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Zambia is one of those places I didn’t expect to visit anytime soon.

So far away from Ghana I knew little about it except for the famed Victoria Falls, or Mosi o Tunya, the smoke that thunders, as locals call it. But even the view of the falls is rumored to better on the Zimbabwean side. When the opportunity came, however, I jumped on it, driven by the excitement of experiencing a new country so far away from my West African neighborhood.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Zambia is so amazing I’m surprised I hadn’t heard much of it before. That in many ways is the story of this continent: a great land sparingly understood and a story barely half told.

The most amazing part about Zambia is the people. Most travelers will find Africans across the continent friendly, but there is a marked difference between tourist hospitality and genuine welcome, between smiles and truly tangible warmth. The Zambian people I met embodied the latter, and showed that East and Southern African people are not all as reclusive as their reputation suggests.


I spent about a week in Zambia, mostly in Lusaka, but I travelled to the north western border going through Ndola, Zambia’s copper mining capital and staying in Chililabombwe, a small town a few miles from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It took nine hours by bus, but the road was good. It became greener and denser the farther up north we went, which left me a bit disoriented (in West Africa, it’s generally the opposite; it’s drier and more desert like as you head north), but also excited. Images and stories of Congolese tropical rainforests so dense they appeared untouched since the Carboniferous period, inhabited by pigmies and rare chimpanzees and teeming with life, flooded my mind. The landscape in Zambia isn’t quite like this – not with all the copper mines – but certainly hinted at what it must have been like before.

I went as far south as the Zimbabwe border, to that well preserved, charming town named after one of the few pre colonial Englishmen

Africans still love – for good reason — David Livingstone. Livingstone fought and campaigned to end the slave trade and was the first European to see the falls, which he named after the queen. By the time I left Zambia, I’d seen a good swath of its sparsely populated western half.

In Lusaka, I went to dinner at one of the many malls in town called Arcades, which looked like the kind you see off the highway in New Jersey. Zambians seem to like shopping American style because I saw about four such malls. It was a Wednesday night and it was packed with young people even after it had rained. The service was great, the waitress was hitting on me and she suggested she would show me

mall in Lusaka

around town after work. Of course I tipped her well; great service is something you won’t usually get in Ghana. After dinner, I went to sit in the lounge area. Two women sat to my left. They were beautiful, just like many of the Zambian women I had already seen. It said much that Africa’s most beautiful aren’t just Ethiopians, Senegalese and Cape Verdeans.

I couldn’t figure out how to talk to them though, until I realized I couldn’t figure out how to load up airtime on my Zambian number. Soon, they were telling me about the city and things to do. They said they were flight attendants, and I didn’t readily believe them. They looked it but saying you’re a flight attendant sounds a great line if you’re hanging out in a lounge and talking to a stranger with an American accent. They had been temporarily laid off because Zambezi airlines, an airline operating in Zambia, had been grounded by the government for faulty planes. They were thinking of going back to school or getting another job. I nodded away.

Four guys joined us eventually. They had been sitting at the other end of the lounge. “Dude, we were wondering why it took you so long to talk to these girls,” one of them said to me. I cracked up. They knew the girls from school and confirmed their story. My cynicism thawed, but the guys advised me it hadn’t entirely been misplaced; not every good looking lady is a flight attendant. Soon there were ten of us, raising glasses – to what I can’t remember– like old friends from high school. They took me to a couple more spots around the mall. I got back to the hotel, located on a quiet, tree lined part of town – Rose Park I hear it’s called — around 1.30am Thursday morning. In this city, it was easy to forget I was a stranger.

That night set the tone for the rest of my time in Zambia. Everywhere I went it was easy to make friends. People just cared about showing you a good time in a country they’re proud of. The warmth Ghanaians tend to be known for was rich here. I often felt Zambians were similar to Ghanaians. Maybe it’s because they watch a lot of Ghanaian (and Nigerian) movies; most people readily recognized my first name. One lady nicknamed Kwasi Johnson, after a character she’d seen in a movie. Maybe it’s because I felt so at home.


