Articles I have Read this Week.

OK so one of these links is an episode and one is a study. Fun nonetheless:

1. NY Times: Dating Made Easy (All Too Easy).

2. Guardian: African Diaspora Returns “Home” to Claim Its Place at the Top of the Pile.

3. Mastercard: Study Reveals Reveals African Cities Economic Growth Potential.

4. Al Jazeera: Tutu’s Children.

5. Harvard Business Review: Social Impact Investing Will be the New Venture Capital.

 

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A Lesson in Identity.

“I’m Tarek Mouganie, I’m fourth generation Ghanaian, ethnically Lebanese – I have Orthodox/Catholic parents – but I have been living in the UK for 18 years. Yes, I have three nationalities”.

Not quite a staycation but my family decided to take a trip to spend quality time together. We picked a little eco resort close to the Ivory Coast boarder of Ghana next to a town called Axim; I joined them a day after they left by taking a 20 minute internal flight to Takoradi where I was picked up by my brothers.

Upon arrival, I made the short 5 meter walk from the plane to pick up my bag and exit the airport. I flashed my ID to the immigration officer and he waved me through. “Wait. Stop!” Someone yelled from the back of the office. Here we go.

“Where are you from?”. It took a while for me to realise, amongst all the eyes staring at me, who was speaking to me. It was the head of immigration. “Ghana”, I responded irritatingly. My usual spiel was useless. Everything I said to him was thrown back at me. I am not black and he has never heard of a Ghanaian person with the surname “Mouganie”.

So I waited in the air-conditioned room as he investigated.

As I waited, I got angrier and angrier. I got angry at not being able to answer a simple question. I got angry at the ignorance of being accepted as a British citizen with black skin and not as a Ghanaian citizen with white skin. I got angry for not fitting in. Not fitting in here in Ghana or in Lebanon or in Britain.

My brothers entered and started chatting to the immigration officers. They spoke in Twi, a local language, and argued with them extensively. After a flurry of exchanges and aggressive gesticulating, smiles broke out. My brothers were in their element as, unlike me, they moved back to Ghana after university and this was now their home.

The ordeal was over after a couple of hours as I had a scanned copy of my passport emailed to me. Soon enough, we were driving to the beach to have lunch with our parents.

My anger subsided and I began to think about being a third culture kid. England suits my socially liberal side, Ghana will always be my childhood home, a place I can come to to decompress and regroup. And Lebanon will always give me hope. Hope passed onto me by my parents, a sense of nostalgia, visiting a land that I know the least amongst my nationalities yet speak the language, eat the food, know its culture and idiosyncrasies.

I guess I have no home and for that, I should be grateful. Because everywhere I seem to land, has a smattering of home. I am the luckiest man alive.

A Lesson in Car Maintenance.

I spent Thursday driving across Ghana with a Reverend to a town called Ho. Steve ran an NGO before my dad discovered that he was a beekeeper back in his native Australia for 30 years.

My dad started a honey project with Steve by building the bee hives in his factory. Steve began by taking the hives up north, a 7-hour drive from Accra, and planting them around the open forests. Within two weeks, they were in business. Soon Steve setup a local organisation to train bee keepers and only two years later, they have a cooperative with over 1,500 individuals that run small honey producing businesses.

In November 2012, my dad was approached by a government official that represents the national rain forests in Ghana (my dad works in plantation timber). They were interested in promoting pollination and what better way to do this than with bees.

So, Steve and I drove for 5 hours to Ho. With ten empty beehives at the back of the van and an appointment with the local representative of the Wildlife Division of Forestry. After our brief meeting and being escorted into the forest, we spent a good 3 hours working under the African sun. We were stung by insects, scratched by thorns and our wounds burnt from the pouring sweat that constantly dripped down our bodies. The hives were laid out and it was time to return to Accra, we got up at 4am that morning and it was now 2pm.

About 30km into our ride, our van broke down. With a village in sight ahead, we pushed along for a while struggling with the possibility of it overheating and switching off for good. Luckily it didn’t and there I was with Steve, about an hour later, with a “fitta”*.

Our fan belt had gone so we all pitched in to replace it with the spare we found in the boot. Steve and the mechanic hung below the van which was now jacked up, and I fed the belt through the bonnet. It took us an embarrassingly long amount of time to figure out that the belt was not the right size. On top of our bites, wounds and sweat, we were now covered in grease. Time to give up.

I wish I could say this story ends in an awesome adventure but I chickened out and called for backup, within a few hours we would be rescued by a large air-conditioned car on its way from Accra. Steve and I looked at each other, we hadn’t eaten anything all day so we went into the village in search of food.

