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.


Anonymous said...

It's good to hear you arrived safe and sound. You're first days were a whirlwind! Your blog is fascinating and a pleasure to read. I am looking forward to following your adventures over the coming months, and experiencing Kenya vicariously through you! Take care. Mike Wuenscher & Family

Buffalo Girl said...

Wow! and so the adventure kicks off! Your blog was excellent reading, great descriptions that make it easy to "see" what you are experiencing! Love the dinner with the flag, what fun. Can't wait to read your next post and get some pictures if you ever work that out. All the best! Laura

Julie Rackliffe Lucey said...

Hooray, Marge! Glad you're there, glad you're safe and can't wait to live it out in the blog-a-sphere! Everyone listened with rapt attention (George even stayed awake) and we're on board for the next installment.
Have a blast! Julie, George and Madeleine

AFM said...

Hi- I just wrote a long comment and somehow deleted it! So glad to hear from you. I will try again tomorrow. Don't worry about you being to long - the more we hear from you the better!!!! I love hearing the political perspectives and find it interesting that people are immediately willing to share opinions with you. Keep'm coming. Best,

DStanley said...

Great to hear from you, Marge! Please keep the postings coming. All of us back home are enthralled with your adventure already!

Very best wishes,

Dale and Debi

cherylschwartz said...

Loved reading your blog, can't wait for the next installment of your adventure! By the way - it's clear that you have never lived in NYC, because that place looks palatial to me! By NY standards - that's a "chef's kitchen" :) Enjoy, Cheryl

psullivan said...

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine

hey lady: wordup from wrentham and your non-traveling one-page only friends here.

what a great idea this blog is - it does save on email and your curious friends can also learn about each other in the process!

i thought, like cheryl said, it wasn't so bad an apartment - but having lived in a house for so long (as have you), I imagine it is hard to stay in what seems like a confined space. good thing you travel light!

it sounds amazing so far - and somewhat reminiscent of what lynne smith went through in Dubai years ago. that clash of expectation and reality (e.g., people having copiers but not using them, no light fixtures, etc.). i loved Alex the Driver's take on McCain - how funny we are that when we think of our 'elders' we only think in terms of how old they look and what sickness they might have, not all their wisdom.

miss you - though probably not as much as i will eventually as it's much like usual except instead of several emails a week there is this blog. write when you can - i'll fill you in on jeff's car accident (all are fine, someone else's car isn't), their gig at church of boston in the fenway, and the fact that my little buddy brian in connecticut is probably giving notice today. aaaaaaah!

c-ya -