Well I have been here for over a month now and have a little less than a month left. I can’t believe so much time has passed already. Next week I will be taking some time off from my Fellow duties to visit Tanzania with some family. Then I return to Nakuru for a week. After that I will travel to Eb-F branch offices in Mombasa and Nairobi.
So it’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s going to be easiest to go with the bullet/list format I went with in my last entry. It’ll be a mix of recapping certain days/events and just random thoughts/observations. Enjoy.
- The weekend of July 6, the entire staff of Ebony Foundation went on a staff retreat / team building session to Maasai Mara, one of the biggest national reserves in Kenya. It’s located on the border with Tanzania, and when you cross over to that country you are in the Serengeti. Every Ebony employee came, not just from the head office here in Nakuru but also from branches in Nairobi, Mombasa, etc. Apparently James, Ebony’s director, places a high value on such retreats and they are not an uncommon part of this organization’s culture. I think that’s absolutely fantastic. I took a sociology class this past semester called Leadership and Organizations. Among other things it covered how to build effective organizations and vibrant organizational culture. Everything I have seen at Ebony makes good on the theories my professor lectured about. James and the rest of his management team work hard to ensure a friendly, welcoming and supportive environment for the entire staff. A clear mission and vision are articulated and reinforced at every level of the institution. Speaking of that vision, James took time on Saturday night to reiterate it: Ebony Foundation seeks to help their clients create successful businesses so that they may improve their family’s livelihood. Providing credit is just one aspect of that process. James dubbed it “integrated microfinance” – Ebony provides loans, but also training, mentorship, introduction and access to technology, contacts with both government officials and private sector partnerships, etc.
All in all it was a fantastic weekend. Much of the time was spent enjoying the beauty of the land and enjoying each other’s company. It was refreshing to see everyone’s other side, the more relaxed and informal attitudes that can only come out when we’re out of the office. Saturday we spent much of the morning and afternoon on a game drive. We saw lions, a cheetah, elephants, zebras, rhinos, giraffes, and more. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking – stunningly beautiful beyond what my words can describe. I urge anyone who has the chance to visit Kenya to do so because everything I have seen, not only in game parks and reserves but also just in my visits to the field to meet clients has always left me in awe.
At night we made a huge bonfire and cooked our own dinner. That entailed slaughtering, skinning and roasting two goats on an outdoor cooking fire we made. It was the best weekend I have had here so far.
I was also lucky to meet some Maasai. The Maasai are one of the oldest tribes in Kenya and the one that has remained by far the most traditional. They have almost completely maintained the same culture and lifestyle that their ancestors had hundreds of years ago. This rejection of modernity is both a boon and a curse. On one hand, they are respected by all Kenyans for their adherence to tradition. They are a proud and amazing people. On the other hand, there are drawbacks. For instance, it is common for female circumcision to be practiced on girls as they enter their teens. Soon after the girls are usually married off to much older men. Many Maasai children are also not educated at all, or if they are they barely make it past primary school.
- Back in the office after Maasai Mara, we had to move to a new office. The Kenyan government just recently passed legislation regulating microfinance activity in the country for the first time ever. Part of the new laws require all MFI head offices to be located on a quarter acre of land. Renting or owning that much land is not easy, so the provision is one way to ensure that the MFIs in operation are legitimate. It’s a counter for the so-called “briefcase banks” – the con operations that swindle impoverished Kenyans who are seeking loans to better their lives.
- I know I’ve written previously about the frustration of using matatus, the public “bus” system here and the related issue of time culture in Kenya. Well the other day I remarked how there are no traffic lights anywhere in Nakuru. I was told that the government had installed them a few years ago but had to take them down after public pressure. Apparently, people didn’t like waiting (and didn’t understand why they had to wait) at red lights when there were red if there was no traffic moving on the cross street with the green light. I find it ironic that people were impatient about the few seconds wait at a traffic light, but that no complaints are raised about the indefinite and unpredictable amount of time you may have to wait for a matatu to depart, which is entirely up to its driver and conductor.
- Despite the chaos, traffic here works. It just does – pedestrians, animals, carts, rickshaws, bicycle taxis, motorbikes, trucks, and cars all weave through the streets. I’ve rarely seen any accident. But the other day I was given a grim shock. My commute to the new office involves taking a matatu to the town center, walking a few blocks, and then taking a bicycle taxi to the office. On my taxi the other day, we rode past a huge crowd in the middle of a busy street, surrounding a truck that had stopped there. The truck had hit a man transporting vegetables on his bike. He lay there motionless in a pool of his own blood. It was utterly horrific and a very gruesome reminder of just how fragile life is and how quickly one’s fortunes can change.
- Something I have discovered about myself in my time here – and in talking to friends of mine who are also spending the summer abroad – is that I’ve become more patriotic. I’ve always considered myself an American but have never been ardently patriotic or outspoken about it. But for instance, the other day I was watching Black Hawk Down…one of the guys I was watching with said jokingly “the only war America lost” and “I do know this about your country, you’re a big bully.” I found myself feeling oddly defensive and snapped back a bit. But then I checked myself. After all, America’s rep on the international stage isn’t exactly stellar these days.
- Finally, I am craving an everything bagel from a New York City deli. A good bowl of penne vodka and some warm Italian bread would be nice too.