Monday, December 05, 2016

Countdown to Christmas

It's been a few days already... I was unable to post due to lack of connection at my place.

We had to cheat a little since I didn't have everything I needed to go ahead with the Advent Calendar project from 1st December. We put everything together on Saturday morning instead. Here is the calendar in the making: I bought an assortment of Canson strong paper and cut stars for each day until 24 December.

Then I wrapped items that I thought could be useful in any household in pieces of wax print and hung one under each star.

The idea is that every day, we'll remove the gift and hang a Christmas decoration instead. Since the gift for 1st December was a bucket, we'll fill it with every gift we remove from the wall. As soon as possible after 24 December, we'll wrap the bucket nicely and take it to a Catholic sisters' dispensary for them to decide who among the underprivileged young mothers they help could best benefit from our effort.

1 December was an empty bucket.

2 December was powdered milk.

3 December was corned beef.

4 December was tinned tomato.

Now that we've caught up with the actual calendar, I will post pictures of the bucket being filled every day too.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

It's this time of the year again

Whether you believe a lot, a little or not at all, in God in whatever form, chances are you are looking forward to Christmas, good food, meeting again people dear to you and exchanging gifts. These days, "they" (the shops, mostly) start massaging us towards spending a lot of money in less than essential stuff as soon as we are done buying school supplies. There is absolutely no way we can ignore it, and bringing up children in such an environment has its challenges, especially when you would rather teach them to make a distinction between "need" and "want".

I've been avoiding the excesses of Christmas for years, and completely dispensed with celebrating it (or birthdays) until my daughter started regular school and began coming home with claims of "that's how it is done everywhere" (bling dresses and shoes, elaborate hairdos, huge birthday parties, one-extracurricular-activity-a-day, to name a few). Now I feel the pressure to acknowledge that some days in the year must be merry because the calendar says so, but I'm still reluctant to let go of what I think is important, which includes sharing our relative material comfort with the less fortunate.

When my sister and I were small children, about the age my daughter is now, my mother would bake Alsatian Christmas cookies (bredele) and take us to hospitals to visit senior citizens who were abandoned there by their relatives over the holiday season. We would bring them cookies, our smiles and this unique grace children have, and visit with them for an hour or so. To this day, more than 40 years later, I consider this one of the most formative activities my mother devised for us. No matter that I would sometimes feel faint because of hospital smells and being a bit overwhelmed seeing very old, weak and sick people.

Our circumstances today are a bit different, we live in West Africa where I doubt relatives will drop grandma in hospital come Christmas to take her back once the holidays are over and done with. Besides, I have a special needs child who might not be able to behave for any length of time in a hospital. So when I read online that some people do what they call "Reverse Advent Calendar", I knew I had found something we can do as a family and that my daughter may understand.

I will post every day until 24 December pictures of our Reverse Advent Calendar basket getting filled  with goods, which I hope will be relevant and useful in our context. Enjoy the coming weeks and remember: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Today's discovery - A dilettante feminist

I'm not very good at being a staunch feminist, but at the very least I'm a decent dilettante. Or so I want to believe. My interests in women's achievements are manifold, ranging from (economic) development to science and arts, among others.

Today I discovered a paintress I had never heard of until now and wanted to share this gem with whoever happens to stumble on my blog.

Her name is Paula Modersohn-Becker. Although she had a very short life and an even shorter career, her works are powerful and will remain etched in your mind. I'm certain they will in mine, at the very least.

This one, titled Child's Head with White, strikes me particularly. The child reminds me of a sickly baby I met and was able to nurse back to health. This was and still is the most extraordinary experience in my whole life.

I'm also partial to the one below. A depiction of motherly love, nurturing and protecting her baby. The title is Reclining Woman with Child.

It's my pleasure to share my discoveries. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do. Neither the works nor the pictures are mine. They were found online and I linked the titles to the source. If you are the owner of the pictures and consider their use inappropriate, please contact me. Infringing copyright is the last thing I would want to do.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016


There are about 24 hours between these two pictures:

What can be worse than extreme poverty? Bad weather didn't allow my neighbour any respite.

A sobering lesson in relativity for me who have been crying murder because of the shoddy building of my apartment which was soaked with rainwater with all doors and windows shut.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Documenting extreme poverty

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture on Facebook with a caption saying "You say you're poor. What about him?". It shows a makeshift dwelling abutting on a fencewall, just opposite the apartment building where I currently live.

A couple of days ago, I noticed that the owners of the fenced property were preparing to do some building work. 

The shack had to go.

But not very far. Very soon I saw that something looking like foundations was being dug alongside another fence wall, about 50 meters farther on the same street.

I decided to document the effort.

How does someone who has virtually nothing manage when the place they call home is destroyed.

There was a heap of plastic bags and bedding packed alongside the opposite wall for the duration of the rebuilding. Decency prevented me from taking a picture.

