Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Typical Day

Someone asked me what my typical day is like in ZA.  Usually it begins like the Kesha song:

Wake up in the morning feelin’ like P. Diddy
Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, goin’ hit this city.

Ok, not really.  I don’t know what it means to feel like P. Diddy.  But here’s the basic structure of my days:

Get up.  Eat breakfast.  Walk out to my car and check the radiator.  Feel ballin’ for knowing how to lift the car’s hood AND knowing the location of the radiator as well as how to fill it up.  Maybe this is how P. Diddy feels.

Showing off my Paint skills

Drive to work listening to High Veld, ZA’s most popular Top 40 radio station.  Get annoyed by obnoxious advertisements.  Sing along to 90s music.

Get to work.  Make a cup of rooibos tea.

Chat with my coworkers.  If the directors are in, we work diligently.  My desk usually looks like a nest of papers and office supplies and lip chap.

Desk taken over by drawings

Engineering is boring, but I’ll try to make my work sound exciting.  MHA manages eight projects, seven of which were formally occupied buildings in the Hillbrow neighbourhood.  Unfortunately, MHA doesn’t have a comprehensive inventory of the buildings’ layouts or the building elements in them.

Super Beth to the rescue!

My job is to create a physical inventory binder and electronic file for each project so that a stranger could look at it and have a basic idea of what the building looks like.  Furthermore, it needs to include all the basic building elements so that when a Housing Manager phones my boss and says, “We need to replace all the shower curtains on floors 2-5,” he knows how many that means without sending someone to count them.

When I tackle a project, I begin by walking around its building(s) and sketching their layout.  The intern before me did the same thing to create emergency escape plans, so I’m checking over her work as well.  I walk out distances such as the length of the hall or the floor area of the bathrooms.  I also write down how many toilets, lights, rooms, geysers, laundry basins, etc. are on each floor.

Laundry room

In the office, I draw up floor plans on DraftSight, a drafting program like a simplified version of autoCAD.  I also make inventory sheets on MS Excel.  After a while I start to feel my soul draining away from sitting in front of the computer all day.

Each day I listen to the babble of different languages.  The directors often talk in Afrikaans while the employees talk in Zulu (so the directors don’t know what they’re saying).

Eventually I go for a walk when I realize I’ve been in front of the computer too long, staring blankly at the screen without doing any work.  Get harassed by men on the street.  Buy some fruit from the street vendors.

If the directors aren’t in the office, my days are pretty such the same except there’s a lot more laughter and chatting involved.  There are 3 departments (and 3 directors) at MHA: finance, maintenance, and communication.  Finance has three employees (male), maintenance has two (me and another woman), and communications has three employees (two woman and the other Canadian intern, who is currently male).

The maintenance and finance employees sit in an open floor workspace together.  If the directors are out, there’s a lot of yelling across the room.  The finance guys constantly giggle together and accuse each other of various indiscretions (they’re quite adorable).

If one of the finance guys starts talking about religion, however, the best thing to do is sit back and relax because it’s going to be a long sermon.  Those three like to argue about details, like what we’ll all eat after Christ returns (one claims we’ll only eat fruit from the tree of life; another thinks we won’t need to eat anymore). 

Or sometimes the woman beside me starts orating on a topic.  If she stands up to address everyone, I know I need to hold to my armrests so I don’t fall out of my chair laughing.

We all have fun.  We like to rock out and gossip and giggle.  The communications employees come hang out in our area.  Housing Managers come and go throughout the day.

Comparing songs on our mp3 players and rocking out

Eventually 4:30pm rolls around and we all go home – except for my boss.  He always stays late.

Away from the office, my day really begins!  Now it’s like the rest of the Kesha song:

Before I leave brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack
‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.

Again, not really.  I prefer scotch whiskey to Jack’s.  Or fruity cocktails, easy on the cranberry.

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