Making Connections

I’m hoping this blog can serve not just as a repository for my thoughts, but also as a resource for anyone interested in international development, humanitarian work, social entrepreneurship, African culture, etc. I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with a variety of inspired, passionate people doing very interesting things. Look out for links to their projects (and send me things you think I should post)!

A while back I posted a link to Vittana.org, a person-to-person lending site for investments in college education for people around the world. Later on, I met Scott Sloan, an Irish student in International Development working and researching for his Master’s thesis in Zambia. Not only did he rescue me from the prospect of a lonely and sad Thanksgiving in Dar with no turkey and stuffing, he also told me about the non-profit “These Numbers Have Faces,” an organization he worked with before beginning his Master’s studies in Sweden. According to their website, These Numbers Have Faces invests in the future leaders of South Africa by empowering young people to reduce poverty in their own communities. Their model allows you to invest in college scholarships for students who will in turn make a commitment to community service, mentoring, and financial re-investment. The result will be empowered leaders determined to make positive contributions to their communities in the fight to end poverty. Check them out!

Click below to read more about my Thanksgiving in Zambia!

My Thanksgiving in Lusaka was one-of-a-kind. I flew in on the Wednesday before and enjoyed Korean barbeque at Mr. Kim’s restaurant. The man himself, Mr. Kim, dished the food on to our plates, and even rolled meat with rice and chili sauce into large lettuce leaves, stopping just short of putting them into our mouths for us. He remarked with pleasure that he and I were, “Same, same!” and brought out two extra side-dishes in a proud show of Korean unity. “You will come back tomorrow, lunch time, see you tomorrow,” he said, spooning more meat into my bowl. No matter how many times we told him we’d be having Thanksgiving dinner at home, he still insisted he’d see us again the next day. After we ate, Mr. Kim walked us out the door into the parking lot and waved until we were out of sight.

I’d agreed to visit Scott and his friends in Zambia under one condition: that they celebrate my favorite American holiday with me. At that time, I thought I’d be with Swedish, Irish, and Canadians. Little did I know that Scott had recently moved in with some American entrepreneurs (the founders of Zambikes) who were planning a Thanksgiving of epic proportions (and portions). There were three turkeys, mashed potatoes, green beans, homemade stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, cornbread, and more. Of the fifty or so guests, about a third were American, a third Zambian, and the rest a smattering of Europeans. Not long after the food was served the power went out. Candles were lit down the long wooden tables, and I spent the rest of the evening getting to know the people around me in the warm, flickering light.

Among the guests of the Zambikes farm there was Alice, a Zambian who runs a clinic for children with developmental disabilities, and her boyfriend Matt, who finished his two-year tenure in the Peace Corps and then got a job at the Embassy helping prepare Zambian students who want to go to college in the States. There was Liz, from London, who helps allocate British aid in Eastern and Southern Africa. Megan, an inspired cook and storyteller alike, had her lovely family from Chicago visiting. Lauren and Kiersten were two American volunteers wrapping up an adventure-filled journey through several African countries, and their friends Kyle and Dan, who are overseeing the construction of a school in Mongu, Zambia, had stopped by as well. Then there were the Zambikes employees, most of them discovered through the local soccer scene and made a part of Zambikes mission of “building bicycles and improving lives.” Mac D, a Zambikes mechanic and the coolest dude this side of the Nile, brought Precious, his radiant, very-pregnant wife. There was Benjamin, who lives on the farm and keeps everything running, and Wankunda, Zambikes’ chief financial advisor who recently returned from ten years in America and is adjusting to the reverse culture shock of coming home to Africa… There was Daryl, Anastazia, Divilence, and many more… All these amazing people to whom I could never do justice. So why have I listed them? To give you an idea, however roughly, of what friendships and joyful moments can arise from giving with gratitude. It may sound obvious, but caring for others brings us together in profoundly powerful ways.

So let me tell you a little bit more about Zambikes, the company that brought all of these people together and led to a truly memorable Thanksgiving in Zambia. Founded in 2007, Zambikes is a social business. This means that it is a for-profit company that “operates and competes with any and all regular for profit businesses while ensuring that profits go back into the community rather than into the hands of a few shareholders. Additionally, the company must be run with the community benefit in mind” (Zambikes.org). The company not only offers Zambians a product with social dividends (high-quality, low-cost bicycles and “Zambulances”–cots attached to the back of a bicycle to carry patients to clinics and hospitals), it also provides gainful employment and training for a staff of about sixty locals, purchases materials from surrounding areas for use in the construction of its bikes, and reinvests all year-end profits back into the company and surrounding community work.

Yet for me, the most compelling aspect of the Zambikes model is the community of social support and guidance that has developed between the directors, partners, and friends of Zambikes and their Zambian employees. Beyond the tangible returns resulting from receiving wages and mechanical training, the Zambikes team benefits from an environment of friendship, forgiveness, and compassion that is rooted in the Christian ethic of the founders. Poverty has the power to strip people of much more than access to food, shelter, and healthcare. The stories of personal growth and change among men formerly disenfranchised and isolated by the effects of poverty were truly moving, and highlighted what I believe to be the most promising element of social entrepreneurship: the ability of business partnerships to create human connections and lead to empowerment at a grassroots level.

Capitalist theory tells us that the invisible hand of the market through the free exchange of goods and services will allocate resources optimally in society. The assumption that market forces such as supply and demand are the best determinants of a nation’s social well-being has excused the inexcusable: the divorce of business from ethics. Increasing gaps between the rich and poor, high levels of poverty, and widespread suffering in capitalist economies demonstrate that the market is not infallible. Perhaps all businesses should be what we now call “social business”–that is, they should operate with “blended value” business models that combine the goals of acquiring revenue and contributing social value. Most people think of organizations in terms of “non-profit” and “for-profit” models. Zambikes and other social businesses are shifting the paradigm and setting the standard by striving to be “more-than-profit.”

Billy Collins called poetry “the only history of the human heart that we have.” I’m inclined to agree with him. But what if we could put heart into business? Into politics? What if we could read the history of our triumphs over greed and our commitment to compassion in all our market interactions and the political institutions that surround us? Maybe I’ve idealized the potential I see in this model. Nevertheless, I think that we as humans should all be accountable to one another in every aspect of our lives, and end the fantasy that “the market” follows any sort of ethic beyond that of profit maximization. It’s time for us to own up to our power and responsibility to choose our values and to set the course of history.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Connor McC says:

    Hey Rebecca!

    I’ve enjoyed your blog – makes me want to go back. And I might… my next two years are already on the calendar, but I would be interested in speaking after that.

    Either way, this post is pretty prescient. My roommate is soul searching and seeking out an off-the-beaten-path opportunity to invest in others. Whether or not Kiva is right for him, I think your insight would be very helpful and the other programs you acknowledge may be a fit.

    Shoot me an email when you find the time and if you believe you can help, and I will try to connect you.

    Take care and keep the thoughtful commentary!
    Connor

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