November 28, 2009

So Far You Can Walk There

The one quality that really distinguishes Nairobi from other cities is not necessarily the cuisine, the architecture, or even the hospitality of the people.  It is the sprawling distance.  I have repeatedly experienced the same conversation in which people give me directions from one place to another, specifically stating that I am 'very close' and while I can of course take a bus or a matatu (micro-bus), I can just as well walk.

Over and over again I fall for this.  In my mind, walking distance is probably a bit farther than some other people's ideas.  I think of anything less than 30 minutes as walking distance, although less than 20 is probably the ideal distance.  Of course measuring distance by units of time does little to describe the terrain or the fluctuating elevations.

I haven't been this sore in a long time.  The problem apparently with living in the neighborhood of Upper Hill is that I am constantly walking up the hill!  Everyday to go to the bus stop, to catch a cap, or to make the 25 minute stroll into downtown, I am walking up and down dirt paths, rocky broken sidewalks, in and out of ravines, through the chaotic passage of traffic.  And this is the heart of the city!

I don't generally mind all the exertion.  So I'm certainly not complaining.  Its just one of those surprises of being in a new place and of living in new conditions.  I never really considered the terrain of Cairo as flat until I moved here.  In general, I enjoy all the green space within this city.  Its sprawling parks and green space shoved between the buildings, the dirt shortcuts people have carved into the landscape, and the blossoming flowers adorning the trees.  For those who know me well enough can confirm, I have a terribly weak sense of smell, and as I find all sorts of delicious perfumes within the air, it must be really something special.

November 24, 2009

Fanye Kazi

I always hated the phrase "good hustle," but somehow I can't really think of another way to describe my day.  Except maybe the word "exhausting," or the swahili translation fanye kazi which means "make work."  

Needing to find a place to stay, I hiked all over a particular neighborhood within Nairobi, where I used to stay in 2007.  It was very strange, as so much has changed in Kenya.  Some things have changed for the better, and somethings have not.  Many businesses have improved, disappeared, or been replaced.  I can say that many businesses now appear more 'upscale' and quite nice, traffic seems more relaxed, and the air is much cleaner.  Of course that idea might also just be the consequence of living in Cairo for the last 15 months.  But I don't remember cars staying in their lanes or people using cross walks.  

I did eventually find a place to stay at a place called International Guest House.  Even though it has a fancy name, it was actually completely empty of foreigners. I was told this is low season, and after December it will be packed. The owner and I spoke for quite awhile, as he went to college in Kansas and upon starting his own tourism company in Kenya, he has traveled through much of Europe, America, and Africa.  He has been to Cairo several times, and he also owns a bus company that transports children to and from school within Nairobi.  

As we spoke, I explained my situation, that I don't have very much money, am starting a new job, need to find an apartment, but will constantly travel between this apartment and the Dadaab camps, so I don't want a very expensive place since I will rarely be there.  He offered to rent me a room at the rear of the compound for 100 dollars per month.  It is a very private single room, furnished with a bed, cabinets, and an attached bathroom with shower.  I explained that I want a 'normal' life, and do not want to be living like a hotel guest for my time in Kenya, so he agreed that I may freely use the kitchen and appliances.  He also offered that if I require anything special, like a microwave/minifridge/heater etc., that we can arrange a system, wherein he will purchase that item back from me at a discounted cost.  In this manner I won't waste any money on buying stuff, only to abandon it in 6-9 months.  

It is certain that finding accommodation this safe or convenient for 100 dollars per month will be very difficult in Nairobi.  If I was Kenyan, this would be normal, but as a foreigner the going rate is at least 400 dollars. It is also in my preferred neighborhood of Upper Hill, about a 15 minute walk from the National Hospital (ATM location) and bus station.  It is a good location because it is clean, green, and adjacent to downtown.  It is also near Westalands, where many ngos operate and expats live.   I have certainly lived in nicer places, and seeing where I will stay now really makes me miss living in Cairo... but this is probably an ideal situation for me.  The owner, Kumaou, gave me a ride back to my current place and I told him that I will see him in the morning.

November 23, 2009

A New Day In Nairobi

What a day.
I have officially left Cairo and relocated to Nairobi, Kenya today.  I am also quite that I'll be back in Cairo on various occasions in the future.  Cairo was dusty, tense, and loud yet like a case of bronchitis or emphysema, it never really seems to go away.  People who have spent a fair amount of time in Cairo often end up back in Cairo.  Its understandable of course, as it is remarkably expat friendly. With a few hundred dollars and a basic grasp of the English language, one can probably live in Cairo indefinitely.  The only demand is flexibility.

In Cairo, the inconsistent enforcement of migration laws will allow you to remain for years, get an apartment, get an internship,  get a job in a kindergarten, and maybe get a bank account (in that order).   I will admit however, that my will to be flexible reached a plateau, and it was at that point my time in Cairo began to deteriorate.  I was tired of being in school, tired of working jobs that only partially correspond to my career goals, and tired of working for free. I came to Cairo because I wanted to be in sub-saharan Africa, yet didn't have sufficient resources to make that happen. The longer I stayed, the more frustrated I became, but this is not the fault of Egypt - it was my own.  Nonetheless I will miss Cairo and much of the life that I've had there.

