The Sundowner Report, Episode 4

It’s a rare sundown that can top the view of a sundown in the Masai Mara. So, join Page and my trusty sidekick Myself in the long overdue, possibly anticipated Sundowner Report, Episode 4, brought to you in My-Cellphone-O-Vision from the Masai Mara savannah. It’s entirely possible that actual wild animals may be featured in this film.

Let's go on safari: The Masai Mara

If you’ve been following our blog closely, you may have noticed that we’re in Africa. Africa! I heard that’s a place where you go see animals, and go on safari. Well, that’s what I heard.

The careful reader may have further noticed that while we’ve been in Africa for a while, we haven’t actually gone on safari yet. In fact, it took us almost two and a half months after we arrived before we went on a safari proper. To be honest, part of the reason why we delayed was that I didn’t think I would enjoy it. Cooped up in a car all day? Just driving around, looking for stuff? For 3 days on end? Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.

I was wrong. I really, deeply enjoyed going on safari. What I didn’t understand was how incredibly beautiful and peaceful the savannah is. Viewing the landscape is like lying on the beach and like staring out onto a moving, changing ocean. What I also didn’t understand is how captivating it is to watch an wild animal being itself in its natural habitat. On safari, the animals don’t really notice or care about the cars, as they don’t really fit into their world view, so they almost completely ignore you. The experience is like stepping into an animal family’s living room, and watching everyday domestic drama unfold.

I’m now hooked on safaris. Out on the savannah, I felt the most relaxed and happy that I’ve felt in a long, long time.

Descriptions and words don’t really do the safari justice, however. So instead, come with me for a little safari of your own through our photos of the Masai Mara. There’s some animals, a hot air balloon ride, the Great Migration, and one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I hope you can visit, too, someday.

Wandering wazungu

Being white in Kenya means getting a certain number of shout-outs. “Mzungu!” (muh-ZOON-goo) someone will shout from the window of a passing car or matatu (minibus). “Mzungu,” someone at the supermarket will mutter, expressing some mix of incredulity and fatalism at whatever incomprehensible faux pas I’ve committed most recently. And if you pass a group of children, particularly outside Nairobi, forget it. Choruses of “mzungu!” accompanied by excited pointing. If you make eye contact, expect shrieking and a general dissolution into giggles. It looked at me!

Mostly, mzungu is used to mean white person, though technically it translates to something closer to “wanderer” or “one who goes far from home.” (The wa- prefix – wazungu rather than mzungu – indicates the plural.) People of Asian or Middle Eastern descent also get called mzungu, though I think less frequently than Causcasian people do.

This is an actual advertisement in Nairobi’s international airport. Barclays wants everyone to know that white people are idiots with too much money.

The mzungu shout-out is a funny thing. It’s hard to imagine this exact phenomenon happening in a different cultural setting. Even visiting other places where we’ve been the only Caucasians for miles, it would be unusual to hear someone yell “foreigner!” when I walk by.

My first inclination is usually just to be like, “Yup, well spotted! I am indeed a white person. Have a good day.” So mostly when someone calls me mzungu, I answer “ndiyo” – to mean “yes,” or “it is true what you say.” Sure, “mzungu” is not intended as a compliment. But I chose to come here, and I’m here in awareness of colonial history and of how few positive connotations accompany white people’s presence in Kenya and in Africa generally. And reacting with humor feels like a way of sort of absorbing the blow gently, in such a way that doesn’t harm me or the shouter.

Some expats we’ve met, though, reeeeeaallly hate it. Because it’s rude and exclusionary, because it reflects prejudice and a general lack of effort to relate, because it makes race the most immediate and significant part of the interaction – these are understandable frustrations. And though I don’t experience the same exasperation as a short-timer, I’m sure if I were here longer I’d grow tired of the repeated reminders of my outsider status.

