Friday, August 5, 2011

Akwaaba to Kwaheri

"So many people have tried to define the feeling the French call mal d'afrique …It is a constant vertigo you will never get used to. This is why one day you have to come back. Because once you have been out here, hanging loose in the Big Nothing, you will never be able to fill your lungs with enough air. Africa has taken you in and has broken you away from what you were before. This is why you will keep wanting to get away but will always have to return...When you leave Africa, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent you’re leaving a state of mind. Whatever awaits you at the other end of your journey will be of a different order of existence.”

This time tomorrow I will be on a flight to Heathrow, concluding my two month adventure in Africa with a tray of processed foods and a B-rate movie on a seat screen. I am ready to go and terrified to leave, heaving a heavy sigh of nostalgia, relief, and wonder.

We talked about how
much he loves California.
Wonder: If this trip were a movie, it would be a conversation between me and a taxi driver. I must have met almost 100 of them. No matter where you are, taxi drivers are like telemarketers - erratic, a bit smelly, and a definitive expert on the most unique subjects. Once the car gets going, the initial power play between driver and passenger frequently fades into an exchange of ideas between two unlikely friends that can last a minute or three hours. I have been outwitted by many a cab driver, amused by their taste in music, and humbled by their keen perspective and understanding of the city in which they live. They know the shortcuts and back alleys, what the mayor was doing last week, where to take tourists looking for something a little sordid (not me, I promise.) My time spent side by side with these men will stay with me as a highlight of my summer.

One highlight of many. What an amazing thing it is when you discover you’ve put yourself in a completely foreign situation with people you don’t know and no idea of what’s around the corner…and you’ve survived. Grameen offered me a reason to be here but so much of what I experienced this summer was outside the office walls. For everything that I loved about it (the work), there was something I did not (potato belly), and I think I have yet to really understand what this trip has taught me.  The problem with being a capacity builder is that there’s always more capacity to be built. There is always more work to be done, whether it's on a new highway, a nonprofit program, a government project or....yourself. As I leave here I wonder about it all. Will it get done, and will I be a part of it?

Part of a Nairobi National Museum exhibit.
Relief: When I was growing up my parents had a saying for our itinerant family: "Home is where the dog is." As I grow into my own peripatetic ways I’m developing my own version - "Home is what you miss." You learn to identify the things you love and take them with you wherever you go.  Loved ones' faces cross my mind when I close my eyes at night. I salivate at the memory of a deliciously stuffed California burrito and daydream about the closet of dresses in my apartment. When I finally get back to all that familiarity, however, I know that my senses will long for what I love here. Creamy avocado, hot summer nights, sitting on the roadside in a plastic chair with a cool Star beer. The notion of “home" encompasses a huge world when you feel you could belong anywhere. But the Bay Area is a shining star in that huge world for me, and for now I know I belong there. I am eager, eager, eager to get back and hug my loved ones, amble down Telegraph, get yelled at on the 57, and start my final year of graduate school.

Nostalgia: I’m sorry to generalize but there’s no place like Africa. It is magic and loss and vitality and history and it is rough and real and striking. You don’t ever forget watching men hack the grass with machetes in their right hand, left arms folded carefully behind their backs. Babies tightly wrapped against women’s backs who remain quiet even when their mother bounces them around as they violently pound cassava. Beautiful, big skies and the wet smell of soil. The sound of rain showers or of tro-tros whizzing by and whipping your skirt up because they’re so close. The generosity of strangers. The crowds of city markets. It's all either maddening or breathtaking, and you know it cannot be found anywhere else.

There's an Enid Blyton book I adored when I was a kid about a magical tree that is home to an entirely different world atop its branches. Three children happen upon it and discover that the land changes every single time they visit, and they can never stay too long or they'll be trapped there forever. Africa is certainly my Faraway tree - just enough out of reach that I find myself longing for it, but always providing something new and wonderful when I return.

"This is why one day you have to come back."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Exhibit at the National Museum in Nairobi.
Many find it difficult not to be condescending about Africa. Some might argue that referring to 54 diverse countries with thousands of cultures as “Africa” alone is demeaning, and yet it happens every day (just look at my blog address.) Footage of kids with big bellies and stories of corruption seem to be the only stories to travel across the ocean, and they are typically only salvaged by some agency telling the world not to worry, they’re working on it. No, I am not immune. I’ve been known to lament the inefficiency of “Africa” while sitting in Nairobi’s unbearable congestion or one of Accra’s power outages. At the same time, I feel fortunate to tell a story that I hope will travel across these borders and demonstrate that “Africa” is indeed a place of innovation and hope.

