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.