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Civil society Borderless advocacy leading to lower transport costs

Sunday, March 6 2011
By Kwasi Osei Kusi

About six months ago, tomato traders in Togo bitterly lamented paying almost $200 in bribes as trucks hauled the produce from the north of the country to Lome, the capital. Bribes have not disappeared, but the traders are crediting the Borderless advocacy campaign implemented by civil society in the country for making serious inroads on the problem.

Civil society in Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Togo are partners to Borderless.
Civil society in Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Togo are partners to Borderless.

“We used to pay (about $200) in bribes to get tomatoes from Dapaong (northern Togo) to Lome, but now we’re only paying about $60,” said the head of women’s tomato traders syndicate in Togo.
For the traders, this means lower costs and fewer delays to convey goods from farm to market. They can buy more tomatoes as a result, meaning more income for farmers. And they lose significantly less produce to spoilage as the trucks travel south.

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“We spend less time negotiating because the amounts involved in illegal payment demand are less than before,” the trader explained.

These are the fruits of the Borderless campaign led in Togo by MECAP, a civil society organization that received a grant from the USAID Trade Hub to implement activities.

Borderless events continue to raise awareness across West Africa. A complete calendar is available here.

According to stakeholders, two major factors contributed to the campaign’s success: political will and stakeholders’ increasing demand for training in legal trucking (legal trucks are much less likely to be harassed for bribes).

MECAP met twice with a parliamentary committee that oversees Economic and National Development (the committee is made up of five national parliamentarians and two ECOWAS parliamentarians) also in charge of transport issues. The committee invited MECAP to present on road governance status in Togo at a plenary session of parliament. Following various meetings, the parliamentarians committed to implement legislation facilitating efficient road transport.

Togo parliamentarians’ case is a typical example of political will at a high level, a crucial step for driving change. Under the campaign, the desire for change is real—not only with parliamentarians. Over 200 female members of the two major vegetable importers’ unions are also now demanding changes in road governance.

MECAP’s efforts are part of a regional advocacy strategy to make transporting goods in West Africa more efficient and to remove barriers to trade.

“Civil society has an important role to play in the governance debates occurring across West Africa,” explained USAID Transport Director Niels Rasmussen. “They are informed participants in every country, with important contributions to make on the road governance issues affecting trade and investment.”

MECAP is one of four civil society organizations that received USAID Trade Hub grants to support advocacy campaigns in Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Togo.
• In Senegal, two CSOs are working at the grassroots level to build alliances capable of putting pressure on authorities to improve road governance, and training journalists to better understand road harassment issues and how to combat them.
• In Ghana, a CSO, consisting of a team of lawyers, is following up with customs and the Bureau of National Investigation on corruption cases.
• In Mali, a CSO is working with transport administration and private sector stakeholders to remove checkpoints.

The advocacy campaign is gaining traction and building momentum.

“Togolese authorities are more receptive to advocacy efforts to improve road governance than they were in the first campaign,” said Celestino Amouzo, MECAP’s program manager. “Before, it was difficult to meet authorities; now they will meet us within a week’s notice.”

At a strategy session in Lomé to evaluate the advocacy campaign and to discuss the future of transport advocacy in Togo, the Ministry of Commerce, NGOs, parliamentarians, media, truckers and traders’ syndicates said they were better informed of road harassment issues. Livestock traders’ union, inspired by the testimonies of the onion and tomato traders, asked, “why isn’t MECAP training livestock traders?”

Traders now have some degree of recourse, which they did not have before. In one instance, a tomato trader was asked by the local government and the Dapaong mayor to pay “tax.” Knowing that she had all the documents she needed, and the “tax” was illicit, she called MECAP at midnight. After MECAP spoke with the officials, they let her go without paying any sum. In all, MECAP trained 825 transport actors and 145 traders.

Though MECAP has made significant inroads in the transport sector, “the gains are not sustainable without continued and sustained advocacy to put pressure on lawmakers to enforce legislation,” said Mathias Hlomodor of the Drivers Union Alliance in Togo, USYCORT (Union de Syndicat de Conducteurs Routiers du Togo).

