How to describe my first couple months in Africa? Full of surprises to say the least. Coming from a Western perspective I had my own set of beliefs about what the countries of this continent are comprised of, and although some of those beliefs were confirmed, many more were not. This serves as a reminder that the beliefs we hold are often created from misinformed messages passed on to us through various media channels. You really can't say you know anything about a place, until you've gone and experienced day to day life there.
For starters, Nairobi is a very developed city, one in which you can find any comfort your Western heart desires. From huge shopping malls to street side hawkers selling fresh fruit to North Face jackets being sold at Toi Market for $40 CAD...you really can find everything under the sun, it just may cost you. Like quinoa for example, this is a high cost imported item (taxed at 45%) and I'm very sad I left my 2kg bag at home. There is enough good food here to make up for it though, and it's quite healthy too. A typical meal consists of vegetables, steamed spinach, lentils, rice, sweet potatoes, cassava root etc., although most Kenyan's will tell you their favourite meal is ugali - a mixture of maize and millet flour with the consistency of sticky rice that you eat with your hands and dip into meat stews. This staple food is found all over Africa, but with different names depending on the country. The fresh tropical fruit is hands down my favourite thing to eat, oh my, I really can't get enough of it. They have mini bananas which are so sweet, delicious passion fruit, and the best pineapples, mangos, avocados and papayas I've ever had in my life. The weather here is consistently pleasant all year round, with only 2 seasons - wet and dry. Since Nairobi is quite high in elevation (close to Calgary nearing 1800m) it doesn't get unbearably hot either, it can actually get a little chilly in the evenings. I don't have words to describe how beautiful the landscape is, but the best way to experience it is on a boda-boda (motorbike). Driving out to work to visit the farmers, we see women and men picking fresh tea leaves and farming on the backdrop of the fertile Rift Valley. Driving in the city in general is always an adventure. Nairobi is known for its traffic and matatu (mini-bus) scene. Some driver's bling their matatu out to the maximum in order to attract attention and get more riders. Kenya is very culturally diverse with over 40 different tribes. It's really interesting learning about the different traditions, customs and language that each tribe has. Unfortunately, these differences have been played on in the past by colonial powers and continue to be a dividing line in today's politics.
One of the hardest things to accept is the drastic inequality you see. Nairobi has some incredibly wealthy expat neighbourhoods, and also one of the largest slums in the world (Kibera). I always find it interesting though that people who have less, seem happier and are much friendlier. Anyone know what the correlation is? I'm wondering if it's due to the fact that once all your basic needs are cared for, and as humans who are always seeking more, we start to think about other things, which can lead you into the deep dark holes of your brain and make you feel depressed. Or maybe it just comes from the simple fact that "less is more" or "ignorance is bliss" - if you don't know what you're missing out on, you don't get upset over it. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below, I'd love to discuss this further!
