Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The End of This Adventure

My final week in Nairobi was filled with last-minute errands, a speech at the US Embassy and farewell get-togethers with friends. The speech went very well, with about 25 local information science professors, librarians and government and NGO representatives attending. They were extremely attentive and asked great questions. The key point I had wanted to get across was that information professionals - whether in knowledge management, library science or competitive intelligence - need to provide value-added analysis, rather than just point clients to information repositories. The group took it to heart and gave some great examples of where they could start employing that strategy immediately within their organizations.

I also picked up my custom made shirts (ugly, but well-made and carry fond memories) and ran a gauntlet of going-away dinners. It was great fun, and hard to say goodbye to a group of very kind, interesting and welcoming new friends.

I arrived in Boston on Saturday, after an uneventful, but long, series of flights. My plane actually landed nearly an hour early and I sailed through immigration and customs with merely a “Welcome to Bahston, Mahjorie,” from the Immigration Officer. Friends (and dogs) cheerfully met me at the airport and we headed to my sister’s house to meet my family for lunch. It was nice to catch up in person, after months of instant messaging and a few phone calls. Returning to Connecticut, I found my house to be in terrific shape, thanks to a great friend/house sitter.

Even though I had been warned that “re-entry” would be challenging and difficult to absorb, at this point, I haven’t experienced it (aside from having to shovel a foot of snow.) My time in Nairobi was eye-opening in terms of how governments and NGOs operate, but in fact, I lived a very easy, modern life there. For ex-pats and those with money, it can be a charmed life with great housing, household staff, and trendy restaurants and shops. On the work front, having had no prior exposure to NGOs, my limited time and contact with the NGO world has left me quite disappointed and frustrated. From what I can see, NGOs have created infrastructures that do very little capacity building, but rather create institutions that will remain in-country in perpetuity. If NGOs were doing their jobs well, they would be working themselves out of jobs, but I did not see that. I strongly believe that if all aid funding were cut, there would indeed be dramatic and terrible results, but ultimately, it would force local governments to stand on their own and eliminate the reliance, complacency and corruption that constitute the current status. It’s a harsh stand, but the existing co-dependency will never be resolved if neither party has any incentive to do so.

Although my visit to Africa was enjoyable and hardly all-encompassing, I think it unlikely I will return to the continent. The people, culture and scenery were wonderful, but there are many other places I now want to visit. Living and traveling in a new place has rekindled my desire to travel and finally use some of the vacation time I’ve accumulated over the years. Stay tuned for the next adventure.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Count Down

This is my last week in Nairobi and I’m trying to make sure that I don’t leave any loose ends at work, as well as complete any last minute shopping and say goodbye to friends. The week is shaping up to be busy, but it will be fun, too with some interesting events.

Last Thursday, I went to the US Embassy to meet with a woman I had met in the Fall who is the head of Information Services. She wanted me to speak with her colleague about giving a talk about Knowledge Management and Competitive Intelligence. Going to the Embassy is always an adventure because most of your possessions are taken from you - cell phone, camera, hand sanitizer, lipstick - before you can enter the compound. Even my pen and pad of paper were considered suspect. I wish I had visited the Embassy library earlier in my time in Kenya as it is a beautiful space and is a full-service lending library. I had run out of good books to read and had been swapping with friends, but access to a library would have been terrific.

The purpose of Embassy libraries is not only to provide access to resources and services to Americans, but also to promote America to the local population. The library is open to the public, but in the case of Kenya, it does not attract a large crowd. When the Embassy was relocated to a suburb after the 1998 bombing, it made it relatively inaccessible to the average Kenyan. First, it requires many matatu rides that can be costly and time consuming. Secondly, the library is only open during Embassy business hours which are relatively short, closing at 4:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and ½ days on Wednesdays and Fridays. Makes me want to work for the State Department! Finally, the security process can be daunting even for the most law-abiding American, let alone a young Kenyan with a big desire to learn and little documentation to get him in the door.

It was decided that I would give a talk the following Thursday to a group of invited professional librarians, knowledge management professionals, professors, business leaders and members of the diplomatic corp. I have an entire morning to fill, but have been assured that it will be a lively group who will ask lots of questions so little preparation will be necessary - my favorite kind of speaking engagement!