MECAP plans to establish a corridor monitoring project to keep customs, gendarmerie and police accountable. Stakeholders are willing to partner with MECAP in this process through a transport advocacy network. The stakeholders are taking the lead, and they want to form an alliance that will ensure that MECAP’s gains do not erode, but are sustained so that a truly Borderless West Africa can be achieved.
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More from March 2011
What’s Happening at the Trade Hub
Country Snapshot: Optimism in Burkina Faso but constraints to business persist
Civil society Borderless advocacy leading to lower transport costs
How women entrepreneurs are building businesses across West Africa
Across West Africa, women entrepreneurs are moving forward

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What’s Happening at the Trade Hub
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Civil society Borderless advocacy leading to l…
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Across West Africa, women entrepreneurs are mo…

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Dead Aid

I finally read the much hyped book by Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid. This book’s overarching argument is that aid given to Africa to reduce poverty and drive economic growth has not only failed spectacularly, but is precisely the reason why Africa is poor. Moyo aims for a clean cut, straightforward argument — no ifs and buts — that aid has simply failed and worsened economic development in Africa by encouraging corruption and dependency. Hers is meant as a sort of shock therapy, and a way to make herself heard in the cacophony of the African economic development debate. Irrespective of the fundamental problems with her arguments, Dead Aid was a New York Times best seller and has received praise from Kofi Annan and Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda).

The elegant Dambisa Moyo (she’s beautiful too!) was born in Zambia, and completed a master’s at Harvard and a Ph.D. in economics at Oxford University. She worked at the World Bank as a consultant and at Goldman Sachs for 8 years. Such pedigree alone can be enough to sell a book. More so, as Harvard professor Niall Ferguson rightly notes, “the African discussion has been colonized as surely as the African continent was a century ago,” by economists such as Paul Collier and William Easterly, and rock stars such as Bono. Moyo’s book attracts attention in part because it is an African view of Africa’s problems.

The problem, however, is that it is impossible to make a clean cut argument, the kind Moyo trumpets, about why Africa is poor. The continent is as complex as its species of wildlife and as diverse as its ethnic peoples. Though economic development challenges are familiar across the continent, the solutions to them are not the same. In fact, part of the “failure of aid” is the myriad one-size-fits-all solutions that economists have proposed and implemented. Here are two of Moyo’s arguments discussed below.

The case of Botswana

Botswana is the darling child of aid agencies, and economists such as Moyo. The small country of 1.8 million people, has a per capita GDP of $13,700 (2008 estimate purchasing  power parity), one of the highest in Africa. Moyo argues that Botswana was successful because it did not depend on aid; rather Botswana “rigorously pursued numerous market economy options.” She continues that by the year 2000 donor aid to Botswana stood at 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP.

But, at its peak, aid to Botswana was 20 percent of GDP. This suggests that aid wasn’t a hindrance to Botswana’s development, but was an integral part of Botswana’s economy. In fact, aid probably buttressed economic growth. Aid to Botswana declined over time because year after year, Botswana’s economy continued to grow (Botswana’s average real per capita growth between 1968 and 2001 was 6.8 percent). Botswana did not grow because it ceased to depend on aid, as Moyo suggests, but because as it grew it needed less external help. Botswana’s pursuit of free market policies was key to economic growth and donor aid did not inhibit this process; rather, along with the economy, Botswana managed aid resources wisely bringing prosperity to its people.

Corruption is overrated

If you were to ask anyone, layman or expert, why Africa is poor, one of the first reasons you’ll hear is corruption. The image of a burly bureaucrat or autocratic leader dipping his hands freely in the nation’s coffers and indulging lavishly while his people barely survive is too stark to ignore. Moyo is no different. To be sure, corruption is much more pervasive in many African countries than the image of greedy bureaucrats suggest. Everyday, people all across Africa have to bribe to survive — teachers, police, judges, preachers, doctors – everyone.

But corruption as an obstacle to economic growth is an overstated logic. It is as if somehow, by eliminating corruption, all Africa’s problem will disappear and farmers living on barely a meal a day will suddenly own mansions. But India and China tell us a very different story. Two of world’s best success stories, they have lifted millions out of poverty and become a veritable player on the global stage. Yet, China and India have not loosened corruption’s grip. They know it as an everyday vice, too embedded to be diminished as rapidly as their fortunes have changed.