There was nothing. It was late and everything was either shut or had run out for the day. So we did the only thing we could, we got drunk and talked.

Steve met his wife whilst working in a hotel where missionaries proselytised and converted him, much to the scepticism of his family. He embraced his faith which took him across the globe to live in Japan, Korea, Siberia and Liberia, all along forging new careers and raising small funds to support his family and take him on a new adventure. He was now in Ghana with eleven kids and little source of income (his only asset just broke down).

“I don’t have any regrets”.

Steve is very proud about what he has accomplished in his life and, at the age of 50, has decided to pursue a new path altogether. He wasn’t sure if it was going to work out but he had faith. Faith and the knowledge he had done it several times before.

Our car had arrived and by sundown I was back home with my family. Within a few days, Steve was reunited with his car and on the road again.

Beehives at the factory, Accra.

Beehives at the factory, Accra.

Wildlife Division of Foresty, Volta Region

Wildlife Division of Foresty, Volta Region

Steve, hard at work in the rain forest.

Steve, hard at work in the rain forest.

Bee hives all setup and ready.

Bee hives all setup and ready.

Our trusted steed in pieces.

Our trusted steed in pieces.

Kids in Ho keeping us entertained whilst we drank.

Kids in Ho keeping us entertained.

*Ghanaian slang for Mechanic.

Articles I have Read this Week.

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Some are high brow, some are irreverent, all are short. Enjoy!

1. NY Times: Friend Without Benefits.

2. Business Insider: Why You Probably Won’t Become Who You Expect to Be in the Future.

3. The Scientist: Can Epigenetics Explain Homosexuality?

4. The New York Review of Books: Joy.

5. NY Times: Here’s What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.

A Lesson from an Emerging Market

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Given my decision to spend more time with my family in Ghana, I have to do the usual things one does when they try and establish themselves in a new country. You know, join a gym, figure out the best places to eat, get a drivers licence, acquaint yourself with the traffic code. The usual practical stuff. Well, a few days after I arrived, it was time for me to get a local mobile number.

Driving back from the gym, I stopped at a local Vodafone store to pick up a Blackberry and top-up my account. For those who haven’t been to Ghana before, or perhaps anywhere in West Africa, walking into a Vodafone store is like being transported back to the UK. Pristine counter tops, cool climate and formal service.

“Hi, may I help you?”, came the friendly remark from a staff member. “Yes please, I’d like to buy a Blackberry, could you show me what you have?”. It took her about 30 minutes to find the right person because they had just one expert on Blackberries. After a 5 minute consultation, where I was asked very specific (and pointless) questions about data plans, he gave me some options. After mentioning I was not interested in a contract, I had a number and just wanted a phone, he felt betrayed. His formal training clearly did not work out for him! So he then gave me a catalogue with all my options, after picking the one I wanted, he then referred me to a third person. Yet another person I had to go through my entire story all over again. An hour into my visit, I was ready to pay. But if only things were that simple. A fraction of a second before my transaction was complete I was informed that my phone was locked to Vodafone (I have an MTN sim, a competitor). “What’s the reason? I am buying the phone outright”. Apparently, protocol from HQ.

I left angrily and popped next door to the MTN office.

MTN were out of stock but the shop assistant wasn’t phased. “No problem, please wait for me”, he came back with the one I wanted, from his friends down the road (he promised to give one back from another one of his branches). I sheepishly asked if they took card, but they didn’t. “No problem, come with me”. He locked the shop door and walked me to an ATM.

I left the shop 15 minutes after I arrived, with a connected phone (he helped me set it up) and a smile on my face.

Now, I am sure there is some sophisticated and eloquent way to say this, but that’s not what I am known for. When did the West lose their thirst for commerce and become so enslaved by processes?

I feel like every shop I enter in the west, every government official I speak to, union, non-profit, NGO, association and committee is built around a series of “Nos”. No, we don’t do things that way. No, that is not possible. No, that person has left and no one else knows how to do it here. No, our hours of operation are over. Well Vodafone, that doesn’t work in Africa!

When did we limit ourselves to a set of rules? What happened to being commercially astute and helpful to one another? How are we to know a decision is wrong unless we make it (quickly) and realise sooner rather than later?

The same applies to our governments. I guess a lesson can be learnt in the West, to be faster and more nimble when it comes to making decisions. Procrastinating over banks’ capital regulation, tax brackets, subsidies, government debt limits, the fiscal cliff etc. Emerging markets, I guess, are used to shocks and changes (coups, natural disasters, you name it). As a result decisions are made more quickly and efficiently.

