“Prediction is difficult”, Danish physicist Niels Bohr once quipped, “especially about the future.”
This quote teaches us a few things. (1) Nobel Prize winning physicists can, in fact, be funny, (2) exact science is not actually an exact science, and (3) prediction is a fools game.
As I stand on the curb in front of a petrol station across from Ambuere Business Plaza on the main road leading into Kakamega, a bustling city in Western Kenya, I realize, I have no idea what the day is going to hold.
My reason for being in Kakamega, a bumpy two-and-a-half hours from my current home in Kitale is quite simple. I have thirteen more surveys to administer. The purpose for the survey is to collect baseline data for a controlled evaluation of a project that teaches basic business skills to business owners in a church. (This, I concede, is an oversimplification.)
I am standing in front of the petrol station waiting to meet my guide for the day. Mike is a video editor and a fishmonger. He also runs the audiovisual for his church. During our short discussion the previous day, he told me he knew all of the remaining thirteen individuals we needed to visit and could easily take me around to visit them. We are to meet at 8:30am. “This way”, he says, “I wont be late”. I presume this means he is going to try to arrive at our rendezvous before 8:30am but will inevitably be late and then will arrive on time.
I was wrong. By 8:45am he still hasn’t arrived.
This type of thing would usually annoy me, but it is a typical occurrence. Using backward induction I remind myself: If time=money, and the love of money is the root of all evil, then, by the transitive property, the love of time is likewise the root of evil. It is antilogic like this that keeps one sane in these situations.
Mike finally arrives, I hand him the list of thirteen names, and we are off. I am carrying all of my belongings for my stay in my backpack. This includes: one shirt, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, thirteen surveys, my computer, a bag of peanuts, and a package of chocolate chip cookies. It seems the part of me that understands most fully that prediction is difficult is my stomach, as I have no idea when I will eat my next meal. Therefore, I always pack snacks.
We are off walking down a dusty dirt road to meet our first interview of the day. The first interview is uneventful. The portion of the survey I administer during my visits include open-ended questions, which may need extra explanation. I ask, “Can you explain how you integrate your Christian faith into your business?” and “Does your business care for the poor and vulnerable in your community?” The inevitable answer being, “yes”, I ask, “How?” The whole survey takes about 20-30 minutes.
Administering surveys is somehow an odd and paradoxical combination of (a) the most interesting and informative activity known to man, (b) the most boring and predictable activity known to man, and (c) the most frustrating and confusing activity known to man.
The opportunity to sit down and talk with the people I have been learning about for the past four years is incredible. To read in books bout global development or economics only can share so much knowledge. Adding that knowledge with an experience like sitting with the actual people those books are about is absolutely fascinating!
Congruently, I ask the same 55 questions over and over and over again on days I administer surveys. Some days I visit up to 18 business owners. Needless to say, I have this survey memorized like the back of my hand. (Well, actually better than the back of my hand.)
On the whole, people generally answer the questions in a similar manor. When I ask if their businesses is (a) very unsuccessful, (b) unsuccessful, (c) unsure, (d) successful, or (e) very successful the answers is inevitably either (d) or (e). When I ask for them to give me two reasons why… The answer is usually something along the lines of, “My business provides for me and my family”, “I do not lack because of my business”, “by business keeps me busy”, “I am able to sell my goods and make a profit”.
Jeff: How many employees does your business employ?
Business Owner: …two part time workers on a contract basis.
J: What are your total labor costs per month?
BO: Well, I’m a farmer so I only sell once per year. I have not calculated per month.
J: Ok, well, we can calculate it now. How much do you pay your workers and yourself when you are working?
BO: It depends on how much we sell our crops for.
J: Ok, then how much did you sell your crops for this past year?
BO: We haven’t sold them yet.
J: Ok, but the last time you sold your crops, how much did you sell them for?
BO: I don’t remember, but we didn’t make much profit.
J: Ok, next question…
Administering business surveys is a humbling business. I’ve spent days laboring over the questions in this survey, making sure each questions teaches me something, and it takes five minutes for an illiterate farmer to blow the whole thing to pieces.
After a little over a half a day of administering surveys, of which we were only able to visit nine, because Mike actually didn’t know the numbers for all the people on my list, I head back to Kitale.
I could have written this entire blog piece on modes of transportation. I took several while criss-crossing Kakamega. I started the day by walking down a dusty road. Next I took a bodaboda. (This is a motorcycle taxi) The driver, Mike, and I were all on the bike—sorry but I’m not sorry I don’t have pictures of this. After the following visit I rode a TukTuk back into town. (This is basically a go-cart, with three wheels, and a tarp covering.) The Indians brought them here from India where they are common. I ended my day by taking a matatu back to Kitale. (This is a 15-passenger van, which in reality ends up being a 20-passenger van.)
I love the days when I’m administering surveys because I never know what I’m going to know at the end of the day. Prediction may be difficult, but that is not a bad thing. Unpredictability creates excitement and interleague. I look forward to survey days precisely because of the lack of ability to predict the day’s events.