Corruption is not necessarily the show stopper of economic growth; rather, it is a tax, another cost of doing business. To the extent that this cost is not prohibitive and the potential for profit remains attractive in an economy, businessmen will compete for and do business.  It certainly helps if these costs are predictable — if it is not recurrent (for example a one-time bribe for a construction permit, instead of several unpredictable processes each requiring payment) –because businesses can better plan for it. One thing businesses usually don’t like is uncertainty.

One of the major hindrances to private sector development and economic growth, more than corruption, is poor infrastructure. Imagine an economy free of corruption, but without reliable electricity, without tarred roads to ferry your goods to and from the port, without properly functioning ports to facilitate import and export; imagine an economy where it takes a year to get a license to commence business and a year and half to get a building permit; imagine an economy where firing an unproductive employee is nearly impossible because of labor laws; imagine an economy where interest rates on loans are 30% and banks will only lend to the government. These are real obstacles that make doing business of any kind difficult. These are the problems African governments should tackle.

In many cases these inefficiencies are partly attributable to corruption, but it is conceivable that the business environment can be improved even if corruption remains rife. Ghana, for instance, has been growing on average at 5% since early 2000s, one of the fastest growth rates in the world, without any telling statistics that corruption has declined. In fact, if public perception of corruption is a good measure, corruption has been on the rise over the same period.The pie is bigger now, and everyone is reaching for a slice — legally or not.

Corruption shouldn’t be ignored, as, to be sure, African countries will be better off without it. Worthy of note too is that the same level of corruption can be more toxic to one economy than the other. China and India, for example, are rich in natural resources and have the world’s largest populations, making them every manufacturer’s dream. Hence, their economies are very attractive to businesses even if there is a high level of corruption. Tiny Rwanda, on the other hand, has very little natural resources or a large population to boast of. Arguably, a high level of corruption will be more of a deterrent to private investment in Rwanda than in China. It is no wonder that a hallmark of Paul Kagame’s regime is zero tolerance for corruption.

These issues notwithstanding, governments should focus on establishing and improving the institutions and infrastructure that make it easier to do business if they want rapid economic growth in the short term.

More to come on Dead Aid and international development.

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President Mills turning the taps. Source: Ghana Business News

Two days ago, oil officially flowed for the first time in Ghana. Along with it our dreams, hopes and fears.

There is a general sense of optimism that oil can change the fortunes of the ordinary Ghanaian for the better. But this optimism is subdued as Ghanaians, hooked on to the radio even deep in the hinterland where electricity may not reach, tend to be well informed of how other countries have managed oil.  They’ve heard about our beloved Nigeria. They’ve also heard many promises and seen even more disappointments.

Wednesday was a day of reckoning, a day that could be as important as the day we gained independence from the British.  Ten years from now, we’ll wonder whether yesterday was a blessing or a curse. We may celebrate or mourn it. We will gaze at the horizon, blinded by a bright future awaiting our children or be engulfed in gloom, exasperated by wasted resources and opportunity.

Today, we have reason to be optimistic. We’ve had the good fortune of discovering oil over 50 years after independence. That, unlike Nigeria’s discovery of oil right after independence, has given us enough time to sort ourselves out, to practice resource management and governance. Over that period, we experienced enough turbulent periods that we seem to have learned the value of stability. Our politicians continue to do stupid things, but compared to the 70s and 80s the general understanding of how to run an economy has improved significantly. We’ve learned to give freedom to the media, abolishing the criminal libel law 10 years ago. And in a more recent trend, many Ghanaians educated abroad are returning home, helping to curb the lack of world class  business management skills.

Yet, we have reason to fear. Oil, more than time, is money. It’s a carcass, attracting vultures from near and far with rapidity. They’re here already and the deals they’re cutting have, almost always, no consideration Ghanaian interests; often it’s detrimental to the country’s well being. Unfortunately, our politicians don’t know any better. Almost all of them, up until now, had never seen oil before, let alone have the skill to manage it. Already, because of ineptitude, Ghana will flare all the natural gas from the oil well for the first 18 months – even though this gas could have supplied 10% of the country’s energy needs per year for 25 years.

