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.