Funny Sights in Nairobi

It’s Friday here in Kenya, and that means it’s time for a fun post.

Thus, please enjoy a slideshow of some funny sights from the past few months in Nairobi.

Best 30 seconds of my life

Were you wondering to yourself, what is the prettiest spot on Earth? Because the answer is: Cape Point, and surrounds, near the tip of South Africa.

Our weekend getaway to Cape Town was pretty magical overall — it just felt so trippy to walk on cobbled streets and visit old churches and stop in at little wine bars. I wouldn’t have thought that only a month in Nairobi would have changed my eyes, but when the South African Airways jet pulled into the gate at Kenyatta airport, my spontaneous reaction was “that plane looks so clean.“ Outside of Nairobi’s nimbus of red-brown dust, everything looked fresh-rinsed. Even the planes.

That particular weekend also coincided with my 10th college reunion, which, obviously, I was missing. I was a little blue about it. But then we stopped into a fancy hotel to make use of its fancy bathroom, and who was in the lobby but the Yale Precision Marching Band. I shit you not. I talked to a couple of kids about the renovations to Stiles College — they contend that “the basement is really nice now” (?) — and privately marveled at how old I must look to them. It was a nice coincidence.

Here, for me, was the best bit, though. The scene: Coming down from viewing Cape Point. The view looked like this.

We get into the crappy taxi we’ve hired for the drive. (Crappy like, things like the speedometer, odometer, gas gauge didn’t work.) Our taxi driver, a chatty Nigerian guy whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten now — an animated, quirky dude, kept hopping out of the car almost without warning to pee by the side of the road, leaving the car running meanwhile — wanted to make sure we’d gotten a good view from the peak.

Him: “Were you able to see the water? Did you like it?”
Us: “OMG yes! Most beautiful place have ever seen! Face melted off!”
Him (serenely): “Yes. God’s creation is so great. All thanks be to Him.”
Us: “... yes.”

Doors slam and we start driving out through the shimmering, rose-gold, honeymoon-in-Stonehenge environs. Driver throws on some mood music.

“First off, fuck your bitch and the clique you claim
(WESTSIDE!) When we ride come equipped with game
You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife
We bust on Bad Boy niggas fuck for life…”

And, God having been duly praised, we drove off into the sunset to the soulful stylings of 2Pac. On repeat. I could not peel the smile off my face.

Cape Town: The Edge of the World

Hello there! Have you been to Cape Town? No? Let me tell you some things.

First, wow. It is beautiful. I have been to a lot of places in my life, many of them Super Awesome. But to date Cape Town takes the cake as the most beautiful. It’s amazingly situated, in the lee of two huge, table-like mountains, on a small peninsula. Further south on the peninsula are charming seaside towns, more dramatic cliffs, and then finally, the Cape of Good Hope.

Surrounding the city are the oldest wine-producing regions in the southern hemisphere. The wine country south and east of the city is stunningly beautiful, like a Napa or a Tuscany covered with oak trees, looking out to the sea. And man, is it producing. The wine I had in Cape Town was unfailingly good, with peppery, spicy whites, astoundingly good champagne (or “Méthode Cap Classique” if you like being bullied by the French wine lobby), and their own style of reds, brandies, and port. Cape Town single-handedly helped me rediscover Chardonnay, thanks to their delicate, no nonsense, oak-free stylings.

And did I mention how cheap this world-class wine is? Even at a fancy restaurant, I was hard pressed to find a bottle of wine over $10. Most glasses were only a dollar or two, and the ZA idea of a pour is to the rim, please. Like, so full you spill it on yourself when you pick it up.

On top of all of that, the city of Cape Town itself is pretty neat. It’s got a lot of cute museums, Art Deco buildings, old Dutch homes, and Cape Malay and Muslim neighborhoods. After a long spell in a less developed part of Africa, it was pretty shocking to come to a city whose roads are better maintained than they are in any I’ve seen in the U.S.; a fancy, walkable downtown and harborfront area; and basically a city center that feels as modern as anything you’ve seen in the West. We kept exclaiming to each other over little conveniences that felt huge: Sidewalks! Taxis with meters so you don’t have to haggle over the fare! And after the pervasive dust of Nairobi, everything in Cape Town felt shockingly clean.

