A common joke among Ex-Pats in Kisangani is:
Question: “What’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?”
Answer: “Two weeks.”
It doesn’t take long in Kisangani before you realize how unbelievably difficult it is to find a competent employee. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I’ve only met one single Congolese person who possesses the combination of traits needed for that title: intelligent, skilled, a strong work ethic, honest, a high quality of work, and follow through with any promise. This man was an electrician named Viki. I’m not his only source of praise either. As soon as my boss, Beau, met him he was so blown away that, like me, he’s been recommending him all around to others.
Sadly, Viki is not the norm. The norm is our previous group of electricians who used a hodgepodge of exposed wires with no apparent system to jerry rig the house, allowing it to function for a few hours at a time before something blew. They would show up one day and say they’ll come back with parts and then vanish for weeks at a time. They would ask for money after not completing anything. And they could never get to the source of any problems. The electricians before this group were the exact same.
Now, when it comes down to economics, an electrician like Viki will receive praise from us and end up being recommended to all other Ex-Pat workers in the city. Usually all I need to do is recount a simple story and I’ve sold him to whomever I’m talking to:
“One night when we were still in the middle of rewiring the house Viki realized that the neighbors were stealing our power from the main line. He went over there to look at it and decided that the State Power Company (SNEL) needed to come and replace the main line and bury it much deeper. He told me that he would have the SNEL guy come out the next day at lunch time. The next day, at lunchtime no less, Viki arrived along with a guy from SNEL. They examined the line and decided they would come to replace it on Saturday. On Saturday, Viki came with the men from SNEL and replaced the line.”
Now, if you lived in the DRC and heard that a simple electrician could get a SNEL worker out to your house in a short period of time, well, let’s just say that you’d want to see that for yourself because pigs must have started to fly somewhere.
But when your best and most competent employee continues to make the exact same mistake on relatively simple everyday tasks, the level of frustration grows higher and higher in the Ex-Pat. Even when an employee does something correct 10 times in a row, you will be shocked when he or she inexplicably goes back to the old incorrect method one day and casually explains that it’d slipped his or her mind. The Ex-Pats will regularly complain that the need for babysitting a task exists at all levels from management down to the lowest laborer.
In a world of bad service, Viki stands out and has finally been noticed and will be rewarded. But the fact that the majority continues to cause the frustration levels to grow in the Ex-Pat community means that they are going to be discounted as worthless by many of the Project Managers who have to power to offer them lucrative employment. And it’s going to continue a culture of racism which is more predicated on lack of service and good work than on the basis of color of skin (not to say that there aren’t the other kind as well).
I do my best to give everyone who we work with a fair chance. I also find myself working hard to keep my frustration level down when our Engineer continuously fails to follow through with what we planned the previous day.
It’s funny, but, I might have been less frustrated before meeting Viki simply because I didn’t know that there were Vikis out there in Kisangani to be discovered.