People will get rich. That’s the most certain thing about the discovery. Mansions will go up, we’ll see a couple more Rolls Royces. But will my village have clean water and a good school? Will the farmers, laborers and market women be rewarded for their labor? Will it be easier for them to get their products to the market because a better road is built? Will they sweat for nothing or will they work knowing that nothing stands in their way of a happy and rewarding life?

We can only hope that we live up to our billing as a country of many firsts, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African country not to blow oil wealth.

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Dakar, Senegal

source: bettypress.com

Senegal is where the friendliest people on earth live. Nowhere else have I met people that gentle and peace loving. From their elaborate greetings to their broad and warm smiles, Senegal is  truly le pays de la teranga.

Two people will meet and they will ask each other“ca va” three or four times before getting to the point of the conversation. They take their greetings seriously and twice I got in trouble for failing to greet. I was trying to find my way around one of Dakar’s biggest and West Africa’s finest hotels, Hotel le Meridien President, and I saw a cleaner and went to ask for help. Though I stood right next to him, he completely ignored my question and did not even bother to look up. Eventually he raised his head and sounding deeply offended he said, “you passed by earlier and didn’t even say hello.”

Indeed, Senegalese culture exposes the ignorance of anti Muslim rhetoric: 90% of Senegalese are Muslim and they are the kindest people you will meet on earth. If you stay there long enough, you might convert to Islam. I visited a cemetery in Dakar where Christians and Muslims are buried side by side. And judging from how tranquil Dakar was during Ramadan, the Senegalese take their religion seriously, unlike the French of whom over 90% are Catholic but rarely go to church. But the Senegalese have not succumbed to radicalism, even to the point where I found liquor and wine at the grocery store.

Generally tall (many men and women are six footers), their gentleness nullifies the intimidation of their towering figures – gentle giants so to speak. The gracefulness of their women only enhances their attractiveness. In fact, more than their hospitality, the beauty of Senegalese women is the strongest impediment to leaving Dakar.

inside Radisson BLU

I first went to Dakar in April 2007, while I was studying in France. I visited again about a month ago and I was quite astounded by how much it had changed. There are world class hotels, shopping malls, roads and captivating monuments that didn’t exist before. The Radisson BLU hotel opened this year and has the best infinity pool I’ve seen in my life. It overlooks the sea, seemingly merging with it in a perfect union of the artificial and the natural.The Meridien hotel has been around longer and is more established, but it’s worth mentioningbecause their customer service is exceptional.

Beside Radisson, a beautiful dual carriageway snakes along the coastline, graced by palm trees, complemented by pavements where Senegalese jog and exercise. Three years ago, it was slightly better than a dirt road. Off it is an uncompleted mall that sits on the ocean shore, next to the Radisson. Inside is a grocery store, a Levi store and many other international retailers. Once completed, it’ll be one of the largest malls in West Africa.

Monument de Renaissance Afrique. source: monuraf.com

This boulevard also weaves past the one of the world’s largest statues. Situated atop a small hill, it’s a statue of a gargantuan family overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and it bellows the renaissance of Africa, a statement of monumental proportions that Africa is alive and will thrive. Designed by Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade and built by North Korea, it’s about a foot taller than the statue of liberty. Its construction, estimated at $27 million, caused a lot of controversy internationally and locally. Why would a poor country spend so much on a statue?

But I was inspired by the sheer size and the boldness it took to build it. Further many monuments today were built long ago when poverty was rife. We visit them today and admire them, inspired by the “visionaries” that conceived them. The same will happen in Senegal and even though today this monument causes uproar, one day a new generation will celebrate what a “visionary” leader Abdoulaye Wade was.

Three years after my first visit, Senegal continues to defy many of the stereotypes about Africa. They have never had a coup, a phenomenon that plagued several African governments after independence. The HIV/AIDS rate is 1% of the population, lower than Washington DC’s 3%. They have never had a civil war. Their staple has been a stable government and a steady economy. Yet it’s not all rosy, especially regarding sanitation and the problem of numerous children begging on the streets. But all in all, Dakar is a pleasant city, a bastion of peace in a continent that has too often known war, and a beacon in a time of great hope.

