Thursday, 29 August 2013

No Country for…err…Babies?

No Country for Babies...picture borrowed from

Okay, for those of you guys who have never had kids, let me disambiguate the experience for you. Yes, babies are cute, sometimes. Babies are annoying, most of the time. Babies devour any semblance of a personal life you may have, all the time. Babies all but destroy your sex life, proven fact.

Don’t let the mothers fool you. They have a completely different experience from fathers. I mean c’mon, evolution and biology have structured it all in a way to ensure that the bond between mother and offspring is strong. If you’ve ever had the pleasure/displeasure (depending on your ‘ick’ tolerance) of witnessing the birth of the child, you’ll notice that immediately after the child is delivered, it is placed on the mother’s bare skin (skin to skin contact). It’s easy to see why you’d think that this was simply a nice gesture but the practice is actually rooted in some sound science. You see, there’s something called oxytocin…blah blah blah (click here if you’re really interested).

Let’s put the science of mother/baby bonding aside for a second. Let’s also put aside the ‘I don’t know what the f*ck is about to happen to me’ cluelessness of the new dad. Let’s instead turn to some of the cultural practices, ranging from the ‘Huh?’ through ‘What the F*ck?’ to the ‘Holy Sh*t!’ that our society inflicts on its new-borns. 

Could that be any hotter?
According to many ‘old’ and apparently ‘wise’ Ghanaian memes, a baby is born incomplete. I could agree with this sentiment if by ‘incomplete’ they meant that for instance, at the time of birth a baby does not have enough mental and physical capacity to be able to fend for itself in the most basic of ways. I could maybe buy into that. But no! That’s not what they mean. According to my mom, nanny and every over 50 year old woman, when the baby is born, there are several sores (ulcers) that haven’t completely healed (of course this is bullsh*t but let’s play along). To aid the process of healing these said ulcers, they employ the use of hot; actually scratch that, STEAMING water!

The first of these ‘ulcers’ is in the head. Yeah, you read that right, In the kid’s friggin’ head. One treats this effectively by massaging the baby’s head with a towel, soaked in ‘I’m about to pluck the feathers off a chicken’ steaming hot water. This is done at least twice a day much to the displeasure of the usually helpless mother. I’ll simply not describe the emotional state of the baby during this treatment.

The second of these ‘ulcers’ is in the…wait for it people…anus. Yes, one of the most sacred and in some cases, revered effusive passages. To treat this (at least the flavour of it I saw, and there are many), you get a small plastic cup and punch a nail-sized hole through the bottom. After bathing the child, turn him/her over, spread his/her about-to-be-thermally-abused butt cheeks, fill the cup with hot water and let it slowly drip from the bottom of said perforated cup directly onto child’s anus. This ‘remedy’ is apparently good for treating the non-visible and most possibly non-existent anal ulcer that every Ghanaian baby is unfortunately born with.

I won't even talk about the location of the third ulcer, too gruesome to tell.

Cover me, I’m cold!
Another consequence of being born Ghanaian and incomplete is the fact that Ghanaian babies are almost always cold. Always! I remember once taking a stroll with my baby boy in the front yard of our house. The idea was the give the little chap a whiff of Ghana’s characteristically humid and dusty but fresh air, as he tended to spend most of his days indoors. I’d even cracked out one of baby boy’s new Mothercare onesies, a cute little sleeveless and legless number. I mean c’mon, how was I supposed to know that if he wasn't swaddled and thermal insulated Eskimo style ‘the air’, and I quote ‘will pass through the soles of his feet and make him catch pneumonia…’ leading ultimately to a certain emphysema & pneumonia related death.

Did I mention the need for a hat? No? Well, apparently that’s a must in humid 28°ish weather for Ghanaian new-borns. Otherwise, just like you guessed, ‘the air will pass through the soft part of the head…catch pneumonia.’ leading ultimately to a certain emphysema & pneumonia related death.