Which is not to say ZA and Cape Town are without their problems. Apartheid is a very fresh memory and racism can still be felt everywhere; the tension that remains is uncomfortable. Neighborhoods remain starkly self-segregated by race — the legacy of apartheid means that black South Africans and South Africans of mixed race, who identify as “colored” and who enjoyed more privileges under the apartheid system, mostly choose not to live side by side. So there are black townships and colored townships, or segregated neighborhoods within the townships. And though the townships are VAST, housing millions of people, there seems to be a certain amount of willed blindness about them. Driving past one of the townships (a.k.a. slum areas), our white South African driver remarked a bit defensively that “they have DVD players and everything in there. They’re actually very comfortable.” Uh, OK bro.

(Not that the U.S. has a perfect record in this regard. We sure don’t. I think you just notice things differently when you’re visiting a place that’s new to you.)

We had been warned that South Africa is mega-dangerous, though they also say that about Nairobi so we weren’t sure what to expect. Nothing bad befell us, but (Victoria’s mom, stop reading now!) we did have the most aggressive panhandling experience of our lives — a man chasing us asking for money and threatening to get his knife out, saying he didn’t want to mug us but he would if he had to. We were on a busy street and it was light out, and eventually we turned a busier corner and he gave up, but we were still shaken. And, presumably, that’s part of the reason the predominantly white areas are so gated and walled-in and coated with razor wire — but that feels weird too.

On the flip side, we had cab drivers while were in Cape Town who were from Nigeria and Somalia, who spoke of Cape Town like a beacon of hope in the continent, an opportunity-rich, low-corruption zone where hard work is rewarded. So it’s a mixed bag, man. I don’t think a lot of it would have made sense to me without having actually visited.

With all this said, the Cape is an amazing place to visit. You’re going to see a lot there. So come along with me, as I take you on my magic carpet matatu, to a photo journey through the Cape.

Ride that Cape Town photo matatu here.

The Sundowner Report, Episode 3

Much like the nightly news, except that it’s not nightly, nor news, The Sundowner Report is back. Episode 3 comes to you from our apartment’s balcony in Nairobi, Kenya during a rare invisible solar eclipse. Topics covered include Kevin, Page, and Tusker.

Trip update: FAQ

Q.: Are you sick of all your clothes?
A.: Yes. And they are much less clean than they were when we departed.

Q.: Is there anything you packed that has proven totally unnecessary?
A.: Yeah, probably a few gadgety things. The one that springs to mind is the travel baggage scale, which we got to make sure our backpacks didn’t exceed any airline’s weight limit. We made sure of this at the beginning, but haven’t needed it since. Which is good, because some button got held down and the battery is dead. Also we packed some microfiber travel towels that we have never needed. Well, I used one once to mop up wine on a train, but that’s it.

One thing — or, really, two things — that have proven to be the opposite of unnecessary is our LED headlamps. Power goes out all the time around here, and as atmospheric as candles are, a headlamp means you can keep cooking, reading or hunting mosquitoes. Invaluable.

Q.: Have you had anything stolen?
A.: No/maybe. Sometime during our jaunt around southeast Asia, my phone disappeared. It’s sad, but we’d packed a backup. We’re not sure whether it got taken out of my bag or we lost it ourselves somehow, but it does seem to be gone. Otherwise, though, nothing taken so far.

Q.: Not to be indelicate, but what is the story with your bowel movements? How has the transition from spicy southeast Asia to who-knows Kenya treated your insides?
A.: Really we’ve done surprisingly well with this so far. (I’m going to say so far a lot in this one.) Part of the reason, I think, is that we’ve been almost exclusively in cities, where a pretty high standard of living tends to be available, if not always ubiquitous. But even outside the cities, the spread of globalization makes the world ever-more standardized — and, thus, sanitized. Partly we’ve had good luck, though — there have been places we’ve visited, and even eaten at, that were near open sewers, and we’ve been fine afterward.

Getting down to brass tacks: I would say we’ve each had, on average, one unpleasantly abnormal situation per month of travel. But we’ve only had to crack into the azithromycin once so far, in Vietnam.

Q.: Is your hair really long? Page, are you still a blond?
A.: Kevin’s hair is business as usual, thanks to the relative universality of masculine haircuts. (Also his hair grows straight up, and so poses less of a challenge to an African barber than floppy white-dude hair would.) My hair hasn’t been this long since I was 15, I don’t think, but it’s not startlingly long. Just what most people would consider shoulder-length. As for the blond, it’s like dark-blond roots and yellow ends. Not my favorite look, but I’m going with the trend of the times and calling it “ombré.”

