21 November 2011

New post, new design

I hadn't played with Blogger's templates in quite some time. They've got some nice ones! This one seemed like a good fit. I also removed the striking of "Peace Corps" in the title. As the current Country Director mentioned to me, just because I returned (for a given value of "returned") doesn't mean I'm not part of the Peace Corps family anymore.

Fair point, and it's a good lead in to today's post, which is the story of an event that happened during my service that came up in discussion last night. The discussion was about resistance to change.

One day, I visited my neighbor Pete in Boulsa, his site and my provincial capital. I went there every couple months to get supplies like mayonnaise and margarine - things I couldn't get in my own village. Pete was always a great host, and with few exceptions I generally spent a night or two there when I went. We often ended up cooking something that I wouldn't have the ingredients for in village and he wouldn't have the energy to do alone (I think we can all agree, cooking for one is really a hassle). This particular day, we decided we wanted hamburgers. That wouldn't have been possible weeks earlier, but one of the kiosk restaurants in town had recently purchased a meat grinder and was selling sandwiches. I headed over to bargain over the price of ground meat.

When I get there, it's some guy I'd never seen before. I roll up, we go through the usual salutations, and I ask him if they have meat today*.
"Yes," he says, "we've got some today."
"Great!" I reply. "I'd like to buy some."
"How many sandwiches do you want?"
"No, sorry, that's not what I meant. I just want to buy some meat. How much would it cost for the amount of meat you'd put into two sandwiches?"
He gives me a panicked look. "We don't sell meat. We sell sandwiches."
"I know," I respond gently, "but you could just sell me the meat too, right?"
"No. We sell sandwiches."
"Listen," I say, "You sell coffee here. With the coffee you use bread. So it's not like you won't use the bread I'm not buying. You'll still make your profit. You don't have to sell me the meat at cost, mark it up the same way you would for a sandwich**, and in fact you even make a little more because I don't want you to cook it!"
"Not ... cook ... no ... br - no, sorry, we don't do that."
"Please? It's really easy to do."
"Ok, I'll go ask the owner, I guess, but I think he'll say no."
"Thank you!"

He disappears around a corner, and reappears a few minutes later.

"No, sorry," he says, "I can't sell you the meat like that. I can only sell sandwiches.***"
I'm pretty frustrated by now. And hungry. "Well, that doesn't make any sense, but since I can't change your mind and I need to eat, I guess I'll buy two sandwiches. How much?"
"Sorry," he says, "but I can't sell you a sandwhich."
"We're out of bread."

*Note to anyone thinking about living in West Africa: this is ALWAYS the first step when ordering something at a restaurant. It drove my brother nuts when I visited home and at nearly every restaurant we went to, he'd ask me what I wanted and I'd tell him my first choice and my three backup plans in case they didn't have that. "David," he'd sigh, "yet again, I assure you, they have it."

**With a bit more understanding of the inner workings of business here, I realize how hopelessly unlikely it was that the server would have any understanding of the kiosk's pricing model. In fact, there's a 90% chance the owner himself didn't really track it; he probably set the prices based on what someone somewhere else was charging and assumed that at some point he'd realize his profit. This is a typical amount of bookkeeping for many of the illiterate/mostly innumerate entrepreneurs here, and is one of the biggest constraints on small-scale economic growth. If I joined the Peace Corps again, it would probably be as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer.

***I also realize in retrospect that there's a very good chance the owner was nowhere around, and the guy just went around the corner for appearance's sake. Third partying me when no third party was available. Ah, l'Afrique.