Maybe You Need An Elder Not A Mentor

I’m not sure where my chocolate business would be without a handful of mentors along the way who helped me avert danger and land safely time after time. Lately I’m thinking that having a mentor is not enough in business or life. Yes, we need mentors to help us navigate fill in the blank practical aspect of our business. But, maybe what we really need is one or more elders deeply rooted in our lives, and us in theirs, over a span of years.

What initiated my thinking on this are the elder farmers I’ve seen in rural Tanzania over the past decade, how they interact with others in the village, in cocoa cooperative meetings, and in family settings. Want to understand village mindedness? Watch the elders. During cocoa cooperative meetings the elders sit up front. They often speak first in meetings. When we have chocolate tastings they are first to taste. This is true for both men and women elders. I see younger farmers act with gentleness and patience toward elders who, at first glance, might not appear as “contributing” to the group. I’ve noticed the real “contribution” is not from these elders who have trouble walking, talking or even thinking clearly but it is the way in which younger members of the group behave toward these people who were once vibrant and now need them. In other words, this is an opportunity for the younger ones to exercise compassion and give dignity to those who need it.

DSCF3715.JPG
From the right, Tanzanian cocoa farmer elders Anderson Mwaliambwile, Ambikile Mwandalima, me, Rainald Mwakimbwala

Let’s swing the bus back around and point the discussion toward my hometown and yours.

What is an elder? An elder is not achieved by merely being old. It is an earned status that begins with many years in the rear view mirror. An elder has garnered wisdom and humility along the way. This is also true in Tanzania where age alone does not bestow the qualities that make other members sit up and take notice when they speak. Age alone does not an elder make. An elder is someone who’s been through some stuff, lots of stuff, and yet they still stand. They don’t hide their scars and even celebrate imperfection. An elder is not necessarily someone who achieved great notoriety in the community but perhaps notoriety on your street. An elder’s smile is creased with practice and their words are measured and kind. Even though they sometimes cannot see or hear perfectly you are drawn to them, you want to be close to them.

Why might you need an elder in your life? A mentor can tell you if you should expand your facility location or where to find a better deal on credit card merchant rates or if you should pay for business interruption insurance. An elder can tell you what it’s like when you might not have the money to meet payroll, what it’s like to grieve the death of a spouse or child, what loneliness feels like, or why walking everyday is important. They’ve struggled through darkness, been to the mountaintop, returned and want to tell you about it. Over time an elder will get to know you and feel free to speak with a directness that might feel unfamiliar. You will come to appreciate it even though it might be uncomfortable at first. You will also discover how open hearted you are in conversation with this person because guess what? They don’t care how many likes your last picture got on Instagram. They help us understand that embracing mystery, not pushing it away, is critical over the long haul of finding joy in our lives. We need elders in order to gain their wisdom, learn how to soften our edges and put life into perspective.

We also need relationships with elders so we can serve them when they need us even for the little things. A time will come when we can give something back to them as they start to see home a little more clearly ahead in the front windshield. This is mutuality.

Where are you going to find such a person? They’re all around you in churches, temples, fitness centers walking around the track, neighbors. Some you might know well enough to call and ask if you can meet for a cup of coffee. I promise if you look you will find one or more elders who will be more than happy to take you under their wing. If your standard is Gandalf or Mother Teresa then you’ve missed the point. Make it your intention, your prayer that elders cross your path that you can talk to, learn from, and someday serve. I am certain it will happen. If all else fails, ask your mentor if he/she can introduce you.

You can read more about how elders have influenced my life in my new book Meaningful Work.

Happy Birthday Morrie! (the one from Tuesday’s With Morrie)

Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.

Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.

Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.

I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.  

Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”

Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now. 

CU2018

More Is Not Enough: At Least In Mababu, Tanzania It’s Not

A cocoa tree canopy overhead made it seem even darker than it was as the sun was setting. I was walking on a narrow trail in the maze of other trails crisscrossing each other in the Tanzanian rainforest with a small group of cocoa farmers and pretty sure if I didn’t keep up that Google Maps would be of no help. Anyone who knows me knows that I love walking and talking. It’s my chance to ask questions. We’d just visited Wilson’s kinfolk on his little farm who were mourning his death a month ago. We went to pay our respects to his family and say “pole sana.” We sat under a large shade tree in front of his house and as I listened to his siblings tell stories I remembered his kind face. He’d been sick for a long time they said. He was an original member of the small cocoa farming cooperative where I’ve been sourcing beans for many years. We gathered for a moment of silence around his tidy dirt grave decorated with a small wooden cross next to his wife’s and a few feet from their house. The walk back to the village center with Mama Mpoki – the Chairwoman of the cooperative – and four other farmers got me thinking which led to conversation.

 As we walked back I was pondering the ways in which the villagers respond to each other in times of death and grief. I played the tape in my mind from a few days before when the farmers all gathered at their central fermentation and drying site in the middle of the village and worked together to move our fermented cocoa beans onto the nearby drying pads in the sun. They stand shoulder to shoulder–men and women and mothers and grandmothers carrying babies in a sling–and pass buckets of beans to each other, all the way down the line. They laugh, talk, and gossip and I loved working right alongside them. The word is joy. Joy is pretty much universally recognizable in any culture. I’ve observed it during shared meals, at worship, while working and walking. So I asked Mama Mpoki, “What is the secret to your joy at work, I saw it, I don’t think it was made up for the sake of my visit?” Her answer confused me, “We will not permit more than 65 members in our cooperative.” I said, “OK, but what does that have to do with farmers staying after meetings lingering and clearly enjoying each other?”

 Mama Mpoki explains “We’ve written this membership limit into our constitution. We decided that 65 members is enough. The secret is that we trust each other. If there were more members then we might not be able to manage that trust in the same way we do now.”

 Make no mistake about it, the farmers want better education for their children, sturdier housing that won’t blow away in a storm, greater access to basic medical care, electricity, running water. Yes, they have hope for these things but somehow in their absence, in their poverty, they have dignity and joy. This daily living of a “more is not enough” life inspires me and gives me great hope in the future of humanity. Spending time with them over the years as their friend gives me hope for myself.