Also, mzungu-identification is a small problem that has some amount of overlap with several larger problems. Like: Plenty of locals regard foreign people as potential sources of cash. (For that we may have partially to blame Barclays, for their ridonkulous ad, pictured above.) This is to some extent fair enough; anyone who has enough money for a plane ticket to east Africa probably also has some money to spare. But the tendency to see non-Africans as the dollar-dripping Other has less-than-great implications for tourism, international trade, and loan repayment – so I’m not sure that it’s great for Kenya’s business climate generally.

Maybe even more importantly, focusing first on people’s ancestry is a problem in Kenya even beyond the basic black-white divide. Kenya comprises forty-something distinct tribal groups (the exact number depends on how you count), each having its own language, customs and identities. And tribal affiliation Is not some quaint archaic thing. Kenyans size up each other’s tribal affiliations – based on clues of name, appearance, accent or whom they hang out with – very rapidly, and in some ways tribal affiliation is regarded as destiny. We hear assertions like “All Luos like fish / stick together / are aggressive” with some frequency. (Some Kenyans we’ve met make a conscious effort not to do this — intentionally speaking Swahili, the country’s lingua franca, and socializing irrespective of tribal boundaries. But this attitude is regarded as pretty progressive.)

In a country in which corruption is a major, major issue and resolving legal and bureaucratic matters often requires knowing (and, sometimes, bribing) somebody on the inside, tribal networks can be a path to getting things done. And politicians often represent, or are perceived as representing, the interests of their tribes of origin more than the interests of all Kenyans. All these factors add up to an uneasy situation, in which tribal identity is for most people more important than nationality; inter-tribal tension and mistrust remain unfortunately common, and outright violence flares up periodically, as happened after the election of 2007.

These latter issues primarily affect Kenyans, and not wazungu, but it all seems somewhat related to me – related to a focus on origins, combined with a view that origins are deterministic.

All that said, I still find it hard to mind when someone calls out mzungu at me. In a way it’s the start of a conversation – and a fairly honest one, that begins with “I see you as a foreigner.” It may not be all that gracious, but it’s not fake, either. And for all that “mzungu” calls attention to a divide, it doesn’t always feel hostile. One time I was out at a local market for lunch with some coworkers, and a grubby drunk young guy popped out from behind a van. Startled, I took half a step back; what did he want? “Mzungu!” he crowed, and held out his fist for me to pound. “Mzungu!” I said back, fist-bumping him, and we both laughed. It’s weird to be greeted with a racial ID, but at least we’re talking.

Kenyan Food

Food in Kenya, as in many other countries in post-colonial Africa, has a complex history. Kenya as a country developed quickly under Western influence from a spread-out, rural area of many tribes into a single large nation with huge cities, over the space of just 40 years or so. Thus, the food also developed quickly, going through a sort of accelerated, multi-cultural melting pot over that period.

While this may mean that Kenyan food doesn’t have the millennia of shared history behind it that say, Ethiopian food has, this doesn’t mean that the deliciousness has been impacted in any way. In a much smaller, much more sedate way, Kenyan food reminds me a little bit of Malaysian food, in the way that both nations freely combine many traditions and cultures to create a result that is fiercely their own.

So, down to business. Here are three areas of Kenyan food that I think are important to know about: the pervasive Kenyan lunch plate, the Indian influence you find everywhere, and BBQ’n a way into my heart: nyama choma.

Kenyan plate

Come to me, delicious lunch. Stay in my stomach and make a little home.

Throughout Kenya, as far as I can tell, the lunch that everyone eats is what I call the Kenyan plate. Man, is it good. The basic template isn’t that surprising: it’s a starch (either rice, ugali, or chapati), with whatever main you order, plus some vegetable sides. Common entree options are beans, beef stew, fried chicken, lentils (called green grams or ndengu), or matumbo (tripe). My personal favorite is beans.

The whole plate shebang will often be topped with a touch of kachumbari, which is something like salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, sometimes avocado, all nicely chopped up and fresh.

Often the Kenyan plate is served from a small house or a small business that’s near where people work, and which caters to the lunch crowd only. There’s two lunch places like this within a block of where I’ve been volunteering. They are pretty awesome, homey affairs: just a few people in the kitchen, maybe a waiter to take your order, and some folding chairs and a table in the sun.

