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.

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