Wednesday, 24 March 2010

African accounts

Thoughts on a place I used to work

I am sitting at my desk, tapping figures into a spreadsheet. I am the privileged one: I have the biggest desk and the only laptop. On the other side of the room Maggie and Winnie write up their accounts longhand, in pencil in the massive ledgers. These ladies are my rock and support, people with all the answers I need to the history of the organisation and its finances. They carry on in the way they have done for years and in all reality they would be better with bigger desks so they could spread out. Glancing at the piles of papers that surround me, I am in no hurry to reduce my working area: I need all the space I can get.

The windows are open, light cotton curtains fluttering in the breeze. The cooling air is welcome to counter the heat from the tropical sun. Mid-morning is still warm, and by this afternoon the sun will be streaming in through the glass on my left, baking us for the last three hours of work. Out of habit, I reach for my two-litre bottle of filtered water and take a long, refreshing draft.

From outside I can hear the sound of the school children laughing and shouting to each other: it must be break-time. They run and skip over the parched earth, red dust prevailing over the scratchy grass. There is an attempt at a play area with a climbing frame, swing and roundabout made by the local metalworkers. The primary-coloured paint has faded and largely worn away; the feet have sunk into the ground during repeated rainy seasons and the resulting angles are concerning. It is not a school I would be happy to send my child to, which saddens me greatly. These beautiful children will (in my eyes) get a sub-standard level of education because they cannot afford the luxuries of the international school that my son attends. Then again: these children are getting an education, and many in Africa do not.

I sigh, and return to my work. Somehow these books have to balance. Somehow I have to persuade all the other staff that cash cannot be available just at the click of a finger. Somehow I have to bring some order into their chaos, if only to satisfy the Western donors who fund their relief and development efforts. And fund my job.

Yet I am white: the outsider, the novice in the country. How can I understand what they go through? I don't have to work 8-5, and then go home to work more hours as a seamstress or carpenter in order to make ends meet. I don't have to feed an extended family, the children of my brothers and sisters who have succumbed to The Disease. I don't understand the need for travel allowances, payments to the local chief, the perks of being invited to a conference. It is all a far cry from working for a Big Four accountancy firm in the City of London.

On the outside, I provide confidence for the funders and hope for my colleagues. Inside, I flounder and panic, wondering what I have let myself in for. After all, no sane person would choose to be an accountant in the ninth most corrupt country in the world... would she?


marisworld said...

What an intriguing post. At first I thought it must be form a very long time ago when PC's were so expensive and then I was shocked and amazed and saddened to see where you were/are.
A beautiful description of a very different life that we should be more aware of.
Thank you

Livi said...

wow, that's really interesting. Like Maris said, I also assumed it was back when PCs were very expensive, fascinating to hear about it though.

A said...

Brilliant post! A handful of years back I spent some time working in South Africa. I remember having similar feelings of stress and sadness at the obstacles the people there face. I appreciate your description - thank you!

Catharine Withenay said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. It was actually about 6 years ago, but computers were not commonplace in Africa then. Well - obviously - they're still not, but communications are improving! And they were all wonderful people.

@porridgebrain said...

Catherine how fabulous, thank you. I didn't know you had worked abroad. It must have felt like another world at times.

You describe it all beautifully.

Muddling Along Mummy said...

Was this with VSO? Sounds like an incredible challenge but also a great opportunity to do something unique

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Award for you over at mine!

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