Within less than 48 hours, a "new" shack was built with the bits and pieces retrieved from the previous one.

This is my neighbour's new place of abode as of this morning.

I felt it important to document extreme poverty. My wish is that in a few years we will all look at these pictures shaking our heads and wondering how it was possible at all, because we won't even remember such situations. But I'm a daydreamer.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Last but one

I think the next picture will be the full piece, so maybe now is the right time to explain. I've become "obsessed" with little squares. 1in (2.54cm) squares. But this is recent history. Flashback to childhood: I learned to knit at around 5 years old, and loved it. The first piece of garment I remember knitting myself and wearing to school was a hand-dyed, multicolour vest. Before that, of course, I tried my hand at the obligatory scarf, and the not less obligatory seamless garter stitch pullover everybody seemed to "need" in the 1970s.

I went on to knit for myself and for friends, sometimes as gifts, sometimes to order, challenging myself into lace stockings, Norwegian patterns, baby clothes, Chanel-ish suits or YSL inspired jackets. I was very good, if I say so myself.

Then I moved to Africa and felt there was no point for me to knit anymore, considering you hardly need warm clothes when the place you call home is 7° north of the Equator. Not being one to leave my fingers idle, I started a small crafts company doing to-order beadwork and sewing children clothes using local hand-dyed batik or African prints. It was brilliant, but what I enjoyed doing was to create the styles, not to produce 20+ similar garments, varying only in colour or size. Boredom started creeping in, despite the success, and the logistics of maintaining all sizes, all colours, for half a year (we don't really have seasons here, but clients need to know they'll find the same item for at least a few months) became cumbersome.

Out with crafts, in with arts. Yes. Just like that. After spending a whole year pondering on what really makes me tick, I decided that I loved the creative process, but not the commercial production side. I loved to make my (sometimes really crazy) thoughts become objects, but not to have to make them fit the taste that happens to be "en vogue" this season or appeal to the (wo)man in the street. One thing became obvious: when you remove any commercial aim from crafts, only two things remain: creativity and skill.

I love the idea of using a soft knitting yarn to create a rigidly square pattern. I love the age-old technique of knitting, and the very contemporary pixelated rendition.

This work is the first I'll publish online. I pixelated a black and white picture of a lizard and knitted only the dark parts. They are temporarily pinned to a plywood board where I traced lines forming 1in squares, to "block" them before transfering the pieces on a fabric that will be stretched on a frame, like a painting. It may not give an exact idea of what I'm aiming at, but please bear with me. It's a long, very long, process and all will be revealed in due time!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sunday, August 18, 2013


I've been offline but not idle... Our visitors' pavilion is progressing faster than I could ever have hoped for!





Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ground floor (almost) completed

The columns came in Saturday morning.





Next step: decking. From tomorrow. Yay!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Building, African style

I have a plan. I have measurements. The builders have the plan. They have the measurements. Then the foreman tells met "they found it a bit tiny so they increased the size a little". After re-measuring on site, it appears that they increased it by 33%. Baaaaah!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Day 1+

We have only just started (yesterday afternoon) digging the foundations for the guest room (which will in fact be a tiny guest house at the other end of our land). Nothing much to see yet, but I thought it would be fun to document the progression. 

My idea is to take a picture every day (probably less, in the long run; or I'll group them weekly) and post regularly to show how exciting, frustrating, upsetting, and rewarding it is to build something (or, rather, to have something built), no matter how small it is.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Floor treatment #2

After everybody went to bed tonight, I found myself in the kitchen, trying to work, and having little success. Insects were bothering me and I first thought I would use this floor cleaning product that is also an insect repellent, but then I thought, why not apply the second coat of hard oil on the floor? Surely the turpentine in it will discourage quite a few insects too, and I've waited long enough to see how much oil got absorbed by the stone and the mortar.

Here is the floor just after I wiped a hard oil soaked terrycloth on it. I used very little this time, probably less than 0.25 litre of the mix for a 15sqm room (probably closer to 10sqm, since I didn't move the hob, fridge, and freezer and there are built-in shelves on one wall that extend to the floor and I didn't touch them either). It's shiny because the stone hasn't absorbed the oil yet. We'll see tomorrow how much was absorbed and how much needs to be wiped from the stones.

I still like the way the stone's colours are deepened by the hard oil and how they are set out against the mortar. I can't wait to do the rest of the house!

Saturday, June 08, 2013

A glimpse of Papio-REI

Warning: this post is as serious as a heart attack. We are talking retirement planning. Yes, really. Retirement is around the corner. 60 will happen faster than I'll like it and nobody will be there to take care of me, not the state, not my kids. If I'm lucky, little feet, now 3, will be about to enter university when I turn 60. So... For when I want to slow down (or new software stop amusing me and I start losing more and more battles on the scarily huge field of self-actualisation, lifelong training and whatnot), I need something that will generate sure  money without much input from me and that is, I think, real estate.

