I am heading back to Tanzania this summer to help small businesses.
I was going through my trip photos and it reminded me of some great characters. Let me introduce you to my colleagues, the “medicine men” of Pete Village, Zanzibar. Does your ear hurt, or your soul ache? Are you looking for a good harvest or to find true love? The doctors are in and open for business. In East Africa, medicine men are known by many names . . . herbal specialists, traditional healers and yes, even witch doctors. Regardless of the name, all are known for using traditional herbs and spices for healing rather than Western medicine.
The Zanzibar Archipelago (Spice Islands) off the coast of Tanzania has a rich history in spice agriculture. Popular products like oregano, cinnamon, and cloves – the latter two grown for commercial export are often prescribed as part of the natural healing traditions. The local medicine man and even a plantation farmer would often remedy stomach complaints with a thick paste made from boiling these herbs together. From personal experience, I think this particular mixture works.
In one case, some visiting friends arrived at the island from the mainland complaining of weakness and severe nausea and were too ill to even leave their beds. Luckily, I was directed to a local spice farm to obtain these healing herbs in their truest form. As we boiled them down, we lost power for the electric stove, so thinking quickly, we brought the chunky mixture in a blender to their hotel. The hotel had a backup generator so we were able to blend the concoction into a mud paste. The guests took these mud “shots” several times over the next 24 hours and received plenty of rest. Miraculously, they were up and ready to start exploring the island the next day.
In a second case when I returned to the U.S., my husband complained of an upset stomach after international travel, I tried to recreate the remedy using store bought ingredients. He absolutely hated the taste but we claimed success even with his sensitive stomach, and he, too, was up and around quickly. I was quite surprised when I looked up the suggested restorative properties of these natural herbs. But herbs are not the only tools of the medicine man.
The most mysterious role of the medicine man is to cast spells or treat ailments by using witchcraft. However, this mysterious practice is more common than you might think. In the rural areas of Zanzibar, the more successful small businesses often work with groups of local advisers – teams made up of village elders, development workers and (secretly) the local medicine men to help them ward off the “hexes” of jealous competitors. Swahili culture includes a complex set of values that often times seems contradictory to the outsider, yet acknowledges a sort of natural order to this magical chaos.
As a small business consultant, I ran into a lot of unusual challenges when advising businesses on the island, especially, the more successful ones. These more ambitious village entrepreneurs were convinced that their less-motivated co-op partners became jealous. In retaliation, the less successful partners spread rumors that their counterparts sold inferior products or cheated customers. If a small business owner really started to make money, the jealousy turned spiteful, then the local medicine man might be asked to put a hex on the rival entrepreneur. From that moment, no one would buy from the hexed person.
The first time I heard this kind of story, the entrepreneur looked me in the eye and said: “Dr. Erin, what should I do?” Jaw agape, trying to collect my thoughts, my response was something like, “Uh…I help a lot of small businesses but this a new one for me. Perhaps you could sell elsewhere or change the way the business is set up.” I really didn’t have a proper answer.
But as I heard this kind of story time and time again, I started thinking maybe it’s not about creating a social venture with large numbers; it’s really about helping determined entrepreneurs. In turn, those entrepreneurs would hire community members to work at a livable wage. This business model might be more sustainable and generate more revenue than a co-op, diffuse gossip, and allow more people to get involved at their real level of interest.
This year, one of my goals as a “business doctor” is to learn more about the medicine men – to understand their advising roles, discuss their business ideas and see how they can better support village entrepreneurs. Perhaps a little business magic couldn’t hurt.
It’s quite fascinating to see how medicinal herbs and spices have influenced Swahili culture. If you are interested in a spice tour, cultural excursion to visit the medicine men of Pete Village, a beach vacation or safari on mainland Tanzania, please contact Sarah Haule, owner of Marimba Cultural Tours based in Zanzibar, East Africa. firstname.lastname@example.org or +255 786127128.
I figured this meant that being on time was about allowing for a more flexible schedule because I was in a hot weather climate (and in the afternoon a slower pace is needed to protect against the heat) or there was more of a cultural focus on relationships (developing relationships requires time to establish trust and experiences to bond). Both are probably true but in Swahili culture there is a different way to view time.
Swahili time starts at sunrise and ends at sunset in a 12-hour block and then is repeated at night. Tanzania is close to the equator and the sun rises and sets around 6:00 about the same time every day. Saa moja asubuhi means “hour one morning” or rather 7:00 a.m. I learned to be very clear when booking village appointments, and to ask, if this meant on Swahili time. So my understanding of 4:00 p.m. translates to 10:00 a.m. Swahili time and 6:00 p.m. is Swahili noon. Many coastal villages still follow the Swahili sunrise to sunset schedule.
