Monday, 18 March 2013

Month more ways than one

As normal, I'm sitting here on a Sunday evening, trying to write up my diary / musings from the past week in order to give you a little taste of life as a volunteer in  Lusaka.  Normally it's fairly easy as, given I spend most of the week in the office, I'm not overwhelmed with things to write.  However, this week I am struggling to know where to start as I have so much I want to say.  Being British (English, if you'll let me be specific) I feel it necessary to start with the weather.

Now, I know those of you in the UK will kick me for saying this but Lusaka has been cold, wet and quite frankly miserable this past week.  Despite last Sunday's (10 March) extensive downpour God felt it necessary to have another power shower and soak Lusaka for pretty much the whole day on Monday too, to the point I was awoken from my sleep again at 3am by the rain hammering on the tin roof.  With the rains came cloud and a nasty chill.  I always sleep under the duvet but this week I was considering taking the second duvet off the other single bed and doubling them up!  I know those of you in the UK have been having snow and negative centigrade temperatures but I was cold this week despite it being c.10C as I'd grown used to the +30C sunshine. 

It was a Bank Holiday on Tuesday but when everyone returned to the office on Wednesday after their long break they found their Finance volunteer huddled in the corner with goosebumps on her arms.  I think it's because my corner of the office is naturally more shaded than the rest of the office but I had come to work very inappropriately dressed for the weather in a T-Shirt (I do have a jumper with me but I'm doing my best not wear it as that defeats the object of leaving the UK for warmth) and so was suffering somewhat.  It isn't only me though, the housekeeper Donna was in a fleece all week and yesterday I saw a man in scarf, coat and gloves!!  Even the clothes shops have brought out their thermals, jumpers and fleece lined clogs (yes, honestly, I saw them in Levy Junction on Sat!).  I think God has finally heard my prayers though as today (Sunday 17 March) has been scorchio and Kate is a happy lady once more, walking around in a vest-top and crop trousers.  I had got a list of household things to do and even some work I wanted to address but that went straight out the window when I saw the sun and I have just returned from a 3hr walk/amble in the sunshine - yiippeeee.  I know we're entering the Winter season here but please God let the sun remain......

Another of this week's events was my trip to renew my visa.  I'd come into the country on a 30 day Business Visa which I'd obtained in the UK prior to departure.  On my arrival SolarAid had immediately engaged an immigration agent to apply and pay for a work permit on my behalf.  The forms were extensive and required certified copies of my Finance qualifications, passport and photographs however the application went in and I was asked to present myself in front of the immigration officer a few weeks later.  So, on Thursday, I went to the immigration agents office and they took me to immigration in Long Acres. 

The building itself was somewhat imposing, another 80's style concrete monolith rising into the sky.  However, the inside was even more scary looking a bit like an institution.  I was shown to the second floor where there was a long corridor filled with people standing outside office doors.  Each office door was covered in a metal security grill, the presence of a padlock hanging from the corner of each door indicating whether they were open or not.  The corridor had hundreds of paper files filed up and in one corner a stack of papers had a dirty mop laying on top of it.  I hope, but am not convinced, one of the files didn't contain my personal details. 

I was invited into a small room (the plaque outside described it as the Risk Management Office - a very dubious start!) with three immigration officials and asked to take a seat.  Beside me were some very interesting characters; three young (~25yrs old) Chinese men who were trying to setup a factory in Lusaka, an older American gentleman, an  Indian gentleman trying to apply for a job in Zambia and two Muslim men in full prayer clothes (I didn't establish their reason for visiting).  I sat there for a good 2 hours with the representative from the immigration agency, Francis.  After seeing the Indian gentleman have his application refused and told to leave the country I started getting a little concerned; was that going to happen to me?    In the end Francis became frustrated and left the room saying he'd 'be back shortly'.  Half an hour later I was beginning to get a little hot underneath the collar as Francis hadn't returned yet he had taken my passport with him.  Thankfully he returned about 20 minutes later and instructed me to accompany him downstairs to another office where a gentleman had my passport and was busy stamping it with a month's visa extension.  Apparently the Home Office have run out of work permit booklets so, until such time as they have a delivery, I have to return to immigration once a month for a new stamp in my passport.  Other expats claim this has been going on for months so not to expect a work permit booklet anytime soon.  Ah well, at least my passport is getting some nice stamps. I must return in a months time for another stamp and adventure :)

