Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas in Nairobi

It certainly didn't feel like Christmas this year, what with the lack of commercialism and no decorated houses challenging the bright lights of Las Vegas. Instead, it has been a quiet week, punctuated with Christmas dinner at my manager's house. it was a very nice time, with her neighbors and another PSI colleague and her two small daughters attending. The girls certainly livened things up with their boundless energy. Kate had warned me that both she and her husband are vegetarians, so Tofurkey would be on the menu. However, there were no Tofurkeys to be found in Nairobi, so dinner consisted of many delicious vegetable dishes. It was hardly a disappointment as everyone knows that it's all about the side dishes anyway.

After a relaxing dinner, we played Perudo, a dice game. When Kate and Paul first told me about this, I was convinced that they had made it up, and worse yet, changed the rules as they went along. Indeed, at first it did seem like that, but after a couple of rounds (both of which I lost), I started to get the hang of it. The challenge of the game is to lie about what the face-value of your dice are, and guess what the other players are holding, based on probability. The problem is that the more you drink, the easier the lying gets, but the harder the calculations become. It was a lot of fun, but the rules were so complicated, I'd never be able to teach anyone else.

Friday was Boxing Day, also a national holiday. Most businesses were closed (although I was surprised that the grocery store was open on Christmas Day), but one of the local shopping areas was open, so I spent the afternoon there. A number of shops were closed, but the outdoor food court was open, as was the Friday Masai Market. Since my first experience at the market back in September left something to be desired, I decided to give it another try. Although the vendors weren't quite as aggressive as I had remembered them (and nowhere near as aggressive as those in Zanzibar), it still really turned me off. Now that I've seen what wares are typically Kenyan and have learned what prices are reasonable, there are items that I do want to buy before I leave, but I wish I could just say, "If you leave me alone, I'm much more likely to buy from you." That attitude just doesn't fly, though. I once again left without buying anything, but will have to give it one more try before I leave.

As a follow-up to last week's post about reviewing resumes, I conducted interviews with potential candidates on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was stunned that Susan, the Office Manager, was able to arrange for 8 prospects to come in on one-day's notice, one even flying in from another province. I was impressed by the professionalism shown by each candidate (all women), however some of their qualifications left a lot to be desired. Susan, another colleague and I met with each person and asked typical interview questions, as well as presented some actual scenarios to gauge their problem-solving abilities. The women who impressed me the most where the ones who confidently answered the question about where they wanted to be in five years. These women had clear visions of their future, and were already working on executing that plan. After the official interview, Susan gave them a written test with a series of real-life situations to solve in 60 minutes. These weren't terribly complicated problems, but showed whether the candidate could read an airline itinerary correctly, knew the steps needed to plan a meeting with international guests and could calculate per diems. We finished the interviews with two contenders - one who was extremely well qualified, but perhaps overly so, and another who had a solid basic skill set, but will need a bit of mentoring. The hiring process is very swift, so someone will be offered the position during the first week of January.
I'm off to Tsavo West National Park tomorrow for one last safari and to ring in the New Year with lions and elephants. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas...Not!

In the past, I've visited Florida during the holiday season and although it was warm and sunny, it still felt like Christmas. Houses and businesses were aglow with lights, and lawns were strewn with crèches, snowmen and inflatable Santas. Even though the traditional snow was missing, the intensity of the commercialism was a tip-off that something was in the air.

Not in Nairobi. Even though the malls put up decorations at the beginning of November, they are subdued and definitely fall toward the religious end of the spectrum, not the commercial. There are no lights on houses - whether it's due to the high cost of electricity or the fact that power grid regularly goes down, I don't know. On Saturday, I was sitting in the sun at an outdoor cafe at the local mall having lunch when a Salvation Army band marched by. Even so, they were not accompanied by bell-ringing Santas or severely-dressed women collecting money. Instead, there were two men on stilts preceding the band as they went up and down the street.

Everywhere you look on the continent, there are problems in Africa. However, one of the success stories (depending on your perspective) is the proliferation of Christianity. Christian missionaries of every possible denomination have made Africa their mission, and have done it well. When I was working in the office in Uganda, all the colleagues had Jesus Christ screen savers and radio was tuned to religious music. It was similar in Zambia, as well. Because my office in Nairobi is primarily ex-pats, religious preference is less obvious, but among the local employees, Christmas is a holiday for religious celebration and reflection, not over-the-top gift giving.

When I first arrived here, my housekeeper kindly invited me to attend church with her. Just the other night, I was reviewing resumes for an administrative position in the office. I knew that Kenyan employment laws were different and things like age, marital status and religion were standard to be at the top of the page. What did surprise me though was towards the end of the resume where people often list their interests, virtually every one had "listening to religious music" or "reading the Bible." The other two common hobbies were "making friends" and "reading motivational books."

Those last two are fascinating. I have no explanation for how "making friends" qualifies as a hobby, but I do know the market for motivational books - both secular and religious - is huge here. Bookstores are jammed with Tony Roberts and Donald Trump. Just the other day, while stopped at a red light, a street hawker tried to sell me "The Mary Kay Story." There's a real hunger for knowledge and betterment here, and many believe that the more books they read, the more successful they will be. That's probably not a bad starting point, but with so much corruption, it will be an uphill battle.

Holiday traffic outside the mall

Sunday, December 14, 2008

You Need Water for Falls

My week in Zambia went quite smoothly. I arrived in Lusaka on Sunday and was met at the airport by a PSI employee. As always, it was nice to be greeting in a new place by a friendly face. Although Lusaka is Zambia’s capital, the airport was quite small - something on the scale of what Providence’s TF Green was like 20 years ago. Fortunately, this was made up for the by my hotel. I was staying at the Intercontinental for the week; a modern, sleek business hotel.

On Monday, I was taken to the office where I deposited in an office whose occupant was on vacation. I think the intent by my hosts of giving me an office in which to work was quite kind, but it was also very isolating. I spent a great deal of my time during the day trying to find the people with whom I was supposed to be working. Between the office complex consisting of a rabbit warren of small buildings, closed office doors and the staff’s uncanny ability to never be where they were said to be, I found myself working on my own quite a bit. Ultimately, I was able to accomplish most of the things I set out to do, but it could have been done in half the time had the staff just sat down with me and done it, rather than spending lots of time talking about what needed to be done or disappearing altogether. I’ve found the work ethic, the ability to prioritize and a sense of urgency very different here, and often lacking.

Overall, the week went fairly well, and culminated in a field trip one morning to take photographs of “outlets” to be used in our survey. These are places where one can buy or be given antimalarials such as hospitals, pharmacies and in the case of Zambia, containers. Containers are former steel shipping containers that have had the narrow end cut off and are now used as a store. They sell everything from groceries, vegetables, clothing, medicines - pretty much anything that can be sold. It was fun to get out and see a little bit of the city, including a visit to one of Lusaka’s slums.

On Thursday night, I flew to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. Again, I was picked up at the airport (again, tiny) by a staff member from the local PSI office. It was completely out of his way and not in his job description, but a welcome gesture especially since the power went out immediately after I met him and we were plunged into darkness for a few minutes. I was a bit concerned about the quality of my hotel in Livingstone as I had booked it through Travelocity and it was significantly less expensive that the hotels that had been recommended to me by friends in Nairobi. Although those hotels sounded lovely, they were completely booked (and $400/night!) As it turned out, the hotel was extremely nice and the staff exceptionally helpful. I think in part that was due to the fact that I was one of only two non-conventioneers who were at the hotel at the time. Little did I know, the hotel was hosting all the African Ministers of Defense and their entourages. I was either in the safest location on the continent or the biggest target.