On Saturday morning I went to an Indian marketplace where I was persuaded to have some shirts custom tailored. I’m not confident I’ll like them, and I have to remember to pick them up before I leave on Friday. On Sunday afternoon, I met a new Global Health Fellow who will be working in Eldoret, in the Western Province of Kenya. I also met my replacement Fellow at the airport on Sunday night and am getting her settled into her new job. The time is going fast, and I’m looking forward to returning home this weekend.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I Got Nuthin'

It’s been a relatively quiet week and I don’t have much to show for it other than some bags under my eyes from lack of sleep. As I start to wrap up my work here, the pace is picking up. After many fits and starts, interviewer training began in Uganda this week, which meant that all the training materials for the Outlet Survey had to be finalized prior to the start. It was a long haul, but we got everything together just in the nick of time. There is another deadline this week in making sure we also have the training materials for the Household Survey ready in time. There’s still plenty to do, guaranteeing that my replacement will be busy throughout her Fellowship.

Other than a few dinners out and the weekly Perudo night, I haven’t done or seen much. The news here is the same - corruption probes, MPs trying to avoid The Hague and teacher strikes. The news that has hit home hardest is that one of the local cable TV companies went bankrupt, leaving a good portion of East Africa without the Premier Football (soccer) League. Personally, I was more upset that I would no longer get The Daily Show, but we all have our priorities.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Resort Life

Greetings from Mombassa, off the coast of Kenya. After a few extremely busy weeks at work, I welcomed a trip to the beach. I flew out Friday morning, landed at the airport and was not only greeted by my hotel driver, but also with a blast of hot, muggy air. I’ve been spoiled in Nairobi because although it’s warm and sunny, it’s almost always breezy and never humid.

We drove through the city of Mombassa, a port town most recently in the news due to the Somali pirates who have been hijacking ships just outside the port’s entrance. The city appeared to be no different than many of the other cities in which I’ve traveled. Mombassa is the main entry point for goods shipped from all over the world, supplying many inland countries such as Uganda and Rwanda with food, fuel and everything in between. Mombassa Road, stretching between the port and Kampala, is heavily trafficked with tractor trailers and is easily one of the bumpiest, most poorly paved roads on which I’ve ever been.

After a short ride, I arrived at the Serena resort - a 5-star property directly on the beach. The hotel is styled in traditional Swahili style - arched doorways, stained glass windows and fountained courtyards at every turn. The view across the property was magnificent - first I noticed the pool and palm trees, then the rolling green lawn dotted with chaise lounges and finally, the turquoise water of the Indian Ocean.

Things were going well until I was shown our room. I was traveling with two friends, and we had planned on sharing a triple room. Unfortunately, the hotel had a different view than we had of what a triple was. The room was a small double in which a third twin bed had been placed. One couldn’t walk from one end to the other without banging into either a wall or a bed. Even though we had received an amazingly low room rate through our Nairobi cab driver/travel agent/fixer, this was entirely unacceptable. After making a fuss, we were finally shown to a new room - a two-room suite with ocean views. This was much more to our liking!

I’d like to say that we spent the weekend windsurfing, diving, riding glass-bottomed boats and taking advantage of all that the resort offered, but the furthest we ventured was to the beach and back to the pool. We were there to relax and felt that we had over-exerted when a stroll on the beach turned into a jog as we tried to avoid the beach boys who follow tourists and attempt to sell their wares.

The Serena lived up to its reputation with attentive service and terrific food. The people-watching was fascinating, too, as we were likely some of the youngest guests there by a good 20 years. Most of the guests appeared to be wealthy Europeans who make regular visits to the resort - a very appealing lifestyle!

Unfortunately, my peek into how the other one percent lives came to an end Monday night when we returned to Nairobi. I have a little over two weeks of work left before I return to the states. Hopefully, my tan will last.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Sad, Frustrating Week

I was going to write about Perudo night, a pizza-ordering incident at the office which demonstrated that no good deed goes unpunished, and a fatal car accident involving Alex the Driver (he’s OK, but killed a pedestrian), but amazingly even that incident paled in comparison to some larger events this week.