Q.: Do you have friends? Did you find Americans to celebrate 4th of July with?
A.: Yes and yes! The Kenyan inhabitants of Nairobi have seen a lot of white aid workers come and go, and establishing real connection there — beyond just basic friendliness, which is very very abundant — takes some work. But many of the aforementioned white aid workers are themselves far from home and very down to get a beer and talk about whatever. And the people we’ve met, in both categories, are great. Interesting, interested, hilarious, adventurous, inspiring. We have a bunch of approximately 24-year-old friends who are intimidatingly together and accomplished and awesome, and let us hang out even though we go home at midnight and they go out clubbing. We got really lucky on this one.

For 4th of July we went to / helped host a big Kenyan goat barbecue at the office where we both work. It was raucous and there were piffley fireworks and games of beer pong and a DJ and everything. Late in the evening, for some reason, I tied a cup of wine to my forehead using somebody’s necktie, and then my friend Rachel drank from the cup. Who even knows, man. It was not very American, but it was a pretty spectacular party.

Q.: What’s next? What’s the schedule from here on out?
A.: We’ll be in Kenya until late August, though we’ll be taking a bunch of trips while we’re here — to the Masai Mara, to Dubai, to Rwanda, and maybe one or two other places if we get lucky. Then we’ll have several weeks in Europe; we’re hoping to see friends and family in London, Paris and Rome, and maybe do a little excursion or two just the two of us. Then, time permitting, we’ll pass through New York City on our way home, and hug some people there. Back in San Francisco by the first week of October. About this, sometimes I feel so happy, and sometimes I feel so sad.

Do you have a question for Los Meanderthal? Leave your burning query in the comments and we will soothe it with the sweet rain of information.

Super Furry Animals: Lake Nakuru

One privilege of living in Nairobi is that there are a lot of great day trips that you can take from the city. Lake Naivasha, Mount Longonot, Lake Nakuru National Park, the Ngong Hills, heck, even Mombasa and the beautiful beach along Diani. They are easy to do: just charter a friendly taxi driver, and off you go. We’ve now done a lot of these trips, and it’s great: often, you don’t have to go far in Africa to see Africa.

Lake Nakuru National Park was the first day trip that we made.

As you can see from the bored expression on Page’s face, Nakuru is just not that pretty.

It was pretty terrible. Not much to recommend it: everyone has seen flocks of tens of thousands of flamingos, chillin’, rhinos that you can basically walk right up to you and touch (though we did not), and tons of other animals that check you out and would probably like to ride with you in your car.

So, we heartily dis-recommend the ho hum, not-beautiful, totally not incredibly stunning Nakuru National Park, a mere 2.5 hours away from Nairobi by car. If you are in Nairobi for a few days (doing something like visiting us), be sure to give this a “miss.” Or… the opposite of that.

See all the Lake Nakuru National Park photos over at the photo depot.

The Sundowner Report, Episode 2

Our infrequent feature, posing as a frequent feature, is back! The Sundowner Report, Episode 2, comes to you not-live from a beautiful sunset in Singapore. Watch the video, live the excitement, see high-tech panorama technology at work.

Singapore glossy bongotron Sling

Happy Fourth of July, blog readers! Let’s celebrate by talking about Singapore.

By the time we got to Singapore, we were all pumped up to enjoy both the great and the lame things about it.

People are opinionated about Singapore, and we’d been told to expect some significant pros: delicious street food centralized into clean, easily accessible hawker centers, plus amazingly comprehensive shopping options, which would allow us to stock up on stuff like sunscreen before heading to Kenya. Great. Then, on the flip side, were the cons, all seemingly having to do with the country’s twin obsessions with order and conspicuous consumption – everything a little too clean, a little too safe, a little too well supplied with mile upon mile of air-conditioned shopping mall… wait, what’s bad about this again? After a month bumming around southeast Asia’s more chaotic cities, the cons sort of sounded like additional pros.

Our bus from Malacca was double-decker, and from our high perch we got to keep one eye on the feature film (the awesomely terrible Skyline) and the other on the sun setting in a pink haze over the dense palm jungle. Six hours’ ride time, and then Singapore welcomed us with the hugest, cleanest, most efficient customs and immigration building we have yet seen. It was like a space station. However, Singapore must expect visitors to be picked up from said space station by a flying limo, because the alternative – spending 10 to 11:30 p.m. in a grumbly, nearly unmoving taxi line outside the bus depot – struck us as poorly thought-out. Fortunately, this would not happen to us again, because as soon as we got a SIM card we could just text for a taxi and one would appear! The system would even text us back the license-plate number of the taxi so we knew which one to look for. In certain limited regards, I would like to put Singapore in charge of the future.