The best part about the Kenyan lunch plate, though, is that it changes every day. Every place I’ve had it, and every time I’ve returned, it’s slightly different. Some days you get cabbage, some days you get sukuma wiki (sauteed kale). Some days you get four vegetable sides, sometimes just one. Sometimes they have beef, sometimes they only have ndengu. And sometimes, no matter what you order, you’ll get something totally new. You can’t control it, you roll with it, and it’s great fun.

Counterclockwise, from top left: Stoney, a type of spicy ginger soda; stewed potatoes and vegetables with tomato; sukuma wiki, which is sauteed cabbage/kale; some delicious cabbage; Beef stew, a common lunch entree; pili pili, which are sliced very hot peppers; and steamed rice.

I really, really like the Kenyan lunch plate. It’s one thing I’m really going to miss when I leave Kenya: having a delicious, home-cooked, mostly vegetarian lunch each day for about $1 U.S. The Google cafeteria is fancy and legitimately great, but for me personally, I’d take the Kenyan plate every time.

Indian influence

One thing that I was surprised to learn when I got to Nairobi is how widespread the Indian influence is, both in Nairobi and across Kenya. For a long time, there’s been a sizeable Indian population in Kenya, and you can see this all over town in Nairobi: there’s a ton of Sikh and Hindu temples, there’s a lot of specialized Indian shopping centers and groceries, and one affluent district of town, Westlands, is mostly composed of Indians. (If you watch carefully, you can even see a scene in “Out of Africa” where there’s a parade through Nairobi after the war is over. In a building in the background, a bunch of folks are holding a banner that says, “The Indian Community Salutes The Victory.”)

What this means for you, dear eater, is that there’s all sorts of Indian influence up in your Kenyan food. Which is awesome. One example is chapati, which has been fully integrated into Kenyan food as the most common side bread with a meal. Which, I have to say, is awesome: I will never say no to delicious fried up savory bread goodness.

Lillian, our samosa lady.

Samosas are another way that you see this Indian influence. Kenya has adopted and re-imagined the samosa as a meat-filled, triangular pastry of hot deliciousness. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, or as a snack. One of the great little pleasures I’ve had while volunteering in Kenya is having Lillian, from the lunch place down the road, come by my desk each morning at 10 AM to give me a freshly made hot meat samosa. Price: 20 cents.

Time from this photo to utter happiness: 4 seconds.

If you ask most Kenyans what they think about Indian food, though, they won’t know what you’re talking about. They’ll firmly assure you that chapati and samosas are not Indian, but are in fact Kenyan. And they’re right. That’s how the melting pot works.

Nyama Choma

Of course, no investigation of Kenyan (or East African) cuisine would be complete without a long, leisurely drive down Nyama Choma Lane.

The Prepping.

What is nyama choma? In swahili, nyama means meat, and choma means grill. But usually, what is commonly meant by nyama choma is mbezi choma, or grilled goat. That’s because goat is the luxury meat of choice, here: a goat strung up on a tree outside your house literally means Party.

The Grilling.

And folks, I have a secret to let you in on: I have discovered that I love goat. I mean, I really, really love goat. To the extent that if you now gave me a plate of expertly prepared cuts of goat, beef, chicken, and pork (thank you!) what I’d reach for first is now goat.

Of course, in the US, we don’t really eat goat. Which is a shame. Because, in fact, goat is ideal in so many ways. As a meat, it’s considerably milder than lamb, and not gamy at all. For those who haven’t had it, the taste of goat resembles something like 80% the taste of lean beef (like loin) and 20% of mild lamb. So it’s like beef with a slight added punch of additional flavor, but not too strong at all. De-licious. Because goat meat is a bit tougher than huge lazy beef slabs, that also means that goat can be cooked in many awesome ways and hold up well: fast grill, slow BBQ, boiled, braised, baked.

