My taxi driver often points out brown people, presumably Kenyan Indians, on the road as if he has spotted yet another zebra - “Look, Indians.” He always says it in a helpful manner, like one would say ‘the salt is by the microwave, help yourself to it’. He thinks my heart will cheer up to see members of the kin roaming the urban jungle that Nairobi is. I don’t know what gives him this impression, but when I nod absent-mindedly, I can tell that he disapproves. That I don’t have or show a clear allegiance annoys him to no end.
This is the same man who drives me by Parklands and describes the neighborhood as one “where the rich people, those Indians, live” or tells me how he knows of Kenyan Indian families that disown their sons and daughters for marrying black Kenyans. He questions me about it: “why do you Indians like to live only with each other and don’t want to marry others?” When I protest that, hey, I am not Kenyan Indian so I don’t know, he dismisses me with a “sawa, sawa” (okay, okay).
So given his frustrations of not being able to bracket my existence into a pre-defined social group, when I told him on the morning of the 15th that I would love to go to the Indian High Commissioner’s residence to celebrate India’s Independence Day, he settled into the driver’s seat with a certain satisfaction of regaining the familiar: there, so she is Indian.
He drove me to an OiLibya petrol station close to the ambassador’s residence, rolled down the car window and jerked his chin towards a gaggle of Indian aunties in neon pink and orange sarees, with kids in tow, and said, “ask those Indians or follow where those Indians go.” He is amusing, my taxi driver. His references to brown people in Nairobi are a reflection of how Indians here have come to be treated as a different species that’s part of the ecosystem but should be tolerated from a distance.
The aunties - Indian women beyond a certain age anywhere in the world can be typified into this group almost naturally - and their kids were making their way down the road with a sense of direction, so I asked them if they knew where to go, and they replied with a brand of unadulterated North Indian Hindi that did cheer up my heart. They followed up with a concerned, ‘you are coming, aren’t you?’ while the range of five to ten year-old Monus and Tinkus tugged at their sarees. I smiled, and said “haanji bilkul, aap chaliye, main aapke peeche peeche aa rahi hoon” (yes please, go ahead, I will be right behind you), loving the fact that I could put my Delhi / Lucknow Hindi to use.
In the ambassador’s front lawns were gathered 100-odd Indian people, greeting each other mostly in Hindi and Gujarati. I overheard three voices that had a Tamilian twang, but they were definitely the lone few non-Hindi, non-Gujju speaking folks around. A bulk of the crowd seemed to know each other, and so small talk took off from familiar places - “arey, aapke husband nahi aaye?” (your husband didn’t come?) to “sheila, woh recipe mujhe please bhejna” (sheila, please send me that recipe).
One of the first (and funny) things that happens in an Indian uncle-aunty crowd usually is the sifting of people by gender. Men talk with other men, and women hobnob with other women. So, in any gathering, within the first half hour, two physical concentrations form, one for men and another for women. After that, it is hard for a person to step into a physical space occupied by too many members of the other gender, so they retreat into ‘their’ space. It’s a weird social custom that is religiously followed. This Indian crowd was no different. A couple of men walked past me, then turned about and walked back in the direction they came from, commenting, “achha, yeh toh ladies corner hai” (oh, this is the ladies’ corner).
The ladies had pulled out all the stops: shiny sarees, flowing pallus, jewelry, big bindis, bangles and other little bits of finery, along with a tad too much makeup that Indian women think befits special occasions. In contrast, I was in a factory-made block print kurta with my little bit of kajal and all-purpose Havaiana flip-flops: so severely under-dressed for the occasion. I don’t know what I was thinking. As Indian as they looked and dressed, the ladies air kissed with aplomb. The only visible motif of their humble, middle-class roots, I thought, was the sickly plastic ‘butterfly’ hair clip that adorned the hair of many.
The men in their corner were talking shop. Just an Indians are proud of other Indians’ achievements anywhere in the world (never mind if Kalpana Chawla or Bobby Jindal didn’t/don’t think of themselves as Indians), one gentleman commented, “Chandaria, 5 billion, you know, second biggest industrialist in Africa.” Others surrounded the ambassador, trying to get a word with him. The ambassador, as if he was created to be the centre of attention, towered over everyone at six feet tall.
