A Lesson in Communicating Effectively

Saturday July 18 marked the end of Ramadan. But on Thursday evening July 16 nobody in my office or in the rest of the country knew if they would go to work on Friday or if it would be a public holiday. All depended on the sighting of the new moon at nightfall.

The opinions differ as to which location is relevant, which tool may be used to detect the crescent moon, whether astronomical calculation is sufficient and if it is permissible to climb a mountain to sight the moon. So the confusion was there. Has been every year. Ever since the world became a global village. The only thing that was communicated from the start: if it’s not Friday, then it will be Saturday. In the end everyone made it to work.

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This clear statement leads to the end of Ramadan: new moon at dusk. Friday July 17, 2015

While people have learned to live with this ambiguity it is not helpful if specific tasks need to be tackled. Workers in Tanzania expect to be told everything, Marina tells me. She feels she has to tell them three times what and how they need to do, otherwise she will not be understood. Her Swaheli is is good after more than 10 years in the country. Marina confides it takes a lot of patience, something that’s totally against her nature.

As I am now her tenant I asked her how to protect myself best against mosquitoes. Installing that one mosquito net became a major communications project/lesson.

1. Off to a slow start

So I called Marina who said I should first get a net and then they would help me hang it. I told her I would be home at 7 pm with a net. Nobody came by at 7 pm. I waited 1.5 hours and rang Marina. “Ah, I thought you would ring when you get home! How could I be sure you would be home when you said AND have a net? Now everyone has gone home”. I told her that my word can be trusted in general and that I would really like a protection from the mosquitoes as soon as possible. So she called Ali, the accountant who called a fundi (worker) and both came over an hour later to hang the net.

When Ali saw my new net he asked “Why haven’t you got a net with just one point to hang it up? Now we have to organize a T-beam to hang your net. The carpenter will buy the wood and install your net tomorrow.” (this is the short version; in the long version the two spend 15  minutes holding the net over my bed and discussing my purchase and how to best hang it)

2. A cheeky move

Fast forward 24 hours. I’m home again and wait for the fundi. After 8.30 pm I call Marina again, who says everyone has gone home. I tell her that Ali promised me delivery and I do not want to be bitten by mosquitos anymore. She communicates to Ali who tells me the same thing: “Everybody’s gone home”. I repeat what I had told Marina and 1 hour later a young guy comes to my place to hold the net over my bed, scratch his head, eye my apartment curiously and tell me there is nothing he can do. I insist on instant resolution and that the T-beam must be waiting somewhere to be installed. He makes a couple of calls and alas, the T-beams are indeed in the workshop. He will get them now. He leaves into the night and never returns. I spend the third night unprotected in mosquito-infested Dar es Salaam.

3. Hospital and more obstacles

Next morning I complain to Marina who explains that the fundi had had an accident and had to go to hospital. All while being on the way to purchase the wood for MY net. Am I supposed to feel bad? I express my concern for the poor guy (who is home again) and ask who we can proceed. She will make sure via Ali that someone will be ready to install the net in the evening, she says. That night a colleague unexpectedly had farewell drinks and I came home really late, which I communicated to Ali. Fourth night without mosquito net…

Task completed after 3.5 days and many phone calls

4. The Finale

In the meantime it was Saturday morning and again the fundi didn’t just show up at my door. Instead I had to call Ali, who called the fundi who then came over. He expertly screwed the T-beams to my bed and fixed a couple of other broken things in the apartment. Took him over 1 hour. I also had to call Marina as nobody had shown up for the handover of the apartment at the agreed hour. She somehow already knew I had gone out the night before and complimented me to it “Just arrived in Dar es Salaam and you already went out!” and promised to call the woman who would then come over to hand over the apartment. In the end everything was fixed.

5. Afterthoughts

I’ve experimented with pleading, acceptance, requests, demands, suggestions, questions and complaints –  all in the hope to get fast resolution to a seemingly pressing issue.  I don’t want to count how many misunderstandings took place, unclear statements were made, deadlines were passed, unnecessary calls and indirect orders via third parties had been transmitted. And I am mostly unaware of the additional levels of communication that had taken place in the background. All adding to the confusion and delays. As for my part – I haven’t got Malaria yet and it’s been a week already. But I feel I have failed the communications exam.

(photo by John Tann on flickr)


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