Jambo! – Kenya Days 0-2

Jambo my friend!

This is what Kenyans say as a greeting, especially if they are trying to sell you something at the market for tourists. 😛 This probably sounds stereotypical, and it totally is, but it’s been one of my few interactions with Kenyans so far. I will say that they are excellent salespeople.

Here we are in Nairobi. It was a long trip to get here. We are here to install some prototypes as the final step in the Harvey Mudd College Global Clinic project. For background, we’ve been working with a non-profit called RainCatcher which raises funds and installs rainwater harvesting systems in rural parts of Kenya, Uganda, and the Navajo Nation. This year we’ve been developing a monitoring device which will collect data about each system in the field and transmit it back to RainCatcher via SMS and the Internet. The goal of the project is to allow RainCatcher to view data about their systems without visiting each site in person. This will help them do targeted maintenance and save on travel expenses for their staff. They also hope that showing collected data to their donors will help them in their fundraising efforts since seeing real data can build stronger and more personal connections with RainCatcher’s work.

I started out on Monday at around 6:00 am. I left Yakima and hopped over to Seattle and then to LAX. On the first two flights my seatmates were a man and then a woman who was native to LA. Both were in Washington State to visit family and both of them said how much they enjoyed the natural areas and beautiful scenery that this State affords. I agree! When they asked about my purpose for traveling it felt strange and exciting to say “I’m going to Kenya.” It was real.

They lady on the second flight was a very interesting character. She was older, perhaps in her late 60s or early 70s, and very thin. She struck me as full of life and strong opinions. I soon learned that she was very passionate about preserving the environment and protecting animal welfare. She told me that she eats only raw foods and has been a “veg head” her entire life. She understands that her lifestyle invokes skepticism from lots of people, but says that she has so much more energy and clarity of thought compared to most people her age (probably more than most people in general too). Although she lives in an urban center near downtown LA she takes it upon herself to feed the wildlife – mice, squirrels, and cats. “They have nowhere else to go,” she said, “and this was their home before it was ours.” Above all, her choices are motivated by the desire to reduce suffering in the world. “I cannot eat anything or support anything that has come out of suffering, and that includes all life, including human, animal, and plant.”

Reduce Suffering: It was a new perspective on vegetarianism that I hadn’t heard so explicitly before. I’m sure this is the motivation for many people’s dietary choices, but this conversation was new to me.

Later we talked about travel. She told me that she had traveled to Israel half a dozen times and it was a fantastic country. She explained that what is reported in the media is most often violence between Israel and surrounding countries and/or terrorist organizations. Although these stories are real and not necessarily reported inaccurately, she believes that reporting solely on violent conflicts in the Middle East creates a negative perception of Israel and its people on the whole. Based on her first-hand experience she said that Israeli people are some of the most humanitarian in the Middle East. She witnessed Israeli doctors traveling to areas where violence had occurred and providing their services free of charge to anyone who needed medical help, regardless of their nationality. This was new information to me and a great perspective to hear. There is a lot I still need to learn about the world.

Once in LA, I met the rest of my clinic team in the airport. I was very happy to skip the long security line at the international terminal since I was arriving on a domestic flight and was already inside security.

International airports are pretty cool places. They are kind of a cross between a high-end shopping mall and a museum with a repetitive stream of announcements on the overhead speakers. I love airports.

Before long we were boarding our 10 hour flight for Amsterdam. KLM is not a super great airline, but we got there in one piece. I had very little leg room, but my discomfort was ameliorated only by the fact that I slept almost the entire flight. Thanks Ambien.

We had another 3 hour layover in the Amsterdam International Airport, another exciting place. Europe has a distinct style from America: a bit more minimalist, and also somewhat higher quality (and more expensive) on the whole. I explored the airport with my teammate Senghor during our layover. In the end I only bought juice and cheese, but we found some very… interesting products for sale. Hopefully my family likes Gouda (it’s the name of a place and pronounced “how-da” in Dutch).

Finally we took an 8 hour flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi. I slept less on that flight and my body started to get very confused part of the way through the flight. I was alternately wide awake and exhausted, sometimes at very close intervals. I gave up on sleeping and watched The Intern instead. It was OK: 7/10. I was a bit confused about what sort of message they were trying to support in the movie. Obviously the people behind this film support women in the workplace, but what about a bit of balance? I didn’t like how Matt, Jules’ husband, in the movie seemed to be completely OK with being neglected for the sake of supporting her business. Sure, she was great at running the business and was very passionate about it, but I think that maintaining a strong marriage and a healthy family dynamic would require some degree of compromise in real life.