As of today, I am now in pursuit of something different. I boarded a plane at 2 am, and flew to Khartoum Sudan, made a connection to Addis Addaba Ethiopia, and about 4 hours later, landed in Nairobi Kenya.  I stepped off the plane into a brilliant sunlight, with clean, breathable air and strong blowing wind.  Immediately upon arrival I was reminded of why I love this place.

As for now, I'm bombarded with an array of logistical and employment related tasks.  I am still working out where I will be living, my prospective personal budget, the full details of my job.  I still need to find my office, meet an array of partners, get familiarized with the products being created within the computer centers.  Fortunately I don't have the frustrations of also having to discover Nairobi, as knowing where to buy groceries, how to use the bus system, and a relative sense of market prices is invaluable.  Since I don't have to fumble around town lost and frustrated, it saves a lot of time.

The only complication thus far concerns where I am staying for the short term.  I intended to stay with a friend for a few weeks, yet it is obviously clear for various reasons that I need a different situation.  I am staying tonight, but tomorrow I will seek out a hostel somewhere and stay there for the next week or so.  Hopefully I will go to Dadaab on Sunday, although this plan is tentative at best.  I'll pass on more info as I have it.

November 20, 2009

In case this comes up...

I really hate writing this, as it might not end up becoming an issue, but just in case...

About a week ago was a soccer game between Algeria and Egypt to compete for the World Cup.  Quick synopsis is as follows:

  • Algerian soccer team arrived
  • Hooligans in the streets threw rocks at the soccer team
  • Some Algerian soccer players were injured.
  • Game proceeded... 
  • Egypt won, but not by enough points to qualify.
  • Millions of Egyptians celebrated all night long in the streets.
  • Wed, was Game 2, this time in Sudan.
  • Algeria won (in an incredibly boring game, couldn't stand to watch the whole thing)
  • After the game, some fights broke out between Egyptian and Algerian fans within Sudan.
  • The Sudanese police didn't really care, and a lot of Egyptian's 'got w'upped'
That brings us to now.  For the last 2 nights, a growing crowd of young, angry, Egyptian males have been raising a ruckus at the Algerian embassy.  Egyptian security was called in, some fights happened and stuff got broken.  Tonight I'm seeing postings on Facebook by some friends about crowds of people at the Algerian embassy or packing into a downtown plaza called Talat Harb.  Folks are chanting, throwing rocks, burning flags, and acting in a generally obnoxious manner.  Things don't sound very safe there at the moment.  I've heard lots of inconsistent reports regarding the size of the crowd (everything between 7,000 thousand and 100) and lots of rumors about what has been happening.

A story was recently released on the AP newswire.

I am writing all of this because it might pop up on Television screens in the US soon, and I want to avert any worry.  I already found an inflammatory Fox News Headline saying "Will Soccer be source of New War in Mid East?"  Nope, but I'm sure those sort of headlines might help spike the ratings.

So now I've shared the news, I can also tell you that I'm fine, and that these problems don't concern me.  The Algerian embassy is far away and I don't live anywhere near downtown.  In fact, I live on the completely opposite side of the Nile, in Giza, near the pyramids.  I just went and looked around outside, and my chill middle-class neighborhood continues to function in its same laid back manner as usual.  I never have any need to go anywhere near the Algerian embassy, so there is nothing to worry about.  If it wasn't for some messages between friends, I would have no knowledge that anything unusual is happening in Cairo tonight.

Sadly this sort of behavior will do little beyond harming diplomatic ties between Egypt and Algeria.  Otherwise its just another example of irresponsible human behavior.  I keep thinking of Ohio State blowing up after the Michigan State Football game in 2002, and wondering why people act like this?  Win or lose, why is it suddenly okay to set a car on fire because of a sporting event?  A quick online search didn't really answer this question, but is did show me that there were Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver?! Really? Canada eh?  Weird.

So yeah, I'm cool, and intend to stay that way.  If nothing pops up on your tv screen in the next few days, then sorry to cause any alarm.  But if it does, now you at least have a heads up and it there won't be any need to worry.

November 14, 2009

Women's Entrepreneurship: Empowerment through Innovation

This was found on MIT's website for the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at

Photo Contest 2009  The Photo Contest, entitled Women's Entrepreneurship: Empowerment through Innovation sought photographs of women in low-income countries engaging in entrepreneurial activities and demonstrating innovative uses of technologies.


November 13, 2009

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.

Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.

November 9, 2009

Coca Cola and Global Poverty

I am a big fan of Coca Cola.  I know the company has a long history, full of problems and criticisms, but I still admire their product.  Not only do these folks know how to make carbonated high fructose corn syrup taste really good, but few other companies can compare in terms of global recognition and distribution.

Because of its widespread distribution, I've been able drink Coca Cola all over the world.  From the streets of Cairo, to the back alleys of New Dehli, or even in the heart of the Gold Triangle in Burma, you can always buy a coke.  It makes things easy when feeling a little homesick, because you don't need to take up precious space in the backpack, but can simply drop some change at any local shop.  There is no language barrier, because the brand is always pronounced the same, and no matter what the language, the iconic script and bold red are universal.  

