32nd Birthday Thanks.

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Today I turn 32 and I am happy to announce that I am officially registered as Ghana’s first national triathlete.

It has been a tumultuous time professionally, but being able to represent my county at the International Triathlon Union race circuit this year is a dream come true.

Competing in this sport has been no coincidence but the influence of very important people in my life. After all, it has been exactly 10 years since I got into sports and 5 years since my first triathlon.

Firstly, Diana Lovett, who started everything by getting me into running and Marathons 10 years ago this summer. I know your mom Abigail Erdmann was a huge influence on your life and for that I thank her too! And both of you for coming and supporting me at various races around the world.

My next thank you goes to my GP Dr George Kaye. Instead of dissuading me from doing any sports given my bad knee post-2008, he encouraged me to swim, which is where I met the indomitable Fiona Ford, at my local pool.

It was Diana again who got me into triathlon but it was Fiona who coached me and made me fall in love with the sport. She taught me how to swim and bike in February 2009 and coached me to compete in my first Ironman in June 2010.

Fiona and I have shared flights, races and birthdays together and it was during one of her legendary training camps in the French Alps that I met her former and my current coach Spencer Smith.

Despite not racing under Spencer yet, it’s been a new and exciting experience for me. I have become stronger on the bike without sacrificing my run and found a new adrenaline rush with swimming. For whom I also have to thank Fiona and Paul and Adam at Swim Smooth.

Spencer has helped me setup a decent training circuit in Ghana, but none of it would have been possible without Mr Bawah Fuseini.

Mr Bawah helped guide me through Ghana’s process, single-handedly setup the Ghana Triathlon Federation, provided me with swim, track and cycling access as well as facilitate some incredible introductions to new mentors in my life like Prof. Francis Dodoo. And it is at the pool, track and cycling sessions in Ghana that the community I have gotten to know has come through so strongly. Anne-Dorthe Joker for allowing me to swim at LCS, William and Chief at the Lincoln and Burma pools for dealing with my demands and giving me pool time, Daniel at El Wak for giving me the all-clear to train on the track in the evenings, as well as the guys at Die Hard Cycling who introduced me to Tom Phillips.

Tom has been incredible at putting together great bike rides and getting me out of bed at 6am every Sunday! Not sure I would have done those long rides without him. Also his encouragement and that of Ayowa Afrifa and all my friends. Friends who have endured the “sorry cannot drink tonight, must be up at 5am” as well as standing for hours on end waiting for me to cross the finish line. Thank you.

And then there are my fellow team mates in the UK, Suzy Black, Kerrie O’Connor, Corey Dawson, Liz Cooper, James Weller and most importantly Josh Roberts. Thank you for shielding me from the wind during those long rides in Surrey, allowing me to draft off your feet in the pool and sharing your pretzels with me during our training camps.

Last but not least, my family. You have always encouraged me, always supported me and continue to push me to reach my full potential. I could not have done any of this without you.

My first race of the season will be the ITU Cape Town on the 26th of April. The first time an ITU race has been held in Africa and the first time a Ghanaian National has ever officially raced within the circuit. The race will be my first Olympic distance race since my first triathlon in 2009, I shall be competing as an age-grouper (amateur, not elite) but look forward to putting my new arms, legs and lungs to the test.

Here I am, 32 years of age, feeling content and lucky to have you all in my life. Thank you.

A Lesson in Financial Literacy.

In 2012, I made the decision to move back home to Ghana. I had no idea what I would get up to but I knew it had to involve supporting entrepreneurs.

I spent the first couple of months meeting start-ups, local enterprises and those that support them; from bee keepers to ICT providers and retailers to micro-finance institutions (MFIs). It was a fun few weeks, not to mention incredibly enlightening, as I wanted to understand what the bottlenecks these businesses face and what I could do to help.

Before I get into the issues, I would like to briefly mention the merits of these small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In developed countries, they employ over 90% of working the population, generate a large bulk of tax for governments, are resilient and nimble during downturns and have in-depth knowledge about their markets. There is no doubt that SMEs are big drivers of social and economic growth. This is in stark contrast to developing sub-Saharan Africa where the majority of livelihoods earned are through the informal economy and public sectors as well as the large corporates/multinationals.

