Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
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.