Initial Thoughts on Africa

12 Mar 2016

My experience in Africa is interesting. This is my third great travel where I have spent a considerable amount of time in a part of the world where the culture is vastly different from my own. My time studying abroad in Europe contrasted distinctly with the months I had spent backpacking through South America. It has only been a week here and I can already tell that my experience in Kenya is going to be quite different from the previous two.

This is true for several reasons. The most obvious is that I have come here to work on a project. I am in Kenya to make sure the mobile app I have built is being used effectively and capturing the data that the team needs. Thus, both how I spend my time and who I spend it with are shaped by this agenda. I currently live in a house with several other roommates, most of which are Westerners. They are all professionals of some sort. There is a startup, MaraMoja, that works out of the living room of our house. Another roommate works for an NGO that specializes in consulting and research in behavioral economics; another has started a non-profit of his own. The house has constant security and a maid who cooks lunch and does laundry. It would be difficult for me to imagine a situation where I could be any more insulated. I often feel a bit uncomfortable in such aristocratic settings. Still, it is an experience and I have met some cool people.

That being said my work allows me to see a more realistic version of Kenya. The purpose of our app is to track supplies through informal markets. There are an infinite number of shops and kiosks that purchase and sell products within Kenyan slums that there is no data on. What Sokowatch has done is hired a group of ten foot soldiers to move through the sprawls of the slum and sell products. These foot soldiers are young Kenyans who themselves have grown up in the slums and have very little opportunity available to them. I had the opportunity to follow them into the field and witness what life is like on a Wednesday morning in the Pipeline slum of Nairobi. We walked through mucky paths passing street vendors, livestock and people moving things from here to there. The kiosks were fascinating themeselves. Often a lady sat behind a barred up window that held commonly used items like soap, bread, toothpaste, and gum. Here I was the target of many curious eyes. My striped shirt, loosely tied hair, and Harry Potter glasses stuck out just a bit.

Nairobi as a whole is a peculiar story. The infrastructure is not where it needs to be. The city is not well designed and traffic is horrendous. The public transport system hinges on privately owned busses, called Mutatus, that rampage down the streets and clog traffic. The central locations to meet others seem to be a set of malls throughout the city which is irritiating because I fucking hate malls. The ones here are obviously different from say, Woodfield Mall, but not by much.

I have never witnessed post-colonialism first hand before. I understood the term, I have read articles on it. But, truly, there is a glass wall between you and an idea until you stand face to face with it. There is something sublime about being in a country where the foreigners all seem to be doing quite well for themselves and the local people have no opportunities.

The city is young with 70% of the population being under 25. This gives Nairobi a vibrancy that I like to imagine New York City must’ve had in the early 1900’s. There is a lot of foreign invesment in Nairobi and the large foreign population is a reflection of that.

The locals I have met here are fascinating. It is immediately recognizable that a sense of generousity is innate in the Kenyan people. One can only imagine how that was taken advantage of by the British. There is also a strong entrepeneurial sense throughout the city. Everyone seems to have a side hustle. These are only my initial outlooks, of course. I would like to spend more time with the people of this country and soak in their culture. One of my coworkers is a Canadian who met her lover here. Through them, I suspect I will get to see a more authentic side of Nairobi.

Published on 12 Mar 2016