What makes the presence and growth of SMEs in these territories so anaemic?

There are a number of hurdles SMEs face: from basic business skills to the right support through the services sector such as audit, tax etc. But the biggest is access to finance and that is where I focused my effort as most of them rely on raising money from friends and family.

My first inclination was to setup a venture capital fund. I spent a few weeks working through the SME financial requirements (deal size, tenure etc) and then the fund requirements (assets to break even, fee structure, tenure). It became quickly apparent that in a typical investment fund structure, venture capital is just not sustainable. This is why: being quite cost-conservative, break even sits at $50m to source deals across sub-Saharan Africa (few institutions will take country risk), if investors are locked up for 10 years (which is the higher-end of the scale) and it takes you 6 months to do due diligence (this is the time it takes for a corporate in a developed country, it will be even longer for an SME in Africa) – to make investments for the first half of the fund’s lifespan and exit in the second half, that implies around 10 investments. That’s $5m an investment, too big for an SME looking to raise $5,000-$250,000. Plus these businesses are mostly family run and they do not want to give up control by selling ownership.

So if it is not equity, what about good old fashioned debt? I went on a mission to find out who lends to SMEs and discovered that neither micro finance institutions (MFIs) nor commercial banks truly do.

Let us start with commercial banks, whose balance sheets are growing at over 40% a year (the banked rate in Ghana is only 41% despite being one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa). They are geared to lend to corporates and don’t have the need or risk appetite to downscale their strategy. And from an operational perspective it is difficult to do so, requiring large investments and training when there is easier money to be made.

On to the MFIs. There are 750 such institutions in Ghana (I am including credit unions, rural banks and most of the savings & loans companies). The majority of which don’t have the financial muscle nor the skill to lend beyond their client base. Their funding model depends on selling high interest time deposits and the collection and distribution of loans through large work forces that inflate their cost base by up to 50% compared to commercial banks. As a result they lend at high interest rates (up to 110% in some cases) to become profitable. Now a business can only afford these rates if the loan size is small (say borrowing $50 to buy tomatoes to sell them at a high mark-up) or a larger amount for a short period (working capital/cash-flow loans).

What SMEs are crying for are affordable long-term loans. Growth capital. Neither the existing commercial banks nor the MFIs can address their need.

So who can they depend upon?

Given the lack of support from the financial sector, public and non-profit initiatives (and others in between) have had to step in to fill the gap.

On one end of the scale, the non-profits, endowments and foundations from Gates and MasterCard serve a strong purpose. I was recently asked to judge a panel at the MEST UNICEF Hackathon. MEST is a foundation that was setup to train university graduates in Ghana on how to code, develop a business plan and pitch to investors – ultimately to become tech entrepreneurs (they are a great organisation so please look them up). They joined forces with UNICEF and organised a three-day hackathon: 125 applicants were presented with 6 issues as diverse as improving birth registrations to knowing your rights and told to come up with solutions to solve them. The results were fun (a mash-up between Dragon’s Den and American Idol) and the winner took a generous cash prize as seed money to build their app alongside UNICEF’s support. A win-win situation.

These organisations play an important role. They give out grants and provide funding to high-risk initiatives that solve problems in the developing world. Problems that may not have a direct monetary link but help alleviate poverty, promote development and improve the livelihood of many. But going beyond their expertise – grant giving to SMEs – proves detrimental. Not to jump on to the “Dead Aid” brigade but unless businesses are held accountable (i.e. are asked to pay back any funding), the issuer cannot guarantee the funding is being used for income generation. This form of support is unsustainable.

On the other end of the scale is local government and their organisations. Their initiatives stem from the right place but are executed in an uncommercial fashion. A fund to support SMEs through grants (you already know my views) to lines of credit that are pushed through commercial banks (at non-commercial terms) that don’t take into account their operations.