When I first started my small business research, I asked village micro-entrepreneurs about how they measured business growth and profit. I learned quickly this did not translate well. Basic business concepts were not taught in school and the Swahili culture is less about long term planning. The local fishermen measured business success by the number of fish caught in a day. I realized I had to change my interview questions to more about basic needs and immediacy. For instance, how many more bags of rice or food does your business bring into the household per month? What do you spend the extra money on?
Many times entrepreneurs were organized into co-operatives. So when requesting interviews with business leaders the entire co-op wanted to be present or all members interviewed. Everyone in the group needed to feel important and included. This became tricky when interviewing a group of 40 people. Sometimes they would all chat at once and at other times there might be competing factions among the group. In these situations, I would sift through the conversations listening for key business people and direct questions to them. This could at times take several hours.
Asking about household income is always a sensitive topic no matter what the culture. This is compounded when up to one-third of the men in Tanzania have more than one wife. This is a normal part of the local culture and religious beliefs. In these situations income inquiries became complicated and the answers convoluted. So it was important to get a clear picture of the number of households, co-wives, children and extended family members involved in income generation. Asking politely about the number of sister-wives helped immensely. I learned this tip from a colleague in the field.
Developing interview questions and procedures based on definitions of micro-enterprises in the U.S. was one thing. It was quite another process to interview an entire village co-op while sitting on the ground barefoot with a translator in the African bush. I learned real-time, and the hard way about the challenges that can occur with interview protocols across cultures, religions, languages and group dynamics.
Food is fresh on Zanzibar. Villagers go to the outdoor fish market to buy octopus or the catch-of-the-day. Fishermen bring in their selection to display proudly and haggle with prospects over price, quantity and size. Retailers offer red onions, bell peppers and tomatoes grown in their own Shamba (food garden) to be mixed with rice or added to salad. The local neighborhood markets are a buzz several times a day.
To prepare the evening meal, firewood or charcoal is collected or purchased. These resources are limited and Zanzibar is running out of trees and charcoal is made from burning trash. This creates a heavy, acrid smoke. People often have sinus conditions from the smog in the air. Water is fetched from the local well sometimes an hour walk away. The fire is lit in the house, the fish is smoked or fried, and kitchen work is done on the floor. Sometimes a little stool is used in a squat position for shredding coconut and chopping vegetables. Dinner sometimes can take several hours to prepare.
The men return from work and children come home after school. Prayers are said at dusk and families sit together on a floor mat to eat. At night women tend to children, gossip on door stoops, and men congregate at local kiosks to sip Chai tea and discuss events of the day. Most cannot afford electricity so without power bedtime often occurs around 9pm. They live on $3 to $4 a day and have few basic necessities but they are still relatively happy and do not go hungry.
I met several African artists on Zanzibar each with a different story to tell. There are painters, sketch artists, and even one who creates post cards from natural fiber paper. Some work in small studios in Stone Town producing colorful animal paintings for tourists; others specialize in reproductions of old buildings, ruins and beaches. It is difficult to be a successful artist on Zanzibar but here are some extraordinary examples.
John Da Silva, famous artist has made it his mission to save old Zanzibar buildings. He draws, sketches and gives lectures on the architectural history of Zanzibar and collects old post cards of Stone Town. He spends hours trying to archive these works for museums and future generations along with displaying his drawings of buildings from a time that no longer exists. John is an artist who has become an historian. At seventy he is a force to be reckoned with and he tells a great story.
Hamad Mbarouk Hamad runs the Cultural Arts Center in Stone Town. He paints, designs tee shirts, has a retail shop and supports the local art community. He gives drawing lessons and showcases young artists. He is proficient in many artistic mediums but prefers painting old doors. In Arab culture, front doors were quite ornate and made of heavy wood, embellished with medal studs and unique designs to represent the wealth of a family. There are historical tours in Stone Town that feature the more elaborate family doors. Hamad is an artist who has learned to be an entrepreneur by necessity.
This is my last blog post from in country. My Fulbright experience is ongoing but classes start up in the US next week. I have learned a lot about Tanzania, Swahili culture and doing business on Zanzibar. The people are what make this place special. I hope the small business owners I have worked with challenge the *status quo*. I will check in on them from time to time, give updates, and continue to tell their stories. What has been learned from people like John and Hamad becomes best practice models for future generations. The take away – what it means to be a successful small business owner in Africa. Kwa heri!!! (Goodbye in Swahili)