Sunday, September 28, 2008

Name that Fruit

Last week I mentioned that I went to a farmer’s market and was able to stock up on fresh fruit and veggies at very low prices. Locally grown avocados were about 10 cents each, probably the best deal to be had. I also bought a bag of these fruits, but I’m not sure what they are. The seller showed me that the skin gets peeled off to reveal a sweet flesh, with a texture sort of like a pear, but a less grainy. At first I thought there was a pit in the middle, but it turns out that it’s actually a cluster of about five seed pods. Anyone know what this is? It’s very tasty.

I went to the Masai market on Saturday to see what it was all about. In the parking lot of the court house, hundreds of vendors lay their wares on the ground for tourists to buy. Everyone has pretty much the same stuff - beaded bracelets, woven baskets, some sculptures and wooden goods. As soon as you walk in, someone comes up and explains that he will guide you through and if you pick out items, he will negotiate the lot for you from different vendors. The guy then follows you around the entire time. Just when you think you’ve finally lost him, he appears out of nowhere. The vendors themselves are very aggressive. They see a mzungo coming and know that there is money to be had. They grab you by the arm and introduce themselves and try to drag you over to their goods. If this were New York, it would be easy to just ignore or yell at these guys, but here, it seems so wrong. I didn’t buy anything this time, but I’m sure I’ll return and stock up on souvenirs to bring home.

This week we finally move to the new office so I’ll have a bit more flexibility as I can walk to work. We’ve got a busy week ahead with lots of deliverables and deadlines. One country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has already gone out into the field to administer the survey we’ve been working on and the others are set to go over the next couple of weeks. I think we have a holiday on Wednesday as it is the end of Ramadan. Even though this isn’t a majority Muslim country, any excuse for a holiday seems to be accepted.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It’s Not So Black and White

It’s been a quiet week here in Nairobi, one that has mostly centered on work. As the launch date for the various countries in which the ACTwatch surveys will be conducted approaches, there’s lots to do to get all the documentation in order and the interviewers prepared. It’s a complex project with lots of moving parts, but I think it’s starting to take shape and we’ll be able to launch on time. I hope so - apparently that’s what I’m here to do!

I had an interesting conversation with Mike, my across the cube-mate the other day. We were staring out the window watching progress on the construction site (a favorite pastime I’ll miss when we move office this week) and chatting. I said that I noticed that I’m treated differently from black people when I go to shops, restaurants or even by the guards who stand watch at every building here. He said that although Kenya won its independence forty years ago, many Kenyans - even young ones born long after British rule - still believe that white people are superior, until proven otherwise. I found that hard to believe, but Mike said that it’s a cultural phenomenon that just can’t be shaken. White people - mzungos - are seen both as better than locals, but at the same time, easy marks for anything from higher prices to outright theft. I realize Mike doesn’t speak for all Kenyans, but he has an interesting perspective, as he navigates his way to the middle class.

When you combine this thinking with annual performance reviews, you find yourself at an impasse. It’s that time of year at my NGO, and for the first time, the 360 process is being used. There seems to be some challenges (corporate speak for bad managers) in some areas of the organization, but Kenyans are reluctant to say exactly what they are thinking, especially to white management. This has resulted in a number of locals quitting the business, but not being willing to say why. It’s a challenge for the organization in terms of retaining good people and weeding out the bad.

On a more shallow note, I finally tried dinner in the restaurant at the apartment complex the other night. It was good, but completely empty the entire time. The host/bartender/chef said that most people order room service because they all stay inside their apartments and get on the net. That might explain why I never see anyone around here. The food was good, and it was a nice change from the rice, beans and lentils that I have for lunch most days. Turns out that although the food was reasonably priced, the drinks were not and my G+Ts ended up costing more than my dinner!