Finally, there are intermediary organisations such as Developmental Financial Institutions (DFIs) like the IFC that have been partially mandated to support SMEs. These organisations provide a range of services, from investing in funds to wholesale funding as well as equity and debt investments. They have a thorough understanding of the key problems they need to solve but given their employees’ lack of private sector work experience (being part of a commercial bank, investment fund etc), are often unable to understand the local commercial solutions. They are slow, bureaucratic and take no risk. Of course there are exceptions but this is the general view.

Having spent two years on the private sector side of SME financing it is clear that the solution is complicated and requires the input of all the non-profit, private and public institutions I have mentioned. To support SMEs in developing countries, an efficient ecosystem needs to be built.

Governments need to step away from lending and provide the right infrastructure and policies. A multi-pronged approach is needed – improving the ease of doing business, incentivising informal businesses to formalise and encouraging investors to take risk.

I always discuss how important the speed of registering a company is, the pronounced amount of red-tape and lack of proper IT infrastructure is a hindrance to doing business in Africa. These issues need to be rectified. Any barriers to doing business will encourage potential SMEs (who, like the majority in this world will take the easy path) to stay informal or end up being employees at a corporate or public body. Furthermore, there needs to be legitimate reasons for businesses to formalise. Right now, if a micro-entrepreneur were to register their business, they would end up paying taxes and get nothing else in return (no access to credit, no service facilities, nothing). In short, their income would go down. So why not provide them with decent policies like a tax break, a simple legal framework to follow, access to educational seminars on business management as well as governance and auditing?

What of the grant-giving institutions? Experts in their fields exploring new avenues to solve their problems and I applaud them for taking the risk and having the vision to do so. However examples like the MEST UNICEF Hackathon are far and few between. These organisations need to throw more muscle behind such initiatives and realise that their main goal is to withdraw from the countries they operate in once their mission is over. Their projects are finite.

And then the DFIs who play an important role in supporting existing businesses, like the commercial banks or private equity funds, to push their agenda. Their roles are crucial however access to equity is not the answer to supporting SMEs (there are over 45,000 in Ghana) and providing banks with lines of credit will not work (after all it hasn’t in the past so why should it now?). I urge and plead for these organisations to take risk. And to move, fast. Only when this ecosystem is in place will SME growth follow. And this doesn’t just apply to Ghana, it applies to most countries in developing sub-Saharan Africa.

In the meantime it is up to new initiatives to emerge that can satisfy a large portfolio of SMEs because with if this status quo continues: throwing resources at the current “solutions” expecting different results, then Einstein’s definition of insanity certainly holds true.

A Lesson in Validation.

The past 10 days of my life have been like an Almodovar movie. And yet as I sit here and try and type out my experiences, I am at a loss.

The humour that comes across when I tell the story of bad dates, investor ignorance, a private party with fur and leather clad drag fashionistas and the logistical nightmare of completing my only race this year is lost without the hand gestures and convulsive spitting.

But then again this is with hindsight and not how it felt throughout the process. In the midst of it all was anger and disappointment. In fact, the initial title of this blog was “A Lesson in Disappointment” but that was very much centred around my initial reaction to the events. Sort of like responding too quickly to an angry email; just don’t. Draft it, sleep on it, re-read it, re-write it, send it.

So here I am, not disappointed but feeling validated. A sense of validation that comes from conviction, commitment and experience.

The week began with yet another investor meeting.

Getting the right partners on board for my new venture (a socially aware for-profit lending institution in Ghana) is crucial – it is not just about the money but about strategic relationships. It has been a mixed sell, people love it or hate it, as is to be expected. Private investors look at it from both an economic and social returns perspective, institutional investors want me to tone down the social angle whereas social venture funds/DFIs want me to emphasise on the developmental impact angle.

This investor meeting was something else though. An astute businessman who has invested heavily on the continent, with an intact reputation and a wonderful demeanor, I was excited to get him on board. The meeting did not go as expected as I was summoned for an altogether different reason; to be offered a job at a competitor that was in operational trouble to help turn the venture around.

I left the meeting a little angry, reminding myself of a conversation I had with a friend almost ten years ago where he said that the most important thing in life is to “understand your intellectual responsibility”. I had left a job in London for a reason, to find purpose.