Without enough time to seek out its (presumably existent) artsy and independent underbelly, though, Singapore did feel a little bland and officious. We went to more than one allegedly cool bar that turned out to be an expensive tacky snobfest full of well-ironed dudes smoking cigars. And there’s a pretty blatant hierarchy of perceived status: Velvet ropes and reserved tables and “VIP” signs are everywhere. At the (lovely) botanical gardens, there are VIP orchids. At the original Raffles hotel, you can go to one of the bars for a Singapore Sling, but the restored lobby is “residents only” and guarded by doormen in absurd colonial-throwback uniforms. Taxis are metered (which is bliss), but there are all kinds of fiddly surcharges – Friday surcharge, central business district surcharge, rush-hour surcharge, wrinkled-shirt surcharge, yadda yadda yadda.

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

The food, though, is paradise. Every short walk from the subway to a hawker center was hot enough to kill, but then we’d get to the center itself and it would be like dumplings? Juice? Beer? Strange sweet soup? Strange savory soup? World’s best chili crab? Grab a chair, eat until you can’t stand up, it’s our pleasure!

And we sure did get to stock up on supplies before heading to Nairobi. In fact, torrential rainstorms (which put even Malaysia’s to shame; OK, southeast Asia, we get it! You win at rain!) stranded us in malls a couple of times, presenting us with excellent opportunities to buy feminine products and an umbrella and anything else we thought we had a shot at fitting into our backpacks.

Also, kind of as a present from Kevin to me, we stayed at a really lovely boutique hotel, called Naumi. Our room had a bathtub, and a seating area, and one of the most comfortable beds – well, actually, the variability of our trip has meant that I am wildly appreciative of even a moderately comfortable bed, so I don’t know how objective I am at this point, but I will say that every time I got into this bed I would sing a little song of glee. And the hotel staff were unfailingly cheery and helpful. If you find yourselves in Singapore, Naumi comes recommended.

It wasn’t until we were in the airport ready to leave that I remembered Mary Oliver’s poem Singapore. And, if I may egregiously miss Ms. Oliver’s point for a second, I will say that if you have to wash things in the toilet, Singapore is among the best places to do that. You could probably wash your hands in the water of a Singapore toilet and then safely perform surgery. But still, I felt a chime of extra recognition when I recalled the poem – like it not only beautifully sums up something about the world in general, but maybe also about Singapore’s slick surface (and its out of-sight-out-of-mind immigrant labor force) in particular.

Pictures! These may give you the impression of a weekend-long food bender that serves as the ridiculous flourish at the end of a month-long food bender. That impression is accurate. But that’s not all: there’s also a great series on local birdlife, and Kevin really outdid himself on this round of captions. Come along and be transported to this muggy city of the future!

Well, he did warn me

(Note, for the purposes of this story, that the current exchange rate from Kenyan Shillings to American dollars is around 90:1.)

Taxi driver: Almost every country around Kenya has had war. And so we have had people from those countries coming to Kenya. Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda…

Fellow passenger Danae: Tanzania didn’t have war.

Taxi driver: That’s true. But in general Kenya is the stable place. And especially now, when things are getting better.

Me: Do you find that they are?

Taxi driver: Oh, yes. The current government is much better, and so the roads are better, the police are less corrupt… it is good. Especially in Nairobi.

Me: Have you always lived in Nairobi?

Taxi driver: Yes, I was born here. It is a good place to be.

Me: Yes, it seems to be.

Taxi driver: But don’t trust anybody.

Me: Yeah. We keep hearing that.

We arrive at our destination and everyone piles out of the back of the cab. I stay in the front seat to sort out payment.

Me (looking at Kevin fishing for bills in his pocket): Did you guys agree on a fare?

Taxi driver: No, he didn’t tell me. It should be 500.

Kevin passes 300 Shillings through the cab window, a little dismissively. The guy rifles through the bills with a slight air of incredulity.

Me: Here (giving him the extra 200). Thanks. (I get out of cab and walks into the restaurant with the group.)

Kevin: What was that?

Me: I gave him an extra 200. He said you hadn’t agreed on a fare?

Kevin (exasperated): We agreed at the beginning! We agreed on 300!

Me: ...oh. Sad. I guess he proved his point, there, didn’t he?