As for work, you'll be pleased to know that I successfully completed my first ever month end - yay!  I'd be lying if I said it was a piece of cake but it is completed.  If I'm honest I was feeling a bit smug at first as I'd done my Trial Balance in Excel in a timely manner and had everything balanced and coded so was, in my head, ahead of schedule.  What a fool! 

At present, SolaAid Zambia uses a financial system called Sage Pastel.  Now I know my Finance friends at John Lewis in the UK think Oracle has been sent as an extreme punishment from God, to torture all those stupid enough to go into accountancy, but Oracle has nothing on Sage Pastel.  As soon as I started to enter the month's data into Pastel I began to realise why Lorraine said she hated it and why she'd heeded me to leave time for doing this part of the Month End process. 

I diligently typed in the journals and pressed 'Update' to have the system process them only to find when reviewing the output report that journals had been deleted at will, shuffled in order and amalgamated at random.  The deletions I could fix by re-entering the data but the amalgamations drove me to despair as it prevented me undertaking the bank reconciliation in the system.  To add insult to injury, the system duplicated sales and then prevented the reverse journal for 'tax reasons', forcing Lorraine and I to agree a 'fix' journal through 'Other Income' - argh!  After a two day battle with Sage Pastel I was about ready to sling it out of the window.  Now I understand why we'll shortly be moving to a new system......the sooner the better is all I can say as nothing can be as bad as Pastel!  However, it was another vital lesson learned; don't declare finished until you've done all the tasks, 98% complete is good but not done!

Despite the trials and tribulations of Sage Pastel I can confidently say my role at SolarAid Zambia is one of the best jobs I've had in my career so far.  For once I feel like a true member of a team and not just a tiny cog in a wheel.  My role is quite a privileged one as I get to interact with both the Directors (Ops and Non Execs), the Zambian Field and Office teams, the Zambian Banks and the London management team. Compared to John Lewis its also alot faster pace.  At first this was a little tricky for me as I am quite a methodical, process driven person but I think I'm starting to adapt.  The pace has its advantages as it allows to quickly make decisions and adopt changes as appropriate. 

One of things I am passionate about is Finance not being a 'dark art' that other people don't understand as that generally results in the isolation of the Finance member of the team, particularly in a small company.  I had been speaking to Sarah, our Operations Director, about this and mentioned that I was keen to get Finance included in our regular staff meetings, to raise awareness of what Finance 'does' and how it interacts  with other roles.  We kicked this off this week and I'm hoping it'll bear fruit over the next few months.     

One of the other things I'm passionate about is Finance data 'telling a story' and being useful in the day to day running of organisations.  I think the emphasis historically has been on financial reporting and bookkeeping which, whilst good, goes not help guide the day to day ops as its all focused on the past.  I did some work in this area at The Passage charity in London, in the latter part of 2012, and its given me some ideas and 'food for thought' as to what I can do here.  I've instigated some basic weekly reporting but there's a long way to go.  The challenge I have here, as always, is what I can realistically achieve in 4 months (well, three now - eek!) that will stay and be utilised.  You may just have to watch this space and see what materialises.

Finally, since I have now been here a full month (I know, doesn't time fly when you're having fun!) I've had a chance to reflect on the things I brought with me and what I would / wouldn't bring with me if I was coming again.  So, here goes......