The week continued to build, ending on Sunday, when I competed in my first and only race of the year. A year I have taken off racing to build a new career.

The odds were against me: no training, cold (9 degC to be precise), poor sleep in the lead-up, you name what’s bad for racing and I was guaranteed to have done it. But none of that mattered as I had a decent race in the end and it all came down to experience. It wasn’t a PB swim, it wasn’t a PB bike and it wasn’t a PB run but overall, it was a PB.

As the week came to end an, the doubts that I had with racing after a year-long hiatus, my ability to sell my vision to others and the determination to stick to the path I voluntarily chose has become more clear.

I cannot give up my values and I must remain determined to see through my choices of 2012. Everything that fits around these choices, like training, was been put on pause with very little impact on my long-term aspirations.

A Lesson in Support.

I have spent the early part of this summer speaking at conferences.  I have talked about small businesses, entrepreneurship, being an athlete, non-profits and my general experiences as a Millennial. Most of which goes back to my upbrining as a third-cultire kid.

One of my earlier talks was at my former school to a room full of parents, teachers, students and relocators who help families in transition.

The subject was pretty dull: something about cutting it in today’s job market. Anyway, the topic is almost irrelevant as I inevitably end up talking about my experiences; highlighting the fact that I’ve actually never applied for a job in my life. And now, after almost 10 years in the job market, I’m finally happy with my career path.

What’s the secret? I have been thinking about this a lot recently and I believe it comes down to three things: hard work, experience and support. I will touch on the first two points in other blogs, but today I would like to focus on the incredible support I’ve had throughout my life.

Now support comes in various ways: from family, friends, mentors, colleagues and teachers. I have been in the fortunate position of experiencing this entire spectrum.

As a kid, I dreamt of being an inventor. I would, pre-bath time, mix all the shampoos and soaps in the tub. I wanted to be a scientist, to discover and create new things. Now you can imagine the look in my mother’s face, walking into the bathroom to discover me drenched in goo, toothpaste on the walls, the floor covered in talcum powder. But she always kept her cool. She’d humour me by asking what I was up to, to which my response would be something along the lines of “I am inventing an invisibility potion”. She would ask if it worked and I would say no to which she would calmly give me a bath then put me in the kitchen with a bowl of water and flour and say “invent, these ingredients may work out better.” A few year later, when she visited me at university during my PhD research, she smiled and said “look at you, in your lab coat surrounded by all these test tubes, you’re a scientist”.

My mother realised that my curiosity was the early makings of a scientist. She bought me the chemistry set I wanted for my birthday, despite all the other kids riding bikes, and she encouraged me. A handful of years later, I was graduating with a doctorate degree at the age of 22.

And this support continued throughout my life. From my friend Chris who made sure I was up to speed on all the theory I needed during my research, to my friend Diana who inspired me to run my very first marathon (and look where her support has lead to now!).

Before I go on, I better say that support differs from guidance. I was never told what to do, nor was I given advice or steered towards a certain direction. It was just support, sometimes in the form of encouragement, listening to my ideas and being by my side for when things go right or wrong, and sometimes it was inspiration through action.

My life trajectory all came to a head exactly a year ago when my professional career, the most significant part of my conscious life, went pear-shaped. I woke up one morning early last summer and hit snooze on my alarm. An action I have not done before. This continued for several weeks and then I realised that I was not fulfilled. I was no longer learning at the job and I was not proud about what I did. I had to resign, and take some time out. And this is where support was crucial. I had people telling me that I was crazy and would regret my decision, and I had those that really mattered reach out to me to listen and let me know that they were behind me 100%. Now I do not know where my decision will take me to, but I will blog about that as soon as I can! Anyway, I digress. That talk I gave at my school was about support and how crucial it is at every stage of our lives. And I addressed the audience, I looked around making eye contact (Speech 101), and came across my old Physics teacher, Dr Pawel. Now it was my mom who got me started on my trajectory, nurturing my dreams, but it was Mr Pawel who got me into a good university and inspired me to become a scientist. Transitioning my dream from fantasy to reality. He was patient with his students, passionate about his subject and always made sure that we got it.