The head covering stupidity goes even further. Shockingly, for Ghanaian babies, God and evolution together decided that two nostrils weren't enough to breathe through. Therefore the fontanel (soft part of a baby’s head) is yet another mechanism by which the Ghanaian baby breathes. Baby got a blocked nose? Rub some eucalyptus or better still, some ‘Chinese Robb’ on the fontanel and see that blockage disappear. But here’s what happens to that idiocy when it’s put to the test; if a baby breathes through the fontanel (even partially) why are we so intent on covering it with headgear all the time? Wouldn't that be like an adult stuffing a piece of scrunched-up toilet roll up a nostril?

Seriously folks, this ‘the baby will die from cold’ thing goes even deeper, both figuratively and literally. Okay, so my wife is on a video shoot with her crew and a major client. She is pregnant and luckily, unlike other women who crave weird and sometimes harmful or unhealthy things during pregnancy, she just wants ice. That’s it, ICE! Being the resourceful person she is, and the boss, she manages to procure a cup of ice chippings in the middle of rural Ghana to satisfy her not-so-weird craving. There is a little old lady present when she starts chomping down the ice. Cue #unwantedadvice

  • Little old lady (look of disapproval): ‘Young lady, you shouldn't do that, it’s not good’
  • Wife (completely bemused): ‘Why?’
  • Little old lady: ‘The baby will catch a cold…’ There was more to that statement but by this time my wife’s anti-idiotic speech filter had kicked in, so even though the little old lady’s mouth was moving all my wife heard was radio static ‘shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’.  

The ‘weight’ of starch
This one is my current personal favourites, even if it’s because of the sheer stupidity of it all. Now mummy dearest is a smart person, usually. She has good insights and lots of #unwantedadvice to share about raising a child. Her most recent exploit was to edit the diet of my newest baby boy to exclude starch(es). I say starch but what she actually meant was exclusion of cassava and all related cassava products; gari, tapioca, eba etc. This advice had been slowly building up but finally came to a head when at 13 months, my very boisterous and healthy baby boy was still not fully walking but well on his way.

Apparently, starch isn't good for children since it’s too ‘heavy’ and makes them feel lethargic. But not all types of starch do this. For instance maize is fine, so is rice, so is yam, so is potato, so is millet, so is sorghum, so is wheat…the only exclusion seems to be cassava. Go figure! Needless to say that this gem of sage information/advice has been shelved in the same area of my brain as Big-foot and alien abductions.

Alas, I’ve got one more kid to go and I’m pretty certain that we’re going to have HIM here in Ghana. That means 2 or 3 more years of logic defying idiocy from people who should simply know better. If you’re experiencing, or have already experienced some of what I’ve said (and I’ve only just scratched the proverbial surface), why don’t you join me in this resistance of all things stupid and getting the word out to potential parents of Ghanaian babies…’if at all in doubt, ask your doctor/midwife.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

What? You have an opinion?

After some introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a 'dickish' bully. Not in the classic sense of the word; ‘A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.’ I’m more of an intellectual and social bully of my peers. I like getting one over them and take delight in the fact that I’ve come out on top in a confrontation with an equally matched opponent. I’m 'dickish' because I could be much nicer about how I go about it.

As a thirty-something year old man, it’s worked well for me so far. The trick is knowing when you’re beat and gracefully conceding that defeat. However, like I said, I only do this to people who I deem equal or superior to me. That’s important and I’ll explain why. I’m sure many of you reading can relate to this experience, or at least some part of it.

Eager returnee, ‘great’ opportunity…
Upon returning home in December 2010 after 8 years being away, I landed my first ever job in Ghana. (I’d had previous work experience outside of Ghana). The company and opportunity looked exciting. A small start-up with a big idea; an idea to revolutionize the internal workings of an entire key economic sector. No one had ever tried anything so bold and the task, although overwhelming, was an exciting one.

Besides me, there were some pretty intelligent and enthusiastic people who were willing to dedicate time, energy and intellectual property to tackle the unique set of challenges we were facing. I’m talking about really strategically and operationally smart people. The stage was set and the opportunity was ours for the taking. I quickly discovered a problem though, a bottleneck of sorts. Almost every attempt at reform to help inject momentum was thwarted.
  • No idea was good enough
  • No opinion was valid
  • No process/procedure was robust enough
  • No report or document was thorough enough
  • No design was acceptable
  • No font, colour, icon, arrangement…nothing one did was EVER good enough!
The reason?