If you are building to rent, efficiency is the word. Better build 3 small units than one large: if one is empty, the other two may be rented out and you are not putting all your eggs in the same basket. That's my credo. Now, I have to come up with some plan that will look good, be reproducible, and allow you to cram as many units as possible on any given plot without looking cramped or cheap.

One type of housing I've always admired is the terraced house in London, UK. Thanks to the Internet and many excellent real estate agents' websites, I've come up with a plan that I find completely suitable:

I still need to tweak a few things (including exchanging my plot for another one, which was not available when I bought it, but is now), but I think this will serve my purpose perfectly.

Now, all that remains to be done, is to generate the funds and start building!

Floor treatment

After a discussion with a colleague who's been treating her stone floor with linseed oil and turpentine for decades, I've decided to bypass the R&D part and follow her advice.

Although the natural, untreated stone is wonderful theoretically and works well on the porch, it does show its limits indoors, especially in terms of dust raised (not so much by the stone, of course, but rather by the mortar, which seems to be very sandy) and stains in the kitchen and elsewhere. When food is cooked from scratch every day, when you have a 3-year old child and an indoor cat, stains are not something you can just ignore and hope they won't happen.

Here is the floor before treatment:

I checked a few websites and came up with a 80% linseed oil / 20% turpentine mix, which I applied with a terrycloth diaper, since it had to be something soft, that wouldn't shed too much on the irregular stone and mortar floor, and that would soak up the oil. 

Here is the kitchen floor after the first application. We love the way it  brings out the stone with its many hues, and defines it in contrast with the mortar, which looks more sandy than ever.

The stone doesn't seem to be extremely porous, so I don't think it needs much more than 2 "coats", but the mortar in between may be more thirsty. I'll go on hands and knees tonight again, when everybody else is in bed, and see in the morning how much more work is needed, if at all. I may just have to polish to remove the excess on the stone and somehow push it into the mortar.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Emergency building

While we were getting used to the new house and playing around with the ideal protection for our stone floor, a real emergency happened: I now have a 3-year old girl, and a visual artist partner. And the partner is due to exhibit in a few months, preferably sans the 3-year old's contribution. Meaning, her finger-painting on the said partner's completed works is _not_ welcome. At all.

So... We are in urgent need of outside storage for the completed works and also for the work-in-progress. And, we need a guest room. Finance is limited, and ideally we'd rather have waited a few months more, but the risk of more works being spoiled by an unruly, opinionated, stubborn child is too high.

Back to the drawing board, then, for the ideal visitors' bungalow. (We are only expecting our first visitor in October at best, and the exhibition is in September, so the visitor won't have to sleep among the stretchers.)

One technique we've been gathering information about is compressed stabilised earth blocks. A friend of mine in Senegal has a house currently being finished using this material. The artisan uses 98% laterite and 2% cement blocks. What I've read elsewhere is closer to a 95/5 or 90/10 ratio, but I'm willing to learn. With such a low cement content, compression is key. Fortunately, I was able to trace a block-making machine that would fit the bill. It's local, and it's proved its efficiency.

If the Senegalese builder is right, and this technique will indeed halve the cost of building, we might just be able to do more than just a shack for the paintings, and get the guest room ready earlier than expected. The plan is simple; small, efficient, no space or materials wasted. What we have in mind is something like this:

The most important aspect is that we are back to the wrap-around porch idea, this time a full wrap-around: the first building's porch covers only two sides, but I regret sacrificing the east side, which gets quite a lot of rain. Experience shows that only the north side doesn't really need it. Besides, since we've moved in, we practically live on the porch, and consider it a very useful and pleasant addition to any house.

So... drafting, drawing, counting, calculating... We are back to all this fun, and more!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Experimenting with stone floor sealing

Long time no blog! I'm now living in my dream house in the bush, with visiting cattle (a lot), birds of all descriptions and interesting flora. For various reasons (time constraints, mostly), the house is not 100% completed and all the painting and floor finishing remain to be done. Of course, it's far more difficult once you are already living in a one-room, loft-style place, but it will have to be done, somehow.

My most immediate need is to seal the natural stone floor so that stains won't permeate and spoil it. I was thinking of a clear stone varnish, but then thought I'd like something more natural, and easier to apply (again, considering we are already living in the house). I came across various options that fit my requirements, among which liquid black soap; boiled linseed oil; a 80-90% to 10-20% linseed oil + turpentine mix; and olive oil; to which I added, tentatively, coconut oil (well, why not?).

This begs for experimentation. I've therefore collected 5 stones remaining from the stone laying work and traced a line in the middle, to make the "before" and "after" very visible. I only have coconut and olive oil at home today, so these are what I started with. I'll get linseed oil and black soap tomorrow, hopefully.

I will document the progress of this multiple experiment here.