This weekend, one of my co-workers took me to a local market. It wasn’t too far from where I live, but roads are circuitous and none seem to go directly from Point A to Point B. The market had hundreds of vendors, all selling local fruit and vegetables for a fraction of what is found in the grocery stores. The quality varied from stall to stall, but the sellers enjoyed trying to get the mzungos to pay more than the locals. My co-worker had brought along the nanny for her children (as well as the kids), so she did some of the negotiations for us. We got to try a number of tropical fruits, and my friend and I bought a watermelon - a real treat to finally have some fresh fruit.

That’s it for this week - sorry there aren’t any pictures. I keep forgetting to take them, even though I have the camera with me all the time.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What's Cuter Than a Baby Elephant?


Twelve baby elephants! Today Erik the Intern and I went to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The members of the trust rescue orphaned baby elephants, care for them for many years and eventually release them into the Tsavo National Park. It’s only open for one hour each day when the elephants are taken for a walk to a watering hole, and given tree branches to eat and play with, and allow the tourists to gawk and pose with them. The littlest was just two months old, with an even younger one expected to arrive tomorrow. One of the keepers explained that elephants are most frequently orphaned due to man-made reasons - poachers, snares and the newest arrival is a victim of falling down a well. Even in just a short hour, it was clear that these little guys had very distinct personalities. Some were shy and others were more outgoing, hamming it up with the tourists for photos. The keepers are rotated so that the elephants don’t become too attached to any one person, and eventually they are weaned off humans and find other elephant companions more interesting.

After the elephants, Alex the Cab Driver took us to the Giraffe Center, a short drive away. He knows his shortcuts and took us down a “road” where he had to maneuver his car between two narrow cement pillars, clearly designed to keep cars out. However, it was indeed a quicker way because noticed that about 20 minutes after we arrived, other visitors to the elephant orphanage showed up, too.

We got there at a great time when 5 giraffes were hanging out by the visitor center. A nice guide gave us a handful of Purina Giraffe Chow, and showed us how to feed them. He then demonstrated that some of the giraffes have learned how to eat the pellets out of visitor’s mouths. I wasn’t into having a giraffe’s long, purple tongue slurping a pellet from my lips, but it was lots of fun watching others do it.

As a final destination, Alex then took us by the Karen Blixen house. He didn’t recommend going inside - he said it wasn’t worth the admission price - but we parked in front and had a photo op.
So, that was my first official Nairobi animal adventure. The elephants were a great value - less than $5 bucks for a fun, informative hour. The giraffes were about $10 and that seemed a little steep for a couple of handfuls of pellets, but the kicker was Alex who wanted 4500 Shillings - about $65 - for our adventure. We negotiated a new rate, but Alex is wearing thin, and I think it’s time to use a new cab for future trips.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kenyan TV

The nights have been pretty long here, as it gets dark early, so there is little more I can do than stay in my apartment and read, fiddle with the computer, and watch TV. I am very fortunate in that I have a color TV with satellite reception and get about a dozen channels. What’s funny is that each night when I turn the TV on, the channels are different. Sometimes, the movie channel is on Channel 7, other times it’s on Channel 5. Each evening I run the auto programming function and see what comes up.

There are lots of American, British and Australian TV shows, as well as a few local African ones. Series seem to be a year or so behind the US, but pretty much everything you would find in the US is on here. There’s lots of Tyra and Oprah, as well as dramas and sit coms. I can’t get used to the times, though. Shows don’t always start on the hour or half-hour, clocks are set to military time and the TV listing book notes that it is off by an hour.

There is a local morning show that is quickly becoming a favorite by which to eat breakfast. Each day, a reporter is sent to a location to do a live shot. The first day, this well-dressed young gentleman was sent to a Nairobi slum to interview tuk-tuk drivers. These are men, often the poorest of the poor, who carry rickshaw-like vehicles filled with people or heavy goods from one side of the city to the other. There are frequent accidents and fatalities are not uncommon. The reporter didn’t have much to say, and he was clearly uncomfortable among these men who were equally uncomfortable around him. In order to fill time, the newscaster started talking about how he felt the government should get involved in training and insuring these drivers. It was very unusual to hear a reporter give his own thoughts, rather than an unbiased, journalistic account.