Rant over. I look forward to exploring opportunities here in Ghana.

A Lesson in Failure.

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It’s now 2013. A new year and a new start for us all. A year ago, I thought things would have been very different now; I was setting up a new company, lauded as London’s hottest financial start-up, I was on track to beat my triathlon racing times and, most importantly, I was in love. It’s now 2013. I am unemployed, barely managed to finish my Ironman race in November and single.

For those that do not know me well, I have had a pretty privileged life. I grew up in sub-saharan Africa, went to a school that barely had electricity but I was blessed with incredible parents. I ended up in England where I studied and finished my PhD at the age of 21. From then on, everything I touched turned to gold. I landed a role in one of the best financial institutions in the world, learnt how to swim and bike in 2009 and completed my first Ironman (competitively) in 2010. My success was on an upward trajectory and now, for the first time in my life, I am at a sharp correction.

I guess things began to fall apart after my 30th birthday in Beirut. My upbringing was very much centered around ability. Study hard and you will achieve, eat well and you will grow up tall and strong, treat people kindly and it will eventually come back to you. Sadly, I did all these things. I studied hard, but not smart, I ate well, but not for my soul, I treated people with respect but forgot to listen to myself.

When I returned to London, I wanted to be surrounded by people I cared about and respected. For the choices they made in their life and for the support they provided me throughout mine. I started a small experiment. Firstly, I cut contact with pretty much everyone, and then I waited. I waited for people to reach out to me, I waited for support. Secondly, to those that listened; those that paid attention and followed up. Finally, to those that were warm; those that opened their homes, and their friendship as I had always done.

To begin with, things took a turn for the worse. By the end of July, I had sunk into a deep depression. For a few weeks I could not get out of bed. I could not fall asleep, nor could I move. Everything tasted the same. Each morning, my alarm would go off and the thought of going to work was unbearable. I felt a noose around my neck, slowly tightening like a cable tie with every movement. Clicking and not letting go.

This post is mainly about me and my choices. So I shall leave a lot of the references out as they are unimportant. But someone dear to me during this difficult period reminded me of something: you cannot choose your family, you cannot choose who you fall in love with, but you can choose your job.

I resigned immediately.

When I think back to the options I had as a student, I chose the path of least resistance. An engineer earns more than an artist; a Doctor will find a job easier than a Masters student. Wise words. Actually, honest words, practical words, rational words, logical words, but not wise words. I followed them nonetheless, did what I had to do and, through a series of fortunate events, found myself at the top of the finance world in London.

Where did I end up? Feeling unfulfilled with the choices I made and torn between what I believe are my core values and my loyalty towards those I worked with. So what do I believe in? A sense of belonging, a sense of direction and a sense of impact. Knowing the actions I take leave a footprint that is worth leaving.

I slowly dug myself out. The people that mattered reached out to me, my family were by my side and my goals changed.

The last point is probably the most relevant. I remembered the times I was proud to finish a race, without the pressure of an excellent time. I remembered the reasons I joined finance; not for the money but for the experience and to build my contacts and commercial acumen. I looked closely at the reasons why I surrounded myself with the people I did and raised the bar, this did not just apply to friends, but colleagues and love too.

I am not sure where I stand now. All I know is that I am scared. Scared of starting all over again and scared of failure. However, what I am hoping is that the decisions I make in my life from now on will make me proud. This year, I will have impossible goals and dreams and I will aim higher than ever. Because if I fail then, it would still be worthwhile.

It’s only Triathlon.

This is my last blog about triathlon for a while.

2012 has been a tough season. It began with a 70.3 PB in Mallorca, continued with an enlightening race in the Alpe d’Huez, followed by cancelled races in Vichy and Provence and ended with Ironman Cozumel in November. I shall blog the reason behind the missing two races soon, but this “farewell” is a soft race report around Cozumel.

In the lead up to Ironman, thing weren’t going according to plan. The race in France took a lot out of me (I unpacked my bike in November!), and a few weeks break was needed. Then, as a total rookie, I went back into training for the Ironman, hard.

My first long ride was on my TT bike (despite not having been on it since May), I ran intervals, increased my training load and introduced a medium-long ride during the week. What a mistake.

During a long endurance run around Richmond Park, I felt a shooting pain down my thigh. I stopped, stretched to shake it off, then continued. The pain didn’t go away, it just built, it built to the point where merely lifting my leg off the ground hurt. So I stopped and hobbled for 40 minutes back home, luckily being rescued by a dear friend a neighbour.