During the week, I was unexpectedly informed by the Zambian airline that my flight from Livingstone back to Lusaka had changed. Not by just a few minutes, but from a late afternoon flight to an early morning flight. Although that meant I would be able to get home a day earlier than planned, it also meant that I would not get a second day in Livingstone so I had to make the most of my time there. I decided to arrange for a guided tour of the Falls and a sunset cruise. Patrick, my tour guide, was friendly and knowledgeable, and we spent a nice morning walking around the park. Unfortunately, as I had been warned, this time of year the Falls are not full, so they aren’t as magnificent as though would be at their peak in April. In an effort to encourage tourists to visit year ‘round, the tourism board promotes the Falls during the off-season as an opportunity to see the rock face. Frankly, I would have preferred to see water. When the Falls are full, none of the cliffs can be seen and the mist is so heavy that tourists get drenched even standing on the opposite. The only moisture I felt was the sweat from an 85 degree day and dipping my toes in the Zambezi River.

I was looking forward to the boat ride, but unfortunately, about 1 pm the clouds started rolling in and then it started to pour. It cleared up a bit late in the afternoon, but once on the boat, it quickly turned dark again and enormous raindrops pelted the boat. We had already left the dock when the sky was lit up by lightning bolts on all sides. I was sitting next to a Canadian woman and her husband and we all thought the boat should turn back, however the caption had no intention of doing so. He intrepidly proceeded, although we couldn’t see a thing through the curtain of rain and felt we were courting danger. Eventually, the storm lessened and we just had a soggy, grey ride up and down the river.

So that was my Zambian adventure. I left early the next morning, had uneventful return flights and was welcomed by smog, dust and heat at the Nairobi airport. Although it was nice to be back, I already missed the clean, clear air of Zambia.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quick Update

I'm currently in Lusaka, Zambia having been sent here to work with the local PSI office for the week. Given the size and state of disrepair of the airport, I expected Lusaka to be as decrepit as Zanzibar, but I was quite wrong. Even though the airport is old and small and one still walks out across the runways to waiting 747s, the city is quite nice.

I haven't seen much of the city beyond the ride from the airport/hotel/office, but I hope to see a bit more before I head out.

The first thing that struck me is, like Uganda, how green and lush everything is. It’s such a contrast to the dry, dustiness of Nairobi. Secondly, the air feels much clearer and cleaner. It’s warm, but not humid and there’s been a nice breeze since I’ve been here. Lastly, the city - or at least the outskirts - are quite modern. There are lots of office parks under construction - I even saw a new PriceWaterHouseCoopers building and the local Young & Rubicam office.

The city also appears to be safer than Nairobi. Although buildings are still gated, there seems to be less razor wire atop walls and fences and fewer guards with guns. One of my PSI colleagues said that it is indeed a relatively safe city (within reason) and a great place to raise a family.

I leave for Livingstone on Thursday to visit Victoria Falls over the weekend. Hopefully, I'll have some nice pictures to share from that adventure. Stay tuned...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What a Racket

Up until now, I’ve never traveled to a country for which a visa was necessary and I was unfamiliar with the process. Prior to leaving for Kenya, the Washington, DC office of PSI applied for a multi-entry visa to Kenya for $100, allowing unlimited entries and exits for 6 months. When my visa arrived, I was surprised to see that not only was just a stamp on a random passport page, but that it was a single entry and expired in 90 days. That meant that a new visa would have to be obtained so that I would not become an illegal alien for the latter half of my assignment. Cost? Another $100.

Visas can either be obtained at the point of entry such as an airport, or ahead of time from the country’s local embassy. It’s better to get them prior to travel as one can then bypass the long line at the airport, and avoid any unscrupulous immigration officer looking to make a little money on the side. I’m fortunate in that my Kenyan office takes care of visas in advance by sending passports, required documentation (usually photographs and forms) and money with Alex the Cab Driver directly to the embassy. I suspect it takes a great deal of his day and he’s at one embassy or another nearly every day.

The other interesting thing about visas is that they must be paid for in US dollars. I hadn’t appreciated how handy dollars would be (Zanzibar prefers dollars over its local currency) and I had only brought a few hundred dollars with me to Kenya. Although PSI pays for visas related to business travel, often the need for a speedy visa trumps the ability of the finance office to provide cash, and there is a mad collection of dollars from everyone in the office. My $300 has been passed back and forth many times since I’ve been here - I should charge interest!

Visa fees vary widely country to country as well as by the nationality of the passport holder. US and UK citizens usually pay the most of all citizens. Single entry visas cost less than multiple entry visas and long-term multi-entry visas, cost the most. “Long-term” in this case is generally just one year. The process is structured in a way that not only is there a constant revenue stream, but also an opportunity for corruption. If an immigration officer decides to retain your passport or deny you entry even though your paperwork is in order, you don’t have much recourse but to pay a “fee.”

My trip to Uganda in October was a relative bargain at $50 for a single entry. My single entry for Tanzania cost $100. Most surprising, the visa for my trip to Zambia, one of the poorest countries on the continent, has one of the most expensive visas at $135. UK citizens must pay $150. What I can’t understand is where all this money goes. Between visas, airport taxes, departure taxes and high airfares, travel in Africa is unexpectedly expensive. Next time, I’m going to spend six months in Europe where I can hop on a RyanAir flight for $50 and not experience any further extortion.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I've Got a Tab at Zanzibar

My colleague Fiona and I arrived Friday morning to a miserable little airport in hot and humid weather. We then haggled with taxi drivers for a ride to Stone Town, the only city (I’m using that term loosely) on the island. The drivers were quite uncooperative and annoying, and one man who grabbed my bag to take it to the cab then demanded a tip. We were off to a bad start, it was raining, but we still had a good feeling about the place. Little did we know, that spirit of generosity was going to change quickly.

The drive to the city was about 15 minutes and the biggest difference from Kenya is that the roads did not have the massive potholes that Nairobi does. There were few cars and things didn’t look so bad. There isn’t much wealth along this part of the island, but it didn’t look as bad as some other poverty-stricken areas we’ve seen. We arrived in Stone Town and since the city is mostly a series of winding alleys and few roads, the cab driver stopped a ways away and we walked the rest of the distance. As we later found out, he could have driven us directly to the front door of the hotel, but chose to have us walk in the rain instead.