The following day, the same reporter was sent to a luxury hotel in the center of the city to eat breakfast. I think the basis for the story was about the importance of eating healthy food in the morning, but this seemed so unattainable to the average Kenyan, it was surreal. First, the chef walked the reporter through the bountiful buffet where he taught the newscaster how to eat a bowl of cereal (just add milk.) Then, an omelet was prepared and we watched while he was served at his table, ate it with gusto and washed it down with a latte.

Today, my newscaster-on-the-spot was at a local driving school. The driving instructor was explaining various traffic symbols on something similar to a Monopoly board, when he pointed out a pedestrian crossing. The interviewer asked if that could also be called a zebra crossing to which the instructor said defiantly, “Absolutely not. That is British. When Kenya won its independence, these became pedestrian crossings.” It was a very heartfelt statement to which the reporter rolled his eyes directly into the camera. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Gotta go - time to watch The Simpsons!

By the way, here's a picture of the construction site outside my office. You can see the wall that they are building on the far side, and the "piles" that were dug in by hand.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Days

Sorry - another long post, but the internet has been down for hours so I've had time to write.

It’s been a few more days here and I’m feeling surprisingly settled. I survived the weekend doing mundane things like trying to get my cell phone working and visiting the mall and buying a street map. The cell still is a problem, but I now feel like a bona fide mallrat. I made another visit to the nice grocery store and picked up some items, but the key is to remember to buy only what I can carry home. This means that heavy items like water, I buy from the closer, but not as nice store. I prefer to buy fruit, veggies and dairy from the nicer, further store. I still haven’t bought any protein items to cook as I’m not thoroughly confident in the raw food here yet. I also have to remember to somehow shop for the week as a quick run out after work is out of the question.

My sleeping patterns are still a bit off, so I haven’t been waking up until about 6:30 am - that’s when I’m usually in the office! I haven’t quite gotten on track yet and find that I’m wide awake around midnight (5 pm EST) and have trouble falling asleep. I finally do around 3, wake up a few hours later and am exhausted for the first part of the morning. It’s getting better, and I suspect by next week, I’ll be back to my normal poor sleeping habits.

Mornings are a bit of a challenge. First, I have to remember to turn on the hot water heater about 30 minutes before I want to take a shower and then I brush my teeth using bottled water. I eat breakfast at home, then get picked up at 8:15 for the short ride to pick up Erik and then to the office. Everyday we seem to take a different route however, and when I asked the driver, he gave a hazy answer. I think some days, he’s just not in much of a hurry and wants to chat longer. Today he was excited because he heard that McCain was up a few points in a poll.

My manager, Kate, arrived yesterday after being in Zambia for the past week. She’s very nice and thrilled that both Erik and I are here to assist her. The funds provided by the Gates Foundation have established ACTwatch, a program to conduct surveys in eight African and Asian countries around access to malaria medicines, cost and distribution. The first surveys are about to start now, and will be conducted regularly over the next five years. This survey is designed to get a lot of data and can be complicated in terms of understanding how the medicines are dosed. Each country does things differently, and the familiar US sterile drugstore is a rare thing in developing countries. There are some government regulated dispensaries, but it is not unusual to find someone selling medicine (real, fake and traditional) from their home or bicycle. Not only do the interviewers ask about the therapies and dosages themselves, but they also note their observations in terms of what the roof and walls of the “shop” are made from. First however, the interviewers have to be trained. My initial task is to take the learnings from the primary set of training sessions and develop a comprehensive, consistent set of documents that will be posted on the ACTwatch website to which the survey administrators can refer back.

That’s all well and good, except that Internet access is a bit sketchy. Today, the net has been down for hours, pretty much grinding my work to a halt. I’ve learned the hard way that if I find something I need on the net, to copy it temporarily somewhere so I can have it handy later. While I wait, I am spell-checking some documents, specifically for drug names. It’s hard without internet access and I wish I had thought to ship my reference books. Thanks to my colleagues, they will be on their way soon, as well as any other resources they can contribute. I’m glad I brought my Strunk & White though, as I have a feeling that will come in very handy.