Several weeks of physiotherapy eventually resolved the problem (root nerve in my lower back was referring pain down my leg), including getting my bike Retul fitted and 3×15 minutes of stretching everyday.

Matter somewhat resolved, I now had 5 weeks to go before the big day. With a 3 week taper, that didn’t leave me much time to peak train, let alone build up to it (my longest ride and run were 100km and 20km respectively until that point). So my coach and I sat down and devised a plan – I would go out to Mexico and participate. Participate without the expectations I had earlier in the year but gain experience and complete my third Ironman, my first in flat/windy conditions.

Without going on for too long, I did race, I had a decent swim, the start of a decent bike ride until my ankle gave in, which slowed me down (could not push a big gear into the wind) and made my run a living hell.

It was my slowest Ironman to date. Do I regret racing? Never. I proved the swim tactics I adopted at Ironman Lake Placid were not a fluke, I really enjoyed the bike ride (the part I dread the most) and despite the run being my strong suit (and almost finishing with a miserable 5 hour marathon), I still completed.

So, what’s the lesson here? I guess it is about expectations. You cannot predict what happens when racing, your goals can be set at the beginning of the season but things change. All I do know is that I am more mature than I was last year. My race in St Croix (which I never blogged about, it’s like my Voldemort), was a disaster. I had a complete melt-down post-race and shocked myself given how I reacted.

This season has been different. We all have bad races, and both Cozumel and the Alpe d’Huez proved that. What we do learn though is making the most out of the situation, we learn that every single expectation we have, every single piece of pressure we feel, has been put on by ourselves. We are triathletes out of choice, not necessity.

I am not sure what 2013 will bring. I will continue to race (don’t think I will ever give up on triathlon and endurance sports), but I will race with a different mindset. A mindset that understands that this race is about me and about my expectations. It’s about what I am looking to achieve from this sport, about what I am willing to put in, what I am willing to sacrifice, what I am willing to plan.

Because after all, it’s only triathlon.

All I Want for Christmas.

When I was a young boy, my school in Ghana hosted an art competition. It was school-wide and centred around the theme of our planet and what we can do to save it – from portraying the horrors of deforestation to animal poaching.

The hot topic back then was the massive hole that was discovered in our ozone layer, so that’s what I focused my drawing on. I drew aggressive rays coming down on us, grotesquely deformed humans from the mutations that would ensue, arid land, three eyed fish, the works. Okay, it may not have been scientifically accurate but I was 9, humour me.

Some of you probably know that twenty odd years ago, the hole in the ozone layer was the hot topic. You’ll remember being told that it was growing by the second, that CFCs from your fridges, hair sprays and other gas canisters were what caused it. You’ll remember protesting at school (like I did) or helping design labels for new products that said “CFC Free”. Whatever you were doing, you could not escape the noise and buzz around this important subject.

It’s been a couple of decades since and the hole in the ozone layer is not at the forefront of our minds anymore. So, what’s happened since? Well, the hole is almost sealed. Okay, not quite sealed but almost. It’s projected to completely close over in the next decade or so. As with every problem in life, there is a solution. The subject of the ozone depended on a number of catalysts.

Firstly, it was a problem that affected everyone – from those in their ivory towers on the upper east side of Manhattan to single mothers holding three jobs and living on the breadline.

Secondly, the movement needed a voice. Millions of kids around the world, parents (like mine that encouraged me), professionals and non-professionals alike. There was momentum that ensured everyone knew that they were affected.

And finally, there was pressure. Pressure from the people I mentioned and pressure from the governments. The pressure was on the producers of those dangerous CFCs to innovate and to stop producing. What most people were not aware of was that the patents of the CFC technology were up – so not only was there all this pressure, there was also no fiscal incentive for the two large players in the market to continue; soon the competition would be through the roof. So, largely for PR purposes (I’m being cynical here), they helped solve the mess they got us into in the first place.

Why does this all matter? Well, I feel proud. Proud I helped make a difference as a kid, just like those people that protested on the streets of Washington and caused the US to withdraw from Vietnam. Proud to have a voice and know that I can be a part of something bigger. To have a cause, direction and a result. To have purpose.

So all I want for Christmas is your help. To inspire the future generation, to let them know that they can make a difference.

Support Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program in the UK where 1,000,000 children are signed up (www.janegoodall.org.uk), or Arms Around the Child to help kids that have been affected/infected by HIV by giving them hope and integrating them back into society (www.armsaroundthechild.org).