This week has been filled with both tragedy and anger in Kenya. On Wednesday, the Nakumatt supermarket in the downtown business district caught fire mid-afternoon. Nakumatt is an Indian-owned East-African chain that has been changing the way Africans shop. I’ve mentioned before how the store sells everything from motorcycles to milk, and caters to the rising middle class. Due to the location of the downtown store, this store gets a wider variety of shoppers.

When the fire broke out, crowds gathered to watch and to loot. The small police force was unable to hold the thousands of people back, and they swarmed the scene. It has now also come out that guards inside the store bolted the doors to prevent looting, but also preventing employees and shoppers from escaping. The death toll is over 30, there are still many people missing and unaccounted for and there is a rising tide of anger toward the Indian community.

The Kenyan government has been criticized for its lack of infrastructure, slow response rate and inability to handle incidents such as this. There is only one fire station for the entire city of Nairobi - 5 million people. It is less than ½ mile from the fire site, but it took over an hour for the first engine to arrive. Equipment on the trucks was not fully operational. Fire hydrants had been vandalized and were not working. Tanker trucks ran out of water. Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. To make matters worse, the crowd turned on the looters and administered vigilante justice. Police then had to expend energy saving the looters from the crowd, rather than holding the crowd back from the burning and exploding building. It’s a tragedy that is still unfolding, and nothing prepared the people of Kenya for what would happen next.

On Saturday afternoon, a tanker truck carrying gasoline overturned on a road about 2 ½ hours outside of Nairobi. Local villagers flocked to the scene to gather free fuel while police tried to keep them away. There is still some dispute as to what exactly happened, but either a careless cigarette or a match thrown by an angry villager ignited the gas and the entire area went up in flames. At present, over 110 people have been found dead and 200 are in hospitals with severe burns, but they are ill-equipped to handle the volume and severity of the injuries.

Again, much of the issue is the inability of local law enforcement, fire and hospitals to handle large-scale disasters and it brings up the issue of governmental corruption and misappropriation of funds. In a country where the members of parliament monthly salary is a tax-free $11,000/month (excluding housing, auto and other allowance) while the average Kenyan lives on $1/day, it is clear that money coming into the country’s coffers is not being spent in a way that benefits the nation.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Random Photos

It's been a quiet week, and I don't have anything particularly blog-worthy to report. Instead, I thought I'd post a few photograhic odds and ends.

"Pharmacy" in Lusaka, Zambia Slum

Mind the Driver's Instructions

Weaver Bird Nests

ACTwatch To-Do List

Home can be Anywhere

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Daily Lunch Spot


Thursday, January 22, 2009

More Popular Demand

I’ve had a lot of requests for the Kenyan reaction to the inauguration this week. I wish I could tell you more, but I, like many others, watched it on TV. Nearly all the TV stations carried CNN live, starting on Monday and continuing through Wednesday. Shortly after Obama took his oath of office, I heard loud noises outside. I’m not sure if they were fireworks, exuberant gunfire or just trucks backfiring as I couldn’t see anything outside my window.

Perhaps the most poignant moment was when I was approached by Antony, our young IT guy on Tuesday morning. He came over to my desk to congratulate me on being an American, and the country’s choice of a President. It was very sweet and entirely sincere. He said he was excited to go home that evening and watch as much coverage as he could. When I saw him the following morning and asked if he liked the ceremony, he said it exceeded his expectations and he was really proud to be both Kenyan and work for an American organization. He’s got all his bases covered!

This morning my favorite news show featured an interview with a local lawyer. The topic was what Obama would do for Kenya, and for once, I heard a realistic view that he thought not much would happen. The gentleman was very articulate and quite informed on American politics and the myriad of issues that Obama must handle first on the home front. However, he did state that he hoped that at some point, Kenya would become the 52nd US state. I wonder which state is Number 51.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Glass

This week, I spent time visiting with local advertising/PR/graphic design agencies. One of my colleagues in the Malaria Department was leaving for southern Sudan on Monday, and before then, she needed to find a firm to help advertise and promote a malaria bed net usage campaign. We met with a variety of agencies - small, large, local and international, that each had a different focus. The larger firms like Ogilvy and Leo Burnett were what you’d expect from global companies - professional, but a broad-brush approach and little experience in this particular market.