To be continued, then!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Wrap-around porch

Today is wrap-around porch day at House-of-Mine. I love to delve into technicalities. I'm a details person, which is sort of ironic considering how clumsy and messy I am. Anyway, in my mind's eye, I love things to be "just so" and will do endless research on the tiniest detail, just to know exactly what it's all about, how it works, and whether it suits my purpose exactly.

After spending months figuring out the ideal nest or, rather, concomitantly, I decided that I wanted a (fully mosquito-netted) wrap-around porch: an indoors-outdoors kind of transitional space where I can enjoy the breeze and have my meals, keep a couple of dogs at night, and even work when the room is too stuffy or boring.

It will also serve another purpose: I've always wanted to use compressed stabilised earth blocks to build my house and, although online sources tell me that, if done properly, it's as sturdy as cement blocks, locals consider it as not durable. I suspect both sources are right: "done properly" is the issue. I fully intend to supervise closely and give specific instructions for the block-making stage, but I won't be around 24/7 and chances are that somewhere along the line, the block-makers will take a few liberties with the proper specifications. I therefore have to make provisions for it and protect the walls against the elements. Enter the wrap-around porch.

Because I like simple designs, I think what I would feel most comfortable with is just an overhanging roof held by some type of pillars.

In terms of depth, I think something in the region of 2.50-3.00m (98-118 in) would be ideal. Enough to have outside sitting, dining, and working spaces when the weather allows it. Enough, too, behind the kitchen and bathroom area, to have a few clothes lines where the laundry would be protected against sudden downpours.

What I now need to ascertain is how much more foundation work will be needed. This will all have to be factored in to decide whether the porch will be built immediately, or later on. This is a question for an architect, no doubt, but I'll keep looking into it in the meantime...

Thursday, November 03, 2011

My shack in an orchard

Did I tell you I'm getting ready to move? I know I did. After 11 years living in big houses, really too big for my needs, discouragingly so when it comes to sweeping, mopping, dusting, cleaning, etc., I've decided to downsize. Not because it's fashionable, but because it's really the only thing that makes sense to me right now and in the foreseeable future.

Kids are gone, and this -my 21st move- will be handled as if it were to be my last move. Among other things, it means that I need a place that is designed so that I will feel comfortable living in it, and maintaining it, growing older. Space will be outdoors: I intend to have a netted wraparound porch and, of course, the land itself is spacious. Indoors, it will be functional, with an emphasis on what really matters to me (the kitchen, mainly), rather than on conforming to an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all plan which, even if socially "right", won't feel comfortable to me. The experience acquired with my 20 previous moves, and apartments/houses, taught me what works, and what doesn't, with me. I'm therefore not only a highly experimented mover, but also what you could call a highly experimented dweller: I've lived in so many places, and I know exactly what I liked, or didn't like, in each of them.

Having lived in Paris, France, for 13 years, I know a lot about small lodgings. I won't go to that extreme, but I will make good use of space-saving tips and tricks learned in Europe. My (for now) final plan is an 80sq m/861sq ft abode, with the kitchen/dining area taking up about one third of the total. I'm not saying that's how a house should be. It's what works for me.

Here is the plan I came up with, after much pondering:

It is a bit coarse, it was my first time using this little free software (Sweet home 3D) but it gives a general idea of what I think I'll be comfortable with.

Interestingly enough, from the time I started drawing the plan to the point where I felt satisfied with what I had, I'd downsized from a 2-bedroom to an all-in-one room plan. No frustration involved. I rather felt right; free; on the way to an uncluttered life and environment. Downsizing can be enjoyable!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Getting ready to move

When? September 2012, hopefully. Why a post about now? Because this move, the 21st in my life, will be (1) somewhat radical, although it's become difficult for me to say what is radical and what is not, considering my rather unusual life; (2) hopefully one of my last, if not the last one.

Wait a minute... I never thought I'd ever say "my last move". Am I growing old or what?

Now to the where, why, and how.

Where: Baboonland is still in the GAR (Greater Accra Region), but about 50km from Accra. I acquired a comfortably large piece of land where I intend to erect a small house amid a lot of fruit trees. My shack in an orchard. Does it sound like a dream?

Why: Baboonland, because I love the area. I've loved it for more than 10 years. When I saw an opportunity to acquire land there, I jumped on it. It was a bit of a gamble, considering how land deals go in Ghana and, as far as I know, mostly everywhere in Africa, since I was the first to sign up on a new programme. I wanted unspoiled land, and although I'll welcome neighbours sometime in the future (read: when I grow older and dependent), I wanted to be able to enjoy the quiet for a few more years, before everybody else builds on their plots and move in. I'll still enjoy privacy, since my property covers a whole block. Fortunately, everything went smoothly with the purchase and I'm now ready to start building.