The ladies were just starting on the second level of small talk having inquired after families and domestic matters - “pehle toh (earlier) they used to give everyone small flags, not anymore” - when a diminutive figure dressed in an elegant oyster-white kurta took to a microphone set far away from where the ambassador had stood and collected a crowd. Immediately, there was a rush to gather around the microphone as people realized that they had stationed themselves at the wrong vantage point. It reminded me of being at Tiger Hill in Darjeeling last year in February for the sunrise over the Kanchenjunga range. At 3.45 am, a huge number of people fought for space that faced eastwards towards the very first baby pink sun rays. A little while later, it dawned on some smart guy that he should stand facing northwards so he could see the sun gradually lighting up the Himalayan peaks, and then there was a mad scramble to join him.
Anyway, the petite man at the microphone spoke in simple but pure Hindi, the kind that Indian railway station announcements use. He detailed the agenda for the ceremony - the national anthem would be sung at 9 am, after which everyone was requested to walk to the lawns behind a building and seat themselves to listen to Pranab Mukherjee’s pre-Independence Day speech, and then enjoy some food. Sounds simple enough, yes? The Hindi version was: “pehle hum rashtra gaan gaayenge, phir aapke peeche joh imarat hai, uske peeche rashtrapatiji ka bhaashan padha jayega, phir aap sab light refreshments ke liye aamantrit hain.” On a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, this is a 4, I would say. But hilariously, as he said this, a loud murmur went around the lawn, with people asking each other, “what is ‘imarat’? What does he mean?” “Building, building, arre, the building behind us,” clarified an erudite voice from the crowd, and enlightened ahs and ohs went up in the air.
The national anthem was suitably sung after this tiny commotion, and then people walked to the other side of the ‘imarat’. The ambassador read out the Indian president’s speech, and then contextualized it pleasantly well for the audience, talking about the achievements of the Indian community in Kenya, and what changes in India could mean for the community and Kenya-India relations. Food and good ol’ patriotic music followed, and people had their pictures taken with the kind ambassador, while kids pranced about and teenagers sulked (“this is so boring!”), and I had multiple cups of hot masala chai.
A genial Indian uncle sitting by my side shook my hand and within seconds of greeting me, said, “you are a very pleasant person,” in a manner of trust that Indians are wonderfully capable of. Not a bad morning to spend with these Kenyan Indians, I thought.
My taxi driver picked me up a little while later, and we sped back home, pausing only to note the presence of “those Somalis, poor and dangerous” on the way.
It’s been a bit of a hiatus, but with good reason! We have racked up 50+ interviews, with another 8-10 to go. It’s all coming together, and it’s slowly but surely, coming to an end. Next week is the last of our eight weeks of fieldwork in Nairobi. Due to the nature of research, I cannot muse over our findings here (it will have to wait until the report is published), but I do want to reflect on the process now that I can look back at the last seven weeks with more clarity.
I have to start by saying I have gained a stupendous amount of respect for the moderators and interviewers from the various research agencies that P&G (my former company) worked with. At the time, we would merely be observers to avoid any biases in questioning. Now that I am conducting interviews myself, I realize how much perceptiveness and active listening you need to draw the best out of your subjects. Fortunately, most Kenyans I have interviewed have been friendly and forthcoming. Just at a VC4Africa event today, a subject we interviewed this week told me with gusto that “we are just like that; we like to meet people and share what we are doing, unless of course, it is a competitor.” The only trouble I have really faced is in conducting interviews in Kibera, where people have often given monosyllabic answers. Then again, there’s more of a language barrier and issue of sensitive topics in the slums vis-a-vis the tech scene.
A pleasant part of the fieldwork was reliving the joy of interviewing. I really like it, maybe because I am more of a listener than a talker in general. This is the first time after high school (when I had vague dreams of becoming a photojournalist) that I am practising my interviewing skills again.
I also feel things have come full circle. Having initially started on the topic of digital commerce, we have ventured into digital innovation more broadly. Especially at the base of the pyramid, this translates into innovative information and communications technology (ICT) usage, which takes me back to ICT4D research I did for my undergraduate thesis in Indonesia. Funny thing is, my Indonesian research partner and I had originally proposed to focus our thesis on ICT in business and development in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, which our supervisor had shot down for security reasons. I remember being very cross at him at the beginning, but have thanked him endlessly ever after for introducing me to Sumatra. Anyway, I had to write to my Indonesian research partner and tell her how strange it felt that I was doing very similar research in slums in Nairobi so many years after we published our thesis.