Earlier today I found a blog where another aid worker had some observations on Coke in relation to public health development in Tanzania.  Coke is clearly a leader in logistics and her blog entry highlighted a few things the development community could learn.  It also inspired me to write down some of the thoughts that I've had for a few years on the role of this product within humanitarian and development work.

I've always relied upon Rapid Research Appraisal techniques when entering new communities although I never actually learned about this term until I was in grad school.  The idea is to simply recognize socio-economic indicators specific to that community and to map their geographic distribution to better understand how that economy and society function.  For example, I was told by a former professor that when working in the Philippines about 35 years ago, he noticed that the wealthier households would often have denim blue-jeans hanging on their clothes lines.  Likewise in Malawi he noticed that the richer households in often had more metal containers near the front door than other households.  By making these observations he could instantly map, either mentally or on paper, where the richest and poorest households were located within a community that might otherwise look completely homogenous to an outsider.  This can be very important as it might also provide important information regarding personal security or key issues in local conflicts.  Although I would never advocate that these techniques alone form the basis of policy decisions or project design, they nevertheless  important body of  data in a fast and fairly accurate fashion.

Although each culture, society, and economy will have its own custom set of indicators that must be distinguished and observed by the outsider, I've found that Coca Cola is an excellent universal indicator as a consequence of its globalized distribution and identity.  While traveling or working within some of the worlds lesser developed nations, I've  found Coke functions as a reliable indicator of regional security, poverty, and access to Western ideas.  The accessibility and cost of Coca Cola and Coke merchandise can serve as a excellent means to quickly analyze the social economic landscape of a new community.  

While Coke is always available within city centers, it is also available at an inflated cost.  As one travels further away from the city center, the cost will decrease until a certain point in which the inflated cost of the urban economy has subsided to the rising costs of transit.  As the distance increases from the city, the logistical expenses are compounded with the increased cost of electricity, the limited access to refrigeration, and the reduced access to populations who can afford the beverage.  The greater the distance leads to a higher cost and limited distribution.  At a certain point, one has ventured so far from the city center that Coca Cola is completely inaccessible until you advance into the distribution zone of another city center and the same price/access trends function in reverse.

I have never been anywhere in the world and discovered it untouched by this fizzy sugary beverage. This is no surprise as Coca Cola has plants everywhere, even Somalia!  I have found however that when the product is expensive and more difficult to access, it is also a place where outside/foreigners rarely visit.  In such places, the local population often has limited access to education, viable employment, or social mobility. These places might also be more dangerous, or might require great planning to access and later exit.  I've also had a hunch, though not been validated by any serious methodology, that in such places people are also less likely to be have a significant understanding or knowledge about western nations or people, because I have trouble seeing how reliable information about America could access a landscape barren of this ubiquitous American product.  Of course at other times I've seen people in such places secure access to satellite television, radio programming (such as the BBC), globally distributed cell phone networks with migrant relatives in other nations, and preciously handled newspapers from far away.  Consequently the value of Coke as an ideological indicator is only valid when assessed in relation to these other phenomena.

I've sometimes wondered, if I actually find a place that has never heard of Coca Cola, should I even be there?  There is no decent answer to this question, as its too circumstantial, but I think its worthwhile to ask anyway.   

November 8, 2009

Movin' with the beat

I've been a little quite again as its been difficult to write any captivating posts lately.  Everything is constantly in that "in between state."  I guess this is okay though, as its really just a matter of transitioning from one set of life circumstances to another.

I've continued contact with Samasource, and while I don't want to state anything prematurely, I believe that the relationship is unfolding well enough and its possible that I might end up in Kenya soon enough.  This is a transition I really look forward to, considering how much I enjoy African societies, cultures, and languages.  I've been in contact with an array of friends in Nairobi, and am working on making some new connections at this time.

One new project that I have been working toward actually concerns my side hobby of producing hip hop music.  I had recently learned of a new record company, Gatwhich Records, founded in Nairobi by hip hop artist Emmanuel Jal.  A former child soldier in Sudan, Emmanuel has been touring and recording albums within Europe and America for several years now, his most recent release,  Warchild, is a favorite in my collection and highly recommended.  Anyway, I contact the record company he recently started and they are interested in hearing some of the music that I have been recording in Cairo for the last year.  As I might be moving to Nairobi within the next few weeks, this could be a good opportunity to further expand my recording project, as I hope to work with more hip hop artists across the continent.  If possible I would really like to use this as an oppurtunity to showcase the guys that I have enjoyed working within over the last year in Cairo.

To share some of these recordings, I recently uploaded more tracks to my Youtube account.  These are not music videos per se, but simply a few photographs taken by my Australian friend David Lazar (this guy is an international award wining photographer, so check it out!!!) of the guys, with the camera panning and the music playing.  I am attaching below a sample clip of my recent production with Slim J, called Number One Romeo.  This is definitely one of my favorite songs.