What I'm working on in Africa (Kevin Edition)

I’m working with Juhudi Kilimo, which is a small microfinance institution. What they do differently than other places is:

  • They give out assets, not cash.
  • They focus on rural areas. (Most MFIs focus on urban or at least in-a-small-city areas.)
  • They focus on agriculture.
  • The loans are for a “business in a box” designed to start generating cash immediately.

In short, this usually translates to people taking out a loan, and receiving a dairy cow, along with business guidance on how to farm the cow, where to sell the milk, and so on. Microfinance is based around the idea of group lending, which means that a group of people get together and guarantee as a group to repay the loan of any individual, thus reducing the risk of the loan and providing social pressure for group members to repay. Our lending groups each focus on a single type of farming (like dairy), so that everyone in the group learns more about farming from each other. Because of our asset-based nature, when loans go south and someone defaults, the situation for Juhudi and the client is overall much better, since the cow can be repossessed, rather than having to take the group’s savings or repossess someone’s home. (In fact, when we do have to collect, we usually end up giving the client money, because the sale of the cow often covers more than the remaining balance.) And Juhudi’s rural aspect means that we’re helping some of the poorest people with the fewest opportunities, and thus helping to prevent migration from the countryside into the city’s slums, which generally helps no-one.

Izika, a coworker of mine, tagging a cow during a trip to one of our field offices. I did not tag any cows.

What I’m doing: I’m building a system for the loan officers in the field to use, to help make them more efficient at their job, and able to manage more loans. Currently, the loan officers maintain everything on paper, with a handwritten ledger. That means when it’s time to attend a group meeting, the officer has to go through the financial records of 20 to 30 clients, and sum up how much savings they each have, calculate who owes a loan payment, and for how much. The loan officers do all this paperwork, even though the computer in the head office has all of this loan, client, and repayment information in a database. Since a typical loan officer attends 40 or more group meetings a month, this work really starts to add up.

To help address this, I’m building an Android application that can hold all of the client information that a loan officer needs, that synchronizes automatically over the Internet. The application runs on a sub-$100 Ideos phone, and to save costs, holds all the information offline, so that no connectivity is needed to look up a client’s balance or a group’s repayment schedule. The goal of the application is to ultimately make it so that the loan officer does not need to record anything on paper, by giving them current information on all their ~300-600 clients, automatically updated each morning.

The long term goal of the system is to make a loan officer’s job easier, so that they can handle an increased number of clients. The cost of loan officers’ salaries is usually is the largest operating expense of a microfinance institution. If you can allow an officer to handle twice the number of clients, you can cut operational costs significantly, reducing the operating expense ratio— and a low operating expense ratio is usually the most important factor in getting increased investment from external sources.

My hope for the system is that in the average case, it will help Juhudi scale as an organization, allowing them to grow to 2 to 4 times as large in the next year or two, and thus be able to help that many more people. In the best case, though, I hope that this system can have a much larger impact. The application is open source, and it is free for any microfinance institution to use. I’ve designed the system it so that it’s easy to adapt to any institution: just plug a few SQL queries into the configuration file, run it on a computer in your office, and you should be good to go. Any loan officer can then start using it immediately.

It also feels good to be able to help the kind, smart people I’ve met who are out there working hard every day to help Kenya’s poor, but who are doing it without any of the technology that the rest of us take for granted. Everyone should get a chance to use technology to make their lives easier—not just those who work in the wealthiest industries or countries. I mean, imagine if I told you that tomorrow, you are going to have to head out into the countryside, and manage the savings accounts and loans of 600 people, spread across 40 groups, armed only with a pencil, a notebook, and a calculator?

But a picture is worth a thousand words (and is usually a lot more fun). So, here’s some screen shots of the application in action:

When you first install the application, it asks you to select a loan officer. It then synchronizes all the data for that officer from the Internet.

Next, once an officer is synchronized, you select the officer and lending group that you’d like to work with.

In the application’s main screen, you can see the collection sheet, which tells you how much each client should pay that month, as well as the receipt view, which shows how much you collected from the group treasurer last month.

Finally, the client detail view allows you to see the active and completed loans for each client, as well as the transaction history of each deposit and withdrawal.

If you’d like to read a little more about Juhudi and understand how we’re helping people in Kenya, you can check out this recent journal entry from Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of Acumen Fund and the author of The Blue Sweater, who visited our Kitale office last month. (The part about Juhudi starts on Page 9.)