My undergrad research partner is a gem of a person, and having worked with her before, I came into this project naively thinking that the operational aspects would be easy-peasy. The first thing I failed to consider was that while she spoke Bahasa, neither I nor my current research partner speak Swahili. Not that we needed Swahili for the interviews (in fact, even people in Kibera spoke fluent English), but knowing the local language obviously helps getting things done more easily. The second thing I should have anticipated but didn’t was that our target subject profile for this research included entrepreneurs, corporate employees, government officials, NGOs and academics who are more difficult to pin down than farmers and micro-entrepreneurs - my subjects in the Bukit Lawang research. I suppose another key difference between those subject profiles is that the Nairobi research is in an urban setting whereas the BL research was in a village, where it is easy, appropriate and efficient to simply walk up to people and request an interview.
One last reflection for now is on the various qualitative research method techniques. Having done focus groups, in-depth interviews, observations and shadowing, and shop-alongs with subjects in 10+ countries at P&G, I think if I had to rank these techniques in terms of effectiveness, shadowing and immersion would be at the top of my list and focus groups would be at the bottom. If you want to understand people’s motivations best, there is nothing better than living their lives for a short period of time. Call it ethnographic research or research to enable “human-centred design” and all other such glorious terms, but simply speaking, when you are able to empathize better, you create better solutions. Focus group discussions are highly overrated, because even with the best of moderators, there tends to be a dominant subject that quieter folks will disagree with but won’t bother to voice their opinion in a group. Interviews are great insofar as the interviewer has an ear for catching contradictions and pushing back (gently) at the subject. It also often happens that subjects are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know about something and will lie, subconsciously or otherwise. The main limitation of interviews, though, is that there’s always a gap between thought / action and its articulation.
So much more to discuss on this, but will have to wait until next week. In all, it’s been a fun contrast to work almost guerrilla-style on this project, compared to ‘commissioning’ quantitative and qualitative research within an well-oiled corporate machine.
Lake Nakuru National Park
Lake Nakuru National Park
I write this at 6 am on a wintry Sunday morning in Nairobi. I am wrapped up in a blanket that strangely looks like a patchwork of broccoli flowers but is as warming as a broccoli cheddar soup. The night is giving way to daylight. This means that the sky will go from inky black to misty grey because dawn is a sneaky phenomenon here, not for the naked eye to behold. Every day, the fogginess and chill last until about 11 am, and then the shiny sun comes up without preamble.
I have been awake for the last two hours, and it has given me the chance to add idly barking dogs to the list of ambient sounds I am accustomed to by now. The muezzin’s beautiful azan comes wafting through the air unfailingly five times a day while the busy chainsaw from a construction site nearby grates on my ears, driving me insane gently. Little birds make innocuous sounds that mix with battery-powered beeps of cars being locked and unlocked, turned and reversed. Come Friday night, the boombox in the neighborhood club gives up any remaining modicum of subtlety. Add to this the earnest strains of “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” emanating from grimy roadside shops and reflective-marble floored supermarkets, and that rounds up my list of non-threatening sounds in Kilimani.
I was up early today to speak with a couple of friends from Singapore, which is five hours ahead of Nairobi (only!). Catching up with your people when you are running about a new place in an overstimulated state is like having vanilla ice-cream with hot chocolate fudge. That perfect contrast you don’t fully appreciate until you have it. I don’t know why I am so full of food metaphors and references today. Anyway, thank goodness for technology. Thank goodness for undersea fibre optic cables, Kenya. Thank goodness for early mornings when the bandwidth is not clogged up!
This post is really about flamingos. Yesterday, six of us went to Lake Nakuru National Park, one of the 52 parks and reserves in this country. Lake Nakuru is one of the oldest, biggest and deepest lakes in the Rift Valley in East Africa. It is the first alkaline or “soda” lake I was going to, and that made me think of freshwater lakes in a new light, because I have been to some but never stopped to think why they were called ‘freshwater’.