The Fixins’. Counterclockwise, from the top: ugali (with some pili pili peppers nearby), sukuma wiki (braised kale/cabbage), kachumbari, pilau rice, chapati.

However, nyama choma is more than just the deliciously smoky-charred-juicy goat. Traditionally, you enjoy the grilled goat with ugali, which is something like maize dough (your starch), and kachumbari (your veg), and a little smidgen of salt to dip it in to taste. The goat is grilled naked, with no additional spicing added, and cut into small bite sized pieces for easy pickup. So, take a pinch of ugali, make a little pancake, use it to grab some meat and kachumbari-salsa, dab it in the salt, and enjoy.

The Chomping.

Or just eat the whole damn leg, like me.

See the full album of Kenyan Food adventures, including a shot of Page with a camel-milk moustache. No joke.

Monkey-ball weekend: Diani beach

I know what you guys are thinking. “We get it. Nairobi has a bad reputation. There is abundant wildlife in the region. Do you have any other material?”

We do! A little bit! For instance, one June weekend we went with about 15 other people on a trip to Diani, a beach town south of Mombasa, on Kenya’s Swahili coast. We all rented a lovely house right on the beach and played a lot of cards and ate too much and went swimming and got sand in our suits.

To get to the coast we took an overnight train, second-class, from Nairobi to Mombasa. Apparently around a third of the time the train breaks down in Tsavo National Park — of “Man-Easting Lions of Tsavo” fame — and passengers just sit and swelter for hours. This did not happen to us, and other minor inconveniences like sadistic dining-car staff and having to use a squat toilet on a moving train really paled in comparison to the central triumph of our on-time arrival. The train stops frequently in the pitch-dark nowhere along the way, and the dare is to get off when the train is stopped and run around in the possibly man-eating darkness, before running to re-board the train once it starts slowly chugging on again. For some reason I actually did this. Stupid, even before I fell on the tracks and cut my hand (that tetanus booster is really pulling its weight on this trip), but the Milky Way view was amazing: cloudy and intricate and spectacular.

Blood on the tracks.

Diani has the powderiest white sand I’ve ever encountered. I am still finding it in my clothes, numerous washes later. The Indian Ocean was warm and clear, and the beach was strewn with seaweed and studded with coral and livened up by the occasional camel (sadly, not pictured).

Whatever I had expected the beaches of east Africa to look like, it somehow wasn’t this. Though I don’t know what I had been expecting. Bongo drums?

Still, a beach weekend is a beach weekend is a beach weekend. A few further distinguishing characteristics of this one:

  • The realities of the tourist economy are such that you can’t walk fifteen feet on the beach without being approached by someone hoping to sell you something. Mainly carved wooden keychains, bangles and drugs (including the perplexingly named “white crack”). The beach entrepreneurs were persistent and numerous. Even understanding that people have to make a living, being so doggedly pursued was stressful and irritating. (Buying stuff didn’t seem to help matters. Maybe if we’d bought something from everyone, but who needs that many keychains.) We joked darkly that we should try to turn the tables and attempt to sell them something, just to mix it up a bit. “Want some palm fronds? Only 100 Shillings…”
  • The realities of the tourist economy — or the something economy — also are such that our van driver got pulled over by enterprising cops and shaken down for bribes both leaving and returning to Mombasa.
  • We sustained an exciting monkey invasion! Heading out for a run one morning, our friend Danae opened her bedroom door to find several vervet monkeys hanging out in the hallway. The rest of us slept through the ensuing territorial skirmish, in which the monkeys raced around the house leaving poo and matoke (plantain) chips in their wake and came back through the windows as soon as they’d been hustled out the doors. They came in again the next day and took a container of dates and sat in a tree, solemnly eating while watching us. We were all very entertained by their delicate date-pitting and electric-blue testicles.
  • We came back from a walk one day and the lovely household staff had picked us each a fresh coconut to drink and eat. Full-service, or what?
  • We did not tempt fate by making the return journey to Nairobi by train; instead, we flew. The small, open-air Mombasa airport had a couple of low-key restaurant options. One of them was a kind of cafeteria, whose menu options inexplicably included lobster thermidor, advertised for the bargain price of 6000 Kenyan Shillings (or around 60 bucks). Kevin tried to order it as a joke, and the woman at the counter said they were out. He asked if anyone had ever ordered it; she just laughed.
  • The matatu we took from Diani to the airport was kind of a disco matatu, and it played music videos the whole way. Except actually it just repeated one extremely low-budget music video that featured a bunch of guys sitting around looking bored at a party, mixed with sequences of three heavyset ladies standing with their legs apart doing very vigorous butt-clenching.