And I certainly did get it, thanks to his support. And the support of my family and friends. For that I am forever grateful and lucky. I hope we all play a small part in supporting those that we interact with on a daily basis.

A Lesson in Transition.

For the last few years, I have lived in a blissful community in the UK. Within a five minute radius, I had over ten close friends. We would meet at the local deli, swim at the local pool, cycle through the local park or meet at the local run club. We were neighbours and we were friends. Like a scene out of “And Then There Were None”, this week, one of the remaining few has also voluntarily decided to leave our little haven.

New relationships, job opportunities, lifestyle changes, break-ups; all in pursuit of new beginnings and an effort to find happiness. I should know.

Through this, I am reminded about how transient life has become. From my peers at school to the university towns I lived in, I have faced those changes. Watching the kids of global CEOs and ambassadors stop by and students on scholarships from around the world. Life stages seemed temporary. Today, with budget flights, the acceptance that no jobs are permanent and the rise of the creative class, everything everywhere seems temporary.

I gave a talk last week at my former school. My panel discussed the challenges the new generation will face in the job market; and being a third culture kid. A woman approached me at the end of the talk and said “isn’t it funny how we are all displaced? It is so rare to meet someone now that works where they are from, where they were born and raised”.

So today, one more little Indian has departed. But unlike the friends we made at school, the focus has not been on the hole he will leave behind, but the moments we shared when he was a short walk away. And the new opportunities we have for visiting him at his newly found haven.

Life is transient after all, but as the days go by, and more people search for their purpose, the world shrinks. It becomes more accessible.

A Lesson in Hangovers.

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I am currently incredibly hungover after a pretty excessive night compounded with very little sleep. Why does this matter? Because a year ago, this aftermath would have plunged me into a destructive state. A state of fleeting depression, paranoia and  thoughts of failure. Just as alcohol amplifies any euphoria experienced, its after effects are a lethal opposite.

But today is different. I am not filled with loneliness. I am not filled with a deep void that implies my foundation is not solid. I am, for the first time in a decade, content.

For the past ten years, I have endured my fair share of how tough life can be. Dealt the standard blows that come after breakups, family matters and an unsatisfied career; but also extraordinary life events that shook my core.

Today, I stand stronger than I have ever been. As I mentioned to a friend last night, life always works out in the end. We grow, we break, we heal, we grow again. Today is not a day to ponder about all my mistakes. Today is simply a hangover that will go away after my next beer.

A Lesson in Endurance.

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I’ve been back in Ghana for six weeks now and as I acclimatise to the heat, the work culture and living with my family, I am also trying to piece together the elements of my previous life that I love.

A big part of my life back in England was sport. So I have gotten access to a 25m pool close by, I bike indoors and (when I am feeling brave) with the Ghana Cycling Association. Running has also proven successful, on a track for my interval sessions and around the neighbourhood for endurance. The difference between running and the other two though, is that it is out on full display for everyone to see, and mock.

The heckling I have received include:
1. White, why you sweat so?
2. Obroni*, you no have money for taxi? I go take you for free.
3. Small boy, why you wear pampers?

The list goes on. Non-track running, let alone cycling or swimming (in any form), isn’t very popular in Ghana.

When I first got to Ghana in December, I stopped by the Ministry of Youth & Sports to enquire about the Ghanaian Olympic team. I was directed to the Accra Stadium where I have since met with members of the Ghanaian Athletics, Cycling and Swimming Associations. Being lost with what I wanted to do with my life, one of the avenues I was exploring was sport, so I asked them “what would it take to send 20 athletes to Rio as opposed to the 3 we had in London”. The answer was obvious: more funding.

We set off on a series of emails, I offered to put together an informal fundraising committee of corporates in Ghana and in return asked for numbers. The heads of those associations responded pretty quickly over the course of a month to let me know what they needed. From security costs to flights to equipment to events. But to pitch the document, I needed to speak to the head of the Ghanaian Olympics Committee, a gentleman who overseas all the sports committees in Ghana. And to prepare properly for the pitch, I needed the funding requirements from all the associations. How many are there, you ask? 32. There are 32 associations. Can you even name 32 sports?