I guess the first trouble started at check-in. The lobby and common areas of the hotel looked fairly nice - authentic Zanzibarian furniture and architecture with lots of dark wood and tiles. Although our previously arranged room voucher stated we had booked a double room with two beds, we learned that the room only had one large bed. Luckily, we found that out before we trudged up the five flights of stairs. The front desk clerk was not at all accommodating when we suggested a number of options - a different room with two beds, putting another bed in the room and reducing our rate, or changing rooms for the next two nights. We finally got them to put another bed in the room - a twin bed set up in the middle of the living area. The suite itself was OK initially - a living area with a day bed, TV, fridge and one balcony looking out over the inner hotel courtyard and pool and the other looking out over the street. The bedroom was large with a four-poster bed (and requisite mosquito net) and another set of balconies. The bathtub was stunning - ornate cobalt tiles in a traditional design. As it turns out, function follows form in Zanzibar.
While the hotel staff was setting up the extra bed and figuring out how to rig up a mosquito net across the room, we decided to go for a walk and explore Stone Town. Unfortunately, it was raining very hard, leaving inches and inches of water (and trash and godknowswhatelse streaming down the street.) When the rain finally subsided, the city looked as though it might be interesting. As we walked down one of the larger streets, we were bombarded with vendors selling everything from CDs to bags of cashews. “Jambo Jambo mama. Welcome. Welcome. You will buy a CD,” was the constant cry. We stuck to the main road for a bit, then veered off to the Old Fort, a post-Portuguese occupation structure. Behind the fort is an amphitheater with merchant stalls lining the perimeter and an outdoor café. After a rest and a cold drink, we continued walking around and had our first experience with the shop owners with their relentless, aggressive sales pitches. Some even grab your arm and try to pull you into their store. I can’t imagine why they think that it is an effective sales technique, but apparently, it appeals to someone, just not us. There were paintings, woodcarvings and other crafts for sale, but very little that was different from what is available in Kenya.
We continued walking to tour company for which we had a recommendation and sign up for a spice tour the next day. It was a bit of a hike, but we finally found the office, after being followed and harangued by men offering to take us there (for a fee, naturally.) The tour was to last most of the day starting with a tour of a spice plantation, then on to a beach for an hour, the slave cells and then back to Stone Town. We didn’t give it much thought and figured it was a good thing to do. We then zigzagged our way through the alleys, believing that following Muslim women through the passageways would provide a safer passage.

The reason for going to Zanzibar in the first place was to meet up with another Global Health Fellow, Naomi, who had finished her assignment in Rwanda and was on her way back home to Australia. She had planned a week at the beach with her friend Michele, who had just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. We met Michele for dinner (excellent traditional fare and fresh seafood) then went back to our hotels while she waited for Naomi to arrive later that night.

The next morning we rose to see if our friends wanted to go on the spice tour with us. However, things were getting worse. Fiona had been sick all night and could not move from the bed. Naomi’s flight had been cancelled the night before and after a crazy night of travel, had arrived just that morning. No one was in the mood for heat, humidity and being trapped in a van all day. I left Fiona to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of our room while I hung out with the other girls. We walked around the town some more, had more encounters with aggressive merchants and finally called an end to the wanderings mid-afternoon. By then, Fiona was feeling a tad better and decided to rally and meet the others for a drink that evening. That’s when we found out that the beautiful bathtub only had a hand shower, virtually no hot water and absolutely no water pressure. There was no way one could get remotely clean in there. After a hot, sweaty day, there’s not much worse than really craving - and needing - a good shower when you can’t have one.

We met the gals for drinks, watched the sun set over the Indian ocean and caught up. Fiona was trying hard to participate, but she was clearly flagging, so we called it a night and went back to the hotel. By this time, we had started noticing how many ants, mosquitoes and other bugs were in our rooms. The nets had holes, the beautiful balcony doors didn’t close completely and all god’s creatures had free reign, including a rat scampering along the little snack bar by the pool.

The next day we thought we’d give the spice tour another try, but again, the idea of spending the day in a van full of strangers was very unappealing. Instead, we got a recommendation from the front desk of a resort nearby where we could get a day pass and spend the time using their facilities - pool, beach, restaurant, etc. Unfortunately, it was just all wrong. First of all, it rained for the first couple of hours. Then, when the sky finally cleared, it was incredibly hot and we realized that the pool was cloudy and looked too risky to swim without getting some sort of infection. The ocean was murky too, as it was low tide and there was lots of seaweed and a nasty stench.

We stuck it out for a while, and then went back to town for one last spin and an attempt to see some of the cultural sites. After pushing through the vendors one more time, we went to the House of Wonders, the local museum. One could see that during its heyday, the building itself would have been beautiful, but it was now decrepit, or as Fiona described everything we saw over the weekend, squalid. The “exhibits” were barely posters with some writing and Xeroxed pictures, and the smell of mold, dust and animal droppings permeated every corner. There was nothing wondrous about it at all. We then decided to go to the former slave market, now the site of a catholic church. We made our way across town (you now know the drill - navigating the vendors like a quarterback) and found the historical site. David Livingstone lobbied for an end of the slave trade in the mid 1800’s, but prior to that, Zanzibar was the hub where slaves were taken before being put on ships and sent to other countries. We went down into the basement where hundreds of slaves were chained in a tiny room with seawater and raw sewage running through it. Outside, there is a monument to the slaves. It was a very sobering experience.

\We decided to have an early evening as we needed to get up at 4 am the following morning to catch our plane back to Nairobi. We had a great dinner at the hotel across the street from our own, but then had a frustrating encounter with our front desk clerk yet again when he refused to acknowledge that the hotel was responsible for our ride to the airport (we had the paperwork to prove it), or even assist in getting it straightened out.

All in all, it was a very expensive, not very satisfying weekend I think one of the best things was the view of Kili on the plane ride home. And taking a shower with my sandblaster of a shower back home in Nairobi.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hanging out with the Creative Types

As my fan base maybe disappointed not to find a blog on Monday morning due to my weekend trip to Zanzibar, here’s a little tidbit to keep you going until I return.

The other day, a friend forwarded an email from a member of the Special Libraries Association looking for someone to speak about Knowledge Management in Nairobi. Small world - the woman who had posted the request was someone I had met last Saturday night at dinner. At the time, I didn’t get a chance to talk to her, but made a note that I wanted to in the future.

The posting was a perfect reason and we decided to get together for drinks. It was interesting to learn about her position as an information professional at the US Embassy. One of her responsibilities is to put together library programs throughout Kenya for end-users as well as create professional development programs for MLS students and library professionals. It was fascinating to talk about the future of information management with someone with both an NGO and governmental background.

No sooner had we sat down for drinks, when a colleague of hers phoned and asked if we would be interested in attending the opening of a photography exhibit. The colleague is a public affairs officer and develops embassy-sponsored cultural programs for Kenyans as part of a goodwill effort. The show was in one of the galleries at the same museum I had been at the other evening, and was an exhibit of A Day in the Life of Nairobi. Twelve local photographers were assigned to capture all aspects of the city. There were some great shots of everything ranging from work to play. My favorite was one of a group of children pushing their broken down school bus - a not uncommon sight.

It was an unexpected evening, but even more surprising was that I once again ran into my graphic design friends. Either they pop up everywhere or I do, but I’m definitely starting to get hooked into the local artist community here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


The exciting thing that happened this week is that two of the women who have recently moved to Nairobi have both purchased cars. No more reliance on cabs for them and less reliance on cabs for me.

To inaugurate Risha’s car, we went to a fashion show Saturday night. I had received an invitation to this event earlier in the week and was a bit puzzled as to how I got on the mailing list. The invitation promised the themes of Mafia wives, tribal colors, tattoos and Chinatown - how could I resist a mix like that? The designer was a local and apparently a big name in Kenyan fashion. The event was part of the annual Samosa Festival, designed to bring together Indian and African culture and was held at the Nairobi Museum. We arrived at the time on the invitation, and were told the event would be on Africa time and would start an hour later than stated. Luckily the café was open and we were able to have cool drink and wait.

When we were finally allowed into the hall where the show was to take place, I saw a guy I know setting up cameras. He’s the owner of the web design firm we have been using for ACTwatch, and also does film, has a sound studio and other graphic-type stuff. He’s the one who put me on the invitation list. The room was about half-full and we took our seats and waited for the show to begin. The show was held in the Great Hall which houses a tall, broad installation of painted gourds in the center of the room. A wide marble staircase at one end of the room led up to the galleries. The models had to negotiate about two dozen steps to get to the “runway” which circled the sculpture.