Alkaline lakes, like Nakuru, have plenty of carbon dioxide bubbling through. This supports more photosynthesis, leading to great biodiversity. Just in case anyone is confused like me about how soda lakes are different from volcanic lakes like Danau Toba in Indonesia, the difference is that volcanic lakes form right inside the crater whereas soda lakes can form inside volcanic craters or other depressions in areas where tectonic shifts have occurred. Of course, the even more basic difference is that volcanic lakes are acidic by definition, due to volcanic gases.
This is how I remember Danau Toba from ICT research in Indonesia in 2008:
The forested region around Lake Nakuru is rich with birds and animals, and has hence become a protected area by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Chief among the highlights are flamingos, because they are not found in plenty anywhere else in Kenya. Little did I know (even though Wikipedia did mention it as I found out later) that most of the flamingos in Lake Nakuru had migrated to another lake called Bogoria due to the rising water levels of the former.
Here is a picture of how Lake Nakuru looked before water levels rose in 2013, sourced from here on Wikipedia:
And, here’s how it looks today from the same viewpoint after water levels rose. See how the water has eaten up some of the land. In fact, we saw a lot of acacia trees (the flat-topped ones that you see in the picture below, and which apparently is used on the cover of pretty much every book written on Africa as this article shows)
We did see flamingos, but because of the higher water levels, we could not get as close to them as I would have liked. They were specks of pink and white in the far distance.
We did catch a lovely sight of a flock of flamingos flying in from the forest to hang out with the bunch that was already in the lake.
This video does slightly better justice than the picture.
Flamingos apart, we saw a lot of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs, water bucks, buffalos (many dead ones too), baboons, a rhino, and some very colourful birds. Pictures to follow in the next post.
We also saw a mini-waterfall.
'Safari' is such an oft-used word in English that one forgets it is a Swahili word that means 'a long journey.' As Swahili has Arabic influences, I wouldn't be surprised if the Hindi/Urdu word 'safar' which has approximately the same meaning comes from the same source. It's so much fun to dig into the history of words and discover such nuggets. Our safari van driver-cum-guide mentioned the meaning of 'safari' in Swahili to me yesterday, and I do think that the best part about long journeys or safaris is swapping anticipation for a willingness to enjoy whatever comes your way.
I really enjoyed our drive through the Rift Valley too, to and fro Nakuru. It helps that the roads are pretty good today, but really, the landscape is utterly breathtaking. The valley is a flat basin dotted with small volcanoes, other camel hump-like hills and cacti. The play of light and shadows on this topography creates lovely hues of yellow, brown and green.
It amazes me how quickly the landscape in Kenya changes from arid, cacti-infested regions in the Rift Valley to tea farms and coffee plantations in Limuru, all within 3 hours of each other.
On our way back, we also saw a Kenya Railways Corporation cargo train snake its way along the hills.
The railway has a really interesting role in East Africa’s history.Between 1896 and 1902, the British colonial administration built the Ugandan Railway to connect Mombasa, Kenya’s major port city, to Uganda. What they wanted to do really was get to the source of the Nile, which is in the Ugandan town of Ginja, to capture the water resource and gain an advantage over other colonial powers in the region.
The Ugandan Railway came to be known as the ‘Iron Snake’ by local people, and also as the ‘Lunatic Express’ because many Brits thought the colonial administration was crazy to spend so much taxpayers’ money on what was an impossibly difficult feat of construction to achieve in those days. Not just that, the construction of the railway resulted in the death of more than 2,000 workers. Occupational hazards included man-eating lions which are rumored to have killed more than 100 workers, according to unofficial estimates.
A great many Indian laborers were brought in by British India to help construct the line. I am not sure of reasons why there was insufficient indigenous labor, and whether this means they were few in number or untrained or both.
The funny thing is that Nairobi was settled in 1902 by accident along the railway line. It did not exist until the railway line was completed. Today, the passenger train runs from Mombasa to Kisumu. From what I could see of the railway tracks on our way back, and in Kibera, it is a narrow gauge railway even today.
Here are some pictures of our lovely sunset drive from Nakuru to Nairobi.