Bunch of goofy pictures of us and other travelers cavorting around — plus a cameo of Young Jeezy — here! Not pictured: Me sitting more or less on the lap of a matatu conductor on the way from Mombasa to Diani; Kevin losing his contact lenses in the ocean; my Kindle breaking; me spending half the night trying to kill mosquitoes inside our mosquito net; a big group of us passing an afternoon speaking in funny accents; Kevin mislaying one of his cochlear-implant batteries at the airport and then, miraculously, finding it; monkey testicles.

Elephants, pancakes and breaking the law: Nairobi early days

When we first arrived in Nairobi, I wasn’t sure how to be. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Nairobi is vilified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, so you get a bizarre sense of satisfaction after spending a month there without so much as having your wallet lifted.” This was certainly something to look forward to. But what to do until then?

I found it very difficult to assess the actual menace. What is the relationship between most dangerous in the world and most dangerous you can imagine? Walking the shade-dappled lane from our hotel to the nearest ATM, I couldn’t figure out if I was reasonably safe carrying the money back to our room, or if I was being a total idiot. (Some people – many of them concerned Kenyans – warn tourists never to walk anywhere, ever.) When Kevin and I got lost on the dusty streets of what I now know to be one of Nairobi’s more upscale neighborhoods, my heart pounded as we strode around unfamiliar corners, trying to look purposeful. Was someone going to, like, leap out and stab me in the face? Remembering that tight sense of panic embarrasses me now.

Unfortunately, my tension showed: On a lunch outing during my first week of work, a friend of a coworker asked how long I’d been in Kenya. Three days, I said. “Ah, I can tell,” he replied. “Your colleagues are at ease, but you are…” and he mimed looking around nervously. “Welcome to Kenya,” he went on. “Be at home!”

Mortified and apologetic, I tried my best. We got a furnished apartment; after a month with heavy backpacks, it was pretty heavenly to unpack. We each went to work and found we liked our work environments, and people went out of their way to invite us to do things. We cooked modest meals.

There was the occasional hiccup: One night, riding in a cab with a broken seatbelt, an oily cop with an AK-47 intercepted us at a makeshift checkpoint and successfully intimidated me into bribing him about four dollars to avoid being arrested. (Which he had no grounds to do, I know now, but at the time I wasn’t quick-witted enough to ask for evidence of the applicable traffic law.) Was I falling in with local practicalities, or proving my own gullibility and weak moral fiber? I still feel slimy with guilt, thinking about it.

We offset the occasional discomfort with some fun things. Some of which are shown in this motley little set of photos from our first couple of weeks. Months ago, when I promised photos of baby elephants and regular giraffes? Finally finally, here those are.

Aaagggghhhh, I know! So cute!

The unsurprising punch line is that I have learned to be at home. It took me a little longer than it took Kevin, but these days, I really like it here – in the staunch, outsize way we tend to like things that require a fair amount of effort. There are dangers and inconveniences, but they’re OUR dangers and inconveniences. And while I feel foolish thinking of my anxious early days, I’m also a little proud: I was terrified, but at least I hung in for the reward, you know? And now, when our friends say “you’ll be back,” I think they may be right.

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.)

