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An accountant travels to Africa

By Sue Landreville

In the past, accountants rarely got to travel as part of the job. Instead, we always seemed to work in cramped dark offices, counting beans just like in the cartoons. But a series of accounting scandals changed that. Funders started demanding greater financial accountability, particularly for international projects. So all of a sudden the bean counters could travel!

My first three assignments were in Africa and it was a bit of a culture shock because I had never travelled internationally before. The first trip was to Zambia to help an NGO prepare for an audit. It was a difficult task for the work load was crazy. The poor clerk who was assigned to help me kept asking if he could go into the other room for a little rest. I started to think that maybe doing two years of work in a couple of weeks was not the best approach.

That first trip affected me a lot. I stopped in London on the way home and watched people go up and down the escalators in the underground just like ants in an ant colony. And I saw all those luxurious buildings and automobiles and thought, “My god, I’m not sure we’ve got this right.”

When I got home I went to see my eye doctor and people there were complaining about having to wait for their appointment. And I spoke up, which I have never done before, and said: “You know, I am happy to sit here waiting because I know that when I get beyond that door there will be a doctor. I just came back from Africa where a woman with pregnancy complications was being taken by ox and cart but to where? There was no doctor, no midwife, no medicine. So I am okay with this wait.”

My next assignment was in Malawi where I provided financial training to public health personnel. I spent most of my time in Mzuzu, a small picturesque town in the mountains where living conditions were rather basic. There was one surreal moment when my son was emailing me from the other side of the world and there I was sitting in an office with a dirt floor, a desk and a chair and not much else. The previous day I had been working in a community that had no access to running water. I came back to Canada from Malawi so moved by the people working  there that I thought the world was a great place because there are people who really care.

Mozambique was my third assignment and I spent it in the capital Maputu with its European-inspired architecture, Russian-built high rises, overflowing garbage dumpsters and armed security guards along the street. My students spoke Portuguese so the training was delivered through a translator (who ended up being my best student). Financial training is challenging at the best of times and I suspect some of my lessons were “lost in translation”. Still, the training was well received and on the last day participants put on a luncheon for us, bringing in food from home they had made themselves. Before we ate they sang and clapped. It was festive and very moving.

I couldn’t get over the contrasts in Africa. When I was staying in a place with mostly white tourists the conditions would be better than at home.  On weekends I visited Victoria Falls and cruised down rivers past hippos and crocodiles. I went to Kruger National Park for a safari. Our tour guide, who was rather crusty, kept telling us not to expect a ‘National Geographic Special’ and just as we were wondering if we’d wasted our money things started to pick up. A lion appeared and then another. Then a herd of zebras passed in front of us, heading right towards the lions. A bird squawked, a zebra raised its head, the herd bolted, the lions did not follow. So we missed the National Geographic moment and I was glad.

It’s interesting how life works out. When I was at university I considered joining the Peace Corps or a similar organization but thought my accounting skills would not be useful. Who would have guessed that when I was 55 years old these skills would be a valuable travel asset! Perhaps I should just be thankful for all those accounting scandals.

Photo credits Sue Landreville

© Riding the buses 2011

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