The day ends about 6:15 pm, when it becomes too dark to see in the office anymore (remember, Barclays took all the ceiling fixtures!) Our move date is Sept. 25 and although the new office doesn’t have some of the amenities we have here (tea and chapatti ladies), it does have overhead lights. I suspect this will be about the same time our Pfizer offices move, so don’t think that I’m getting away easy. Alex then drives us to our homes and we’re in for the night. I go to the gym (I don’t think the pool is going to be an option), make some dinner, turn on the TV and connect back home. It’s not that different from life in the US, except I can’t go back out.

I finally figured out how to get TV channels in more clearly, so I actually have quite a few options. There’s BBC and CNN, as well as lots of American and Australian shows and two movie channels. Shows are a bit dated, but I had some catching up to do, anyway. My early favorite is a Spanish telenovella, The Two Faces of Ana. Although it’s dubbed (poorly) in English, the actor’s expressions are priceless, but I still haven’t figured out which character Ana is.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


I arrived in Nairobi Wednesday night, after 15 hours in the air and two hours in Amsterdam. One of the great things about traveling this distance is being able to be in business class. Although I never really slept on the plane, I was able to stretch out and be more comfortable. I also watched a slew of movies, thanks to my insomniac tendencies. Everything went fine on the way over and I arrived in Nairobi around 8:30 pm. After collecting my baggage (amazingly within the weight limit), I was met at the airport by my driver, Alex. Alex is a taxi driver who works a lot for PSI, my NGO. He is very nice and loves talking about American politics. We had a lively discussion about the election and surprisingly, he’s a McCain man. He said it has nothing to do with black or white, but age and experience. “McCain is an elder - people should listen to him.” Alex is from the Kikuyu tribe and takes these things very seriously.

By the time I arrived at the apartment complex, it was about 10 pm and I was exhausted. Alex had the key and showed me around. There wasn’t much “around” to be shown - it’s a very small unit, much like a college dorm room. At first, I was ready to turn around and go home, but after even a few hours of rocky sleep and a shower, things looked better in the morning.

The apartment consists of one room that is divided into a living and kitchen area, a bedroom and a bathroom with shower. The space probably isn’t as small as it feels, but it has heavy furniture in it that makes it very crowded. My shins are already bruised from banging into table corners. The nicest part is a small balcony with two chairs and a table overlooking the front of the complex. There are window boxes planted with geraniums and lots of tall trees providing shade. That morning, I went to the manager’s office to check in and was given a large stack of forms. Kenyans really like procedure. There were pages about security, pages about housekeeping and pages and pages of inventory of the unit, down to the last spoon. I took careful note of everything in the apartment (and the things that weren’t), signed the form and expected a copy. But, no. That’s not how things are done. Although I know that the manager has a copy machine behind her desk, she asked me to fill out and sign a second form.

I learned today that although I was a little disappointed I wasn’t staying in the first place I was told, where I am is infinitely better than where an intern from Johns Hopkins, also working at PSI, is staying. His complex looks a little rough, although gated (as everything is here.) At my apartment, I was told by the very proud manager that the security force is the same one used by the UN and there is an armed guard at night - something not every complex can boast. Eric, the intern, also asked if he could come by over the weekend to use my laundry facilities. I haven’t yet found them because I was told I could employ my housekeeper to do it for me. I know that sounds luxurious, but it’s part of the economy here and the women anticipate the extra income. There is also a restaurant on the site (with three tables), a surprisingly well-equipped gym and an outdoor pool. I didn’t dare mention any of that to Eric! I also have satellite TV, but with just a few stations available. The ones that seem to come in best are the Soccer Channel and Al Jazerra. It’s been interesting listening to their spin on the Republican Convention - it’s enough to make me start watching soccer!