Kultural konnektions: 10 funny things about Nairobi

Nairobi is a big cosmopolitan city, where many residents – and all Western expats – enjoy a pretty high standard of living. Running water; access to fresh fruits and vegetables; the occasional rooftop bar with blue Star Trek lighting, martinis, and lounge furniture. Most apartments come with some level of daily housekeeping – ours is considered fairly minimalist, but two ladies come in every day except Sunday to make the bed, wash the towels and wipe down the surfaces. So we’re hardly roughing it. And yet, there are frequent cross-cultural surprises. In no particular order, here are 10 points of interest in our Nairobi life:

1. Despite the size of the city and the volume of its traffic, there are few stoplights. This is sort of surprising, for a place that looks like this:

How does it work? … you may wonder. And the cynical answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Traffic is awful, and driving conditions often resemble a game of bumper cars in a dry riverbed. But the practical answer is: roundabouts. In fact, most of the few stoplights Nairobi does have are auxiliary, generally ignored guidance devices adorning a roundabout. Sometimes, in addition to the usual flow of the roundabout and the metering attempts of the lights, there will be an additional traffic cop directing the flow, often in contradiction of whatever the lights indicate. But, anyway, there are very few lights. Considering how unreliable the power is, though, the absence of traffic lights sort of makes sense. If traffic depended on the lights working… I hadn’t really been trying to think of ways to make the city’s traffic worse, but I think I just hit on one. Anyway, here is the surprising thing I’m building to: In Nairobi, tow trucks just hang out at intersections, waiting for business.

2. So, plenty of tow trucks. What we hardly ever see are fire trucks or ambulances. Not never, but very rarely, and we have heard a siren maybe twice since we got here. Also: specialty service vehicles like ambulances and school buses are often just white vans labeled “Ambulance” or “School bus” on the hood.

3. Supermarkets here are very much on the model of supermarkets in the U.S. Less fancy, but large, and with diverse inventory. The two markets within walking distance of our place comprise smaller electronics and furniture stores, for instance, and you can buy lots of kinds of pots and pans, glassware, etc. there too. The merchandise isn’t of particularly high quality, but the stores themselves are pretty comprehensive and one-stop shop. At Nakumatt, the slightly fancier supermarket, you can even buy camel milk. (Friends of Kevin Gibbs will be unsurprised to learn that he’s trying to arrange for a group tasting.) But it’s clear that we in the U.S. benefit from a ton of packaging research and optimization that is not at work here. The plastic packaging on stuff here is so flimsy that the bag containing our sandwich bread rips when we pick up the loaf. And things that would be re-sealable in the U.S., like cereal boxes, are not re-sealable. Also, within the packaging, product quality really varies. We bought a bug zapper that just didn’t turn on. And this week we bought some butter that proved to be riddled with gray spots and carrying a strong odor of cheese.

4. Speaking of which, let’s talk about cheese. NOT a thing here. Almost all the cheese brands are waxy and terrible. We asked a Kenyan coworker if he ever ate cheese, and from his reaction (“No. NO! No.”) you might think we’d asked if he regularly ate horse anus. If you come to Kenya, here is the reasonable brand of cheese: Brown’s. That’s it. Of course, there are plenty of societies in the world that do not enjoy cheese, but the local aversion is interesting because a) British colonial influence is evident in other areas of Kenyan culinary life; there’s tons of tea drinking, and affection for pastry and meat pies. And b) Kenya has huge dairy production! I have never seen so many kinds of yogurt available. So it’s not dairy that’s the horse anus. It’s cheese.

5. Also, cereal! Not popular with Kenyans, we’re told, and as a possible consequence, it’s a strange facsimile of the breakfast cereals we’re accustomed to. The oddities vary: some corn flakes we got are merely bland and thick, but I got some Rice Krispies-style cereal that has a strange oily quality. Two bites, and the roof of your mouth is coated with a thin layer of what feels like cold Crisco.
So I guess points 3-5 have all been the same point: Our shopping has been hit-and-miss.