The first designer was a current student and it showed. The pieces were ill-fitting and many looked unfinished. The models did their best though, gingerly making their way up and down the stairs, and attempting to show attitude while wearing very ugly clothes.

During the break, a group of six dancers entertained with a mix of Latin, swing and hip-hop. They started off tentatively, but by the end of their set, had warmed up and looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Next up was another local designer. She was a professional whose clothes were well-finished and fit better. Nothing was particularly cutting-edge or “runway”, nor was it particularly wearable, either. It was pretty middle-of-the road, topped off with a lot of sparkles.

The next diversion was a group of boys who performed acrobatics. Not only were they impressive, but they came dangerously close to the gourd installation, yet somehow managed not to fall into it. That in itself was worth the price of admission.

Finally, the main event - the designs from John Kavete, star of the show. By now, the models were feeling confident going up and down the stairs and were workin’ it. First up, were the “Mafia wives.” The models were dressed in very 80’s like clothes with wide shoulder pads and each carried a cigarette in a holder, 1920’s style. It really makes you wonder where the Kenyans get their information. We couldn’t tell if the next set of designs were the tattoo, Chinatown or tribal color theme, but the clothes were either linen or shiny satin, with some embellishments. They weren’t bad, and at least they fit fairly well.
The show finally ended and we met up with a group of ex-pats at the Mexican/Italian restaurant I had been to before. Unbeknownst to us, it was another venue for the Samosa festival, and a special concert was underway. An Indian/African jazz fusion band was playing and although it made dinner conversation difficult, it was a fun night.

Today, we christened Amy’s car and drove out to the Bizarre Bazaar, a craft fair on the grounds of the Karen Blixen house. This annual event hosts local vendors, but unlike the previous crafts fair I had attended, this was much higher priced. Many of the vendors have nearby shops and we even found some items that had US price tags on them that were marked up at 5 times or more the dollar price. This event clearly catered to the well-heeled westerners and the former colonists of Nairobi, and there wasn’t a black person in sight. There wasn’t anything to buy that couldn’t be found at the Masai market of TJ Maxx for a fraction of the price.

Overall, it was nice to be able to share in the independence that having a car brings, even if it’s someone else’s car.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Eventful Day - Part 2

The second part of the day started off innocently enough. Two weeks ago, the PSI Kenya office had planned an 18th birthday celebration for the organization. It was to be a big to-do with Ministry of Heath Officials, partners and vendors. Unfortunately, the day on which it was planned turned out to be Obama Day, a national holiday here. As I’ve mentioned before, Kenyans take their holidays very seriously and it was decided to postpone the event.

Originally, a senior Pfizer executive who was in Nairobi at the time was scheduled to speak. Since he would no longer be in town, the task fell to the Commercial Manager for East Africa, Willy, a Kenyan gentleman I’ve met a number of times. I hadn’t planned on going to the event, but at about noon when I saw the program and learned that he would be attending, I sent him an email saying that I’d see him later that afternoon.

I immediately got an email back, stating that he was in Johannesburg and I was now the guest speaker. As Willy is quite a joker, I thought he was kidding, but after a few back and forth emails, I determined that he was indeed not pulling my leg. I was now a speaker, but at least no longer the keynote! As I had not intended to attend, I wasn’t dressed for it. In fact, since the office is virtually empty, I wasn’t even dressed well for an average work day. Thankfully, I live close to the office and was able to run home and change into a suit. By the time I got back, it gave me about an hour to prepare what I wanted to say. I had a chance to speak briefly with Willy and learn of any specific points he wanted me to make, but basically, I was on my own.

As an aside, the hotel at which the event took place is at the center of a controversy. The Laico Regency is often the subject of headlines as it was recently sold by someone who did not own it. To make matters more interesting, the seller is a member of parliament.

I was surprised by the size and scope of the party. A troupe of Masai dancers and singers greeted people at the door, and the banquet hall was lined with PSI vendors and partners demonstrating their products. After an hour or so of mingling, we were finally herded into the ballroom for the presentations. Where we waited. And waited. We were waiting for the most esteemed guest, the Minister of Public Health and Sanitation. She was very late arriving, and then had a private tour of each of the vendors.

The program finally kicked off a presentation about the launch of PSI Kenya’s new strategic plan (Pfizer-ites will be familiar with that. Expect it to change in 18 months.) Following that, the head of PSI’s malaria department said a few words and then I was up. I had been initially asked to speak for about 10 minutes, but given that the program was now running quite late, I was requested to limit my talk to just a few minutes or else I’d see the emcee (a local newscaster) give me the hook signal.

Thank goodness for Toastmaster training. I remembered that in a situation such as this, it is important to first acknowledge the guests, especially the Honorable Minister. I then rambled on for a few minutes about Pfizer’s commitment, investment and strategic approach to global health, and the relationship the company has fostered with PSI. When I looked at the emcee, he was giving me the “get off the stage” sign, so I finished up and called it a day. A few more speeches, some photo ops and the receipt of a giant plaque and I was done.

Afterwards at the reception, a woman came up and thanked me for my talk. She explained that both she and the emcee worked for a media company and they train people in public speaking. Said I spoke well, but then asked, “Are you from America? You speak very fast.” And I thought I had slowed it down!

A quick word on Ethiopian food. It’s far tastier than Indian and you get to eat with your hands.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Eventful Day - Part 1

Today started out quite routinely, but ended far differently than expected. I had my first experience with the US Embassy today, was suddenly called upon to give a speech and had Ethiopian food - all unplanned when the day started.

Now that the US election has concluded, I have been appointed to another 4-year term as a Justice of the Peace in Connecticut. Prior to leaving for Kenya, I spoke to the local town clerk and she informed me that I could be sworn in for my term at the US Embassy. I had a few weeks during which to do it, but it was a quiet day at the office and I felt like getting out.

After the bombing in 1998, the US Embassy complex was moved out of the downtown area to a suburb where security could be tighter, and on the surface, it was. There were many armed guards, barbed wire (no different than the average restaurant, actually) and some concrete barricades. I was first waved into the compound merely by answering that I was a US citizen. No showing of passport, or proof of identification. I was told to walk to the security area, bypass the queue where approximately 70 people were waiting in line and go directly into the building. There, my bag and I both went through scanners. I set it off (usually my hair clip), but was waved through. The contents of my purse were examined and my cell phone, camera and hand sanitizer were removed, to be picked up upon my exit.

I was then told to go to the next building, where hundreds of people were waiting both outdoors under a pavilion and inside a large hall with very few wooden benches. By the way, the people in the queue and in the waiting areas were all black. I was waved through once again and told to go into a different waiting room equipped with a TV, private bathrooms and comfortable chairs. There were a few people in front of me, so I waited about 20 minutes for my turn. The woman handling citizen requests was helpful and efficient, but more importantly, she knew to charge money for her services. After coughing up $30, she authorized my signature card to be returned to the Stonington Town Hall. Since I had just spent more money than I have ever charged to perform a wedding, I asked if she could at least send it back to the US, a suggestion she adamantly declined. “Your fee does not cover postage” she said. The total transaction took less than 5 minutes.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Random Thoughts on a Quiet Week

This week has been quiet. Kate is in NY for a Gates Foundation meeting, Tsione and Erik are in Madagascar and I’ve been holding down the fort at the office. It’s been nice, but a little too quiet, and I’ve been able to get some of my specific deliverables and non-time critical work completed. I haven’t done anything particularly exciting, so here are some observations:
  • Kenyan driving. I’ve mentioned before how awful drivers are here. Now I know why. A friend who will be living here for the next 3 years just got her driver’s license. She could have gotten an international license in the US, had someone like Alex the Cab Driver, a “fixer” purchase a license for her, or go to the registry and take a test. She decided to try the test route first. The exam consisted of “driving” a Matchbox car along a game board painted with road patterns and a drive down the road for less then 1/10th of a mile. Buying a car is an experience as well. License plates stay with the car, not the owner, and they are numbered in a way that you can determine the year the car was brought into the country. Tires are extremely expensive here and roads are awful, so it’s one of the things you need to make sure are in good shape. The same friend just rented a house and took me to see it before she moves in. It is in a lovely neighborhood and is a beautiful home. The main house has 3 bedrooms, each with a full bath, a living room, dining room, a very large kitchen and tons of storage space. The guest house is two more bedrooms, bath and small kitchen. There’s also a servant’s quarters, a gardener and two large turtles that come with the house. All for $1,100 a month.