How: Like a trip, part of the excitement of moving to a new place resides in the planning itself. I've been researching building techniques, drawing endless plans, etc. for months. Years. I want something small. No sprawling building, no empty, dust-gathering rooms, no inefficient corridors and other wastes of space. Small is beautiful, they say. More to the point, small will make it easier to maintain myself. Having lived 13 years in Paris, I know all about cramped spaces. While I don't plan on living in a "cramped" space, I fully intend to make rational use of whatever space I decide to have, keeping in mind that the overall impression I want to achieve is that of a weekend/vacation place in an orchard. I've now come up with a very trim plan for a 2-bedroom house. Although small when seen from the outside, the absence of corridors and other space-wasters allows for relative spaciousness inside.

I've pondered on the building technique for some time too. Ideally, I would like compressed stabilised earth blocks. The idea is to use something like what was developed at Auroville, India. I know of similar techniques being in use here in Ghana. I'm now looking for a building company able and willing to build for me.

This is how I'm getting ready in the grand scheme of things. There are smaller ways too: moving to a smaller house than those I have lived in for the last 11 years will require some adjustment. I've started rearranging my current space so that everything fits nicely in two bedrooms and a sitting room. Frankly, when I'm alone (that is, 85% of the time), I don't even open the doors to the other rooms! Now I'm just getting more systematic about it, taking in 2 rooms what I really need, and sorting out the rest between what I'll keep in a store-room (as little as possible) and what I'll dispose of. It is my hope that giving this downsizing exercise an early start, I'll have more items on the I-won't-use-it-again-so-let's-get-rid-of-it list than on the let's-keep-it-for-the-time-being list. It's all great fun! and my house here looks better already. I've always liked to travel light, and enjoy downsizing and getting rid of the clutter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An exercise in speculation

Having been paid for the last 20+ years to read the fine print in big contracts, this writer believes she has a fairly good grasp of how they are written and of the different loopholes less-than-honest negotiators can exploit for their own interests.

Although people from every country of the world could find similarities with contracts that made the headlines in their own motherland, this write-up is by no means intended to vilify anybody or any specific country without proof. Indeed, we don't have any proof and would only like to attract the attention of the general public to risks of unpatriotic behaviour embedded in such big contracts.

Let's take, for example, the theoretical example of a relatively small country ordering several aircraft; contracting with a foreign security company to rid itself of the drug trafficking menace; buying state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to better monitor telephone usage; contracting the building of tens of thousands of houses; or building a monorail.

The theoretical careful reader of these news, having at heart to educate him/herself as much as possible on the affairs of his/her country, would have researched the foreign contractors and established that they were nonexistent; created a mere few days before the deal was discussed; without any identifiable track record of prior achievements; or so seriously indebted that their continued existence would be a matter of concern.

This theoretical careful reader would wonder whether the relatively small country officials did even ten minutes research into the foreign contractors to ascertain the feasibility of the contracts. Surely, a company that doesn't exist, or was formed three days before the deal, or that is crippled by debt would find it difficult to perform, wouldn't it? Surely, that much would be obvious to the least educated person, let alone high government officials, wouldn't it?

Like yours truly, this theoretical careful reader has been reading every single word of thousands of contracts and agreements over a 20-year span and knows a bit about the terms of conditions usually included in such instruments.

Considering the most plausible answers to this theoretical careful reader's above-mentioned questions, the next question would be: why sign anything if you know or suspect the contract can't possibly be performed?

There comes the loophole we alluded to earlier on. It's very boilerplate wording, very neat, and shouldn't be seen as anything sinister if the signatories' intentions were pure. Our experience is that whenever a deal is struck, and in order to secure the order for the contractor who will have spent money to put up a proposal, then will have to spend more to hire extra workforce and, generally speaking, make provisions to begin performance at the appointed date, all contracts include a provision which in effect says that if, at this point, you renege on your word or for any reason rescind your commitment to this agreement, you will owe the supplier penalties to cover their expenses and general inconvenience. These penalties are often a percentage of the contract price. The higher the price, the higher the penalty.

And in this theoretical string of seemingly senseless and impossible deals, what if the officials were signing in full knowledge of their co-contractors' dubious history or prospects? What if they even were in cahoots with them to share the spoils once the deals reach the headlines, there is public outcry, and the Parliament refuses to confirm the deals or rescinds them? What if pocketing a percentage of these penalties were the main motivation behind these so-called miracle deals (after a few weeks in the limelight and self-aggrandizement)?

Although this is all purely theoretical, the concerned, careful citizen may want to think about it and ask their government to provide verifiable background information on all the contractors entrusted with helping to build their country's development. Although nobody in their right mind would hope this theory to prove true, the concerned citizens of any country of the world would certainly do a service to the motherland by demanding that the standards of disclosure be improved.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Of the relevance of school teachings

One thing that strikes me as odd is that most students seem to memorise lessons just to get a "pass" mark at the next test and then hurry to forget all about the notions learned, instead of finding practical uses for them in their daily lives.