Now it has been almost 6 months since we first started corresponding and nothing has happened since my first meeting with the incredible duo (swimming and cycling is covered by one man) who set me up here in Ghana.

I am sure I can launch into a major Moyo-esque rant about government aid, hand-me-downs, colonial repercussions and what have you, but I’m not going to. All I want to say is that my offer came at no cost at all but with the hope that talent (and there lots of it in Ghana) could have been discovered, a positive global PR message could have catalysed (look at Jamaica with Bolt) and a small fragment of poverty for those looking at sports scholarships could have been alleviated.

All because a mis-managed and decentralised 32 associations exist in a country where government funding into sports is under-valued. Where laziness and bureaucracy trumps foresight.

As I finished off my last run for the week, I bumped into the first runner I have seen since I moved back to Ghana. And although he was ethnically black, he wore lycra and a GPS watch (he knew what he was doing). We both grinned at each other, acknowledging the obstacles we have to go through, as Obronis.

I look forward to the day where there are more endurance runners in streets of my neighbourhood. Until then, I rest my hopes on the officials I met, to go beyond their formal duties and support those that are willing to help.

*A formerly derogatory term used to describe a white-person/foreigner as “someone who cannot be trusted”, now a common term for a non-Ghanaian (white or black).

A Lesson in Belonging.

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I just got back to Ghana from the UK and finally have time to reflect back on the last few weeks.

Nothing crystallised the reality of my return to London like the rain hitting the plane as we landed in Heathrow. The door opened and the cold air hit us as we boarded the bus to the terminal.

After getting home, I ignored all the unpacking I needed to do and walked to the station store for my usual staples. I was the only one walking in my direction, the rest of what seemed like an endless sea of bodies, bumping into me, were returning from their daily jobs. It reminded me of a note a friend of mine hung up on our residence at university: “only dead fish go with the flow”.

The first week back was spent catching up with friends and setting up meetings. I won’t tell you what the meetings were about yet, so be patient, but the catching up with friends was a social experiment. I made no calls and did no chasing.

Those that mattered, reached out; it was refreshing. Quality time was spent with those that I cared about and the manic back-to-back social engagements were gone. Life for those few weeks was organic.

Beyond my circle of non-profiteers, academics, entrepreneurs, athletes and third culture kids, it was clear that I had built a bubble for myself. And for the first time in almost 20 years, I felt like a stranger in London all over over again.

Don’t get me wrong, London has always been good to me. It’s through this wonderful city I got the education that I have, met the friends that I love and gained the experience that I need to grow. But as the fog lifts, I am left exposed and alone, longing for Africa, being close to my family, feeling the hot sun against my skin and smelling that musk when the tropical rains fall. That for me is hope, and opportunity, and everything that defines the great continent I call home.

As my trip to London comes to an end and my time becomes more limited, I had to accept an early breakfast next to my old office.

I boarded the District Line into central London at 6:30am. As I rushed to make the closing doors, the train was typically full of the two types of early risers: workers on their way to their construction sites and investment managers. My eyes darted around for a free spot and there he was, my commuter nemesis.

Now l have “known” this person for years. And now, after months of no contact, we meet again. Like an episode out of a spaghetti western, our eyes squint and stare at each other. This person tormented me for years, forcing himself ahead of me as we searched for seats, always walking slightly faster than me along the carriages, picking up the pace as I did, sometimes even elbowing me out of the way to get onto the escalator first, only to stand as I walked past him on the left-hand side.

Not this time. I was in no rush. Not anymore.

As the train arrived at Green Park, he sprinted towards me, determined to get ahead. I didn’t bat an eyelid, I just stood there. So he stopped and he watched, puzzled at my non-standard reaction. I held my newspaper out of the door in a polite “after you” gesture. He got angry, grunted, then stormed ahead.