  • Laundry is a big issue here. Most local Kenyans do laundry by hand. I can look out the office window and watch the housekeepers wash and hang enormous amounts of laundry every day. I am very spoiled in that not only does my apartment complex have washers and dryers, but I also have a housekeeper who does my laundry for me. Not all my colleagues are as lucky, and my apartment has become the central point to do their wash. It’s not without its challenges, though. One night, Erik the Intern got “caught” doing laundry by the complex’s caretaker who did not take kindly to outsiders using the facilities. We’ll just have to be more clandestine about it in the future.

  • And speaking of housekeepers, regardless of your station in life here, there is someone lower than you. I was surprised to learn that our administrative assistant, has a housekeeper/child care person. Then, I was even more surprised to learn that the women I watch do laundry in the apartments next to the office are housekeepers, not the residents. Finally, I was stunned to learn that even people who live in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa with 850,00 unofficial residents paying about $14/month for “rent” of what could barely be considered walls and a roof often pay someone to handle their domestic chores. Go figure.

  • Last Sunday, I went to the nearby mall that was hosting a craft fair sponsored by the American Women’s Association (AWA) - a social/charitable organization open to women from the Americas. When I first arrived here, I contacted them via their website to join. Never heard a peep. So, when I saw that they were sponsoring a craft bazaar, I thought I’d stop by and follow up. After checking out all the booths, I stopped by the membership table and explained that I was interested in joining, but no one had ever contacted me. The woman at the desk apologized, made up some excuse about a new membership director, falling through the cracks, etc. and invited me to their next meeting the following Tuesday morning. I said that I wouldn’t be able to make it as I worked and my days were otherwise occupied. The woman scrunched up her face and explained that all their meetings were held during the day. According to her, their membership won’t go out at night because it’s too dangerous. I said that it then precluded anyone who held a job and she said haughtily, “Yes, I suppose it does. Perhaps this isn’t the right organization for you.” As I was walking out, I stopped by a booth and chatted with the woman behind the counter. She asked if I was an AWA member to which I said no. She said she wasn’t either as she was Pilipino, but at least I could join if I wanted to, since I was American. I told her they didn’t want me either and she got a good laugh out of that.

  • Nairobi is growing. Construction of commercial and residental building is everywhere. This is the view from the top of my apartment building. The Sarit Center mall is the white building on the left. Notice the cranes - this the scene all over the city.

  • It’s still raining. Although it mostly happens at night, it’s torrential and leaves the roads flooded and muddy. Here’s my street looking north and south on a dry day.

  • Christmas is coming. The malls are already decorated with trees, wreaths and there are local musical groups singing in the courtyard.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

It’s Mt. Freakin’ Kilimanjaro!

A hot shower, a cold drink and a good meal makes the safari life pretty comfortable. After a good night’s sleep, we woke early for a dawn game drive, hoping to catch lions on the prowl. We didn’t see any, but we saw lots of other animals having breakfast. As the sun came up and the clouds pulled away from Mt. Kilimanjaro, we could see how majestic it really was. This was no little hill in the background. I can see why the challenge of “because it’s there” could be enticing to mountaineers. However, it wasn’t enticing to me at all. Instead, we climbed to the top of a much smaller hill, where we had 360 views of the park with Kilimanjaro on one side. It was a beautiful way to start the day, and my pictures can’t capture the vastness of it.

Back to the lodge for breakfast, a rest before lunch and then heading back to Nairobi. We had wanted to take a box lunch back with us, but that seemed to very much confuse the hotel staff who insisted that it would not be as relaxing as having it in the dining room and would also take over an hour to prepare. We finally convinced them that we could put items from the lunch buffet in a box ourselves, but that seemed very much out of the ordinary as well. Finally, we were allowed to make a plate of food, send it back to the kitchen for wrapping and it would be delivered back to us. In the meantime, we were told to sit, have a drink and a snack and wait. So much for an early departure.

When we finally started to head out of the park, we were rewarded with what we had hoped to see all along - lions. The previous day we had seen a few while they dozed, but we came across a group that was a bit more active. It wasn’t exactly the excitement of seeing a hunt or cubs, but it was still pretty darn good. From even a short distance, they don’t seem particularly threatening, but we still kept safely away, even in the van. We watched them for a bit, and then began the bumpy, dusty road back to Nairobi.
And for those blog fans who were disappointed that I didn’t go into the Karen Blixen house my first weekend in Nairobi, I returned a few weeks later and the tour. The most interesting tidbit is that the no one agrees on how she died and diseases ranging from lung cancer to malnutrition to syphilis are all given. Photos were not allowed inside, but here are few of the house and grounds.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election Day

If you can't be in the US for the presidential election, it's pretty neat to be in Kenya. On Monday, my favorite TV news show called the race in favor of Obama. Never mind that no one in the States had voted yet. They just knew. Today, again before the results were in, the Kenyan president announced a public holiday on Thursday in honor of the country's native son. It's crazy, but I'm not going to argue with a day off. They also believe that, because he is Kenyan, Africa will be at the top of his agenda. I have read this in the media and it surprises me that people insist it is true.

Most Kenyans are extremely enthusiastic about Obama's win. However, due to tribalism, there are some factions, specifically the Kikuyu, who are not supporters. American Kikuyus had initially supported Clinton, but when she dropped out, they mobilized to throw their support to McCain as they would not support Obama's tribe, the Luo. That didn't stop the locals in Obama's ancestral village, Kogelo, though. They slaughtered a cow in honor of his victory and carted his grandmother out in front of media. In other towns throughout the country, celebrations took place and news reports showed people dancing in the streets. I'm not sure what some of the symbolism is, but in one town, people danced with tree branches and in another, with dead fish.

I suspect it will be a while before the excitement dies down, but it's certainly better that the country bands together in celebration rather than a repeat of the violence that occurred earlier this year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dry as a Bone

An elephant bone, that is.

Just a few days after my rafting trip, while the terror was fresh in my mind, I had an email from my pfellow Pfizer Pfellow, Fiona (not Pfiona). She suggested a relaxing trip to Amboseli, another wildlife refuge in Kenya’s national park system. She said that it would be different from Nakuru as it is known for having lots of elephants and lions - two animals we hadn’t seen on our previous trek. And by the way, she said, bring a scarf - it might be a little bit dusty.