This last picture is for a friend in Singapore :). As I was telling him, it feels like there are as many Maersk trucks as zebras in Nairobi and Nakuru countries!
My roommate must be a lucky charm. In the one week she’s been here, I have got to know enough people in Nairobi to throw a party.
It all started with Tech4Africa, an un-conference for all people interested in tech and the internet in Africa. The Nairobi chapter has been held twice so far, I think. Tech4Africa Nairobi happened on 1st of July at the iHub - the tech incubator space I have mentioned before. While the list of speakers and agenda were not made available until about four days prior to the event, the turnout was great. The audience was mostly made up of aspiring entrepreneurs who wanted to network and make use of the collective intelligence gathered there. Speakers from IBM Smartcamp Africa, Africa Internet Holding (Jumia, Lamudi, EasyTaxi and Hellofood), Kenya School of Monetary Studies and Kiva were among the prominent ones I remember.
The big message of the morning was that Africa needs to “hustle” or the “<insert a non-African nationality> would come over and take their jobs”. “Africa needs Africans,” said the non-African speaker.
I get the hustling bit somewhat. My team at MEST in Accra constantly struggled to get the point across to our students, entrepreneurs-in-training, that proactively solving problems was better than waiting up for someone to help them. It seems flippant to me to distill that message down to “let’s hustle”, but that’s the wannabe cultural anthropologist in me speaking. Perhaps, what people need to hear is a blunt voice telling them to get off their backsides and work hard.
However, what troubled me more was the conflicting nature of messages through the rest of the day. To begin with, there were a lot of instructions given out to the audience, which is funny for a un-conference. How do you expect people to become more proactive and entrepreneurial when you spoon-feed them with gems like these: “you’re supposed to move around and talk to people”, “you need to stick to the timetable…(though) that’s an alien concept.”? I won’t get into the other issues with such language because that’s irrelevant right now.
The second problem, or rather question, I have is: why are Africans tech entrepreneurs so often told that they must build for the ‘global market’? I have heard this in Accra before and now hear it in Nairobi. The version at T4A was that developed markets build for the global market, not the local market. That was apparently the difference between Africa and developed markets, implication being that building for the global market is the gold standard. I see a couple of issues with this.
A) What does a ‘global market’ mean anyway? There are two ways to interpret it. Either it means that you can serve multiple markets (in the same geographical region, or not) at the same time, or it means that you serve a market not in your geographical proximity. If it’s the first case, it’s sure great to think that your opportunities are borderless, but even multinational companies rarely roll out a product in a bunch of new markets simultaneously. There are phased launch plans preceded by a lot of hard work to ensure capabilities on ground in each market. Additionally, if the product is not tried and tested, you want to launch it in one market, learn and then launch it in others. Sometimes, you actually decide not to launch it in more markets based on such learning! Lastly, if you do decide to launch it in multiple markets at the same time, you probably have one key market where a bulk of your revenue is going to come from, so your attention is skewed towards it. The point is, if you are a startup, with not many resources and with your chances of success or existence riding on one product, why would you go for multiple markets at the same time? Win in one market and win big, instead of spreading yourself thin.
If it’s the second case, that is, if you are entering just one market, but a market you know little about (including market forces, regulations and culture), it is not the best business move again.
You say it’s different for tech companies? Just based on my Nairobi experience, every tech startup I have interviewed has emphasized the importance of ‘offline’ efforts - sales, vendor management, employee training, capacity building - for execution. As a developing city that is only now starting to see more consumer demand, supply side capabilities are also at a rudimentary stage. So how do you expect to take these underdeveloped business operations and compete in global environments where they are far more developed? Wouldn’t it be better strategy to operate in the local context where consumers are more forgiving and competitors are on the same learning curve?
B) When a host of companies, small and big, are making a beeline for Africa today expecting high rates of growth, it seems a little silly to tell local companies to build for the global market instead. I also can’t reconcile this with the ‘Africans for Africa’ talk at T4A.
Anyway, after a whole day of this, I ended up walking home with a girl from Kiva who was at T4A, and we hit it off. Right after, I ran into a couple of Georgetown SFS boys who live in our apartment complex too, and they seemed fun. Over the last few days, I’ve met more folks through these people, and we’ve had done fun group stuff - 4th of July celebrations, a happy hour and dinner at a pretty al fresco restaurant called Under the Radar, a day trip to a tea farm in Limuru, and a random but fun party at a journalist’s house (where I discovered the cocktail Dawa - sugarcane juice, honey, vodka).