I went to a pitching event called "Nairobi Stew" where various start-up social ventures have the chance to pitch their business proposal, with the winner taking home the whole donation pot. Nairobi has a burgeoning social enterprise scene so there are always lots of exciting events and opportunities like this taking place. At this specific event, the winner was Victorious Bone Craft Designs, who's mission is to change the image of the Kibera slum while empowering the locals living there through employment opprotunities. A popular tourist attraction in Nairobi is to go on a slum tour. You see tourists walking through the slums crying, and I feel like this is wrong on so many levels. For starters, the young children living there don't actually know anything other than this life, and may not realize how starkly in contrast it is to the life of the rich, but a crying foreigner may cause them to think otherwise. The other point is that these tours don't really benefit anyone but rather make a spectacle of the poor, somewhat along the lines of a human zoo. Victorious Bone Craft Designs is using the money they won at the pitching event to host workshops where tourists can work alongside employees from Kibera to design their own souvenirs from old animal bones taken from local butchers. I came home with a wicked pair of camels earrings, keychains and a bottle opener which I hand-crafted with a ton of help from Joshua of course. If you are travelling to Nairobi and are looking for an activity, I would highly suggest this one! Another inspiring social entrepreneur I met at Nairobi Stew is Nzambi who co-created Gjenge Makers with the vision of using old recycled plastics as building blocks for homes. Check out her crowd-funding page to learn more: http://crowdfunding.watsonuniversity.org/campaigns/nzambi-matee/
My favourite moments so far have been walking in the rural areas and slums and interacting with the local children. They all call out as you walk by them "mzungu mzungu", which has many meanings including white person, traveller, foreigner etc. and stems back from colonialism when the English first settled in Africa. For some of these kids it's the first time they have seen a white person and they will run away from you, and for some of the adults it's a rare occurrence, but it is always a joyous one. A real big moment of clarity for me occurred after spending the afternoon in the Kibera slum and sharing thoughts with a friend from EWB who has lived in Nairobi for a couple years now who expressed my feelings perfectly: "that no matter what happens to me in this life, I was born miles ahead of half the worlds population just by the virtue of location". That moment for me was equally filled with emotions of gratitude and unworthiness. Why was I lucky enough to be born into this privileged life? I will never know the answer to that but it makes me want to grab life by the reigns and live every moment with full intensity because I have so much in this life to be thankful for.
I moved to Kenya to work with LishaBora, a start-up venture which is improving the profitability and sustainability of smallholder dairy farming in Kenya through the digitization of the informal sector. If you want to learn more, check out our website: www.lishabora.com. I've been hired on as the Communications Director to tell the world about LishaBora which I'm mostly doing so through blogs, you can also sign up for our newsletter for regular updates and to learn how you can support our initiative! My favourite part of my job is interacting with the smallholder dairy farmers and their families in the rural communities. My heart melts ever time we meet a farmer who is so excited about our company because their daily milk yields have been increasing since using our input services. I've always been really passionate about empowering women, and 52% of our smallholder customers are women so this is another huge motivator for me in my work. When the women attend our training sessions, it helps them gain more power in their households economically because now they have the knowledge to make informed decisions about how best to grow their dairy farming business! We'll be launching our business management mobile application for Android interfaces soon. This app will aid in unlocking the financial potential of dairy traders and their network of smallholder farmers as it will give them a bankable credit history. It's going to be a busy year with all the field activities and dairy trader on boarding with the launch of our app, but I'm really looking forward to it! Follow our story on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn to stay up to date on our journey! And if you have any feedback I'm all ears since this is my first time in a Communications role.
To be honest I have done too much exploring of this country yet, so there aren't too many photos to share. A lot of my time has been spent trying to get acclimatized to the new job, and city while finding a place to live and furnishing it (which is about 75% done now!). The most exciting thing I've done in Kenya so far is learn how to drive a motorbike, and I'm proud to say I was able to navigate through the Nairobi traffic too, which isn't easy believe me! I attended my first Kenyan Wedding on Jahmuri Day (Independence Day - December 12th). It was a traditional Kikuyu wedding and I got to take part in the custom welcoming of the bride where all the women guests sing and dance around her. My favourite part of these weddings are all the colourful dresses and African prints. The food was amazing too with roasted goat being the delicacy. The interesting part was that it started at 9AM and only went until 5PM, and guests brought their own alcohol. It was a sure way to ensure things don't get too rowdy, and it was still a lot of fun!
There really is so much more that I could write, but I'll leave you with this last thought, and if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me through any of the social media icons below. During my time here I have rarely heard anyone in East Africa, tell you "no" when you ask them for their service. Now at first, I found this annoying because sometimes the boda-boda driver actually didn't know my destination, but that didn't stop him from taking me and finding out along the way through the help of other boda-boda drivers. If you look at this from a different perspective however, I think it shows an attitude of resilience, and that anything is possible. In the West, I think we are too quick to dismiss an idea, based off our perceived limitations. In Africa, I get the feeling that where there is a will, there is a way and there is always a way when you get a collective group of people together to solve a problem.