We set off early Saturday morning with Michael, the same driver who took us to Nakuru. Although he had only been to this park once before, he felt confident that he could provide a good experience, and given his success last time, we took him at his word. Similar to our previous trip, he said we’d drive for a few hours, stop for a picnic lunch then proceed on to the park. He said that the road leading to the park was “very terrible”, but since all the roads in Kenya are “very terrible” by Western standards, we really didn’t know what to expect.

What we found was that the road before the “very terrible” road was pretty terrible, too. Amboseli is about 125 miles from Nairobi on the Tanzania border, but the last 50 are unpaved. About half of that is on bumpy, but soft, sand so in order not to get stuck, the vehicle has to go fast. Michael wanted to weigh the back of the van down with bags of charcoal bought from the Masai on the side of the road, but didn’t like the prices at which they were offered, so we bounced and were thrown from side to side for nearly two hours.

When we finally arrived at Amboseli, we were “greeted” by a group of Masai women outside the gate selling jewelry and crafts. They were very aggressive in their sales pitches, constantly pushing things through the open window and attempting to get us to hold them, and therefore buy them. It’s not that their stuff isn’t good, but their prices were high and we were quite sure that some of it was made in China. They just don’t take “no” for an answer and it was a relief when we finally had our admission ticket and were able to pass through the entrance.

Amboseli is indeed a dry, arid place. In fact, the name originates from the Masai word for dust. To traverse the park, one must first drive across Lake Amboseli. Yes, drive. The lake is a dust bowl, that occasionally has water in it. One of the first things we saw was a fresh zebra carcass. Michael explained that it had died of starvation, not a predator, as the Amboseli environment is very harsh and survival of the fittest is proven every day.

As we were driving across the lake, we kept looking for Mt. Kilimanjaro, expecting to see something huge and majestic. We saw some mountains, but nothing that matched the picture we had in our mind. You know the one - the great peak rising above the clouds with a snow cap on top. Finally, we saw something that could be Kilimanjaro, but we still weren’t sure. The entire top half was obscured by cloud cover, making the range look like every other one we had seen. We continued on, spotting herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, vultures and finally elephants along the way.

The park lived up to its reputation for having elephants - the place is lousy with them. Family herds were everywhere, even at one point blocking the road while they slowly grazed. It was amazing how close we could get to them, but they clearly know that they have the upper hand. Michael told us that you should not look at an elephant straight on and smile as they do not like to see teeth, but I’m not sure that’s anything more than local folklore.

It was starting to get late, but Michael stopped the car and suggested we visit a Masai village, one of seven situated in the park. Not knowing what we were getting into, we said yes and within seconds, a young Masai girl jumped into the van. She chattered excitedly with Michael, and then suddenly, three Masai boys came out of nowhere, all smiles and laughing. They teased the girl, made her get out and they all crammed into car instead. Clearly, she was someone’s little sister and didn’t stand a chance of staying with the muzungos.

The boys directed Michael down a narrow road only slightly less covered with lava rocks than the area to either side. We finally arrived at a clearing where the boys jumped out. One of them introduced himself as Patrick, son of the village chief. He was very personable, spoke great English and explained that the village was very excited to have visitors. The villagers would sing a welcome song, offer a prayer to us and then we would be shown a typical Masai house and traditional medicines. We knew there would be a price to pay for this, but as of yet, no fee was mentioned.

The Masai had clearly taken an advanced marketing course as they really had a scheme planned for tourists. We knew that we were getting into something, but also knew that it was part of the experience and would probably not have an opportunity to see how the Masai live, even if was orchestrated at a Disney-esque level. While Patrick was telling us about Masai marriage traditions (polygamy is the norm; 10 cows = one new wife), the villagers lined up for the song and dance portion of the program. The invited us to dance with them, as Patrick took photos. Next up was the prayer, where we were told to kneel on the cow-dung covered ground and repeat a refrain.

Patrick then took us into a mud hut to show us a typical home. The ceiling was low, the entryway narrow and the living/bed chamber dark and smoky as there was a fire lit in the center for heat and light. There were two narrow beds on each side of the room, which couldn’t have been more than 6 x 6. This is where an entire family lives, we were told.

We were glad to exit, and were met by Patrick’s buddies who were going to show us some traditional medicines. According to them, the Masai only use western medicine for broken bones and surgeries. All other medical needs are met by local botanicals. The boys then explained that the Masai don’t have matches and demonstrated starting a fire by quickly rolling a stick in one’s hands on a small pile of dung. We were dutifully impressed, but also worried that it was starting to get dark and the road to the lodge would be treacherous.

As we made an attempt to leave, the matter of money finally came up. Patrick told us that “although we don’t get many visitors”, the going rate is 5000 shillings (about $65) per bus. We argued that we weren’t an entire busload, but rather just two of us, and the price should be reduced. After a protracted negotiation, we thought we had settled at 1000 shillings ($13) each, and the condition we take a look at some of the wares the villagers had to sell.

Patrick led us back to the center of the village where the entire village had now formed a circle, each with a blanket covered with jewelry, carvings and trinkets. Neither Fiona nor I wanted anything more than just getting out of there, but felt obligated to buy something. Once again, each person was aggressive in his sales pitch (this time, the women just sat silently) and explained that they personally made the earrings, wooden utensils, knife sheaf, etc. We weren’t buying it - literally or figuratively - and just wanted to get of there quickly and cheaply. Fiona, a better negotiator than I, settled on a pair of over-priced salad tongs. I finally got out of there with some bracelets that cost far too much for what they were, but we got a good story out of it.

Our hasty exit was still hampered by continued negotiation of the visitation fee, which although we thought had been confirmed, the Masai were still trying to up the price. It would have given them plenty of money to buy matches. We’re not sure how it finally ended up, but for some reason, Michael ended up returning 500 shillings to me the following day. I have no idea how that happened, but it was an honest gesture.

We finally got back in the van and headed for the lodge and more importantly, a hot shower to scrub off all the dust and dinner.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Uganda Wrap-Up

The week of working in the Kampala PSI office went quickly. The staff was very friendly and I think they appreciated that I had been sent to lend a hand. They were generous with their time and enjoyed teasing me about my American habits and also found my hair quite curious when I wore it down one day. Although I didn’t see much of Kampala, what I did see is a beautiful city. It is currently the end of their rainy season and everything is lush, green and fertile. Outside the city, I saw healthy tea and sugar cane plantations and in the city, beautiful lawns and gardens. I was staying at the Sheraton, a hotel known for its beautiful gardens. On Sunday, I saw four wedding parties have their photos taken against the background of the garden - the bridesmaids as colorful as the blooming flowers and trees. I read in the local paper that many Ugandans have returned to their home country after years abroad, to help rebuild. This current period of peace and relative prosperity has led to an increase in the marriage rate, and subsequently, the birth rate is higher than earlier projections had anticipated.

My Ugandan culinary experience was oddly limited to Mexican, Chinese and a burger, although I did have a couple of typical lunches. Susan, one of the PSI staff, encouraged me to eat from the selections that are prepared each day by the kitchen staff and set out in chafing dishes on the porch.

There are a lot of starches in the African diet as protein is expensive and hard to come by for average people. The only things I’ve eaten here that I don’t care for are two of the staples, ugali and matoke. Ugali is corn meal that has been cooked, a bit like grits, and then spread out about an inch thick to harden. It’s served with most meals here because, although it has absolutely no taste (it could seriously benefit from some salt, pepper and olive oil!), corn grows well in even the harshest conditions, it is very cheap and fills up hungry bellies. In Uganda, the similar staple is matoke, steamed mashed plantains. Again, it’s totally flavorless, but very much stick-to-your-ribs. A lump of that will stay in your stomach for hours and hours.