Essential Packing

·       Umbrella - great for sheltering you from the heavy tropical rains but equally good as a sunshade when the sun returns.  I brought my Poundstretcher umbrella and its perfect.
·       Calculator - I know I'm an accountant and so this was important for my work but its also really useful for working out how much things cost.  8 Kwacha = 1 GBP so unless you're an expert in your 8 times table (and I am not, much to my parents dismay) a mini calculator comes in very handy
·      Primarni Flip Flops - I wear them permanently in the cottage as they keep the dust and bugs off my feet and they make showering much nicer as, good as my shower is, its not the white bathroom I have back in London
·       Shower Glove - its like a loofar but in a glove and its great for removing the dirt from my feet after a long day walking in sandals.
·    Funky Laundry Bags - My sis got me some really funky pink laundry bags from a sample sale at Superdrug and they're invaluable for keeping my pongy clothes contained after a hot sticky day walking about town.  They also look pretty sitting in the bedroom which is an added bonus.
·      Soap Dish - Most people here seem to use bar soap so I was really glad I brought with me my £1 purple soap dish, obtained in the John Lewis sample sale.  I told my team at the time that it'd come in useful but did they believe, they thought me mad as normal
·     Washing Line - as Joy, my roommate in China can attest, I never go anywhere without my Lifeventure washing line.  I know Donna helps me with the laundry but I still prefer to wash my underwear myself so the washing line is getting utilised :)  It's also very useful for hanging curtains if required and even, when I was camping in West Africa, got used to keep the tent outer secure in high you see why its so useful yet?!
·       DVDs and Computer - I really deliberated over including these when I was leaving London but I am so glad I brought them.  It gets dark here really early and when there's a powercut entertainment can be even more limited so my trusty laptop comes into its own then, allowing me to watch movies on battery.  I brought all sorts of weird things with me....ended up watching My Fair Lady the other night which was surprisingly good.  I've even managed to find microwave popcorn in PicknPay to accompany tonight's movie.....sorry I'm digressing as normal
·       Kindle - I used to be a die hard paper book fan but I'm sorry to say the Kindle has won me over.  It's so easy and light and slips right into my pocket so I can easily take it out on my adventures to read on my regular tea and cake breaks.

Things I should have left behind

·       Alarm Clock - its so bright here at 6am that I challenge anyone to stay asleep.  Added to that, the dawn chorus I get as an added bonus for living in the 'garden' cottage and the thin homemade curtains and I really never need the alarm clock.
·       Makeup - I do occasionally wear it but more often than not my skin is so sticky from the heat (not last week, but normally) that the very thought of wearing makeup seems repulsive.
·        swimming Kit - The swimming pool is so far away from my cottage that realistically, I don't think this is going to see sufficient outings to justify the space in my small suitcase.
·         Travel Towel - Now this item would normally be essential but I am lucky enough to get fluffy towels with my cottage so the travel towel has rightly been relegated to the suitcase....adios amigo!

Things I wish I'd brought

·      Nail polish - I always forget this but its vital when toenails are permanently on show in sandals.  I got some pink stuff here but its not a great quality one.  I miss my purple, turquoise and blue nail polishes
·       Toilet paper - I know I'd never realistically pack this but I do miss nice Andrex toilet paper.  The stuff here is virtually see through and not at all quilted ;)
·        Hair conditioner - just a small amount though; the water here is doing funny things to my hair and I miss my hair oil and conditioner to get the gloss back.  Maybe it's because I'm not blow drying it and am letting it dry naturally?

There are other items that are still in the maybe pile.  I brought an emergency bag of Haribo with me (needless to say they didn't last long, despite my trying really hard to keep them for an emergency) and I still considered them essential packing until this last weekend when I discovered Percy Pigs in Woolworths.  Yes, you read it correctly, I found Marks and Spencers products for sale in Lusaka.  So, Waitrose friends, if Marks and Spencers can do it, surely you must be able to direct me towards some of your goods here........they've got to be know how those B2B guys like to bend the rules :)

If you're not already comatose from reading another of my extensive inane ramblings then congratulations and see you same time, same place next week.  Cheerio folks.

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