I smiled. I smiled as I stood on the escalator knowing I did not have to rush, I smiled knowing that I would never have to face him again, I smiled through my meeting and I smiled on my way back home at 9am when I was the only soul walking in the opposite direction against the throng of people on their way to their 9-5 jobs.

So here I am, back in Ghana. Exactly a year after my 30th birthday when this correction began, and how things have changed.

I am not surrounded by 150 people that have flown halfway round the world to party in Beirut. I am not getting an endless sea of texts asking if I am St Tropez-ing it this summer. I am not staring robotically at a computer screen trying to figure out the most efficient structure for a tax-exempt investor. I am alone, stripped down to my basic fundamentals, rebuilding my life one day at a time, surrounded by the friends and family that mean the world to me (both in and out of Ghana).

And those days. Those days that I woke up with my heart rate through the roof and could not fall back asleep. Those days that the red flashing light of my work Blackberry at 3am sent me into a guilt trip. Those days I trained to fill the void and run away from my problems. Those days after an expensive weekend away where I came back to an empty house. Those days I had panic attacks, angry at myself for making the wrong choices.

Those days. I cannot remember the last time I had one of those days.

Articles I Have Read This Week.

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Here they are this week. And two were even written by friends:

1. Business Insider: Google’s Secret to Attracting the World’s Best Talent.

2. Progress Online: A Blueprint For the Future.

3. Business Fights Poverty: Is Small the Best Size for Nutrition?

4. New Yorker: Everyone Interesting is a Felon.

5. NY Times: The Unaffordable Luxury of Food.

A Lesson in Progress.

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3474

Only a handful of people will relate to this number but this was my family’s landline in Kumasi in the 80s. 3474 were the the four numbers you had to memorise before you picked up the receiver and spun that dial.

5805 was the number I called all the time. As the ring tone turned, after the clucking of the numbers, I would nervously play with the cord between my fingers and pray for someone to pick up. “Hello” came the meek voice from the other end. (That was normally the case before caller ID). It was my best friend, we were inseparable and as soon as I spoke, her demeanour would change and we would spend a good chunk of time laughing on the phone.

23474

That extra digit was a scandal. It came unannounced amongst our group of friends and I am sure we resented the adults for not telling us. As kids, we didn’t like change.

It was also near the time I moved to England and my life was turned upside down. New school, new home, new guardians and no friends. Not to mention the cold, it was brutal.

I remember sitting by my window in London and watching the rain slowly collect against the glass. The drops would bunch together until they were heavy enough to drop down the side of the pane and collect on the sill. I would sit close enough that my cheek could feel the cold glass, as I breathed onto it and wrote my old phone number against the glass, always omitting the “2”.

051 23474

As I grew and left for university, so did my home town. Kumasi was getting bigger and the need for connectivity was unavoidable. We now had area codes and ours was 051.

Often I would pick up the phone and start dialling. 00, 233, 234… Shit. Forgot. 00, 233, 51, 23474. And I would wait for someone to pick up. I would wait for a while until an unfamiliar voice would pick up and tell me that everyone was out.

Everyone was out but they had mobiles now so it made it easy to text or call them on the go and that’s what I did, from my student dorm to my parents and friends back home and around the world. And as time went on, we have felt more connected; our mobiles have become an extended part of our lives and act as portals. That promise of “let’s stay in touch” is easier kept.

03220 23474

Last week, I had dinner with two old friends. The first was 5805 and the second was her next door neighbour and a friend we both went to school with. We have known each other for almost 30 years.

Things have changed a lot for all of us. 5805 is a stay at home mom, our friend is now in charge of an international advertising agency in Ghana. Both are married with a child each.

We discussed being kids in the 80s, where our classmates are now and how much Ghana has developed over the years. I am back visiting my family and exploring opportunities and their advice was endless and full of hope. For a moment, things were simple again, like we were frozen in time; like we had never left and returned.

But only for a split second.

As we said our goodbyes and drove off, I smiled. I smiled at the thought of how life, right at this moment, is the simplest it will ever be for us. Life at 03220 23474. This number is the number their kids will grow to love and hate to see change.

But change is good. It is a catalyst for progression and being progressive has many more positive attributes than simple nostalgia.