The defining characteristic about expats here, as it has dawned on many of us by now, is that a great majority of people are here only for a short period. “It’s all so transient,” is a statement I’ve heard a few times this past week. As another Kiva person, who is here for the next two years said, “I have as many farewell dinners as, you know, uneventful dinners in this city.”
But then again, what is not transient? Said some great philosopher. So I should throw that party, invite all the wonderful folks, Fletchies, friends of Fletchies and interviewee-acquaintances. Soon!
My roommate and I almost did not watch the Germany-Brazil game last night. Right before the game was to start, we were glued to our old school, LG Flatron 21” television, rooting for Julia Roberts in her Erin Brockovich avatar. It was only because our friends, a German and an American, had saved seats for us at a bar nearby that we decided to miss the last bit of the movie (yes, yes, we had watched it before but once you commit to a movie, you must stay with it till the end) and venture out at 11 PM.
Our taxi driver picked us up, said a distracted hello and then promptly turned up the radio for some Kiswahili football commentary. The game had already started. For some reason, the driver thought we wanted to go to the hospital and turned the wrong way. Before we could point this out to him, his mother called. So, he slowed the taxi down to a crawl on deserted Ngong road and chatted with her for a few minutes. In between all of this, and as we were trying to get the driver’s attention, Germany scored the first goal. We had no way of actually knowing this until later because we couldn’t understand the language! And the driver was in his own world, I suspect being admonished by the mother, going by his first defensive and then pacifying tone.
Anyway, several potholes later (the place was so close by that, really only some potholes separated our apartments from it), we reached Steak and Ale where the boys - an ecstatic German shouting ‘super Deutschland!’ and an amused American - waited for us. What followed, as they say, is history, but suffice to say that the stunned silence that met us on Ngong road on our way back after the game was not the typical 1 AM quiet of Kilimani. On this night, a German pledged to tell his grandchildren the story of how he almost died of joy in a decrepit bar in Nairobi and an American proudly showed off the newly acquired skill of calling offsides in football aka soccer.
In my time here so far, one of my biggest realizations is how perceptions of safety can differ from person to person.
Last week, I was talking to a friend, who’s from Karachi, and describing to her the general levels of caution required in Nairobi when on the streets. She remarked, oh alright, so people aren’t brandishing knives or guns in your face then, “so it is pretty much like a developing city anywhere with its problems of petty crime.”
My taxi driver says to me, talking about the negative effects on tourism due to travel advisories issued by some countries, “I don’t understand that. Even in the US, movie theaters and schools are not really safe.” He acknowledges that Kenya has had security issues in the recent past, but says this is when people need to support the country instead of “creating scares”.
Chatting with ‘expat’ friends here, I also see how the feeling of safety can depend on your ethnicity. I, for instance, stand out lesser (and am less of a target presumably) because Kenya is home to so many Indian people.
I am too close to the situation to judge, and admittedly prejudiced by a lot of hearsay (and travel advisories). Also, the fact that every single building, mall, supermarket and standalone restaurant I’ve been to has had Cerberus-like security guards hasn’t escaped my attention. Still, I have been able to walk the streets freely with my belongings, taken matutus and mini-vans. and spoken with random people on the streets with only the slightest of apprehension.
Maybe it is too early to say (maybe I am pushing my luck with this post :\), I don’t know. But here’s what I can rationalize based on places I have lived in - if I compare Nairobi to Indian cities, I feel so much surer of my safety as a woman in Nairobi. There are appreciative glances, and shouts of “Beautiful!” and “Sasa!”, but nothing even remotely indecent. If I compare Nairobi to Accra, I don’t yet see any remarkable differences. If I compare Nairobi to Boston, well, Cambridge/Medford ain’t exactly safe either. I am advised even over there to not walk alone in the night, with good reason - muggings in the neighborhood, a robbery where I live, and the like in the past year. And just for argument’s sake, a better comparison is probably one between Boston and Singapore given that they are both first-world cities, and need I even say more about where each stands?
Just my worldview.