Thursday, February 24, 2011

Day One?

Despite the fact that I've been in Kenya for a week, this felt like Day One all over again. If nothing else, this was our first "regular" day, waking up with no agenda, no appointments, just a blank sheet of paper, and a sackload of expectations. We reported to our crammed work room, accompanied by a selection of Kenya’s six-legged fauna. A butt-ugly marabou stork methodically patrolled the terrace outside. John, our delegate from Marketing, promptly saw to it that the room was plastered with Smarter Planet posters, while the rest of us attempted to figure out the massive 80s era network router in the middle of the table.

Our team jumped right into the meat of our project, breaking down the issues we hoped to tackle, identifying the stakeholders and sources of information we would draw upon for data, and overall taking a disciplined and methodical but aggressive approach towards a broad and complex situation.

After a non-stop morning, we broke for lunch and headed en masse into Nyeri town, separated from us only by the near vertical stretch of road that undoubtedly earned our hotel its name of Green Hills. The town itself is less than a kilometer from our door, but only half that distance be forward progress, the rest must be ascent and descent. Nyeri itself is a small but vibrant town, dusty and shabby on the whole, but hardly desolate with the buzz and bustle of a market town around every corner. The storefronts probably average about 6 feet wide, selling everything from auto parts to liquor to cellular phones to household goods to cellular phones to hair products to cellular phones. I’m still floored by the degree to which people who look like they don’t have ten shillings to spare are all toting mobile phones. Out of an abundance of caution, I doffed my yarmulke, as we entered the city proper, and we meandered over to the Nyeri Town View restaurant, situated on the second floor overlooking what must suffice as the center of town, marked only by a small blue and white obelisk at the middle of an intersection frequented by decrepit cars and trucks of questionable structural stability. We crowded into the compact diner, which managed to stash a kitchen, a full bar, and two dining areas into a tract no larger than my two-car garage. Still, the service was warm and welcoming as it has been everywhere we’ve ventured in Kenya, and for the meager sum of 250 shillings each (about $3), my mates feasted on a platter piled high with chicken, rice and vegetables, barely making a dent before capitulating to the generous portions.

We headed deeper into town after lunch, with Nimeesh and I serving as the scout team. We located a barber shop, a 4 shelf grocery store narrow enough to require a sharp exhale in order to pass someone in the aisle, a few more cell phone stores – really Safaricom, Zain and Mpesa are omnipresent, I counted three Safaricom stores alone on one block – and the ultimate goal of our wanderings, a store selling bicycles. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, even after bargaining, we were met with the “Tourist Surcharge” which might be more unceremoniously dubbed the “White Man’s Price” and the price was beyond our tolerance. We made a mental note to beseech our Kenyan program manager Alex to inquire after the same cycles and see if the price didn’t drop by a solid 20% or more.

In the afternoon, we got back to work, which turned out for most of the folks to be equal measure drafting interview questions and arranging for weekend safaris, but we made steady progress. Some took a break for a one hour aerobics session held at the hotel which is apparently hosted by a half-deaf black Richard Simmons hopped up on amphetamines. Those exiting the class resembled those exiting Nam.

The PCK team visited the local Posta branch and were pleasantly shocked to be greeted with open arms by the branch manager who welcomed them in without an appointment, and despite their complete lack of business attire or formal preparation, held for over an hour, giving them an invaluable front line account of everything that transpires at the branch level… certainly a tremendous boost to their challenging project.

After a quick dinner we got right back to work, this time retiring to the un-updated but perfectly comfortable hotel bar, and beginning our legal interpretation and gap analysis, while sipping some Tuskers and gin and tonics. We dubbed this our new official after hours office, and worked through an entire edit of our day’s work.

Tomorrow, our work structure finalized, we begin our research in earnest!

Today’s activities were brought to you by the word surreal. If you would have asked me to assign a number value to the likelihood that I would be in Nyeri relaxing in a bar with a Tusker, interrupting our discussion of the finer points of the Kenya Communication Act of 2009 to bend an ear to the TV news to learn the latest twists in the Attorney General appointments imbroglio if only to figure out who we’re going to be meeting with in Nairobi next week, pausing only briefly to define the word “promulgate” to my Korean colleage, I would have given you a low single digit percentage which rhymes with “hero”. Go know.


  1. They have a cellphone company called 'Mpesa'? Too funny - it means 'cockroach' in Lingala - the only word besides 'mbote' - hello, that I know...

  2. Good luck on the bicycle--maybe a rental would get the price down, since you would return it at the end of the month. Or is rental what you are talking?
    If that does not work a visit to the shoe store might be appropriate--sounds like lots of walking is in your past and future! Mom