Although I didn't enjoy my years of studying management for various reasons, I did grab a few notions I keep using to this day and made them so much part of my everyday reasoning that I seldom stop and think "hey, that useful bit? I learned it formally in school 20+ years ago and see how it comes handy now again!"

Now that I hear a lot about the relevance of what is taught (or rather, the lack of it) in schools everywhere and in Ghana in particular, I've decided to give it a serious and organised thought and pick at the most useful habits, ways of analysing a problem and dealing with everyday situations I can trace back to what was, I can assure you, a very dull period of my life. I intend to write a series of posts which I hope will help give students motivation to look beyond the next test and the grades they need to get a "pass" in the subjects they're studying to detect what materials have the potential of being lifelong props for their whole thought system.

The last two posts (First come, first served and Project Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) and Gantt charts) are the first in this series. Please keep coming to this blog and see what's new here and how old school teachings can be useful in your everyday life.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Project Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) and Gantt charts

Although this business management technique seems to be slightly more difficult to comprehend than the previous one (First come, first served), it actually makes the management of tasks and organisation of work much simpler.

Let's start with a general definition of PERT:

"PERT is a method to analyze the involved tasks in completing a given project, especially the time needed to complete each task, and identifying the minimum time needed to complete the total project."

Simply put, make a list of things to do to bring about a desired result, and how long each of them will take. This is something each one of us can and should do, be it in our personal or professional lives, in order to get a clearer idea of steps to our goal and predictable speed of achievement.

Let's draw a table where Column 1 would be titled "Task", Column 2 "Duration", Column 3 "Prerequisite."

Once this table is complete, we will want to get a better, graphical idea of the timeline and tasks that can or should be run concurrently. An exemple follows.

We'll then draw a network diagram, also called Gantt chart (developed by a Mr. Gantt), described by Wikipedia as follows:

"A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. Gantt charts illustrate the start and finish dates of the terminal elements and summary elements of a project. Terminal elements and summary elements comprise the work breakdown structure of the project. Some Gantt charts also show the dependency (i.e. precedence network) relationships betweek activities. Gantt charts can be used to show current schedule status using percent-complete shadings and a vertical "TODAY" line as shown here. "

For simple projects, a piece of paper, a pencil and an eraser will be good enough. For more complex situations, there are numerous software which will help you draw a chart from organising next Sunday's festive lunch to developing a new airplane. You may try your hand at one for free here. Another interesting source is here. These are not recommendations and I don't endorse either of these companies or their products. These suggestions are inserted only for illustration purposes.

Although PERT and Gantt are old news in most of the world, they still provide robust project management methods. I'm sure trying them will open you to a whole new world of possibilities and make previously insurmountable projects a collection of streamlined, easy to manage smaller tasks.

Readers, I will appreciate your feedback here. Please let me know whether you think this article opened new possibilities for you and how you intend to use them. Conversely, if you don't think these suggestions useful, please let me know why, and what would be a better way of tackling project management in your line of business.

First come, first served

In an attempt to provide constructive suggestions to improve customer service, which some would agree is rather lacking here, I will offer here short posts describing principles that can be applied easily in all areas of business, be it in street hawking, trading, or utility hotline management.

The first of them is "First Come, First Served". Wikipedia explains it as:

"a service policy whereby the requests of customers or clients are attended to in the order that they arrived, without other biases or preferences. The policy can be employed when processing sales orders, in determining restaurant seating, on a taxi stand, for example. In Western society, it is the standard policy for the processing of most queues in which people wait for a service."

It seems to me that applying this principle strictly will help bring more order in most businesses, relieve the operators and attendants of the headache of conflicting priorities and alleviate the public's frustration.

Readers, I would like to get your opinions on this. Do you think it a good idea? If not, why? And what would you suggest instead?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Commenting is not complaining

A very long absence, due to my doubts about how useful it is to discuss everyday topics in this blog or anywhere else, when more often than not commenting on situations is considered disgraceful complaining.

I've therefore decided to give it another try, this time with what I believe could be workable suggestions. Exposing an issue AND suggesting improvements. Time will tell if it works. Readers, I thank you in advance for your constructive criticism.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The "National Cake"

Having a professional interest in words, I probably pay more attention to their choice in all sorts of communications. That's why something has been bothering me for a few days now.

The first time I read the phrase "the national cake" in connection with Ghana was on Minister of Information Ms. Zita Okaikoi's profile on Facebook.

I am the Minister for Information- Ghana. A young and active Lawyer born in Accra, I believe in Social Democratic ideals as the bedrock on which the national cake and development can be equitably distributed for all Ghanaians.