Nairobi is one of the continent’s star children: the one who may place third in the spelling bee but won’t mind because she has a good shot at winning the science fair competition. The region serves as a lab for innovative ideas and the microfinance sector here is a great example. Like Ghana, each MFI in this region has varying models of delivery and a unique portfolio of products. Unlike Ghana, every MFI in this region has a website. Is this a key indicator of success? Surely not, but it indicates that microfinance is a visible and competitive industry here. Microfinance institutions here are not asking “what can we do?”, but “how can we do more?” For them, it’s not just about lending money. It’s about finding ways for that money to create things that generate a larger return for the community. Two trends have emerged here to ensure that microfinance is doing just that: mobile services and partnerships.

Nairobi's city centre.
Millions of Kenyans are able to hold, send and collect money with their mobile phone through Mpesa – can you do that where you live? An article in the Guardian recently highlighted how mobile money is an impressive force for good. One Kenyan MFI I met with just received an award for its innovative use of mobile services - quite a feat, considering their official launch isn’t until this Friday. Every MFI I’ve met wants to work towards providing mobile solutions to those who need it most – the farmers, the entrepreneurs, and the mothers who work hard every day to improve their livelihoods.

Directors of MFIs here also know that the greatest impact is made in tandem with focused expertise. One microfinance institution partners with an agricultural agency to make sure that their products are transformational for their farmer customers. Staff at many Kenyan MFIs are trained to deliver financial literacy tools to clients, frequently a requirement for microloans. My assignment here has been to partner MFIs with professional expertise from the global private sector and not surprisingly, my job has been easy. Companies, educational institutions and development agencies recognize the pivotal role that MFIs play in increasing income generation and improving the quality of life for Kenyans living on less than a $1 a day, and they’re eager to take part.

Sunrise at Nairobi National Park
I can’t forget that this revolution is taking place less than 300 miles away from a record famine. With foresight, planning and investment, these tragedies in “Africa” can be avoided.  The magic of microfinance is that it grants citizens the capability to make a difference for themselves. Things are moving fast here, and it’s been a pleasure to help establish partnerships to catalyze that movement. In this day and age, I think access to financial services is a human right. A big thank you to the Grameen Foundation for allowing me to help us get one step closer to ensuring that Africa's poor, in all their diversity, can exercise that right.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Traveling In and Through Solitude

Think he ever thinks
about being lonely?
Contradictory to the weather report it is a beautiful Sunday morning in Nairobi.  I am sitting outside my flat on a little bench surrounded by greenery, and I begin this post with the realization that I haven't had a conversation of more than two sentences since Friday.  Traveling is a funny thing.  It is at once a hectic interview with humankind and a quiet introspective journey.  What I have seen and felt over the past 7 weeks can't truly be described in a blog, but I will admit a little something to you: amidst unpredictable magic and proud accomplishments, my summer has also been challenging and lonely.

Most of the people I met in Ghana were expats who shrugged their shoulders when I suggested it must be hard to uproot a comfortable life at home to adjust to the craziness of Accra.  Surrounded by people who embraced life in Africa so naturally made my challenges with mosquitos and power outages seem silly and childish.  But along with lizards and bugs, loneliness eventually crept into my apartment and made those trivial trials even harder to bear.  Read a book, play an instrument, ride a bike, visit a sight, sit with a stranger...sometimes these are things you have to force yourself to do to forget that not a single familiar face is within 3,000 miles of you.  In those moments, the tiniest gestures saved me.  On a particularly rough day in Accra, a taxi driver laughed so heartily when I told him I loved the hiplife song playing on the radio and asked him to turn it up.  So we danced in our seats to a shared love of music for the remainder of the ride, and that taxi driver, who I will never see again, saved me that day.

I am not granted many opportunities in Nairobi to meet people outside the office or to explore the city.  What a disappointment to the fun-seeking adolescent within me!  I want to dance with strangers to ridiculous pop music until 5 in the morning, I want to bike around the streets to hollers of "white girl! how are you?", I want to befriend someone who will remain a lifelong souvenir of my time here.  Not all trips are adventures, though.  My priority here is to help Grameen establish a strong presence here, not to have all my touristic desires fulfilled.  So I spend most of my time here alone - attempting to cook edible meals with a pot and a table knife, avoiding the temptation to throw things when my internet goes out, and aggressively pursuing conversations with taxi drivers, the only locals I have contact with.

I think of my dad who traveled weekly for business for over a decade.  To this day I still get teary when I see a man with a mustache eating alone in a restaurant. How hard it must have been for him to eat meal after meal without his family, or even any companion, all those times.  I'm missing home.  My apartment, the ability to walk around with navigational confidence, cheap burritos, my hairdryer...The hardest part is knowing that when I arrive back home, I'll find myself missing precious alone time, chats with foreign strangers, Tusker beer and the smells of Africa.  Oh, the contradiction.

Oh look! It's a picture I took of myself.
Opportunists make the best travelers.  Those who are willing to say yes to even the most bizarre circumstances will be invited into stories they will tell for a lifetime.  At every moment possible I have tried to be this person, and while it has led me to the best parts of my trip, going with the flow can be incredibly exhausting.  And then there's patience, the necessity of which pops up almost everywhere.  Even yesterday, as my driver and I sat waiting in silence feet away from a lion buried in the grass to stand up, I got bored after about 10 minutes and insisted we drive on.  What a mistake that would have been.  The lion eventually stood up for a brief majestic moment when a herd of buffalo passed by.  That's right, I saw a lion yesterday, and here I sit blabbering like a kid writing a letter home from some third-rate summer camp.