The local firms were more interesting. One company specializes in educational messages to children and illiterate populations. The firm produces a magazine for school children that covers health, cultural, ecological and other issues. It’s designed to follow along the Kenyan approved school curriculum so that the kids can use it as an exam study guide since they often don’t have books. The firm’s principal also explained a successful literacy campaign geared toward rural women. Women in remote villages don’t have much incentive to learn to read as there aren’t libraries, newspapers are few and far between and there’s no need to know how to read a street sign. This firm determined that women were interested in learning to read so that they could read recipes, health information and were most excited about reading about business. Once they learned to read, they were often able to get micro-financing for their small businesses. My colleague hasn’t yet decided on an agency for her job, but it will most likely be one of the home-grown ones.

For fun this week, I went to the Kitengela Glass Works, just outside of the city. The factory sits along the edge of the Nairobi Wildlife Park and is accessed by narrow, bumpy dirt roads. I was told that there are two ways to get to the factory. One way is to take the road that leads directly there. The other way is to go to the Masai Village, walk across a few acres of field (watch out for lions!), pick your way down a steep, rocky slope and cross a string bridge decorated with glass beads. We chose the latter.

When we got to the bridge, there was a group of people from HomeBoyz radio, the local hip-hop station who were on a team-building exercise. A group of five had just started across very s l o w l y. The woman in the lead was petrified, and was barely able to move an inch at a time. I hadn’t thought to be scared until one of the people waiting their turn mentioned that the danger wasn’t in the bridge collapsing, but rather in flipping if it started to sway too much. That hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, and when it was our turn to cross the bridge, I could understand - and feel - how that could happen. The bridge crosses over a ravine, and it’s hard to say how high up it is, but if you’re plunging down, it doesn’t really matter how far down you go.

We started making our way across, with my friend Fiona in the lead. She started out slowly, but then we decided that the bridge would sway less if we walked elephant style - left legs together, right legs together. About a third of the way across I realized that I was shaking and holding my breath, but we finally got a rhythm and proceeded across. It was a great relief to get to the other side, until it dawned on us that our car was now on the other side of the bridge and we’d have to cross back over to get to it. We decided that once was enough, and asked our driver to go back the way we came, get the car, and fetch us at the glass factory parking lot.

While our driver was tempting fate a second time, we were exploring the buildings. Kitengela is a self-sustaining art glass community. Everything is made from recycled materials - even the oil used to fire the furnace is purchased from restaurants. There are about a dozen buildings scattered around the property linked together by mosaic glass paths. Each building has unique features and houses a different type of glass manufacture. Kitengela not only creates art glass, but also large quantities of glassware for retail and wholesale - now that I’ve know what it looks like, I realize I’ve seen it in many local upscale hotels and restaurants.

We wandered around for nearly two hours, and were starting to wonder if our driver was ever coming back, when he suddenly appeared. It turned out crossing the bridge was the easiest part of his journey. The road to the art colony was so bad it took him longer to drive to us than it did for him to do the trekking part of his journey. I don’t think he was particularly happy about having to go back, but he was a good sport.

Enjoy the photos!

Monday, January 12, 2009

High Society

It was hard getting back into the swing of work after the holiday break. Everyone seemed to be moving in ultra-slow Africa time and was suffering from a bit of lethargy. To perk things up, a friend hosted a mid-week dinner party. It was great to see her house, now furnished with all her belongs that had recently arrived from her previous posting in India. Dinner parties are easy here - all you do is tell the housekeeper/cook what you want prepared, and voila! It magically appears for the guests. No panicking about whether the bathroom is clean or having to go grocery shopping - there’s someone to take care of it for you.

On Sunday, I went to the Ngong Race Course to bet on the ponies. I had only been to Saratoga once and never got the hang of how to bet, but for some reason, this was much easier. It might have been because they do not post the odds on the horses - you are just given information about the horses, jockeys, owners and their win/loss record. It makes it much easier to eliminate one of the factors.