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So how is it like being back in Ghana, many have asked me?

On the way to my house, there’s a mansion that shares a wall with a shack.

On the way to my house, there’s a street lined with trees. They form a kind of canopy, and I usually stick my head out of the car window, like pets do, breathing the refreshing air as the wind blows through my non-existent hair.

It’s been two months and I’m not ready to return to America yet. Some friends told me I wouldn’t last three weeks. But two months in and the possibility of staying here forever seems tantalizingly real. Two months in, and it may just be the honeymoon phase.

My friends said I wouldn’t last because honeymoons usually last a couple weeks. But yesterday, I met a girl who is planning an 8-month honeymoon. I told her we have a lot in common.

So I got blackberry service the other day; fast, standard and for two-thirds of the cost in America. That was a watershed moment for me, knowing that having blackberry service takes all the world’s sorrows away. I also saw Inception at the cinema not long after its release. The cinema is at the mall and they have nice shops, and the only things I can afford there are groceries. Soon, though, I’ll dust off my squash racket, join the Polo club and learn how to ride a horse.

But last night, I took the trotro (local bus) and when we hit three, skinny rumble strips the front door popped open. I would have fallen out if the engine could power the car more than 25 miles per hour. A pickup truck in front of us was overloaded with cattle, and enthusiastically blew exhaust fumes, thicker than bonfire smoke, in my face.

Six Harvard grad students also came to do groundbreaking malaria research — because that’s what Harvard students do. Four quit after a month. Jimmy said the internet was too slow so he couldn’t play World of Warcraft. The food was too starchy, Kelly couldn’t find a good salad and the little animals they had come to study didn’t like them very much.

On the way to my house, there’s a mansion that shares a wall with a shack.

On the way to my house, I stick my head out of the car window, breathing the refreshing air and waiting for the honeymoon to end. I have a feeling it will go on for a while, for so long that it becomes no longer a honeymoon, but a daily reality, even when the exhaust fumes happily blow in my face.

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Finding Your Way

“Pass left” (while he points right), “then go aaaaaaaahhh and you will see a kiosk painted with Ghana flag. Pass that road and go small and you’ll see a guy selling coconut and then pass right” (while pointing straight). “Take the junction and ask for the fat lady who sells rice and beans. Oh, don’t worry it’s not far koraaaa (at all).” I didn’t find the coconut seller; he must have moved, so I missed the right turn — or did the guy directing me mean to go straight? Welcome to Ghana.
Finding a restaurant, or anything else, in America is a factor of Google. Not so in Ghana. Here, you quickly realize the indispensability of your fellow man and that your surroundings are as much a guide as MapQuest. Street signs in Ghana are usually on main thoroughfares at intersections or roundabouts, and they point you in general directions (or in Francophone countries in West Africa, autres directions). But these are general directions and you’ll rarely find specific streets that are named.
So wherever you want to go, you have to ask for directions.And that presents an entirely new challenge: how Ghanaians give directions. Many people will point in the direction opposite to where they are telling you to go. For instance, they’ll signal with their hands to make a right when they are actually telling you to turn left, leaving you in a dilemma, pondering the relevance of the adage that actions speak louder than words.
But it’s not all challenging, and the colorful ways Ghanaians give directions makes asking a Ghanaian for directions one of the things to do before you die. People will spare no detail as they aid you in finding your way. ‘Go to the big, fat lady who sells jollof (or pilaf)” or “the one-leg guy with the big head and ask for Auntie Munni’s joint,” are directions people will give without the slightest remorse. This will never happen in America.
Ghana opens your eyes and you begin to you realize how much life in developed countries is taken for granted. We take delivery service for granted, and never ask how it is possible that a pizza guy you’ve never met can find your house and bring you chicken wings in 30 minutes. You may never ask how it is possible to have a credit rating system, or never thought about how Google works. If your house is on fire in my hometown, the police will just have to follow smoke and by the time they find your house, you might be dead.
These modern day amenities cannot exist without addresses (not just post office boxes), and you cannot have addresses without easily identifiable street names.In our part of the world, you see the bowels of development, the dirty work required to make a modern life possible, and you hope the people responsible for development get it.

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