On Thursday, Alex picked me up to go into the office. Currently, the PSI offices are in the Danish Embassy compound, but they will be moving at the end of the month to a location about ¼ mile down the road from my apartment. The offices are typical 1980’s style - gray cubicles and glass-walled corner offices. At first I thought the PSI people were very energy conscious as there were no lights on, but as the day clouded up and the room got darker, I looked at the ceiling and noticed all the light fixtures were missing. Apparently, Barclays Bank is taking over this complex and in the process of kicking out all the tenants (including the Danes) has already dismantled parts of the building. I’m in a cube space adjacent to Mike, a Kenyan who is working on research projects for population control. He’s very nice and funny and also loves American politics (an Obama man because he’s young and energetic).

We have a large window overlooking a construction site that is fascinating to watch. There is virtually no heavy machinery in the pit - only a few wheelbarrows and a small cement mixer. Everything is done by hand. Cement is thrown against the dark red clay soil to form the exterior retaining walls, then it is lined with cinder blocks. Buckets of cement and water are toted by hand, by one man who must be more than exhausted by the end of the day. What’s most amazing about the site is how quiet it is because there is no drilling, no pile drivers, no Bobcats. Just a lot of men purposely swarming around a hole. In just the two days I’ve been watching I’ve seen remarkable progress. Speaking of construction, Nairobi is booming. Even in the dark coming in from the airport I could see sites in progress and cranes dotting the skyline. Nairobi is truly the hub of East Africa and its phenomenal growth shows that.

My first days in the office have been pretty quiet. My manager has been traveling the past few weeks and is due back on Monday. In the meantime, I’ve been doing some background reading and trying to get up to speed. Yesterday I attempted to read grant proposals, but found myself reading the same sentence over and over again. In the morning, the beverage lady came by to offer tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Since I didn’t have any money yet, I declined. Around 11, the chapatti lady comes by with a snack. At 12:30, the lunch lady comes to take your order. There is a cafeteria in the complex and food is brought to your desk. Yesterday, I was loaned money for the chicken plate - stewed chicken with rice and some sort of green. It wasn’t bad, and cost about $4.50.

By mid-afternoon, a PSI colleague took pity on me and took me to Westlands Mall, the shopping area near my home. We did some banking as I still didn’t have any Kenyan Shillings, and picked up groceries in a Cost-Co like store. The market sold everything from food to appliances, to furniture to even motorcycles. I just bought some staples to get me through the first few days. The mall was very modern with some familiar stores, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, a movie theater and beauty salons. It’s not very large, but certainly would have everything I need. There is also another mall within walking distance from my home that has similar stores. In general, things do tend to be expensive here. I picked up just a few items, and being thrifty, went for low-cost brands and still spent $30 on eggs, cheese, yogurt, rolls, pasta, oranges, water, crackers and microwave popcorn. Still, there is lots of variety and I can’t imagine that there will be much that I miss. The following day I explored the Sarit Center, another mall that is even closer to my home. This one isn’t as upscale as Westlands, but is perfectly serviceable, also with a larger grocery store. It will certainly be more convenient when carrying bottles of water home.

To finish up my first few days here, I met another Fellow for dinner last night. She has been in Rwanda for a little more than a month and is visiting friends who are passing through Nairobi. We ate at Carnivore, a nyama choma restaurant where you are served a never-ending stream of roasted meats until you finally put the little flag on your table down in surrender. Unfortunately, wildebeest and zebra weren’t on the menu that night, but we did have crocodile, ostrich and gizzards. We all had a good time, and Eric the Intern put our Ravneesh to shame in the quantity he was able to consume. The friend of the friend of my friend (got that?) is a 4th generation native Kenyan Indian and is in the safari tour business, so he was a good person to meet. He’s had some amazing adventures and hopefully I’ll be able to experience some, too.

Apologies for the long post, but there was a lot to catch up on and set the scene. I’m not sure what the plans are for the weekend, I’m leaving that up to Alex the Driver to decide what it is that he thinks I should see/do first. However, I am finally connected to the internet at home, which will make it easier to correspond as there is a 7 hour time difference. Just as I’m coming home from work, friends and family in the US will be arriving.