The office

HIV ribbon and candles: symbols of the work

Thank god for a more and more paperless world, because stationery – what we usually associate with a functional office – is a scant resource where I am.  There’s no stationery supply as such, but people find their own bits: 2008 desk diaries as notebooks and pink Chinese pencils at 2p in the market.  The finance office apparently once had five calculators, but none now… so finance staff come and borrow my tiny one that cost 3 quid about 8 years ago.  I carry it around for calculating currency exchange.

My NGO office has some impressive equipment provided at some point by institutional donor for project work.  This stuff is lovingly covered up by dust sheets every night, whether or not it’s in use. 

Equipment nicely draped in tie dye cloth

Draped plastic table piled with office stuff

There’s a huge photocopy/scanning machine, several computers with printers, a document binding contraption…  But on the odd occasion when I need to print or photocopy a sheet or two, there’s often no ink cartridges in any printer, no toner, no paper… etc. so I end up doing it in a copy shop in town off a usb stick.

Splendid looking equipment

An office phone on your desk?  Forget that…. There’s one boxed up fixed line phone that can only receive calls.  The history is that staff would not own up to personal usage, so the facility was cut.

The only fixed line phone - incoming calls only!

When the director gets an international call he has to come to the reception area and discuss business that anyone who happens to be hanging around can eavesdrop on.

My laptop lifeline to the outside world recently died, so because of the risk and expense of “repatriation” for repair under warranty, I decided to wait and colonise a little used desk top computer in the reception area.


My work station in reception

People seem happy with this, especially as I have installed updates so it works a bit faster now… plus skype which some people find totally weird (as they watch you sit there talking at your screen).

Parked there much of the time makes me witness to many a small office drama.  The other day there was a call to the fixed line phone saying someone wanted to send a fax. 

But the fax machine had no paper … the receptionist spotted a sheet of A4 in the one functioning printer in the finance dept. and stuck it in the fax machine.  The phone kept ringing, but despite the sheet of paper, a few mobile phone calls and a 15 minute huddle of 4-5 people around the fax machine, no fax arrived that day…  I wonder how many missed opportunities these events represent.

The vexed fax machine

At a recent all staff meeting the cleaner complained that “there was no money” to buy a bottle of toilet cleaner (price 60p), and now she’s worried someone will get sick and it will be her fault.  No one seems to know who around here is deciding what will or will not be resourced from petty cash.

Tea, coffee or even plain drinking water for staff available?  No way… but there’s an old electric kettle that works (when there’s power), so I brought in some jasmine tea.  This evoked great curiosity among colleagues who all wanted to try it.  They ask does it have medicinal properties, is it for slimming?  They say they like it.

There’s officially a lunch hour, but no one is ever seen eating lunch, though a furtive snack must go down, no one looks starved (on the contrary).  I bring my own sandwich.  The only time people eat “in public” is when there’s a “budgeted” workshop or meeting, when “lanch” (sic, e.g. fried egg in a bread roll) is served up at 12, then real lunch at about 4 pm.  Apparently if real lunch is served up at 12, no one comes back for the pm session.  But the admin people always order the polystyrene boxes of food too early, so it’s always cold and congealed chicken and rice by the time you get it.

Things were not always thus.  There was once oodles of money for programmes and salaries, there was lunch, tea, coffee, snacks, as well as paper, toner, etc.  But this is how the global economic downturn affects an NGO operating mainly through the good graces of institutional donors and volunteers, to mitigate the effects of the HIV/AIDS – still a pandemic in Mozambique.  Since 2008, many donor offices have had to close in this province and cut their support to NGOs, with the daily effects I’m seeing here.  Not to speak of the losses to the real beneficiaries: people infected by or affected by HIV/AIDS.

But people are patient and most are uncomplaining, with many continuing to work without salary for a year or more, such is their commitment to “their” HIV affected families.  But for some it may be a lack of initiative to get out and find an alternative paid job…

As for creature comforts at work, there’s nowhere nearby to go for lunch, the “tuck shop” opposite only has fizzy drinks, dry biscuits, and loud music.

“Tuck shop” opposite with fizzy drinks, dry biscuits and loud music

In the office you spend the day on a rock hard wooden chair or stuck to a double stack plastic chair (otherwise, unless you’re light as a fairy, the legs splay out and collapse)… so no ergonomic workstations around this place.  There are a couple of fans around – though who has fan rights remains a mystery to me.  I use my paper hand fan: good arm exercise, and it works during power cuts.

Double stacked plastic chairs for long sitting

Meetings (so most foreigners say) seem mostly quite haphazard in Moz.  Rarely is there an agenda or a clear purpose, and chairing is about being seen to be in charge and dominating the talk, rather than steering discussions and reaching conclusions and decisions.  But hey, this is another culture, we have to adapt and slow down.  My colleagues are delightful, all in different ways, and spend a lot of energy surviving with their pittance (or nothing) and alternately gossiping or joking about the board and office politics.

Lunch and coffee desert

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3 Responses to The office

  1. Janys Lomax says:

    Pru, It was lovely to meet you on Monday. I have much enjoyed looking at your fantastic documentary in both words and pictures. You have brought everything to life, positive as well as negative. I’ll be looking out for the artist Malantanga Ngwenya. Many thanks, Janys

  2. Magnificent! (As usual. 😛 )
    My website is educational toys.

  3. Dear Prudence, splendid description of your daily routine at the office : it provide me with a kind of nostalgia on how good these days were when my secretary could not wait to teach me the last fancy dance or to complain about my (her) errors in writing French, when we were let without any answer from the UN headquarters to our multiple queries because the man in charge chosed to sleep on days on and let the telex machine standstill…
    Well you see I am sure we will soon be to that point here in Belgium and elsewhere in so called rich-not-so-wealthy-anymore countries…
    A new political crisis going on in Belgium… and nearly 600 days without any elected government (the previous one is operating on current matters and has been entitled by our king to take a broad perspective about the current matters…
    There is now a petition still undersigned by nearly 1.000.000 citizens (10% of Belgian population) claiming for a federal cirsconscription, ie what is was before establishing three regions and three language communities and the federal Belgian state… People are really borred and even the king expressed his anger at his New Year Speech. I am going to take part in the civic debate going on and I will propose that we have already got our Head of state (the king), no need to elect any politician but only select a team of technicians and scientists and philosopher to assist our King in managing the public Belgian affairs…
    Apart from that, my only son has his first working contract as teacher (painting) and it is really an event that rejoices me.
    As for me, I am now working at opening a store where I will sell equipment for urban hydropony : the crisis will strike one day or another and soon over here so any mean that offer people autonomy and autarcy and food will get all chance to be well accepted, I believe.
    I wish you good !
    Agnès –

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