The race course wasn’t much different from Saratoga, with the exception of there being two entrances. The one in which my friends and I went cost 200 shillings (about $2.50) to enter. Once in, we saw that there was a second grandstand area, smaller, not covered (the sun can get hot) and without the amenities of a restaurant, bar and VIP booths. This area was for the locals, and the entrance fee was considerably lower. When you consider that for many, a normal salary is 300 shillings per day, to spend 200 to go to the race track is steep. I’ll refrain from commenting on how if you’re only making 300 shillings a day, you have no business going to the track in the first place.

We watched and bet on three races and I ended up ahead by about 200 shillings, excluding beer expenses. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon, especially people watching. The horsey set and ex-pats were out in force, and I ran into a few people I knew. Little did I know that it was also the place to see and be seen that day as it was the Guinea Cup, apparently something big in the world of racing.

That evening, I was invited to dinner at the Muthaiga Country Club. Muthaiga is the place that Karen Blixen, Denis Finch-Hatton and Beryl Markham wrote about. You can see it in movies where women are dressed in white linen, leisurely sipping their G+Ts and the men hang out in the “Men’s Bar” where no women are allowed except on New Year’s Eve. I was extremely curious about it and wrangled an invitation from a kind friend in the UK whose parents live in Kenya. Unfortunately, my friend wasn’t in town, but much of his family was so I was invited to meet the family.

From both the outside and inside, the club isn’t much different from any private country club in the states: dark wood paneling, deep leather chairs and sofas and lion heads on the walls. Oh, right - no lion heads in the US. I suspect the membership has changed somewhat over the years to reflect the wealthy Indian and local Kenyan population.

My friend’s family couldn’t have been nicer. They live in Nanyuki, an area about 3.5 hours north of Nairobi up by Mt. Kenya and run a gazillion acre cattle farm and animal conservancy. They don’t come to Nairobi much, but invited me to visit them before I leave. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get a chance before I head home. The other dinner guests included step-brother and girlfriend, brother, and two friends. One friend turned out to be Jomo Kenyatta’s (former President of Kenya) grandson and the other was an actress in a new Kenyan TV show that is launching next week. She was a hoot.

It was timely that I had been at the horse races earlier in the day as the step-brother’s girlfriend was also there. She’s a steward - it’s her responsibility to stand in the middle of the track and to make sure the horses aren’t mistreated and whipped too much during the race. It was fun to say, “When I was at the Guinea Cup today…” and have others know what I was talking about.

The dinner was delicious and the conversation lively, especially with the actress doing spot-on impersonations of some of the various accents that can be found in East Africa. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into old Kenya where in some ways, time has not marched on. I don’t quite envision becoming a club member, but I certainly appreciated a chance to peek in.

Monday, January 5, 2009

By Popular Demand...

Here's a video of the Masai Circumcision Dance we saw New Year's Eve. It's a little dark, and you might want to turn your sound down a bit so as not to frighten your office mates, family or pets.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Very Kenyan New Year

Kilimanjaro at Sunrise

I went on what I believe will be my last wildlife safari this week to Tsavo National Park. Tsavo is the largest park in Kenya, covering more than 13,000 square miles and split into an East and West park. My Pfizer colleague Fiona and her visiting friend Liam and I had planned to spend 4 days at a tent camp there, going on game drives, lounging by the pool and generally just taking it easy.

We arranged the trip through Tim, the cab driver/travel agent who had organized our Zanzibar trip. All these guys seem to be connected somehow, and he had said that Michael, the driver who took us to Nakuru and Amboseli would be our driver once again. Unfortunately, early Monday morning I got a call from Michael explaining that he could not make it, but instead his friend Jimmy would be our guide. He assured us that Jimmy was a safe driver and knew the area well and we were in good hands.