A double G&T at Lord Delamere's Terrace in Nairobi.
Traveling alone is largely learning how to be patient with yourself, for not understanding the language, for not knowing your way, for wanting to be somewhere else when most people would give anything to switch places with you.  You're a different version of yourself, changing from moment to moment to survive whatever you're given.  From day to day, I am shy/outspoken, funny/offensive, professional/drunk, respectful/respectfully yelling at a taxi driver.  In those introspective moments that have punctuated every day of my summer, I find myself questioning which versions make up the real person that is me.

Naturally, I appreciate the romance of it all.  I get a kick out of being alone at fancy hotel bars and local food spots.  I imagine (quite narcissistically) that amidst the multilingual buzz of fellow foreigners, they all take turns speculating about that girl sitting in the corner reading a book and sipping on a G&T. I only wish my suitcase had been big enough to fit in accompanying costumes - I could have been a photographer on an urban stopover before the next safari, or an over-worked World Bank employee, or a Western trophy wife tired of the developing world.  Alas, I'm left with just me.

The lesson in it all, I believe, is learning to trust the unexpected.  When I left for work on Friday morning, two staff members rushed to me to give me hugs because I was wearing a blazer and heels (quite the departure from my usual sloppy flip flops and wet hair).  They gushed over me!  Their brief hugs were sweeter than the Berkeley ice cream sandwiches I'm craving, and I squeezed them back so tight my shoulder bag fell onto the ground.  I don't know their names - I haven't even met one of them before - but it was their surprising and affectionate acknowledgement of me that made me feel like a real person again.

Of course, the most unexpected delight of it all is learning to trust the unexpected within yourself, and watching that shy outspoken funny offensive professional drunk get through it all somehow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Worship at a Nairobi Gym

Watching the World Cup Final at the airport gate
It certainly takes leaving a place to appreciate the beauty of it.  While I was in Ghana I daydreamed of the magic of Oakland (three words you won't find together often), and ever since my departure out of Kotoka airport on Sunday, I have found myself counting all the things I miss about Ghana.  Even those little nuisances that tested me daily have somehow formed a big cloud of nostalgia for a place I know I can't visit again easily.

I remember feeling exactly this way last time, and trying to commit to memory every Ghanaian acquaintance of my five senses: the sour smell of my kitchen, the particular call of a bird that was always outside my bedroom window, the infectious smile of my security guard Adams, the men peeing with abandon on the streets, the ever present "you are welcome!" when entering a restaurant or shop or home.  As I write this I am actually trying to imitate the sound that Ghanaians make to emphasize a point or to indicate that they understand.  It's something like "eh-heeeeeh."  Not quite the same in a conversation with yourself in a Nairobi office.

The driveway to my apartment in Nairobi
I arrived here bright and early on Monday morning and was taken by a nice but quiet taxi driver to my flat and then the Grameen Foundation office.  Like a character from a Pinter play who has just woken from a coma, I am trying to remember everything I see in order to understand this new world around me.  I live in Rosslyn Hill, I work in Kileleshwa.  I'm not allowed to cross the street while talking on my phone, but drivers are allowed to talk while driving.  Illegality doesn't stop street vendors from selling papers and baskets and puppies on the median.  There is no shortage of malls or vegetables or foreigners.  A devastating famine is taking place not too far from here.  Hosts on the radio banter about sex and play songs with profanity at 8:30am. This is what I know of Nairobi so far.

I have three short weeks in which to understand how microfinance is working in Kenya and what challenges MFIs have in delivering their services, and what companies and organizations are engaging their employees in skilled volunteer work.  A pleasant discovery was that most microfinance institutions actually have websites here - quite a change from Ghana - and I am taking it as an initial indication that this region is ripe for Bankers without Borders.

Mosquito Bites:  No fresh ones, only scars.  Thank you, high altitude.
Best "only in Kenya" sight this week:  I began my temporary membership to the health club near my place by attending an aerobics class.  Once you've been traveling for awhile you get used to expecting anything, but always with questions in the back of your mind about what awaits you. Would the class be packed? Would it be difficult? Will people stare at me?  I opened the door after the class had started but the class continued without so much as a glance in my direction. Which was surprising, considering the tiny size of both the room and class.  Three Kenyans were bouncing around to the commands of an instructor wearing khaki shorts, Converse and some t-shirt saying something about X-rated. We lifted weights, marched around, threw our hands in the air, kicked our legs up, and groaned through ab exercises for an hour while we listened to techno gospel music.  Pumping my arms to "I will worship you" and "your Kingdom is worthy" was definitely a first for me.  I will absolutely be heading back tonight.