facts about Burundi:
– It is HOT! in May/June. Now, I’m pretty good at handling heat, but gosh it gets really hot by 9am. It takes some serious deodorant spray in the morning to counter the amount of sweat I produce. But evenings are generally cooler.
– Tap water is treated in Bujumbura so it is safe to drink tap water. The money I spent on water purification tablets was certainly a waste due to reading silly & false travel advice.
– Only women are employed to sweep the streets of Buja. I’ve talked to a few people but haven’t received any decent response on why this happens to be the case.
– In order to show respect and politeness, people touch their right forearm with their left hand as they shake your right hand. Also, almost everyone I’ve met has accepted things (money/goods/anything) with their right hand, and given things with their right hand.
– With Saturday mornings (7.00am to 10.30am) being community work period, you can find residents in Buja keeping fit from as early as 5.30am (I have spotted many running up hills whilst I was trying to capture the sunrise on camera).
– Most residents of Buja speak 3 languages; French, Kirundi and Swahili. It’s not uncommon to find some who speak 4, with English being the fourth language.
– Bicycles are one of the most common ways for locals to transport goods up-country. You see bicycles laden with tons of goods like crates, sacks, food, whatever – stacked to the point of disbelief – and being laboriously pushed up and down hills for hours. These people are laborious!! Some of the bravest will even mount their bikes and descend down hills at great speed in order to make the most of the downward descent and I suppose as a sort of treat for the uphill struggle.
– There are about as many right-hand drive cars as there are left-hand drive cars. And this is despite the fact that cars drive on the right side of the road (and so traditionally the cars should be left-hand drive). Apparently, this is because right-hand drive cars are cheaper to obtain and repair.
– Most Burundians are FASCINATED by “muzungus” (white people)! And the more blonde you are, the more you will be stared at. Muzungus are stared at all the time. Even in the capital city where most are based. Up-country, it is not uncommon for locals to just walk up to the car and peer through the window to stare at muzungus. However, I have seen some locals up-country run away from muzungus because apparently they grew up believing that white people eat humans (really funny when I saw a woman bolt away when she saw my Swedish colleague in the car). But rest assured, the staring is done out of fascination and not threatening at all (unless you are a muzungu who hates attention).
– In Buja, there are about half as many bicycle riders as there are cars. Bicycles are popular!
– Many [adult] Burundians do not like it if you take a picture of them without asking them. In fact, many run away once they see a camera. For kids though, taking 20 pictures of them is not enough. They will plead for you to take a million pictures!
– The President, 1st Vice President, and 2nd Vice President (don’t get me started on how the cabinet is composed!) all have heavily armed army convoys when they travel, and military personnel camped outside their offices. I suppose keeping power isn’t an easy task.
– Less than 1 in 100 people smoke in the capital city (based on my random sample), and even fewer smoke up-country. I guess the Europeans were unsuccessful in passing this habit.
– The CNDD-FDD (the current ruling political party) headquarters is one of the most expensive buildings in Buja.
– The vast majority of the population are Christians, and the vast majority of Christians are Catholics. Church attendance is very high.
– On most nights, you can have a clear view of the stars whilst in Buja, but you’ll have an even better view just outside the city.
– Cars horn/hoot incessantly. People hoot to: say hello, say goodbye, warn of their presence, premeditate danger, say they’re angry, say they’re happy, signal to get out the way, signal you’ve got right of way, seek business, seek answers, show appreciation, seek attention, and for countless other reasons!

My list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope this gives you a little taster of this unique country on the coast of Lake Tanganyika.

Hidden treasures in Burundi

First of all, I’d like to start off with a rant: I am completely disappointed with the Geography and History taught in high schools with respect to Africa!
Now, some of you might think this is an isolated case, but I’ll state my point to prove universal application.

I spent most of my high school years in Nairobi (also spent some time in Lusaka and Johannesburg), but all the schools I went to followed a British GCSE/GCE curriculum. Therefore, no doubt I was learning the same things as students in England. I have met several people from North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania (therefore 6 out of 7 continents) who have known very little about Africa, and so forgive me if I take those people to represent their respective continents.

Most people who studied about Africa in high school will no doubt have mostly been taught about the dark side of Africa; Apartheid in South Africa; Civil war in Rwanda, Zaire (the DRC) and Burundi; Persecution of ethnic minorities in Uganda; Land reform conflicts in Zimbabwe; to name a few. Ask these people about any of the positive developments in Africa, and I’ll be stunned if you can find one person with a regular education who can name more than 5.

Similarly, in the schools that I went to, hardly anything positive was said about African history or the geography of its treasures. I say all this because it has only been during my time here that I’ve really appreciated just how little I know about my continent. And so when I hear or read about advice for people travelling to Africa (most of the advice is not even country specific), it comes as no surprise that many people arrive with the fear of almost everything.

But the purpose of this blog post is not to rant, but rather to celebrate one of Burundi’s hidden treasures. Yes, you may only know this country for its 13-year civil war, but the treasures of the Lake Tanganyika are reserved for the curious. Today I went to Blue Bay, an exquisite beach located about 1hr south of Buja along the coast of Lake Tanganyika. I guarantee you that if you were blindfolded and flown here, you would think you were on some exotic beach location over-looking an ocean, and not in a country ravaged by civil war. But this is just a lake; yes, the clear-blue-waters may deceive you; yes, the clean-cream-sands may deceive you; yes, the green-palm-trees and fresh breeze may deceive you. But this is just a lake – a lake with treasures that would rival any of the world’s oceans. And there was I thinking nothing could top my visit to Bora Bora beach on my first weekend here.

And so folks, cast away your history and geography books and really try to find out the truth about matters before forming opinions. This weekend, I’ll go to a hot spring source in the south, I’ll try to capture the awakening of the city during sunrise, I’ll see what else I can pack into a short weekend, and I know there will still be heaps that I won’t know about this country before I leave next week.