Typical 40 Cent Nairobi Lunch. Ugali Under the Fried Egg

My Ugandan colleagues demonstrated their hospitality in preparing a large plate of food for me on my last day. It was smoked fish in groundnut sauce (similar to peanuts) - a typical Ugandan dish. My new friends showed their generosity by heaping the plate with ugali and matoke, as well as a large portion of fish. The fish was tasty, but was not filleted, leaving me with a mouthful of bones. The sauce wasn’t bad (although it was purple and didn’t taste anything like nuts), but the combo was a little odd. I just couldn’t eat the ugali and matoke and felt like a little kid trying to hide it under a pile of fish bones and skin so as not to insult my hosts.

The trip went quickly and I arrived back in Nairobi Thursday night. This time, I was delighted to see Alex the Driver at the airport. Arriving in Nairobi had a very different feel than it had a mere two months ago - it felt familiar and like home, although I wasn’t looking forward to my bed - the one at the Sheraton was pretty darn close to perfection.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Uganda Adventure

Nile River in Jinja, Uganda at Sunset

I’m in Kampala, Uganda right now. I had planned on just coming for the weekend to meet Nancy and Naomi, two other Fellows and go rafting, but when I mentioned my weekend plans to my boss, she suggested I stay a few more days and work out of the PSI office here to get a feel for what a local office is like, as well as help the team complete some of their outstanding deliverables.

The weekend was great. Kampala is a much more social city than Nairobi because it is much safer. We were able to walk to a pub Friday night met a lot of other ex-pats. Saturday we got up very early to catch the rafting company’s van to Jinja, where we were going white water rafting. Nancy had organized some friends to join us, and it was a really fun group. It took about 1.5 hours to get to the base camp where we had breakfast and got fitted with our safety gear. Then, it was a short ride to the part of the Nile where we were putting in. We had the perfect number of people for our raft, so it was just us and our guide, Erik. Erik is a native Jinjan who looks like he is about twelve, but insisted he was 22. He gave us the basics on rafting as we had a mixed group in terms of experience. He then explained that there are 12 rapids through which we will be passing during the day, including a few Class 2 and 3, mostly some 4 and 5s and even a Class 6. The most difficult rapids are 6’s. The names of the rapids were very descriptive - Dead Dutchman, 50/50 (50% chance
of getting out alive) and Widow Maker, to name a few.

The first part of the ride was fairly easy with some Class 2 and 3 water - nothing too hard. We got our rhythm and were working well as a team. However, we lost that confidence when we hit Silverback, a Class 5 rapid that defeated us and we went over. I’m a strong swimmer and confident in the water, but this knocked me for a loop. I got sucked down and turned around so many times, it was hard to figure out which way is up. I finally surfaced, I saw Nancy next to me and a safety boat and a rope in front of me. The kayakers and safety boats that accompanied us were great - they were at everyone’s side within seconds to haul them out of the water, and then embarrass them mercilessly for not managing to stay in the boat. What we later learned is that the guides are quite expert at what they do and often purposely find the spots in the rapids that will make the boat tip over, in order to give the patrons a more memorable experience.

Needless to say, it was a memorable experience and once we plucked all our passengers from the other boats that had picked them up, we were back on our way down river. We had some calm areas for a while and stopped about mid-way through the day for a floating lunch of pineapple and biscuits delivered to each boat. It was a chance to relax, go for a swim and gear up for the last part of the trip where we were to battle a Class 6 appropriately named The Bad Place. After going over a 5-meter waterfall and through a few other rapids, we were nearing the end of our trip. To get to the last rapid, we had to portage a bit, as the water between where we were and where we wanted to be was too difficult to navigate. As we climbed to the top of a cliff, we saw where the boats were to put in again and Mitra, one of Nancy’s friends and I decided that we had had enough. This was the end of the trip, the trucks with our dry clothes were right there, and we saw no reason to take such a risk at the end of the day. As neither of us plan to be professional rafters, it was no dishonor to skip this one.

We stood at the top of the cliff and watched as the rafts navigated the roiling water and, as one-by-one they tipped over, we congratulated ourselves on being so smart to be standing on the sidelines. The rest of our party made a go at the final rapid, but the guide purposely grounded them before they went into the most difficult part. We think that he decided that it was too much for only 2 semi-experienced passengers and 3 novices, so they hauled in. Still, it was a terrific experience.

After a barbeque, we stayed at the rafting campsite Saturday night, just hanging out and talking to the other trekkers. We were exhausted, but managed to stay awake until we got to watch the videotape of our day. I’m sure that every boatful of rafters thinks that their guide was the best and they had a better time than the other boats, but were quite sure it was true in our case, and I bought the video to prove it! I'll eventually put it up on the website, but here are a few pictures. We weren't able to take cameras along the river as they would be lost/ruined, but here are some from the porch of the campsite.

Nile River in Jinja, Uganda at Dawn

Monday, October 20, 2008

Things I Love About Africa

  1. Jacaranda trees other vibrant plants and birds. Nothing is subtle here. Plants and animals are painted in bright colors not found in nature. But wait - it IS nature!
  2. Avocados and other tropical fruits are inexpensive and delicious. Too bad I don't like tropical fruits.
  3. A wonderful housekeeper who does my laundry and changes my sheets twice a week, and tries to get me to go to church with her.
  4. Katembas where you can buy lunch for 40 cents. I think the food is probably safe to eat, but the dishes and utensils are a bit suspect.
  5. NGO staffers are incredibly committed to their cause. They really do want to make a difference in the world and are not just here for the adventure.
  6. When it’s not raining, the weather is great - temperate, not humid and lots of sunshine.
  7. The people are very warm and friendly, and love to discuss US politics.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Things I Hate About Africa

  1. The metric system. I have no idea how much of anything I buy at the grocery store, let alone a unit price; how fast I go in a car; how far I go on the treadmill; how much a baby elephant weighs.
  2. Military time. What is with that? Not only does the power go off in the apartment fairly regularly so that I have to reset the clock on the microwave and add 12 to whatever time it REALLY is, but the TV Guide lists programs in military time, and they are either an hour ahead or an hour behind what is printed. I still haven’t figured out which it is.
  3. Driving on the wrong side of the road. I consistently look the wrong way when crossing a street and have very narrowly escaped getting hit by cars.
  4. Celsius. When the temperature is always somewhere between 20 and 23 degrees, it doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but the difference between 68 and 75 is significant.
  5. Speed bumps. They are everywhere here, making me think that a car is slowing down next to me for some nefarious reason, rather than to just calm traffic.
  6. Everything is SLOW. Nothing happens quickly here. Time does not equal money. There is no such thing as a quick run to the grocery store, as people are moving up and down the aisles with the speed of slugs. The only thing moving slower than the customers is the staff.
  7. Telephones. Countries have all different numbering conventions - some with 8 digits, some with 15. Calling cell-to-cell is different than cell-to-land line. Many of the African countries don’t have an infrastructure that even allows for any reliability and the Kenyan system is often overloaded. Good thing I don’t have anyone to call.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into Africa - Part 2

Courting Giraffes
Sunday morning we were up early and ready to go. After being reprimanded by the hotel manager for taking coffee, bread and bananas to go (“That’s a full breakfast - you cannot return!”), we headed out in search of big cats. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any, but we had a lovely drive and came across some graceful giraffes performing a courtship dance. We didn’t stick around to see the results, but apparently many of the giraffes in the park are pregnant, so the dance is successful. We also spotted a jackal, and many other animals having breakfast.


