Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nyeri Town

Today we ventured outside Nairobi for the first time en route to our “permanent” home in Nyeri. Nyeri is the “breadbasket of Kenya”, an agricultural center which also serves as the cultural stronghold of the Kikuyu, the largest and most powerful of Kenya’s communities. Nyeri is home to both the current president Mwai Kibaki and Dr. Catherine Wanjiru Getao, our client.

The departure from Nairobi this morning was… apropos to Nairobi. Crushing, chaotic traffic, road construction, dirt, smog and reckless pedestrians at every turn. Our convoy of six cars probably took six different routes getting out of the city. Luan and I were fortunate enough to be driven by Maureen, the IBM East Africa communications and marketing resource who has been effectively made the liaison between us and IBM EA. She first wowed us by informing us that our group’s arrival had made the papers, appearing in that morning’s edition business section of the Standard, one of the two major Kenyan newspapers. Maureen is pretty amazing, a Kenyan through and through, worldy, eloquent, mellow, sharp, upbeat, and a objective knock-out. Like all Kenyans we’ve met she’s also an unapologetic optimist, seeing only brilliant progress on the horizon despite the atrocities, chaos and violence that have littered Kenya’s recent history even in her lifetime. She lives a city life during the week and strikes out into the Kenyan countryside on the weekends. I got the sense from her private Catholic University education and her being raised outside the tony Nairobi suburb of Karen that her parents were probably at least relatively well off, but I don’t know for certain. Along the way to Nyeri, we discussed politics, development, IBM, and her life. That plus the scenery I’ll describe was enough to banish from my mind any idea of using the ride to rest.

The road to Nyeri was bumpy, rocky, and under construction at the start, with heart-stopping near misses de rigeur. But Maureen faithfully piloted our rolling projectile without incident. We made it as far as the market town of Thika before stopping at a fruit stand for refreshment. Del Monte has ample operations in the Kenyan heartland, and most of the items on the menu seemed like the kind of canned or boxed product you might find in three weeks time on a grocery shelf in Europe or America. Dedicated as we are to the “authentic” we promptly ignored those selections as soon as we saw a selection under the juices labeled “Fresh Pineapple” for the absurdly low price of 70 shilling (about 75 cents). Luan and I ordered three, to be gracious to our driver as well. We moved from the cashier to the next window to pick up our frothing glasses of pineapple juice, already licking our lips. When we saw the individual behind the counter reach for a pineapple from under the counter, we looked at each other and said “Wow, when they say fresh pineapple juice, they really mean it!” Our smiles turned quizzical when two more pineapples made an appearance on the counter, thinking “How much juice do you get from a pineapple anyway?” They then took out a bag, inserted the 3 pineapples and handed them to us. Fresh Pineapple meant just that, and any juicing would need to be a result of our own effort. Undefeated, I ran to the car, found the paring knife I had acquired in Nairobi, and proceeded to dissect a pineapple and share it around. It was sweet and succulent, and there was certainly no loss in having an additional two to bring with us to Nyeri. In the future though, I will hesitate before assuming away the literal.

The closer we got to Nyeri, the more lush and verdant the surroundings became, with fields predominating over dustbowls. We passed through small towns, but between them were thatched huts, men tending cattle on the road shoulder, women carrying bundles of hay or twigs on their backs, a few stray goats, and some people sitting without any clear objective, although admittedly some of them were on cell phones. This intensely rural landscape was not one we expected a mere hour outside the Nairobi city limits, and the contrast was bracing.

Nyeri continued the green surroundings, but placed a thriving town with rich offerings in the middle of it. Though we have not yet had a chance to thoroughly investigate, we already caught glimpses of banks, restaurants, cafes, service stations and the like. I’m hopeful that we’ll find sufficient material to satisfy our rudimentary needs while we’re here.

We arrived at the Green Hills hotel, our home for the next four weeks. The accommodations are mixed, with thriving, beautifully cared for horticulture, and somewhat less cared for architecture. The gym, spa, and small pool should not be discounted,  but the lack of internet in the rooms might cause us some bit of consternation as we strive to keep in touch with each other and with the outside world. I’m planning to go up to the terrace in a half an hour to Skype with my family, despite the fact that it is pushing midnight, and I’d much rather be in my PJs.

We jumped back into our suits, snapped up a quick lunch on the terrace overlooking a beautifully manicured plaza, and then headed out for our work content for the day, a meeting with local District Commissioner and Provincial Commissioner… roughly the mayor and governor of Nyeri and the surrounding area. They were pleasant and seemed to enjoy hearing a brief overview of our work and charitable efforts, and confirmed much of what we had heard regarding the need for these initiatives. To hear them talk of the 42 agencies’ efforts that they coordinate in the local area, and to empathize with the frustration they felt, for instance, at the three to nine month period it takes them themselves to get a driver’s license, gave us valuable proof points for our strategies. And both the DC and the PC will certainly provide us critical access to their bureaucracies so that we can see first-hand how the process works (or doesn’t work) currently. However, the most powerful evidence of the need for change came just outside the office where the queue for the various registration actions that the population needed to take snaked out of the offices, across their entry halls and out into the dusty parking lot. And the PC assured us that this was not even a bad day. The notion of the people sitting out there in the hot sun, hopefully in the right line at the right time with the right documents, praying to get in front of a clerk before they leave for the day who is competent and has integrity, when the registration they are performing is likely completely duplicative, half-knowing that they’ll likely be there at least another time before their transaction is complete and furthermore knowing that the whole process could likely be done online with a few key clicks was both heart-rending and fortifying. We provided some small gifts to the DC and PC and headed back to unpack at the hotel.

After a pleasant dinner, with sufficient fruits and veggies to fill my belly, we headed out into town to a small bar called the “Gazelle Impakt” (don’t ask me). It was quite dead, but still always enjoyable to hang out with the group, we downed a few Tuskers (which appears to have *excellent* market penetration) and called it a night.

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