Her starting a page on Facebook elicited mixed comments, and I am not about to discuss her choice here. What I find deeply disturbing is the inference one can naturally and, worse, often unconsciously, draw from her describing our country as a "cake" that is to be "distributed" to all.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but cakes are not part of our daily diet and we mostly eat them in festive occasions. When was last time you shared cake with a large crowd? At a wedding, a birthday party maybe? I bet you prepared for the occasion, knowing that there would be food aplenty and everybody would be in a jolly mood, stuff themselves with delicacy, have a great time, and it will be an all-round carefree and enjoyable day.

Let's think about it again. If Ghanaians are to receive shares of the "national cake", doesn't it mean that Ghana is all but a big free-for-all buffet, where everybody is welcome to stuff their face for free? Isn't it what the audience will remember of the figure of speech?

After much pondering, I told myself, let's not make a huge issue of a single phrase. Surely, this will have slipped from an aide's pen unbeknownst to Minister of Information Ms. Zita Okaikoi. This cannot be an official stance.

I therefore researched the phrase "national cake" in relation to "Ghana", using a very popular Internet search engine. I couldn't believe it when I got more than 45,000 hits. Browsing the various hits, I zoomed in on the official Ghana government website. There again, I got far more hits than I was comfortable with: 45 occurrences of "national cake" on our government's website alone. I then narrowed the search to "john atta mills speech "national cake"

In a Daily Graphic article reposted on the Ghana government website on 20 April 2009, our President is reported to have given assurances of a permanent free-for-all atmosphere in Ghana:

The President gave the assurance that he will ensure that the national cake is shared fairly and equitably among all Ghanaians, adding that no region will be sidelined in that regard.

“We want to make sure that this country gives back to its people the investment they made in us,” he emphasised.

He said the people of the Volta Region deserved better and that it is fair that they demand their fair share of the national cake.

In another write-up posted on the same Ghana government website (undated), the author, implicitly endorsed as the voice of the government, by mere dint of being published there, writes:

To reduce poverty there is the need to rally behind the current NDC administration to make its promise of a “Better Ghana” a reality in order that the poverty level is significantly mitigated. Every individual must have a renewal of mind characterized by repentance towards bribery and corruption. This is the only way to ensure a fair share of the national cake among Ghanaians and ensuring equitable distribution of justifiable infrastructural development devoid of “kalabule” from any quarters.
In politics as in other jobs where communication is key, each word should be weighed carefully before being uttered, or written. Surely, our President, as well as our Minister of Information, being lawyers, are aware of the importance of each word. Conveying the notion that our country fellows are to receive more forcefully than they are to serve sounds very wrong to me. Encouraging the Ghanaians on this path seems particularly wrong today, with Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah's selfless qualities being extolled publicly and privately.

Political communication practitioners should work carefully at impressing desirable values into the population's minds, and should actively refrain from slips of the tongue (or the pen) capable of having severe and lasting consequences. Political communication is about working on the minds of the audience, with and without them realising it, to mould their mindsets and thoughts for them to, collectively, behave in the desired way. Being careless about the choice of words can, obviously, result in muddling the message irretrievably.

Founder's Day

Today is a holiday in Ghana. Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the great visionary and first president of independent Ghana, would be 100 today, had he lived.

So many things have been written everywhere about Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah that I won't add yet another hagiography saluting the great man.

A great man he certainly was. He had an acute sense of what Ghana and Africa needed, and he was determined to make it happen regardless of the cost to him. A dreamer he was, but -and that is what made him so peculiar- a do-er he was too. If two words can sum up what he was and what he stood for, they would be: a patriot and a visionary. He worked relentlessly at achieving what he considered his beloved country, and his continent, needed.

Now, I am more than a little disappointed that we decided to honour the great man with yet another holiday. Here was a man whom we recognise as instrumental in whatever significant progress Ghana made in the twentieth century. Here is the mastermind behind the very idea of African Unity, whom we implicitly and explicitely celebrate already with the African Union Day.

Today, our country, and Africa in general, is not visibly nearer to being a developed country than it was when Dr Kwame Nkrumah died 37 years ago. The engine is stalled. It sputters now and then, but never roars anymore and we are not going anywhere fast, or -some would argue defeatedly- at all.

Yet, our deciders found it fitting to offer us yet another day of sitting around omo tuo and a beer, or [insert your preferred holiday food and chilled beverage] all day. This, in itself, sadly shows their lack of vision.

Tomorrow again, omo tuo digested and beer-induced burps squelched, we'll sit and stretch our hands, hoping others will lend us money and foreigners will come and invest in our country.

What if, instead of flattering a very human tendency to laziness and carelessness, our deciders, driven by a real vision for their country, had launched a nation-wide selfless, community-serving activity? Plant a tree, clean the beaches, clean the street gutters,... There are so many things that need to be done to improve our lives, our environement and our country, and it seems so sadly strange that we should celebrate such a pro-active person as Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah by doing... NOTHING.