Upon returning to the lodge for a rest (snoozing by the pool), we picked up our box lunches and left the park and headed for Lake Naivasha. The Rift Valley is an example of diverging tectonic plates, where molten lava pushed through the earth’s crust separating into two plates. A lake formed in the middle and you can see the dormant volcano above the lake, as well as others throughout the valley. We were told we could take a boat ride to an island, walk among the animals and then we would head back to Nairobi. Once again, it all sounded a bit nebulous, but Michael knew what he was doing.

We arrived at the camp, ate lunch and then hopped into a skiff with Captain John. He immediately took us to see a family of sleeping hippos, and pointed out many different species of birds along the shore. A little further down the coastline, there was a large group of people picnicking. The lake area is known for its greenhouses, and these were the employees enjoying a day off with their families, friends, donkeys and camels. Some of the men were net fishing and we pulled alongside and, again after much negotiation, bought some fish to be later thrown to the Fisher Eagles.Sleeping Hippos / Local Fisherman

The next stop was Crescent Island. No longer an actual island, this piece of land was where the movie Out of Africa was filmed in 1985. Prior to that, there was very little wildlife there, but thanks to Hollywood and a Noah’s ark-like maneuver, the island now has large herds of wildebeest, antelope, gazelle, dik dik, zebra and giraffes. Our guide Simon explained that we could walk around the island without fear of being trampled by animals as they were “very social”. We took him at his word and started off.

The island was beautiful with gently sloping hills, lush greenery and animals everywhere. Some of them had had a better year than others, as one of the first things we came across was a buffalo carcass. We were able to get very close to a giraffe, and learned that, according to Simon, wildebeest are the most stupid of all of God’s creatures as they follow the same migratory path year after year, knowing that it brings them directly into the path of crocodiles, lions and cheetahs.

Wildebeest / Bad Day for Buffalo

After an hour or so of wandering among the animals, we got back in the boat to feed the Fisher Eagles. Captain John would spot them in the trees, whistle to catch their attention and then throw a fish in the water. Within seconds, the eagle would swoop down and pluck it out of the lake. It was very impressive.

Although we had exerted very little actual effort throughout the day, we were happy to return to the van and head back to Nairobi. We took the same route back, but a short way outside of Naivasha, Michael suddenly pulled the van over to the side of the road were there were dozens of people milling around. A boy jumped into the front seat and Michael explained that it was his son who was heading to the city. It seemed a bit random to us, but we were too tired to try to understand it better.

Fisher Eagle with Fish (really)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Into Africa - Part 1

This weekend, I finally got out of the city and went on my first safari. Not only was the actual safari a great time with lots of animals, but the planning, as well as the ride there were also quite an experience. Earlier in the week, I had dinner with my Pfizer colleague, Fiona. She had just arrived from Ireland and was already for an adventure. As I was leaving her apartment, we were chatting with Alex the Taxi Driver and he said he could arrange a trip to the wildlife park at Lake Nakuru, along with a boat ride on Lake Navaisha with one of his drivers.

On the surface, this sounded like a great idea, but upon further examination, we started to doubt whether he could pull it off. The trip was to be with one of his drivers, and our first concern was that his Nairobi guy would know where to go in the park to see the wild beasts. Then, we worried that we would be trekking in a beat-up Toyota Camry, instead of a 4-wheel drive Jeep with an open roof. And finally, Alex said he could get us a room, but what kind? “Hotels” that I’ve seen along the side of the road aren’t what we would consider a room. They advertise that they have water and cost about $2.50 per night (or maybe hour?)

After much debate, we decided to give Alex a chance and see what happened. We negotiated a price, which eventually had a stipulation that if we met up with two other people at the lodge, we would get $100 US back. Even that sounded skeptical, but we decided to take a flyer.

At the very respectable hour of 10:00 am, we started on the road with Michael, the driver. He had a ramshackle van which looked pretty ordinary, but as it turned out, its roof popped up for better camera shots. We headed northwest out of the city, with the first stop being a high escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. It was a spectacular view, with the obligatory stop at a souvenir stand.

The Great Rift Valley

Along the way, Michael gave a running commentary about the land, the people and the animals. He travels the road often as his family lives in Nakuru and although he must live in Nairobi to earn a living, he tries to go home every few months to see his wife and eight children. We saw many Masai herding their cattle and goats, and he explained that the Masai consider the land on the west side of the road theirs and rarely cross to the other side. This time of year, the ground was quite dry and the tribesmen have to move their herds frequently to keep them fed. The short rainy season should start soon, so there will be more green grass shortly. As we traveled north, we also saw a relatively small Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp. These tents have been made available to people who have been forced out of their homes primarily due to the tribally motivated political unrest earlier in the year. It’s a sad thing to see, as even the poorest of the poor seem better off. We also saw men (some women, but mostly men), just laying on the side of the road. There would be nothing in any direction - no buildings, no cattle, just a guy dozing on the road side. It was as if they were waiting for Godot, and nothing would ever happen, but they would return the next day.

We finally arrived at the Lake Nakuru Wildlife Park around 1 and ate our picnic lunch before entering the reserve. We experienced our first taste of “safari” on the ride to the lodge and spent a few hours looking at antelope, gazelle, zebras, white rhinos and buffalo. In the distance, we could see the lake, rimmed with pink from the thousands of flamingos who stand at its edge.
Cheeky Baboon
Blase Buffalo

We were pleasantly surprised when we got to the hotel as it was gorgeous. Clearly, this was a holdover from colonial times and the Brits sure knew how to pick a good property site. Lake Nakuru Lodge is perched high up on a cliff, overlooking the valley and the lake, with unobstructed views. It has beautifully landscaped grounds, and even a Masai warrior employed to shoo away the baboons and any other wildlife that attempted to enter. The rooms were clean and serviceable and most importantly, a great shower with plenty of hot water.

Lake Nakuru Lodge at Dawn

We took a brief rest by the pool and were told to meet Michael at 4 for a late afternoon game drive. When we got to the van, lo and behold, there were the two other people Alex had mentioned and a crisp $100 bill. Chalk up another point for Alex! Tammy and James work for a British consultancy and had been at the lodge all week facilitating a meeting. They decided to stay on a few extra days to enjoy the park before heading back to London. They were fun and easy to travel with, and we spent the rest of the time with them. The afternoon game drive immediately produced two female lions, however they were quite distance. Michael had expert eyes and was able to spot things that I couldn’t see even when we were practically upon them. He insisted it was because I was white and that black people have better vision. I think it’s because it’s time for a revision to my Lasik surgery.
Lioness in the Distance (really)
Ostriches and Rhinos

We then drove down by the lake were we were able to get out of the van and walk to the edge of the water. There were flamingos as far as the eye could see, creating a noisy, fluttery pink rim around the perimeter. There were also groups of white pelicans and the odd cormorant and crane. I’m told that Kenya, and particularly the lake regions, are great places for birders. I don’t pay that much attention to those sharp clawed and spiky beaked creatures, but I did notice that many of the birds had extremely vibrant colors.
Flamingos on the Shore of Lake Nakuru
White Pelicans
More Flamingos

As we headed back to the lodge, we saw got very close to a dozing rhino and a very alert hyenna. The buffalo gave us wary looks and the baboons just continued being their naughty selves. We had a tasty dinner and headed to our rooms with a reminder from Michael to be ready at 6:30 am to go out to find the King of the Animals - the lion!

Dozing White Rhino

Part 2 tomorrow…