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.