6. Recycling! Perhaps unsurprisingly, recycling is not particularly big in Kenya. Not that environmentalism is unknown here – nearby Rwanda has banned plastic bags, and checks you at the border to make sure none enter the country. But there isn’t really the infrastructure to support a comprehensive recycling program here. I mean, there’s barely mail service. So we were excited when we learned we could return beer bottles – not wine bottles, not water bottles, but at least beer bottles – to the less-fancy local supermarket, Uchumi. But then it was explained that we could only return as many bottles as we were buying. Something to do with planning the proper stocking of crates? So there is not actually bottle return, but there is one-to-one bottle exchange. Huh.

7. The teenaged grocery bagger who kindly explained to me about the bottle exchange was, at the same time, trying to put my groceries into plastic bags, while I was trying to politely direct my purchases into the reusable cloth bags I’d brought for the purpose. (Even bringing your own bags only does so much good, because each individual produce purchase has to be put in its own plastic bag and sealed with its price sticker. This makes me itchy, but them’s the rules.) The bagger obliged me for my regular purchases, but pushed back when it came to the big jugs of bottled water. He pointed out that these would not fit in my bags. I pointed out that the jugs have handles. He was unimpressed. I said I already had enough bags at home. And then he smiled knowingly. “Ah,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “En-vi-ron-ment.” I laughed. “Yeah, OK, you got me. Environment.” He clearly thought I was nuts, but we had a nice moment.

8. We are staying in a nice furnished apartment. The décor is a little weird, but overall it’s a nice place by any global standard. A few of its features – the little washing machine in the kitchen, the excellent super-high shower head, the wide built-in window seat – are actually improvements over our usual standard of living. But there are no smoke alarms. And if this worries you, we definitely shouldn’t tell you about how the front door can only be locked and unlocked with the key – meaning that we have to lock ourselves in, and in an emergency would have to find the key in order to get out.

9. Also, refrigerators here come with locks. We’re not sure whom these locks are intended to bar – one’s children, one’s maid, oneself? This has not been explained.

10. Here’s a nice one. In the building where we both work – which is a one-level U-shaped building around a central courtyard, surrounded by lush overgrown gardens containing hibiscus bushes and a guava tree – Baraza, the kind of office support-staff dude, makes big carafes of Kenyan tea with milk twice a day, and everyone crowds into the kitchen for a mug. There are sodas available in the fridge for about 30 cents. And every day around 10, a woman from a nearby canteen comes by to sell delicious hot chapattis, meat samosas and unsweetened doughnuts called mendazi. Mendazi and chapatti cost about a penny and a nickel respectively, while the samosa is about 30 cents. We may not get out of here with our pants fitting, but I will really miss the Convivial Cheap Tasty Snack portion of Kenyan office life. By comparison a vending machine just seems sad.

The cumulative effect here is that I swing back and forth a lot in my enjoyment of Nairobi. Sometimes I’m really tickled by the surprises, appreciative of the warmth and patience of the people, and feel just massively grateful to be having this eye-opening experience of living in another country and being racially in the minority and adjusting to a slightly unfamiliar set of customs. And then sometimes I think that the second I get back to the U.S. I’m going to go to, like, Home Depot, and lie down on its flat clean* floor among its satisfaction-guaranteed wares and hug the ground. The good news is, the latter feeling doesn’t really interfere with the former – even when I’m uncomfortable and long for familiarity and ease, it’s clear that coming here was the right thing to do, that I’m going to be greatly the better for having spent time here. So on the whole I think it’s a win.

* Oh yes it is.

Favorite song

Based on the music we hear in taxis, at the supermarket and flowing out of the open windows of passing cars, here’s who’s Big In Kenya:

• Chris Brown
• Bobby Brown
• Michael Bolton
• Rihanna
• Dolly Parton
• Whitney Houston
• Celine Dion
• Bruno Mars

But also, there is this local guy Jaguar. This song, which is my favorite, is everywhere. Apparently it’s about backstabbers — which is rather borne out by the themes of the video — but I still dance around. I am considering trying to learn it as a boost to my (paltry) Swahili, so that by the time I leave I can complain about all the people backstabbing me and how fierce my Beemer is.