EVERYTHING, I mean every single thing had to conform to the standard and get the approval of a single individual.

In effect, a potentially great company with an equally great idea was, and had been moving as fast as a dead snail. An entire management group of young, smart, eager and dedicated people had been reduced to a group of bobbleheads. Reluctant yes-men who were powerless to inject some real positive change to the mostly normative way of thinking. In my opinion 'normative' in this context, was a stale and mostly regressive way of thinking, but one could argue that point.

To make things worse, the entire company had not only become hyper-aware of a messy internal political ecosystem but had also become infected by it's leaders' dysfunctional way of working.

'The company and product have suffered because of this and will continue to do so if things don't change.'
                                                                                 Quote from current employee

Source: - Slightly changed from original material
Now I come to the point I was trying to make about bullies, bullying and a corporate culture that seems to encourage it. There was an alarming amount of bullying being meted out at all levels because the example being set by the leaders. Some of it was intentional;
  • Exclusion from decision making.
  • The vicious ‘blame game’.
  • Public and often heated verbal altercations whose effects went far beyond the board room.
  • Managers given the appearance of authority but undermined at every turn.
  • Overly aggressive and unnecessarily punitive HR policy and person.
Other symptoms were more inadvertent;
  • Sudden and often sharp changes in direction due to a lack of clear focus/vision. This resulted in a colossal amount of good work done but left unused or completely abandoned.
  • Favouritism/Nepotism – ‘Untouchables’, individuals who were clearly and openly regarded in higher stead than other managers, not necessarily based on performance but a more personal (out of office) relationship.
  • A ‘them vs. us divide between management and staff.
Over a relatively short period of time this behaviour gave birth to its own ecosystem of fear, mistrust and apathy. It systematically eroded trust, self-confidence and willingness to contribute or participate. It instilled fear in managers; the fear of making decisions because they would be undone. Fear of committing to work because your efforts would be undermined publicly and eventually undone. It also introduced such apathy to the extent that managers would frequently submit reports late so as to avoid being asked to change it (font, format, colour etc.) a million times. People simply ‘gave up’ and waited to be told what to do and how to do it.

By the time I left, my sense of worth had been reduced to almost nothing. My psyche had taken such a consistently forceful beating that I almost chalked my prior stellar professional career successes to dumb luck.

At the lowest point, I was actually told, and I quote;

‘You’re good at dinner table conversations and outings…(insert additional verbal placatory nonsense here)…but not much else!’

**Note: Only a couple of months earlier, the same person had congratulated me on how I was doing a great job managing the fast pace, limited [human] resources and demonstrating leadership and maturity. 

People left. Others came. Like me, others were eventually forced out. And the company continues to exist.

But here’s what my stay at this company taught me about being a bully, corporate or otherwise;
  • It’s damaging to the growth, continuance and prosperity of a group of people who should be pulling in the same direction.
  • It cripples innovation and progress.
  • On an interpersonal level, it breeds resentment, malice and social dissonance.
  • It destroys people’s sense of worth and stunts personal and professional growth.
And the lesson is...
In short, I learned how not to manage a group of people, how not to build a company. I’ve learned that trying to achieve anything innovative or progressive an ecosystem of bullying, fear and apathy is akin to p*ssing into the wind. I've learned that companies go through austere times but a lack of money does not justify a lack of scruples, a disregard of decency or an abandonment of ethics.

I've learnt that people are the life-blood of every successful organization and those organizations that remain successful put people front and centre of their culture…NetAPP, Google, etc. They demand more from you but in return provide the right tools, challenging environment, personal/professional development, empathy, respect, decency and so much more…

Most importantly, I've learned NEVER to let ANYONE (company nor individual), get me to doubt myself nor my proven ability as a talented manager and IT professional. NEVER AGAIN!