Feminism isn’t gender role reversal.

Regardless of gender, people in general need to put effort and intention into their marriage if they want it to stay good.

And kids need quality time with both parents.

In the movie, Jules Ostin was pursuing her career at the expense of her family. The happy ending depicted in The Intern wouldn’t be the end of her woes in that arena if this was reality.

I liked most of the film, but the depiction of feminism, marriage, and family rubbed me the wrong way.

Nairobi

We got to Nairobi around 9:30 pm and it was midnight by the time we cleared customs and made our way to the EKA Hotel. The hotel was very nice and had fast wifi which was a blessing.

On our first full day in Kenya I woke up early around 7 am (5 pm PST) so I went to the gym. That felt great after weeks of neglecting exercise. I’m a little sore but it felt so awesome. I’m excited to get back into an exercise routine. Once the rest of the team was awake we ventured to a nearby mall to buy SIM cards. This was a success.

While we waited for the driver to pick us up, we wandered through a street market which was set up in the mall parking lot. Our driver had warned us that that they would charge us tourist prices and this was indeed the case. I had to bargain for everything and even then I only succeeded in lowering it to a somewhat reasonable range. I’m sure the value of the goods was still a fraction of what I paid. As I said, the vendors were excellent salespeople. I did get a few neat things as gifts and was content with my purchases when we left.

The rest of the day we did testing on our prototypes which was mostly successful. Around dinner time we went to a different mall to meet Jeremy Gordon, the CTO for Echo Mobile. In developing the web application for this project we adapted a platform called Echo Sense that Jeremy built. He told us about his work and his reasons for working in Kenya. This was a very interesting conversation! Hopefully I will stay in touch with him and the Echo Mobile company.

Jeremy gave us a brief introduction to Kenyan politics. The governmental power, he said, is mostly held by the President rather than Congress. Kenya ostensibly has a democratic system, but the elections are often driven heavily by money. Whoever has the most money behind their campaign usually wins. This is facilitated largely through public visibility as well as the buying of votes. He didn’t get into the details, but it sounds like most people will vote a certain way for a small amount of money. Tribalism in Kenya is also alive and well. There are at least 40 tribes in Kenya, said Jeremy, and most of them are still fairly insular especially in more rural areas. Intermarriage between tribes is rising, but slowly, and local politics are mostly still tribal. People usually vote for someone from their own tribe and have usually hold a lot of negative stereotypes about people from other tribes. It sounds like the Masai tribe has been intentionally “preserved” as part of Kenya’s tourism industry.

By the time we got back to the hotel I was so tired, having stayed up through the Pacific equivalent of the entire night. After packing it was 10 pm and I fell asleep right away. To my chagrin I woke up wide awake at 2 am and was unable to fall back asleep….

Hello jet lag

This morning we made our way to the airport for our flight to Kisumu. The Nairobi International Airport was a very different animal compared with LAX and Amsterdam. It reminded me of the airport in Hawaii when we went there on vacation. It was a low single-story series of buildings with only a few gates in each. When we boarded we walked directly onto the Tarmac where all the planes were parked.

There is private security everywhere! When we go into any building we have to go through a metal detector and have our bags searched. They are also a big fan of those metal detector wands. While the security is understandable considering Kenya’s history, it doesn’t seem to be very thorough. There are countless ways that a person with truly malicious intent could circumvent these checkpoints. Since the guards check so many people they don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to each person. I’ve seen the metal detector go off on many people, including myself, but they don’t appear to investigate further. When bags go through the X-ray scanner the guard seems to just pass them through rather than actually examining their contents. For example, they didn’t make me take out my laptop even though they did for the person in front of me. They told me that filled water bottles were not allowed but did give me specific instructions on how to discard my water. I started drinking it and the guard went on to the next person. After a few moments I realized that he wasn’t paying attention at all so I just walked away and put my partially full bottle back in my bag. According to Jeremy, the government doesn’t provide very good public security through police and the military so most businesses resort to hiring their own.

So far I haven’t seen a lot of this country since I’ve spent most of my time in hotel rooms or waiting on the curb for a taxi driver. The air quality is not so great, it’s smells like fire smoke everywhere, so being outside isn’t so pleasant. Hopefully once we get to a more rural area I will get to experience more.

Looking out from the airplane I see a flat green country with some small communities scattered throughout the landscape. We will be in Kisumu soon.