Jimmy picked us up on time and as we started to head out about 9:00 am, he asked if we wanted to stop at the grocery store to pick up some snacks. We asked him how long the drive would be and when he replied 2.5 hours, we decided that we would be fine without a stop. The 2.5 hours didn’t sound quite right to any of us as we thought the park was more like 4-5 hours away, but not being familiar with the country or the roads, we believed what he told us. That was our first mistake.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Kenyan roads are just awful. In Nairobi proper, they are riddled with potholes large enough for a goat to fall into (and they do.) Outside of the city, there is a push to repave some of the major roads, such as the highway that runs from Nairobi to Mombasa. However, unlike in the States, repaving does not take place during low-traffic times, nor are cars shunted to other lanes during construction. Instead, a dirt road strewn with rocks is created parallel to the road under construction. These roads last for miles, and the bumps and dust is unbelievable. Also, although it is supposedly two lanes, but in actuality only about the width of one car, cars and truck perilously pass one another on both sides. We saw horrific accidents, most involving trucks and matatus who misgauged the on-coming traffic.

We finally arrived outside the park gates about 2:00, and thought that the lodge would be a short drive inside the park. By this time, we were hot and hungry and were looking forward to a late lunch at the lodge. We were relying on Jimmy to know how to get there, but that was our second mistake. First, Jimmy took us to see Mzima Springs, a series of clear pools where hippos can be seen from an underground viewing post. After a brief visit, we got back in the van to head to the lodge. Unfortunately, the signage in Tsavo West did not list either the lodge or the entry gate where we needed to go, as it was approximately 60 miles away from where we had entered (we couldn’t enter any closer to the lodge because we would have had to go through Tanzania.) We started driving in circles, trying every small road and off-shoot. We were all frustrated, including Jimmy who wanted to go back to where we entered the park and start fresh. It so happens that he had never been to Tsavo before and he had no idea of where to go. We finally stopped at another lodge, asked directions, bought a useless map for $15 and were told we had a 1.5 hour drive ahead of us.

We finally arrived at the camp around 6:30 pm and were greeted with the traditional warm towel and cool glass of juice and found out that the lodge did not have a swimming pool - argh! We were then shown to our tents - no need for room keys here. When I first walked in, I was on the verge of tears. The standard issue green tent was furnished with three twin beds, a crib and a bare light bulb hanging over one of the beds. It was not the luxury tent I had envisioned (or seen at other lodges) and was more like something found at a Girl Scout camp. The back of the tent was partitioned with a canvas flap to hold a bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower. A single light bulb illuminated the bathroom, but not enough to see anything beyond the dark green of the canvas and the fixtures. I was convinced that we should leave first thing in the morning and go to the lodge where we had asked directions.

Dozing Crock

However, after a not very satisfying shower, a tasty dinner on the lawn in front of the animal watering hole and good night’s sleep, things looked somewhat brighter in the morning. The camp provided the guests with a personal naturalist, so Steven, a Masai, took us on a nature hike around the camp to see hippos, crocodiles and taught us about the native plants and birds. That afternoon, he accompanied us on a game drive, but unfortunately, aside from a recently deceased elephant carcass, we didn’t see any interesting animals. In the evening, we went on a nighttime game drive and again, there were no animals to be found aside from some bush babies up in the trees.

Baby Monkeys Playing on Hammock

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

We had read that the lodge offered horseback riding on thoroughbreds, so the following day, decided to give that a try. To say that the horses were thoroughbreds would be the wildest stretch of imagination possible. They were housed at a farm a few miles from the lodge, in one of the poorest villages I had seen. There were four horses, but only two were capable of riding (they barely looked capable of standing), and the guide needed one, so Liam went for a ride while Fiona, Jimmy, Steven and I went to the local bar (no matter how poor a village, there is always a bar) and had a cold drink. I suspect we had a better time discussing politics, poverty and healthcare than Liam who said his horse went so slowly he was afraid it would fall asleep.

On New Year’s Eve, the lodge threw a party. First, were cocktails and “bitings” (appetizers) on the lawn. Then, dinner with a presentation and dancing by a group of Masai warriors. As midnight grew closer, the lodge staff came out and started dancing to the boom box that was playing hits from the 70s. The chef tried to keep order and announce the stroke of midnight, but everyone’s watches were different, so at sometime near twelve, he gave up and pronounced it 2009. Balloons were spilled on the ground to be stomped on, champagne and cake were passed and the Masai started dancing to Kool and the Gang. It was a memorable evening and one that won’t soon be forgotten.

It’s back to work on Monday, after a nearly two weeks off. I suspect the next eight weeks will go quickly as I wrap up work, get in my last travels and head back to the States at the end of February.