Wake up, my dear country fellows! your country won't develop without your participation, on foreign loans and foreign investment only. Stop selling it cheaply for yet another day of idleness and sweetness of life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Expatriate Ghanaians should behave as ambassadors of their country

This morning I spent a little time reading the press online, and one article caught my attention and got my blood boiling fiercely within seconds. Its title was:

Ghana says thanks to Randolph Y for old sneakers

Excuse me if I appear to be spitting in the broth, but how pathetic is this?

Hand-downs are not new (no pun intended) but this is pushing it a bit too far. If we like to stretch out our hands so much, couldn't we at least come up with a more dignified and more efficient way of channelling these probably well-meaning and sincere people's charity? Or am I being overly touchy? Beggars can't be choosers, they say. I believe we don't have to be beggars. Let's put together decent proposals. Those of us who have lived in developed countries all know that Westerners with a genuine desire to help less developed countries abund, but most have no idea what the actual needs are or how to proceed. Let's help them help us efficiently, if we really want their help.

The issue, as I see it, is that those of us who live abroad, no matter why they left their country (most of them to further their studies and acquire a valuable international work experience), should not forget that in the country where they chose or happen to reside, they are Ghana. For most people they meet day in, day out, they are as close an experience of the real Ghana as they will ever get. Whatever they say, do, like, or dislike, will be taken at face value as emblematic of what Ghana says, does, likes, or dislikes.

Projecting an image of undignified beggars, taking with bent knees and bowed head a few pairs of used sports shoes to help their country develop, is all wrong for a variety of reasons, but mainly because:

  1. they convey the idea that GHANA is so poor a pair of second-foot shoes will actually make a difference;
  2. they confirm the already far too widespread prejudice that GHANA (and Africa) has neither ability nor will to look at any kind of bigger picture;
  3. they are not using the fine education they suffered so much to acquire to put up decent proposals, using their in-depth knowledge of their host country to present development projects in a way that is understandable, acceptable, dignified, and enticing.
This all boils down to the basic issue with underdevelopment: we have to change our mindset. Stop believing we cannot do better than begging. Stop believing any help is better than no help at all. Stop acting for today's chop money without consideration for the bigger picture.

Obi mfiri εsono akyi nkɔbɔ aserewa boɔ.
One does not leave an elephant to throw stones at a sunbird.
(Don’t permit a small thing to lose you a large one.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Turn your perceived disavantages to advantage

Deε n’ani akyea na ɔhwε toa mu:
The one who has crooked eyes looks into a bottle
(Some disadvantages can be turned to advantage)

One of the objections I hear most when encouraging people to work towards their own success, whatever success means to them (it does NOT have to be money), has to do with being somehow handicapped and hence, being bound to fail.

Nation-wide, individuals and –worse– public figures blame “the government” or “our poverty” for their lack of success. I’m not here to apportion blame, and will rather concentrate on these perceived weaknesses that we can turn to advantage.

I’m jobless: you have time to do things other people can’t, or won’t. That’s a definite and immediate advantage. Look around. Identify a successful person you want to emulate. Offer them to do something for them, even menial tasks, so that you can observe them, day in, day out, and pick some of their values, routines, habits, that explain their success and that you can make yours.

I’m broke: some jobs don’t require lots of capital. Plus, capital is not only money. It is land, manpower, skills… You may have one of several of these assets and don’t value them. You may procure some or several of these for free, and neglected to do so. Think about it again. Thinking is free. Don’t leave any stone unturned. What do you have to lose?

I am skill-less: nobody is skill-less. Think about what makes you believe you are skill-less. What is this specific skill that you wish you had and makes you think so low of yourself? Do you really need to acquire it? If so, devise a way of acquiring it but then, after careful analysis, maybe you don’t absolutely need it. Which other skills do you possess that you could turn to profit (again, this is not all about money, profit can be a lot of other things)? The world is diverse and would be severely unbalanced if everybody had the same set of skills. Just because you admire someone who has a certain set of skills doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be whole until you acquire them. Concentrate on what you do best and improve your skills in this area. Quality doesn’t remain ignored long. If you excel at what you do (know-how) and work at making it known (selling your skills) with integrity, looking at the long-term rather than trying to make quick chop-money for today, you’ll be on the path to lasting success, you’ll have self-respect and attract other people’s respect too.

There are numerous other reasons someone can give for not succeeding. For each one of them, be it lack of physical strength, neighbours' ill-will, or peer/family pressure, you need a revolution of the mind. Quit avoiding obstacles (usually by doing nothing, for fear of something worse than the current nothing-ness happening to you), and work towards using them as stepping stones. This is the way forward: change your mindset from one of impotence and dejectedness to one of proactive, positive and constructive thought.

Proverbs are full of insight and excellent principles. We tend to only see the negative aspects of tradition and it's often considered as a hindrance to 'progress'. Not so. Again, this is all a matter of how your mind is set. You are on a course to success, and you'll want to use wisdom from different sources to get you there.